diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 30, 2016

In news I never thought I'd write, there are now pedestrian crossings at the Bow Roundabout. And that's proper push-button crossings, crossings which will stop the traffic whilst providing a safe route from one side of the roundabout to the other. After more than 40 years of waiting, hoo-bloody-rah. But the layout is counter-intuitive, indeed somewhat of a maze, so what's yet to be seen is if local pedestrians will actually use them.

Previously crossing the roundabout on foot meant negotiating the perimeter. The four main entry roads had traffic lights but not pedestrian signals, and so were relatively safe. But the four exit roads had no aids to crossing whatsoever, and required situational judgement to decide whether any of the traffic currently on the roundabout was about to turn off, hence were potentially very dangerous indeed.

Five years ago it was deemed impossible to add pedestrian crossings without inordinately slowing down the traffic.
Question by John Biggs (18th May 2011): What progress has been made to provide safe pedestrian crossings at the Bow Flyover/roundabout on the A12?
Answer by Boris Johnson: TfL has spent substantial effort looking at options for pedestrians crossings in this location and modelling various possible solutions. TfL have been unable so far to find an immediate solution for providing controlled at-grade pedestrian crossings at Bow Roundabout that does not push the junction over capacity and introduce significant delays to traffic. The feasibility of providing pedestrian crossings at the roundabout will continue to be investigated for the future.
But TfL thought again, adopting a novel solution involving the centre of the roundabout, and in February last year announced new plans. Five signalled pedestrian crossings would be added, connecting to a spine route running underneath the flyover, with two further crossings to link across the roundabout itself.

For those crossing Bow Road it's no great change to the route they'd have taken before, only safer. For those crossing Stratford High Street it's much the same, but with a choice of two crossings on the southern side according to which way they're heading. But for those crossing the A12 it means using four crossings whereas previously it'd have been two, and that's where the potential for complete disregard springs up.

To try to make sense of the new layout, TfL have numbered the five exits from 1 to 5. They've done this on the maps that have gone up beside each crossing point, and on giant black boards listing destinations you might be trying to reach. Cleverly they've also painted giant numbers on the supports holding up the flyover, although because they're black on grey they're less obvious than you might think.

Engineers have been working on the new layout since January, adding new traffic light poles and laying a new surface beneath the flyover. I don't quite understand how the work has taken six months, but I suspect the electricals were quite complicated, and a lot of digging and reshaping has been going on. And late yesterday morning they finally took the covers off, and powered-up the buttons, and the Bow Roundabout had its very first safe crossings.

Some suits came out to oversee the opening, as all the cones and barriers were rapidly swept away. But afterwards the overseeing of events was turned over to a group of hired staff in pink tabards, whose job it was to inform pedestrians attempting to cross the roundabout that there was now a different way to do it. This involved wandering over to say hello, and explaining the fundamentals, and handing over a colour printout of the Bow Vision interim scheme design. This complex blueprint depicts all the changes that have been made, including "Planter adjusted to improve pedestrian accessibility", but doesn't mention anywhere the system of five numbered exits now emblazoned all around. I'd say the handout wasn't really fit for purpose, merely a regurgitation of a planning document at minimal cost.

And by no means everybody attempting to cross the roundabout was informed. In particular, those attempting to cross the A12 via the two old crossings missed out, with no attempt made to shepherd them onto the new approved path. And so they continued to use the unsafe route, in this case out of ignorance, but perhaps also because it's a lot quicker. You can be across the old crossings in thirty seconds flat, whereas the four-stage process takes four lots of waiting for the lights to change, assuming you can be bothered to wait and don't just dash through a gap in the traffic.

It's interesting to note than only three of the seven push-button crossings are actually push-button controlled. Traffic always stops at Exits 2 and 4, and at the two links to the centre, as part of the roundabout's normal signal cycle. The red man turns to green and then counts down whether there's anyone there to press the button or not, indeed you could have crossed safely this way before, apart from not quite knowing when the traffic was about to restart. But the crossings at Exits 1, 3 and 5 do genuinely work, halting the traffic only if pressed, and it's these which will make the average drive through the Bow interchange a bit slower than before.

Having these odd-numbered crossings is great, but a lot of the time the button-pushing isn't going to be necessary. I know this sounds ludicrous at a busy killer roundabout, but the waves of traffic heading off the roundabout often leave big obvious gaps it's very easy to take advantage of. I've already watched good citizens press the button at Exit 1 and wait, and then look at each other, and then walk across lugging a suitcase behind them, all in perfect safety, then being several yards away when the lights finally change, bringing cars, buses and bicycles to a halt. Interestingly their button-push took a whole minute to hit red, whereas on a subsequent occasion it took only five seconds, suggesting that these pedestrian lights are hardwired into the general timing cycle of the roundabout.

What's properly excellent is that it's finally possible to cross the Bow Roundabout on foot safely for the first time. That's particularly good news for those a little slower on their feet, or those with small children and pushchairs, or those who get around in wheelchairs or mobility scooters. Previously every crossing would have involved dicing with death, and now it needn't, which genuinely helps to link the communities in Bow and Stratford together. Given that five years ago this was deemed impossible, it's even more impressive.

But more able-bodied locals aren't necessarily going to use the facilities. They've grown used to crossing where and when they like, and aren't easily going to be constrained to routes that don't match desire lines. At Exit 2, for example, people are going to cut across immediately in front of the main traffic lights rather than walking all the way past the cycle early start zone to use the new crossing, just as they've grown used to doing over the last couple of years. And more comprehensively, those crossing the A12 are going to want to go the quick way rather than the four step detour... so TfL have plans to stop them.

The final stage of the Bow Roundabout upgrade is the removal of the old crossings, which'll be taking place over the next couple of weeks. TfL haven't said how they intend to do this, but they'll have to go a bit further than removing the dropped kerbs to persuade people from using them. That might mean barriers, it might mean hard-to-walk-on cobbles, or it might be a token gesture that'll be easily got round. What I do find genuinely astonishing is that TfL only got round to painting LOOK LEFT and LOOK RIGHT on the pavement at these crossings two months ago, something that could have been done decades back, and which will now be erased less than a fortnight hence.

When all this final work is complete, one of the immediate upsides should be the reinstatement of buses on route 25 to their original path. The 25 was diverted across the flyover in March last year, to make up time lost to roadworks due to the CS2 upgrade, and this diversion has been maintained while the roundabout has been modified. But a consultation proposal to make the rerouting permanent failed in March, with TfL promising that "Route 25 will return to run via Bow roundabout as soon as the current major roadworks on the route are complete." Residents living near the Marshgate Lane stop eastbound, and Bow Flyover stop westbound, look forward to that promise being kept.

But just to reiterate the magnitude of what's just happened, the Bow Roundabout opened over 40 years ago, and in all that time there's never been a safe way to cross on foot from one side to the other. And now there is. Enjoy the next couple of years of stability while you can, because TfL's long term vision is to remove the roundabout altogether, with another consultation due later this year and a very tentative start date of October 2018. Until then, cross safely.

 Wednesday, June 29, 2016

On Saturday, I took a photo of a man in a racist t-shirt attending the Armed Forces Day parade in Romford. I spotted him at the very end of the proceedings, by the roundabout, mingling with the dignitaries bringing up the rear. I couldn't quite believe that he was openly displaying a message of hate in such a public place and at such a commemorative event.

As he moved off towards the town hall I had one chance to grab a decent photo, so pointed and clicked and hoped for the best. Checking afterwards I was relieved the image was focused, and that the man had turned towards me just enough for the slogan on his t-shirt to be readable. I could so very easily have captured nothing of any interest at all, whereas instead I had his innermost thoughts across his chest.

In even more of a fluke, immediately over the man's shoulder was the Mayor of Havering, in ceremonial garb. She was preceded by a flunky with the council mace, adding full-on civic theatricals, and in the background were three policemen, seemingly looking on. I retained all three aspects of the tableau - citizen, government and state - and cropped the photo down.

I chose not to circulate the photo on its own, I made it part three of a triptych, to emphasise the reputability of the event at which this disreputable act had occurred. But when I pressed the button to tweet all three, I had no idea of the chain of events about to be set in train.

A journalist from Buzzfeed was first, asking if it would be possible for me to tweet just the t-shirt photo on its own. I replied that I deliberately hadn't done, but that he could (with due attribution), and he duly did. That set off a busy Saturday, with huge waves of notifications firing in on my Twitter feed all day, as a reaction to his tweet, my original tweet, and other variations on a theme.

The stir continued throughout Sunday, the reaction generally one of horror, or of amusement at the man's half-shaved hairstyle. Shares were in the tens of thousands, and I was starting to be followed on Twitter by some unexpectedly important people, many of them journalists who must have thought I usually originated this kind of thing.

The Guardian was the first of the national media to take notice. They'd noticed an upsurge of racist incidents across the country since the result of the referendum was announced, and the Buzzfeed tweet was one of several used to illustrate the point in an article published online on Sunday evening.

On Monday morning, now in Norfolk, I woke to find my Dad had left a copy of the Guardian open on the dining table. On page 10 was the same article from the night before, but now with a single illustrative photo, which was mine. Blimey, I thought. And then I read the caption.

My image had been described only as "a photograph circulated on Twitter", despite the paper having made clear online they knew exactly where it came from. I've since emailed the picture desk asking how and why this lack of attribution happened, but have yet to be dignified with a reply. If you are reading this at the Guardian, hi, I'm abjectly unimpressed.

But one appearance in the media was sufficient for lots of the rest of the media to take notice, and I started to receive direct requests from elsewhere for permission to use the photo. Channel 5 were first, then the Associated Press, the Mirror, CNBC, NBC, Channel 4 and eventually the BBC.

I could have said no, I could have said pay me money, or I could have said go on then, so long as you attribute the photograph appropriately. I chose the latter path, because it's surely better for this kind of racism to be seen than unseen, in this case to a vast worldwide audience.

Allowing the AP to circulate the photo sent it all around the world, to Canada, South Africa and India and all points inbetween. It also arrived in the newsroom at The Sun, who used it as one of half a dozen examples in an online piece under the headline Racists Shame Britain. And then on Tuesday they used it in the paper.

I must say I never expected to have a photo of mine splashed across two pages in The Sun, immediately alongside the leader comment, surrounded by articles condemning overt racism and in praise of migrants. The tagline "Brave New Dawn" in the top left hand corner looks somewhat unfortunate, but the anti-bigotry tone elsewhere is clear.

This being The Sun, they were of course keen to discover who the half-shaved man was, so asked 'Do you know this vile thug?' and gave a telephone number to ring. And this being The Sun, somebody has since rung and said yes, he's my brother, and they've tracked him down to a flat in Hornchurch.

It's an odd feeling to have made the international news by taking a powerful image that may define how those abroad see Brexit Britain. It's an uncomfortable feeling to have taken a photo that's led to the t-shirt wearer being identified and outed, however unpleasant his emblazoned slogan might be. And whilst I hope that the vast majority of people who've seen the image are duly shocked by it, I worry that for others it may have stoked their feelings even more deeply, potentially making things worse rather than better.

So all I can say is, think before you tweet. It's highly likely nobody outside your immediate circle will ever see the photo you took, but sometimes it spreads far far further than you'd ever think possible.

 Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The least used station in... Hertfordshire
(Annual passenger usage: 20944)

I've ticked off Berkshire's quietest station, which is Midgham, and now I'm moving north. Hertfordshire boasts eight railway lines with a direct connection to London plus a single track branch line, so it shouldn't surprise you to hear that the least used station is on the latter. [5 photos]

The Abbey Line runs between Watford and St Albans, specifically the Junction and the Abbey, and has done since 1858. Initially there were only two intermediate stations, one the subject of my visit, both of which were mothballed shortly afterwards due to lack of custom. But the people of St Albans loved their rail connection to the outside world, at least until a better link to London came along ten years later and their allegiance shifted. The branch line survived Beeching, but only by stripping itself back to the bare essentials, and today only the track and the platforms remain. There are now seven stations in total, serving the suburban fringes of North Watford and St Albans, whose residents benefit from a fortunate historical accident rather than any burning need. And the Abbey Line is now run as a Community Railway, which means it's better looked after than most, and has a decent website where you can find out a lot more if you're interested.

Park Street is the penultimate station on the line, one before St Albans. What you find when you alight is a single platform, four carriages long, with a wooden fence along one side and a screen of trees along the other. Look in one direction and the solo track curves gently toward the cathedral city, look in the other and it's almost straight. In the centre is a shelter with sufficient seats to easily cope with the average number of passengers per train, and from here a ramp heads down to the car park. I thought the car park looked quite busy, all things considered, until I worked out it was where all the people in the nearby cottages parked their vehicles, their front gardens being entirely inadequate for this task.

Trains run every 45 minutes, which doesn't make for an easy-to-remember timetable, but the line is fractionally too long to make a half hour service viable. Here at Park Street the up train returns from the terminus ten minutes later, so there's a "busy" period followed by tumbleweed for the next half hour. No, you can't buy a ticket here, this is a Pay Train service, although I saw no evidence of this on my trip and could easily have ridden the entire line for free.

As place names go, Park Street is about as generic as you can get. But the place has a lengthy back history, because the street in question is Watling Street. The Romans would have marched through on their way to the northwest, using this as their crossing point over the River Ver, but left no other trace bar bequeathing centuries of through traffic. The village is mainly linear, as you'd expect, with a few modern estate roads branching off. The architectural highlight is an old mill in brick and timber, its interior converted into a four storey office, with a restored water wheel outside for decoration and the real thing underneath. But there are also fourteen listed buildings, mainly cottages, plus a long pair of pre-war terraces and some copper-topped flats, in a textbook meeting of mixed residential styles. Impressively for somewhere of this size there are two pubs, the Falcon and the Overdraught, neither of which have been overly ponced up or left to rot. For takeaways your choice is Rumbles Fish Bar or the Oriental, plus there's a few places that do things with cars, and an independent village shop, and a cricket ground, indeed plenty enough to keep Park Street ticking over.

Where the main road crosses the river the village name changes to Frogmore, with several more old houses but also an industrial estate and the parish church. This lofty flint edifice is Holy Trinity, hence has possibly the best web address of any church anywhere, which is www.hotfrog.info. Head off downriver at the old ford and you'll enter an area of old sand and gravel pits, now ideal for fishing or a muddy walk, or for confronting umpteen goslings and their defiant parents. And take a few strides further through the trees and you'll emerge at a crossing on the railway, having suddenly reached the next station down the line. This is How Wood, a mere 90 seconds from Park Street by train hence technically unnecessary, but the large estate alongside helps make this station 50% busier. Or so the figures say. I stood on the silent platform gazing out across a landscape of lush empty meadow and concluded this could easily be deepest East Anglia, rather than the inner Home Counties.

Enough of the stuff you'll never see because you'll never visit. There is one thing for which Park Street is nationally famous, and that's its roundabout. This fiveway junction to the north of the village is the Highway Code's example of a roundabout sign, and has been for some years, thanks to its interesting mix of motorway and more minor connections.

The only problem is, almost all of this is fictional. The 'A' road crossing from left to right doesn't go to Nutfield and Walsham, and it isn't the A1183, it's Watling Street again, and used to be the A5. That's not the road to Penderton top left, it's the road to Watford and London, via the M1 or M25, not the mythical M14. And straight ahead leads to Hemel Hempstead, not somewhere called Bourne Airport, and isn't even a motorway any more. It used to be, in fact it was one of the very first motorways in Britain, the runty M10. This brief spur was built to lure traffic off the M1 before reaching unfinished links in the capital, depositing them on the Park Street roundabout instead, but a few months short of its 50th birthday it was brutally downgraded.

This is what the actual road sign looks like today, slap bang on the central reservation of the A414 running in from London Colney. It's not quite so pristine as the Highway Code version, but still recognisably similar, with a 'Scrap Cars Wanted' poster attached to one of the supports. I was surprised to find a footpath along this roaring dual carriageway, which itself was very nearly turned into part of the M25, but a cut-through exists to the bungalows at the very top of Park Street, so there is a latent need.

In conclusion, I can think of only one reason to encourage you to visit Park Street, and it's to walk. The Ver Valley Walk runs for 17 miles from near Whipsnade to near Bricket Wood, and has been divided up into eight sections, each seriously well documented in a series of downloadable guides. I followed section seven out of Park Street round the back of some cottages along a footpath barely visible between nettles, then out across a grazed meadow beside a chalk stream rippling with flowered weed. Approaching St Albans the path hugs the urban river through a series of nature reserves, passing a ruined priory before reaching the Abbey station, where you can catch the train back again. Or there are short waymarked routes from each station on the Abbey Line, also with leaflets and posters, should you prefer shorter strolls and more railway. And that'd bump up Park Street's passenger numbers good and proper.

 Monday, June 27, 2016

Traditionally UK politics has divided left/right.

It's a spectrum, obviously, but a shade of popular opinion exists along an axis from left to right.

From socialism to capitalism.
From state control to personal freedom.
From we're all in this together to every man for himself.

Our main parties political parties reflect this divide.

But the referendum has divided up the same population in a very different way.

I'm not entirely certain what the label on this vertical scale ought to be.

From old to young?
From poor to rich?
From precarious to secure?
From overlooked to privileged?
From unenlightened to educated?
From proud to pragmatist?
From emotional to rational?
From risk to caution?
From what the hell to better not?
Or some combination of the above?

Our main parties do not reflect this new divide, and are in turmoil.

A remain-friendly Labour party has alienated many of its core supporters.
Torn between principle and electability, it faces stalemate or oblivion.

A victorious Brexit Tory party no longer speaks for all its members.
The old guard has been displaced by a coup spun with lies to further careers.

Our two main parties may be pulled apart through discord and disagreement.
If an early general election is called, this disintegration will only accelerate.

There is a void into which new, differently targeted, parties could advance.
Horizontal rather than vertical.
Pink and purple, rather than red and blue.

UKIP stands ready to be one of these, hoovering up the votes of disaffected Leave supporters.
The Lib Dems probably aren't going to be the other, throwing an EU-friendly lifebelt to Remain.

Is this where our traditional politics fractures and a new alignment takes over?
Will anyone stand up to unite us in new and very different ways?
And would that even be a good thing?

Or will our existing parties limp on through outdated contradiction, and take us down?

 Sunday, June 26, 2016

Within Greater London, Havering has always been different. Home to many of the white working class who left the East End when others moved in, its estates and towns often feel more like Essex, and many of the residents wish it still was. In the Brexit referendum 70% of its residents voted to Leave, whereas the majority of London voted firmly to Remain. It's also one of the few parts of the capital where they celebrate Armed Forces Day, in which respect it's utterly normal for England, and the majority of London is out of step.

Armed Forces Day has been held on the last Saturday in June since 2009. Its aim is to encourage the public to show their support for the armed forces and all they do, and is intended as a counterpart to Remembrance Day by focusing on those who are very much still alive.

Yesterday morning in Romford they marched through the pedestrian precinct from South Street to the top of the market, then attended a reception on the lawn outside the town hall. The parade group was impressively long, led by The Royal British Legion Band & Corps Of Drums, immaculately turned out in their Victorian-style white helmets. As they formed up outside Santander a small group of onlookers assembled, some deliberately, others taking time from shopping to pay their respects. Some had brought small children and flags, others reversed in on their mobility scooters, and one was reading her victorious copy of The Sun.

A big cheer went up when the veterans emerged from a sidestreet and marched past, the vast majority of them over 70 and in full medalled jackets, but one much younger lad in a polo shirt walking on two prosthetic legs. Behind them came a sequence of young cadets, locally sourced, from the Air Training Corps and the volunteer police, arms swinging almost perfectly together. And then came the Brownies, which at first I found somewhat unnerving, until I remembered that this was a celebration rather than a show of force.

The pace was brisk. Within five minutes the band had reached the market, marching up the main avenue between stalls draped with St George's Cross bunting. Because we're in the middle of Euro 2016 it's hard to know how much is temporary, but the Union Jacks on the leather belt stall weren't football related, and I suspect the fishmonger always flies one of each. Again the veterans earned applause and the remainder of the parade earned respect, as the two hundred or so participants passed by.

Romford's ring road then conspired to force the parade through a subway, which isn't the most respectful way to carry on. The flagbearers dropped their poles, and a bunch of shoppers wandered the other way having not been made aware what they were blundering into. The far side of the subway's no beauty spot but has been named Ludwigshafen Place after Romford's German twin town, a reminder of the importance of friendship in the aftermath of conflict. And then finally the parade broke step to climb two ramps beside the roundabout to the finale.

The brass band got to circle the lawn twice, whereas the veterans were allowed to walk straight into the central marquee and take their plastic seats. Once the cadets had lined up in front of the town hall and been suitably shouted at, and the Brownies followed in behind, the great and good of the town of Romford emerged from beneath the roundabout. The mayor smiled broadly in her red cloak, while a rather portly attendant carried the council mace. The town crier held back briefly, bedecked in a rather splendid blue robe and tricorn hat, gold bell in hand. And that was when I suddenly saw the man with the t-shirt.

I had to read the t-shirt twice because I didn't believe anyone would wear it in public. The wearer was clearly delighted with the outcome of the referendum, because the top line of the slogan said YES! WE WON! But the continuation was chilling, not so much a message of intolerance as an outpouring of hate, implying that there was now legitimate recourse to SEND THEM BACK. Who 'they' were wasn't specified, nor whether 'back' meant Europe or beyond, but a despicable implication was clear.

One of the official civic party, a tall balding gentleman in a grey suit, stopped to chat to the t-shirt wearer. Not only did they seem to get on well, but the dignitary smiled and put his arm around the man's shoulder before moving on. I think this chilled me more, a tacit acceptance from someone in authority that such racist thinking was to be applauded. And this t-shirt had already been paraded around the shops, as a blue carrier bag made clear, its offensive message seen by many of the 'them' who make Havering their home.

As the man in the t-shirt walked up to join the spectators behind the barrier, I snatched a photo. When I looked at it afterwards it appeared that the police were standing back and doing nothing, although the camera angle suggests they wouldn't have seen the front of the t-shirt, which just shows how easy it is to jump to conclusions without stopping to think. And then I tweeted it, lining it up behind two photos of the parade proper to help ensure the entire event wasn't tarred with the same brush.

And that went viral. Buzzfeed noticed, and the Huffington Post, and even Sky journo Kay Burley (yes, all with attribution), and hundreds of thousands of people saw what I'd taken. The vast majority were appalled, which was reassuring, or else were unduly preoccupied by the state of the man's hair. The right half of his head was shaved bald while the left had grown out, like some demi-skinhead, which evidently isn't a hairstyle that gets you taken seriously.
Did they send back his hairdresser half way through this haircut?
When you have to cut short a trip to the barbers to be racist somewhere
When you're halfway through your haircut and your barber tells you about his boyfriend Piotr
His hairstyle is a metaphor for the result. Maybe he asked for a '52:48'?
One side of his hair left, the other remained.
I've been swimming through Twitter notifications all day, I've never experienced anything like it. Thankfully I've received an absolute minimum of venom and trolling, although a deputy headteacher from Worcester did send me a direct message telling me I was utterly despicable for my racism and offensive behaviour, and should grow up, before blocking me.

It's been comforting to know that Britain finds this t-shirt as repugnant as you'd hope, and that displays of naked intolerance haven't become the norm. But this kind of thinking is out there, more openly than before the Brexit vote, in what's a highly worrying turn of events. And I need to close by reminding you that just because this idiot was spotted in Romford doesn't mean that everyone in Romford is an idiot, because that's the kind of thoughtless generalisation that got us into this mess in the first place.

 Saturday, June 25, 2016

If you want your launch event completely overshadowed, schedule it for the day of a referendum. Or maybe that's the very best day of all, the eye of the political hurricane when all the euro-hoohah pauses, allowing other news stories to break through. Here are two big debuts, a hundred metres apart, in the Olympic Park.

Firstly, The Slide.

The Orbit has been very much a white elephant since it was added late to the Olympic Park skyline, and has struggled to attract visitors in large numbers. It's been hard to convince people to pay good money to see views of Stratford, even with the Olympic Stadium nextdoor, and even cutting the admission price/creating an annual pass/adding a bit of abseiling hasn't helped. The sticking plaster is a dramatic one - the world's longest tunnel slide - and might finally be enough to entice the public inside. It's been designed by Carsten Höller, who specialises in this kind of thing, and promises riders a 40 second descent at up to 15 miles per hour. How could an adrenalin junkie possibly resist?

The slide opened to the public on Friday, but they sent a load of journalists down it on Thursday, because no media outlet ever turns down the opportunity to whizz down a giant corkscrew for free. Back in 2012 they'd have written about their experience in excitable terms, but this is 2016 so instead they strapped video cameras to their bodies and let the journey do the talking. Some pointed it down, so you could experience the twisty rush into darkness with spluttered commentary, and others pointed it up, so you could watch the look on their faces as they sped, dropped, turned and shrieked.

The shrieks are quite audible from outside, even from standing outside the compound on the grass. It is just possible that the media sent their shriekiest journos on this assignment, but rest assured that this is no fairground helter skelter. They make you wear an unfetching helmet and padded sleeves before you set off, and there are some particularly steep bits on the corkscrew down. You also have to be at least 1.3m in height, and at least eight years old, and no more than 22 stone in weight, otherwise presumably there's a risk of doing an Augustus Gloop part way down. But be warned it's a lousy spectator sport, bar the occasional whizzy glimpse through one of the few windows in the curly tube.

All this positive publicity and the promise of excitement seems to have worked. The next week is fully booked, and all the weekend slots are taken for a month, which at the Orbit is unheard of. There are still loads of £10 tickets to simply go up to the top and look at the view, if anyone's still interested, but the £5 slide top-ups have rather less availability. How fitting that on the day the ex-Mayor's political destiny was sealed, one of his larger misjudgements finally got the sticking plaster that saves its life.

ORBIT PRICES * Adult  Child  Senior 
Walk-up£12 £6 £10 
Online£10 £5 £7 
Local†£8 £3 £5 
* The Slide costs £5 extra, per slide
† Resident of Olympic host borough, bring double ID
‡ Annual Pass prices are not advertised

Secondly, the West Ham Store.

West Ham are moving from Upton Park to the Olympic Stadium, and the first bit of their new empire to open is the shop. It's three times larger than the one they used to have, and is located in a new concrete building wrapped round the southern perimeter of the main concourse. At the moment it's fenced off from everything else on the island, and is accessible across a single footbridge, But it opened for the first time on Thursday morning, the ribbon cut by team captain Mark Noble, and the team's supporters came streaming across from Stratford to take a look.

It's a football shop, so obviously it's stuffed with football shirts of various types and sizes. New season strips, souvenir editions, and miniature editions for offspring so small they don't yet realise they're a fan. There are also key rings and wallets, and teddies and mugs, and big hammers, and loads of other items of claret and blue merchandise previously unavailable elsewhere. Vice-chair Karren Brady and her team have gone to a lot of effort to ensure that these things fly out of the door even on matchday, with 31 tills lined up at the far end. You can watch Karren extolling the shop and other hospitality facilities at the new stadium in an exuberant video here.

Downstairs is a large personalisation area, with a dozen shirt-printing machines, should you want to walk around with the name of a hero (or your own) on your back. There's also a cafe, which it's hoped will be a draw seven days a week, looking out over the training pitch alongside. It's been branded West Ham United Coffee Co, but also serves tea, as well as muffins, pre-packaged rolls and a tiny range of beers and wine. A latte's £2.35 and a turkey and ham sarnie £4, should you agree this is somewhere "you can meet and mingle". At least there'll be something for you to watch on the walls, as huge screens play out favourite moments from past games - and this got a big thumbs up from one fan I encountered.

A nice touch is that the famous John Lyall Gates from the Boleyn Ground have been relocated, and now sit at the top of the stairs. But they do look wildly out of place, a dash of Hammers history in a place that as yet has none of its own. This could have been any Westfield store, except it's a ten minute walk away, at the heart of the 2012 bubble that West Ham must now make their own. As yet, the atmosphere is somewhat lacking.

Also in the Olympic Park this week...
» On the big lawn beneath the Orbit, an oil company is setting up big white marquees so it can hold a massive four day festival. Make The Future London runs from 30th June to 3rd July, and your pre-registered free ticket gets you inside a worthy scientific gala focusing on "tomorrow's energy challenges", or rather a wall-to-wall marketing shindig for Shell. Steamrollers were busy yesterday afternoon laying down fresh smooth tarmac ready for the anticipated cavalcade of eco-wheels.
» The Greenwich and Docklands International Festival reaches the Olympic Park this weekend, specifically the concrete expanse of Mandeville Place about halfway up. The People Build takes place today and tomorrow, with spectators helping French artist Olivier Grossetête and crew raise new buildings, and at the end of the event tear them down. A full artistic programme continues around East London until next weekend.

 Friday, June 24, 2016

London40% 60% 
Rest of England55% 45% 

Welcome to Little England (was Great Britain)

Thursday 23rd June 2016
I voted twice in the Euro referendum. Once for me, and once as proxy for BestMate, who's currently driving towards an airport in America. We both wonder what kind of Britain he'll be flying home to.
22:00 The polls close, and the nation's destiny is sealed. Turnout is high.
22:01 There is no exit poll, but bookies and the stock market seem pretty confident Remain will win.
23:37 Gibraltar votes strongly for Remain, as you'd expect. The general mood is 'Remain'.

Friday 24th June 2016
00:00 Hang on, Newcastle has voted only narrowly for Remain. Has Leave done better than expected?
00:16 Sunderland swings strongly to Leave. This is well off expectations.
00:30 The pound is tumbling on the markets, down several cents in a few minutes.
01:00 A suggestion that turnout is highest in areas that most want to kick the government.
01:40 Both sides are neck and neck, but we've only had 3% of the national vote so far.
02:00 Most areas are voting Leave. We're on course to Leave, surely.
02:10 Sterling tumbles again, down eight cents in two hours.
02:30 Inner London boroughs are voting very strongly Remain, which breaks through 2m votes.
03:00 Now at 4m votes each, the national breakdown is on a 50% knife edge.
03:30 Leave nudges over 51%, with Scotland, Northern Ireland and London the hubs of 'Remain'.
03:47 Leave is now halfway towards the winning post, with Remain slipping 4% behind.
04:02 "Dare to dream that dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom" (Nigel Farage)
04:30 Remain remain 4% behind. The pound hit $1.50 yesterday, it's now $1.35.
04:40 The BBC declares Brexit. Leave have an unassailable near-million lead.
05:00 Every part of Scotland has voted to Remain (and may just possibly do so).
05:10 I wrote a satirical Brexit timeline a couple of days ago. It's fairly factual so far.
05:30 It's hard to know which part of this disaster movie to sleep through.
06:00 Northumberland takes Leave across the finishing line - we are officially Out.
07:20 Final result Remain 16,141,241 (51.9%), Leave 17,410,742 (48.1%) on a turnout of 72%.
08:20 David Cameron announces he'll be replaced (by heaven knows who) in the Autumn.
08:45 Governor of the Bank of England speaks to reassure the plummeting markets.
11:10 Boris thanks the British people for voting to take back control.
11:20 President of the European Commission says there will be no renegotiation with the UK.
11:25 Nicola Sturgeon confirms Scotland will move towards a second independence referendum.
11:40 Angela Merkel regrets the UK's departure, and urges the remaining 27 to stay together.
12:00 Labour MPs have tabled a No Confidence motion in Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

 Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Prime Minister who led Britain into Europe was Edward Heath. Never the most popular of Prime Ministers, his reputation was shaped by various crises in the early 1970s, of which the Three Day Week and Northern Irish Troubles are perhaps best remembered. But it's our entry into the Common Market that has been his longest lasting legacy, both for all the benefits it has brought the country, and for all the discord it has sown.

So it's perhaps a surprise that Ted Heath is the only Prime Minister from the last half-century whose home you can visit. Margaret Thatcher as yet has no domestic legacy, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair never will, indeed you have to go back as far as Winston Churchill to find any other PM's abode with an open door. But Heath left his final home in trust so that members of the public could enjoy the building, the garden and his art collection, just as he had. It's Arundells, overlooking the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, and perhaps the ultimate in post-war political bachelor pads. [8 photos]

Arundells started out in the 13th century as a residence for the canons at Salisbury Cathedral, later leased out by the diocese to secular tenants and a school. In 1718 it was rebuilt in classical style, all symmetrical at the front and slightly less regular round the back, and earned its name when the daughter of the house married Lord Arundel, a local peer. By the mid 20th century it had fallen into disrepair, which is how it came to enter private ownership, and went up for sale in 1985 just as Edward Heath was planning on moving out of London. Initially he'd been intending to go to the Isle of Wight, but Arundells was more convenient for visitors, and still close enough to the Solent for easy yachting. Ted's security detail were pleased too, as the house was in a gated close behind medieval stone walls, which made it hard for any potential enemies to gain access.

Gaining access these days, a decade after the ex-PM passed on, costs a tenner. Come at the weekend or on a Monday and you can wander round inside at your leisure. Come on Thursday or Friday, or in the winter, and the place is closed. But come on Tuesday or Wednesday and you get an hour-long guided tour, and these are great, particularly if nobody else turns up. I know, it's Ted Heath's house, what are the chances of that?

What this isn't is a museum, nor just a listed building. Instead the trustees have gone to great effort to preserve the place as it was when Sir Edward was living here, which he did for twenty years until his death in 2005. And that's why the entrance hall comes as a little bit of a surprise. It's rammed with sailing memorabilia, as a reminder to guests of their host's great interest and prowess, and includes several paintings and models of his most famous yacht, Morning Cloud. There were five of these, two of which sank, and one of which Heath used to steer the UK to victory in the Admiral's Cup in 1971. It's hard to imagine any serving Prime Minister being given leave to do something so risky today, nor indeed to have world-beating talent outside the political arena.

Across the way in the drawing room is Heath's Steinway, as once installed at Downing Street, with a forest of signed photos on top of VIPs and statespeople that he encountered. Four years as PM provides a certain gravitas on the world stage, and there were plenty of big figures around at the time like Nixon, Gandhi and Chairman Mao. The Chinese leader gifted two ming vases, afforded prominent position beside the fireplace, while on the other side is the chair Heath sat on at the Coronation (when he was merely Deputy Chief Whip).

I liked the dining room, a narrow high-ceilinged red space with walnut table seating eight. In later years Sunday lunch was Heath's main social event, and the chairs would often be filled by musicians, sportspeople and occasionally politicians... Harold Wilson came once, and local resident Sting more often. The shelves behind are stacked with collectable ceramics, from widely different provenance, while the walls are hung with a set of John Pipers. It's clear that Heath really loved his art, as the selection hung down the main hallway (and elsewhere) attests, including a John Singer Sargent, a Walter Sickert, a Lowry seascape and even a couple of Sir Winston Churchills.

But for a true insight into Heath's personality, you need to step into the Library at the rear of the house. Here he would have spent the majority of his time, especially in his later years, surrounded by a lot of books on art and music and a few slightly less highbrow novels too. The collection of pristine classical CDs ranged from jazz to symphonies to opera and looked very much of its time, as did the chunky push-button CD player. Heath was an organ scholar while at Oxford, as well as an acclaimed conductor, and the Father Willis Organ in the cathedral was another reason why he moved to Salisbury.

Interestingly it's the photo of himself smiling at the Order of the Garter ceremony that Heath chose to place immediately alongside where he sat, plus the official parchment By The Sovereign's Command - not bad for a grammar school boy from Kent. Meanwhile upstairs in the study is a desk that belonged to Lloyd George, from which there's an excellent view straight down the garden, which visitors are free to take a look round once they're done inside. It's long, narrow and green, with space for croquet, and part of the hull of Morning Cloud 3 by the shed as a memorial. And it leads all the way down to the river, specifically the confluence of the rivers Avon and Nadder, where I stopped to watch a family of swans, and a flock of sheep grazing on the water meadows beyond.

Back in the house, one rear corridor is given over to a selection of original newspaper cartoons featuring Heath and the politicians of his day, that characteristic nose a gift to the artists, and his rivalry with Margaret Thatcher often a subtext. The upstairs landing is surrounded on all sides by a wholly unexpected mural depicting the tale of the Monkey King, massive and very colourful, but by no means the only Oriental theme in the house. And nobody gets to go in the bedroom, which is where Heath spent most of the last two years of his life, before passing away in 2005 at the pretty decent age of eighty-nine.

If you were any doubt where his passion for Europe came from, the answer is in the guest bedroom. A display here tells the story of Heath the soldier, an artilleryman who saw service in the Normandy landings, rose to the rank of major and was awarded the MBE. The devastation he saw stayed with him, as did an undergraduate trip to pre-war Germany where he heard Hitler speak at a Nuremberg rally. With such first-hand understanding of how Europe fell apart, his drive to lead the country into the Common Market was unshakeable, even if it took several attempts. His eventual success is the only decision the British public have ever been asked to reconsider twice.

I think Edward Heath would be aghast to see the hatred and misinformation today's referendum has whipped up. An organisation set up to bring nations together is being vilified for global issues, and used as a scapegoat for the decisions of national government, seemingly purely for personal gain. Heath saw how the masses can be persuaded to follow unwise saviours, and the destruction that misguided nationalism can bring. Will we reach the centenary of his birth next month with our membership of Europe intact, or will Heath's turbulent early Seventies be the model for our uncertain future?

 Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Alternative Brexit timeline #37426

June 23: A referendum occurs
June 23 (10pm): The nation's destiny is sealed
June 23 (11pm): In the absence of an exit poll, both sides claim to have won

June 24 (midnight): Somebody promises to eat their hat if the result goes against them
June 24 (1am): Early results from the City of London suggest a thumping win for Remain
June 24 (2am): Early results from not-London suggest unexpectedly high levels of support for Leave
June 24 (3am): Insomniacs busy tweeting "Oh my God this might actually be happening"
June 24 (4am): Nigel Farage opens bottle of champagne and lights big cigar
June 24 (5am): Scotland's looking very much in, South West England's looking very much out
June 24 (6am): "Well, if Birmingham tops 98% then Remain could still win"
June 24 (7am): It becomes clear that the electorate has voted narrowly to Leave
June 24 (8am): Prime Minister David Cameron advises everyone not to panic
June 24 (9am): The pound falls sharply against the dollar
June 24 (10am): Boris Johnson announces "we have taken back control"
June 24 (11am): Share prices fall, and the pound plummets a bit more
June 24 (noon): Boris Johnson apologises for the recession
June 24 (1pm): Government invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty
June 24 (2pm): David Cameron announces that he definitely won't be resigning
June 24 (3pm): David Cameron resigns
June 24 (4pm): The pound realises it still has a bit further to fall
June 24 (5pm): Leading economists say "we told you so"
June 24 (6pm): Michael Gove is sworn in as stopgap Prime Minister
June 24 (7pm): Fortunately the stock markets have closed
June 24 (8pm): Bank of England cuts interest rates to negative 0.5%
June 24 (9pm): The nation collectively goes down the pub and gets very drunk
June 24 (10pm): The nation discovers that all the cash machines have frozen
June 24 (11pm): A hat is eaten

June 25: Britain wakes up and is aghast/delighted that yesterday actually happened
June 26: Street parties in Romford, Darlington and the Cotswolds
June 27: Police prevent braying mob from burning Remain supporter on large bonfire
June 28: Lord Nigel Farage announces publication date for his memoirs
June 29: European leaders gather in Brussels to say "right, well piss off then"
June 30: Rupert Murdoch announces his retirement

July: Boris Johnson assumes the role of Prime Minister "to save everybody time voting"
August: A selection of workers rights are revoked "to increase national productivity"
September: Legislation introduced to cap the number of Polish shops on any high street
October: Conservatives hold two party conferences as their membership splits
November: Several City institutions move their trading operations to mainland Europe
December: President Obama says "sorry, no way are we doing a trade deal with you"

January 2017: President Trump says "sure, how many guns would you like?"
February: Civil Service announces it will no longer be run by experts
March: European history removed from the National Curriculum
April: A promise that the NHS will be getting lots of additional funding "when the time is right"
May: Chancellor Gove assures the nation that the pound reaching parity with the euro is a good thing
June: Confirmation that 23rd June is to become become a UK Independence Day bank holiday
July: Amusingly, it's now the UK's turn to assume the EU presidency
August: Boris launches the Emperor Games, to be contested annually between the home nations
September: Only one UK bank has collapsed so far, so that's good
October: Human Rights legislation is scrapped in attempt to "cut back on red tape"
November: Central database of foreign-born UK residents is established
December: Bananas can now be sold in bunches of more than five

Winter 2018: Russia turns off gas supplies during coldest winter on record
Spring 2018: Civil servants have agreed exit terms on a few agriculture and fisheries agreements
Summer 2018: Two years are up, but the UK still hasn't managed to extricate itself from the EU
Autumn 2018: House prices would be much more affordable by now if only people still had any money

Winter 2019: Channel Tunnel rail services end after France refuses to restrain migrants at Calais
Spring 2019: Second Scottish referendum votes 3 to 1 in favour of independence from the UK
Summer 2019: Wall goes up along the Irish/Northern Irish border
Autumn 2019: To combat the deepening recession, Boris sells off the country's naming rights

Winter 2020: The UK becomes the Emirates United Kingdom (or EUK for short)
Spring 2020: In the General Election, the National Conservative Party increases its majority
Summer 2020: The Labour Party dissolves, replaced as opposition by a Remain/LibDem rump coalition
Autumn 2020: Launch of the British Health Service, where everybody pays because "it's only fair"

2021: A newly independent Scotland applies to join the EU but is told to join the queue
2022: Unemployment crisis forces positive discrimination in favour of those with Anglo-Saxon DNA
2023: Prime Minister announces exciting new trade deals with Iceland and Bermuda
2024: The Queen and the Royal Family move to Balmoral
2025: English Parliament opens in Leicester, and votes to make wearing of St George's cross compulsory
2026: Turkey now refusing to take in migrants from anywhere that used to be Great Britain
2027: Race riots destroy infrastructure in much of Lancashire and Sussex
2028: Retirement age reaches 78, as pensions prove worthless
2029: Immigration issue now totally sorted as nobody wants to come here any more

2030: Other countries have driverless cars, but Britain is now a nation of cyclists
2031: Wales votes for independence, rather later than it should have done
2032: EU breaks up after France and Germany vote to leave
2033: Government laughs at post-EU debacle and says "we told you so"
2034: Nuclear confrontation in the Baltic states makes much of East Anglia uninhabitable
2035: Boris Airport is forced to close after six months of operation due to rising sea levels
2036: The robots take over, so it turns out none of the above actually mattered

 Tuesday, June 21, 2016

TfL's name includes a strong clue that their job is supposed to be providing transport in London. But their influence stretches across the border of the capital, mainly for historical reasons, with several services running beyond. The Metropolitan line heads out into Herts and Bucks, for example, and the Central line serves a chunk of southwest Essex. Meanwhile as many as sixty London bus routes ply their trade outside the boundaries of Greater London, providing an often invaluable service to residents who don't pay London council tax. To make things fair, local authorities outside London pay a grant to TfL to ensure these peripheral buses continue to run. So what happens when that grant is cut? We're starting to find out.

Last November, Essex County Council voted to end a £586,000 subsidy to TfL which helped pay running costs for bus routes 20 and 167. Both these routes begin well inside London, head for the boundary and then run about five miles into Essex. Route 20 starts in Walthamstow and leaves the capital near Woodford, before continuing through Buckhurst Hill and Loughton to Debden. Route 167 starts in Ilford and leaves the capital near Grange Hill, before continuing through Chigwell, Buckhurst Hill and Loughton to Debden. TfL has no remit to serve these Essex locations, so might the end of council funding see these two buses cease?

A myriad of deregulated bus services run beyond the Greater London boundary, without the need for subsidy to prop them up. This usually means fares cost more, often quite a bit more, as those who live outside the capital know well. And it usually means buses run less frequently, or stop in the early evening, and maybe don't run at all on Sunday. But without that half million pound grant to top them up, why should Loughton and Debden continue to be an anomaly?
"In most other towns of comparable size in Essex, at least the main peak and daytime elements of services like the 20 and 167 would be provided commercially, with no charge falling on the County Council, although we might well fund evening or Sunday services, depending on commercial viability at these times." (Cllr Roger Hirst, 18 Nov 2015)
Essex's cut in revenue took place in April, but TfL have taken until this month to respond. A consultation has been launched proposing that route 167 be cut back, terminating in Loughton rather than Debden. That'll cut about 20 minutes off the route, and reduce the number of vehicles needed to run the service, so should therefore save a bit of cash. But they're not cutting the service all the way back to the boundary, which means residents of Chigwell and Buckhurst Hill will still be able to catch buses their taxes no longer pay for.

Perhaps more surprising is TfL's proposal to leave route 20 alone. This bus spends about half its time in London and half its time in Essex, but the Essex half is to see no reduction in service whatsoever. And I think that's rather impressive. Indeed if you step back and look at what TfL have actually done, they've noted that the 20 and the 167 run along virtually the same route between Loughton and Debden and withdrawn the less frequent of the two. Nobody along this part of the route loses out, except in frequency, and TfL still rakes in money from fares to help offset the loss of grant.

Residents of the council estates of Debden and the Towie streets of Loughton aren't happy, particularly those who'll now need to catch two buses to make their journey rather than one. But here's where the Mayor's Hopper ticket suddenly makes a difference, because by the time this cut is made it'll continue to be possible to travel from Debden to, say, Chigwell, for the price of one fare rather than two.

And there are still two other TfL buses out here that aren't being affected. The 397 will still run from Chingford to Debden, providing a more direct link to Loughton, although that packs up before eight in the evening. And the 549 will still pootle up the backstreets, ensuring Roding Valley gets some sort of bus service, but this now only runs every 70 minutes and for only six days a week.

It's not yet the case that residents of Loughton and Debden must rely on the whims of private suburban operators. But they do have several of these already, including very brief circular buses, buses with A and B suffixes, buses that only run on Sundays, and a bus that runs only once a day. It all makes TfL's "frequent, reliable, simple and comprehensive" network look positively modern.

Meanwhile eyes are turning to the borders with Hertfordshire, whose councillors have made a very similar move. The county used to subsidise five TfL-operated cross-boundary routes at a cost of £390,000 a year, but that money also stopped in April, and local residents are concerned. The affected buses are the 142 and 258 from Watford, the 107 and 292 in Borehamwood, and the 298 from Potters Bar. Each of these has a long section outside Greater London, indeed for the 107 it's most of the middle of the route.

TfL could decide to lop back the buses to the borderline, for example terminating the 142 and 258 at Bushey Heath, although they'd then lose out on a lot of fares to Watford. They could choose to remove some of the faffing around the outer estates that the 292 does on either side of Borehamwood, or perhaps even all of it. They could rejig the local service pattern to provide more efficient coverage inside London and fewer bits outside, whilst still ensuring that key boundary locations like the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital remain served. Or they could just back out of Hertfordshire altogether, as they have with most of Bucks and Berks, and leave the commercial operators to it.

All that TfL have said at present is "There are no current plans to make alterations to any of our bus services that run to and from Hertfordshire" but also that "If in the future we propose to make any changes, we will undertake full stakeholder and public consultations as we do for any bus service." The Essex experience suggests that a consultation might well be on its way, but it's unlikely to propose the complete withdrawal of routes that many residents fear. Instead I wonder if they'll look at the four miles of double bus route between Bushey Heath and Watford and try the Debden trick again, removing either the 142 or 258 from this stretch. We'll have to wait and see.

In future other neighbouring counties might decide to drop or remove their subsidies, with the number of red bus services crossing into Surrey already looking quite anomalous. Meanwhile TfL still need to respond to a significant cut in central government funding, and to balance the budget now they have a Mayor who refuses to increase fares. The lesson from Loughton appears to be that they're keen to make minimal changes to the bus network, focusing on route efficiency and the protection of community links. But we live in times of financial cutbacks, and outer London in particular can perhaps expect to see more of this kind of thing.

 Monday, June 20, 2016

You can see it from the M25. Between junctions 26 and 27, where the orbital skims the edge of Epping Forest, a Palladian mansion is visible across the fields. This is Copped Hall, built in the 1750s on a historic site with links to royalty and Shakespeare, and whose frontage hides the damage wreaked by a great fire within. But a band of volunteers are putting the house and garden to rights, and every so often they open up and invite the general public inside. Top trip. [12 photos]

Where was King Henry VIII while Anne Boleyn was getting her head chopped off? Pacing the yew avenue at Copped Hall listening for confirmation from cannon fire at the Tower, if the story is to be believed. Where was Catholic Princess Mary quarantined during the reign of her brother Edward VI? Copped Hall again, for sure. And where did the very first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream take place? Many believe it was in the long gallery at Copped Hall, on the occasion of the wedding of the owner Sir Thomas Heneage, one of Queen Elizabeth's favourites. That's a pretty impressive line-up of Tudor hearsay.

By the 18th century the estate had passed to the Conyers family, who demolished the original hall and built a new one, and it's this that motorway drivers espy today. The final owners were the Wythes, who went off to church one Sunday in 1917 expecting a small fire to be put out, and returned to find their house ablaze. The building and estate were left to decay, suffering neglect and vandalism as well as the carving of the M25 through the edge of the estate. Then in 1995 the shell was bought up by the Copped Hall Trust, and their long term goal is to restore the house to its Georgian splendour. With a lot of help from donations and volunteers, against all the odds, they're getting there.

Guided tours of Copped Hall take place on the third Sunday of every month, except December. The front gates open at 10am and close at 11am, so you have a very narrow window to arrive, but the subsequent perambulation takes the best part of three hours, which is damned good value for the £8 fee. First you get an hour and a bit's tour of the house, then a brief refreshment break, and then an hour and a bit's tour of the garden. All three parts are great, and the garden's clearly at its very best in summer.

The restoration of the house is an amazing example of what can be achieved long term by a dedicated group. When they started work there were trees growing inside and unstable chimneys tottering in the wind. Today the building's weatherproof with replacement wooden floors, and all the rooms on the lower levels have been at least part restored. The kitchen in the cellars looks very much like a kitchen, the lady's bedchamber looks good enough to be used in modelling shots, and the high-ceilinged saloon is once again an ideal space for entertainment.

But it's an expensive project. Every replacement window costs in the order of £2000, and the same for the flagstones of the cantilever staircase now being reinstalled, while the expert plasterwork is thanks to a participant on a previous tour who said "oh I could help you with that" and now does the lot.

Our guide on Sunday was excellent, and led us through the rooms with a mix of knowledge and good humour. We had to rush through a few on the ground floor because they were being used by a local Shakespearean company preparing to deliver some outdoor theatricals, just one of the many events that take place in this splendid setting. If you fancy some jazz, or a lecture, or a wildlife photography course (the latter heavily oversubscribed), Copped Hall has something for you.

They also do a lot of educational work - it's easier to get grants that way - and some of the rooms in the north wing are given over to a fascinating series of exhibition panels. We could have lingered longer there, indeed probably in every room, but that three hour deadline was ticking away. Goodness knows how they'll fit everything in when the second floor is opened up, rather than being accessible only via a couple of rickety ladders.

The tea was nice, and the cakes were excellent. Sometimes at these places you get pre-packaged muffins or limp sponge, but this spread was diverse, lush and home-baked (including two gluten-free options). Refreshments are served in the Racquets Court, a precursor of squash, where a small gift shop helps supplement the Trust's income. Rather more money comes from the private apartments around the stable courtyard, leased out to some very fortunate residents as a financial kickstarter at the beginning of the restoration period.

The Trust own 24 acres of garden surrounding the house, and that's in remarkably good shape. This is thanks in no small part to a further phalanx of volunteers, who prefer to serve in the borders rather than on the fabric of the building. Each appears to have their own appointed empire, one doing fantastic work in the rock garden where the original Elizabethan mansion used to stand, another single-handedly laying down a gravel path to a recreation of Henry VIII's yew avenue.

But the finest achievements are in the Walled Garden, at four acres the largest walled garden in southeast England. The Trust almost didn't buy it, which would have been a terrible loss, but over two decades they've turned an overgrown quadrangle into a place of diverse beauty. One corner is mostly orchard and topiary, another bursting with beds and blooms, with a pear-arched pergola leading down to a central pool where dragonflies dart. As we walked around we frequently bumped into the individuals responsible for each separate blaze of colour - I suspect they're always here - and the plant sale in the rusting greenhouses did a roaring trade. I'm no gardener but I could tell this was something special. If horticulture is your thing, garden-only tours are also available once a month.

Getting to Copped Hall is easiest if you drive, indeed walking there is a bit awkward. I hiked from Epping station in about an hour, taking the scenic route via the top of Epping Forest, but you can walk along the road to Ambresbury Banks, where the pavement only fades away for the last stretch down Crown Hill. This way you get to see the hall's pine and rhododendron drive, dramatically severed partway along by an eight lane cutting. Or you can walk in from the foot of Bell Common, taking a small footpath where the M25 emerges from tunnel along the edge of two fields and along a gravelled lane. This way you also get to spy on Wood House, a white-gabled mansion which Rod Stewart is currently moving out of.

You've missed this month's Copped Hall openings, but there are a couple of opportunities next month, including a day with even longer tours than usual. Stick a visit in your diary for sometime in the future when the weather's nice, which is what I did months ago, and I'm delighted to have finally made the effort to go.

Guided Tours: 3rd Sunday, arrive 10-11am, £8
Extended Tour Day: Sunday 17 July, arrive 10am-1pm, £8
Garden Afternoons: 1st Sunday (Apr-Sep), arrive 2-4pm, £5
Open Days: 29 May, 28 Aug, arrive 11am-4pm, £8
Apple Day: 9 Oct, arrive 11am-4pm, £8

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
Herbert Dip
capital ring
river fleet

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters

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flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
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london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
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trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards