diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 31, 2017

One unusual feature of this election campaign is that the minor parties are being squeezed out.

The Liberal Democrats have been crushed by their Coalition record, and UKIP has crumbled after a successful referendum. We've not seen this level of two party politics since 1979.

So, for simplicity's sake, allow me to slim down the election choice to red versus blue.



How do we pick our side?

For many of us, the choice is about values.



For one reason or another, we have an affinity with the policies of the left or the policies of the right.

Perhaps we believe in social equality, equal opportunities, sharing resources and supporting others. Or perhaps we believe in individual rights, civil liberties, low taxation and market forces. We have a strong sense that one of these points of view is fair and correct, and the other is unfair and misguided. Something within us makes us feel the way we do, perhaps our upbringing or our life experience, and underpins our political viewpoint at a fundamental level.

In a two-party system we're the non-floating voters. We cast our vote on policies first, and personalities second. It's sometimes said that we'd vote for a farmyard animal if it were wearing the right coloured rosette, and that's probably true, because we cast our votes based on what parties will do, not on who people are.

For other people, the choice is about personalities.



For these voters, one leading politician appeals, and the other doesn't. One leader says the right things, acts the right way and feels like someone you can trust. The other says things you're uncomfortable with, acts inappropriately and isn't someone you'd like to see in control.

In this election Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May have sharply contrasting personalities and platforms, perhaps the greatest difference since Margaret Thatcher took on Michael Foot in 1983. A lot of voters are enthused by Jeremy Corbyn and everything he stands for, whereas rather more voters have decided they couldn't possibly vote for Jeremy Corbyn because of who he is. Indeed it could be argued that Jeremy Corbyn himself is the defining feature of this election, sharply dividing voters into those who approve and those who don't, hence the Conservatives' relentless focus on his perceived inadequacies and the strength of Team Theresa.

People who vote based on personality tend to be floating voters, less anchored to a particular viewpoint and more likely to choose their party based on gut feeling. They have no time for the minutiae of manifestos, and pick up the temperature of a campaign through soundbites, acquaintances and the media. They often know just as firmly what they believe, but this can be an emotional response rather than a reasoned position.


As someone who votes according to values, I find it hard to imagine a situation in which I would ever vote based on personality. I may not rate either of the leaders at this particular election, but I am always going to cast my vote for the party which leans the way I do, despite any misgivings at the top. Far better to have a government doing good things ineffectively, I say, than a government doing bad things well.

I see voting by personality as a distraction because I'm confident in my own political beliefs, and perhaps you are too. And yet it's those voting by personality who will decide this election, not those of us who knew who we'd be voting for before it was called.

 Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Birmingham's canal network is second to none, once the lifeblood of the industrial city, now an irresistible recreational network. So rather than get public transport back from Aston I followed the canals, through low-key industry, beneath motorways, and past 26 locks in five miles, to Birmingham's new riverside quarter. [map]

I start at Brookvale Bridge in Witton, which is a pretty random place to begin, then follow the towpath of the Tame Valley Canal. A lad in shorts tugging a Staffie walks ahead, while a mixed race couple hand in hand dawdle behind. The canal is straight and quiet, bar some gossiping workmen out the back of a row of rippling warehouses, who yell across something in Brummie which is either a cheery greeting or a mocking jibe, it's hard to be sure.

Eventually the shadowing M6 swings in from the left on lofty pillars, first a slip road A38(M)→M6(west), then another A38→M6(west), then another A38(M)→M6(east), then another A38→M6(east). This can only be Spaghetti Junction, a 1970s megastructure squeezed into the nomansland above a canal junction and shielding it from sight. I've blogged about my first visit here previously, but the sudden transformation from leafy canal to concrete underworld never fails to amaze.

Traffic speeds high overhead on various interlocking carriageways. The most impressive are the sharply curved swirls, these seemingly the tallest, while others swoop above the towpath on layered trajectories atop graffitied columns. The canal continues straight ahead, because it was here long before the internal combustion engine was invented, at one point ducking into semi-darkness beneath the M6 proper.

At Salford Junction three canals meet, one of these the Grand Union, and a fingerpost points the way to distant towns. I turn south along the Birmingham and Fazeley, the waterway threaded through long-standing industrial hinterland, its banks not yet succumbed to residential transformation. The most popular means of transport here is evidently the bicycle, from laughing lads to sweaty homebound commuters tinging their bells and nipping over cobbled humps.

The eleven Aston Locks nudge closer together as they rise inexorably past the gasholders towards Aston Junction. Replace the urban backdrop and overpasses with green fields and lanes and this multi-gated climb could easily be some rural idyll. I eschew the Digbeth branch for a beeline to the city centre, the canal now broader as it rounds the University, and somewhat busier too.

Beyond the waterside warehouses twin liftshafts rise, the roof of St Chad's Cathedral still managing to poke above the scene, for now. Birmingham's BT Tower is not as iconic as London's, but stands out more clearly amid a skyline still more open than the capital's. Further ahead the canal darkens to duck beneath the platforms of Snow Hill station, and narrows between high brick walls, and weaves below the streets of the Jewellery Quarter.

A group of mates on a narrowboat are drinking their way up the Farmer's Bridge flight, a tightly-packed ascent of thirteen locks in the heart of the city. Two open and shut the lower gates as one chugs their craft inside, while another dashes athletically up to the next gate to unlock the paddles and drain the water. Despite obvious keenness their progress is not fast, nor could it be, and I can stride past all thirteen locks in the time it takes them to do two or three.

Old Turn Junction has a central island, a fair few footbridges and the golden roof of Birmingham Library bearing down. The former maltings are now a pub, and various popular food and retail developments now intrude, the towpath crowded with drinkers and shoppers all the way down to Gas Street Basin. Four armed police officers are standing on the walkway outside Ed's Easy Diner, passively defending the populace whilst having a nice chat in the sunshine.

Peak commercialisation comes at the first bend on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, where a former sorting office has been transformed into The Mailbox, a luxury mall with waterfront restaurant terraces. Smart couples and office pals sip wine while ordering steak or pasta, in the shadow of a weird geometric panelled building called The Cube, topped off with pointy owl-like ears. The contrast with the start of my walk is extreme, the canal the only constant.

 Monday, May 29, 2017

One thing about Birmingham, it doesn't take long walking out of the city centre to reach suburbia. Aston is one such area, just beyond the inner ring road, a mix of terraces and flats and towers with a population whose ethnic make-up reminded me of home in East London. Carving through is the Aston Expressway, a 1960s motorway linking the M6 to the centre of the city, less a dual carriageway and more a 7-lane canyon whose central lane switches direction according to peak flow, hence not for the faint-hearted driver.

The other big local presence is Villa Park, home to Aston Villa football ground, a drab fortress whose exterior is enlivened only by a bit of nice lettering on the brickwork at one end. Occasional glimpses can been seen of banks of seating in claret and sky blue, within a capacious interior that's hosted more FA Cup semi-finals than any other ground.

But the tale I'd like to tell is that of the mansion across the road in Aston Park, in whose kitchen garden Aston Villa's Villa Park was built.

That's Aston Hall, a magnificent Jacobean mansion built to impress, with two ornate symmetrical wings and chimneystacks aplenty. Construction began almost exactly 400 years ago, to meet the dreams of local landowner Sir Thomas Holte, and took almost two decades to complete. His timing was unfortunate because the English Civil War broke out shortly afterwards, the surrounding populace being strongly Parliamentarian, and the house came under attack on Christmas Day 1643. One cannonball made it through the walls and through a balustrade on the Oak Stairs, leaving a hole which has never been repaired, and which tour guides take great pleasure in pointing out.

I've never yet been on a bad tour organised by Birmingham Museums, the umbrella body now responsible for maintaining the city's municipal heritage stock. In this case our small group was lead by a fervent Villa fan, mixing facts with colour on our three storey safari from the ostentatious entrance hall to the servants quarters. The wood panelling is gorgeous, if a bit warped in places, such as the undulating floor of the Long Gallery (one of the longest in England). More impressive is the ornate plasterwork across and around several ceilings, incorporating pagan figures and the occasional anachronistic elephant (added by a later owner, the son of engineer James Watt).

The house boasts a room where King Charles I actually slept, five days before the Battle of Edgehill, and an attic garret where Sir Thomas is said to have detained his daughter for trying to elope with a lowly farmer's son. She stayed locked away for years until she went mad and died, whereas Sir Thomas lived to the age of 83, an almost unheard-of longevity for the time. The tour runs weekdays only (you get to go round on your own at weekends) and is excellent value at just over an hour, and can be topped off with a visit to the stables cafe, a walk in the beautifully maintained formal gardens, or a sprawl in the surrounding park. Next time you're in Birmingham, that is.

 Sunday, May 28, 2017

I like mint sauce.

Last week I was very pleased to see my usual jar of mint sauce on special offer in the supermarket. It cost 80p rather than the normal £1.45.

I was much less pleased to see a label on the shelf saying "Reduced to clear", so I grabbed the last two jars.

This week I was very pleased to see the same brand of mint sauce back on sale in the supermarket, and for 26p less than a jar used to cost.

I was much less pleased when I noticed the mint sauce was in a smaller jar. So I did some sums.

The original sized jar cost £1.45 for 250ml. That's 58p per 100ml.

The new smaller jar costs £1.19 for 165ml. That's 72p per 100ml.

That's a 24% price increase, disguised as a 26p price cut.

That's for you.

Minor niggle: When news websites pop up a flash alerting you to the Breaking News you're already reading.

Major niggle: When modern web templates mean you can't read any of a news story, or even see half the first picture, without scrolling down.

 Saturday, May 27, 2017

National Cold War Museum
Location: RAF Cosford, Shropshire, TF11 8UP [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (4pm in winter)
Admission: free* (parking £3)
5-word summary: how the world didn't end
Website: rafmuseum.org.uk/cosford
Time to set aside: half a day

The RAF Museum comes in two halves, one at Colindale in North London, and the other at Cosford halfway between Shrewsbury and Birmingham. Both have free admission. The M54 makes it easy to drive there, or you can take the train, or you can fly in if you get prior agreement with Air Traffic Control. I took the train, alighting at a deserted halt sandwiched between a large airfield and an engineering complex, then yomping along half a mile of grass verge overlooking runways and turf-topped hangars.

Opened in 1938, the RAF base is still used for training and storage, which is how the museum came to be located here in the first place. Civilians are allowed into one corner of the site with various planes scattered about, including a Nimrod and a VC10, while security checkpoints prevent you from wandering into operational or residential areas. The first hangar is packed with prototype fighters and test flight classics, my favourite being the unlucky TSR2 whose flying career stalled when the Chancellor of the Exchequer cancelled the programme on the day it was due to take its maiden flight.

For younger visitors there's a hands-on section based on the science of flight, and for kids of any age a cockpit you can clamber into and pretend you're off to bomb somewhere. A separate hangar houses planes from WW1 and WW2, from nimble fliers to great lumbering transports, and the museum is also the final resting place of James May's full-size Airfix Spitfire. In a much smaller room I found a cabinet of unlikely RAF mascots, including Wing Commander Roland Rat (from Coltishall), Twinkle Toes the black cat (who survived the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight) and Percy the Parachuting Penguin (copies available for £10 in the shop). So far, so normal, but then comes the Doomsday block.

The National Cold War Museum opened ten years ago inside a striking sheet-aluminium tent whose structure is based on intersecting triangles. The interior is split over two levels to accommodate 17 aircraft packed closely at cunning angles, including a Valiant, Victor and Vulcan. As well as turbojet firepower, the display focuses on the story of East-West tension from the division of a continent to the fall of the wall. Pop inside one of the 'silo theatres' to learn about Mutually Assured Destruction or the Cuban Missile Crisis, take the lift to the tiny 2nd floor viewing balcony for a panoramic view, or stand beside a nuclear missile casing and ponder the end of civilisation we somehow avoided.

For those of us who lived through all or some of this era it's all very evocative, not least the cabinets contrasting everyday western artefacts with eastern propaganda, including the obligatory mention of James Bond, and a Trabant. The pointlessness of homemade fallout shelters is alluded to, whereas Russia had underground bunkers set aside for 10% of its population, some cunningly doubled-up as stations on the Moscow Metro. As the voices of Brezhnev and Reagan echo around the hall and contemporary news broadcasts play, neither side comes out particularly well.

The upper floor is built on top of classrooms and a lecture theatre, so I was pleased to see a primary school party being shown round, exploring some vital non-curriculum history before dashing off to make paper helicopters. A steadier stream of veterans wheeled through, some of whom perhaps started their National Service here at Cosford, or signed up as fully fledged 'Boy Entrants', as the RAF's cadet force was once awkwardly named. I suspect most visitors come for the aeroplanes rather than the message, but the message is well stated, and a sobering reminder of our global fragility.

* Admission is not free on the day of the RAF Cosford Air Show, which this year is Sunday 11th June.

 Friday, May 26, 2017

Anorak Corner (the annual update) [tube edition]

Hurrah, it's that time of year again when TfL silently updates its spreadsheet of total annual passenger numbers at each tube station.

London's ten busiest tube stations (2016)
  1) Waterloo (100.4m)
King's Cross St Pancras (95.0m)
↑1 Victoria (83.5m)
↓1 Oxford Circus (83.3m)
Liverpool Street (71.6m)
London Bridge (70.7m)
Stratford (67.0m)
Bank/Monument (64.3m)
  9) Canary Wharf (54.8m)
Paddington (49.5m)

Waterloo remains London's busiest tube station, and becomes the first tube station ever to serve over 100 million passengers in one year. That's an increase of 5 million since the previous year, which is going some. There's remarkably little movement in the top ten rankings this year, with only Victoria and Oxford Circus changing places, the latter having lost 9 million passengers since last year. The two stations with considerable upward momentum are Stratford, which has put on 6 million passengers, and Bank/Monument, which is up 7 million, and we may see these climb the chart further in the future.

For comparison, five years ago Waterloo had 56m passengers, but it's now 100m. Over the same period Canary Wharf has rocketed from 22m to 55m, Bank/Monument from 17m to 64m, and Liverpool Street has doubled from 36m to 72m. Either there's a new method of counting the data, or London's tubes are getting hugely more crowded.

London's ten busiest tube stations that aren't also National Rail stations (2016)
  1) Oxford Circus (83.3m)
Bank/Monument (64.3m)
Canary Wharf (54.8m)
↑1 Piccadilly Circus (41.3m)
  5) ↑2 Green Park (41.2m)
  6) ↑2 Bond Street (39.5m)
  7) ↑* Tottenham Court Road (39.3m)
  8) ↓4 Leicester Square (37.8m)
  9) ↓3 Holborn (34.0m)
10) ↓1 South Kensington (33.6m)

The top three tube-only stations have remained static over the last twelve months, but Leicester Square's tumble has allowed other central stations to overtake, and Tottenham Court Road has bounced back now its Crossrail-related closures are over. The majority of these ten non-rail stations are at the heart of the West End, delivering millions of Londoners to the shops and to work. Canary Wharf is an exception - that's simply work - and South Kensington's appearance is perhaps a surprise - can the museums really be that popular?

London's ten busiest tube stations outside Zone 1 (2016)
  1) Stratford (67.0m)
  2) Canary Wharf (54.8m)
  3) Brixton (33.5m)
  4) Finsbury Park (32.7m)
  5) Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (29.4m)
  6) North Greenwich (26.5m)
  7) ↑1 Camden Town (22.9m)
  8) ↓1 Shepherd's Bush (22.84m)
  9) ↑1 Walthamstow Central (22.77m)
10) ↓1 Highbury & Islington (20.2m)

The top of this list has barely changed since last year, with the swaps further down mostly statistical technicalities. A lot of these non-central hotspots are at interchanges with other railway lines, hence in 11th place we have Seven Sisters and in 12th place Ealing Broadway. Meanwhile North Greenwich's pre-eminence isn't so much down to events at the O2, but rather millions of SE Londoners changing for the bus.

Ten tube stations where passenger numbers have tripled since 2011: Moorgate, Bank/Monument, Roding Valley, Southwark, Aldgate, Euston Square, Great Portland Street, St. James's Park, Chancery Lane, Chesham

Ten tube stations with fewer passengers in 2016 than in 2011: Charing Cross (↓50%), Kensington Olympia (↓40%), Covent Garden (↓22%), Notting Hill Gate (↓9%), Leicester Square (↓9%), Marble Arch (↓7%), Knightsbridge (↓6%), Heathrow Terminal 4 (↓6%), Camden Town (↓2%), Bayswater (↓1%)

And now for my favourite list of the year...

London's ten least busy tube stations (2016)
  1) Roding Valley (367000)
  2) Chigwell (532000)
  3) Grange Hill (663000)
  4) Theydon Bois (850000)
  5) ↑2 North Ealing (905000)
  6) Moor Park (915000)
  7) ↓2 Chesham (1070000)
  8) ↑* Chorleywood (1070200)
  9) ↑1 Ruislip Gardens (1072000)
10) ↓1 Croxley (1080000)

The least used stations on the Underground remain those at the Essex end of the Central line, with poor Roding Valley proving that you can treble your passenger numbers over a five year period and still be the least used station on the Underground. The other least used hotspot is the far end of the Metropolitan line, but Chesham and Croxley continue to pile on more users every year so may eventually nudge their way out of the bottom 10. Indeed five years ago 27 tube stations had less than a million passengers, but this year there are only six! Note how the passenger totals for stations 7 to 10 are incredibly close this year, so don't read too much into their precise positions.

The next ten least busy stations: Upminster Bridge, Ickenham, South Kenton, Fairlop, Mill Hill East, Chalfont & Latimer, West Harrow, Barkingside, West Finchley, West Ruislip

The ten least busy tube stations in Zone 1 (2016)
  1) Lambeth North (0m)
  2) Regent's Park (3.4m)
  3) ↑1 Bayswater (4.8m)
  4) ↓1 Edgware Road (5.0m)
  5) Borough (5.9m)
  6) Mansion House (6.1m)
  7) ↑2 Hyde Park Corner (6.3m)
  8) Edgware Road (7.0m)
  9) ↓2 Lancaster Gate (7.1m)
10) ↑* Aldgate (8.0m)

Lambeth North was of course closed all last year for of maintenance, but it usually tops this list anyway. The station that's always been in this list but this year drops out is Cannon Street, because that's what happens when there's massive engineering works at London Bridge.

And finally...

London's most average tube station (mean): Bermondsey (11.1m)
London's most average tube station (median): Wembley Central (5.7m)

Full datasets
» Tube passenger data can be found here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)
» For the annual rail passenger data update, see last December's post

 Thursday, May 25, 2017

7 Leyton/Wanstead & Woodford/Chigwell
Combining these three former boroughs in 1965 would have created a faintly ridiculous new borough, bulging at the top, thin in the middle and spreading out again to the south. More to the point, it would have amalgamated wildly disparate communities, from the northern fringes of Epping Forest to dense terraced streets just outside Stratford. As things turned out each of the three boroughs went its own separate way - one to Waltham Forest, one to Redbridge and the other staying put in Essex. For today's post I've headed to Woodford, specifically Woodford Green, slap bang in the centre.

The Woodford Green conservation area

Several years ago, Waltham Forest council issued a series of free leaflets detailing the delights to be found across each of their many conservation areas. The leaflets were impressive compilations of factual information sourced from the Planning & Transportation department, copiously illustrated, and printed in two colours on folded card. I think it'd be fair to say that no London council will ever have the time or money to create something as good as this again. What's more 90% of the Woodford Green conservation area was actually in neighbouring Redbridge, so they were almost doing the work for free. I'm delighted to say that the Woodford Green leaflet survives as a pdf, as do the rest of Waltham Forest's collection, as a perfect reminder of how much architectural excellence there is on Londoners' doorsteps.

The Woodford Green conservation area stretches for almost a mile along the ridgetop between the Lea and Roding valleys, with the Woodford Wells conservation area continuing to the north. The ridgetop is why there are so many grand interesting buildings up here, because an ancient forest track ran this way, and because the first well-to-do settlers chose the best locations with a good view. The ridgetop is also why so many grand interesting buildings remain, because the nearest railways pass to either side along much flatter ground, so suburbia tended to erupt down there rather than up here. Ah, if only that forest track hadn't turned into the A11 dual carriageway, the rural ambience might also have survived.

This is a fabulous place to begin. It's Hurst House, one of Woodford's oldest surviving buildings, built for a rich brewery owner in the early 18th century, and much admired by Pevsner. The house also has the peculiar local nickname of The Naked Beauty, a reference to the nude statue of a woman which once stood in the grounds. She's long gone, but the gardens are apparently gorgeous, and very occasionally open to the public. The obelisk and four cannon balls out front are not contemporary.

Standing tall over the southern end of Woodford Green, close to Hurst House, is this statue of Sir Winston Churchill. He was the local MP in the post-war years, because he had to be the MP for somewhere, and the statue was unveiled in 1959 by Monty of Alamein. Woodford has another political claim to fame concerning a Prime Minister of the same era, namely Clement Attlee, who lived in an unassuming semi down the hill at 17 Monkham's Avenue before becoming leader of the Labour Party. Woodford Green continues broadly north from Churchill's statue, via a fine horse chestnut avenue, to an unassuming cricket pitch.

This is The Castle Hotel, or rather it was from the early 19th century, a stucco-faced coaching inn and posting house where working horses were stabled. When Epping Forest was opened up in 1878 the inn became a popular spot for East End jollies, and daytrippers would have surveyed the view from behind the balcony rail on the top floor. The Castle's recent evolution has seen it change from pub to Harvester, and last year to a posh steak restaurant. As confirmation that the spending habits of the local populace have changed, the former Midland Bank across the road is now a Mediterranean meze grill.

The area around the pond at the heart of Woodford Green is where the original hamlet used to be, hence a high concentration of locally listed buildings exists along the shopping parade on the High Road. The facade at W. D. Chapman Local Butcher made it onto the list, with its red and white awning and nostalgic typeface, while the assemblage of boutiques and restaurants around the top of Snakes Lane is of a more appealing vintage. Unseen behind an adjacent hedge is Harts House, a Regency mansion that's now a care home surrounded by a private residential estate.

I shouldn't mention the redbrick and terracotta United Free Church at High Elms, designed by the same architect who did the Horniman Museum, because that's fractionally across the boundary in a different borough. But I can wax lyrical about the recessed carving over the entrance to the Woodford Green Men's Club, and the squat clocktower above. This unusual building was converted from a Wesleyan chapel in 1904, as one of the plaques beside the door explains - the other commemorates a dozen members lost in the Great War.

At the top of Woodford Green is All Saints' Church, built in 1874 and extended in 1876, which gives some idea of the residential explosion then underway in the neighbourhood. A prominent landmark, the building is Early English Gothic with a steep pitch tile roof, a tall tower and a shingled broach spire. Today's Anglican congregation is in the charismatic evangelical tradition, which helps explain why the church's website mentions nothing about the glories of the building, and much about the vision of the ministry.

Beyond the Horse and Well public house (circa 1770) we're technically into the Woodford Wells Conservation Area, which isn't quite so splendid because the main road dominates somewhat, and the occasional modern showroom shed intrudes. Crossing the dual carriageway requires descending into a deep tiled subway, municipally patterned, but a fine run of Georgian houses still stands intermittently between sympathetic infill.

Easily missed beneath a canopy of trees on the western verge is the Anti Air War Memorial, comprising a small upturned bomb, in concrete, on a raised plinth. It was commissioned in 1935 by the former suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who owned the cottage behind, aghast that the League of Nations now considered aerial bombing an acceptable form of warfare. "There are thousands of memorials in every town and village to the dead", she said at the unveiling, "but not one as a reminder of the danger of future wars."

The conservation area peters out towards a fork in the road where a scrap of former Epping Forest lingers on. But there's one last visual treat, which is Bancroft's, an independent school which moved out to Woodford Wells from Mile End in 1889. From the front its castellations and turrets resemble a fortification rather than a school, whereas behind is a neo-gothic quadrangle and a succession of more modern educational facilities. And just 500 metres up the road is Buckhurst Hill, which is officially in Essex, although had the boundary been drawn differently Greater London would have carried on for several more miles.

» Woodford Green and Woodford Wells Conservation Area Appraisal (66 page pdf)
» The rest of Redbridge's conservation areas
» Leaflets for Waltham Forest's conservation areas

 Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Three years ago I set myself the slightly ridiculous challenge of visiting all the local government boroughs that touch the edge of Greater London. I'd done it before with London boroughs - the so-called Jamjar Years - but now I was heading outside the capital to see what delights existed out there.

A total of 17 Home Counties boroughs rub up against London, and I've spent a Saturday in each, attempting to visit at least four disparate locations, then coming home and writing about it. The writing about it shouldn't be disregarded, because that invariably took longer than the visit, making this a mighty task that's soaked up seventeen weekends and then some.

I started by the River Thames and worked my way round clockwise, ticking off another borough every two or three months. Unlike my jamjar journeys this wasn't random, mainly because "getting around" isn't as easy as it is in London, so a little more forward planning was involved.

Following yesterday's write-up of Thurrock my circuit is now complete. I've been to Kent, a lot of Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex, plus a couple of unitary authorities that aren't necessarily in any of those. For posterity's sake here's a full list, with a link to the relevant posts.

2014: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell,

2015: Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks

2016: Three Rivers, Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield, Broxbourne, Epping Forest

2017: Brentwood, Thurrock

I've been to suburbs half a mile over the London border and towns ten miles distant, plus villages it's barely possible to commute from. I've been to stately homes and shopping centres, fortresses and vineyards, landscaped gardens and film studios, museums and markets, various muddy footpaths, a model village and a Roman bath. All of this fascinating stuff is out there, not far from London, if only we ever think to pop outside occasionally and take a look.

As with my eight year random safari around the London boroughs, the best part has been travelling around each borough to put a face to the name. It's not until you force yourself to walk from Shepperton to Staines, or you take the bus from Hatfield to Welwyn Garden City, or you alight from the train at somewhere called Lingfield, that you properly understand how an area truly fits together.

The variety has been amazing too, from densely-populated urban boroughs like Slough and Thurrock to rural idylls like Sevenoaks and Tandridge. It's not hard to contemplate a future extension of the capital's boundaries that would swallow up some of these districts, although a number of beyond-London boroughs peter out quite quickly once the commuter belt gives way to the Green Belt, suggesting a new dividing line wouldn't be easy to draw.

A number of people have asked if I intend to extend this Beyond London feature further, to which my answer is currently no. It would be tempting to add Watford, which doesn't quite touch London, ditto Windsor and Maidenhead, then Chiltern, and maybe Basildon, but where do you stop? One of you even suggested visiting all the remaining boroughs that touch a borough that touches London, a kind of second ring, so I've done some sketchy calculations and there are 24 of them.

But that would mean covering an area from the countryside round Saffron Walden to the coast near Eastbourne, so I think not. Don't sigh, you're not the one who'd have to write it all up.

Another reason for stopping here is that I've now explored 33 London boroughs and another 17 around the edge, which is 50 altogether, and 50's a nice round total. Don't worry, I have other irons in the fire, so I'm not at a loose end and can easily think up other stuff to do at weekends. But I do feel enriched to have visited 50 districts, and over 300 individual locations, across a wider area than most people choose to travel.

Sometimes you think you know somewhere quite well, but then you visit it and find out you didn't, but now you do.

 Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Beyond London (17): Thurrock (part 2)

Somewhere famous: The Royal Opera House
OK, so the actual Royal Opera House is in Covent Garden, but they have to make all their scenery somewhere, and that place is Thurrock. Previously they made it all in a big shed on the Bow Industrial Park, but that had to be demolished for the Olympics, and a more extensive facility has been created at High House Industrial Park in Purfleet. You can't miss it. As the name suggests it's on a hill, or at least the kind of unfloodable mound which passes for a hill round here, close to the point where HS1 ducks under the QE2 bridge. You also can't miss it because it looks like a slice of an enormous beer barrel, its ribbed roof rising above the neighbouring chimneytops with the ROH crest at its shallow peak.

Officially the Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop, this mega-studio and costume store has been built in the grounds of a Queen Anne manor, namely High House, which has been sympathetically restored as part of the new development. This includes the octagonal brick dovecote, one of the largest and finest in southern England, while one outbuilding has become a cafe with a walled garden out back. Rising alongside is a Creative & Cultural Skills' Backstage Centre, a kind of campus for production and rehearsal skills, hence I saw spotted several behind the scenes workers and students milling around the site. It's not clear whether the public are allowed to wander in off the street like I did, even for a coffee, but if you want to explore the interiors properly (and see the latest sets and scenery destined for the Royal Opera House stage) official tours are run on Fridays, and they look really interesting.
by train: Purfleet

Somewhere pretty: Chafford Gorges
The last thing I expected in a flat marshy area was tall chalk cliffs, but I should have thought again. The land between the Thames and the A13 rises to a height of over 100 feet, and has been repeatedly carved out over the centuries for mineral extraction. This has left gaping scars in the landscape, mostly deep chalk quarries, hence the network of man-made cliffs that threads across the area between Ockendon and Grays. The largest redundant quarry was Mill Wood Pit, which boasted post-industrial biodiversity of national importance, alas now lost, because in 1989 it was decided to cover the area with housing.

The new estate was called Chafford Hundred, a dense swirl of high-gabled houses, now numbering over 5000 in total and very much the place for the aspiring Essex family or upcoming yuppie to set up home. But suburbia didn't quite fill the entire area so a number of other quarries and pits have been left as nature reserves, a kind of undevelopment zone which all the major roads have to divert around and between. The most important scientifically is Grays Gorge, where chalk extraction ended in the 1920s giving alternative habitats plenty of time to establish. One footpath head around the rim, with the occasional gap to peer over, while another heads down 100 zigzag steps to the 'lower shelf' where wooded scrubland surrounds a central lake, and rare orchids can be found at this time of year if you know where to look.

Lion Gorge has a much better name, and sheer drop descents to a linear lake brimming with roddable fish, for those Men of Essex who enjoy a hooked dangle. Wouldham Cliffs create a lofty divide between the upper and lower halves of the estate, the only direct connection being an almost insignificant footpath of breathy steepness. From the top you can look east over Chafford Hundred's tightly-packed rooftops, or south over a cluster of oil silos towards Grays and the distant Thames. I met almost nobody at any of these places, but dozens at Warren Gorge because that's the ex-quarry with a car park and a visitors centre... and I'd say the least interesting of the lot. But if a geological and ecological safari ever appeals, you could do a lot worse than come explore Thurrock's artificial cliffs.
by train: Chafford Hundred  by bus: 370

Somewhere else pretty: Davy Down
Just north of Chafford Hundred, where the A13 crosses the Mar Dyke, an old pumping station is the focus of the Davy Down Riverside Park. Built in the 1920s to extract drinking water from a borehole, the original diesel pumps have been preserved and can still be seen on Thursday afternoons and intermittent open days. The rest of the park includes meadows, wetland and woodland areas, ideal for species spotting or a good runaround, as well as the photogenic 14-arch Stifford railway viaduct. And yet the entire acreage was woefully underused on Saturday afternoon - one lady walking a dog, a couple entwined on the grass and a couple of volunteers in overalls - as if the local population would much rather be indoors elsewhere than engage in outdoor recreation...
by bus: 370

Somewhere retail: Lakeside
Where Thurrock prefers to go for entertainment is a giant shopping complex by the M25. Lakeside opened in 1990 across a former gravel pit and quarry, bringing mall culture to the unsuspecting Essex populace, who duly lapped it up. The main retail cathedral is half a kilometre long, from House of Fraser down to Debenhams, with an even larger outlet park alongside and served by a five-figure number of parking spaces. For many families this is a full day out, circling the shopping levels and pausing for refreshment, be that a McFlurry in hand or a proper sit down meal. The preponderance of "eateries" is striking, with the more expensive chains lined up facing a pedalo lake and fake steamboat along the refreshed Boardwalk.

A few years ago the mall was renamed intu Lakeside, an over-chirpy brand whose exhortations to shop and enjoy are plastered everywhere. But they know their target audience well, ambling from fashion outlet to department store with broad smiles and several carrier bags dangling. There's a bright airy feel, plus upgraded Italian porcelain flooring to give the place a smarter ambience, but Lakeside is still seen as the downmarket partner of Bluewater across the Thames, as the continued presence of Poundland, Wilko and Spudulike confirms. And still half a million visitors flood in each week, to browse and consume at Thurrock's flagship commercial theme park, and why visit anywhere else?
by train: Chafford Hundred  by bus: 370, 372

» Two dozen Thurrock photos

 Monday, May 22, 2017

Beyond London (17): Thurrock (part 1)

I began my orbital tour around the capital three years ago in Dartford, and finally I've reached journey's end across the Thames. And that means Thurrock (or 'Furruck' as the locals call it), a marshy district with a drab reputation... and when the main town's called Grays, that really doesn't help. The majority of Thurrock's 150,000 population live in the southwest quadrant, between the A13 and the river, so that's where I spent most of my time. As usual I attempted to seek out some interesting places I hadn't blogged about before, and the day was less grim than you might have anticipated.

Somewhere to begin: Thurrock Museum
Yes of course Thurrock has a museum, because a lot has happened on the low-lying banks of the Thames estuary over the centuries. From mammoths in Aveley to Queen Elizabeth's pre-Armada speech, they're all covered here, plus Anglo Saxon artefacts from the UK's largest ever archaeological excavation at Mucking. You'll find the museum upstairs in Grays at the Thameside Complex, a very 80s-looking block which also doubles up as the town's theatre, the town's library and the purveyor of cheap coffee and pastries for those who don't venture past the box office.

A lot is packed into the cluster of galleries, first historically, then thematically, and finally geographically, with a decent case of exhibits for each of the disparate settlements which make up modern Thurrock. For example there's a fascinating look back at Kynochtown, the village serving the gunpowder factory since replaced by Shell Haven Refinery since replaced by Thames Oilport, and there's another corner focusing on the lost grand mansion at Belhus near Ockendon. Don't expect modern presentation, the labels and panels look like they're about the same age as the building, but they were a damned sight more informative than a shiny push-button 21st century upgrade might be. Open six days a week, it's free to look around.
by train: Grays

Somewhere grey: Grays
This town used to be called Greys Thurrock, where 'thurrock' is a shipbuilding term and the opener signifies ownership by Sir Henry de Grey, one of King John's favourite courtiers. The town clings to the estuary on the outside of a bend in the Thames, with the majority of older housing to the north of the railway and more of the modern stuff on the low-lying shore. This isn't so much the territory of white van man as white truck man, with the majority of local business being distribution-based, to transfer and/or process goods arriving at Tilbury or the newer docks. If London house prices scare you, Grays is highly commutable and still has decent-sized stock whose six-figure prices start with a 2.

The pedestrianised high street runs from the Old Courthouse down to the river, with a level crossing partway down, and a selection of not quite thrilling shops along the way. Looming over all is the tower of the State Cinema, an Essex behemoth which itself achieved cinematographic fame when it was used as a location in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The cinema closed on its 50th birthday in 1988, and has since briefly been a nightclub, but more recently an empty leaking shell with a very uncertain future. Its car park, however, is thriving, having been taken over by an enormous Morrisons which draws the denizens of Grays inexorably within. A lacklustre market up a side alley sells golden delicious, e-cigs and geraniums, while ladies who grew up long ago in East London pick over racks of fancy £10 shoes.

Beyond the railway the High Street descends past the parish church to a freshly redeveloped zone housing South Essex College, and almost no old buildings whatsoever apart from a couple of blokey pubs at the very foot. I wanted to walk further but the flood gates were firmly shut, protecting the flats on the waterfront and the cul-de-sacs behind, so instead I headed past the yacht club to the exciting-sounding Grays Beach... which turned out to be a drained swimming pool filled with sand. Stepping up onto the river wall I enjoyed the sweeping estuarine panorama, probably only because the sun was out, from the edge of Tilbury Port past the tip of the Swanscombe peninsula round to the distant QE2 bridge. The Thames is big out here, and immutably grey.
by train: Grays

Somewhere famous: St Clement's Church, West Thurrock
It is the most astonishing place to find a medieval church. From Purfleet to South Stifford the landscape to the south of the railway is almost exclusively industrial, right down to the estuary, sprawled with logistics hubs, warehouses and oil depots. Lorries thunder down feeder roads, pylons stride across the former marshes, and if you'd ever wondered where the Daily Mail is printed now its base in Rotherhithe has closed, it's here. Head south from the A126 roundabout to the Co-Op Distribution Centre, turn left into Procter & Gamble's site ignoring the sign saying 'Private Road', then right along the footpath up the side of the Fairy Liquid plant. However wrong it feels, keep walking, and a couple of hundred metres down is a church you know well.

St Clement's survives in a small green oasis, which is mostly churchyard, surrounded on two sides by factory premises and on another by the employees' car park. Viewed from one angle it looks like any flint-towered Essex church, but from the front it's impossible to miss the giant red processing plant behind, with tanks and silos and steaming chimney rising into the sky. Inexorably engulfed since the mid 20th-century, the church became redundant in 1977 and was adopted by P&G ten years later, who've reversed the dereliction and restored the interior, plus encouraged wildlife to thrive in the graveyard outside. I briefly met a couple of rabbits. Annoyingly I missed the one weekend a month when volunteers open up and allow the public inside (June 3rd/4th is the next), and I also struggled to take a decent photo into the sun, so I'd recommend visiting in the afternoon rather than the morning.

If you haven't yet remembered where you've seen this church before, think back to the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, because this is where the funeral was shot. John Hannah reads Auden's Stop All The Clocks inside, and then a pivotal conversation takes place at the front gate, with industrial chimney duly billowing in the background. The scenes in which the family set off to the church were filmed at the crest of a dead end in West Thurrock, whose pre-war pebbledash terraces are now bedecked with sequential satellite dishes. And whilst it is possible to follow a short path down from St Clement's to the Thames, Hugh Grant's waterfront scenes were actually filmed in Grays because the backdrop was better.

I followed the path through a narrow strip of mostly nettles to reach a couple of benches on a raised wall overlooking the river. A large cruiser sped by, cranes drooped, mud rippled. This is the sole break point from a truly remote footpath which runs three miles along the waterfront from Purfleet, and which I really want to walk one day, but I think best in company rather than alone, and preferably when the tide's not in. A tattooed jogger appeared from nowhere, scrambled up over some rocks and headed off along the wall, so it must be possible. And yes, that is the tallest electricity pylon in Britain rising close by, one of a pair comprising the 400 kV Thames Crossing, transferring power 600ft up to a similar mast in Swanscombe. I wrote about that in 2014 when I started my round-London circuit in Dartford... and this is an excellent connection to confirm, job done.
by train: Chafford Hundred/Grays

Beyond London: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks, Three Rivers, Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield, Broxbourne, Epping Forest, Brentwood, Thurrock (pt 2 tomorrow)

 Sunday, May 21, 2017

A new tube map was released yesterday. Normally it takes me ages to find one, but the invisible staff at Bromley-by-Bow had dumped a stack on the shelf outside what used to be the ticket office, so I grabbed one on day one.

There is of course some new art on the cover. Dutch artist Lily van der Stokker has drawn some text in pastel-shaded boxes to create "an observation of the stolen moments between strangers on the Tube".

This is the kind of art which makes art critics write stuff like "Written in the first person and using language that is informal, she creates a kind of intimacy for a commission which is small in scale but vast in reach. The text ends ‘I know where I am going’, and through her apparent simplicity van der Stokker subverts our assumptions about our individual journeys." It's also the kind of art that tends to make anonymous grumpy men write "I don't like it I could have drawn it what a waste of money" in the comments box.

If you manage to find a night tube map there's a stuffed gorilla in a Hawaiian shirt on the front of that, which is obviously more exciting.

But what readers of this blog will really want to know is, has anything changed on the tube map itself? Why yes it has.

Lots of stuff which used to be shut has reopened. The Gospel Oak to Barking line reopened in February, and the new tube map finally shows this. Lambeth North station reopened in February, and the new tube map finally shows this. Two restrictions to step-free access ended in March, so they've been cleared off. Long term engineering works between Brentwood and Shenfield have just finished, so that's gone back to normal too. In addition there have been several changes to accessibility blobs - and we discussed that last month.

So I thought this might be a good moment to consider the evolution of the information panel on the tube map. Here are the information panels for the last four tube maps, from January 2016 through to May 2017, starting with the blankest column of all.

The second map was when the tram first appeared, so the key to all the lines was moved off the map proper and stuck down the side, plus the Overground closures started, taking up more room. On the December 2016 map the Overground information shrunk, and someone stuck all the contact details on the back cover, creating space to make the key a bit larger. On the latest map the key is the largest it's ever been, better spaced and with all the symbols in one long list, which is much more legible. The font size is still eye-wateringly tiny, but the extra space definitely helps.

Meanwhile, this latest version has hit a new low in the number of blue daggers on the map - there are only three! One's a long-term step-free access issue at Hounslow East, one's at Lancaster Gate station which is closed until August, and the other's at Custom House station which is closed until December. Mysteriously, Lancaster Gate isn't 'crossed out' on the map, whereas Custom House is, which is oddly inconsistent given that both are shut for at least the next three months.

Alas there are still seven red daggers on the map, a symbol which means "we can't be bothered to tell you what the issue is at this station, get your phone out and search for it, if you can be bothered." Amongst the invisible information imparted by these red daggers is "exit only on Sunday afternoons", "not served by trains in one direction", "no trains except very early or very late" and "only half the trains stop here". Some of this is important stuff people ought to know, but not even the enormous printed map in tube stations tells passengers what the red daggers mean, and searching online is ridiculously inefficient.

Worst of all, even if you follow the red dagger instructions on the tube map and search for "TfL stations", you won't find out what the special information actually is. Each of the station webpages used to have a box explaining what the problem was, but they've all disappeared in an unhelpful mismatch between printed and digital data. The Camden Town page says nothing about access on Sundays, the Cambridge Heath page says nothing about half the trains not stopping, the Goodge Street page says nothing about whatever the newly-created issue might be, etc etc etc. The map designers have expunged the information from the map, and the website designers have deleted the information from the web, and consequently the red daggers are now entirely meaningless.

Perhaps they'll print all the important information on the map next time. There's plenty of space.

 Saturday, May 20, 2017

Several election manifestos have been published this week, but only one is important, because it belongs to the party that's going to win.

60 things the Conservative Party manifesto (genuinely) promises

1) Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, there will be no ideological crusades.
2) Under Theresa May’s leadership, ordinary, working families will no longer be ignored.
3) We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view.
4) We will need to give people real opportunity and make Britain the world’s Great Meritocracy.
5) The government’s agenda will not be allowed to drift to the right.

6) We will get on with the job and take Britain out of the European Union.
7) We continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.
8) As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union.
9) We will determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state.
10) We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.

11) We will not increase the level of Value Added Tax.
12) We will be the world’s foremost champion of free trade.
13) We want to make sure that there are as few barriers to trade and investment as possible.
14) We believe that shale energy could play a crucial role in rebalancing our economy.
15) We will continue our programme of strategic national investments, including the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

16) We will grant a free vote to give parliament the opportunity to decide the future of the Hunting Act.
17) We will make CCTV recording in slaughterhouses mandatory.
18) We will support local authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better.
19) We will start moving significant numbers of civil servants and other public servants out of London and the south-east to cities around the UK.
20) We will maintain free entry to the permanent collections of our major national museums and galleries.

21) We will increase the defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation in every year of the new parliament.
22) British troops will in future be subject to the Law of Armed Conflict, not the European Court of Human Rights.
23) We will maintain the commitment to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on assistance to developing nations and international emergencies.
24) We will work to reduce asylum claims made in Britain.
25) We will legislate to mandate changes in police practices if ’stop and search’ does not become more targeted.

26) We will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
27) We will extend the first past the post system of voting to mayoral elections.
28) We will legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting.
29) We will retain the traditional method of voting by pencil and paper.
30) We will continue to ensure the work of the House of Lords remains relevant and effective by addressing issues such as its size.

31) We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools.
32) We will expect every 11-year old to know their times tables off by heart.
33) To help new teachers remain in the profession, we will offer forgiveness on student loan repayments while they are teaching.
34) We will prohibit councils from creating any new places in schools that have been rated either ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.
35) Schools in England will offer a free school breakfast to every child in every year of primary school.

36) It is our objective to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, by which we mean annual net migration in the tens of thousands.
37) We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.
38) We will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards.
39) To defeat extremism, we need to learn from how civil society and the state took on racism in the twentieth century.
40) We will establish a Commission for Countering Extremism to identify examples of extremism and expose them.

41) We want almost every car and van to be zero-emission by 2050.
42) We will work with train companies and their employees to agree minimum service levels during periods of industrial dispute – and if we cannot find a voluntary agreement, we will legislate to make this mandatory.
43) We will review rail ticketing, removing complexity and perverse pricing.
44) By 2022, all major roads and main line trains will enjoy full and uninterrupted mobile phone signal.
45) We will invest in more community minibuses for rural areas poorly served by public transport.

46) We will introduce a new Double Lock, meaning that pensions will rise in line with the earnings that pay for them, or in line with inflation – whichever is highest.
47) We will ensure that the state pension age reflects increases in life expectancy, while protecting each generation fairly.
48) No matter how large the cost of care turns out to be, people will always retain at least £100,000 of their savings and assets, including value in the family home.
49) We will give workers a new statutory entitlement to carer’s leave.
50) We will means-test Winter Fuel Payments, focusing assistance on the least well-off pensioners.

51) We will make non-legislative changes in the NHS to remove barriers to the integration of care.
52) We expect GPs to come together to provide greater access, more innovative services, share data and offer better facilities.
53) We will make it a priority in our negotiations with the European Union that the 140,000 staff from EU countries can carry on making their vital contribution to our health and care system.
54) We will get 1 million more people with disabilities into employment over the next ten years.

55) We will build better houses, to match the quality of those we have inherited from previous generations. That means supporting high-quality, high-density housing like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.
56) We will build new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants, the proceeds of which will be recycled into further homes.

57) We will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
58) We do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.
59) We will be the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet.
60) We will make Britain the safest place in the world to be online.

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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
east enders
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