diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 30, 2018

Location: near Amesbury, Wiltshire, SP4 7DE [map]
Open: 9.30am-7pm (last entry 5pm)
Admission: £19.50 (but £2 cheaper if pre-booked)
Free entry: English Heritage and National Trust members
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge
Six word summary: as English Heritage as it gets
Time to allow: half a day

Last time I visited Stonehenge access was via a miserable clump of prefabs through a tunnel under the road beside the stones. That's all changed. The A344 has been closed to traffic and partly grassed over, and a new Visitor Centre built a mile up the road at Airman's Corner. This is where your journey must begin... as I discovered when I arrived at Stonehenge on foot and was told to go away and get a ticket.

The Visitor Centre is a silvery shed beside an enormous car park, half glass, half timber, and safely hidden from the stones by a rise in the land. It houses an exhibition on Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape, plus a 360° projection which allows you to pretend you're standing in the centre of the ring, which you won't be allowed to do later. A few cases of neolithic artefacts are displayed, not easy to view when the room's even part-full of people, and a rolling history displays on a big screen. The underlying message appears to be "this place is amazing but we don't genuinely know what it is". A new collection of goodies from the British Museum opens next month to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stonehenge being gifted to the nation, but unless that turns out to be amazing there's not really a great deal to see.

Other things to engage with at the VC include a) a small village of neolithic huts, b) a sarsen stone that's too heavy to pull, c) a cafe, where a regular Stonehenge Hot Pot costs £6.45, d) a gift shop, e) some toilets. Here is where you buy your ticket which is easy on a weekday in September but be warned, at busier times the slots sell out and they advise you to book in advance. This is also where you pick up your audio guide which necessarily comes in multitudinous languages. I plumped for the official Stonehenge app instead, which is free and contains all the same audio tracks, but alas went silent every time my screenlock kicked in and was so infuriating to use I gave up.

From the Visitor Centre you catch the free shuttle to the stones, which is simply a single decker bus painted gold. But if you're up for it (and the weather's decent) by far the nicer option is to walk instead. Either follow the old road or, better, break off across the fields to plant your footsteps in the ancient landscape. It'll take you 20-30 minutes. On your way you'll cross the end of the Cursus, a two-mile-long earthwork of unknown ceremonial origin, and pass several funereal barrows, the smaller of which are quite easy to miss. The land is grazed so I got to walk through a herd of docile cattle, and my word what a lot of helicopters buzzed past on manoeuvres courtesy of military bases on Salisbury Plain.

Now that the former car park by the stones has been turfed over and the tunnel filled in, things look rather more sylvan than they did before. There's not even a kiosk or toilet block, just a gate where a member of staff checks your ticket and ushers you through. Wahey, England's premier prehistoric monument lies immediately ahead, and you're about to be able to walk all the way around it. Tourists who haven't forked out for admission should note that the field immediately to the north is open access land, allowing you to get almost as close as the paid-for visitors inside the fence, but you do have to wait for them to get out of the way before being able to take a photo.

The official path orbits the stones clockwise, but impatient or oblivious visitors barge past the discreet 'No entry' sign for an immediate close encounter instead. Don't be like them, because it's better to enjoy the brief central sojourn as the climax to your visit, rather than prematurely.

The central henge changes in structural appearance as you circulate, from some angles seemingly complete, from others evidently broken. It's also further away than your smartphone would like, which makes selfie-taking from the outer orbit somewhat underwhelming. The Heel Stone is a better bet as it stands right beside the perimeter, precisely marking the alignment of midsummer sunrise. A lot of foreign visitors seemed strongly drawn to the sheep grazing the grass alongside and took several photos of them too, this likely their one close encounter with rural Britain while they're over. As for the A303 which passes notoriously close to the south, I didn't find that as intrusive as everyone says it is, and the proposed tunnel may do more damage than it clears up.

Take your time on the grassy outer reaches because one circuit is essentially what your £20 is paying for. But eventually the path swings in on close approach, and this is your one chance to examine the stones at first hand. Gaze in wonder at the standing sarsens, chunky lintels and fallen totems, and peer through gaps in the stones at all the lumpen clutter in the centre of the circle. This brief fly-by is the peak photo-taking section, hence the wall of grinning faces lined up in front of an iconic background, each digital snapshot then fired around the world to confirm attendance. But don't be too busy snapping to forget precisely where you're standing, at the almost-heart of an astonishingly ancient solar temple, or whatever it actually is. [10 photos]

Most people hop straight back onto the bus afterwards, but better to explore the surrounding landscape a little before you go. Most of the adjacent fields are open access land, which I hadn't fully grasped before I arrived, and incorrectly assumed the lack of footpaths on the Ordnance Survey map meant I couldn't walk that way. North is good, and delightfully empty once you step off the main tracks. What's not officially recommended is to head a short distance south and view the cluster of burrows on Normanton Down, because there's no safe way of crossing the A303, and the traffic is relentless.

How to get to Stonehenge
If you don't have a car, and haven't brought a bike, the most usual way to arrive is via the green Stonehenge Tour bus from Salisbury, which starts outside the station. But it costs - a return trip plus access to Stonehenge and Old Sarum is £30. Only mugs buy the £36.50 "plus Cathedral" ticket, because entrance to Salisbury Cathedral is free. For those of us with English Heritage or National Trust membership who only need the travel, the return fare is an eyewatering £15. But I paid only £6.40 for my return bus ticket to Amesbury, the town nextdoor, from which Stonehenge is a two mile walk along the former main road or a three mile walk across the fields. The all-important Visitor Centre is another mile on top of that. I enjoyed the hike, you may not.

Location: Amesbury, Wiltshire, SP4 7AR [map]
Open: whenever
Admission: free
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/woodhenge
Six word summary: concentric post holes, formerly something mysterious
Time to allow: ten minutes

Having not read up properly before I arrived, I was stupidly disappointed to discover that Woodhenge is no longer made of wood. Instead it comprises over 150 concrete stumps, inserted into holes in a field where tall timber posts once stood, and was only discovered thanks to an aerial photograph in 1926. Six concentric rings of holes were uncovered, of which one ring had broader holes than the others so may once have supported some kind of roofed structure, but nobody really knows. Woodhenge too is oriented towards the midsummer sunrise, so may have been a precursor to Stonehenge, and the dead body of a child was excavated from the very centre. As a field of concrete stumps beside a lay-by it's not especially overwhelming, but pictured in the landscape as the site of a 4300-year-old astronomical monument, evokes resonant charm.

 Saturday, September 29, 2018

Salisbury is a wonderful city.
They have a famous cathedral there, Salisbury Cathedral.
My friends have been suggesting for quite a long time that I visit.

It is a very convenient trip from lodgings on Bow Road.
This saves money and it’s totally practical.
I went to the train station to check the schedule, to see when I could go.

The initial plan was to go there for a day.
Just take a look and return the same day.
The cathedral is very beautiful.

Salisbury Cathedral is famous throughout the world.
It’s famous for its 123-metre spire.
It’s famous for its clock, one of the oldest working clocks in the world.

I walked around, enjoying those beautiful English Gothic buildings.
I went to a park, but there was nowhere safe to sit.
One man was so frightened of the benches he had brought his own seat.

It was impossible to get anywhere because of the awful weather.
I wanted a hot meal because I was drenched.
Unfortunately the restaurant was closed, it did not say why.

One day in Salisbury is enough.
There’s not much you can do there.
I absolutely did not go anywhere near any sensitive military targets.

I really wanted to see Stonehenge, Old Sarum, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But it didn’t work out because the transport system was paralysed.
Maybe I will give it another try tomorrow.

 Friday, September 28, 2018

Anorak Corner (tube edition, 1951)

A snapshot of 1950s tube ridership statistics has come to light, courtesy of former TfL employee Mike Horne. The filled-in map shows the total number of users at each London Underground station in the week ending 17th February 1951. It's an internal London Transport document, with blank boxes which would have been filled in by hand, very neatly.

n.b. The map only gives data for London Transport stations, not British Rail-run stations. So, for example, there is no data for stations south of Putney Bridge, west of Northolt, north of Kilburn Park or east of Bow Road.
n.b. All numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand.

I've used Mike's map to knock up lists of the most and least used stations at the time. Thanks Mike!

London's ten busiest tube stations (1951)
  1) Charing Cross (919000)  [now 30th]
  2) King's Cross St Pancras (871000)  [now 1st]
  3) Oxford Circus (773000)  [still 3rd]
  4) Bank & Monument (765000)  [now 8th]
  5) Piccadilly Circus (749000)  [now 13th]
  6) Leicester Square (714000)  [now 16th]
  7) Waterloo (667000)  [now 2nd]
  8) Tottenham Court Road (654000)  [now 12th]
  9) Liverpool Street (636000)  [now 6th]
10) Holborn (633000)  [now 19th]

It's a surprise to see Charing Cross, now called Embankment, at the very top of the list - the station's a lot quieter now. It's less of a surprise to see King's Cross St Pancras hot on its heels. Waterloo and Victoria are a little further down the list than they are today, because the Jubilee and Victoria lines weren't operational in 1951. West End stations like Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road and Holborn were relatively busier in 1951 than they are today.

Of course, what everybody really enjoys is a list of least used stations.

London's ten least busy tube stations (1951)
  1=) Blake Hall (1000)
North Weald (1000)
Ongar (3000)
Wendover (3000)
Fairlop (5000)
White City (5000)
Chalfont & Latimer (6000)
Stoke Mandeville (6000)
Barkingside (7000)
Chigwell (7000)

1951's three least used stations were on the Epping-Ongar shuttle at the farthest tip of the Central line. Blake Hall no doubt had considerably fewer passengers than North Weald, but both have been rounded to 1000. Blake Hall left the Underground network in 1981, followed by North Weald and Ongar in 1994. Wendover and Stoke Mandeville were last served by Metropolitan line trains in 1961. White City, which closed in 1959, was formerly known as Wood Lane (and was located 100m west of the current Wood Lane station). Of these ten, only Chigwell is amongst the 10 least used stations today.

The next 10: Chesham, Grange Hill, Theydon Bois, Shoreditch, Chorleywood, North Ealing, South Acton, Moor Park, Roding Valley, Watford

The least used station in central London was Aldwych with 28000 passengers. Across the entire map, it was only the 40th least-used station. Aldwych closed in 1994.

You can get a rough idea of annual ridership by multiplying these numbers by 52. It should be noted that 1951's figures are for 'users' and 2017's figures are for entries and exits only, which isn't the same thing. However, this does sort-of enable me to compare 1951's figures to 2017's, based solely on available data.

For example, Bow Road station had 82000 passengers a week in 1951, which equates to 4.3 million passengers a year. But these days it has 5.7 million passengers a year, a 33% increase. The average increase across all the stations is more like 90%, although the figures vary massively, so don't read too much into this.

Greatest % increase in annual passenger numbers (1951-2017)
  1) Highbury & Islington (1.2m→20m, 1600%)
Wood Lane (0.3m→4m, 1400%)
London Bridge (11m→69m, 500%)
Marylebone (2.5m→14m, 440%)
Chalfont & Latimer (0.3m→1.7m, 430%)
Epping (0.8m→4.0m, 400%)
Fairlop (0.3m→1.2m, 380%)
Euston (10m→43m, 350%)
Barkingside (0.4m→1.6m, 320%)
Covent Garden (4.4m→18m, 300%)

In 1951 Highbury & Islington was a minor interchange on a minor branch of the Northern line, whereas today it's on the Victoria line and the Overground, which helps explain the massive leap. Wood Lane served a ruined stadium rather than a massive shopping centre, so it too has perked up hugely. London Bridge, Marylebone and Euston are three rail termini whose numbers have shot up, and blimey, look how Covent Garden's mushroomed since it stopped selling fruit and vegetables.

Greatest % decrease in annual passenger numbers (1951-2017)
  1) South Harrow (6.4m→2.2m, -66%)
Charing Cross (48m→20m, -59%)
Ealing Common (7.7m→3.2m, -59%)
Park Royal (4.3m →2.0m, -53%)
Roding Valley (0.7m→0.4m, -46%)
Ruislip (3.6m→2.0m, -45%)
Burnt Oak (7.9m→4.5m, -43%)
Sudbury Town (3.1m→1.8m, -42%)
Sudbury Hill (3.0m→1.9m, -38%)
Edgware (8.3m→5.3m, -36%)

I'm struck here by the concentration of stations in northwest London, and specifically the Uxbridge branch of the Piccadilly line. Half the stations in the list lie between Rayners Lane and Acton Town, where it seems the local population no longer travel in anything like their former numbers. Burnt Oak and Edgware suggest a similar decline at one tip of the Northern line. Meanwhile the full extent of Charing Cross's descent is laid bare, as commuters no longer pour down to the Embankment in anywhere near similar numbers. 1951 was a different world.

 Thursday, September 27, 2018

Open House: HARROW

Open House: Modernism in Metro-land

Sometimes what you want to do on Open House weekend isn't to go inside houses that are open, but to wander round pointing at several that are closed. That's why I undertook a guided tour at the northern end of the Jubilee line, former outpost of Metro-land, exploring Modernist houses around and above Stanmore. It was led by Josh Abbott of the Modernism in Metro-land website, of which more later, and who is probably reading this morning's post in a state of nervous shock. He's been running Open House tours of Stanmore since 2015 - notes and photos here - and they've always been popular. I counted 60 of us, well-wrapped and waterproofed, in the initial huddle outside Stanmore station.

Numbers 2-10 Valencia Road were the first to be built, in 1935, and form the most impressive set thanks to their compact layout along the alignment of the slope. Each has horizontal windows and a convex staircase, as well as the obligatory sun deck (as was the fashion at the time). They don't normally have random strangers clustered on the verge outside, pointing, which must have been unnerving when some of the residents emerged mid-spiel. It's hard to argue with a crowd of 60 people swarming up your backstreet, and passing cars weren't always sure whether to pause or honk their way through.

Kerry Avenue rises gently behind a hedge opposite the station. Its first six houses were built in 1937 by a young Lutyens-trained architect, and are also not your average suburban fare. Set in decent-sized gardens, they too feature flat roofs and rounded staircase towers, and are built from brick coated with snowcrete - which is the posh way of saying "white cement". Alas they also have residents who get their hedges trimmed on Saturdays, which occasionally rendered Josh's description of their construction semi-inaudible.

Further up Kerry Avenue, just below the entrance to the country park, are two later Modernist houses built as specific commissions. Number 14 was for RH Uren, the architect who also designed Hornsey Town Hall and Rayners Lane tube station, its yellow-brick cuboids very much in the international style. Number 16 was slotted in thirty years later, and isn't so clearly seen from the road, which barely explains why some members of the group thought they'd walk up its drive for a closer look.

The two apartment blocks at Warren Fields seemed quite ordinary, but Josh revealed they were a lot older than they looked, built in concrete by Owen Williams in 1936. Almost none of that is visible now, the exterior having been clad in bog-standard brick as part of an unsympathetic refurb around thirty years ago. I wouldn't have given them a second look, but that's the joy of a good guided tour, having someone point out intriguing true stories hidden in plain sight.

The next pair of must-see houses involved a hike through a recreation ground and the ascent of Stanmore Hill, suddenly diverting off down the side of a garage to explore Halsbury Close. Number 1 is a listed building, essentially comprising two brick cubes with a cut-away corner, and was built in 1938 by a German architect/refugee. He himself lived in a simpler construction at number 2, whose present inhabitants won't have been impressed by numerous unenlightened intruders stepping over their chain fence to take a better photograph.

Our final house required marching even further up Stanmore Hill, then dropping down into the private Aylmer Road estate. The first house on Aylmer Close is a long flat-roofed bungalow dating from 1963, crowned with black timber, and with two personalised numberplates parked underneath. Allegedly Stanley Kubrick planned to use it as a location in A Clockwork Orange, but the owner refused so he filmed the infamous interior scene in Radlett instead. The current owner peered out briefly in his shirtsleeves, clearly unused to crowds in kagoules mustering outside his private hideaway.

I think it's fair to say not everyone who came on the tour realised quite how far they'd be walking, including a fair amount of ascent, and without much Modernist to see between stops. But numbers held up throughout the damp hour-long safari, which was testament both to the selected locations and Josh's exposition of detail thereon. You can read a lot more about Modernism in Metro-land on his website, and blog, perhaps tracking down some architectural examples near you. There's usually a cool photo or three on his Twitter.

Or if you prefer your Modernism in printed form, Josh is trying to get a book out packed with information about alluring buildings from the suburbs and home counties, copiously photographed. Here's a video he's made to explain more, or go pledge to buy a copy when it's eventually published. The project has over 500 backers and is three-quarters funded already, so think of this as pre-ordering for delivery on an unknown date in the hopefully not too distant future.

Open House: Pinner House

And finally, to the house in the best location in Pinner. It's occupied the brow of the hill beside the parish church for almost three centuries and obviously it's called Pinner House. A brick beside the top window has the date 1721 scratched into it, so that's probably when the house was constructed. An early resident was a lady whose great grandparents were Charles II and Neil Gwynne. Other owners include a vicar, an army General, a builder and a London wholesaler. In 1947 the local authority took over Pinner House as social housing for old people, who had to be citizens of the greater Harrow area and lived in dormitories upstairs. It's still an old people's home, but they now live in accessible bedsit flats round the back.

"I live here," said the old person sitting just inside the back door. "It's never too early to put your name on the waiting list." The main house smelt of accumulated dinners. "Here's a photo of what the Blue Room used to look like." In the downstairs lounge, a grey-permed lady looked up from her cosy chair at the sight of yet another visitor peering in. Tea and cake was being served in the historic dining room. "They hacked those oak panels to fit the walls." The building's listed, hence lift-free, so not everyone can get to the upstairs lounge. "Ooh, we used to have a Singer sewing machine like that". Planes landing at Heathrow are visible from the first floor window. "We think the stairs might be rather special, perhaps we should get English Heritage round to take a proper look."

So yes, I spent part of Open House weekend at a old people's home in Pinner. I also went to a bingo hall, a swimming pool, a multinational HQ, a cultural centre, a design studio, a town hall, a primary school, a property asset and a prison. For what is Open House if not an annual opportunity to see inside the ordinary and the extraordinary, to see how life ticks over, until the same time next year?

My Open House 2018 gallery
There are 56 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Open House: Swakeleys

The finest Jacobean mansion in Middlesex is up for sale, should you have £45m to spare. Swakeleys was built in 1638 as a country residence for a City merchant, later to be Lord Mayor of London. Built from English Bond brick, and properly imposing, the H-shaped building features several wood-panelled rooms, numerous marble fireplaces and a fine oak staircase leading to the upper floor.

The tale of its slippage from private to public to private ownership is an intriguing one, kicking off in the 1920s when much of the surrounding estate was flogged off for Metro-land housing. A public-spirited gentleman managed to buy Swakeleys rather than see it pulled down, and arranged for the Foreign Office Sports Association to use it as a clubhouse. After WW2 the Foreign Office passed it on to the London Postal Region Sports Club, who couldn't really afford the upkeep, and in 1980 three local men stepped in with a restoration proposal which saw pharmaceutical offices built in the grounds. They negotiated a 25 year lease, but when that ended a new owner snapped up the property for his prime portfolio, and he's now seeking to dispose of his asset after doing the place up.

Under previous agreements, members of the public were given access to Swakeleys three days a year, including the day of the annual Ickenham Festival which took place on the lawn. The new owner cut things back, persuading Hillingdon council to agree to just one day, as well as imposing so many restrictions that the festival organisers gave up and went elsewhere. Access is now only permitted on Open House weekend, from ten til four, and even that isn't as generous as it first looks. A map attached to the gate shows which parts of the 25 acre estate you can perambulate, and white ribbons have been tied to trees and posts to reinforce the borderline. Just one gate is unlocked, and once you've traipsed past the car park to the front door, it appears visitors aren't entirely welcome.

The hallway is divided from the Great Hall by a triple-arched screen topped off with two gold lions and a bust of Charles I. The floor is stone and black marble, and a couple of classical heads adorn the oversized fireplace. A particularly nice touch is a quartet of small stained glass roundels marking the house's 20th century saviours, my favourite marking the Postmaster General's visit in 1956. But don't expect to wander at will. The owner has laid down a red carpet to protect his floor, and roped off its edges, even along the nearside wall, so you can't step off and scuff the surface. Might the rest of the house be less constrained? Alas, no.

The oak staircase is surrounded by mythological oil paintings depicting Trojan heroes and Greek goddesses, on all flanks including the ceiling, but all are temporarily lit so somewhat dark. The stair carpet has been covered with clear plastic to prevent visitors from soiling it, which tempers the overall effect. The Great Chamber at the top of the stairs is the largest room in the house, but a volunteer is stationed at the half-closed doorway to prevent anyone stepping inside, and peeping past isn't easy. And every other door in the building is firmly closed, concealing whatever the remainder of Swakeleys looks like. We have been permitted to see one dazzling hallway and some stairs. Someone doesn't really want us here.

It's OK to wander around the extensive grounds, so long as you don't cross the tape and stray too close to the house. A ring of spotlights and security cameras buried in the grass suggests a constant paranoia. The fast-growing conifer hedge around the perimeter no longer has any of the gaps it had in 2013 when I last peered through. The lawns are less than pristine, but nobody lives here at present so nobody complains. Only two potential buyers are in the running, I was told, one of whom wants to turn Swakeleys into luxury retirement apartments and the other an opulent spa. But whether public access will continue isn't yet clear, so you may never get the opportunity to see what I almost saw. [7 photos] [virtual tour]

Open House: Uxbridge Lido

Uxbridge Lido is part of Hillingdon Sports and Leisure Centre, and beloved, and dazzling even in the pouring rain. It was opened in 1935, with typical British timing on 31st August just too late for the summer. The outdoor pool is 50m long, with a curved swoosh of offices at one end and some shallow square pools for paddling at the other. Halfway down one side is a Moderne Art Deco pavilion, with steps on either side leading to a roof terrace which used to boast sunloungers but is alas now closed. The stepped fountains at either end of the pool are officially termed cascades, and are part of the filtration system. It's all very white and very blue, and very sleek, and was used by thousands in its Fifties heyday.

But the lido closed in 1998, and was only reborn in 2010 following substantial restoration, and the sympathetic addition of an indoor pool alongside. Boris Johnson came along to open it, but in his role as Mayor of London, this being a few years before he became Uxbridge's MP. There was no sign of him at the weekend, just a handful of brave souls doing lengths outside and a lot of towel-bearing families heading to the pool within. I could tell this hadn't been a busy Open House venue because the lady at the front desk casually handed me a free Open House guide along with my information leaflet, making a mockery of the £9 I'd paid for mine. But "ha!" to everyone queueing to see inside office blocks in the City - sometimes the best looking buildings are on the outskirts, and solely yours to enjoy. [6 photos]

Open House: Uxbridge Quaker Meeting House

Quakers have met in Uxbridge since the 17th century, although the current Meeting House on Belmont Road is of 1818 vintage. A plain brick building in a prime location, it better resembles a church hall than a place of worship, and quite deliberately so. Half used to be for women and half for men, with wooden shutters inbetween which could be lowered so one could hear the other. A fire damaged the women's side in 1988, and this has never been fully restored. But the Large Meeting House is much as it was, with tall windows and a raised bench along one side, although rest assured the walls weren't originally that shade of green - somebody recently had an unfortunate mix-up with the paint.

In this case Open House isn't so much about the building as what it represents, and an opportunity to meet the people who gather here. I had a long chat with one gentlemen who explained about the importance of sharing silence, how every Quaker Meeting has its own character and how much easier it is to maintain the building now the nursery has moved out. He also pointed out that everything has to be a collective decision, which made picking the design of the carpet unexpectedly troublesome. By dropping in I've followed in the footsteps of William Penn, Elizabeth Fry and the baker who helped found Huntley and Palmers. And I also count myself much better informed about yet another shade of Christianity who normally meet behind closed doors.

 Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Open House: Hammersmith Town Hall

When Open House comes round, I like to 'do' a town hall. It's always good to see inside to take the pulse of local democracy, even when the council in question isn't necessarily your own. Hammersmith's edifice on King Street is one of many with its roots in Thirties optimism, a chunky brick almost-cuboid with European influences whose style was once dubbed 'Swedish Georgian'. A walk around the perimeter reveals several intriguing details, such as a set of steps double-ended with carvings of Old Father Thames, a row of five sculpted reliefs above intricate metal gates, and a huge loading bay door several feet off the ground for the winching-in of scenery.

The town hall's southern end used to face glorious gardens leading down to the Thames, until the Great West Road dual carriageway was forced through in the 1960s and the view from the Mayor's Parlour was irrevocably ruined. A decade later an ugly office block was plugged onto the opposite end, facing King Street, although this is now due to be demolished. It'll be replaced by a civic square of shops and flats, to generate extra cash, while fresh offices are to be built nextdoor on the footprint of a knocked-down cinema. Or at least those are the current plans - you know how local government is.

However uniform the brick exterior looks, the interior is divided into three very different parts. One end is for the people, and includes the obligatory Assembly Hall, an enormous room with ridged-skylight roof and a sprung floor for collective dancing. The entrance hall is very impressive, a barrel-vaulted space with murals of local Thames-related scenes painted into the recesses, and would have been the chief way in for the public before that ugly annexe removed the original staircase to the first floor. When the walls were painted, Hammersmith Creek still existed close by and was even navigable.

The centre of the building is mostly hollow, facing a central courtyard where cars and minibuses can be parked, and (by modern standards) a colossal waste of useful space. Walking along its outer corridors reveals the true town hall, a chain of drab rooms inside which unsung but necessary services are based. And the far end is the democratic bit, including the chamber where councillors sit, as yet untroubled by microphones, pushbuttons or any form of electronic infrastructure. You can always spot the local visitors on Open House trips to town halls, because they want a photo of themselves sitting in the Mayor's chair. But it's the marbled antechamber which is the town hall's finest room, which is why we saw it laid out with white-draped chairs, the floor artfully scattered with flower petals, awaiting hitchers at £650 a time. Times change, and town halls change with them. [6 photos]

Open House: Polish Social and Cultural Association

Britain's largest foreign-born community has its cultural focus in a Brutalist warren on King Street, Hammersmith. Its roots were put down well before Poland joined the EU, instead supporting first and second generation Poles displaced by the Nazis or Communism either side of World War Two. In particular it was built to house the émigré government's irreplaceable library, which the British government had lost interest in, hence the site of a disused church was snapped up and reformulated into what passed for cutting edge architecture in 1971. It's all very Brutalist, and totally 70s, if stroking concrete is your kind of thing.

Wait over there and the tour will take 45 minutes, they said, but it actually lasted an hour and three quarters! That's partly because there were so many different facets to see, but also because the lady taking our group round was the Head of Culture at Polski Ośrodek Społeczno-Kulturalny, and she's ensured the building's packed with it. Artworks adorn every corridor and staircase, because why keep your best stuff hidden, and the tales she stopped to tell provided a perceptive insight into the country's volatile history. The lending library forms the heart of POSK, while a separate room houses the world's finest collection of the works of Joseph Conrad. It's kept locked, but apparently Jeremy Corbyn's a big fan of the author and sometimes pops round for a peruse and a cuppa.

The most surprising space is a full-on theatre where plays and concerts are staged, and to which Polish schoolkids from the rest of the country are sometimes bussed. The basement was originally a youth club but is now a Jazz Cafe, with weekly speakeasies you'd be very welcome to attend. Ditto the popular first floor cafe, where the menu may be exclusively Polish but the clientele doesn't have to be. But you'll not be permitted access to the rooftop bar with its football scarves and '70s vibe, that's members only... although we were allowed though to its terrace to look down over Hammersmith and neighbouring Ravenscourt Park station. All in all a fascinating insight into a deeply rich cultural institution, because sometimes Open House is all about opening up to people, not their buildings. [5 photos]

Open House: Greenside Primary School

Why take time out to visit a Shepherd's Bush primary school? Because it's a Goldfinger, that's why. Hungarian Ernő is better known for the Trellick Tower, but also brought his Modernist touch to the rebuilding of a couple of bombed London schools after the war. Westville Road School was reborn in pre-cast concrete modules, handily assemblable in 24 days flat. Its classrooms were strung out along a simple corridor,, with large afternoon-facing windows with photobolic sills to reflect light up onto the ceiling. Its assembly hall was built from 8'3" panels, and linked to the main school via a twisty covered walkway. Extra rooms have been sympathetically added to support later growth, and awnings were needed to blot out the sun, but the school still operates in Goldfinger's original buildings, and children still keep their books in his chunky wooden drawers.

Now known as Greenside, the school's pride and joy is a rare mural painted by architect Gordon Cullen. Ernő asked him to depict images which would educate and inspire on a wall, and Gordon settled on a selection of seven. For technology he plumped for the latest cutting edge steam train, an ocean liner and a de Havilland Comet (this being the year before it started suffering catastrophic in-flight break-ups). For history Dover Castle, for science the inner solar system (looking somewhat like a boiled egg), for geography a map of the world and for 'nature' what better than a frog and two blue tits? The mural's suffered from small children brushing by, but was properly restored in 2014 and should last long into the future. [5 photos]

 Monday, September 24, 2018


Other than my quick flit to the City, I spent the rest of this year's Open House in farther flung suburbs. Specifically I visited four very damp London boroughs, two each day, and will now report back on each in turn. Starting with Sunday, Borough One.

Open House: Gala Bingo Hall (former Granada Cinema)

They're not lying when they say this is one of Open House's most special gems. The Granada in Mitcham Road, Tooting, was to be a new style of cinema experience when it opened in 1931. Owner Sidney Bernstein took inspiration from New York's super cinemas and, for the brand name, exotic Andalusia. He employed a Russian theatre producer to design the interior, who combined Venetian style with Eastern European folklore and conjured up a confection of dazzling excess. It sings, it captivates, and it's now used for bingo.

You know you've hit the Open House jackpot when you discover your tour guide is Elain Harwood, 20C architecture guru extraordinaire. She has a special fervour for the nation's best picture houses (and getting them listed), and I can think of nobody else I'd rather have been shown round by. Tooting's now Grade I listed, officially the finest cinema in Britain, which saved it from demolition when Sidney walked in one day, saw less than a dozen in the audience and closed the place down.

The double-height foyer is impressive enough, with chandeliers and glitzy Gothic plasterwork, as twin staircases climb to a terrazzo landing for those with tickets for the upper circle. It'd be even more impressive without the slot machines. These have been slotted in wherever Gala can fit them, here and all along the passage into the main auditorium lest any opportunity for casual gambling be missed. Thankfully there aren't any on the upper landing or the gilded hall of mirrors which stretches beyond, but that's only because the bingo audience isn't large enough for the top level seating to be required.

If the size of the main auditorium doesn't make you draw breath, the decoration will. Murals adorn the walls like some kind of Orthodox cathedral. The emergency exits are crowned with ornately patterned arches. The entire ceiling ripples as if constructed from a grid of chocolate box trays. The effect would be a lot more impressive if the screen hadn't been replaced by a caller's podium and an electronic advert, and the entire downstairs hadn't been flattened and crammed with punters' tables, but somehow even these have a pleasing symmetry of their own.

The Wurlitzer endured a bittersweet 2007 - first restored, then flooded after a particularly heavy downpour, and painstaking repairs still continue. The organ ducks back down below the stage during normal service, otherwise the all-important ball-selection would be obscured. And bingo is the reason why Open House can only allow you inside on a Sunday morning between nine and noon, before the players return and licensing rules kick in (two small bottles of wine, £5.90). Don't knock the bingo, it's kept the Granada afloat these last forty years, but the jackpot remains the building itself, a genuine must-see. [6 photos]

Open House: Wandsworth Prison Museum

Almost as hard to break into as Wandsworth Prison, and considerably smaller, is the tiny museum which tells its history. It used to be based in a garage, but a few years ago was transferred to a purpose-built hut in the corner of the car park where its 400 items can be displayed in slightly less cramped conditions. Admission is usually by appointment only, but on Open House Weekend anyone can wander in and learn some grisly truths about this former House of Correction. The corner given over to the death penalty is the most unnerving, including a black cap, execution notices once pinned to the front gate and photos of the killer trapdoor before it was dismantled, although the rope and heavy bagged weight are actually props from a movie. Other evocative exhibits include the handwritten book in which Ronnie Biggs' escape was recorded, a letter Reggie Kray wrote to his future wife, and a stash of cuffs, staves and batons. Everyday life in the prison is also showcased, if you've ever wanted to see an inmate's food tray, a BT Prison phonecard or the denim jacket deemed appropriate uniform in the 1970s. Everything's meticulously labelled, and often eye-opening, in this labour of historical love.

Open House: Foster + Partners

Always ahead of the curve, architects Foster + Partners spotted the potential of riverside offices topped by a residential tower way back in 1990. Their main London presence slots in between Battersea Bridge and Albert Bridge, with the design team gifted a long waterfront studio filled with parallel workbenches. F+P put a vast amount of effort into model-making, because clients love to see what their landmark buildings will eventually look like, hence their studio is stacked high with 3-D renderings of towers, terraces and terminals, old and new. The mezzanine is used to showcase their latest triumphs, including multiple geometric options for a Shanghai bank, a glittering private hospital complex destined for Aswan, and a slice through the new Bloomberg building I'd seen in the flesh the day before. The model for Apple's new campus and circular HQ is so large they've had to stash it downstairs. Staff were on hand at the weekend to point the way around and to explain what some of the quirkier miniatures were, and the sense was given that this is a cheery focused place to work. Several other F+P buildings occupy land further back from the Thames, including a Materials Research Centre where designers can select precisely the right chunk of durable external polymer, but overall this Battersea complex isn't quite as arresting as the global portfolio it's helped generate. [5 photos]

 Sunday, September 23, 2018

Open House: Bloomberg European HQ

The Open House programme usually includes one big new City office block the owners want to show off, then never open to the public again. This year the flashy newcomer is Bloomberg, whose nine-storey groundscraper opened last October near Bank station. And if you got in quickly with the pre-booking, they were only too happy to show you round.
My thanks to the Bloomberg guide who dumped their Tour Route cribsheet in the Metro bin at Cannon Street, and made writing the following a bit easier.

Signs that Bloomberg were taking Open House extremely seriously included a) checking ID on the way in b) issuing everyone with a pre-printed nametag on a lanyard c) handing out a deluxe full colour 50 page booklet detailing the vision behind the new building d) providing free drinks and biscuits while waiting for each tour to kick off. To be fair, the tea wasn't great, and the biscuits were the standardly average assortment served in church halls across the country, but on a miserably damp day I had no complaints.

The ground floor of the main building is strikingly unusual, centred around a three-way lobby with swirling wooden walls, a bit like walking into the Ark. They call it the Vortex. Artist Olafur Eliasson has added a silvery metallic triangle at the apex of the ceiling, because the building's big on art and architectural statements. Our group's guide was a smart and enthusiastic employee, probably from the American side of the pond, and she rattled through "Intro to Building", "Intro to Company", "History" and "Art" with excitable vigour.

The correct exit takes you to a bank of glass-walled lifts, these unusual for being located around the perimeter of the building rather than up a central core, leaving plenty of room for enormous open plan spaces on the upper floors. The heart of the building is the 6th floor, nicknamed the Pantry, where employees socialise, nab coffee, grab free fruit and watch big video screens. The atmosphere is beneficent rather than commercial. Europe's largest commercial aquarium graces the space in front of the lifts, for maximum aaaah, and one large breakout zone has a splendid almost-unobstructed view of St Paul's.

Our second guide was from Foster and Partners, the architects responsible, and he got to point at the sustainable sandstone, the aluminium petal ceilings, the bronze ventilation fins and the Green Wall. But it was left to the company employee to do most of the talking, exclaiming how excellent everything was and repeatedly evangelising the man behind it all. Mike Bloomberg opened up the public realm, Mike Bloomberg restored Londinium's Roman heart, Mike Bloomberg single-handedly saved the business who provided the wall fabrics, Mike Bloomberg even rescued the fish... or so it sounded from the number of times she namechecked the blessed chief executive.

She led us into the Executive Dining Room to see some more art, some supposedly ground-breaking microphones and the big table where the fattest cats meet. Their view is of City rooftops, including a Wren church, the terrace at 1 Poultry and the flagpole on the top of the Bank of England, not to mention most of the skyscrapers in the central cluster. Unfortunately the bland tower at 22 Bishopsgate now dominates, and it's barely possible to see the Gherkin any more except as a thin sliver. Still, I bet the wine's good.

The building's most exhilarating internal feature is the ramp which spirals from top to not quite bottom, and which has been included to encourage employees to mix and mingle. It's angled at approximately three strides per step, and links up intriguingly asymmetrically on the way down. It also takes up a heck of lot of space which could otherwise be given over to desks, but given there are over 2000 desks in the building, that's not a problem. Oh to work in a modern office where your worktop adjusts up and down electronically, rather than having to fiddle with some awkwardly placed knob and never quite getting the height right.

It was only when we reached the 5th floor that I realised our guide had never once told us what Bloomberg actually do. We'd heard much of architecture, values and vision, but nothing of core work, not even that this was a financial company. Only when we reached the central studio did she suddenly gush about the daily TV livecast, the almost-automated cameras and the green room "where world leaders wait". My strongest memory of Bloomberg TV is being abroad and discovering it was the only English language channel, and preferring a blank screen to its unctuous diet of market data and investment updates.

Whatever, the building certainly has the wow factor, from the arty internal voids to the Roman temple concealed in its basement. Working conditions are light years away from what the average Londoner currently endures, in this ergonomic hotbed of economic analysis. I'd even go so far as to say it's less office block and more micro-neighbourhood. Hurrah for Open House allowing a few of us inside to sample precisely what state-of-the-art looks like in the City in 2018. And if you weren't fortunate enough to get a peek, ah well, Bloomberg HQ will just have to remain that chunky behemoth with the restaurants underneath you occasionally walk past. [13 photos]

Open House: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

 Saturday, September 22, 2018


Annual Crafts and Produce Show

Saturday 22nd September 2018

Fish Island Community Hall

Exhibits can be staged between 9.00am and 11.45am on the morning of The Show.
Doors open to the public at 2.30pm

Exhibits can be collected after Prize Giving at 4.30pm.
A raffle will follow the Prize Giving


1. Chips, bagged, salted
2. Beans, baked of any variety
3. Unidentified Eastern European, one bowl
4. Wellness smoothie, plant-based
5. Tub of nutrients (£4.99 or more)
6. Vegan burger, bespoke
7. Pad Thai, delivered
8. Container (box, basket, trug) (max 16” x 10”) with a minimum of 6 tinned vegetables (foodbank rules apply)
9. Bagged salad, any vegetable not mentioned in schedule

10. Avocado, smashed
11. Three chillies, balcony-grown
12. Bowl displaying a variety of Caribbean fruit max 12"/30cm diameter (RHS rules apply)
13. Collection of seasonal tinned fruits - any four kinds
14. Vape cloud, any fruit combination

15. Buddleia, mixed (3 spikes)
16. Supermarket bouquet, one variety
17. Hemp, grown indoors this year
18. “An arrangement in a small prosecco glass”
19. “Bow Flyover”. An arrangement with a choice of herbs, berries and foliage.
20. “Brexit”. No accessories. (max. size 16"/40cm depth and width. No height restriction)

21. Bramble jelly, sourced from canal towpath (one jar)
22. Five pop-up sausage rolls, gluten-free
23. Bread, hand-purchased (1lb/400 grams)
24. Gin and tonic, individually curated
25. Jalfrezi, street-cooked, tempered with fresh garlic, served in an iron skillet, hot
26. Afternoon tea for two. A selection of 4 items, sweet and savoury, to be presented in an area max. 20"/50cm x 15"/38cm. Judged on presentation and price.

Dizzee Rascal trophy - most points in classes 27-30
27. Two breast pieces, floured and fried, in a cardboard box
28. Three wings, halal, excessively spiced
29. Five identical nuggets, not more than 1½” in diameter
30. Selection of three individual dips, peng

31. Three pills, white, assorted
32. Three pills, white, adulterated
33. Three pills, coloured, enhanced
34. Powder, white, wrapped (1/8)

35. Spliff, phattest
36. Coffee, best design in froth
37. Needlework, tattooed name of offspring (including birthdate)
38. Needlework, most ill-advised piercing
39. Crocheted item, for manbun or topknot
40. Knitted accessory, non-binary

41. Painting using fruit or vegetables to depict the dangers of air pollution
42. A funny dinosaur made from recycled jars and bottles
43. Most exotic Minecraft landscape
44. Miniature garden in a seed tray, max. size 15"/38cm x 10"/24cm, can include accessories such as cigarette butts, sweet wrappers etc.
45. Best dressed potato which could represent a Disney Princess or Marvel Superhero (max size 6"/15cm)

46. Self
47. Self, with bezzie
48. Self, with plate of food
49. 'Our night out'
50. Kitten or puppy (animated gif)

51. Binbags, pile of three
52. Chewing gum, presented on slab
53. Phlegm, three pools
54. Microwave, discarded
55. Graffiti, tagged
56. Bicycle, stolen
57. Bagged turd, canine-sourced

 Friday, September 21, 2018

Yesterday Art On The Underground installed a photo-collage above the entrance to Brixton station. It's by Nigerian-born artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and depicts a post-Windrush generation seated in front of wallpaper incorporating images of past lives. The artwork's conveniently unobstructed in the photograph circulated with the press release. It's a lot harder to capture in the tumult of passengers thronging up and down the stairs.

Backing up this commission is the simultaneous publication of a Brixton Mural Map, celebrating a long tradition of wall-painting by local Lambeth communities. Seven Brixton murals are featured, in comprehensive and colourful detail, along with a map to help you track them all down. It's all been splendidly produced. Copies are supposed to be available in the racks at Brixton station, but they weren't there on launch day, so it's just as well I'd downloaded a digital copy in advance.

The map's just the right side of schematic, so I didn't quite get lost tracking the murals down. The joyful faces of Children At Play have adorned the back of the O2 Academy since it was the Astoria. Nuclear Dawn first faced Coldharbour Lane in 1981, its mushroomed skeleton now part-obscured behind a tree in a parking lot. The other Brixton station has boasted market-showcase murals since 1986. All the background to their origination is explained in the 16 page booklet, along with pictures of some of Brixton's lost murals, long since painted over or demolished.

My favourite was up Acre Lane, or rather just off it, on the side wall of a wonderfully ordinary terraced house. Big Splash presents a sylvan view of Brixton on the banks of the Effra, with waterfowl and swimmers in the foreground, and a multiracial collection of characters staring down from windows above. One of the windows is real, and sensibly net-curtained. If you do choose to track this lot down, I'll warn you it's neither an easy nor a brief ramble, but you do pick up an alluringly earthy flavour of Brixton's lively culture on the way round. Bravo.

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