diamond geezer

 Friday, May 31, 2019

Angel Road

Yes. I remember Angel Road—
The name, because one sunny day
In heat the snail-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late May.

The wires fizzed. Someone cleared their throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Angel Road—only the name

And concrete, breakers yard and scrawl,
And spike-topped fence, and shelter dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the North Circular viaduct in the sky.

And for that minute a silver claw smashed
Close by, and round it scrap metal,
Farther and farther, all the IKEAs
Of Enfield and Tottenham Hale.

Study notes

Angel Road is a station on the Lea Valley Line between Northumberland Park and Ponders End. It closes on 31st May 2019.

The station opened as Edmonton in 1840, became Water Lane in 1849 and was renamed Angel Road in 1864. It used to open onto Angel Road, a quiet lane running down to the River Lea which was later adopted as the route of the North Circular. In 1994, after the road was upgraded to accommodate a new intersection with Meridian Way, the old entrance was removed and a new entrance opened on Conduit Lane, one concrete flyover to the north. Passenger access now required descending several steps, ducking beneath the main road and walking along a lengthy alleyway between the trackside and a scrap metal yard. Few other London stations can match it for entirely unwelcoming ambience.

Angel Road is served by a handful of trains during the morning and evening peaks only, with no trains between 10am and 4pm or after 8pm or at weekends. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was London's least used station for the years 2015/16 and 2016/17, the second least used for 2017/18, and is a dead cert to be the least used station for 2019/20 having only been open for two months during that period. Perhaps surprisingly Angel Road is being replaced by a brand spanking new station on almost the same site, which is expected to have 100 times as many passengers.

Meridian Water, a proper station with actual staff and step-free access, opens on Monday 3rd June 2019. It's been constructed over the last couple of years a short distance to the south of Angel Road, indeed the ends of their platforms almost touch beneath the A406. Meridian Water is much more conveniently located for the IKEA superstore across the road, but more importantly will sit at the heart of a massive housing development the London borough of Enfield has been itching to build once there was a decent transport connection, and now there is.

Over the summer Meridian Water will continue to be served at peak times only, but in September a brand new half-hourly rail service will start operating between here and Stratford. It's long been known as the STAR service - a name which made more sense when the northern endpoint was Angel Road rather than Meridian Water - and will run seven days a week. An extra track has been laid alongside the existing railway, so as not to get in the way of more important Stansted Express services.

Once Meridian Water is open, Angel Road's ungated, unstaffed, unobserved, unloved platforms will be permanently sealed off. So if you ever wanted to visit Angel Road's circle of hell, do it today.

My Angel Road gallery
There are 24 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Thursday, May 30, 2019

This week TfL upended tradition by launching a demand-responsive bus service in the London borough of Sutton. They've called it GoSutton. It operates using a small fleet of white 13-seater minibuses. Drivers don't follow a set route but turn up after you've summoned them using the GoSutton app. You might end up sharing your ride with other passengers and travelling via an indirect route. It's all very reminiscent of something Citymapper have tried, or what Uber are already doing with pooled rides. I couldn't resist a trip to Sutton to see what was going on.

The GoSutton area stretches from St Helier down to Belmont and from Cheam across to Wallington. You don't have to live in the area to take part. [map] [map]

Sutton's an interesting borough to have chosen, being a) highly residential b) devoid of TfL tube and rail services. There are also a fairly limited number of popular destinations, in particular two big hospitals and Sutton town centre, and this should help to keep operational parameters a bit more manageable.

I decided to travel from Wallington to St Helier Hospital, and kicked off by positioning myself up a bus-stop-less sidestreet. I could have walked to the end of the road and caught the regular 157 bus, which would have whisked me to my destination in ten minutes flat, but instead I wanted to try a more bespoke experience. The app on my phone confirmed that a vehicle was nearby and provided a countdown to arrival, so all I had to do was stand on the pavement and wait. A blackbird sang a happy song from the roof of a nearby loft extension. Four minutes and counting.

Rides cost more than taking the bus - £3.50 compared to £1.50. Oyster doesn't work, and Travelcards are not accepted. Freedom pass holders and members of the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme ride for free. [FAQ}

I extended my arm to flag the bus down, because I've been well trained, but I suspect the driver would have stopped anyway. I was impressed to see that I wasn't the only passenger, others were aboard with shopping and even a wheelchair! I headed to the rear of the vehicle and picked a seat, then settled back for a unique ride.

It was time for a tour of the backstreets of Sutton, along narrow avenues a double decker would never risk. It was soon clear we weren't heading via any direct route but heading off on a meander that better suited passengers who'd already boarded. A lady sitting in front of me folded up her copy of the Daily Mail and gathered her bags together. I was most impressed when we stopped immediately outside what turned out to be her front door, and then when the driver pulled the same trick with an elderly gentleman a few minutes later. There's personal service for you!

Six minibuses are on call between 6.30am and 9.30pm seven days a week. They can't be booked hours in advance, only in the here and now. If you're more than 60 seconds late at the designated pick-up point, which may be up to 200m away, the bus won't wait.

It became apparent that the reason we were skirting the outer reaches of Carshalton to was stop at the Royal Marsden hospital. A grey-haired lady hopped off carrying a gift bag suggesting she was a visitor - I bet she'd paid nothing - and a middle-aged man in a black anorak took her place - I bet he paid full whack. We weren't returning to town directly either but deviating via the Cheamier side of Belmont, picking up a parent and child combo along the way.

Out here in the sticks, with bus and rail services on the infrequent side, it's easy to imagine how a bespoke door-to-door service might take off. TfL are hoping that drivers will leave their cars at home and summon a minibus to go shopping or bookend their commute, and that having to pay £7 return won't put them off. That said, nobody on my midday bus had programmed in a stop at the station, they were all solely interested in Sutton's retail offering.

Children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult. Licensed service animals are welcome to board without restrictions, but other dogs and cats must be in an airline-approved carrier. Passengers are asked to limit any personal items to a single piece of luggage or a reasonably-sized bag.

Half an hour after setting out I'd only reached Sutton Central Library, confirming that a more direct ordinary bus would have been far preferable. There was now no other passenger who'd been on board as long as I had, and the final shopping-laden contingent weren't going all the way either, dissipating into estates off Benhill Road. By now I thought I'd seen every kind of housing Sutton had to offer, on what felt more like my own personal guided tour than a profitable bus service.

Along one particularly narrow road we had to negotiate carefully past a taxi coming the other way, and being a shorter than average bus certainly helped. Sutton's cabbies are amongst those who stand to lose out most from the introduction of a new, cheaper, point-to-point service, should it eventually take off. Finally we reached St Helier Hospital, after a sinuous journey that had taken almost three-quarters of an hour, so I'm unconvinced I'll be trying that again. My departure left the driver with a cargo of zero, and I suspect a well-earned rest awaited.

If you don't have a smartphone there are ways of taking part by text or by phone. Leaving feedback on your driver's performance is encouraged. Officially this is a year long trial, and Ealing's lined up next.

And now confession time. I didn't ride on a GoSutton minibus, I caught a scheduled bus on route S4, which is one of the regular services that run around the suburbs of Sutton. I didn't want to waste £3.50 on a ride, plus I didn't fancy entering my personal details into an app and selecting a readily-identifiable journey. I'm not target audience, I'm not an Uber-friendly local who needs tempting out of their car. If you'd like to know what really goes on, Roger French has tried out GoSutton and ridden three of their minibuses and his in-depth report is here.

I didn't see a single GoSutton minibus anywhere on the streets during my journey, although that isn't surprising given how few minibuses there are spread across how many streets. Also I didn't see any publicity for the new service anywhere, so I suspect that only a tiny proportion of the population are aware that GoSutton exists. I guess it's in nobody's commercial interests to advise pensioners that their bus passes are now valid on free door to door services, so it's just as well they're the least likely demographic to be smartphone-enabled.

I have my doubts that GoSutton is destined to be a success, but TfL needed to give it a try and Sutton's as good a place as any. I just hope it doesn't ultimately mean that services like the S4 get scrapped in favour of something less predictable and more expensive, as some other parts of the country have found to their cost.

 Wednesday, May 29, 2019

My hike from Margate to Birchington got me wondering how much of the coast of Kent and Sussex I've walked over the years.

Answer, about 80 miles (but with plenty of gaps, and a lot of miles still to go).

    (miles and miles)
Whitstable → Herne Bay → Reculver (8 miles)
    (5 miles)
Birchington → Margate → Broadstairs → Ramsgate → Pegwell Bay (14 miles)
    (11 miles)
Deal → Walmer (3 miles)
    (5 miles)
Dover → Folkestone → Sandgate (11 miles)
    (25 miles)
Camber Sands → Camber Castle (5 miles)
    (9 miles)
Hastings → Bexhill (7 miles)
    (9 miles)
Eastbourne → Seaford → Newhaven → Brighton → Shoreham (31 miles)
    (miles and miles)

Q is for Quex Park

Most of the interesting stuff on the Isle of Thanet is around the coast, but Quex Park lurks inland. It's roughly southwest of Margate, following the A28. It's a mile's easy walk from Birchington station (although almost everybody drives, because this is Kent). It's a historic house with an extraordinary museum, plus gardens, craft shops and a host of bolted-on leisure activities. And it starts with a Q, which ought to be a decent enough reason to drop in all by itself.

Walk far enough past the front gates and you'll find a map depicting all the potential elements of your 'Quexperience', most of which can be visited for nothing. It's a pretty map, and there's clearly a lot to see, but using it to find my way around proved surprisingly difficult. Indeed I was reasonably pleased with my visit until I got home, started researching this post and realised I'd missed an important chunk out.

Quex House is why this place exists, its peculiar name courtesy of the Quekes family, a 16th century dynasty of Kentish woollen merchants. Monarchs William and Mary used to stay overnight at Quex when popping across to their ancestral homelands if bad weather prevented their ship from sailing, and that's as good as it gets for history. The current house is 200 years old and bewilderingly ornate, or at least the five rooms you're allowed to see are. The Oriental Drawing Room is the most impressive, with its lacquered cabinets, intricately carved chairs and papier mâché ceiling. Plan ahead and try not to come on a day when a wedding's booked.

The real attraction is the Powell-Cotton Museum, the life's work of Major Percy Powell-Cotton, a hunter, explorer and conservationist (assuming those roles aren't mutually exclusive). Between 1887 and 1939 he went on two dozen lengthy expeditions across Africa and Asia, ticking off all kinds of different ecosystems, and sent back thousands of specimens for stuffing. At Quex he built several galleries to display his finds, including wallfulls of horned heads and huge illuminated dioramas. Whatever you think of his ethics, they are amazing.

The largest room has monkeys at one end, giraffes and zebras to the left and elephants to the right. Scattered inbetween are all kinds of indigenous hoofed animals, including addax, bongo, hyrax and other creatures I'd never heard of, all smarter-looking than your average taxidermy patient. Two other large galleries are animal-led, while others focus on art and artefacts and meticulous ethnography. A century before the internet this would have been a truly eye-opening educational collection, and even 21st century scholars still visit to make notes. I'd pitch it somewhere between the Horniman and the Pitt-Rivers, both of which started out in a similar way.

The third thing your entrance fee pays for, on top of the house and the museum, is the gardens. I never found the gardens, nor did I find a sign directing me there, nor was the map much help, nor did anybody nudge me in that direction. I now think I should have turned left at the ticket desk and the hidden seven acres were probably up a side passage, but now is too late. The other thing I completely failed to find is the spire-topped Waterloo Tower, a folly celebrating its bicentenary this year (and a mildly famous Blake's 7 filming location). The tower's equipped with a full set of bells, which I heard pealing out across the estate, but is concealed by a ring of trees and there's no public access and I've been left with a sense of not seeing half what I went for.

I did find the alpacas. Quex Park has a large herd you can go trekking with, although it turns out this means wandering round paths and roads on site trailing one on a lead. There's also a craft village, a garden centre, a crazy golf course, softplay, laser combat, paintball, a big bouncy inflatable and a large barn decked out like a farmers market (where I finally found some gypsy tarts and BestMate is going to be so chuffed). Essentially Quex Park has set itself up as Thanet's all-encompassing go-to family attraction, and the state of the car parks suggested they're successful in meeting that target. It may just take more than one visit to find everything.

 Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Postcards from Bank Holiday Margate

Margate Meltdown

Every Spring Bank Holiday the Ace Cafe in London organises a mass bikeride to the seaside. It's meant to recall the Mods and Rockers invasions of the Sixties, and this is its twelfth year. Officially the ride starts on the North Circular at 10.30am, but at 10.30am the Margate seafront was already heaving with bikes and scooters, and still they kept coming. Thanet's a long way from almost everywhere, so every rider gets a good burn. I have never seen so many bikes and bikers together in one place.

Once arrived everyone stands around and admires their fellow riders' steeds, or nips into a conveniently located cafe or pub, or goes shopping. The promenade and pier are lined with stalls should you want to take a new helmet home, or buy a professionally-taken photo of yourself arriving, or buy some insurance from the event's chief sponsor. The demographic's generally old and beardy, although I did spot one group of ungrizzled teens raising the standard for a more diverse future. A friendly but overpowering invasion.


Ten years after Woolies folded, its branding lives on in Margate's High Street. Occasionally someone's used the interior for art, but no chain wants the old store full time. Even Primark has ditched town for the inland retail park on the road to Broadstairs, and they're not alone. While the locals frequent the street's lacklustre leftovers, daytrippers cluster in the boutiques and pavement cafes of the Old Town... on this occasion wondering where the hell all the bikes have come from.


Margate's marvellous Victorian pleasure park lives on, reborn and refreshed, following uncomfortable decades of decline. The latest renaissance faltered on a lack of thrills and a steep admission charge, but a move to free entry seems to have rescued things, and even the miseries checking bags for imported refreshments have now been sent packing. Now you pay by the ride, or stump up for a wristband, or simply revel in the opportunity to wander round and remember how things used to be. On a benign bank holiday Monday it was buzzing.

The centrepiece is the Scenic Railway, technically the UK's oldest rollercoaster and 100 years old next year, although in truth almost entirely re-timbered after an arson attack in 2008. It rattles round above the park to screams and the waving of hands, fare more of an adrenaline rush on board than its gradients appear from outside. Walk beneath its struts and you can see the wheels and pulleys that power the cable that keeps everything on track, the very definition of old-fashioned amusement.

I remember riding the chair-o-planes in 1992, and looking down over Margate from the top of the big wheel, and feeling proper queasy on the waltzer. Dreamland does vintage rides with aplomb, but also modern spinny things and that pole with the seats that go up and down very fast and the obligatory roller disco. Plenty to keep Dad and the kids occupied while Nan and Grandad wave from the sidelines and littlest daughter begs to go on the dodgems again. Even the t-shirted staff look like they're enjoying their dream day out.

Seaside: Photographed

The Turner Contemporary's been going eight years but this is the first time the top floor's been entirely devoted to an exhibition of photographs. The overarching theme is 'seaside', and they had me at the publicity photo which features a 1950s beachtowel scene whose chief protagonist looks exactly like my mum. It's the glasses. People have always loved to pose at the seaside, hence the first gallery runs from sepia Victorian vignettes to skew blurry holiday snaps to multiple modern beach hut portraits. Expect wall after wall of random folk captured in the pursuit of joy, each unintentionally representing the era they lived in. I wanted to applaud the sheer nostalgic rush of it all.

It's not all about people. One gallery includes hundreds of lovingly catalogued postcards depicting rough seas, another cabinet displays a dozen Shell Guides of coastal counties opened at some lovely landmark or Betjeman description. Holiday camps, dowdy hotel rooms and retail deprivation all get a look in, as do works' outings and stripy deckchairs, indeed the tangential breadth of interpretation truly inspires. I spent far longer walking round this exhibition than any of the gallery's previous artier displays, and stopped to congratulate a curator on the way out. Opened yesterday. Continues until the Turner Prize takes over in September (but that won't be as good).


To skip the seafront crowds, and the bikers, you don't have to walk far. Head west along the Westbrook Promenade and the sandy beach continues but the incomers fade away. Here are beach huts owned by the retired residents of adjacent clifftop avenues, and enough sand to make Southend and Brighton wildly jealous. Lifeguards scan the waves between flapping flags, immaculate lawns act as a sinuous coastal buffer and cyclists please occasionally dismount. Westgate Bay boasts an almost unused sweep, but Birchington's less wow so don't take your towel that far.

 Monday, May 27, 2019

I thought I'd have a go at picking The Best Park In Each London Borough.

That's an actual park called Something Park, not just a nice open space.
I'm not including Country Parks.

In some boroughs it's really easy to pick the best park, and in others much harder. Some boroughs are hard because there are too many good parks (e.g. Westminster and Hounslow), and others are hard because there aren't enough (e.g. Havering and Kingston). You may disagree.

I've also provided a link to each park, ideally to a "Friends of" group (because council websites are increasingly shallow repositories of minimal information).

Barking and Dagenham: Barking Park
Barnet: Golders Hill Park
Bexley: Danson Park
Brent: Gladstone Park
Bromley: Crystal Palace Park
Camden: Waterlow Park
City of London: Postman's Park
Croydon: Happy Valley Park
Ealing: Walpole Park
Enfield: Broomfield Park
Greenwich: Greenwich Park
Hackney: Clissold Park
Hammersmith and Fulham: Bishops Park
Haringey: Alexandra Park
Harrow: Canons Park
Havering: Bedfords Park
Hillingdon: Cranford Park
Hounslow: Gunnersbury Park
Islington: Caledonian Park
Kensington and Chelsea: Holland Park
Kingston: Manor Park
Lambeth: Brockwell Park
Lewisham: Beckenham Place Park
Merton: Morden Hall Park
Newham: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Redbridge: Valentines Park
Richmond: Richmond Park
Southwark: Dulwich Park
Sutton: Beddington Park
Tower Hamlets: Victoria Park
Waltham Forest: Lloyd Park
Wandsworth: Battersea Park
Westminster: Hyde Park

Top performing party in each London borough in the European Elections

16 boroughs preferred the Lib Dems.
13 boroughs preferred Labour.
4 boroughs preferred the Brexit Party.
No boroughs preferred the Conservatives, Greens or Change UK.

Lib Dem608,725 (27%)❁ ❁ ❁
Labour536,810 (24%)❁ ❁
Brexit Party400,257 (18%)❁ ❁
Green278,957 (12%)
Conservative177,964 (8%) 
Change UK117,635 (5%) 
UKIP  46,497 (2%) 

 Sunday, May 26, 2019

The (very) latest exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands is called Secret Rivers.

It's mainly about London's lost rivers, but several unburied rivers get a look in too, so best to think of this as a roomful of fluvial secrets. The Thames features early on, allowing the curators to present peculiar items mudlarked from the river, but then they dive on to the Walbrook, Fleet, Neckinger etc where your interest will be truly piqued. A bishop beating the bounds really did wear that unrecycled plastic cape. This three-hole wooden seat really was once used as part of a latrine above above the Fleet. That toy sailboat was actually recovered from former pleasure garden lakes in Chelsea fed by the Westbourne. And that Oscar-winning musical was indeed partly set in a rookery along the Neckinger.

A video wall featuring the Fleet sewer is the largest exhibit at the centre of the gallery, confirming the river's psychogeographic pre-eminence. On the back wall maps and posters from the Effra Redevelopment Agency and Tyburn Angling Society illustrate not-entirely-practical daylighting projects. Elsewhere an impressively large number of artistic interpretations have been included, including soundmaps, blurry films, over-exposed Polaroids and a blue ribbon that once threaded its way down the Walbrook. What's really nice about the exhibition is the eclectic selection of artefacts, that and the in-depth information posted up alongside.

As someone who's blogged a lot about lost rivers, I wish similar maps had been available years ago. Not only can you see where the Fleet, Tyburn, and Neckinger go, road by road, but there's also a huge map by the entrance displaying the whole shebang. Top tip - if you'd like to take a copy home it's printed on the back of the Top Trumps freebie, so make sure you never perforate the cards to play. Drop by sometime before the end of October, perhaps timing your visit for one of several events scheduled over the summer, including a special 'Liquid Late' this Thursday with special guest Ben Aaronovitch.

» Peter Watts' review
» Matt Brown's review
» The Guardian's review
» Tom Edwards' news item

unnamed stream
Southgate → Winchmore Hill (¾ mile)
[→ Hounsden Gutter → Salmons Brook → Lea → Thames]

London has so many rivers that some of them don't have names. This one used to be the Bourne,, before it was relandscaped and part buried, and has recently been partially daylighted. It runs through Grovelands Park on its brief journey through the N21 postcode. I never even knew it existed until yesterday, and now I've walked it. Didn't take long. [map] [map]

As usual the best clues are street names and contours, in this case a very obvious dip in Bourne Hill, which is the road connecting Southgate to Palmers Green. At the foot of the slope is a set of very impressive gates, donated by Lord Inverforth in 1925, signalling that the park beyond is no ordinary recreation ground. A wealthy brandy merchant called Walker Gray bought the estate in 1796, got John Nash to design him a house and Humphry Repton to lay out the gardens. His landscaping dammed the existing stream to create an ornamental lake, which survives, and that's probably why the former Bourne stream no longer has a name.

The lake is fed by several underground pipes, and also a tiny rivulet flowing down through the pitch and putt. Stop by at the clubhouse, which is actually a shipping container, for a £2 Ice Lolly or some £1.50 Microwave Chips. Don't expect to get inside the former mansion as that's now a private hospital, and has been known to house the occasional Chilean dictator. But the lakeside's good for watching swans, geese and other waterfowl, or picnicking near, and is also a good length for walking your dog round. The dam on the northern side is a 20th century addition, with an outflow that looks a bit like a bobsleigh run except you wouldn't get far sledging down a dozen concrete steps.

At the foot of the descent the water enters a proper wiggling earth-banked stream. The council have made this into an adventurous play area for children, complete with logs and trunks to scramble across, although apparently much of the original equipment has subsequently been removed for tedious health and safety reasons. And beyond that comes a buttercup-bordered boardwalk as the stream suddenly becomes muddier and shallower. Five years ago this 320m section was underground, but Enfield council decided to daylight it to create a sustainable drainage system which could intercept pollutants piped down from neighbouring streets and ease the risk of flooding. I would not have guessed any of this before I got home and did some research, so natural does it now look.

A culvert then leads the stream out of the park and underneath Church Hill, one of the oldest lanes in Winchmore Hill, before disappearing between the back gardens of two prime 1930s suburban avenues. Somewhere round the back of number 50 Broadfields Avenue our tributary merges with the brilliantly-named Hounsden Gutter, a short waterway of ancient provenance feeding in from the Oakwood direction. This too hasn't long to go before merging with the Salmons Brook up the side of Grange Park station, remaining dutifully out of sight so as not to lower the tone of this somewhat upmarket suburb. It might have been more fun to blog the Hounsden Gutter, but I suspect not quite so interesting.

 Saturday, May 25, 2019

Yesterday would have been Queen Victoria's 200th birthday, her death in 1901 not withstanding. I celebrated by going to the room where she was born, then visiting two places named after her.

Kensington Palace

This former country mansion has long been home to royalty, from William and Mary in 1689 to William and Kate today. It's therefore only right and proper that one of Britain's defining monarchs should have been born here, precisely 200 years ago, although nobody necessarily realised at the time.

Her father had been forced to marry in his fifties to try to maintain the line of succession, following the unfortunate death of his niece in childbirth. Duty done he made haste from Germany to Kensington Palace with his heavily-pregnant wife shortly before the birth. They picked a first floor room above the kitchens, ideally sited for the ready supply of hot water, and kitted it out with green drapes, a four-poster bed and a mahogany crib. And on 24th May 1819 Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born, right here, in a bedchamber now very much on the tourist trail.

Kensington Palace is owned by Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity which also manages Hampton Court and the Tower of London. Admission's not cheap, with a voluntary donation and guide book given the polite hard sell at the ticket desk. Wave an Art Pass and they grit their teeth and let you in for free. Three separate period trails lead off from the Stone Hall, one to wood-panelled Stuart treasures and one to amazing Georgian finery. These were of course splendid, but enjoying the Victorian offering was obviously the focus of my day.

Two fresh Victoria-related exhibitions opened yesterday, one focusing on A Royal Childhood, the other Woman and Crown. The childhood walk-through is located in the family apartments, and includes baby portraits, dolls houses and a full sized puppet theatre (offering regular seated performances), as well as nitty gritty details of her mother's controlling nature. This is where you'll find the room in which she was born, complete with replica furniture and a small silver plaque.

The post-1837 exhibition is an upgrade of rooms I've walked round before, now with a bit more emphasis on international affairs, specifically the Indian subcontinent. Victoria made friends with deposed Sikh princes, learned to speak Urdu and wrote in Hindustani in her diary, which I hope isn't too much of a spoiler for future ITV drama episodes. A London school have been let loose to write poetry to accompany some of the displays, providing some jolting balance lest you thought Empire and acquiring giant diamonds was all a good thing.

I confess I was expecting bicentenary day to be busier, and was pleased when it wasn't. I thought the palace would be making more of a fuss of the date, and was intrigued when they weren't. And I appreciated the opportunity to stand in the room where the royal umbilical was cut, 200 years on, and to reflect on the reverberating significance a single birth can bring.

Victoria Park

With the permission of the sovereign, an eponymous park was laid out across East End fields the 1840s. Generations have enjoyed its spacious acres... just not so many at the moment because a significant portion of the park is sealed off. This weekend and next see a takeover by the All Points East Festival, which is the only event left now that Field Day and Lovebox have skedaddled. A very long green fence has been erected with gates for intermittent access, and a village of music stages, food tents and entertainment foci erected within. And so, late on Friday afternoon, the revellers came.

Average age thirty-something, but with glittery teenagers and paunchy pre-retirees amongst them, the parade trooping up Grove Road stood out somewhat from the local demographic. Some clutched their last cheap drinks for several hours, others tottered on inadvisable heels. I'd like to have been joining them, having entered the Tower Hamlets' prize draw for a handful of daily tickets, and even had my May 24th choices sorted (Kate Tempest, Spiritualized, Hot Chip, Chemical Brothers), but unsurprisingly wasn't successful. Instead I got to listen to their distant thud from home throughout the evening, and smirked slightly when an unforecast heavy downpour drenched the lot of them.

Market Hall Victoria

This Victoria namesake is much younger, a mere six months, and is located in the former Pacha nightclub adjacent to Victoria bus station. It's one of those food halls that send Time Out into paroxysms of joy, essentially a streetfood lineup moved indoors and made permanent. The idea is that mates can turn up together and go off separately to pick their cuisine of choice, then return to sit at a tiny table before disposing of their trays and moving on elsewhere. In this respect it's exactly the same as the food court at a provincial shopping mall in the 1990s except more cramped, and almost all the dishes are foreign-sourced.

Don't expect pie and two veg. Instead plump for roti, tacos, udon, dim sum or pastrami, perhaps with a side of beef curry chips topped with salty satay peanuts. Admittedly one of the current eleven takeaway counters does specialise in fish and chips, but at £10.5 per portion they saw you coming. Market Hall Victoria is of course wildly popular, so expect to have to weave your way awkwardly through brunchers, lunchers or post-work diners with noodles in one hand and prosecco in the other. If you find the right swing doors at the back of the first floor you can ascend to the roof terrace for further seating and an outdoor bar, notionally also the perfect vantage point for bus spotting down below. Not that the clientele would be in any way interested, you understand, but the set-up at Market Hall Victoria is very much the direction of travel.

 Friday, May 24, 2019

It's been a torrid three years on the Gospel Oak to Barking line. The line closed for months for an electrification upgrade, which failed, forcing another year of intermittent rail replacement buses. Then new trains ordered to take advantage of electrification couldn't be put into operation because the software wasn't ready, then the existing trains disappeared because they'd been promised to other operators. Since March replacement stock has been running at half frequency and rail replacement buses have been running again, exasperating locals.

Finally yesterday, eighteen months later than originally planned, the first Class 710 train entered public service. The 11:36 from Gospel Oak to Barking set off packed with TfL staff, Overground personnel, Men Who Like Trains and accidental ordinary passengers. And about time. [photos] [video]

The new trains have four carriages rather than two, which is a big win. Inside is space for 700 passengers, but most of this is standing room, continuing the trend towards TfL interiors being mostly open space. Seats are longitudinal, like on the original orange Overground trains, but the doors and information systems are much more reminiscent of new purple Crossrail stock, from the buttons you press to the displays telling you what the next station is.

The moquette is orange and brown with a flash of green - the green to symbolise the train's energy saving credentials. It has 'intelligent aircon', which probably just means a thermostat, but the ambient temperature was more than welcome in yesterday's warm weather. The lighting's also cleverer than usual, brightening noticeably when we entered the tunnel east of Gospel Oak and dimming again after.

One significant innovation is that a significant number of the poster spaces above the seats are filled by electronic screens. These were circulating between public service information about the train's new facilities and a rather splendid roundel overlaid with date and time. How impressively eye-catching, I thought... before worrying that TfL's ultimate intention might be to show us video adverts while we travel, a future onboard dystopia which begins here.

Another first is the provision of USB charging points. These are located in the walls at the ends of the carriages, in pairs, making these the seats to aim for if your battery's low. USB charging may be new for Londoners, but let's not forget passengers aboard double decker buses shuttling between Midlands towns have been able to do this for years, so we're actually a long way behind.

Some of the maps above the doors show line diagrams, with zones printed in an uncharacteristically unobtrusive grey. As well as the 'Gospel Oak to Barking route', the other map is for the 'Watford Junction to Euston route' which will be the next to receive new trains. After that it'll be the Overground out of Liverpool Street, whose ageing trains desperately need replacement, but best not place any bets on exactly when.

Eight Class 710s are required to operate the Goblin, that's six in service and two spares, but currently only two are running. The stumbling block is driver training - a lengthy course which only a third of the line's drivers have so far completed, repeatedly delayed by the software taking so long to perfect. But two new trains is enough to plug several of the half hour gaps in the timetable, and eventually things will be back to a proper 15 minute frequency.

So hurrah, the Goblin is finally returning to a new improved normal, its capacity much increased and boasting the very newest trains on the network. This doesn't make up for years as the cursed child of the Overground empire, but TfL hope a month's free travel in September will ease the pain somewhat... so maybe come back then.

 Thursday, May 23, 2019

Last weekend a walkway in the Olympic Park was named Tessa Jowell Boulevard.

A lovely idea, following her death last year, in honour of her decisive contribution to securing and delivering the 2012 Olympic Games for London.

The newly-named boulevard runs down the southern half of the Park between the Stadium and the Aquatics centre. It's the broad path with the globe-shaped lanterns hung from trees, so about as prestigious as it gets. I spotted five TJB signs in total, either attached to fencing or 'planted' in the flowerbeds.

But then I spotted these.

These are signs attached to boulevards in the northern half of the park. They too have only just appeared, but this time they're proper street signs.

Essex Way is the broad path from the Timber Lodge cafe to the Velodrome on the eastern side of the river, and Middlesex Way is the broad path north from the traffic lights near the Copper Box on the western side of the river. These are also brilliant names because 100 years ago Essex Way would actually have been in Essex and Middlesex Way would actually have been in Middlesex, with the boundary running along the River Lea inbetween. These days the boundary between Hackney and Newham follows the river, but as heritage throwbacks Essex and Middlesex are perfect.
The sign for Middlesex Way shouldn't have a Newham coat of arms, it has been pointed out, because it's not in Newham.

The administrative trio is completed by London Way - a path from Here East towards the Velodrome which crosses the river via the Park's northernmost footbridge. It runs perpendicular to Middlesex Way and Essex Way, crossing both. London Way doesn't have any signs up at present, or none I've seen, but give it time.
On maps issued in 2012, London Way was the name given to what's now Tessa Jowell Boulevard, so presumably someone's had second thoughts.

Meanwhile several of the other bridges have also been officially named with official signs.

Eastcross Bridge is the other footbridge in the northern half of the park, slanted towards the Timber Lodge. Thornton Bridge is a lot further down, spanning the Lea at the non-functional end of the Aquatics Centre, and has been named after the railway sidings erased to make space for the Olympics. The Iron Bridge is a 20th century original, now painted purple, at the very southern end of the Park near the railway line.
The most important footbridge, the one which links Westfield to the Stadium near the Aquatics Centre, doesn't appear to have a name, so doesn't have a sign.

None of these Ways or Bridges are officially designated for road traffic, but each has been given a proper genuine E20 street sign. Meanwhile Tessa Jowell Boulevard is also traffic free, but hasn't been granted a proper genuine E20 street sign, just a scattering of small signs in some flowerbeds. Still a damned lovely idea, but not quite as impressive as it appeared at first sight.

I've been back to Hammersmith to see how the bridge closure bus changes are getting on.

Hammersmith bus station, stop K
The N782 tile has been removed and a proper N72 tile is in its place
The bus stop now has timetables for the new daytime routes
There are no new route maps (here or anywhere else)

Hammersmith Bridge Road, stop S
The 72 stops here but there is no tile to say so, only a 533 tile

Hammersmith Bridge
Now has a whopping big banner at one end promising that Hammersmith Bridge will be restored to full working order

Castelnau, stop K
Now has timetables for the new routes
Has no stewards to advise passengers who've walked across the bridge which bus to catch
Bus stop flag says "towards Barnes Pond or Putney" (this is mostly true)

Castelnau, stop J (just across the road)
Has no timetables for the new routes
Has two stewards to advise passengers who've just alighted from buses where to go next
Bus stop flag says "towards Barnes Pond or Putney" (this is entirely false)
Lady complaining to stewards that since they cut the 72 she has to take two buses to get to hospital

Mortlake - Putney Bridge, route 209
Formerly ran between Mortlake and Hammersmith (you may remember)
Map of route on TfL website is out-of-date
Service runs every 6 minutes, which is proving unnecessarily frequent
Maximum number of passengers seen aboard any 209 bus - two

On my 209 journey...
First passenger boarded in Mortlake - stayed on for two stops
Second passenger boarded in Mortlake - stayed on for two stops
Third passenger boarded in Barnes - stayed on for one stop
No further passengers from Mortlake or Barnes
Supposed length of bus journey - 18 minutes
Actual length of bus journey - only 12 minutes...
...but walk from final bus stop to Putney Bridge station - 5 minutes

 Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Norfolk isn't known for its hills, indeed global warming is predicted to take quite a chunk out of its eastern flank. The county's highest point is Beacon Hill near Sheringham at a mere 105m (or 344 ft), a figure even Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex can beat. But even Norwich has its hills, so while I was in the city on Monday I climbed some.

I'm not counting Castle Hill because that's artificial, knocked up by the Normans at the end of the 11th century. And I'm not counting Elm Hill, once voted one of Britain's top ten prettiest streets, because that's more a sloping cobbled relic than a proper full-on ascent. Instead I mean proper breathless uphill climbs, of the kind that my part of East London has absolutely none whatsoever.

There's Gas Hill.

Gas Hill lies a few streets north of the railway station, and is renowned in Norwich as the place where you practise hill starts. The road breaks off from the River Wensum opposite Bishop's Bridge and climbs steeply up the chalk escarpment, becoming narrower as it ascends. The pub at the bottom is called the Lollard's Pit after the execution site on which it was built - why not enjoy a pint of Fosters on the site where Queen Mary had dozens of religious protestors burnt at the stake?

The reason for Gas Hill's name used to be obvious further up on the right hand side. This was a giant disused gasholder, the last surviving feature of the city's gas works and a locally listed building. The council hoped developers would be able to incorporate it into a future housing development, but this proved unviable so this familiar feature on the Norwich skyline is to be replaced by a dozen or so flats. May 2019 marks the end of the dismantling project, and all I could hear behind the gates were the last vestiges of demolition.

There's Ketts Hill.

Technically Ketts Hill is exactly the same hill as Gas Hill, just a different (busier) road slightly further north. I've been driven down it dozens of times but never walked, so never slipped through the gate to visit the wooded ridge of Kett's Heights. The Kett in question is Robert Kett, a yeoman farmer from Wymondham who rallied fifteen thousand anti-enclosure protestors in the summer of 1549. They camped up here when taking over the city, holding out for a few weeks before the rebellion was quashed and Robert was hung from the walls of the castle. This is peak Norwich history, this is.

Kett's Heights was a 1980s attempt to open up a strip of historic hillside to the public, and has been dramatically improved since 2015 when a group of local volunteers took over. They cleared undergrowth on the terraces, tidied up the remnants of an old chapel and cleared trees to open up the view (although one remains in an awkward location part-obscuring the cathedral spire). Plainly visible are the castle, the thin clocktower of Norwich's City Hall and both cathedrals. I'd like to apologise to the retired couple on the bench beside the Armada beacon for interrupting their afternoon tryst.

There's St James' Hill.

This is a proper summit, though a small one, essentially a gorse-covered hump poking out from exactly the same ridge we were discussing earlier. You can access it by finding the small track behind the pub at the Ketts Hill roundabout, then scrambling up a sandy path that weaves through vegetation. Or you can drive - a big car park's been provided beyond the summit in front of an very imposing Victorian building. This was originally Britannia Barracks, home to the Royal Norfolk Regiment between 1885 and 1959, and is now occupied by Norwich Prison. I wondered why prisoners were outside drinking tea and eating cake, but it turns out the front terrace now operates as a social enterprise cafe for current and ex-offenders.

Inmates have the best view in the city, or would do if only they could see out. The unconfined can step out across the heath to a single bench at the optimum peak position and stare down. I stared lots. The spire of Norwich Cathedral dominates - at 96m the second tallest spire in England (which thankfully isn't quite enough to attract unwanted Russian tourists). If the council get their way it'll be joined by a single 20-storey residential block on the site of 70s shopping centre Anglia Square, tainting the skyline, but the government have called in this decision and the communities minister may not be so financially minded.

And there's Mousehold Heath.

Technically, again, this is just a continuation of much the same ridge overlooking the River Wensum. But Mousehold Heath is very much its own entity, an undulating 184 acre nature reserve to the northeast of the city. Originally it was treeless and stretched all the way to the edge of the Broads and was used as common land for grazing, but the rest became farmland or housing and this preserved chunk was taken over by broad-leafed woodland. At weekends it's a bit of a recreational magnet. On Monday afternoons the ice cream van waits in vain.

I'd been to the American diner at the heart of the heath before for a birthday meal but never ventured further up the hill into the trees (it was dark at the time, it wouldn't have been wise). And it was glorious, a proper woodland labyrinth with broad tracks plunging down into shadowy valleys and narrow paths weaving across sandy slopes littered with pine cones. I found the pond and the bandstand on my solo stroll but missed the old tram track. And rubbing up along more than one side I found rows of very ordinary houses with this wonderful resource on their doorstep, higher above Norfolk than you might imagine.

 Tuesday, May 21, 2019

For years East Anglians have been trying to make their trains run faster. A typical rail journey between London and Norwich takes about one hour fifty minutes, best case one hour forty-two, which does the region's economy no favours. So a decade ago the political imperative became "Norwich in 90", not because it was doable but because it sounded good, and the most recent franchise was awarded on the basis that it must happen. Since then track and signalling have been upgraded, new trains have been purchased... and yesterday Greater Anglia finally delivered. I took the 11am train to Norwich, and it took one and a half hours precisely.

The initial timetable looks unadventurous. Only two trains from Norwich to London take ninety minutes, and only two trains from London to Norwich. They start quite late. They tend to avoid peak hours. They only require a single train shuttling back and forth. They don't run on Sundays. And they only stop once along the way.

0900 Norwich
0933 Ipswich
1030 London Liv St
1700 Norwich
1733 Ipswich
1830 London Liv St
1100 London Liv St
1153 Ipswich
1230 Norwich
1900 London Liv St
1955 Ipswich
2030 Norwich

This timetable's brilliant if you happen to want to go all the way at the time the trains actually run, or if you're a politician wanting to claim a massive personal success. Several politicians, businesspeople and railway top brass were on board the very first train which left Norwich at 09:00 yesterday morning. They must have been delighted, and somewhat relieved, when it pulled into Liverpool Street two minutes early. Several grey-haired men looked very pleased when they hopped off for a lengthy photocall at the head of the train. London in 88, very impressive.

Most of the VIPs went straight back again in first class. I headed for second class and found an impressively underpopulated carriage. There shouldn't have been any classes because yesterday was also supposed to see the introduction of a brand new train set, the all-standard-class Class 755. But these four-car units aren't ready to go into service yet - a sadly familiar story - and were themselves an unplanned stopgap for longer, also-delayed, Class 745s. So Greater Anglia wheeled out their most reliable ageing workhorse Class 90 and prayed it wouldn't fail. It didn't.

We crossed the M25 in under 15 minutes. This is normal. We skated through Shenfield in 17 minutes. Slowcoach Crossrail's going to take 43. We skipped Chelmsford in 24 minutes and Colchester in 38. This train doesn't bother stopping in Essex because the sacrifice allows it to reach Suffolk and Norfolk quicker. The view was often gorgeous, with rippling fields of yellow rape, dense herds of cattle and a glistening tidal estuary. The gentleman sat in the seat in front of me read his railway magazine, filled in his notebook and unwrapped a buffet brunch.

We reached Ipswich in a highly impressive 52 minutes. Technically the doors were open and passengers were stepping onto the platform at 51 minutes 55 seconds, so I'm going to call that Ipswich in 51. I'm baffled why the chosen slogan is Ipswich in 60 when the outbound timetable shows the intended target is 55, but I guess marketing folk and politicians have a thing for round numbers because they reckon people remember them better.

The train departed Ipswich on time, accompanied by a previously unheard-of announcement stating we'd be "calling at Norwich only". Normally every northbound train stops at Diss, and maybe Stowmarket too, because economically it's a poor idea to run straight past 40 miles of intermediate population. In this case it's OK because the Norwich in 90 services are all extras, shoehorned into the existing half-hourly timetable as a bonus rather than a replacement. But this cunning fix has created additional pressures elsewhere... as we'll see later.

Just before Diss the train slowed, unnervingly, raising the possibility that we might not hit our target. A member of Greater Anglia's Engineering Team wandered down the aisle, because politically important trains require extra staff on board lest they be seen to fail. He wasn't needed. We returned to full whack and approached Norwich with the clock inexorably ticking. Four minutes to go, just crossing the outskirts. Two minutes to go, passing all the shiny new trains in the depot that were supposed to be operational by now but aren't. And absolutely bang on time (OK, maybe 20 seconds late but that's irrelevant) we pulled in beside the platform. Norwich in 90 achieved. A dozen careers saved.

And at 17:00 I was back on platform 2 to ride the second fast train of the day back to London. I should have been on platform 4 to ride the slower 17:03 to London instead, because that was scheduled to stop at Stratford and I'd actually have got home faster. Staff were really careful to announce that the next station was Ipswich and the only other station after that was London, but some passengers still overshot their intended destination so had to get out at Ipswich and grab another train back the other way.

Beyond Ipswich we were running bang on time, or fractionally early, strategically sandwiched between the train from Clacton and the train from Braintree. We zoomed through Stratford at 18:22, i.e. still eight minutes before our deadline, so all looked good. But towards Bethnal Green we slowed, and dammit stopped, then sat there at a red signal for six minutes and threw everything away. BBC Look East were livestreaming our arrival on local news, and the timing couldn't have been worse. I think the train in front of the train in front of us got delayed pulling into Liverpool Street, but that was enough to unravel everything and we only managed London in 97.

The last fast train of the day also failed, having started to lose time after Chelmsford and arriving into Ipswich four minutes late. On it went, inexorably catching up with the slower 18:30 departure which was running even later. The signallers then did something heinous, switching the slower northbound train onto the 'wrong' platform at Diss to allow the fast train to overtake, and simultaneously delaying the next southbound departure from Norwich. The overtaken train ended up being 15 minutes late, the overtaking train a less newsworthy five. Unsurprisingly you can't squeeze magic trains into a timetable without damaging the others.

So yesterday's final tally was London in 88, Norwich in 90, London in 97 and Norwich in 95. Two successes, two fails. Technically even London in 97 is brilliant, but when you play the simplistic targets game it's all too easy to brand wins as losses. Expect dozens more wins and losses as the service inexorably improves, and maybe by the mid-2020s Norwich in 90 will be the status quo rather than an unreliable ideal.

 Monday, May 20, 2019

Last month Hammersmith Bridge had to be closed to road traffic after safety checks revealed "critical faults". The bridge is 132 years old and built for elegance rather than strength, its decking comprising 999 square panels in various states of disrepair. Best not stare too carefully as you cross.

Previous emergency closures have been relatively short, whereas this latest closure is indefinite pending a proper funded plan. Walking and cycling across the bridge is still allowed, which is just as well, but motorists now face lengthy diversions via Chiswick Bridge or Putney Bridge.

Before the closure five bus routes crossed the bridge, providing an invaluable connection for Barnes residents otherwise hemmed inside a sweeping Thames meander. TfL responded with some temporary rejigging of routes, then launched a consultation on something more medium-term, then enacted those changes three days later. The 72 they curtailed to run only north of the river, the 33, 419 and 485 only south. The 209 was diverted to Putney Bridge instead of Hammersmith, linking to the tube being its raison d'être. And because the less mobile still need to be able to get across the river without walking they introduced a new route, the 533. I took a ride on the 533 on its first day, which was Saturday. It was an unexpectedly awful experience.

Here's a map showing roughly where all the rejigged routes go.

It's of very poor quality because I knocked it up in MS Paint, but simultaneously very much better than any map TfL have produced because they haven't produced one. In what follows, the lack of a coherent map will be a significant contributory factor.

Route 533: Hammersmith to Castelnau
Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes
In normal times: ¾ mile, 5 minutes

Route 533 runs every half an hour between Hammersmith bus station and Castelnau, Lonsdale Road - which is just the other side of Hammersmith Bridge. You could walk it in 15 minutes. The bus takes rather longer because it has to go the long way. Not everybody who gets on board realises this.

I turn up at Hammersmith bus station in time for an afternoon departure. I head to Bus Stop K in the lower bus station where about a dozen passengers are waiting. Amongst them are two young footballers, a pair of brownies in uniform and a mum with pink hair swigging an orange juice. I need to show you Bus Stop K, because it contains the worst tile infringement I've ever seen on a London bus stop.

There is no route N782, never has been, never will be. TfL don't run buses with numbers in the seven hundreds, let alone nightbuses - the bus in question should be the N72. And yet someone made a tile labelled N782, someone else installed it, and somebody more important failed to spot it shouldn't be there. If you need firm evidence that the team who organise TfL's bus operations have taken their eye off the ball, here it is.

A poster displayed inside the shelter shows which bus stop to use to board your bus, either here in Hammersmith or on the other side of the bridge. Two of the stops are called Bus Stop K, the one we're starting at and the one we're going to. One of the most useful stops doesn't have a letter. Two bubbles depict walks of 10 and 20 minutes respectively, which it turns out relate to thin dotted lines across the river. This is the sole reference to the bridge still being open to those on foot. I've seen far clearer explanations of complex situations.

A steward in an SFM tabard is waiting beside the stop to offer guidance if required. She's the only person who has a map of route 533, marked on a printout in blue highlighter, and also the only person who has a timetable. She's also very keen to warn people against boarding a 72 instead. "It's only going as far as Hammersmith Bridge," she shouts, four times, before the next number 72 departs.

In fact, assuming you're reasonably able-bodied, the 72 is easily the quickest way to cross the Thames. A one-stop hop takes you to Hammersmith Bridge Road, from which it's a two minute walk to the bridge and a further five minutes to Castelnau on the other side. As things turn out, anyone taking the 72 and walking would have saved themselves an hour on how long it'll eventually take, but instead the footballers and brownies and orange juice swiggers dutifully wait.

Every few minutes an announcement about Route 533 is made over the tannoy. I'll be hearing it several times while I'm waiting, so I'm pretty certain it goes like this...
"The Hammersmith Bridge is closed. The route 533 will run a shuttle service via the A4 towards Chiswick Bridge and continue the service towards the south side of Hammersmith Bridge via the Barnes area. For more details speak to SFM or TfL staff or visit TfL-dot-gov-dot-uk."
In the absence of a map or a timetable, this is the best explanation of route 533 any of us will be getting. Those with local knowledge, and who are actually listening, will realise that's quite a long way. But everyone else is just pleased there's a direct bus, a magic red box that'll transport them somehow across the river. And so they wait.

The incoming 533 arrives and lets off quite a lot of passengers. The driver does some tidying up, closes the door behind him and wanders off. The time of our scheduled departure passes, and "533     due" sits at the top of the electronic display for some considerable time.

Another member of staff wanders over and complains that she can't get into the ladies toilet. Our steward knows the door can be a bit stiff, so wanders off to provide assistance. While she's away a number 72 arrives and, because there's nobody to warn them, several people get on. Four get straight back off after the driver explains he's only going one more stop. These include the two footballers and their mum. "The 533 will be fine," she says, "it's only four stops." She's wrong, of course, it's going to be twenty.

The staff member who wanted the toilet turns out to be our bus driver. She boards the vehicle twelve minutes after it should have left and faffs around inside. Sorry, says the steward on her return, they've cancelled the quarter to and this is now going to be the quarter past. She also reveals she's been on duty since six this morning and won't be off shift until nine this evening. She's doing a sterling job.

Up rolls a member of British Airways flight crew with a peaked cap hung over the handle of his suitcase. He's making a call and his phone is still glued to his ear when a 72 pulls in, and on he gets. "It's only going to the bridge!" says the steward, repeatedly, following him onto the bus to try to press the point. But Peter the pilot isn't listening and heads off obliviously aboard the curtailed bus. Perhaps he cursed at the other end. Perhaps he got home quicker.

At last our 533 is driven over and on we get, sixteen of us in total. The driver doesn't go anywhere for five minutes, just sits there revving the non-Euro-VI-compliant engine. The footballers' mother walks forward to the driver's cab and waves the screen of her phone, keen to confirm that our bus will actually be going to her chosen destination. She returns reassured. According to the electronic display outside, the next 533 departs in 6 minutes. But this is rubbish, it's quarter past and off we go.

Our first stop is beside St Paul's church on Hammersmith Bridge Road. Anyone alighting here and proceeding on foot could be in Castelnau in under ten minutes. From there four different bus routes proceed through Barnes at regular intervals, which is easily the fastest option for several of those on board. But nothing at the bus stop mentions this, only an out of date map showing the previous temporary situation, and so a hockey player and a lady carrying a bunch of M&S dahlias climb aboard.

Beyond the flyover we ease onto the Great West Road and join three slow moving lanes of traffic. No other bus goes this way, only the 533. The iBus display is now showing that our next stop is at the Hogarth Roundabout, which is over a mile away. After a few minutes Footballers' Mum finally twigs that we're taking the scenic route to Barnes, and heads up to the front of the bus to show the driver her phone again. The driver uses hand gestures to reassure her, successfully, and back she sits.

Eventually we bear off the A4, and lose the traffic, speeding instead past the grounds of Chiswick House towards Chiswick Bridge. Traffic in the opposite direction looks somewhat clogged, so I don't rate the chances of any 533 heading back to Hammersmith. The view from the bridge is splendid. After fifteen minutes we have finally crossed the river Thames... but are now two miles away from the point we could have walked to in that time instead.

The Brownies and their mother alight outside the Stag Brewery in Mortlake, three quarters of an hour after they first turned up at the bus station. Further passengers alight on the riverside road towards Barnes, where we're now making good progress because traffic heading away from Chiswick Bridge is light. Towards Chiswick Bridge, not so good. I notice that every bus stop along the route has the same yellow poster to try to explain the latest changes. Unfortunately all it shows is where to board your bus on either side of Hammersmith Bridge, so out here it's no use whatsoever.

Waterfront Barnes is, as ever, gorgeous. It's also where buses on route 209 would normally head off down the High Street towards the heart of the village. Alas none of the newly-rejigged routes currently do this. Instead we head north along the riverbank, which provokes Footballers' Mum to make yet another trek up front to speak to the driver. Route 533 runs in a big clockwise loop round Barnes and Castelnau so the driver confirms yes, we really are going to the Red Lion. On foot from here it would only have taken ten minutes. Aboard our 533 it's going to take more than fifteen.

The next mile up to Castelnau is normally Hail and Ride on the 419, so is also designated Hail and Ride on the 533. The lady with the M&S dahlias spots this on the display and dings the bell at the appropriate point in the hope of getting off. Alas our driver has other ideas and ignores her, even sailing past a mysterious innovation I've never seen before - a bus stop labelled HAIL & RIDE. Admittedly its temporary sign was obscured behind a leafy tree and a school sign, so maybe she missed it. Further dings have absolutely no effect, so Dahlia Lady has to walk up front and urge the driver to obey instructions and stop. She departs huffily with an "And now I have to walk all the way back there!"

The next Hail and Ride dinger is equally unsuccessful, failing to alight at the traffic lights a short walk from the south side of Hammersmith Bridge. Instead she has to wait until we've swung round to an actual bus stop outside the shopping parade on Castelnau proper. At least 30 people are waiting on the pavement, but our driver doesn't open the front doors, merely closes the middle ones. Footballers' Mum is getting restless. The lady in front of me turns round with a look that says "what on earth is going on?"

I know what's going on, because I've spotted the light on the Oyster card reader has turned red. This stop is the so-called hesitation point on the 533's looping journey, the place where the driver has to stop and flip the blind. I've also seen the timetable online, so I know a) we're two minutes late b) we're only scheduled to wait here for a minute. Our driver decides to wait for four minutes... doors closed, engine running, passengers waiting, no explanation offered.

When the doors do finally open, many of the hordes boarding have questions for the driver. They're confused by a bus which says 'Hammersmith' on the front but is pointing away from Hammersmith Bridge. Our driver tells them yes she is going there, and yes Barnes Pond too, and in they pour. This is what happens on the first day of a new bus route when all the bus timetables and spider maps at a bus stop are out of date and the only information available is a small diagram showing where to catch your bus but not which way it goes.

We set off nine minutes late, rather than two, very much standing room only. Driving down Castelnau is a dream, there being hardly any traffic, this the advantageous consequence of closing a nearby bridge to all motor vehicles. We reach the Red Lion in a trice, which is where Footballers' Mum and her two strikers finally alight... 65 minutes after turning up at Hammersmith bus station. Lots of people alight with them, indeed most of the crowd who've only just boarded had no intention of going to Hammersmith, they merely wanted a lift to Barnes.

At Barnes Pond a lady waiting with a terrier engages with the driver, fails to receive an intelligible answer and reluctantly boards. She gets off a couple of stops later with an exasperated shrug, having not been carried to where she expected to go. This is also where the very last passenger from Hammersmith bus station alights, right at the end of the 533's loop, indeed we were barely 100 metres away twenty minutes ago. I think I've had enough too.

Unbelievably it's at this point that another 533 overtakes us. This shouldn't be possible on a route than operates every half an hour - we're not running that late - but it's happened all the same. The overtaking bus is almost empty. At least a dozen poor souls are still aboard our overtaken service, heading towards the queues at Chiswick Bridge and a lengthy detour. I wish them luck, and walk back to Hammersmith instead.

Sorry if that went on a bit, but I don't ever remember blogging a bus journey that was quite such a fiasco from start to finish. The rogue driver didn't help, but the main bone of contention was the 533 itself. It's a perfectly reasonable route in the circumstances, linking across the Thames as best it can for the benefit of those who can't walk across the bridge. What's unforgivable is how badly it's been explained, as the baffled public I met along the way so ably demonstrated.

A raft of changes hurriedly implemented. A bus stop tile depicting an entirely fictional nightbus. Bus stops with changed tiles but unchanged timetables. Spider maps still showing what buses stopped doing a month ago. Passengers told the destination of a bus but not where it actually goes. A map showing where to board your bus in Hammersmith stuck to every bus stop in Barnes and Mortlake. Maps of individual routes hidden within a consultation subpage but nothing showing how everything links together. And dozens of people wasting their lives aboard an infrequent indirect bus when they could have been told to walk across the bridge and catch their normal bus from there.

The team that coordinates and communicates changes to London's bus routes is an embarrassment. With dozens of big changes across Central London imminent, this is unlikely to end well.

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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my special London features
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