diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 30, 2019

  9am: Where to go on the hottest day of the year?
10am: I wonder which boroughs I haven't been to this month.
11am: Is anything on in Barnet, Redbridge or Richmond today?
  1pm: This way for the behind-the-scenes crematorium tour.

This is a post about what happens after you die, in case you'd rather go away and read something else.

We generally try not to think about our own death, hoping it'll be as far into the future as possible and can be achieved with a minimum of misery. Whenever it happens there'll be grief and mourning, and loose ends for others to tie up, and also a body to be disposed of. The older we get the more rehearsals for our own funeral we attend, sitting in muted rows listening to heartfelt tributes and watching the curtain close on a life well lived. But did you ever wonder precisely what happens round the back after the coffin rolls away, or might knowing ruin the air of respectful mystery forever?

Mortlake Crematorium opened in 1939 just upstream of Chiswick Bridge. A low Italianate building in brick, with Art Deco features, it's one of London's finer centres of despatch. At its heart is a memorial chapel surrounded by shady cloisters lined by innumerable memorial plaques. The gardens are gorgeous, especially at this time of year with the roses in full bloom and an aisle of lavender straight up the middle. But precisely what goes on at the rear of the building is sympathetically shielded, and yes that is a chimney, because this is simultaneously a place of work.

Yesterday's Full Circle Festival was held to celebrate the crematorium's 80th anniversary, and saw the site opened up to a variety of community groups, bereavement charities and related businesses. Somewhere out back was a "pop-up death cafe", an agenda-free space for open discussion. Out front were two dozen stalls and booths covering all aspects of mortality from hospice support to eco-coffins and from pet burials to organ donation. On the grass were several hearses, one pulled by a perfect pair of feathered horses, another part of a hireable motorbike and sidecar combo. Bottles of wine awaited the unfolding of a winning tombola ticket. A band played. Sausages grilled. The whole thing was eerily normal while simultaneously anything but.

And then there were the behind the scenes tours. Shuffling into the chapel for the opening talk felt quite familiar, the 'congregation' mostly on the old side, the 'celebrant' up front. We learned that the crematorium schedules 13 funerals a day, that any legal form of remembrance service is permitted and that the Compton organ isn't much called for these days. And at the end of proceedings we filed out, not via the rear doors as usual but through the small staff-only access to one side of the central hatch. I decided against taking photos of what lay beyond, although not everybody on the tour was so restrained.

The coffin doesn't roll straight out into a furnace once the curtains close, that's a myth. At Mortlake it doesn't roll out at all until the mourners have left, following certain unfortunate incidents with bodies heavier than the original mechanism was built for. The antechamber out back is merely a holding bay where the coffin is stored until the incinerators are ready, with space for four roller-topped trolleys up one end. Regulations state that bodies must be cremated with 72 hours, so a backlog can build up, but generally here they go to the flames no later than the following day. "Shall we go through?"

The business end of the crematorium features a wall with three large metal doors at shoulder height. One of these was open, revealing a long dark brick chamber within which thousands of southwest Londoners have been burned. An hour and a half generally does it, we were told, and then "that rake" is used to scrape the remains into a metal container underneath. What emerges are chunks of charred bone which are then ground up in a separate smaller machine to create the ashes relatives get to store, or scatter. Nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Chiswick's cremators were upgraded in 2013, the new machinery being more efficient than the old, so the chamber we'd been allowed to look into is now surplus to requirements. The other two work daily, each controlled via a computer touchscreen (which yesterday indicated a pre-heat time of 97 minutes and an internal temperature in the mid-300s). The new system also filters out a lot more pollutants, which is why you never see a plume of black smoke rising from the chimney any more. I confess I did surreptitiously wonder which of the three chambers Margaret Thatcher had combusted in, but thought better of asking.

And yet turn and face the other way and this is just another working environment. Pinned up on a notice board are risk assessments, professional certificates, shift times and holiday entitlements. An old wooden shelving unit is used to store gloves, helmets with heat-resistant visors and a range of cleaning products. Gary's hi-vis jacket rests over the back of a chair. Imagine doing this for a job, day in day out, from seven in the morning. Our guide told us that those who work in front of house with the mourners also work out back, which helps them to connect more respectfully to the departed.

Pacemakers must always be removed before cremation, else they might explode, whereas hip joints and knee replacements are removed afterwards and recycled. The Dutch company that organises the recycling had turned up for the open day with a display table of charred joints and promotional stationery, which visitors pored over with interest. The scheme has raised almost £10m for UK bereavement charities over the last decade, we were told, and only five NHS authorities don't (yet) take part.

The irony of visiting a crematorium on the hottest day of the year wasn't lost on me. But opportunities to see behind the scenes at such a facility don't come round very often, and next time I'm sitting in a chapel waiting for the curtains to close I'll have a far better idea of what comes next. Indeed I probably spent yesterday afternoon staring at my own destiny - boxed, incinerated, swept and crushed - but at a considerably lower temperature than next time round.

 Saturday, June 29, 2019

Tower Bridge is 125 years old tomorrow. A 125th isn't the greatest anniversary, but it is the best we're going to get before 2044 so definitely something to make a fuss of.

To celebrate, the admission fee's been slashed this weekend to £1.25 rather than the normal £9.80 (queues permitting). And while that's brilliant, I've just visited for £1 and I can do that any day of the week... as can half a million other Londoners. The lucky folk are residents of Tower Hamlets, Southwark and the City of London who can simply turn up and wave photo ID and proof of address in exchange for a special Community Ticket. Full details are here. A photocard driving licence is good enough all by itself. Which is how on Thursday morning I simply walked in and paid my quid, no queues whatsoever.

Everyone knows Tower Bridge, a structure that can justly be called iconic. It took eight years to build, the result of a design competition requiring a bridge with sufficient headroom for ships to clear the Pool of London. The successful architect was Sir Horace Jones - it was his bicentenary last month - and the chief engineer was Sir John Wolfe Barry. Their bascules still rise today, rather less frequently than originally envisaged, and sight of a boat sailing through still turns heads as well as stopping the traffic. If you ever need to impress a visitor to London, a list of lift times is maintained here.

I do wonder how many people are aware it's possible to go inside Tower Bridge and walk across the top. Entrance is from the foot of the north tower on the side facing the Tower of London (another Tower Hamlets £1 treat). The lift up to the top of the tower is very large, and also very slow (and also very much safer than it was ten years ago when it accidentally crashed). You emerge into a large upper chamber where all the ironwork's painted brown, because that was the original colour 125 years ago. Hang around and you can watch some footage of the bridge in operation from 1903, plus various contemporary street scenes. A lot of tourists don't hang around for the full loop.

And then you head out across the East Walkway. There are two of these, doubling up as supports to keep the two towers in balance, originally used as pedestrian passageways in the days when the bridge was open more than it was closed. The hike over the top was never popular so they were shut off in 1910, then reopened for tourists in 1982 in slightly more weatherproof form. Each is used now as an exhibition space, with panels of facts along the latticed walls and the occasional video to stop and watch.

Oh, and the centre of each walkway also includes a glass floor. These were added in 2014 for a bit of extra wow, and are strong enough to support half a dozen elephants let alone several tourists. If you're really not comfortable walking on the glass then there is a narrow solid section to either side, but most people go the whole hog and walk down the middle. Look down and you might see a bus or a queue of cars, or maybe a barge full of refuse containers pootling downriver. I don't always like heights but crossing the top of Tower Bridge was absolutely fine.

The West Walkway is more of the same, but with a different view. One brilliant thing is that the glass walls have tiny opening windows for pointing cameras out of, rather than being forced to shoot through something smudged and/or reflective. On a sunny afternoon the view downstream will be less dazzling. I went on a sunny morning and upstream was sharpest, from City Hall and the Shard [2007] [2019] round to St Paul's, the Gherkin and the Tower [2007] [2019]. London has many other observation decks these days, but only here are you slap bang in the middle of the River Thames 40 metres up, and that's a winner.

The top of the south tower is more cavernous, with a view upwards through a hole past a team of dummy workmen. This time the film tourists don't hang around to watch features a day in the life of Tower Bridge. Instead they're off down the stairs, because this time you get to negotiate the descent on foot and get a better feel for how municipal the pedestrian crossing used to be. A few levels down you reach a larger chamber, still well above the street, and from there everyone's corralled into another lift. What's odd about this elevator is that when the doors open at the bottom you walk straight out onto the bridge span rather than any associated building.

We're not done yet. Follow the blue line on the pavement down the steps and onto the south bank to find the Engine Rooms. So long as you've kept your ticket from earlier you can look round chambers housing original machinery with steamy valves and oiled flywheels from the days when an army of workers were need to keep the bridge in operation. Their stories are told in a later section, and told well, assuming you have the patience to wait and the language skills to read. And finally of course you exit through the gift shop, where a range of 125th anniversary souvenirs can be found dotted amongst more touristy treats.

In short, every Londoner really ought to experience the interior of Tower Bridge at least once, rather than leaving it solely as the preserve of international clientele. And residents of Tower Hamlets, Southwark and the City of London really have no excuse for not visiting... just don't squeeze yourselves in this weekend for 25p extra.

 Friday, June 28, 2019

How many pubs are there in London?

There is an official answer, and the official answer is 4098.

The data was compiled by CAMRA and released this week as part of a glut of data in the Mayor's Cultural Infrastructure Toolbox.

There's even an official definition of what a 'pub' is.
Licensed premises must be open to and welcome the general public without requiring membership or residency, allow free entry¹, serve at least one draught beer², allow drinking without requiring food to be consumed, have at least one indoor area not laid out for meals, and permit drinks to be purchased in person at a bar³, without relying on table service.
¹ Except when entertainment is provided on limited occasions
² Includes cask or keg beer
³ Includes also a hatch or specific service point
And because there's a database with all 4098 pubs in, I can do some research.

» The A-Z of London pubs are the Abbeville in Clapham and Zubi in Holloway.
» Geographically the most extreme pubs are the Plough in Crews Hill (north), the Old White Horse in North Ockendon (east), the Fox in Old Coulsdon (south) and the Old Orchard in Harefield (west).
» Two pubs have solely numerical names - 19:20 in Finsbury and 182 in Wembley.
» The highest numbered pub is the 7000 Jars of Beer in Kingston.
» London's most common pub name is the Prince of Wales (there are 26).
» Across London there are 12 Black Horses, 12 White Horses, 16 Coach & Horses, 23 Crowns, 16 Rose & Crowns, 32 Duke of Somethings, 58 Prince Somebodys, 20 King's Arms, 15 King's Heads, 16 Queen's Heads, 19 Red Lions, 20 Royal Oaks and 1 Fat Walrus.

In particular, I thought I'd take a look at how many pubs there are in each London borough. The results were predictable, but also surprising.

Boroughs with the most pubs
• Westminster 457
• Camden 270
• Islington 243
• City of London 215
• Southwark 208

Of course Westminster comes top, of course it does. Not only is it one of the oldest parts of the city, it also contains the West End where Londoners, nay the world, come to play. Some distance behind are Camden and Islington, and blimey look how many pubs there are in the tiny City of London, again thanks to historical longevity and financial services being very thirsty work.

Boroughs with the fewest pubs
• Barking and Dagenham 29
• Redbridge 45
• Sutton 52
• Merton 55
• Newham 59

Barking and Dagenham has a shockingly low number of pubs, barely 10% of what Camden enjoys, and is well behind Redbridge in second-to-last place. Three of the bottom five are in outer East London, indeed every London borough formerly in Essex comes in the bottom ten. The other low zone is to the southwest.

The spread of London's pubs may be best shown with a map, so here's a map.

The purple and reds are boroughs with over 200 pubs, the four oranges near the centre are the 150-200s, and the two lightest shades of yellow cover all the boroughs with fewer than 100.

Ah, you may be saying, but some boroughs are bigger than others. I can adjust for this by calculating how many pubs there are per 10,000 residents.

Pubs per 10,000 residents
247: City of London
18: Westminster
10: Camden, Islington
7: Hammersmith and Fulham, Richmond, Southwark
6: Hackney, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth
5: Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth
4: Kingston, Hillingdon
3: Greenwich, Bexley, Hounslow, Brent, Bromley, Lewisham, Haringey, Ealing, Croydon, Havering, Merton, Harrow, Sutton
2: Waltham Forest, Enfield, Barnet, Newham
1: Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham

The City has a very small population, with one pub per 40 residents, should they ever all decide to go drinking at the same time. Richmond is the only Outer London borough to appear near the top of the list, and Lewisham the least-served in Inner London. The sweet spot appears to be 3 pubs per 10,000 residents - a typical suburban total. And again the lowest numbers are to the north and east of the capital, with Redbridge and Barking & Dagenham only providing one pub per 7000 residents.

The reasons for this spread are a complex mixture of centrality, history, economics and culture. It's not just how near the middle you're located, how old your communities are, how wealthy your population is, nor how many residents don't drink alcohol because of their religion, although these are all contributory factors.

Barking and Dagenham suffers because much of it is sprawling interwar housing estate where the building of pubs was discouraged. Most of its 29 surviving pubs are around Barking town centre or in Chadwell Heath, with Dagenham and the remainder of the borough far less well served. There are also developmental factors. According to a council report, half the pubs lost in the borough over the last few decades have become residential properties and a quarter have become supermarkets.

I can see where my local pubs are on another brilliant aspect of this project, the Cultural Infrastructure Map. Here are all the pubs round Bow, for example.

The interactive map will also allow you to view skate parks, scheduled monuments, museums, dance studios, libraries, LGBT+ night time venues, community centres, legal street art walls and music recording studios, to name but a few. It's not recommended for use on mobile devices, sorry. But the combined map/database toolbox is a truly splendid resource, specifically aimed at those trying to knit together community facilities, but also fascinating for the rest of us to explore. Perhaps over a beer.

 Thursday, June 27, 2019

NATIONAL TRUST: St John's Jerusalem
Location: Sutton at Hone, Kent DA4 9HQ [map]
Open: 2-6pm, Wednesdays only (April-October only)
Admission: £2.80
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/st-johns-jerusalem
Four word summary: Hospitaller's chapel (and gardens)
Nearest station: Farningham Road
Time to allow: about half an hour

You can draw certain conclusions about a National Trust property by the entrance fee it charges. Over £15, likely rambling and impressive. St John's Jerusalem on the other hand is a sub-£3 property, and what's more you can only get inside on a Wednesday afternoon. It's located in the Darent Valley, a delightful landscape south of Dartford, and barely three miles from the edge of Greater London. The Knight Hospitallers established themselves here in the late 12th century, using the site to help to fund the Crusades, and built a chapel in the early 13th. Only this chapel survives, and whilst that's impressive for west Kent it's only £2.80-worth of impressive.

I managed to walk almost all the way round St John's Jerusalem before finding the way in, not least because the National Trust's 'How to get here' webpage is pitifully basic. But you won't miss the entrance if you walk in from the station - it's on the main road just past TJD Models and Keely Marie's Beauty Bar. Beyond the main gate is an unexpected Deer Park with a moat at the centre, as if this were the most normal front garden in the world, with the main house secured behind a cattle grid. I can't guarantee that the property's cat will come out and greet you as you arrive, but she came out and greeted me.

The main building is something of a hybrid, having been upgraded over the centuries by several owners. One spent so much on the house he went bankrupt and got sent to debtors prison for five years, but not before he'd written an entire history of the county of Kent. The further you walk along the building the older it looks. One end's a family home, the lucky tenant appointed by the National Trust getting to live on site uninterrupted for the other six days of the week. Then brick morphs into flint and that's the end with the chapel. There being no ticket booth, gift shop or cafe, this is where visitors are asked to head first to pay up. Again I can't guarantee the cat will turn up, but here she is again.

The chapel may be old but it's certainly not unadulterated. A Victorian owner divided it in two by adding floorboards, creating a scullery below and a billiard room above. All you'll be seeing is the upper chamber, so the windows were originally much deeper, the door was elsewhere and the 'altar' would have been several feet lower. Bursts of information scattered around the room partly help visualise how things once were, as do a handful of recreated relics, but the bare walls lend an ambience that's inescapably 'church hall' rather than crusadery. Photography's not permitted, so I can only show you the exterior... and direct you to a single image on the official website.

This leaves the gardens to walk round, excluding the chained-off private family chunk. Riotous beds line the path to the river, off which is a walled orchard with a couple of benches. Having brought a book with me, I paused and finished off a chapter. Elsewhere are a large lawn, a straggly rose border and a waterside path curving round to the Cedar of Lebanon by the footbridge. I spotted a couple of gardeners keeping the place in trim, but it's not the kind of pristine plot where every specimen has a bilingual label, just a more-than-pleasant £2.80.

Ten things I spotted during my hour-long walk down the Darent Valley
A lunchtime crowd outside The Lion, downing ales and spirits.
» The rippling river, and three lads come to angle it.
» The underside of the M20, propped up by jagged concrete slabs.
» A brookside bank of bright red poppies.
» Horton Kirby Cricket Club, its outfield immaculately cut.
» Butter-, horse- and dragon-flies.
» Three stems of Himalayan balsam which last Saturday's working group failed to clear away.
» A lofty viaduct above the beer garden of a pub run by a former wrestler.
» A tall brick chimney, dated 1881, part of a former paper mill (now 200 homes and a Co-Op supermarket)
» A row of retired gentlemen and their cars, hatchbacks open, each with a model aircraft lined up ready to take off for a low buzz above a cornfield.

 Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A new artwork has been unveiled at Farringdon station this week.

Hang on, are you sure? I haven't seen a press release. News doesn't just 'happen' without there being a press release. Let's not be too hasty here.

It celebrates the work of typographer Edward Johnston who created the typeface used across London's transport network.

Can we insert the word 'iconic', please. Also, shouldn't that be font, not typeface? Trust me, I know my stuff.

It's located on the upper passageway leading to the Turnmill Street entrance, where it stretches along one wall.

Hang on, how do you know this? We don't pay you to leave the office, your job is to sit here and scrape incoming emails for impactful content. Please stop wasting your time on original research.

That means most everyday commuters won't ever walk past, so you may have to go out of your way to find it.

Excellent, we're got a secret on our hands. Let's put it out on Twitter using the copy 'Have you spotted the tube's newest secret artwork?'

Art on the Underground commissioned art studio Fraser Muggeridge to create this very special tribute.

But there's no mention of it on either of their websites, so maybe it didn't happen.

The work is made from 33 giant wooden letters, reversed to create the impression of a line of type ready for the printing press.

Even I know the alphabet contains 26 letters. Please check your work before sending.

It may take a second glance to reveal the message concealed within.

Hang on, there's more than one 'o'. Did they make a mistake or something?

Several VIPs turned up for the unveiling on Monday,

You mean there are actual photos of this event circulating on social media? For heaven's sake, why didn't you just cut and paste several of those into your article and be done with it?

Former tube boss Sir Peter Hendy was amongst those who attended.

I think we've gone over the word limit now. Our readers will be switching off.

Why not pop down to Farringdon and take one for the 'gram?

Better, but needs a pun to finish it off. Then can you get back to writing that afternoon tea review, thanks.

 Tuesday, June 25, 2019

For political balance, today's walk crosses Boris Johnson's constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip. I went out and followed a road I've had my eye on for a while - Charville Lane - a straightish alignment which stretches for three miles across open country from Hillingdon to Northolt. I thought it might be a) interesting b) historic c) pleasant. It was not. But join me anyway.

The journey begins in Hillingdon, that's Hillingdon proper, the place not the borough. For those who know the area, I started near Hillingdon Fire Station on the Uxbridge Road, specifically the grassy gap beside the BP garage on Long Lane. Through the trees are the first houses on Charville Lane West, a line of understated postwar detached houses facing a stripe of freshly-mown greensward. The Girl Guide hut opens weekly for martial arts classes. Streetlamp columns are originals but with modern LED lamps pointing sustainably downwards. One of Hillingdon's CCTV camera-towers watches over the drop-off zone outside the primary school, then an alleyway skirts the edge of Swakeleys School's playing field. It won't be getting any busier than this.

Charville Lane proper begins on the other side, once a mile-long country lane serving a single farmhouse, now the speedbumped spine road of an oddly-isolated estate. These semis got built just before the Green Belt preserved everything around them, so residents live in a bubble linked to the nearest supermarket by a half-hourly bus. The south side of the lane is all farmland, mostly hay or paddock, and entirely inaccessible beyond barbed wire. A future Mayor might one day bend the rules to build here, you could easily fit in a thousand homes, but for now a lacklustre buffer zone remains.

No expense was wasted to build the Charville Community Centre and Social Club, a breezeblock box knocked up in 1984, now home to regular cuppas and intermittent bingo, ballet and tap. As the lane continues the houses look like they'd be more at home in the countryside, for which read Little Englands with the contents of a garage spread across the front garden, until eventually things go full-on rural. A container of animal feed has been placed by the roadside. Twin ditches contain flytipped sacks Hillingdon's CCTV cameras failed to prevent. A few ponies stare through a metal fence behind a gate. To one side is a large meadow dogowners can corral their charges around, resplendent with kneehigh summer grasses. And ahead is the river that's helped stunt development hereabouts for centuries.

The Yeading Brook has wound its way past Northolt Aerodrome and will soon be entering the suburb that gifted its name. Only residents of the farmhouse at the end of the lane can drive across, and until a separate crossing was built in 1986 it wasn't possible to continue further. For some reason it's called the Golden Bridge, despite resembling a segment of concrete piping. What follows is a dogleg bridleway round the back of the farm's outbuildings, which I bet sounds nicer in your head than in real life, connecting up to another defunct country lane with an almost familiar name.

This is Sharvel Lane, once a cart track past a moated manor house, now a private dead end that happens to be a public footpath. It could be charming were it not for the protracted expanses of desolation to either side, one severely gated, the other levelled by JCBs. The area looks like a dump, not aided by stashes of parked lorries and the backside of a farmyard, but is in fact a full-on luxury haven. To the right is the West London Shooting School, which started out on the site of the Hoover Building in Perivale and moved here in 1931. This 100-acre Northolt pad contains several rifle ranges, clay pigeon courses and a 'running boar', plus gun room and ultra-traditional restaurant, all politely concealed from view. Mondays to Saturdays, tweed caps, plus 4s and corporate clients de rigeur. Sundays, not a whimper.

Meanwhile to the left are 100 unused acres, part scraped by JCBs and part lowly piles of soil ablaze with wild flowers. It looks ideal for housing, but this is also Green Belt so that's not allowed, and it turns out the site's destiny is to be an 18 hole golf course. According to director Ceri Menai-Davis, "West London Links is a bold, brave design pushing the boundaries of what is possible as regards sculpting a golfing landscape, with dramatic shaping which UK golfers have not seen before at an inland links." Come back next summer and the whole waste of space should be playable. In my opinion there should be rules against this kind of thing, but instead those rules are very much in favour.

The company that owns the future golf course owns another 9-holer across Ruslip Road, which is bad news for anyone hoping to follow the public footpath ahead. It's part of the Dog Rose Ramble, an 8 mile loop that gained custom at the start of the century and has since faded into obscurity, to the point that nobody cares that both of its fingerposts point the same way. The path vanishes through brambly scrub up the side of the clubhouse and emerges beside the driving range, close to the paying players' push-button exit. Normally a golf course grudgingly accepts that the public have a right of access, but the five-year-old West London Golf Centre admits to nothing and you're unlikely to find the egress on the far side. One narrowly-missed golf ball and I retreated.

Sometimes a line on a map is a treat, but Charville Lane was uninspiring and Sharvel Lane something of a trial. In the battle of the constituencies, Hunt plainly beats Johnson.

 Monday, June 24, 2019

About halfway between Portsmouth and London, precisely where a road builder wouldn't want it, stands Gibbet Hill. The first road linking the port to the capital headed over the summit, which didn't make for an easy trip and encouraged lurking highwaymen. In 1826 a new route was taken, slightly below around the rim of a huge depression called the Devil's Punchbowl. This was scenic but impractical, and until recently was the sole section of single-carriageway on the A3 and a notorious bottleneck. So the government grasped the hyper-expensive option and bored a tunnel under the hill instead, allowing traffic to dive underneath with ease and the original road to be returned to nature. It's a bit of a triumph. [9 photos]

The National Trust own most of the land around Gibbet Hill, such is the environmental value of the landscape. They kept a tiny stump of the old A3 for access to their cafe and car park, but the remaining hundreds of acres are absolutely premier walking territory. An excellent free leaflet provides details of six different trails, from a gentle mile up to the summit to a 'demanding' six mile circuit, so there's no excuse for inactivity. But most visitors appear to do the short one, or merely hang around by the cafe because that's got fantastic views over the punchbowl so why go further? I went further.

I started with Gibbet Hill itself, because that's the second highest hill in Surrey and not to be missed. The name commemorates the tale of a sailor tricked into coming this way by three drinking companions who promptly murdered him, but ended up caged and dangling here as a show of local justice. A Celtic Cross stands on the site of the scaffold, and a smaller Sailor's Stone slightly further down. Stand by the trig point at the peak (272m) and the view to the northeast is outstanding, including Leith Hill (294m) on the Greensand Ridge and central London as a series of grey geometric spikes on the horizon. I marvelled at being able to distinguish between skyscrapers at a distance of 40 miles.

Not far below is the swoosh of the former A3. It hugs the edge of the punchbowl, bending sharply and descending gently, and is still plainly visible as a curving terrace. No attempt has been made to plant it with trees, merely to return it to a grassy path, which at this time of year shimmers with a glorious yellow carpet. Look closer and you'll see it's mostly birdsfoot trefoil, abuzz with bumblebees, mixed in with lush grasses and intermittent speedwell. It's amazing to think that only ten years ago cars and lorries thundered through, indeed I've been driven round the bend here numerous times, but now it's a haven to nature.

I couldn't visit without dropping down into the punchbowl itself, despite the fact that almost nobody else seemed to be doing so. The track looked innocuous to start with, then turned and dipped sharply into the great depression, and kept on heading down. Legend tells how the punchbowl was created by the Devil scooping up a handful of earth to hurl at Thor, who lived nearby, but in reality it formed when chalk streams undermined the upper layer of sandstone which collapsed. On the walk down you can still spot the level where the soil underfoot changes from sand to chalk.

One side of the basin is open heathland, the other thickly wooded, with an abundance of wildlife and a boggy stream braiding through. I managed to keep my boots mostly dry crossing the latter, but I hate to think how much of a quagmire it might be during the winter months. I was also surprised by the narrowness of some of the paths, and how few paths there were, making even a short circuit a navigational challenge. And all the time I was thinking "if it took this long to get down, how knackering is it going to be to slog 100m all the way back up?", and it very much was.

Exploring elsewhere, I revelled in the solitude of stepping even fractionally beyond the main trails. I loved yomping across the heights of Hindhead Common following elevated heathland trails, even if the best views were cropped behind a ferny fringe. I detoured to cross a green bridge across the mouth of the Hindhead Tunnel, built to ensure animals can still cross the valley. And on the hour-long trek to/from Haslemere station I stumbled upon numerous cottages and mansions tucked away up dead-end lanes amid a deeply grooved verdant landscape. Oh to have the dosh to live in hideaways like these.

Haslemere is a highly desirable and attractive town, it turns out, located in the far southwest corner of Surrey. The main street is broad and climbs past timbered buildings to a war memorial and the old town hall. The mayor's latest wheeze is an art display comprising 100 decorated dogs, the Haslemere Hounds, positioned on and in front of innumerable shops and businesses. The post office is to be found, temporarily, at the back of an off-licence. A fair spread of disposable income is evident, with outlets offering Curated Living, Complementary Health and Versatile Ceramics. But then we are within the constituency of the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and local residents are very much the type who'll be voting for our country's next leader.

I must also mention Haslemere's award-winning museum which, for a town of fifteen thousand residents, hits far above its weight. It grew from a Victorian surgeon's private collection and focuses more on the wider world than the town itself, but always with a local nod. Its three long galleries major on geology, the natural world and human history, including an actual meteorite, Arthur the stuffed bear and an Egyptian mummy with its toes showing. I particularly enjoyed the corridor lined by labelled specimens of wild flowers, freshly picked. Not for nothing is it called Haslemere Educational Museum (but it does cost nothing to get in).

 Sunday, June 23, 2019

On popular social media, like Instagram, this would have been a full day's prime content.

Blogging is time-consuming, inefficient and outdated.

I genuinely didn't think London would be visible at this distance.

I had to stand and stare for several minutes, just to imprint it on my memory.

I saw this enormous fungus on a tree trunk while out walking yesterday.

It looked amazing, but now I realise there's nothing in my photo to give a sense of scale, so you're not really getting the full effect. Size of a stack of dinnerplates, or maybe a pile of pizzas. Never seen one quite like it.

You get a very different sort of commuter at Waterloo in Royal Ascot week.

Heels and hats, toppers and tails, handbags and hampers.

 Saturday, June 22, 2019

Yesterday - not in a press release but in a letter - the Deputy Mayor for Transport announced that the proposed Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf bridge has been put on hold.
"I am writing to inform you that today the Programmes and Investment Committee has agreed that TfL should pause development work on proposals for a walking and cycling bridge between Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe."
This is of course dreadful news, trashing long-held dreams of enhancing sustainable travel.
"Despite considerable effort to minimise the costs of a bridge at this location, the sheer scale and complexity of the engineering solution that would be required means it is currently unaffordable. The current midpoint cost estimate for the scheme is £463m, within a range that means final costs could be over £600m. This compares to a £350m allocation in the current TfL Business Plan. The bridge is therefore unaffordable in the short to medium term, particularly in the context of TfL’s wider financial challenges."
Basically, there's no money. But this bridge would also have been in a really awkward place, namely East London. The River Thames has to be navigable by sailing ships and superyachts upstream as far as Tower Bridge, so it's simply not possible to build an ordinary span. Instead TfL's project team have been forced to consider swing bridges, lifting bridges and bascule bridges, and these are all really expensive options. Given that nobody's ever managed to build a bridge across the Thames in East London, it shouldn't be a surprise when another one bites the dust.

But the project's not dead.
"The committee has concluded that the project should revert to the feasibility stage of development where strategic alternatives, such as a ferry service, can be reassessed."
All that's really happened is that TfL are jumping back a stage to a consultation they ran in November 2017 which presented several options for a river crossing. Back then 85% of respondents preferred the option of a navigable bridge, but now TfL are telling us they've costed it and can't afford it so let's choose again.
"Looking forward, it is my hope that we are able to develop a ferry option that is more affordable as a short to medium-term way of providing the walking and cycling connectivity that is needed at this location. TfL will be assessing all options for a ferry service, including a roll-on/roll-off style service using electric or hybrid vessels. This would be considerably cheaper than building a lifting bridge, and the service could be up and running more quickly."
A ferry's never going to be as good as a permanent bridge, but it's a lot better than nothing. So here's the bit I don't get.


The service is run by Thames Clippers and has the designation RB4. The operating vessel is a lot smaller than the rest of their fleet, but can still carry 120 passengers. The boat's called Twinstar and was originally built in 1976 to carry Ford employees between car plants in Dagenham and Belvedere. The ferry's quite well used, in both directions, or it was when I popped down yesterday afternoon. But it's also poorly advertised, on one bank entirely hidden behind a hotel and you're unlikely to stumble upon it by mistake.

I couldn't spot a single sign outside the Doubletree Hotel in Rotherhithe Street alerting potential passengers that a ferry service operated from here. There were also no signs up the front staircase, no signs in the front courtyard and no signs by the front door. Only on the far side of reception was there a proper printed notice, plus a digital screen, in front of another door out to a rear terrace and beyond that a covered walkway to the pier. As public transport interchanges go, it's astonishingly low key. There again, the Doubletree Docklands Ferry exists only because the Hilton pays for it to be here, and they graciously allow non-guests to use the service too.

It's not cheap. The three minute crossing costs a mammoth £4.80, reduced to £4.40 if you use Oyster or contactless, making it even more expensive than the cablecar. The fare drops to £3.20 should you have a Travelcard, but only bona fide hotel guests travel for free. The fare shot up in 2015 when zonal travel was introduced on river services, and a quick hop across the river became as dear as a seven mile voyage down to Woolwich. You'd be £2 better off heading back to Canada Water and taking the tube to Canary Wharf instead, except the Jubilee line doesn't take bikes, and there's the rub.

Also, the weekday timetable's got great big holes in it. No boats run between 11am and noon, or between 9pm and 10pm, so it's not exactly a turn up and go service. These gaps allow staff to take rest breaks, which is important, but they also allow the operator to employ fewer staff than a proper timetable would require, a cost saving measure introduced last November. Any cyclist arriving at the wrong time faces a 5 mile detour via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel or a shorter (but lunatic) diversion via the Rotherhithe Tunnel. This is no way to attract passengers.

TfL's original consultation proposed an "enhanced ferry service", including "alternative fare structures, pier upgrades, improved access points, roll-on/roll-off cycle friendly vessels and an increased frequency". The capital cost would be only £30m, and around a million extra pedestrian trips might be expected annually. The big catch was that far fewer extra cycle crossings would be generated, maybe as few as 40,000, because only a fixed link is truly transformational.
"It provides a positive Benefit:Cost Ratio but unlike a fixed link crossing it is unlikely to deliver a step-change in travel behaviours, particularly cycling accessibility, or realise significant long-term wider economic benefits."
An enhanced service would be great, but why not start by making the existing ferry more attractive? Advertise it properly. Close the mid-morning gap in the timetable. Try to provide some kind of access that doesn't involve traipsing through the foyer of a hotel. And most importantly of all, subsidise it and make it free for anyone to use.

The Doubletree Ferry currently carries around 400,000 passengers a year and has plenty of empty seats. If we assume that half of those 400,000 are hotel guests and the other half pay £4.80 a time then zeroing fares would 'only' require a million pounds a year in subsidy. And that's just 0.1% of the proposed budget of the Silvertown Tunnel, the mega-project inexplicably planned downstream for the benefit of not-pedestrians and not-cyclists, so is surely affordable.

Even if an enhanced ferry service turns out to be the ultimate solution, why waste time waiting for completion? Let's start by removing charges on the existing ferry now, watch pedestrian and cycle use climb, and start knitting together the two sides of the Thames tomorrow.

 Friday, June 21, 2019

On the longest day of the year, a list of London's longests

• London's longest borough - Hillingdon (12 miles)
• London's longest postcode - CR0 (7.5 miles)
• London's longest dimension - M25 J14 to North Ockendon (36.5 miles)

• London's longest river - Thames (44 miles)
• London's longest canal - Grand Union (16 miles)
• London's longest flight of locks - 7 (Hanwell)
• London's longest canal tunnel - Islington (878m)

• London's longest bridge - Waterloo Bridge (370m)
• London's longest island - Brentford Ait (620m)
• London's longest reservoir - King George's Reservoir (4 miles)

• London's longest runway - Heathrow 09L/27R (2.4 miles)
• London's longest flight - Heathrow to Perth (9009 miles)

• London's longest footpath - London Outer Orbital Path (150 miles)
• London's longest park - Richmond Park (2.7 miles)

• London's longest street - Green Lanes (7.5 miles)
• London's longest straight road - the A5 (Edgware Road) (10 miles)
• London's longest motorway - M25 (approx 15 miles)
• London's longest mews - Pavilion Road, SW1 (900m)

• London's longest streetname - Alfred's Way (East Ham and Barking By-pass)
• London's longest 'street' name - St Martin-in-the-Fields Church Path
• London's longest one word streetname - Straightsmouth

• London's longest Underground line - Central line (West Ruislip → Epping, 34.1 miles)
• London's longest Underground journey - Uxbridge → Cockfosters (32 miles)
• London's longest Night Tube journey - Heathrow T5 → Cockfosters (29 miles)
• London's longest non-stop tube journey - Finchley Road → Harrow-on-the-Hill (7.2 miles)
• London's longest non-stop rail journey - Paddington → Heathrow (14.5 miles)

• London's longest tunnel - Thames Water Ring Main (50 miles)
• London's longest Underground tunnel - East Finchley → Morden (via Bank) (17.3 miles)
• London's longest rail tunnel - Stratford → Dagenham (6.5 miles)
• London's longest road tunnel - Limehouse Link (1.1 miles)
• London's longest foot tunnel - Woolwich (504m)

• London's longest station name - Caledonian Road and Barnsbury
• London's longest tube station name - High Street Kensington
• London's longest non-TfL station name - West Hampstead Thameslink
• London's longest one-word station names - Knightsbridge/Woodmansterne

• London's longest tube escalator - Angel (61m)
• London's longest escalator - Heathrow Terminal 5

• London's longest bus route - X26 (Heathrow → Croydon, 24.1 miles)
• London's longest nightbus route - N199 (St Mary Cray → Charing Cross, 22.1 miles)
• London's longest bus stop name - Loxford School Of Science and Technology

• London's longest-running play - The Mousetrap (since 6 October 1952)
• London's longest-running musical - Les Misérables (since 28 September 1985)
• London's longest market charter - Barking (since 1175)

• London's longest-serving MP - Harriet Harman (since 28 October 1982)
• London's longest-serving male MP - Jeremy Corbyn (since 9 June 1983)

• London's longest drought - 73 days (Mile End, spring 1893)
• London's longest period of continuous rain - 59 hours (13-15 June 1903)

I'm assuming several of these are wrong.
I'm more interested if they're wrong factually than pedantically

 Thursday, June 20, 2019

A big blue sign has recently appeared outside Pudding Mill DLR station, tied to a fence. Got an hour to spare? Try the Three Mills History Walk.

This compact corner of the Lower Lea Valley has an astonishing history, and this looks like an excellent opportunity to explore. You could even follow along at threemillshistorywalk.com as you go for additional background information. But this particular heritage stroll isn't quite what it seems, and turns out to be (quite deliberately) a walk round the outside of a building site.

The first part of the walk leads us away from the Olympic Park towards Stratford High Street through the future suburb of Pudding Mill. It's pretty bleak at present, lost in transition between 20th century industrial and 2020s housing estate, and currently subdivided into empty plots. One hoarding supports a Three Mills History Walk plaque referencing the Pudding Mill windmill which once twirled here. Alas almost all the information on the plaque is incorrect - the river wasn't shaped like a pudding bowl, the windmill was, and it wasn't demolished in 1934 but in the mid 19th century. I fear this is what happens when your research is based on a single website (this one) and you entirely misinterpret what the author wrote.

A sign directs us left along the Bow Back River between two recently-demolished sites. When a Porsche showroom has been flattened to make way for housing, it's clear where the real new money is. Attached to City Mill Lock is plaque number 2 for Luke Howard, the industrialist and amateur meteorologist who was first to give clouds the names cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Luke owned a chemical works here and briefly lived in a house alongside, but that's long demolished and even the local waterways have been entirely remodelled since. Instead what you're looking at is a 1930s lockkeepers cottage squeezed inbetween two horrible blocks of opportunistic housing and perhaps you'd be better off staring at the sky instead.

To cross Stratford High Street the trail ignores the closest set of traffic lights in favour of the second, because its deviser wants you to walk past a set of buildings on the other side. One of these is attractively Victorian and was formerly used by the Dane Group, once "the largest producer of Day-Glo pigments in the world". Everything else is new, part of the business end of the Sugar House Island development, including a dormant restaurant, a rotated hyperboloid tower and several unlet office blocks. A massive triangular brownfield site is undergoing transformation, bounded on two sides by water and ultimately delivering 1200 new homes. And that's why we're really here, and why we're about to go for a mile long walk round the perimeter.

Sugar House Island is the latest name for the 26 acre site formerly called Strand East, which you might remember from 2012 as 'that site near Stratford bought up by IKEA'. The company now in charge is called Vastint, whose 'placemakers' have faced the challenge of making a canvas they've mostly demolished sound interesting. The Sugar House is one of the handful of buildings they've retained, hence its adoption for branding purposes, although it's not actually part of the Victorian sugar refinery that stood here for 20 years, and the site isn't truly an island, but hey.

It's time for a walk down the eastern edge of the triangle along the existing towpath of the Three Mills Wall River. Three of the twelve sights on the tour are only visible in the distance, if you're lucky, but it wouldn't do to deviate and see them properly. Instead your eyeballs will be likely be drawn to the building site on the opposite banks, featuring the skeletons of old workspaces and the first cluster of stacked flats (dubbed Botanical Mews). Somewhere behind the wall of cranes, scaffolding and kitchens-to-be, three brick chimneys have been disassembled and will be returned as the focus of a 'vibrant pedestrian experience'.

Here comes the prime heritage bit. First a monument to an explosion at a gin distillery, in the form of two interlocked hands, and then Three Mills itself. The House Mill is the world's largest surviving tidal mill, Grade I listed and opens for tours every Sunday during the summer. Alas the Three Mills History Walk citation mentions none of this and goes on about gin instead, which was distilled nextdoor from 1872 to 1941. Always recognise your target audience when placemaking, and a lot of fuss about gin is more likely to shift units than droning on about hoists and waterwheels.

We return to Stratford High Street along another riverbank undergoing total residential domination. Some of the flats on the Tower Hamlets side are already up, while this flank of Sugar House Island remains a barren waste dotted with portakabins and diggers. This was once the site of the Bow Bridge Soap Works, hardly the finest heritage brand, but needs must so this is number 10 on our 12-point trail. Number 11 is the absolute jackpot, however, the Bow China Works famed for 18th century porcelain. Alas that was never on Sugar House Island where the History Walk map says it was, but was located on the other side of the High Street underneath the One Stratford and Central House developments, so this feels a bit like cultural appropriation.

Our final stop is yet another something that no longer exists - Bow Bridge, replaced several times since the 12th century, most recently by the Bow Roundabout and Bow Flyover. These are not top sightseeing destinations. The walk then rounds off with a slow pass across the main entrance to the Sugar House Island building site, where you can read more glib slogans on the hoardings. My least favourite is nine centuries of makers & innovators, their old workplaces sensitively restored, by which they really mean 'we kept a handful of Victorian buildings and elsewhere wiped the slate clean'.

A bit of online digging confirms that the Three Mills Heritage Walk is part of Sugar House Island's placemaking strategy, has a £30000 budget and was commissioned by Vastint's UK Marketing Lead. It was also "designed to attract media attention", which I think I'm the first person to fall for, although I doubt the company'll be linking here any time soon. Visually it's quite well done. Factually it falls apart in places. Geographically it only goes to highlight that the outer perimeter of the development site may be historically fascinating but the site itself is somewhat bereft. But that's placemaking for you, doing what you can with what you've got in an attempt to boost those all important sales.

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