diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The furthest from home I've been in June
(since moving to London)

2002: Willerby (155 miles)
My new job unexpectedly required me to visit a recording studio on the outskirts of Hull, for reasons I didn't entirely believe even at the time. I was packed off onto a train north, alighted at some rural Humberside backwater and took a taxi to a farm with horses. Here the manager showed me round and demonstrated the latest cassette, videotape and compact disc mastering technology, then reminisced about that time he produced Bill Nelson. I was done by lunchtime, so took the opportunity for a jolly into Hull city centre and was genuinely amazed by how much had changed since I used to live here.

2003: Chiswick (11 miles)
June 2003 was an geographically unadventurous month. I spent a lot of time in the West End, and only once ventured further, to Chiswick High Street just to see what was there. "Much posher than Stratford", my diary records... but not my new blog because it wasn't really about places back then.

2004: Brighton (49 miles)
This distancing contest was a close call between Milton Keynes, Colchester and Brighton, but the south coast narrowly won. Of course I could come down for some leaving drinks, even though I wouldn't know any of the other attendees. Five bottles of Becks later I knew plenty more. Last orders were called just in time for me to catch the last train home, which avoided all sorts of awkward dilemmas.

2005: Milton Keynes (47 miles)
Some days you just have to go to the Open University. These were days I usually enjoyed, although lunch was often a bit dicey so I was relieved when today's included non-vegetarian sandwiches. Fifteen years later we could have done the whole thing on Zoom without the need for four hours of travel, an expensive rail ticket and a taxi receipt to be reimbursed later.

2006: Butt of Lewis (540 miles)
Now that's more like it. Everyone should go to the Outer Hebrides once because they're magic, preferably before the midge season starts. On this particular Tuesday we drove up the northwestern coast of Lewis ticking off the Callanish stone circles and Blackhouse Village, before continuing to the lighthouse at the farthest tip of the island and watching seabirds wheel above the Atlantic breakers. What a place to live, on a crofter's track in the most peripheral of outposts. Glorious. Unforgettable.

2007: Holy Island (295 miles)
On a family holiday to Northumberland, having checked the tide tables carefully, we drove across the causeway to this most ancient of isles. We left mum on a bench while we walked along the boat-strewn beach to explore the castle, and when we got back she was deep in conversation with a lady who turned out to be the best-selling author of the Shire Book of Thimbles.

2008: Oxford (55 miles)
Work reasons again, essentially so that the evil boss who'd just acquired our team in a restructuring could belittle us. Thankfully the humiliation was all over by lunchtime so I grabbed the opportunity to do something I really should have done quarter of a century earlier - a look round Duke Humfrey's Library in the Bodleian. Also nipped up Carfax Tower to view the dreaming spires, because somehow I never did that either.

2009: Croxley (21 miles)
Midsummer in the village where I grew up always means the Croxley Revels, so I went back to relive the street procession, maypole dancing and tombola stalls. We didn't have taekwondo demonstrations in my day, nor a music stage, nor the ceremonial role of 'junior princess'. Population churn meant the only person I recognised was Janet, the family friend who used to cut my hair in her kitchen, so at least there was some gossip to catch up on.

2010: Cromer (111 miles)
You must come camping, my brother said, but we won't tell the rest of the family so when you turn up it'll be a proper surprise. Success. We went for a walk along the cliffs, we sat beneath an oak tree to keep out of the heat and we dodged a plague of greenfly. I was most excited by a commemorative water trough while the children were much more excited by the swimming pool. It was sausages, bacon and beans for tea, appropriately heated... and then sorry, I scarpered home rather than staying overnight.

2011: Reykjavík (1190 miles)
The furthest I've ever been from home in June is Iceland, specifically Keflavik Airport, on another of those holidays of a lifetime. I enjoyed a splash in the Blue Lagoon, a trip up a volcano, the burst of a geyser, a plate of ptarmigan and two sunsets in the same day, and that was just the half of it. If only I'd seen a whale rather than puking up over the side of the boat it might have been perfect.

2012: Ramsgate (64 miles)
It's not Reykjavík is it? But I did want to explore the Gothic side of town (and I had already been to Margate earlier in the day, but that's not quite so far away).

2013: Northwood Hills (17 miles)
As mundane blogging goes, a trip to an independent shopping day in a Metro-land high street, complete with face-painting, clingfilmed salads and free hemp bags, is about as low as it gets.

2014: Audley End (36 miles)
Ah, the days when you could hop on a train and look round an English Heritage treasure, grab a pulled pork bap from the tearoom and ride a miniature railway through woodland infested with teddy bears. How normal it all seemed.

2015: Berlin (580 miles)
I loved Berlin, especially its verve and creativity, but the divided city was never far from the surface. The afternoon we went to East Berlin was the most extreme, with the Stasi prison (or Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen) the furthest east I have ever been in my entire life. It's all too easy to narrow your worldview by staying at home, and travelling to some locations truly broadens your experience.

2016: Salisbury (83 miles)
Two days before that referendum I decided to go to Edward Heath's house because he was the man who led us into Europe in the first place. It's not Wiltshire's most popular tourist attraction so I was the only visitor on the 11.30 tour, earning a privileged view of the Steinway, the monkey mural and the sailing hall. I had time to fit in a walk around Old Sarum before getting the train back, and was home by six.

2017: Tynemouth (248 miles)
I went to Belgium in June 2017, to Ghent, but Newcastle turned out to be eighty miles further from home. It was a dazzling afternoon when we went to Tynemouth, an unexpectedly tasteful seaside resort with golden beaches and a castle overlooking the mouth of the river. For lunch we crammed into a tiny chippie, disappointed to discover that 'cheesecake in batter' was a parcel of very melted cheese. But the takeaway cod option was spot on.

2018: Attleborough (80 miles)
Back to Norfolk, this time with an uncle to bid farewell to and a garden to tidy. Sometimes the family congregates for sad reasons, and sometimes for good.

2019: Cromford (127 miles)
After spending much of the day at Crich Tramway Museum, like you do, I walked the canal towpath to almost the edge of the Peak District. Cromford Mill, alas, was just closing for the day, but it's amazing how much joy I managed to cram into that single day out.

2020: Wanstead Flats (2.7 miles)
A path round a pond in the corner of a patch of parched grassland, nudged narrowly into the London borough of Redbridge, is the furthest I've been from home all month. Normal distancing remains a long way away.

 Monday, June 29, 2020

Last week the Mayor proposed moving City Hall from the South Bank to the Royal Docks. Officially a consultation will decide, but when your finances are scuppered some decisions make themselves.

The current City Hall, designed by Foster and Partners, opened in 2002 as part of the More London development. This meant that the Greater London Authority never owned the building but were instead tied into a 25 year lease. The original landlords were London Bridge Holdings, a Bahamas-based company led by an Armenian businessman, but in 2013 they sold up to Kuwaiti firm St Martins Property Group for a tidy profit. St Martins are currently charging £11.1m annually, a tidy sum which could instead be plugging holes in London's budget, and this is due to rise to £12.6m next Christmas. Sadiq Khan is therefore hoping to take advantage of the only break clause in the original contract and get out five years early... which'll entail moving City Hall elsewhere.

His intended destination is The Crystal, an environmental folly overlooking the western end of the Royal Victoria Dock, and thereby hangs another tale.

The Crystal was conceived during Boris Johnson's first Mayoral term as a means of kickstarting development at the Royal Docks. German technology company Siemens liked the location and agreed to construct a landmark eco-building to be used as a conference centre, research hub and "showcase for infrastructure solutions". The resultant steel-framed glass-covered structure had two wings, one for the business function and the other to contain a sustainability exhibition with Siemens' name dripfed throughout. The new cablecar would bring punters, and the buzz around London 2012 would guarantee success. Alas The Crystal opened the month after the Games finished, so missed the boat, and its sustainability exhibition never really made a splash.

Where it did succeed was with its environmental credentials. Solar panels helped to ensure the building was fully powered by renewable energy. Rainwater harvesting was used to provide drinking water. Ventilation was regulated naturally using motorised vents. Air conditioning was taken from a reversible ground source heat pump. The Crystal duly became the first building worldwide to earn top BREEAM and LEED ratings for energy efficiency. It won't be quite so cutting-edge when City Hall moves in ten years later, but these are still impeccable green credentials.

For the first couple of years The Crystal's public side was free to visit. There were films to watch, buttons to push and pumps to pump, as well as eco-objects to admire and worthy screeds to read. You might well have brought a child for a look-round, but you wouldn't have brought them twice. So it was a surprise in 2014 when Siemens introduced a £8 admission charge, because the contents definitely weren't worth that, and even a later cut to £5 didn't stop visitor numbers dropping to almost nothing. Those much lauded conference facilities in the other wing weren't packing them in either, but at least the downstairs cafe was doing OK.

In April 2016 Siemens expressed an interest in selling their long-term lease but remaining tenants. In October the new Mayor agreed to purchase the site outright and lease the site back to Siemens for the next seven years, securing the building's current use until at least 2023 [MD2035]. Although this might have seemed an unusual purchase, a further strategic intention was that public ownership would control an important regeneration hotspot in a key Enterprise Zone. The 2016 deal also tidied up some of the rights to parcels of adjacent land, delivering Newham council half a million very useful pounds.

Last year Siemens threw in the towel, and in June 2019 the Mayor agreed to an early surrender of their leasehold interest in exchange for a lump sum payment [MD2476]. The Crystal's exhibition quietly closed its doors, confirming that promoting sustainability wasn't itself sustainable, and @thecrystalorg hasn't tweeted since. Catering company Sodexo stayed on to support conferencing and events facilities, which it was hoped would generate some income, and the Royal Docks regeneration team moved into the office space. The pandemic has scuppered their plans to open an Enterprise Zone exhibition in the main hall, but if you peer through the glass you can read some of the panels and see the architectural model at its heart. It looks even less interesting than what was here before, to be honest, but that's because the target audience is now investors rather than families.

At no point in last year's Mayoral Decision is there any reference to moving City Hall to E16. It seems someone's been doing some creative thinking recently, matching City Hall's upcoming break clause to a large empty building already in the GLA's portfolio. In many ways The Crystal is ideal, already blessed with office space, seven meeting rooms and a large central auditorium seating 270. But the exhibition wing feels like wasted space, a glass cavern far too costly to retrofit to hot-desking, which'll be why several City Hall staff are destined to end up on a floor in TfL's Palestra building instead.

The building's going to need better security. The current City Hall is a defensive cocoon, whereas anyone can wander round the back of The Crystal and lurk menacingly beside the Tesla electric charging point. The access road's going to need a new name. London's mayoralty can't possible have an address on Siemens Brothers Way, but might this become Livingstone Passage, Bozza Drive or something with a ghastly uplifting buzzword up front? It's also going to need careful media framing. A Mayor who's used to giving press interviews with a Tower Bridge backdrop may not be quite so keen to appear in front of a row of empty Dangleway pods while a plane taking off from City Airport screams overhead. At least the building still delivers some architectural oomph, in a spiky rather than testicular manner.

However much the move to the Royal Docks is heralded as a boost to regeneration, nothing hides the fact it's really a massive geographical downgrade. Relocating your regional seat of government to the edge of a post-industrial wasteland beside a wakeboarding centre and a Thai restaurant, when it used to be in the heart of the city opposite a World Heritage Site, speaks volumes about your city's economic outlook. But how fortunate that the previous Mayor agreed to build a shiny bauble the current Mayor could escape into when his financial squeeze became too much.

 Sunday, June 28, 2020

On Friday the government announced an extension of its beleaguered Test and Trace system.
(bear with me, this isn't going where you think)

If you think you have coronavirus symptoms it's important to get tested, and as soon as possible, otherwise a positive result can't successfully affect the behaviour of others. Initially the only way to get tested was to go to a drive-in centre, which was useless if you didn't have a car (and might have been hours away even if you did). Later mobile testing units were established which could park up in a wider variety of locations as and when required, but they still required a vehicle.

Matt Hancock's latest press release announces six new ‘walk through’ testing sites offering appointments to people irrespective of personal transport. These are located "in Newcastle, Rochdale, Leeds, Brent, Newham and Slough, with Slough being the first hybrid drive and walk-through site." They'll be very useful, but only if you live close enough to get there without venturing onto public transport and spreading the virus further. The precise location of each site is only divulged once you've registered, but I guess I live within walking distance of the Newham site, wherever it is.

But there's more. Back in May the government introduced 'home tests', controversially including them in their daily testing data. These self-swab kits were sent out by courier, because time is of the essence, and once completed needed to be returned the same way. As anyone who's waited in for a courier delivery knows, this wasn't always an efficient and timely process.
» You need to get the antigen test done within the first 5 days of having symptoms. After that, it’s too late.
» On days 1 to 4, you can get tested at a site or at home. If you’re ordering a home test kit on day 4, do so by 3pm.
» On day 5, you need to go to a test site. It’s too late to order a home test kit.
As of this week the Royal Mail is getting in on the act, which means you'll be able pop your completed test into a postbox rather than faffing around returning it by courier. Precautions will be taken. The return packaging is WHO Category B-compliant with a conspicuous purple label, and postal workers will retrieve these parcels by sealing them inside a plastic bag. The biggest problem is getting them back on time. Forty years ago the Royal Mail was geared up for frequent and timely collection, whereas post-privatisation efficiencies have slimmed down the service to a sporadic shadow.

Specifically in 2014 Royal Mail introduced their Collection on Delivery initiative, which allowed postal workers to collect mail from lesser-used postboxes during their rounds. This could mean that the only collection of the day at your local box was as early as 9am on weekdays or 7am on Saturdays. Fabulous as a cost-cutting measure, but lousy if it's mid-morning and you need a package to be somewhere by tomorrow. Customers have had to make do with sub-standard next-day delivery ever since.

But suddenly the government needs your sample back tomorrow... which is why they've just announced the introduction of priority postboxes.
Home testing kits can now be returned without booking a courier service, allowing those choosing this testing option to post their testing kits at any of the 30,000 Royal Mail priority postboxes across the UK, which will all be marked by a regionalised NHS logo by 3 July.

This is the sticker to look out for. It hasn't yet appeared on my closest postbox, outside Bow Post Office, but it should be there by Friday. Interestingly you can't post your sample at the Post Office counter itself, it has to go in the box outside. But only about 30% of the UK's postboxes are designated priority postboxes, so you may not be so geographically fortunate.

A further innovation is that the Royal Mail website can now be used to identify where your nearest priority postbox is. It never used to have an online postbox location service, however useful that might have been, but suddenly it's a national health priority and hey presto it appears. Other online postbox location services sprang up years ago using publicly available data but they're not always up-to-date and accurate. Even the otherwise excellent postboxes.dracos.co.uk from Matthew Somerville, being over ten years old, has yet to notice that Bow's Post Office and its attendant post box have shifted 400ft across Bow Road.

This map is my best attempt to show, in red, where Bow's priority postboxes are.

Every marker represents one postbox, I hope, and if it's black it doesn't appear on the priority postbox list. I'm surprised by quite how high the red:black ratio is, given that only 30% of postboxes nationwide are supposed to be priority. Bow seems to be scoring a lot closer to 80%. Maybe that's a benefit of living somewhere with a densely-packed population, or maybe we're a health priority area, or maybe both.
Aside: The UK has approximately 115,000 postboxes.
Aside: Royal Mail has to provide a postbox "within half a mile (805 metres) of the premises of not less than 98% of users of postal services".

I thought I'd also check somewhere more typically suburban. This is Croxley Green near Watford.

Croxley's priority postbox proportion is 31%, which is almost spot on. Only five of its 16 postboxes will be getting the priority sticker, including two outside Post Offices, one on the main shopping parade and two included to maintain geographical spread. At least nobody should have to walk more than a mile to get to one... which when you've got potential symptoms is undoubtedly a good thing.
Aside: Both these maps are to the same scale, each approximately two miles across.

A slight problem is that it's Sunday today, so even a priority postbox has no collections, so if you have a coronavirus test to post back you're stuffed. So try not to catch the virus today, then develop symptoms in five days time and request a test on Friday which is delivered on Saturday, because you may not be able to send it back in time.

Alternatively if you just want to drop Auntie Glenda's birthday card into a COVID-free postbox, hunt for one without an NHS sticker. Priorities vary.

 Saturday, June 27, 2020

20 things that happened this week #coronavirus

• outbreak at Anglesey chicken plant
• pandemic is far from over (WHO)
• face coverings mandatory on transport in Scotland
• non-essential shops reopen in Wales
• shielding to end in July
• major easing of lockdown from 4th July
• social distancing reduced to "one metre plus"
• pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers to open
• social distancing legislation becomes 'guidance'
• daily news conferences end
• number of cases accelerating in the US
• many UK councils fear bankruptcy
• "too much mingling could set the UK back" (PM)
• 1 in 14 care home residents have died
• WHO warns of resurgence in (Eastern) Europe
• heatwave crowds - major incident at Bournemouth
• Texas and Florida roll back reopenings
• 'air corridors' to boost European travel
• "most SAGE evidence is ignored or politicised"
• cases soaring in Delhi

Worldwide deaths: 460,000 → 495,000
Worldwide cases: 8,700,000 → 9,900,000
UK deaths: 42,589 → 43,514
UK cases: 303,110 → 310,250
FTSE: down 2% (6292 → 6159)

What the guidance says
you can do today
What the guidance says
you can do next Saturday
What people think
you can do today
You can spend time outdoors as often as you wish. This must be with people you live with, or in a gathering of up to six, which can include people from outside your household.You can meet in groups of up to two households in any location - public or private, indoors or outdoors. You do not always have to meet with the same household - you can meet with different households at different times."Let's all meet up on the beach."
"Family barbecue round at ours."
It is a criminal offence to meet indoors with anyone who is not a member of your household or, from 13 June, your support bubble, except for specific exceptions set out in lawYou can meet indoors in groups of up to two households. You should continue to maintain social distancing with anyone you do not live with when doing so."I'll come over and we'll socialise as normal."
"Budge up so I can sit on the sofa."
You should keep two metres apart from people not in your household or support bubble at all times.You should keep two metres away from people as a precaution or one metre when you can mitigate the risk by taking other precautions."One metre apart, I'm sure he said one metre."
If you need to travel to work or make an essential journey, you should cycle or walk if you can, but you can use public transport if this is not possible. Before you travel on public transport, consider if your journey is necessary and if you can, stay local.If you need to travel to work or make an essential journey, you should cycle or walk if you can, but you can use public transport if this is not possible. Before you travel on public transport, consider if your journey is necessary and if you can, stay local."I've got a car, it's all good."
"Yeah, I'm getting a bus to the park."
"Yeah, I'm getting a train to the seaside."

Last week, when I wrote about different places called Bow, a reader chipped in to say...
But what about Bow St E15?
Given its age, it seems strange that it does not lead to Bow.
It may be a good place for lockdown (or up) exercise!
I happened to be in the area midweek, walking home from Wanstead Flats, so I dropped by.

Bow Street is not a place, it is a street.
It's in Maryland, just off Leytonstone Road, near the Tesco Express.
It's of Victorian origin.

Bow Street is an insignificant backstreet less than 100 metres long.
It was not named after Bow (which is two miles distant).
The neighbouring street used to be called Arrow Street.

Originally Bow Street had a dozen terraced houses on either side.
None of these remain.

Once there was a pub on the corner, which then became a car repair centre, which was demolished in 2016, which then became nine flats, but these are officially on Leytonstone Road not Bow Street so they don't count.

The rest of the north side of the road is taken up by 23 one-bedroom retirement flats (built in 1960) plus a caretaker's bungalow. These have minimal architectural merit. The south side of the road is occupied by St Francis' Catholic Primary School.

With a playground on one side of the road and sheltered housing on the other, Bow Street is woefully unsuitable for lockdown exercise.

Thank you for all your suggestions regarding interesting places to feature on the blog.

Dates on which the temperature at Hampstead reached 30°C

2012 2518 
2013 13 15/16/17 221 
2014 18  
2015 122 
2016 18/19/202413
2018 5/6/7/8 15 23 25/26/272/3 6/7 

Maximum annual temperature


• The temperature's reached 30°C at least once every year since 2010
• The temperature's reached 33°C five times since 2010 (and 35°C once)
• Only once were there five consecutive days above 30°C (and once four)
• Of all the days with 30°C+ temperatures, over half have occurred in July

 Friday, June 26, 2020

On this date one year ago I left the house and went to the Darent Valley. My target was a minor National Trust property in Sutton-At-Hone, a medieval chapel called St John's Jerusalem, which was only open to the public on Wednesday afternoons. My subsequent write-up focused on the destination but gave short shrift to the journey, so I thought I'd write about that journey now, because I'm not likely to get back to rural Kent any time soon. Better to travel vicariously than not at all.

I could have got the train. Sutton-at-Hone is served by a tiny station called Farningham Road on the line to Canterbury, but a ticket would have cost £8 and I fancied getting there for nothing. So instead I caught the 233 bus from Eltham, because this was included in my Travelcard, and this carried me two miles beyond the Greater London boundary into Kent. The 233 terminates at a godforsaken layby on the far side of Swanley overlooking the start of the M20, normally nowhere useful but ideal for striking out into the wider countryside.

My first target was the village of Farningham, via a walk which might have been pleasant fifty years ago but now meant negotiating junction 3 of the M25. This mega-interchange marks the point where the A20 gives birth to the M20 and was carved out of peaceful orchards in the mid 1970s. Pedestrians were very much an afterthought, with the only pavement forced to twist across thunderous slip roads on the central roundabout... and no alternative footpaths provided for a mile to either side. The subsequent descent of Farningham Hill was equally miserable, slogging alongside a dual carriageway alongside a motorway, occasionally dodging past lay-bys where truck drivers milled outside tachograph-expired lorries.

Thankfully Farningham itself was lovely, as it ought to be, having been bypassed for motor traffic as early as 1925. The narrow High Street led down to the river between characterful cottages, a Free House and a Traditional Family Butchers, which isn't something you normally find in a village this small. The prime watering hole was the Lion Hotel, once a stabling point for Dover-bound traffic, now the ideal pub to sit outside on a hot day. It overlooked what used to be a ford across the Darent, still delightfully shallow but now properly bridged. What looked like an older arched bridge is actually a cattle screen added to prevent curious cows from wandering too far upstream.

It was now time to follow the Darent Valley Path, or at least a short middling section (rather than the full Sevenoaks to Dartford). If I was expecting fine scenery I was initially disappointed as the stream ducked through an arched tunnel supporting the A20. But on the far side the path swiftly opened out to reveal a poppy-bedecked meadow with a green field rolling beyond, and suddenly my entire journey had been vindicated.

Admittedly a few minutes later the river was back underneath the M20, crossing the valley on jagged concrete teeth, but once that was out of the way the sylvan stream continued untarnished. It would have been nice to be able to follow it, but at the next bend the path veered off to follow the boundary between two fields, almost parallel but edging ever further away. Eventually I reached the empty outfield of Horton Kirby Cricket Club, founded (some distance from the village) in 1882, before heading up a quiet lane to cross to the left bank. Progress was once again most pleasant... weirs, lakes, butterflies, the encroaching menace of Himalayan balsam.

The next village was South Darenth, as opposed to actual Darenth which would have been next if I'd continued a mile further. Its most striking feature was a lofty railway viaduct, 20 metres high and 10 arches wide, built in the 1850s by architect Joseph Cubitt. At its foot is a pub called The Bridges, its name changed in the 1990s when it was bought by retired professional wrestler Wayne Bridges and his body-building wife Sarah. Its second most striking feature was the big brick chimney at the heart of a Victorian papermill complex (now, obviously, 200 homes and a Co-Op supermarket).

I took a photo of the village noticeboard, in case its contents might ever be of use as blog filler during an upcoming pandemic. Weight Watchers, Thursdays at 7. Himalayan balsam working group Saturday 22nd June. Medical Pedicure Service with Julia, for appointments please call. Bingo at the Royal British Legion (£1 a strip), Friday 5th July. Grand Fete with 100 Classic Vehicles, Dippy Duck Puppets, Xtreme Falconry and Bottle Stall, Saturday 6th July. Alas not this year, sorry, because South Darenth is on pause.

Beyond the village was one last treat, a ripening cornfield brightened by occasional poppies. In December the path might be a muddy groove, but in June it was just heaven. Several retired gentlemen had assembled off the trackway and opened their hatchbacks, and were busy lining up a row of model aircraft for a co-ordinated buzz. Reaching my goal required locating a minor footpath across the river, which I initially missed, but eventually I forced through a patch of woodland to discover an austere concrete footbridge and ploughed ahead to emerge beside Sutton-at-Hone Library. So that was nice.

St John's Jerusalem was also nice, but you've already read about that.

Unable to face the same trek back I got the train.

 Thursday, June 25, 2020

Where in London is furthest away from a park?

Millions of Londoners still need to leave their homes for recreation, so it's a topical question.

It's also a very difficult question to answer because everything hangs on your definition of 'park'. You could only allow places called 'Something Park', but you'd then be ignoring Wimbledon Common, Primrose Hill and Blackheath which feels much too restrictive. You could allow any greenspace, but then you'd be allowing fields, cemeteries and scraps of turf on street corners which feels much too broad. What might feel most appropriate is anywhere you could take your toddler for a runaround or your dog for exercise, but answering this question is always going to be somewhat subjective.

What's required is a coherent recreational dataset covering the capital, so I've decided to go with the map provided by www.goparks.london which is a truly excellent resource. If they've coloured it green and named it then I've counted it (unless it's a cemetery, because that still doesn't quite feel right).

What's striking is how blessed London is with greenspace, indeed wherever you are there's almost certainly something within half a mile. It might be quite small or just a recreation ground, rather than a full-on Green Flag marvel, but it is still somewhere accessible to enjoy. I live very close to one small park, not far from several spots where I could walk a dog if I had one and a short walk from two of the best parks in the capital, so I'm doing fine. If you feel the need to tell us that you too live near a park, here's a comments box for that. comments

London was generally planned with greenspace in mind. so I've struggled to find areas of the capital where there isn't very much. The City is scattered with parklets. The West End boasts several massive Royal Parks. Ickenham may not be blessed with parks but it does border open country. The centre of the Park Royal Trading Estate might be half a mile from parkland but nobody really lives there. A green-free void between Abbey Wood and Bexleyheath is only grey on the map because its biggest park hasn't been coloured in. Balham, Putney and Walthamstow don't initially look promising, but drill down and the micro-greenspaces are indeed there.

So I'd like to suggest that London's biggest park-free expanse is in central Newham. Residential street after residential street after residential street, but nowhere to squat a dog.

Romford Road, which runs between Stratford and Ilford, defines one axis of this park-less space. Green Street, ironically, is the other. The junction where they meet, specifically just round the back of Forest Gate police station, is London's pole of parkland inaccessibility. From here it's just over half a mile to West Ham Park, just over half a mile to Plashet Park and just over half a mile to Wanstead Flats. 900 metres might not sound far, but the rest of London is so well blessed with greenspace that this singular spot loses out.

West Ham Park is glorious, a proper recreational jewel with tree-lined avenues, a bandstand, wild flower meadows, ornamental gardens and a variety of sports pitches. If it feels better maintained than your average park that's because it's owned not by Newham council but by the City of London. They stepped in when the Ham House estate was being sold off in the 1870s, undertaking to maintain the Park "forever" at its own expense. A century and a half later they're still looking after it, which helps explain why there were three gardeners grooming the borders in the Rose Garden before nine o'clock yesterday morning.

Plashet Park is smaller and a little more recent, opened in 1891, but still a resource you'd be happy to have on your doorstep. It's a shame the zoo in one corner closed down twenty years ago, and that the library in another corner has become a Register Office, but that's what council ownership gets you. As for Wanstead Flats this is technically the southernmost extent of Epping Forest, so again owned by the City of London. Which begs the question, why hasn't Newham council stepped up and provided better park provision around here?

Two reasons. One is that they can't. The local area consists of uninterrupted grids of Victorian terraced streets so there's nowhere practical to squeeze in another scrap of park. There aren't even any council estates where regeneration might have added a lawn or two. The other reason is that it's not Newham's fault, it's their predecessors. The county borough of West Ham was particularly slow to start creating public parks, its tardiness boosted because the City had stepped in and opened one first. The county borough of East Ham was a little keener, but didn't open a park this far north because a trio of cemeteries were in the way. I suspect it's no coincidence that Green Street, the spine of today's park-free zone, marks the former boundary between West Ham and East Ham.

A walk along Green Street today confirms it's all shops and houses. This is the very heart of London's Asian fashion offering, so you're more likely to come here for jewellery or sweet treats than to kick a football around. Up Boleyn Street I discovered the Upton Park Urban Oasis, a long narrow gap between two terraced houses repurposed as a desperately needed mini-garden. Ring Saleha if you want to hire the space and she'll unlock the gate. But it's not a park, nor anything approaching, so local children (and local dogs) still face a ten minute hike before they can find anywhere to exercise.

Ten minutes is nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it's exceptionally rare in London not to have a patch of public grass within a half mile radius. Unless you live on Green Street this is an impressively green city.

 Wednesday, June 24, 2020

London's getting its mojo back! In undoubtedly the best news since lockdown, the Prime Minister has announced the reopening of the capital's restaurants, pubs and cinemas starting on July 4th. But when Super Saturday dawns there's only one place you'll want to be and that's the hallowed halls of the London Hat Museum. Book now to avoid disappointment!

While London's been locked away the good folk at the Hat Museum have been polishing their trilbies and fluffing their fedoras to make sure everything's ready for Saturday's stampede. The Helmet Gallery has been deep cleaned. The Millinery Hall has been fully sanitised. Best of all the Easter Bonnet exhibition that was supposed to have opened in late March has been left in situ and timed tickets are now available for purchase.

"We can't wait to show you our Easter collection," says Head Curator Marilyn Pettigrew, "because we don't want all the effort we put into assembling it to go to waste. Tickets are now available in half-hourly slots from 7am to 9pm to ensure that nobody misses out. Please book online because we desperately need the cashflow. Tickets are also available for our delayed Ascot Fascinators exhibition which will now open in September."

Better still, there's gin! Sunday July 5th sees the museum's first ever Raspberry Beret Spectacular, a bespoke celebration of all things juniper. London's most luxurious blends will be up for tasting, courtesy of Newman's Old Originals, in the majestic setting of the French Salon. One free drink is included in the ticket price of £35, as well as a selection of hat-shaped canapés and pesto toppers. Chapeau!

"We can't wait to welcome you to our Parisian gin soirée," says Event Coordinator Hugh Runacre. "We've worked out precisely how many people we can fit in at "one metre plus" spacing, where to put the plastic screens and how to ensure adequate ventilation. Best of all our waiting staff will be wearing protective helmets from the museum's collection, visors down, bringing our heritage archive to life. The new normal has never been so appealing."

Better still, the museum's audio handsets have not been deemed COVID-secure so the audio tour is now available via a downloadable phone app. Better still, the new one-way system leads past a selection of the finest exhibits rather than leaving you free to wander round at will. Better still the museum's gift shop has been fully restocked with an attractive range of stationery items and souvenirs left unsold for the last three months.

"We know the British public find shopping irresistible," says Lead Accountant Devi Kapur, "especially when they haven't been able to do any for months. All we ask is that they do some of that shopping here. Without immediate income the London Hat Museum faces an existential crisis, and the capital's cultural offering will be irreversibly depleted."

Expect to read something similar in hundreds of desperately upbeat press releases going forward.

w/b 23 MarLOCKDOWN
w/b 30 Mar 
w/b 6 Apr 
w/b 13 Apr 
w/b 20 Apr 
w/b 27 Apr 
w/b 4 May 
w/b 11 MayUnlock: golf courses
Unlock: estate agents
Unlock: garden centres
w/b 18 May 
w/b 25 May 
w/b 1 JunUnlock: groups of 6 outdoors
Unlock: primary schools
Unlock: car showrooms
Unlock: outdoor markets
Unlock: sport (behind closed doors)
w/b 8 JunUnlock: dentists
w/b 15 JunUnlock: non-essential shops
Unlock: zoos and safari parks
Unlock: places of worship (for private prayer)
w/b 22 Jun 
w/b 29 Jun 
4 JulUnlock: social distancing of "one metre plus"
Unlock: two households indoors or out
Unlock: hairdressers
Unlock: pubs and restaurants
Unlock: hotels, B&Bs and campsites
Unlock: outdoor gyms and playgrounds
Unlock: cinemas, museums and galleries
Unlock: theme parks and arcades
Unlock: social clubs and community centres
Unlock: places of worship
Unlock: libraries

 Tuesday, June 23, 2020

It's an important day for the country as the Prime Minister announces a heavily-leaked easing of lockdown.
It's a difficult decision, and a divisive one.
So are you a Locker or an Unlocker?


Unlock too fast and more people die.
Unlock too slowly and the economy tanks.

Getting the balance right is hard.
But many people are still convinced one way is better than the other.

Lockers are convinced we're going too fast. "It's much too early to be reopening pubs." "Some of us are still shielding, you know." "Nobody needs to go to a restaurant." "It'll kickstart a second wave." "Ohmigod you'll kill us all."

Unlockers are convinced we're not going fast enough. "We need to reopen society." "There's far less risk now." "Some of us need to make a living." "The hospitality sector must recover." "We can't stay wrapped in cotton wool forever."

If only the number of cases in the community were lower, and the risk of bumping into somebody infectious minimal, the decision would be much easier. Unfortunately, because Britain hasn't quite kept a lid on things, that's not where we are right now.

One of the key battlegrounds, due to be resolved today, is the 2m rule for social distancing. This first surfaced in pre-lockdown guidance on 16th March and has since come to define much of how society works. Lockers see it as a safeguard. Unlockers see it as a restriction.

2m is at the top end of global distancing measures. The USA went with six foot, Germany and Spain with 1.5m and South Korea 1.4m. China and Singapore decided on 1m, in line with the World Health Organisation's minimum. Closer separation works better in countries where governments are authoritarian enough to ensure the population complies.

Two metres has the advantage that it's easier to picture than something fractional, hence more likely to be widely adopted. It's also far enough apart that, even if people don't quite stick to it, they're still keeping well beyond one metre. But this hasn't prevented the UK from having one of the worst rates of infection of any Western nation, because there's more to transmission than proximity.

   Which is more dangerous?   
a) 2m apart indoorsb) 2m apart outdoors

Answer a): Outdoors is considerably safer than indoors, thanks to air circulation, which is why the government still hasn't allowed you to meet people at home.

   Which is more dangerous?   
a) 2m apart for 1 secondb) 2m apart for 1 hour

Answer b): Walking past someone is the street is hugely less likely to transmit the virus than sitting at opposite ends of a bench for a chat, yet still we dodge people in the street.

   Which is more dangerous?   
a) 2m apart talkingb) 2m apart in silence

Answer a): Exhaling air is more likely to pass on the virus than keeping your mouth closed... but what's the point of meeting up and saying nothing?

   Which is more dangerous?   
a) 2m apart without a face coveringb) 1m apart with a face covering

Answer ?): Now there's a question. Once you change two variables it starts to get complicated, and yet this is the question the Prime Minister intends to tackle today.

There's been a great deal of pressure to reduce the social distancing limit from two metres to one, mostly from businesses who expect to go bust if they're not allowed to nudge customers closer together. But halving the distance is still quite a leap... indeed I wonder if you've thought about it in two dimensions before.

Dropping from 2m to 1m allows you to cram up to 4 times as many people into your space, there being three extra yellow blobs for every red. Of course no pub garden, restaurant terrace or auditorium looks quite like this, so the actual gain wouldn't be quite so high, but you can see why businesses are so anxious to drag the limit down.

But as a customer you may not be quite so keen. In the first diagram the closest other punters are two metres away. In the second diagram there are four other people within one metre and eight other people within a metre and a half. Moving from 2m to 1m delivers a considerable increase in risk.

One day the number of cases in the community will be so low that none of these mitigations will be necessary. Until we get that far, alas, picking the right rules for social distancing remains critical.

So I wondered whether you were a Locker, an Unlocker or somewhere inbetween.
(pick one of the five special comments boxes...)

LOCK back upleave things aloneease up
a little
ease up some moreUNLOCK
comments comments comments comments comments

Just remember your opinions are ultimately pointless, and the politicians have already plumped for box number four.

Might see you outside the pub next month. Or might not.

 Monday, June 22, 2020

The government's launched a fair few disastrous projects over the past few months, including the Track and Trace app, the acquisition of PPE and the contact tracers left twiddling their thumbs. But arguably the biggest failure, and simultaneously the greatest success, is the construction of NHS Nightingale Hospitals. These were opened in record time and provided a rare PR boost for the government during the peak of the pandemic, but they also lacked trained staff and, more importantly, patients. The Nightingales in Birmingham, Bristol and Harrogate admitted no patients whatsoever, while the flagship at ExCel took in only 41. An utter waste of resources, but also a key insurance policy that thankfully was never needed.

London's Nightingale Hospital has been closed since the first week of May. The digital arch at the Western Entrance is still there, but its white NHS signage has been switched off leaving a foreboding black ziggurat in situ. A poster beside the door urges visitors not to ask staff about volunteering and to go away and check the website instead. A couple of security guards are seated at a table just inside, just in case. The whole of ExCel is essentially dark, there being nobody to treat and no events booked until Grand Designs Live at the end of August, if they're lucky.

A few NHS flags still flutter above the piazza. And a sign points down a ramp towards a pair of bespoke NHS Nightingale bus stops.

Launching a new hospital is a massive logistical enterprise, and one of the questions that needs answering is 'how will staff get here?' Conveniently two DLR stations are located immediately alongside, but travelling by train isn't an option for everyone so plans were also made for those arriving by car. The Greater London Authority stepped in and offered the Silvertown Quays site as a temporary parking area - that's the long-demolished zone around Millennium Mills on the opposite side of the Royal Victoria Dock. A temporary surface was laid providing space for at least 2000 vehicles, just in case, and then TfL and Stagecoach laid on a 24-hour park and ride service.

You can find out more about these bus services on the bespoke website nightingale.tfl.gov.uk, even though they haven't been running for well over a month. Route 1 linked the Silvertown South Car Park to ExCel, saving a long hike over a lofty footbridge, while route 4 connected the Millennium Mill Car Park (until it swiftly became apparent this wasn't going to be needed). Meanwhile routes 2 and 3 ran from the western side of ExCel to two hotels on the east side, because a lot of the hard-working Nightingale staff weren't intending to go home to sleep. Route 3 to the Marriott Moxy lasted longest, while route 2 to the Doubletree Hilton folded within a week.
Nightingale bus services (from 11 April)
NG1: Nightingale Hospital-Pontoon Dock (ceased operation 8 May)
NG2: Nightingale Hospital-Docklands Hilton (ceased operation 18 April)
NG3: Nightingale Hospital-Docklands Moxy (ceased operation 13 May)
NG4: Nightingale Hospital-Silvertown (ceased operation 16 April)
The two ExCel bus stops are located in what's normally the coach & taxi drop off loop, because no coaches or taxis needed it at the time. TfL pulled out the stops to add proper bus stops with proper bus shelters, one labelled A and one labelled B to make sure nurses knew which was which. They've even got their own pages on the TfL website, despite no longer being served. Both bus shelters have their names written on the end, just as the design manual dictates. They also have 2m spacing circles painted on the floor, despite waiting at a bus stop not necessarily being the riskiest part of a nurse's day.

Behind Bus Stop B is a temporary marquee erected to house a mini Tesco supermarket. Even NHS staff needed somewhere to buy things, maybe even grab lunch, when all of ExCel's usual catering outlets were closed down. The store's no longer open, but an adjacent lamppost has a retrospective planning notice attached to it, plus a request to use the warehouse unit alongside should the facility ever be restored. A sign on the side of the marquee reads This store is now closed. We'll be back if you need us, which is a particularly sobering thought.

It feels odd walking around a deserted bus terminus, especially one which two months ago would have been anything but. It's even odder seeing that someone from TfL has come back to a disused bus stop and put up posters saying You must wear a face covering on public transport and Avoid public transport where possible. It is particularly easy to avoid public transport when there isn't any.

Speaking of avoidable transport, the neighbouring Dangleway has just released its weekly ridership figures for the lockdown period. In normal times it'd be carrying around 25,000 passengers a week.

7 March4234
14 March5038
21 March3794
28 March0
4 April0
11 April0
18 April169
25 April0
2 May0
9 May0
16 May0
23 May1169
30 May3809
6 June2948
13 June3341

March's totals were dragged down by the annual maintenance closure and then lockdown the following week. Since reopening in late May passenger numbers continue to be remarkably low, especially given that travelling in your own personal bubble makes this TfL's safest form of transport. But the really interesting number is that tiny blip in April.

After the NHS Nightingale Hospital opened, the O2 in North Greenwich offered its services as a location for staff training. The Dangleway was duly started up again to allow NHS staff to cross the river... but it seems hardly anyone availed themselves of the opportunity. 169 passengers a week is an extraordinarily low total, the equivalent of barely one passenger an hour, so it's no wonder the service was turned off again the following week. I suspect the 24-hour shuttle bus service wasn't terribly well used either. An enormous failure, and simultaneously a brilliant success.

 Sunday, June 21, 2020

A new pedestrian route into the Olympic Park, mothballed for years, has just been opened. Eight years after the Games it's frankly amazing there are any left to unlock.

This entrance is in the middle of the park rather than around the edge, and connects Waterden Road to the northern wetlands. My next photo shows the bridge at the opposite end of the path, originally installed for the benefit of visitors in 2012. If you remember where the chopped-in-half red phoneboxes were, indeed still are, that's where this is.

Ever since the Park reopened to visitors this bridge has been blocked off by metal barriers (although they have occasionally been nudged aside by inquisitive punters). A few months ago those barriers were permanently shunted, but anyone following the path ahead eventually found it led to a locked gate, so that was ten minutes wasted. But this month that path at long last leads somewhere, namely almost Westfield, which is splendid.

The footbridge crosses the remnants of the Channelsea River, heavily reengineered to create the so-called Waterglades. Halfway across is a blue railway sign with a big number 453 on it, along with the distance 9km 050m. This is because the High Speed 1 rail link burrows directly underneath, indeed is just about to emerge into its box at Stratford International station. The tunnel portal is very close but you can't see a thing down below, only hear the occasional service whooshing towards Brussels or Broadstairs.

The far side of the lawn used to be a pristine lawn with picnic tables and another chainsawed phonebox, or at least that's how it looked in 2012 (see above). That lawn is now a grassy meadow, or "heavily overgrown" depending on the generosity of your description. Down by the waterside is one of a very few trees that survived the coming of the bulldozers a decade ago. The nearby brambles are done with flowering and a single red blackberry is already ripening in the sun.

If you were here for the Games you'd have exited up a zigzag slope to a roadway laid out with more picnic tables. That road is now Waterden Road, but the path has long been blocked at the top (because it doesn't lead to a pavement) and has been irretrievably abandoned. Instead a fresh onward path has been created underneath Waterden Road which can connect to the pavement on the other side. What I genuinely don't understand is why this underpass was added in 2016 but hasn't been opened until 2020.

The underside of the bridge is awash with graffiti, because a flimsy metal barrier doesn't keep everyone out. But the view's not bad, and includes a short stretch of the Lea nobody's had official access to of late. It's a particularly good spot to watch Overground trains crossing the river, if that's your thing. The centre of this railway bridge marks the exact spot where London's three poorest boroughs meet, which is one of the main reasons the Olympic Park was located here in the first place.

Now the new path turns left and slowly climbs the embankment alongside Waterden Road. On the right-hand side, below a low wooden fence, is a rather nice nature reserve with a watery pool at its heart. Unfortunately you can't access it, nor really see it from down here, indeed the best place for a view is on the pavement we're heading towards. It's amazing nobody's built anything here nor intends to, given that this enclave could link the northern and southern halves of the park, but the railway beyond very much gets in the way.

To keep the path's gradient bike- and wheelchair-friendly it climbs to a hairpin bend before doglegging back. From this vantage point Stratford's latest office towers are easily seen, along with the occasional DLR train and the iconic Olympic Stadium. Alas in a few years the stadium will be obscured by two residential skyscrapers as part of the East Bank development, because the adjacent cultural offering won't pay for itself.

Which brings us to the unlocked gate I showed you in the first photograph. There's no clue whatsoever that this zigzag descent leads anywhere useful - no fingerpost, no sign of any kind - which suggests the that unlocking of this gate may not have been deliberately planned. But I passed several people on the path yesterday, including a family with a dog, a couple on hire bikes and a more serious pedaller, so word's already getting round.

Which, by my calculations, leaves just one exit from the Olympic Park still to be unlocked. That's at the southern end of the City Mill River where the path beneath the railway remains stubbornly blocked so fails to provide a useful connection to the Greenway. I last walked this path on my way home from the Paralympic Closing Ceremony, and I fear at least a decade will have passed before I ever get to walk it again. Expect another full-on Olympic Park Reconnection Blogpost when I finally do.

 Saturday, June 20, 2020

20 things that happened this week #coronavirus

• Govt to review 2m distancing rule
• German holidaymakers return to the Canaries
• face coverings mandatory on public transport
• shoppers rush back to the high street
• Isle of Man scraps social distancing
• school meal vouchers extended through summer
• Dexamethasone cuts death risk for seriously ill
• Royal Ascot goes ahead behind closed doors
• hospitals in Delhi overwhelmed
• NHS tracing app will be ready “for the winter”
• Premier League returns (with a nil nil draw)
• Bank of England pumps £100bn into economy
• test & trace app switched to Google/Apple model
• contact tracers fail to reach 25% who test +ve
UK alert level lowered from 4 to 3
• UK debt now exceeds size of economy
• £1bn of funding for educational catch-up
• Brazil second country to exceed a million cases
• road traffic back at 75% of normal
• enormous hints that 2m will become 1m

Worldwide deaths: 430,000 → 460,000
Worldwide cases: 7,700,000 → 8,700,000
UK deaths: 41,662 → 42,589
UK cases: 294,375 → 303,110
FTSE: up 3% (6105 → 6292)

The summer solstice occurs today.

From 1984 to 2015 the summer solstice was always on 21st June, but currently 20th June gets a look in one year out of four. Reasons for this are complicated, and I don't intend to go over them again. But I can provide this handy summary for UK residents.

When are the solstices and equinoxes in the 2020s?

21st June

unless it's
a leap year,
in which case

20th June
22nd September
(in leap years and the years after)

23rd September
(in other years)
21st December

unless it's
the year before
a leap year,
in which case

22nd December

The spring, summer and winter columns will also be true in the 2030s.

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