diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Today it's six months since the Prime Minister addressed the nation and ordered us to lockdown, and the toilet roll ran out and the economy collapsed and everything was cancelled and thousands of people got sick and died and we didn't see one another for weeks and months, maybe still haven't.

And last night he was broadcasting to the nation again, reversing some of the normality he'd chosen to unlock and warning us these restrictions might be in place for another six months, six months, crushing normality until next spring or even longer, who's to say, that is if normality ever comes back at all because our old lives might just be gone and this is how things are now, forever maintaining a distance from one another as the economy crashes beyond the point of no return and everything we ever built up is systematically destroyed by a mismanaged pandemic.

They urged us not to catch the virus and then caught it themselves, they told us to stay at home if we were ill and then drove across country regardless, they failed to plan ahead and left millions vulnerable, they appointed their mates, they misjudged the tipping point between freedom and common sense, they paid us to eat out and then told us off for mingling together, they urged us to go back to work and then urged us not to, they promised a world-beating system which failed to deliver, they dripfed us rules too complicated to follow, they blamed us when everything went wrong, they left us to burn.

The country's been going to hell in a handcart for some time now, society has somehow been divided into two opposing factions, entrenched positions well beyond the fault lines of normal politics, prejudices keenly whipped up by social media and a hysterical press, fellow citizens hurling insults and invective, each side hating the other with deep-seated intolerance, how dare they think that, breaking us apart at precisely the time we should have been working together, whatever happened to consensus, it's now one extreme or the other and woe betide if you dare to disagree.

And it's not just us here in the UK, other countries have found themselves engulfed by division, America in particular, what did they do to deserve the current incumbent of the White House, a man so self-obsessed that he lies by default, a dangerous ignoramus who should never have been allowed near high office in the first place, and yet he could easily be re-elected in a few weeks time because millions believe what they're told without question, and admittedly we've survived almost four years without him pressing the nuclear button, or worse, but that's no guarantee we'd survive another term.

Meanwhile Brexit is still ticking away, not the endless agonising debate that's now behind us but the awkward truth of what happens next if at the end of this year a deal fails to materialise, like that hasn't been the underlying plan all along, unless it's all a grim game of poker and our side is holding out against sanity until the last gasp, but the Irish border question remains logically unsolvable, an entirely undeliverable pipedream, so best expect paperwork meltdown, queues at the border and gaps on the shelves one week after we've all failed to meet up for Christmas.

How did we end up with a government like this at a time like this? Boris's election strategy last year flushed out the moderate MPs and appointed only lickspittle disciples, ideal for voting through the necessary agenda but hardly a pool of talent, from which has been selected an inexperienced cabinet dealing with problems the like of which nobody has ever seen before, for which the country will pay the price for a generation, and all the while forwarding a radical deregulation agenda, because what better time to tear apart our national institutions than under cover of a global disaster.

The economy was always too finely poised, the rules of competition forcing companies to function on the narrowest of margins, hard enough to make profitable in the best of times, nigh impossible in a year of unprecedented disruption, and if you had the bad luck to be in a business targetted by social distancing doubly so, some jobs simply won't be coming back, so when furlough tips over into redundancy millions of workers' livelihoods are doomed, it's a benefits lottery on a grand scale, and while it's possible to continue to throw away billions to keep the wolf from the door the country'll be indebted for years, if not the rest of your life, if not forever.

Our fellow citizens have become intransigent and bitter, getting furious about things they'd never previously been angered by, jumping to conclusions based on incorrect assumptions, twisting words to ridicule opinions never intended, cancelling others on limited evidence, emboldened by support from people as irrationally furious as themselves, screaming into the void and poisoning public debate, because this is how we live now, in an echo chamber of hysterical fury, overlooking consensus, seeing only the bad, raising hackles rather than listening to reasoned arguments, forever ignoring the fact we might be wrong, and history warns us where all this ends up.

Meanwhile the ice sheets melt and the atmosphere warms up, inexorably, because although we could do something to stop it we can't be bothered, why save the future if it might inhibit the present, and yes we might create deserts where there are none, and yes we might end up flooding the land where billions of us live, and yes we might eventually struggle to feed the planet, and yes if you think the migrant crisis is bad now just you wait, but never mind because it's only our grandchildren who'll suffer so who cares that an investment not made today will be a catastrophe tomorrow.

And who's to say there isn't another pandemic waiting in the wings, and what happens anyway when all our antibiotics stop working, and a single solar flare could neutralise all our technology tomorrow, and we're only ever one large meteor away from total destruction, and artificial intelligence is sure to rise up one day rise up and override us, and it only takes one human error to create the doomsday scenario that destroys modern society, and what if 2019 was genuinely as good as it ever gets and from this point on we are merely freewheeling to our doom?

We are but one tiny planet in the vast emptiness of the universe, maybe even the sole example of cultural intelligence in the history of creation, custodians of innumerable generations of human advancement with a whole range of possible models of society at our disposal, and yet we seem happy to throw everything away and live in increasing misery, led by idiots we somehow elected to a position of absolute power, brought to our knees by a virus we always expected but never prepared for, and all because self-interest and short-term thinking trump foresight and cooperation, until the whole of human existence collapses around us and if we weren't all dead we'd only have ourselves to blame.

Or maybe it won't be quite that bad.

 Tuesday, September 22, 2020

At the autumn equinox, which is precisely now, the northern hemisphere passes from the brightest half of the year to the darkest. But how much darker is it? Let's bash some numbers.

London gets about 4480 hours of daylight a year (the equivalent of 187 days). If that daylight was spread equally then each month would see about 8% of the year's total, but it's not so they don't.

 Sep  Oct  Nov  Dec  Jan  Feb  Mar  Apr  May  Jun  Jul  Aug 

September and March get the average of 8% because they're the months when the year's two equinoxes take place. December has the least daylight, less than half of that enjoyed in June and July. July actually has a smidgeon more daylight than June, solely because it's one day longer.

But what I'm more interested in today is what percentage of the year's daylight falls between the autumn equinox and the spring equinox. How much darker is it about to get?

In London autumn and winter get 39% of the year's daylight while spring and summer get 61%. This may not be as great a variation as you were expecting given how dark it's about to get. But viewed another way it means that spring/summer has about half as much daylight again as autumn/winter, and maybe that chimes better with our imminently disappearing evenings.

The daylight balance varies at other latitudes.

  London (51½°)39%61%
Paris (49°)40%60%
Rome (42°)42%58%
Cairo (30°)45%55%
Manila (15°)48%52%
equator (0°)50%50%

The closer you get to the equator, the smaller the discrepancy between the brighter and darker halves of the year. In the tropics it's almost imperceptible.

But the closer you get to the North Pole, the greater the imbalance.

 London (51½°)39%61%
Newcastle (55°)37%63%
Shetland (60°)34%66%
Reyjkavik (64°)31%69%
Svalbard (78°)13%87%
North Pole (90°)0%100%

The further north you go the smaller the proportion of the year's daylight occurring over the autumn and winter months. Up in Shetland it's only one-third, and by the time you hit the Arctic Circle more like a quarter. The North Pole's weird, so let's not go there.

In short, the further north you live the gloomier the next six months are going to be, possibly quite significantly so. Hang on in there and the good times will return, half a year from now.

Open House: Bow Baptist Church

Every year there's one building in the Open House programme that makes me go "wow, they're actually opening that up this year?!" In 2004 it was the Gherkin, in 2005 Broadcasting House, in 2013 Beckton Sewage Works, in 2015 Millennium Mills and this year Bow Baptist Church. I'd walked past it thousands of times but never been inside, and Open House 2020 provided an unexpected opportunity.

There's been a Baptist church here since 1785, initially a frail structure in the meadows by Bow Bridge whose pastor baptised new members in the River Lea. A sturdier meeting house was erected in 1801 at the current location, facing the village green at the foot of Old Ford Lane by the windmill, with seats for 600 worshippers. A third chapel was needed by 1866, "a building of majestic proportions and perfect acoustics", this time with capacity for 1000 and a vast Sunday schoolroom tucked away in the basement. I know all this because the church website majors in history as well as faith, including a reproduction of the 150th anniversary pamphlet packed with much heritage detail.

The Victorian chapel was bombed in 1940 which meant a fourth building was required, an austere confection in brick, although this didn't get completed until 1956. And it would still be here today if only land hereabouts hadn't become so valuable recently. The neighbouring plot overlooking McDonalds got turned into lofty residential towers a while back, and the developers had a word and suggested incorporating the chapel into their plans. A church only really needs a ground floor so how about rebuilding it with flats on top, all community housing of course... and so in 2012 was born Bow Baptist Church number 5.

All I've ever been able to distinguish from the road is a boxy foundation with one large reinforced glass window. It is at least a very attractive window, given how simple it is - a grid of squares with pastel-coloured infill forming the shape of a cross. Having now been inside the building, I can confirm that this window is also pretty much the sole piece of decoration in the interior. Baptist worship is far more about people than unnecessary artefacts, so a white-walled room laid out with chairs, a lectern and a buried pool will suffice. The chapel no longer seats 1000, because these days it doesn't need to, but they had 30 in on Sunday morning which in these distanced times isn't bad going.

What was particularly impressive is how much extra capacity has been stashed away on the ground floor behind the main room. A separate (subdividable) hall permits a wealth of activities including a popular Mother and Toddler group. The Sunday School is no longer confined to a basement, instead sharing a wood-panelled room with the weekly Youth Group. A kitchen has of course been provided at the back - one of the boons of a modern building - but also a shower room which permits an unexpected extra activity. One night a week the church hosts rough sleepers, or did before the pandemic forced alternative arrangements, with volunteers serving up food, shelter and the opportunity for a welcome wash.

Your local church probably has a similar programme of unpaid good works, indeed I suspect if I ever had the opportunity to tour the mosque in the converted pub across the road I'd discover something similar. But it's always good to discover what's really going on in your community, rather than repeatedly walking past a spangled window oblivious to all that's being coordinated within.

 Monday, September 21, 2020

Open House: Aberfeldy Street

In 2020 the ideal Open House venue is a) outdoors b) architect-led c) within walking distance of home d) low-key enough that fewer than six people will turn up e) Instagram-friendly. Welcome to Aberfeldy Street.

The Aberfeldy Estate is a large triangle of postwar housing in Poplar bounded on two sides by the A12 and A13, and on the hypotenuse by Bow Creek. Easily overlooked, it's one of the most deprived corners of Tower Hamlets and for years has had a dubious reputation. Unsurprisingly redevelopment is afoot. The local housing association is replacing its stock in partnership with a construction company, sequentially demolishing 300 residential units in order to build 1200 more. Phases 1 and 2 are pretty much complete, replacing the A13 flank with a wall of cappuccino-friendly apartments. Aberfeldy Street will be phase 4.

It might seem strange to paint a high street pretty colours shortly before you knock it down, but there is method to the madness. Aberfeldy Street has long been somewhat drab, a brief shopping parade to satisfy the needs of local residents, peaking with a Londis supermarket, a chicken shop and a pub. What it couldn't do is satisfy the aspirations of moneyed incomers, so the plan has been to brighten up the fronts of 26 retail units and refurbish a few to boost the attractiveness of the area. The whole thing's been funded for less than the market price of a single apartment, and created over a few months by a team of architects engaging with the existing community. And it looks cracking.

The design concept references a Bangladeshi tradition of recycling garments, with each individual facade based on a different swatch of fabric. Most of these fabrics were sourced by members of the community, while others were lifted direct from the architect's wardrobe. Once scanned and processed this created a diverse patchwork to be applied to the fronts of the shops and the flats above them, the biggest decision being which design to place where. Over 800 litres of paint were used, in 200 different colours, with the entire street-sized mural applied in approximately six weeks. You can see lots of close-up images (and watch a fly-through video) here.

The end result looks anything but traditional, perhaps more Mediterranean or even Latin American, as the two brightly painted parades face off against each other. Walls, balconies and shutters combine to create a riot of colour, aided and abetted if the sun happens to be shining on one or other side of the street.

The supermarket now looks cheery, the tailor's shop bright and welcoming, and the Chinese takeaway requires a double take. The chemist has scrubbed up well, the mosque has a particularly colourful pattern which helps it stand out, and even the dusty old workshop rented by the old bloke who should have retired by now has a delightfully individual frontage. The Tommy Flowers pub was already a shade of dazzling blue, with its mural of the bespectacled computing pioneer who grew up two streets away painted down one side, it's just that the rest of the street has now surpassed it.

And yet.

Spending some time in Aberfeldy Street on a Saturday afternoon it was fascinating to see who wasn't here. The Bangladeshi grocers was busy, but only with people walking over from the undeveloped side of the estate. The punters gassing outside the pub included a late middle-aged couple so blunt that if they appeared on EastEnders you'd assume they were caricatures. Barely a single vehicle drove down the street in the course of half an hour, other than the lowly 309 bus squeezing its way through without stopping. The barber took a break from a loud conversation with two mates to head inside and shave a customer. A couple of teenagers walked up the street clutching the obligatory box of chicken. But of the residents of the new development around the corner I saw not a sign.

Aberfeldy Street barely gets a mention in the marketing brochure written to attract Nespresso-friendly professional couples to this corner of E14. The gym gets a double page spread, as does the 24/7 concierge, plus the promise of an on-site deli "for daily essentials and organic groceries". Londis definitely won't cut it for residents being nudged towards "Canary Wharf for Marks & Spencer Simply Food and Waitrose", or urged to "head into the West End for shopping and champagne afternoon tea." If the newly-repainted high street makes it into the next iteration of the publication it'll only be because it looks pretty, not because it's aspirational... it doesn't even boast a cafe where you could pick up a decent cup of coffee.

The repaint of Aberfeldy Street, glorious though it is, is only a temporary 'meanwhile' project with a lifespan of maybe five years. The next phase of the estate's redevelopment will be to build a new retail area, slightly to the south, after which the existing parade of shops can be safely demolished. Whether the existing traders of Aberfeldy Street, many of whom currently benefit from paying low or no rent, will be able to transfer across remains to be seen. Looking at the artist's impression, with bland units buried beneath stacks of brick balconies, I have my doubts.

At present, even in its rainbow state, Aberfeldy Street is serving traditional estate residents rather than the incomers. The danger is that the next retail hub will serve mainly the new lot, having been shifted onto their turf, with a consequent focus on hospitality fripperies rather than affordable services. The hope must be that the brightly repainted street proves so popular that nobody can bear to see it die.

 Sunday, September 20, 2020

Open House: 20 years of TfL

This year sees the 20th anniversary of Transport for London, a brand introduced in 2000 when the Greater London Authority was created. It's not an especially exciting anniversary but some years any excuse will do. For Open House TfL chose to celebrate by organising a self-guided walk routed via a number of key transport locations in the centre of town. It seemed an especially appropriate event to attend given that this year is my 20th Open House... plus it was outdoors, non-virtual and didn't require booking, and there weren't many other places to go this year.

It wasn't quite clear what you were letting yourself in for before you turned up, the Open House listings being as obtuse as they often are...
Regular tours every 60 mins (11am-4pm). Tours will be self-serve and all day.
... but in the end it turned out to be a 2½ mile walk undertaken at your own pace, ticking off five transport nodes around a looping circuit. Cheery staff were waiting at each stop with an information sheet, and if you collected all the information sheets you got a prize at the end. Think of it as TfL orienteering. Here's how it worked out...

1) Palestra
Palestra is TfL's main office block, otherwise known as the tall building opposite Southwark station with the jutting-out top. Normally it holds thousands of staff, but times are not normal so the furniture's been rejigged to cater for rather fewer, but times are not normal so nobody's due back at their desks before next month. Nobody's back at the other office blocks in North Greenwich and Stratford either, so best not think about the rent currently being paid out on empty buildings (not that TfL will be the only ones with this particular problem). Just look up at the colourful Will Alsop architecture, grab your information sheet and move on.
Palestrafact: 'Palestra' derives from the Greek for arena and is a reference to the boxing gym that once occupied the site.

"Here's your map" said the member of staff outside Palestra. The problem was it wasn't a map, more of a line diagram, which given the organisation who'd designed it perhaps wasn't surprising. But this meant the next location was only ever listed by name, with no visual or digital clues whatsoever. I got over-confident at this point, believing myself to be a London expert, and headed off convinced I knew where 'Waterloo Bus Garage' might be. Perhaps they meant bus station, I thought. They did not, and I walked quite a long way off course having not spotted the earlier checkpoint someone had hoped would be obvious.

2) Waterloo Bus Garage
Waterloo, it turns out, has a bus garage. It's had one since 1951, established to serve the Festival of Britain, but it's hidden behind a high fence and all the buses inside are single deckers so basically who knew. The two routes based here are the 507 and 521, the high-capacity, high-frequency 'Red Arrow' routes designed to disperse commuters across central London. They can't be dispersing anywhere near as many commuters as usual at present. TfL are very proud of their electric credentials, hence we were stopping off here with nothing to see rather than at the visually more impressive station across the road. The best thing I learned was of the existence of The Bus Cafe, ostensibly a works canteen but one to which the public are invited for a cuppa, fry-up or West African fish dish at hugely reasonable prices. Open weekdays only. File away this important information for later use.
Waterloobusgaragefact: One of the photos on the fact sheet was captioned 'This Routemaster was used to provide tours of London for visitors arriving for the Festival of Britain in 1951', but I didn't want to be the one to point out that the first Routemaster didn't enter service until 1956 and the vehicle in the photo was actually an RT.

3) Embankment station/pier
This check-in point was outside the station, not the pier, which was fine because we'd just trooped across the Golden Jubilee Bridge to get there. We'd also battled the crowds on Waterloo Road and the hubbub alongside the Royal Festival Hall, and should probably have walked through the mainline station too but I didn't fancy trying that. I did at one point question the sanity of traipsing through some of the busiest parts of post-lockdown London, it being no ghost town any more, but the promise of a prize at the end drove me to plough on. Embankment had the only non-chatty staff on the tour, so I can't tell you anything new other than what was on the information sheet.
Embankmentfact: Twice as many journeys start or finish at Embankment station each year (20m) as are made on the entirety of the TfL river services network (10m).

4) Temple station
In good news we got to admire the outside of Temple station as built in Portland Stone in 1911, as opposed to being forced to confront the northern end of the Garden Bridge which, in an alternative timeline, had been due to be completed by now. In less good news Temple station is closed this weekend, so we couldn't have enjoyed a one-stop trip on the tube and enjoyed "the red detailing on the top and bottom of the support columns" even if we'd wanted to. At least the lovely vitreous enamel geographic tube map from 1932 is always visible outside (a proper Journey Planner is available inside the ticket hall, as the heritage panel attests).
Templefact: The Temple cab shelter has a 'CSF' monogram, for Cabman's Shelter Fund, which built the structure.

5) Blackfriars station
This checkpoint was just inside the station, so I wondered what the current rules were regarding face coverings and ticket halls and whether British Transport Police would rush out and caution me if I asked for an information sheet, but thankfully nothing untoward happened. This particular stop merited two information sheets, one covering the station and intersecting cycleways, the other cycle hire and the history of London buses. The tour's organiser had done well to include quite so many TfL modes of transport in a single short loop, but alas the Overground, trams, Crossrail and Dangleway missed out this year.
Blackfriarsfact: The subway entrances, which no longer provide an entrance to the station, were opened in 1925. Another sealed-off entrance, opened in 1977, once led down to the Victoria Embankment.

6) Palestra (again)
Brandishing my complete collection of information sheets permitted me to claim my prize - a tote bag with a rather snazzy rainbow-lines-and-roundel design. It also finally gave me somewhere to put my information sheets as I headed off to my next Open House venue. I felt a bit guilty claiming my freebie having given TfL less than £10 of my money over the last six months, but rules are rules. I shall store it with all my other freebie tote bags which are supposed to be good for the environment but which I have never used. It's probably not a good sign for TfL's finances that my next venue was two trains away but I chose to walk five miles instead rather than board any of their services.

My thanks to whoever organised 20 years of TfL, though, for a well-planned diversion around once-familiar areas of central London. I even went south of the river for the first time since March. It was good to be back, however briefly.

 Saturday, September 19, 2020

20 things that happened this week #coronavirus

• care homes warned of rise in infections
• 2nd lockdown in Israel leads to resignations
• UK tests being sent abroad for analysis
• Rule of Six comes into effect
• Labour leader self-isolating
• no tests available in top 10 hotspot areas
• unemployment up, redundancies accelerating
• Home Secretary attempts to define 'mingling'
• entire Irish cabinet self-isolates
• inflation tumbles to 0.2%
• Rhondda goes into isolation/lockdown
• 'very serious situation in Europe' (WHO)
• new restrictions across NE England
• test demand 'significantly outstripping' capacity
• national 'circuit break' restrictions discussed
• London's New Year fireworks cancelled
• new restrictions across NW England
• UK now seeing "inevitable" second wave (PM)
• everyday interactions need to be "dialled back"
• PM plans hefty fines for breaking self-isolation

Worldwide deaths: 920,000 → 950,000
Worldwide cases: 28,600,000 → 30,600,000
UK deaths: 41,623 → 41,759
UK cases: 365,174 → 390,358
FTSE: down ½% (6032 → 6007)

Last year I thought I'd do Open House differently. I thought I'd volunteer.

In a normal year it takes 1500 volunteers to keep Open House weekend up and running. All you need to do is sign up on the website, enter a handful of details and pick a slot.

Volunteers can choose to be either a Guide or a Steward, the former leading people round and telling them about the building, the latter more of a reassuring and helpful presence. Being a Guide requires a certain level of swotting up beforehand, which I'm sure I would have been capable of, but I preferred an easy life so went for the Stewarding option instead.

Volunteering sessions tend to last half a day, typically 10-1.30pm or 1.30pm-5 (but slots vary according to actual opening times). Essentially you're committing to spending at least 25% of Open House weekend in a single location, but at least you get to choose that location yourself from a very long list.

I ummed and ahhed for a very long time before choosing a middle-of-the-spectrum building in a not especially overloaded part of town. I made sure it was large enough that I'd be one of several stewards on duty, not the schmuck with sole responsibility for advice and hospitality. This may or may not have been a good choice. Open House duly despatched a confirmation email giving contact details for the lady who'd be the duty manager on the day in case I needed to tell her anything, and all seemed well.

A free Open House guide rapidly arrived in the post. This was excellent payback, indeed a proper perk, given that the guide plus postage and packing now costs in the region of a tenner. Included in the package was a green Open House badge to wear which would confirm my official status. It also meant I'd be allowed to jump queues across the weekend, pre-booked venues excepted, becoming one of those annoying people who pushes past after you've been waiting in line for hours.

Another perk of being an Open House volunteer is that everyone gets invited to a party on the Sunday evening. An email was circulated giving details of the party venue in Spitalfields, plus a link to register on Eventbrite, with the major caveat that only 300 places were available. I was out when the email arrived and by the time I logged in all the tickets had been reserved, so the Open House Closing Party was immediately out of bounds. Admittedly I wouldn't have wanted to go, I hate parties with hundreds of unknown people, but I never got the option anyway.

At the end of August Open House sent an email asking if anyone was interested in doing a double shift. Several buildings remained in need of volunteer help and perhaps we'd like to trawl through these extra slots and sign up. A week before Open House weekend they sent another email listing 50 venues in need of help, but checking the website revealed the total to be rather higher than that. Many locations would function perfectly well with fewer people, but those with only one volunteer due to be on duty might not. I didn't fancy giving up more of my weekend so decided against.

With just two days to go my chosen building's duty manager contacted me by email and told me not to come. "Unfortunately we’re over capacity for volunteers," she said, "so your help is no longer required." I'm not sure quite how that could have happened, but fine, it left me free to volunteer at a different property.

I logged back into the website to pick again, but the system didn't know I'd been released from my duties so refused to allow me to rebook. I could have volunteered on the other day of the weekend, but I had plans for that wasn't so willing to switch dates. I clicked on 'cancel' to revoke my volunteering slot but again the system refused. It's too close to the actual event, it said, you need to email us instead. So I emailed and waited, and waited, but nobody replied.

The day before Open House weekend I received another automated email confirming my original booking, with the caveat "If you have any problems or queries, please get in touch so we can help." I did indeed have problems and queries. This time a different email address had been provided so I replied to that, only to receive an Out of Office reply which said "the Open House team are out and about checking on the events taking place across London. This email will not be being monitored regularly." Communication, I decided, was not one of the team's strengths.

I heard nothing else so went out and enjoyed the whole of Open House weekend as a participant. It meant some serious replanning because I suddenly had four hours free I wasn't expecting, and I didn't really maximise the opportunity. I could have used my badge to visit all the popular sites and queue-jump, but decided that wouldn't be fair so my magic pass stayed firmly in my pocket all day.

I did of course pop in on my chosen venue, briefly, but without letting on. One of the successful volunteers handed me a leaflet and directed me inside, while all the others sat on a sofa relaxing and having a cosy chat. Two of them were still having that cosy chat when I went to leave. I can see now that my volunteering slot would have been a total waste of time, offering limited opportunities to be usefully hands-on, and that the building was totally overstaffed even without me. It pays to choose your Open House volunteering slot with care.

On Monday afternoon Open House sent me an email thanking me for my contribution. It also said they'd had a lovely volunteer closing party last night, with Ivan's cupcakes a particular highlight, and hoped I enjoyed myself.

As far as Open House are concerned they think I did a wonderful job for them in 2019, whereas in fact my opportunity had been cancelled and nobody was interested when I informed them. I had been wondering how to respond when they sent a further email in summer 2020 inviting me back... but in the end the opportunity never arose.

Open House weekend is very different this year. Much of the programme is virtual, several of the self-guided walks can be walked at any time and a bank of short films is being uploaded at nine o'clock this morning. But several properties will still be opening physically and remain reliant on volunteers. If you've successfully negotiated the system this year and are pinning on your green badge as we speak, London offers its collective thanks.

 Friday, September 18, 2020

Postcards from the actual seaside [Ramsgate]

I apologise for not venturing outside my local area recently and bringing you relentless posts from not very far from home. You must be itching to hear about less parochial matters, anything other than the Obloodylmpic Park again, even if that just means a trip to Kent. If this doesn't help nudge my daily readership back up I don't know what will.

This is the ticket hall at Ramsgate station. It's an impressive ticket hall with a lofty roof, a 'Southern' coat of arms and a pair of locked toilets. The W H Smith & Son kiosk is at least a couple of rebrands old, and long shuttered.
I thought I'd head for the coast while the weather was nice, and before someone tells us non-essential travel is once again banned, but most importantly before my Gold Card runs out. I've had a Gold Card for 19 years, ever since I moved to London, but it's pointless having an Annual Travelcard at the moment so my magic rectangle with all the special offers expires at the weekend. I won't be getting to Ramsgate for under £20 again.

This is Ramsgate High Street. It's a proper high street, rising from the harbour and partly pedestrianised, generally quite narrow and unlikely to satisfy sophisticated shoppers. All Thanet's big stores were sucked out to Westwood Cross in 2005, leaving Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate with the vape shops, phone shops, bargain clothiers and takeaways. A few artistic enterprises thrive amid the Bonmarchés and New Looks, and a photographic exhibition of local architecture is on display across several shop windows. That church with the octagonal lantern poking above the bunting is St George The Martyr, one of Ramsgate's unexpectedly gorgeous buildings (but not a Pugin).

This gift shop caught my eye, or rather the display of fridge magnets outside. Pick from Union Jacks (sorry Flags), deckchairs, beach hearts and, erm, the Red Arrows doing a flypast with red, white and blue trails. The shop's owner also wants to remind passers-by that Brexit is coming, which may not be strictly true but is a surefire way of flogging flags. All products come in Imperial sizes only, because of course they do. Patriots will most likely want a 5-foot-by-3-footer to hang outside their house on New Year's Eve, but shouldn't overlook the benefits of 'Waving Flags', be they large or small, for impromptu in-street celebrations as the clock ticks down to No Deal Whatsoever.

Ramsgate boasts a Royal Harbour thanks to George IV who used to set sail from here when going back to Hanover, his patronage gifting this former fishing village a proper leg-up. Today the marina is mostly full of expensive boats, there being few sheltered anchorages along the Kent coast, but one or two lesser hulks are allowed to moor up on the eastern quayside. The fine summer weather has kept the harbourfront's pubs and restaurants busy, at least for lunch because the sun'll have swung round somewhat by the time it comes to dinner. Topless retirees in red shorts relax beside glasses of half-drunk lager at pavement tables. Grizzled bikers climb off their trusty steeds and queue to sanitise their hands before entering the Royal Victoria Pavilion. If the weather plays ball and extends the season into October, and other epidemiological conditions are satisfied, local businesses will be very pleased.

This is the Clock House, built beside the harbour in 1817 to tell captains and crew what time it was. Originally that meant Ramsgate Local Time, aligned to the Ramsgate Meridian, but since 1848 the clock has shown the time at Greenwich instead, 5 minutes 41 seconds behind. The meridian is now entirely obsolete but was painted as a blue line on pavements across the town in 2017 as part of a bicentenary art project. I'm sorry to have missed it. Today the Clock House is home to Ramsgate Maritime Museum, a five-gallery affair that's never been open during any of my visits to the town, indeed has had a neglected existence of late, but at least I got to hear the clock bong one.

Talk about a chequered history. The Ramsgate Tunnels started out as a railway incline delivering travellers and trippers to the harbourside, but closed in 1926. The former station was demolished to became a funfair called Merrie England, which dragged on until 1998 and this year is finally being redeveloped as 106 luxury apartments with a sunrise view. Don't say you're surprised. Meanwhile the railway tunnel was transformed before the start of WW2 as the cornerstone of an extensive public underground shelter, far greater in extent than any other UK town or city provided, which was reopened a few years back as a tourist attraction. I've already been, which is just as well because a coach trip from Gillingham had booked out all yesterday afternoon's slots, but Ramsgate Tunnels remains one of my most "wow this is so much better than I was expecting" experiences. Also, big love for the painted staircase.

The wind is gusting in from the east-north-east, which is unusual, so the waves beating against the Thanet coast are much stronger than usual. Surfers aren't complaining, but anyone walking or cycling along the Marine Esplanade needs to beware of breakers crashing without warning over the seawall. An elderly couple walking their toy dog edge carefully away from the railings, warned off by a telltale puddle crossing the promenade. I slip by unscathed, watching the turbulence ahead to try to judge where it's safe to stand and where not, then pause to try to take a photo of this impressive phenomenon. I judge incorrectly. While I'm getting my phone ready a rush of white spray erupts around me, splattering my shirt with North Sea water and delivering a salty tang to my lips. The elderly couple smile and walk on. I dry out swiftly, but decide to retreat to the safety of the clifftop instead.

 Thursday, September 17, 2020

Postcards from the Olympic Park

I apologise for venturing outside my local area recently and bringing you posts from such far-flung places as the City of London and Southend. You must be itching to hear about more parochial matters, especially the latest updates from Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as a follow-up to hundreds of posts I've written about the place in the past. If this doesn't help nudge my daily readership back up I don't know what will.

Been to the cinema recently? Never fear because the cinema will come to you so long as you a) live in East London b) have a car. It's an event called @TheDriveIn, a 126 show tour of 13 cities sponsored by a well-known vehicle manufacturer which has already been to Edinburgh, Liverpool and Cardiff and has just turned up in E15. Mean Girls and Grease are showing today, if you're interested, and Toy Story, Aladdin and A Star Is Born this weekend. It's just not in a terribly glamorous location. The QEOP events page describes it as 'South of the Park', the event's webpage describes it as 'Pudding Mill Lane Car Park' and I'd describe it 'Godforsaken Expanse Of Hardstanding Nobody's Built Flats On Yet'.

The joy of a drive-in cinema, from the management's point of view, is that it takes very little setting up. One big screen to erect, one backstage cluster of technicians and some signs up front so punters know where to park. You don't even need any loudspeakers because those who turn up are asked to tune into 87.9FM on their radios... and to watch the film through a sheet of slanted glass. I wondered how many people would turn up for the matinee of Back To The Future yesterday and the answer was not many, maybe ten carfuls, with the vast majority of the parking area left empty. At £35 a time (plus booking fee) the chance to watch a classic film everyone's seen multiple times perhaps didn't inspire. Evening and weekend screenings might do a lot better, of course, which'd be useful as it'd give the security staff, caterers and on-site medic something to do.

In common with most trips to the cinema the film begins long after the time advertised on the ticket. Arrival times are staggered in case there's a rush, which yesterday there wasn't, and early punters end up watching adverts, playing 'Lucky Licence Plates' or engaging in in-car karaoke. The words I saw flashing across the screen suggested a song lifted from The Greatest Showman, so there's your target audience. One of the event's sponsors is Just Eat who hope to meet your snacking needs by delivering to your car, but remember it's app-based purchase only ('Do Not Approach the Catering Facilities At Any Time'). It must have been a relief when the opening titles of Back To The Future finally appeared (at 2.52pm rather than two o'clock), and simultaneously a right pain that the sun was blazing down from immediately behind the big screen. A bubble-secure drive-in may be a lot better than not going to the cinema at all, but if you value your bank balance best stay at home and wait for the film to pop up on ITV2 instead.

Over the weekend New Bridge H14 was finally lifted into place across the River Lea. It's been sat waiting inside the nearest building compound since 2018, but only now are the abutments ready allowing a giant crane to do its work early on Sunday morning. The tale is a long one, beginning before the Olympics when a smart footbridge was added at this very spot. But plans for the local road network changed post-Games and a vehicle-friendly bridge became necessary instead, allegedly, so last summer the footbridge was lifted out and ten adjacent trees fed into a chipper. Since then earthworks have been relentlessly tweaked and, in a separate seemingly-endless project, new roads surfaced in readiness for delivering traffic.

It's not yet possible to walk across the bridge because additional metal sections have yet to be winched into place to connect it to ground level, indeed I wouldn't hold out much hope of using it soon. But you can walk underneath it already because the construction team were careful to close the towpath for only one night. From what I can see two pedestrian walkways run along the edges of the new bridge with the vehicle deck screened behind curved metal walls inbetween. Those bright yellow steps lead down to a cafe terrace, currently only accessible through a narrow alleyway. The bridge will initially open in 'restricted mode', with the 339 bus the only motor vehicle allowed across, but expect full-on connectivity once the new flats at Sweetwater start to reach completion. There's plenty of room to build them now that the bridge has been lifted out of the way.

Hackney Bridge, the "brand new, canalside public destination close to Hackney Wick" opens at the end of next week, by which point hopefully this towpath connection will be complete.

The project's Engagement & Partnerships Manager reached out to me last week ("I hope this email finds you well") and wondered if I'd like to pop down for a tour of the site. I turned down his kind offer, because obviously I did, but he was very keen that I "spread a bit of positivity around the project" so I'm pleased to be able to share 5% of his latest blogpost.
"Embracing engagement... collaboration and vision... our journey... engagement-focused events... ingraining ourselves in the local community... curating our Members... enterprise platform... bridge opportunities across the neighbouring boroughs... kicked off the dialogue... user-focused designs... diverse local audience... key stakeholders... a core function of the engagement strand... amplify our voices... open up a two-way dialogue... unanimously supportive feedback... nurture the right partnerships... encourage collaboration... join the dots between local programmes, initiatives and activities."
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park first earned a Green Flag award in 2014, the year after it opened to the public. But only this week has an actual flag actually appeared on an actual flagpole, fluttering above the road junction on the bend in Waterden Road. It doesn't flutter terribly well however, even in some wind, hence this is the best of a dozen attempted photos.

The Green Flag Award is a green space accreditation program run by Keep Britain Tidy on behalf of the UK government, recognising environmental excellence, pristine maintenance and tip-top visitor facilities. It can't be staggeringly difficult to achieve because around 2000 UK sites earned the award last year, but it is the recognised international standard, with parks in San Francisco, Turkey, New Zealand and the UAE somehow also included.

The Park is full of slugs at present, hiding in the grass, lurking in the lawns and sliming across the paths. You can only see two in this photo, sorry, because if I'd pulled back much further you wouldn't have seen any.

I know they come out after heavy rain but we haven't had any of that lately so I'm not sure what's caused the explosion. Best look where you tread.

 Wednesday, September 16, 2020

More postcards from the City (weekday version)

✉ Weekdays in the City are very different to weekends. There are actually people here, indeed quite a lot of people, although by no means as many lots-of-people as there used to be. Keeping at least two metres away from everybody mingling outside Liverpool Street station would be difficult... a problem I solve by diverting off through the shopping arcade, which is as dead as a shopping arcade can be. Office workers who've actually been into the office have donned their face coverings and are heading home to the outer boroughs, Essex and beyond. Taxis are queueing on Liverpool Street as usual, with some takers. Copies of the Evening Standard are stacked ready for what remains of the readership to grab, but thinner than usual. It could be a lot quieter. It would normally be much busier.

✉ The weather has been cracking, proper sitting-out-in-the-park stuff, except the City doesn't have any proper parks to sit out in. Former churchyards and itty-bitty gardens predominate, which aren't necessarily the best places to space yourselves out across limited benches. At least Finsbury Circus, as the City's largest public open space, permits some welcome sprawl. I'm pleased to see that Crossrail's former worksite has moved on, returning the grass (if not yet the bowling green) to public use. And yet hardly anybody is taking advantage, other than a few lone tanners in the sunlit corner, perhaps because there's little point in traipsing into the office only to sneak off for some lazy rays. That massive tower in the background is 22 Bishopsgate, the City's latest tallest building, which has finally filled the hole in the ground where the Pinnacle was supposed to rise. Its 62 storeys easily outshine the 47 of the Nat West Tower, and from this angle almost echo it in form, but not in an especially enthralling way.

✉ How I've missed a wander through the Barbican. Its concrete walkways and labyrinthine steps are always a delight, the floral displays tumbling over its layered balconies especially so at present. I head up to the highwalks in an attempt to cross from one side of the complex to the other, but am temporarily thwarted by several sets of locked doors into the Barbican Centre... because only one entrance is currently being used and you need to have pre-booked. Instead I spiral down to the Lakeside Terrace where a handful of tables have been spaced out for the benefit of phoneswipers, bookreaders and the generally relaxed, each labelled with a fresh laminate reading 'Maximum six people'. And then I weave my way out to Aldersgate Street without taking a wrong turn, because practice makes perfect.

✉ Beech Street was the very last place I visited before the PM popped up and advised against all non-essential travel... six months ago today. It was just about to be made the City's first Zero Emission Street, right on the cusp of lockdown, but the City pressed ahead and banned non-zero vehicles anyway. I note that full signage is now in place at both ends, including a 'No motor vehicles' sign with ten words of explanation underneath (because nobody's yet devised an official Zero Emission Street graphic). The restrictions did appear to be working, however, the only vehicles in sight being a white (electric) van and a lot of bicycles. If you don't like the way it's been done, don't expect the City to shift an inch.

✉ Some readers are only here on the off chance I might mention public transport in passing, as proven yesterday when three of you read everything I wrote about the City but could only manage to pen a generic Crossrail response. For your blinkered benefit here's another purple-tinged photo, this time of the station entrance on the Smithfield side of Farringdon with its fully-bagged roundel, etched glass panels and a protective ring of City bollards. The station might actually be finished now I thought, given it was supposed to have opened 92 weeks ago... and then three workmen in Crossrail overalls walked out and disavowed me of that notion.

✉ I was in the City for a purpose which was to meet up with Former Work Colleague for a drink. We last met for beers in the first week of March, at which point discussing potential foreign holidays still seemed a rational topic of conversation. Now here we were back again, in my case my first visit to a pub in six months and in his, I suspect, very much not. Trying to work out where to meet up had been a pain, being uncertain which pubs were actually open, which required you to pre-book and whose tables were already 100% reserved. In the end our chosen City boozer was nowhere near busy and our reservation entirely unnecessary, the after-work pint being a tangential casualty of the current working-from-home situation.

We were welcomed at the door of the pub by one of the bar staff who pointed at a Test and Trace QR code and invited us to wave our phones at it. Former Work Colleague went first, without being entirely certain what was supposed to happen, which seemed to be nothing. I followed on, and would have been equally baffled had we not been suddenly summoned inside to our corner table. Here FWC was asked to provide a name and mobile number, despite having pre-booked on the pub's app where the same information had been taken, and I was completely overlooked. If by some tiny chance the pub is struck down by an unfortunate viral outbreak in the next week I am not anticipating a call. Also I noted that we'd been closer to the barmaid during this introductory shenanigans than we'd ever have got with a bar between us.

Picking a beer to drink was harder than usual because you couldn't peer behind the bar to scan the bottles. Our orders were handed to us, rather than delivered on a tray, which I suspect didn't follow best practice. But there was tons of space for everybody inside what would normally have been a cramped pub, with the nearest other group two tables away and the loud cluster of beery blokes safely ensconced in the bay window. Even my trips to the gents were a breeze, despite the narrow staircase, which was just as well because with two-thirds of the urinals covered over a fully-bladdered queue could easily have built up.

I did not at any point feel especially at risk... but only because the pub was losing money hand over fist through lack of patrons which meant hardly anyone was exhaling nearby. Indeed it was a very pleasant evening with a tangible whiff of normality about it. I do not expect to be permitted to attempt anything similar by this time next month.

 Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Postcards from the City

✉ It's nine o'clock in the morning and Guildhall Yard is completely empty. The City always used to be quiet on a Sunday and suddenly it is again, at least this early, without even any security personnel or coffee seekers in sight. The Guild Church of St Lawrence Jewry recognises this and only undertakes services on Wednesdays and Fridays. I take a seat on the Queen Mother's memorial bench and survey the sunlit scene. The crazy mix of history on show includes a medieval Guildhall, a loop on the ground representing the site of a Roman amphitheatre and a Brutalist concrete turret circa 1974. I consider re-enacting a bit of gladiatorial combat for the benefit of an unseen guard watching via CCTV, but decide my continued presence is probably unnerving them sufficiently.

✉ Leadenhall Market is only slightly busier. A man who's been sleeping here overnight is packing up his belongings and preparing to leave, but not before he's hidden his slab of polystyrene bedding behind a utility cabinet where nobody'll nick it before nightfall. A father and son wander in with cameras in hand, taking advantage of the emptiness for a few ornately symmetrical photos. A sign declares We're open again, although nobody ever bothers on a Sunday and some businesses plainly haven't traded since closing unexpectedly in March. What used to be The Pen Shop is being used to store bollards. The door of the University of Sushi is very firmly padlocked. The New Moon pub has one door for in and one for out. The cheese boutique has almost as many bottles of hand sanitiser on display as wedges. The City centre economy is indeed in unprecedented trouble.

✉ One thing I'm unprepared for, having not ventured into the heart of the City for yonks, is the wholesale reclamation of roads for pedestrians and cyclists. The streets of the City weren't built for social distancing, quite the opposite, so several have had their pavements widened by means of posts and cones. On a Sunday morning this is entirely unnecessary, as you could jaywalk merrily and only risk collision with the occasional bus. But come Monday when (I assume) pedestrian density increases somewhat, anything that helps you dodge an oncoming banker is to be welcomed.

On Cornhill a large chunk of tarmac has been temporarily fenced off to contain a job lot of new signage. I count at least two dozen No entry except cyclists, a clump of Max speed 15s, an overflowing stack of bright yellow Diversion signs and an even higher pile of Diverted traffics. The most numerous signs are small, red, arrowed rectangles for the benefit of Pedestrians, maybe two hundred in total, in pristine condition fresh from the sign-making factory. As for raised kerbs, or "Interstate Grade Modular Longitudinal Channelizers" as the manufacturers call them, two dozen cardboard boxesful await opening. This is behavioural modification on an immense scale, or will be once everything is dished out to wherever it's meant to go. How much will remain once all this is over is another matter, but the motor car car may never quite regain the dominance it once enjoyed.

✉ Beneath the Cheesegrater, in the security-prowled escalator zone, official vandalism is taking place. Three of the yawning ventilation filters are being painted in various shades of blue (and occasional other colours) as part of the London Design Festival 2020. The resulting patterns are pleasingly geometric - an outbreak of tangrams across a curved surface - and seem to be being painted on a whim. But closer inspection reveals that every boundary line has already already chalked on and every shape individually identified, like some giant game of Spraypaint By Numbers. The end result at least looks fun and refreshingly unstarchy.
When I get home I try to search the LDF website to discover precisely what I was looking at, but give up after ten minutes because #designfail

✉ St Paul's Cathedral looks dazzling in the September sun. It's not being overrun by tourists, mainly because the vast majority have stayed at home but also because on Sundays services take precedence. Worshippers intending to attend Matins queue patiently outside, aided by the fact there are hardly any of them either. They pause at the top the big steps, face-covering previously administered, then walk forward to have their bags checked, their hands sanitised and their names recorded on a pad of paper in case of epidemiological incident. Attending a service in the City's pre-eminent place of worship used to be a breeze, and a privilege, but today requires much the same rigmarole as you'd expect before a sit-down meal in your local Nando's.

✉ The London Stone is now safely ensconced in its new home opposite Cannon Street station. To be fair it's been inside its new Portland Stone enclosure since October 2018, but I hadn't previously wandered by at a time when the sun was shining on the front of 111 Cannon Street. This historic lump of oolitic limestone looks a lot better cared for than when it was stuck behind a grille in front of W H Smith, but can report that the glass front makes scrutiny of the stone as obstructively frustrating as it ever was. I last blogged about the London Stone in 2011, so there's a millenniumsworth of backstory there, but the listed monument now has its own website londonstone.org.uk so that'll be your better bet.

✉ Some readers are only here on the off chance I might mention public transport in passing, so the eventual appearance of a roundel will have been just reward for ploughing through seven tedious paragraphs of mundane observation. Even better the roundel is purple, which means the potential to pen a snarky comment about elongated timelines or skyrocketing expense, permitting an almost orgasmic level of self-satisfied release. The photo also showcases the split personality of the troubled brand, one disgraced by project overruns and the other attempting to maintain its commercial allure by going very quiet while all the bad news rumbles on. Anyway, all I wanted to say is that a lot of the worksite in Liverpool Street itself has now been removed, greatly improving pedestrian access, and the wedge-like glass entrance canopy is now visible (if still inaccessible). That'll do you.

 Monday, September 14, 2020

I've not been on a bus for six months. Six months today, in fact.
I have no plans to get on a bus today either.

But I thought I might go on a virtual journey instead... riding complete routes across London with each bus starting from where the last ended up. It'd be a ridiculous thing to do in real life, an utter and complete waste of time, so I'm taking advantage of not being expected to actually do it.

I am of course starting from Bus Stop M. Let's see where I end up.

8  Bow ChurchTottenham Court Road
The only bus that starts from bus stop M is the 8. It's amazing any route starts here at all, I've been lucky. Although the bus starts off heading east it swiftly does a 180° turn and aims for the West End via Bethnal Green. Once we'd have finished at Victoria, more recently Oxford Circus, but the latest terminus is Tottenham Court Road, near enough, almost.

And now my first problem. I need a bus that starts in the same place as the 8 finishes, and that's no longer straightforward to work out. Once upon a time TfL produced proper bus maps, including one for Central London that would have covered the Tottenham Court Road area. But they stopped producing these maps 4½ years ago, and a ridiculous number of changes have been made to routes in Central London since then, so my 2016 map no longer tells the truth. I could use the TfL website to locate the final bus stop and try to work out what else begins close by but what an ungodly faff that is, indeed for this purpose unexpectedly tediously impractical. This leaves bus spider maps as my potential saviour, except the new style maps no longer list the routes down the side, only show coloured lines extending out from the centre. What I need to find is a coloured line that leaves the centre but doesn't enter, which by an eventual process of elimination cuts the twelve routes down to three. One of these is the 8, which I arrived on. One of these is the 176, but that starts over on Tottenham Court Road proper whereas I've been dropped off the other side of Centre Point. Which leaves the 1, which has to be my next bus. If you are the muppet responsible for cancelling bus maps and buggering up spider map formats, this moaning 250-word paragraph is entirely your fault.

1  Tottenham Court RoadCanada Water
My second bus is the 1, the primary London route. That's two single-digit routes in a row, which is incredibly unlikely. I'm now off through southeast London via Elephant & Castle, where I can't get off because I have to ride all the way to the end of the route which is outside Canada Water station.

More choice this time. Three other buses start from Canada Water bus station, these being the 199, the 225 and the C10. I mustn't catch the 225 because that goes to Hither Green station and no other bus route starts there, which makes the 225 a dead end (and perhaps now you can start to see how my journey is actually a branching labyrinth where some paths simply don't work). But the 199 goes to Catford Bus Garage, which is OK, and the C10 goes to Victoria station which has got to be a doddle to jump ahead from...

Let's try the 199.

199  Canada WaterBellingham, Catford Bus Garage
A tour of Deptford to start with, then south through Greenwich and Lewisham. I'm certainly getting around.

Outside the bus garage I have two choices, the 47 to Shoreditch or the 171 to, erm, wherever it terminates now. The 171 was one of the routes seriously massaged in the cull of several central London routes last year, and now only gets as far as (checks online) Elephant & Castle.

Let's try the 47.

47  Catford Bus GarageShoreditch
This bus retreads common ground, back through Lewisham and Canada Water, but continues to cross the Thames at London Bridge and on to Shoreditch.

At Shoreditch I have two options, the 35 or the 78. Or at least I think I do, my out of date maps aren't definitive. And the 78 is another dead end because it goes to Nunhead and no other bus does, so I have to pick the 35.

35  ShoreditchClapham Junction
Sigh, that's London Bridge again and Elephant & Castle again, but this time it's on through Brixton to Clapham Junction.

Three other buses start/terminate on the north side of Clapham Junction station, I think, and that's the 39, 295 and C3. I can't catch the 295 because that goes to Ladbroke Grove Sainsbury's which is a dead end, and I can't catch the C3 because Earl's Court Tesco is no better. So the 39 it is.

39  Clapham JunctionPutney Bridge
The 39 takes the very long way round to Putney Bridge via Wimbledon Park. Not normally one to ride all the way.

Putney Bridge is one of southwest London's major bus termini, so from here I could go all sorts of ways...

414Maida Hill

By my calculations the 85 connects to the 371, the 270 connects to the 355, the 378 connects to the 209 and the 414 connects to the 228. But this is all getting quite complicated now, branching inexorably out of control.

228Park Royal
371Manor Circus
     Let's try the 171.

171  Catford Bus GarageElephant & Castle
The 171 used to go all the way to Holborn, which would have been déjà vu, but instead after Peckham and Camberwell it now stops short on the road outside the Imperial War Museum.

The 171's last stop on Lambeth Road is also the last stop for the 155 and the 363, so it's got to be one of those next. Neither are dead ends.

Let's try the 155.

155  Elephant & CastleSt George's Hospital
The 155 shadows the Northern line through Clapham and Balham before veering off to stop in the grounds of the big hospital in Tooting.

The two other buses starting at St George's are the 264 and the 280. But the 280 terminates alone on the edge of London in Belmont, so instead I can only take the 264.

264  St George's HospitalWest Croydon
The 264 heads southeast through Mitcham to Croydon, roughly parallel to the trams. It used to terminate in the town centre, but now stops at West Croydon bus station.

TfL undertook a mass switcharound of termini in central Croydon last year to save a bit of cash. Trying to confirm which routes now start at West Croydon has been a bit of a pain, but my word there are a lot of them. I could go all sorts of ways...

166Epsom Hospital
194Lower Sydenham
367Bromley North
450Lower Sydenham
X26Heathrow Central
     Let's try the 363.

363  Elephant & CastleCrystal Palace
This follows the 63 through Peckham to Honor Oak, but extends further south to the bus station on Crystal Palace Parade.

Crystal Palace bus station is another of those spots with a ridiculously high number of terminating routes, so from here I could go all sorts of ways...

227Bromley North
322Clapham Common
363Elephant & Castle
417Clapham Common
     Let's try the C10.

C10  Canada WaterVictoria
A circuitous pootle round Rotherhithe, then some twiddly backstreets.

At least ten different routes start/finish at Victoria station. But the C10 doesn't serve the bus station, only Buckingham Palace Road, so I should concentrate instead on the two routes that share the same final stop which are the 44 and the C1. The 44 looks promising - it heads to Tooting station where I could swap to the 77, but the 77 is a dead end - so I can only switch to the C1.

C1  VictoriaWhite City
A single decker serving Knightsbridge and Kensington on the way to Shepherds Bush, terminating round the back of Westfield.

White City bus station attracts few passengers but several bus routes, so from here I could go all sorts of ways...

49Clapham Jn
260Golders Green

I'll stop there. My tree has now split from four branches to almost thirty, so following any further would be impractically unwieldy. But notice how the ends of those branches cover most of south and west London, from Uxbridge to Orpington and from Heathrow to Plumstead. Northeast London is thus far entirely absent, scuppered by ending up at Canada Water after bus number two. Its absence is particularly unexpected because northeast is the direction Bus Stop M generally serves, but if I kept on travelling I'd eventually get there.

Anyway, I set out on this virtual safari wondering whether my journey would stutter to a halt or inexorably open out, and it's very much done the latter. I could, if I so wished, ride end-to-end bus journeys from Bus Stop M and eventually reach most parts of the capital.... and beyond.

81C10C1607331 → Bucks
81C10C160722281 → Berks
81C10C1260102142 → Herts
81199171363227246 → Kent
81199171155264166 → Surrey
81199473539414228187268240221444385397 → Essex

What I think I've demonstrated is that a London bus network comprising solely bus routes that start where others finish would be a pretty comprehensive network. This isn't a useful conclusion, nor something TfL should act on to save money, but it is definitely a journey best made theoretically rather than in real life.

 Sunday, September 13, 2020

As anyone who's ever had to pound the streets posting things knows, letterboxes come in all styles and sizes. Big ones, small ones, low ones, loose ones, narrow ones, vertical ones, snappy ones... and some that are genuinely easy to fill.

Official guidance on letterbox design does exist. Alas not every front door follows it.

The original British standard was BS 2911:1974 "Specification for letter plates", but this has since been superseded by European directive EN 13724:2013 "Postal services. Apertures of private letter boxes and letter plates. Requirements and test methods". It's all very sensible stuff.

When determining the dimensions of an ideal letterbox, the key determinant was the C4 envelope. This is an envelope just big enough to contain an unfolded A4 sheet of paper, specifically measuring 324 mm × 229 mm. If you'd have to fold a C4 envelope to fit it in, your letterbox fails. When doing official tests the C4 envelope is actually stuffed with a stack of of paper 24mm thick, which marginally shrinks the envelope's length and width, but let's not worry about that.

Two different widths of letterbox are permitted, depending on whether the envelope is posted lengthways or side on. Assuming narrow edge first, the aperture has to be 230-280 millimetres wide. Assuming wider edge first, the aperture has to be 325-400 millimetres wide. In each case the range's minimum is just enough for an envelope to scrape through with 1mm to spare. An interesting corollary is that no letterbox should be ever be 300mm wide, or approximately one foot, officially at least.

As for the height of the letterbox, this should be somewhere between 30mm and 35mm. Any shorter and you might not get a parcel in. Any taller and security could be an issue. An additional standard concerns the dimensions of the space immediately behind the aperture which has to be sufficient to hold a 40mm stack of C4 envelopes. If your post drops onto the doormat it easily passes. But for anyone whose mail ends up in a box of some kind, it's important to know it's large enough to contain a rush of mail.

Then there's the elevation of the letterbox off the ground. Too high and not enough people can reach it. Too low and postal workers risk back trouble every time they go on their rounds. The guidance covers a wide range to allow for different designs of door, recommending that the centre of a letterbox be at least 700mm and at most 1700m from the floor. Thankfully not many letterboxes go for the full 1.7m.

There's more. The flap needs to open easily, and self-close. None of the edges should be sharp. The possibility of water ingress should be strictly limited. No viewing windows are permitted, to ensure privacy from the street. The whole thing should be corrosion-proof (the official test includes a 240 hour salt spray trial). And in communal locations the inside of the box must be lockable (or secured by some other device with at least 200 possible combinations).

When I moved to Bow my letterbox totally failed the security test. Poor design meant that anyone could walk up from the street and dip their hand in, removing anything they fancied. The day the postman delivered my new passport was a particularly stressful one. Thankfully the management company eventually replaced the old boxes with a new EN 13724-compliant design, but this suffers from the additional problem that the internal box slopes down at an angle. Post me a C4 envelope and it bends down fine. But most solid packages can't be tipped over like that, thwarted by length rather than height, which is one reason I don't buy much from Amazon.

The biggest change on moving here, though, was that my letterbox was no longer within my property. Previously I could pick up mail off my doormat with ease, whereas in my current set-up the communal boxes are at the front of the building on a completely different floor. I no longer know if and when I have new mail, I have to venture out to check just in case. This also means remembering to take my front door key with me and getting dressed to at least minimum standards. I miss the carefree days of instant mail collection - very much one of the downsides of living in a flat.

Meanwhile EN 13724 continues to be letterbox guidance rather than letterbox law, and came years too late for most of Britain's housing stock to have been affected. Should you ever need to post letters, cards, leaflets, newsletters or whatever around your neighbourhood, the risk of trapped fingers, bent backs and damaged envelopes remains.

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