diamond geezer

 Friday, January 15, 2021

This is Thackeray Road, East Ham, one of a ladder of a dozen Victorian terraced streets off Barking Road. It's also the birthplace of Forces' Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn. Newham council have attempted to make this known.

This is one of a trio of street signs installed in 2017 to mark Dame Vera's 100th birthday. Newham have a habit of commemorating famous citizens on street signs, including mathematician Alan Turing opposite Westfield, meteorologist Luke Howard in Plaistow and six speedway riders on the site of a former circuit in Custom House. Strict geographical accuracy is not always required.

The Thackeray Road sign is odd beause it starts by referencing author William Makepeace Thackeray, a man who spent no significant time in the locality, leaving the top drawer local icon as an afterthought. It also stands in place of the more usual marker, which is a plaque of some kind on the appropriate house so that people can pay their respects properly. In this case that's 3 Thackeray Road, specifically the ground floor flat where Vera Margaret Welch was born to a plumber and a dressmaker in March 1917. The current residents must be very pleased not to have centenarian groupies hanging around outside.

In 1921 the family moved three streets east to Ladysmith Road. Both ends are marked with a special street sign, this time highlighting Dame Vera alone, but the family home at number 38 is again anonymous. The third commemorative location is two miles away at Vera Lynn Close, a cul-de-sac in Forest Gate with no historical connection whatsoever. These signs are lovely things but I can't help thinking a pinpointed marker on the front of a house might be preferable. In a borough with only two (two!) blue plaques, Newham's famous sons and daughters deserve better.

QEOP Birdwatching update

I saw the kingfisher in the Olympic Park again this week. It was here, in the reeds just to the south of the cycle circuit bridge. I've updated my sightings map with the location.

The kingfisher normally appears on the east bank, in my experience, so the best chance of a view is from the riverside path opposite. In this case it was nipping briefly out of the reeds and then back in again, repeatedly, and so making its way gradually downriver. The bird appeared a few times during the few minutes I was watching. It looked smaller than I remembered, which might be because it was a different bird or might be because my memory is dimensionally inadequate. But its presence left a grin on my face which continued for the rest of my walk.

I should say that this was the eighth time I'd walked along the riverside since my last sighting on Christmas Eve and followed seven abject failures. Spotting a kingfisher remains a rare event so you probably won't be lucky you turn up on spec. But a number of blog readers confirm they've now seen it, in much the same place, and generally at quiet times when not many other people are around.

The one bird you can pretty much guarantee seeing in the Olympic Park is a heron. The wetland bowl in the northern half of the park is perfect for them, it seems, providing excellent access to a variety of tasty aquatic treats. I invariably see one or two somewhere by the water's edge, watching the water intently, perhaps before swooping off with enormous wings outstretched. I've also got quite blasé about seeing little egrets, and cormorants remain ten a penny.

What really surprised me was the hawk.

It wasn't flying free or hovering high above, it was firmly tied to the gauntlet of a lady in a black raincoat. Initially I wondered if she was just taking it for a walk, but the more I watched them the more I decided there was more to it than that. I first saw them striding down the riverside path opposite Kingfisher Central, but was surprised when they then broke off up a slope through some trees where no proper path exists. Their progress looked deliberate rather than casual, and this steady pace continued as they crossed the footbridge and descended to the bank on the opposite side.

Occasionally the bird of prey flapped its wings and rang its bells in a "look at me" manner, but most of the time it perched contentedly on the lady's covered fist. I suspect the pair are part of a paid-for service to frighten away the pigeons, of which there are too many, but that's not something I've seen in a public park before, only in places like Trafalgar Square. I hope this avian deterrent doesn't have the unintended consequence of scaring off the local kingfisher.

 Thursday, January 14, 2021

Thanks for letting us know the largest English town you haven't been to.

Collectively it's Liverpool, but you have to dig deeper into the data to make proper sense of it.

120 of you provided an answer to the question, cheers, and 16 said Liverpool was the largest place they'd never visited. It is on the coast, i.e. somewhere you'd normally only visit on purpose rather than pass through, which may be why some of you have missed it. Equally Liverpool's an iconic World Heritage City packed with interest, unlike say Birmingham which only stumped 8 of you, which makes its omission all the more surprising.

n.b. This doesn't mean 16 of you haven't been to Liverpool (because if you hadn't been to Birmingham you wouldn't have got this far down the list).
n.b. It also doesn't mean Liverpool is the least visited English city. I bet far more of you have never been to Bradford, but that was further down the list and half of you never got that far.

Importantly this was a self-selecting survey open to a global audience, so foreign visitors could (and did) skew the upper reaches of the statistics. Also we mustn't assume that everyone is a sightseeing nomad with a budget to match, nor has had the opportunity to scour the country over several decades. I'd have given a very different response to this question twenty years ago.

Here's how your responses tallied for England's fourteen largest cities. Three-quarters of you stumbled within this range.

12Kingston upon Hull10
13Newcastle upon Tyne0

» Everyone's been to London.
» England's second city, however, is less of a draw.
» Bristol stopped a lot of you, and Sheffield even more. Both are fantastic cities and I would strongly recommend a visit.
» Manchester performed strongly, as befits a cultural behemoth.
» Bradford halted several of you, even those who'd been to neighbouring Leeds.
» Hull's peripheral location strikes again!
» Well done to Newcastle, the first zero after London.
» Stoke-on-Trent tripped up 11% of all those who got that far.

After Stoke only two other towns stopped as many as four of you. One was Northampton in 21st place and the other was Bolton in 29th. These aren't typical tourist towns, nor anywhere you'd normally head on a whim, but are none the less fascinating for that. I still reflect on my day trip to Stoke which completely changed my view of the place.

Nine of you got further down the list than I did. I stopped at Sunderland (32nd) and one of you stopped at Warrington one rung lower. Poole (37th) and Telford (39th) halted a few football fans who regularly travel to away matches. Philip got as far as Blackpool (43rd) helped by "a career in retail". Paul swept all the way down to Sutton Coldfield (66th) courtesy of "being a bus spotter when younger". Colin's interest in transport incredibly got him to St Albans (90th), while Jo W was very put out to discover she'd never been to Redditch (98th). But our winner is Man of Kent who's been to every single one of the 100 largest towns in England, travelling so widely that he fell off the bottom of the ONS's official list.

I was so intrigued by the geographical distribution of the 100 largest towns and cities that I knocked up a Google map. Here's a thumbnail, and if you click on it you'll get the full zoomable scrollable experience.

The two black blobs are the two cities with over a million inhabitants, that's London and Birmingham. The nine dark brown blobs are all the other cities with a population over 300,000. With the sole exception of Bristol they're all in the North and the Midlands, approximately following a big arc around the Peak District. The lighter the colour the lower the population, down to the 26 yellow blobs with a population between 75,000 and 100,000.

Lancashire and Yorkshire have the greatest concentration of blobs, while the coast does particularly well in the south and the east. Such is London's primacy that it's surrounded by light-coloured blobs rather than darker ones. But my eye is really drawn to the areas with no blobs at all. Once you pass Bristol and Bournemouth the southwest really only has Plymouth and Exeter. Norwich is the only large settlement across much of East Anglia and the Fens. North of York there's nothing other than a cluster of big towns in Tyne and Wear.

England is a fascinatingly diverse country with so much in reach, whether your taste is urban or rural, historic or modern, upland or coastal. If and when you get the opportunity, I heartily recommend exploring as much of it as you possibly can. Don't be the blinkered one saying "I haven't been to most of those cities, because, why would I want to?"

 Wednesday, January 13, 2021

After almost a year of not going very far, and with an eye on one day being able to travel again, I wondered where's the largest town I haven't been to?

To be explicit, that's the largest English town or city by population that I've never set foot in. Travelling through (or standing on a station platform) doesn't count.

My first task was to find a definitive ranking of English towns and cities by population. I thought this was going to be difficult but no, the Office for National Statistics has a portal called Nomis which offers free access to up-to-date data. I selected a) major towns and cities, b) all ages c) all genders, and within seconds I was downloading the spreadsheet I needed. The list that follows is based on built-up areas, not necessarily administrative boundaries or wider city regions.

England's largest towns and cities by population


No problem so far, I've been to all ten. I've also blogged about all of them, which is why each city links to an old post. One I live in and five I've been to numerous times, as befits the country's great cultural centres. But Sheffield's had just three visits, Leicester and Bristol two apiece and Bradford only one. You may already have spotted a city you haven't been to, in which case you can stop there, you have a winner. I need to carry on.

12Kingston upon Hull288,000
13Newcastle upon Tyne288,000
20Brighton and Hove245,000

I've been to all these too, mostly several times. Stoke on Trent was a one-off day trip but once is enough to tick a city off. Nottingham's linked post consists of a single photograph, so I really ought to go back and try harder, but again it totally counts. The first dodgy city on my list is Southampton which I have only slightly visited. I changed trains there once and deliberately wandered out of a side exit onto the pavement for a few seconds so I could say I'd been, because in my rules visiting the station doesn't count. Southampton really should be top of my list for a post-lockdown safari... but I have technically been, so let's move on.

28Milton Keynes185,000

These are all multi-visits, for me at least, apart from Swindon and Bolton which are single trips. They've also all been blogged, other than Peterborough which I somehow haven't been back to since the 1980s. You may very well have seen a town or city you haven't been to by now, in which case make a note of what it is. But it turns out I have indeed been to the top 30 English towns and cities, hurrah. It all goes it goes wrong for me at 32...


Sunderland is the largest English city I haven't been to. In this case I haven't even travelled through it and seen it out of the window, which is a proper fail. That's why today's exercise is important, because I don't have a mental picture of Sunderland based on primary evidence, only what I've seen on TV or read about elsewhere. Warrington I have at least seen from a train speeding through, but Huddersfield is another personal non-event. That's three in a row I've missed, so very much where my run ends.


Shame, I was doing well again there until Oldham tripped me up. I meant to go to Oldham on my last trip to Manchester but it was raining so much that I gave it a miss. Another one for the to-do list.

In case you're still playing, here's the next 50.

52Chelmsford62Rotherham72Hemel H'std  82Birkenhead92Guildford
55Doncaster65Wakefield75Barnsley85Chesterfield  95Stockton
56Worthing66Sutton C'fld  76Stevenage86Wigan96Scunthorpe
58Basingstoke  68H Wycombe78Hastings88Grimsby98Redditch
59Rochdale69St Helens79Bedford89Chester99Mansfield
60Crawley70Bath80Darlington 90St Albans100Chatham

I'm quite pleased that I've been to 90% of the top 50 English towns and cities and 84% of the top 100. That's a pretty good record all told, in terms of developing a personal understanding of how the country fits together.

But let's keep this simple by asking...

What's the largest English town you haven't been to?
Mine's Sunderland, what's yours?
Special comments box → comments

Even if you checked out relatively early on, I hope you found the list of towns by population interesting in itself. If nothing else you might get some ideas for where to explore next, once you get the chance.

 Tuesday, January 12, 2021

What's London's shortest street name?

We can beat Aldwych.
We can beat Strand.

It's Hide, this brief unremarkable residential street in Beckton.

One side of Hide is a terrace of seven yellowbrick townhouses, each with a strip of grass and a single parking space out front. The other side is a continuous block of flats, mostly two storeys high, overlooked by a handful of trees. It's very Beckton, an anonymous modern street for families who fancy a small back garden. The only unusual thing is that it boasts the capital's briefest address - 1 Hide, London, E6 6ZA.

I stumbled on it while walking home from the far end of the Royal Docks, just before the big Asda. If you know where the DLR curves back on itself between Gallions Reach and Beckton stations, that's where Hide is, within that sweeping curve. I normally walk along the main road but this time I decided to walk behind the hedge to the housing estate beyond and there it was. I spotted the briefest of street signs on the wall and wondered whether this might be the shortest street name in London, and did some research, and yes it is.

This is the Winsor Park estate, built in the mid 1990s on one of the less contaminated parts of Beckton Gas Works. It includes a primary school and a small hospital, plus an irregular grid of residential streets with equally peculiar names. The two roads around the perimeter are called Covelees Wall and Newark Knok, while in the centre you'll find Cow Leaze, Horse Leaze and Tunnan Leys. Here are the remaining streets ordered by the number of letters in their names.

Hide   Ashen   Oxleas   Peverel

Not only does the Winsor Park Estate include the shortest street name in London but it contains the second shortest too, which is Ashen. That's got to look odd on an envelope. The list also includes a six letter name and then three sevens... although I'm less excited by those because I live on Bow Road and that's seven letters too.

One word street names are quite rare, and tend to be either quite old or quite new. Central London has Aldgate, Holborn, Poultry and Cheapside, for example, which date way back. Outer London has the odd Crossway, Meadway, Parkway and the like. Meanwhile Milton Keynes has streets including Simnel, Dodkin, Lloyds, Chervil and Tandra, and Basildon has Oldwyk, Knights, Teagles, Mynchens and Trindehay, because new town planners weren't averse to something wild.

Which got me wondering... what were the planners of the Winsor Park estate thinking? How did they come up with a selection of names including Hide and Ashen? The answer finally revealed itself in a comment on a malfunctioning Londonist article about single-named roads, left six years after the original post was published. Thanks Stephen (and thanks Rob for asking the question Stephen answered).
These Beckton street-names derive from medieval features in East and West Ham, mostly field names. They were suggested by the late Howard Bloch, who was Newham's Local Studies Librarian at the time. Newham Council subsequently misspelt quite a few of his many suggestions, including "Tunnanleys", which should have been "Tunmanleys", the "grazing-land of the town-men".
I think I've found Howard's source material, which is A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6, specifically the chapter on Agriculture in West Ham. This is odd because Beckton was in East Ham, not West Ham, and was originally marshland rather than open fields. A lot of these one-word Beckton streets are therefore named after features on the other side of Newham, nearer the Lea than the Roding, but Howard Bloch presumably knew what he was doing.
Peverel was Ranulph Peverel, joint owner of the manor of Ham at the time of the Domesday Book.
Sudbury was the medieval manor, somewhere near Plaistow, formed from Peverel's land.
• The manor of Sudbury owned fields including the Hide, Half Hide, Hole Hide and Bradymead.
Ashen field, Downings field and Newerk Knok were smaller fields called 'dayworks'.
Cow Leaze and Horse Leaze were large fields southeast of Plaistow, as was Wheatfield.
Covelee's Wall ran alongside the River Lea near Canning Town
Warwall was part of the river defence near Stratford Langthorne Abbey, near West Ham station.
Oxleas was a field further north in Stratford.
In short, London's shortest street name is derived from a minor medieval field called the Hide, precise location unknown but probably a couple of miles away from Beckton. It not the excellent reason I was hoping for, but it'll have to do.

Hide isn't the very shortest street name in the country. It ties for second place with at least three others, which are Side in central Newcastle, Ross in County Durham and Cher in Minehead. All are beaten by a lane called Rye in the centre of Puriton, a Somerset village close to junction 23 of the M5. Rye runs past the parish church and a small village green which was once part of Rye Common, hence the name. But four letters for Hide is still impressively short and, for London, very much as short as it gets.

 Monday, January 11, 2021

It strikes me this virus could be wiped out if only everyone behaved like me.

I live alone which is much safer than living with someone else. Not only is there nobody in close regular contact but I never have to worry about them going out, catching the virus and bringing it home. Obviously if I lived with someone else I'd be very careful when I went out so definitely wouldn't catch it myself. But you never know for sure where your other half has been, so living with someone else just isn't worth the risk.

One of the chief ways this virus spreads is between family members, but you won't catch me spreading it this way. I live over 100 miles from the rest of my family so I can't be tempted to nip over see them at the drop of the hat. If only everyone lived miles from their families and couldn't just 'pop round' to see them, everyone would be much happier and thousands of lives could have been saved.

I always stay far enough away from other people when I go out. Everyone knows precisely how far away that is, the scientists have made it very clear. If I see someone coming and a close pass looks likely I'm careful to step out of the way to maintain the minimum recommended distance. And yet all too often I encounter other people who seem happy to pass much closer, almost as if they're working to a completely different standard. On what misguided basis are these careless idiots endangering my life? But I note that some people choose to step out of my way as I approach, entirely unnecessarily because I was never going to breach the definitive minimum threshold, and I find this quite offensive. I don't smell, I've not got the lurgy or anything, so what's their problem?

I don't understand why people go out in the afternoon. Streets and parks are much busier in the afternoon, from what I've seen, so it makes much more sense to go out in the morning instead. Social distancing would be so much easier if everyone went out in the morning, like me, rather in the afternoon.

I see people travelling and I don't understand why they're doing it because I don't need to. I have no need to hop on a bus so I don't, leaving more room on board for others. I also have no need to get on a train so I don't, because I am mentally capable of confining my horizons for an indefinite period. I venture no further from home than I think I should be permitted, but it seems many people aren't respecting the same limits as me. I can conceive of no reason why travel is strictly necessary, certainly not in my life, so we could save countless lives if everyone took the same approach.

I can't believe how many people keep going out for a coffee. I never go out for a coffee, mainly because I don't like the stuff, but even if I did I wouldn't go out for it. Anyone can make perfectly decent coffee at home using readily available pods and granules, so there's absolutely no need to leave the house to get someone else to make it for you. Admittedly I do go out to buy a newspaper sometimes, but that's completely different because the news you get indoors just isn't the same so this makes for a perfectly legitimate journey.

Also I don't get why so many people keep going out for takeaway food. There's plenty of food in your kitchen, or at least there is in mine, so there's really no need to keep going out and buying one-off meals elsewhere.

I fail to understand why so many non-essential shops are still open. They sell things I don't need because I've already got them, or stuff I can't ever imagine using, so we'd be a much safer country if they were all shut down. Everything can be delivered these days, indeed couriers are fast and very reliable, or better still just sit tight and make do with the possessions you've already got. Obviously it was useful that John Lewis was still open for click and collect when I needed a new smartphone, but that was plainly an essential purchase and the exception that proves the rule.

I haven't formed a support bubble with any other household. I'm legally entitled to, living alone, but I consider it'd be an unnecessary elevation of risk. My mental health is perfectly capable of withstanding a year of full-on isolation, because that's how introverts roll, and everyone else basically needs to get with the programme to save lives. Meeting other people is incontrovertibly worse for your wellbeing than being cut off from them for months and months, so we must all make every effort to stay detached.

Also I don't have offspring which simplifies my life enormously with regard to childcare. I don't live with small humans who spend the day mixing with classmates in a so-called secure bubble, I don't need to go to the supermarket to feed hungry mouths so often and I'm never dragged to the park when I could be securely tucked away indoors. Also nobody knows what surfaces little hands might have been touching, nor where teenagers have really been when they say they've been out on their bike. A country in which nobody had children to look after would be able to defeat the virus much faster, it's basic common sense.

I have no problem staying indoors because there's nowhere else I have to be. I don't have a job that requires me to travel, endangering my life and others, indeed this entire pandemic could be ended if only nobody had a job to go to and simply stayed at home.

Even if I did have a job I would make sure it could be done remotely, as all proper professional jobs can. The country ticks over perfectly well on Zoom, as we see on news broadcasts daily. If everyone got themselves a job that could be done from home most unnecessary travel could be halted overnight, stopping the spread of the virus and thereby keeping our hospitals staffed and operational.

Also I've already had the virus so I can't catch it again. I'm sure I had it because I ticked off at least one of the list of symptoms and fought off the infection just fine. Admittedly the government weren't testing us back then but I'd definitely have been positive, or so I've convinced myself, which has very much changed my mindset going forward. The science is very clear that you can only catch it once, so even if I did catch it again I couldn't pass it on.

The obvious solution to the pandemic is for us all to stay at home alone while the last traces of infection burn them out. The country would still tick over, the lights would stay on and the NHS would no longer be overwhelmed, and then we could all get back to normal within a fortnight.

I have my own rules, which are the official rules as they apply to me but perceived through the filter of common sense. I know my limits and which boundaries I can push, as I'm sure do you, but your interpretation of the rules may not be as correct as mine. Indeed I often get cross that other people aren't doing what I would do in the circumstances, which ought to be patently obvious because in my view the rules are perfectly clear.

It strikes me this virus could be wiped out if only everyone behaved like me.

 Sunday, January 10, 2021

[for today's post I needed an accusatory swear word which would pass unchecked through a profanity filter, so I came up with Bolx, which I shall be using with abandon]

East of the Bow Roundabout lies an enormous (and very much unfinished) mixed-use redevelopment site. It's been a decade in the planning, demolition and partial reconstruction, and has finally got to the stage where the first offices and houses are being rented out. Originally it was going to be called Strand East but a few years ago it was rebranded as Sugar House Island, which is plainly Bolx, and the creative team haven't stopped since.
"Take 26 acres of historic London. Add intelligent design, creativity, sustainability, and a real sense of community; and you have Sugar House Island." ← Bolx
Nobody lives here yet so any sense of community is a long way off. One small corner has workspaces up and running plus a never-busy restaurant, but the rest is either building site or not yet built-on, and very much in need of tenants.

This dog is the emblem of The Dane Group who manufactured inks and paints in their factory here between 1853 and 2005. Their tiled canine mural survives, but the branding team skipped the doggy angle when picking a name for the development and focused instead on a demolished building called the Sugar House. Also Sugar House Island isn't a proper island, merely a large triangular plot surrounded by man-made offshoots of the River Lea, but for marketing purposes this insular Bolx counts as truth.
"Sugar House Island will see the fusion of original east London with the delights of the City, inspired by its rich history and unique location. Striking a balance between homes, offices, creative hubs and independent retailers, and surrounded by outdoor spaces and waterways, the Island will become a cohesive neighbourhood, inspiring human connection." ← Bolx

Recently the hoardings facing Stratford High Street have been updated. They used to be blank, or display phrases like nine centuries of makers & innovators, their old workplaces sensitively restored which were plainly Bolx. Alas the new slogans are very much worse.

i) Coming ashore is something you do when an island is at sea. Sugar House Island is not surrounded by sea, nor even lapped by tidal waters, so that's Bolx.
ii) These two drinks aren't shown from the same perspective which looks mighty odd. Also the availability of Aperol is unlikely to generate sufficiently unique chills or thrills, so that's also Bolx.
iii) The writing above the apple tree branch says Space To Let Loose, which having seen the denseness of the intended estate layout is plainly Bolx.
iv) None of the nooks and crannies available for exploration will be historic because the slate was wiped clean when the bulldozers moved in, so that's Bolx too.

It gets worse. These poems are so bad that a reader texted me during the week to decry their nauseating Bolxness.

I've blogged some pretty terrible marketing Bolx in my time, but these twee triples are on a different level. I think the worst, in terms of attracting people to live here, is bottom left, but top right runs it pretty close. A housing development you can giggle in while wearing pyjamas is about as far from a Unique Selling Point as I can imagine. Imagine the Brand Spark Workshop that generated these zingers.

The agency responsible are from Leeds and are called Kiss Branding. They describe themselves as Experi-Mentors, Change Makers, Brand Therapists and Future Strivers, which gives you some idea of their creative Bolx.
"A new agile and responsive studio, Kiss combines big agency thinking with a young challenger mentality, kissing goodbye to bureaucracy, formalities and old hat ways of doing business. It’s about time we put people first again, on both sides of the table. We’re informal, we’re straight to the point, we’re 2019."
They also haven't updated their website recently.

This list of attractions coming soon is somewhat perverse.

It looks like one of the attractions is a chimney, whereas in fact it's Chimney Walk which will be the site’s arterial heart. Someone's added a line break in the middle of Independent Retailers too, which may be utterly inept or may be a perverse way to generate interest from passers-by. Indeed you could argue that by publishing a post about Sugar House Island I have fallen into the the marketing team's trap, but they probably weren't expecting anyone to repeatedly describe their work as Bolx.

Finally, let's mention the transport claims in SHI's latest brochure.

7 minutes to King's Cross looks amazing but of course it's Bolx because they've started the clock ticking at Stratford International. That particular station is a 20 minute walk away, or an eight minute bus ride assuming the 108 turns up immediately on the opposite side of the road. Likewise the 9 minutes to Liverpool Street overlooks the need to trek to Stratford and the 10 minutes to Canary Wharf ignores the hike to Pudding Mill Lane DLR on the other side of the flyover. Developers across London really ought to stop this devious connectivity Bolx, but of course they never do.

Of course there is a target audience that laps this Bolx up. They may be in need of a modern flat with concierge or seeking somewhere to relocate their edgy creative business, in which case Sugar House Island's hoardings might just hit the mark. But the general tone of presentation, and especially those Bolx poems, have convinced me I'd be totally embarrassed to consider moving in.

 Saturday, January 09, 2021

20 things that happened this week #coronavirus

• rules "probably going to get tougher" (PM)
• "no doubt that schools are safe" (PM)
• 2 cases identified on Isle of Man
• rollout of Oxford vaccine begins
• primary schools reopen across most of England
• Scots required to 'stay home' for rest of January
Lockdown imposed across England
• schools close again/summer exams cancelled
• Chancellor announces new business grants
• estimated 2% of population have the virus
• ambulance service has busiest day ever
• Oxford vaccine reaches GP surgeries
• National Express suspends services until March
• PM outlines mass vaccination plan
• arrivals in UK need to show negative test result
• Moderna vaccine approved in UK
• Mayor of London declares major incident
If You Go Out You Can Spread It, People Will Die
• Queen and Prince Philip vaccinated
• restrictions too lax, say scientists

Worldwide deaths: 1,830,000 → 1,920,000
Worldwide cases: 84,000,000 → 89,000,000
UK deaths: 74,570 → 80,868
UK cases: 2,599,789 → 3,017,409
Vaccinations: 1,296,432 → 2,286,572
FTSE: up 6% (6460 → 6873)

A year ago today I walked across Richmond Park (deer✓, sunshine✓, bees✓, camellias in bloom✓) like it was the most normal thing in the world. I've not been back since.

I carried on walking north as far as Mortlake, and that's when I spotted London's least served bus stop. I should write about that one day, I thought. Today I'm doing just that.

This is Bus Stop E in Sheen Lane, SW14. It's exactly the kind of road that ought to have a decent bus service, being Mortlake's main shopping street and also where the railway station is located. Instead it's served by just one route and that route runs only once a day, twice a week. Miss the bus at half past ten on Friday morning and you have to wait four days for the next one.

The route in question is numbered 969 and is TfL's last surviving Mobility Bus. There used to be dozens of these across London, first introduced in 1985 to give the infirm and the disabled the opportunity to get to the shops. But they started to be withdrawn when Dial-a-Ride started, and the introduction of low-floor buses with wheelchair spaces culled numbers even further.

Ten years ago only eight mobility bus routes survived...
917 - Park Hill Rise to Croydon (Wed)
931 - Crystal Palace to Lewisham (Fri)*
941 - Bedfont Green to Hampton Hill (Wed)
953 - Scrattons Farm to Chase Cross (Wed)
958 - Woodford to Ilford (Tue)
965 - Riverhill to Kingston (Mon/Fri)*
969 - Whitton to Roehampton Vale (Tue/Fri)*
972 - Neasden to Colindale (Thu)
...and by 2013 only the three with the asterisks were left. Two succumbed in 2017 and 2018 respectively, leaving the 969 as the sole remaining example. It lingers because it's still financially supported, and used, and because it serves a number of residential streets in Whitton and East Sheen that no daily bus route touches. Depending on your definition of a London bus route, it's the only London bus route I've never ridden. But Roger has, so you should read his description of a journey instead.

The biweekly 969 begins its single journey in Whitton just off the Chertsey Road, close to Twickenham Stoop stadium. It starts by deviating round a separate estate alongside Crane Park, then doubles back towards St Margarets. Next it crosses the Thames to reach Richmond and then zigzags east through Mortlake past the aforementioned bus stop. After a brief riverside sojourn it bears south in Barnes and skirts Putney Heath to terminate on the A3 at Roehampton's Asda. Passengers have just over two hours to do their grocery shopping, and maybe partake of something in the cafe, before the day's other journey takes them home again.

London has several other little-used bus stops, including those on routes that only operate a few times a day, those used solely by schoolbuses and those served only when buses are on diversion. It's also true that several other bus stops along route 969 are served equally as infrequently as Bus Stop E at Mortlake Station. Bus Stop F on the other side of the road is an obvious example. But what I think makes Bus Stop E unique is that it's the only stop served twice a week to have the luxury of a proper bus shelter.

Sheen Lane deserves a better service, not least because it's a key connection between the Upper and Lower Richmond Roads. Plenty of other routes serve these corridors but all remain on one side or the other and only the 969 cuts across. The chief reason for this is the level crossing at Mortlake station which holds up the traffic on a very regular basis, hence it's a good idea if the only route affected runs hardly ever.

Covid hasn't killed the 969 off so it still provides a lifeline to not very many people not very often. It should still be there when all this is over, should you fancy a unique non-essential journey followed by a couple of hours at Asda. And should it be raining on the day you choose, remember to head for Mortlake so that you can have a sit down in the dry while you wait.

Route 969: route map
Route 969: route map
Route 969: timetable

 Friday, January 08, 2021

I walked past the ExCel Centre yesterday.
Here's an arresting image.

Rest assured it's not as bad as it looks.
These ambulances aren't transporting patients, they're empty.
And the Nightingale Hospital isn't open, let alone operational.

The ambulance front left is from the Driver Training Unit and the other four are part of the training session. London always needs ambulance drivers, and imminently a lot more than usual. I have no idea whether this particular course is the normal 22-week version, nor how close to completion it is. But a sign outside the Novotel did confirm it was just one of a number of cohorts currently undergoing training, and that the hotel car park was reserved for the trainees' vehicles.

The real surprise was how quiet the ExCel Centre seemed, and indeed how much it still looked like an exhibition centre. Back in the spring the entrance arch had Nightingale Hospital branding, but that was switched off when the facility was decommissioned at the start of May. Throughout the summer a row of NHS flags continued to flutter in the plaza outside and the posters saying Nightingale Hospital London remained. But a couple of months ago the owners reinstated their 'Welcome to ExCel London' brand and started playing digital adverts likely to appeal to global conference attendees. Even the arch now flashes up the word Welcome in a variety of foreign languages. I take this as the surest sign that nobody inside is on life support.

If further evidence were needed, the temporary Tesco hasn't reopened. A small store opened in a white marquee beneath the main entrance to serve hard-pressed staff back when they were needed. But it closed after only a few weeks, with a We'll be back if you need us sign on the exterior... which I fear may be soon. Alongside is the turning circle where TfL's special staff-only bus shuttles once terminated. The bus shelter has been mothballed since the spring, rather than removed, but a contractor's van was parked there yesterday so maybe it's being readied for fresh passengers.

Having read in the news that London's Nightingale Hospital has been "reactivated" ready to take patients, as well being due to open as a mass Covid vaccination hub, I was expecting to see more concrete evidence of preparatory action. But the quarter mile of dockside perimeter was almost dormant, bar a couple of staff waiting behind access doors and a pair of future employees with bicycles. Someone came out to greet them, confirming that yes this was where they'd need to come next week and yes the shift really did start at six in the morning.

As for the large eastern car park, its most significant feature is a fenced-off area filled with a film crew's caravans. That's because, in the absence of nurses and delegates, ExCel has been offering its million square feet of exhibition halls as a film studio and various high end dramas have grabbed the opportunity. But suddenly this week the far side of the car park is busy too, scattered with vehicles whose drivers are here to perform a variety of unspecified tasks. They could all be film-related, but the appearance of several vans belonging to Igloos (global solutions for temporary and permanent washrooms) suggests not.

One thing about ExCel is how successfully it shields whatever's going on within. Could be an arms fair, could be a romcom, could be a mass morgue serving several surrounding boroughs. But if you judge the level of activity by people's need to go in and out occasionally then the interior is not the hotbed recent news stories might have suggested. The service road alongside the DLR is silent, the platforms at Prince Regent station are quiet and ExCel's elevated eastern entrance is closed unless you're employed by security.

This tumbleweed vibe is preferable to what might be coming later in the month, if the NHS can get the staff, as the Nightingale becomes urgent overspill for hospitals overwhelmed elsewhere. But ExCel could also be a place of hope, a building to which Londoners flock for a jab that could collectively save us all. Our desire to get there might even give the Dangleway a genuine sense of purpose, rather than what I saw yesterday which was 40 consecutive empty pods. In the meantime subdued preparations are being made for whatever lies ahead, as a multi-purpose venue extends its remit.

 Thursday, January 07, 2021

I finally got round to buying a new phone. I should probably have done it earlier.

I usually wait until my phone's on its last legs before replacing it. My last started flickering alarmingly, the one before that developed an erupting battery and the one before that was unsmart long after its time. I kept that particular Sony Ericsson for over five years, and I kept my latest for over five years too. I am very much afflicted with technological inertia.

To give you some idea how old my most recent phone was, I bought it in the week Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. Simpler times. After two years it needed a new battery so I got that replaced and took some tips from the guy in the shop on how to prolong it. Try not to recharge it until it's really low, he said, so I did that and battery two lasted rather longer.

But by this time last year it had started to degrade, losing charge more rapidly and occasionally plummeting in power for no readily apparent reason. I started operating in Low Power Mode as my daily default, just in case. But it was still good enough that I managed to get all the way to Cornwall and back, and took 300 photos, without a recharge. False optimism.

In the week that lockdown started an overnight charge failed and my phone wouldn't turn back on no matter how many cables I plugged in or buttons I pressed. I spent five agonising hours convinced it was never going to revive, furious that battery failure had happened at precisely the wrong moment, until ohthankgod it somehow magically woke up again.

The issue wasn't so much the phone as the charger connection, which over the course of four and a half years had become increasingly worn. It meant that plugging in the cable didn't always work first time, I had to jiggle it a bit until the charging symbol lit up. And if the power hit ever zero this charade didn't always work, because I couldn't tell if the cable was connected and the phone had started recharging... or not.

In normal times I would have popped to a shop for repairs, an upgrade or a new phone, but shops were no longer open so that wasn't an option. You might have had a new phone delivered at this point, but I decided to continue with a suboptimal device. I can string this out, I thought, and did.

I spent the subsequent nine months trying very hard to ensure my phone never turned itself off in case it never turned itself back on. This mitigation generally worked fine, and I was able to continue to use my phone on a day to day basis, but all the time the battery was fading away a little quicker.

The turning point was Christmas Day when I went for a walk into central London hoping to take some unique photos, but having taken a handful my previously full battery suddenly claimed to be at 27%. I had a proper camera with me but that failed too, again a battery issue, so I knew my days of technological inertia were numbered.

I did my research. I sought advice. I seriously considered all sorts of repurchasing options that later proved to be either suboptimal or entirely unnecessary. This is why I normally like to go to shops to buy things rather than sitting here and guessing incorrectly. But I got there in the end.

On Monday I finally worked out that I didn't need to wait days for a phone to be delivered because John Lewis were still offering Click and Collect a mile away. I took the plunge and forked out, anticipating a pick-up time the next day... then a few hours later the Prime Minister popped up and announced Lockdown Three. Damn, I thought, I timed that appallingly.

But it was fine, because under the latest rules it seems Click and Collect remains a perfectly permissible service. I received an email earlier than expected inviting me to pick up my purchase, so trooped over to Westfield and located a lowly table placed outside the store's back door. The member of staff struggled to read my barcode with her gizmo because the display on my ageing phone wasn't bright enough, but a minute later I was walking away with its replacement. Hurrah.

Back in 2015 I'd got somebody else to do the entire changeover for me, but this time I managed it all by myself. The magic of bluetooth helped out, plus the cosy friendliness of modern gadgets, plus advice on the internet when things didn't quite go as expected. Small victories, but this is what happens when you don't do this kind of thing very often.

Contrary to normal technological progress my new phone is exactly the same size as the old one. That's potentially useful because the case from the old one still fits... although the hole where the camera goes is in a slightly different place so damn, I'm going to need a new case soon. I already have that new-phone paranoia that comes from holding a slippery unprotected slab of unblemished metal.

I'm now trying to readjust to having a phone that works the way it's supposed to. The battery survives happily for more than one day. I can listen to audio or take a photo without fear it might conk out. I don't have to repeatedly jiggle my USB cable before it connects, it just works. I've been putting up with a diminished product for so long that normality has been a pleasant shock.

But it's still a learning curve. Lots of settings aren't quite what they used to be, or more likely weren't previously featured, so I've spent a lot of time turning options off. No I do not want my phone to take a snatch of video every single time I take a photo. No I do not want to send Memoji Stickers, thanks. I'm still at the stage of wondering what I've missed.

It's been good to lose the fear that my phone might ultimately brick itself, which I now realise has been niggling away since March last year. A lot of crucial functions like banking or making a purchase assume you have a functioning phone and will lock you out if you're unable to use it. I'd hate to have missed out on a future vaccination because my local surgery wrongly assumed I could read the one-off text they sent.

So I wish my new phone a long and healthy life. The last one surprisingly cost £10 more but endured for an impressive 1937 days so turned out to be a bit of a bargain. How quickly a former luxury becomes a future essential.

 Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Before Christmas, with much fanfare, TfL launched a new version of the tube map with Thameslink included. Officially it was the December 2020 tube map, despite not appearing in stations or being released online.

But it's taken until this week for a digital version to appear on the TfL website, fanfare-free, so you can now download it and see what all the fuss was about.

Except it's not the same map they showed us three weeks ago. And had they released this latest version to the press I doubt it would have received as positive a reception.

For example, in the previous version Thameslink's descent through central London was a straight line with a single kink around King's Cross. You can reacquaint yourself with that central section here, if you so wish. But in the latest version the number of kinks has increased to three, somewhat inelegantly, like so.

The pink line now keeps a greater distance from Farringdon, then bends right to hit City Thameslink, then curves left and right to reach Blackfriars. It's not pretty. And it all comes down to where the station names have been placed.

• On the previous map Farringdon was written to the right of the station. Here it's to the left, which has forced the addition of a giant interchange connection.
• On the previous map Chancery Lane was written above the Central line. Here it's below, because Russell Square occupies all the available space, and this has prevented Thameslink from continuing straight down.
• On the previous map Mansion House was written to the right of the District line. Here it's to the left, and Cannon Street has been written on one line, which means Thameslink has to bend round both.

The map's designer won't have taken these decisions lightly, they'd have made the line straighter if they could. But there is a genuine underlying reason for the differences in design, namely that the two versions of the map are subtly different sizes.

The map we were shown in December is the poster version, the one that'll be displayed on station platforms and in ticket halls. Tube map posters are always Quad Royal size, that's 50 inches by 40 inches. The latest map is a bit smaller to make room for a strip above and below, so actually measures 50 by 32½. In terms of ratio, the width is 54% longer than the height.

The map that's just appeared on the website is the pocket version, the one that'll be available to pick up in ticket halls. This map has to be narrower because a folded sheet of paper has different proportions to a poster frame. In terms of ratio, the width is 42% longer than the height.

And that 12% difference in width means the poster can afford to be more spread out than the pocket map.

I've tried to overlay the two maps, proportionally speaking, by matching the Circle line on each. The map in the background is the poster. The map on top is the digital version just released. As you can see the poster is proportionally broader than the pocket map and, if keeping central London to scale, also offers a tad more room top and bottom.

All of which has resulted in Thameslink getting really twisty.

The northwest branch through Kentish Town bends through 45° nine times and 90° once. The northeast branch through Finsbury Park bends through 45° three times and 90° once. The southeast branch through Woolwich bends through 45° four times and the branch through Bromley six. The line to Gatwick bends through 45° six times and 90° twice in order to manoeuvre around Croydon's trams.

Throw in the Sutton Loop and the wiggle through central London and I make that 48 bends altogether. But the previous larger map had only 35. If the digital map is less aesthetically pleasing, it's because a 12% decrease in width has led to a 37% increase in twists.

The change in dimensions has also introduced several unsightly extended interchanges. I've got my ruler out and measured them, and can confirm that the five longest interchange connectors on the new tube map are all thanks to adding Thameslink.

1) The longest of all is the aberration at Finsbury Park where twin black lines extend to reach a distorted Thameslink bend.
2) We discussed Farringdon earlier. Its connector is almost long as the word Farringdon itself.
3) At London Bridge Thameslink slingshots underneath the tube station (and the extra link to a river pier only makes things worse).
4) Mitcham Junction's connector is longer than strictly necessary because the station and tram stop are in different zones. In better news, at least they've fixed the Hackbridge problem.
5) Blackfriars could have been a single blue blob but no, the designer wanted a connector stretching (diagonally) across the river.

A dishonorary mention should go to Denmark Hill in sixth place, where Thameslink and the Overground have been kept really far apart so that Peckham Rye and Queens Road Peckham can be squished horribly close together. This is what happens when the tube map's long-standing rule about only using 45° angles forces a lot of empty space to be filled wholly inefficiently.

In summary, Thameslink fits less well onto the pocket tube map than onto the poster. It may be a useful extra to have but blimey it's a mess.

And if you learned nothing else from today's post, remember there isn't just one tube map, there are two.

 Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Random City of London ward (7): Tower

The odd thing about Tower, my seventh random ward, is that it contains neither the Tower of London nor Tower Bridge. Both are in Tower Hamlets, not the City, as is the dividing strip of land called Tower Hill. Tower ward is merely the irregular arc of streets beyond, a labyrinth of intermittent heritage sprawling from Aldgate to the Thames. [pdf map]

The unintentional heart of Tower ward is Fenchurch Street station. It's the City's oldest terminus, and the most out of the way, intensively used only by those heading Essex-ward. A compact Victorian facade faces not Fenchurch Street but Fenchurch Place, a sideroad, where a queue of taxis waits to sweep away anyone baffled by the lack of tube connection. The City's only 'London Street' lies before you. So too does a large blue sign saying ARCADIA, which this plaza definitely isn't, but that's art for you.

But it's not the station entrance which dominates Tower ward, it's the viaduct the platforms are built upon. This carves obliquely across several streets, casting them into barrelled gloom, unless you're a fan of artisanal brickwork in which case it's a joy. By far the most atmospheric void is French Ordinary Court, which starts promisingly by ducking under a Georgian bedroom and then opens out into a dark pitched vault with cobbles underfoot and emergency firedoors around the walls. Here I bumped into a couple of very frustrated tourists attempting to find their way into the station but instead experiencing mild urbex nausea, so who were very pleased to be put right.

The main road underneath the station goes by the excellent name of Crutched Friars. This medieval order of 'cross-bearing' brethren once had a monastic house, long since suppressed, somewhere underneath the adjacent Doubletree hotel. You can meet two of the monks at the end of Rangoon Street in a morose statue carved into an office block, and read further background detail on a plaque outside the inevitable Crutched Friars pub. Hostelries of all kinds are very much a feature of Tower ward, and in normal times City workers flee in large numbers to the Bierkeller, Brewdog or Hung, Drawn & Quartered at the end of the working day.

A conference centre has been built above the station, called One America Square, because marketable space is at a premium hereabouts. America Square is an especially lacklustre quadrangle surrounded by buildings reflecting the worst excesses of 1980s architectural whim. But its footprint is actually 250 years old, part of a trio of spaces laid out by George Dance the Younger named Square, Crescent and Circus. Circus disappeared underneath Tower Gardens when the main road was widened but Crescent is still there, or at least numbers 6 to 11 are, in a magnificently unexpected Georgian sweep. Better still if you dodge round the rear of number 11 a fragile slice of Roman city wall survives, tall and thin, locked high and dry into a back yard.

The main street Minories gets its name from the Abbey of St Clare which was once populated by nuns called minoresses. The boundary of Tower ward juts out to encompass the original site. But it juts out further to reach Mansell Street, specifically the foot of the rear exit from Tower Gateway station, which also happens to mark the easternmost point of the City of London. As for the easternmost building that's a toss-up between Minories Car Park or the London Central Travelodge. Connoisseurs of artfully-rippled Brutalist concrete will hope it's the former. For Art Deco try the pre-war fortress of Ibex House on Portsoken Street, one of the City's older bespoke office blocks, while for 21st century excess Hilton's new Canopy hotel beside Aldgate bus station is hard to beat.

The ward contains more than its fair share of hotels, perhaps because the immediate vicinity of the Tower has a global allure. By far the grandest is the Four Seasons at Ten Trinity Square, former headquarters of the Port of London Authority, infilling an entire city block in Beaux Arts style. Trinity House nextdoor has yet to succumb to five-star dining. This was Samuel Pepys' stomping ground during the Plague and Great Fire years when he was living on Seething Lane in a house tied to the Navy Office. the great diarist is buried across the road beneath the communion table inside St Olave's church. This is one of the City's few remaining medieval buildings, having narrowly dodged conflagration in 1666, although what you see today is mainly a post-Blitz rebuild.

One street away is Mark Lane, today inconsequential but in its day a name as well known as, say, Downing Street is today. That's because it was the address of the Corn Exchange where the price of wheat, flour and bread was determined, initially around an open courtyard and later inside a grand classical building. But mercantile London has very much vanished, financial services aside, so the post-war version of the Corn Exchange was demolished in the 1970s. It lives on as the name of a bar and the name of an office block, the latter approximately in the correct location, but I could see nowhere that'd sell you a sandwich, let alone a loaf of bread.

Across Byward Street is All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, reputedly the oldest church in the City although others have cast doubt on its Saxon origins. By the 12th century it was definitely up and worshipping, and has since seen the baptism of the founder of Pennsylvania and the marriage of the sixth American president. Do check out the museum in the undercroft when you visit, should you be fortunate enough to be living at a time when this is permitted. The touristiest environs of the Tower of London are all across in Tower Hamlets, so thankfully skippable. Instead a strip of land barely 50m wide brings the ward to the edge of the Thames, where a chain of hospitality igloos lie empty after a festive season during which they were never necessary.

Expect it to be even emptier on the waterfront today.

 Monday, January 04, 2021

There are three schools in the Olympic Park.
And they're all in different boroughs.

Mossbourne Riverside Academy is in Hackney.
(in East Wick, close to Here East, facing the Lea Navigation towpath)
This is one of the Mossbourne chain of academies spawned from the original bright blue fortress wedged inbetween the railway lines just north of Hackney Downs station. That was founded in 2004 when City Academies were a Labour government innovation, and rare, rather than the free market shibboleths the Coalition turned academies into. Mossbourne Riverside is of 2016 vintage, serves primary-age pupils and the new term starts today.

Bobby Moore Academy Primary is in Tower Hamlets.
(in Sweetwater, next to the Big Breakfast Cottages, facing away from the towpath)
This one opened in 2017 in a long thin modern building clad in brick tiles, and is a lot more likely to win an architectural award than Mossbourne Riverside. It's one of 34 academies operated by the David Ross Education Trust, a Loughborough-based organisation overseen by millionaire David Ross, founder of Carphone Warehouse and a Tory donor. Local councils don't get a look-in on new schools these days. Today is the first day of term at BMA (or 'frist day', as it says on the website).

Bobby Moore Academy Secondary is in Newham.
(on the other side of the Olympic Stadium, below the Greenway, near the View Tube)
This school's in a tall chunky building, cramming as much as possible into a small footprint, including a large protruding hall at first floor level. Students get to use the former Olympic warm-up track for their sports lessons, or as a necessary adjunct to the tiny playground. Geoff Hurst came along to open it in 2018, as did David Ross (because that's where being chief sponsor gets you). Today was planned to have been the first day back, but instead it's a training day to prepare staff for the rollout of mass testing.

When I took these photos the plan was for schools is Hackney to open this week but schools in Tower Hamlets and Newham to stay closed. That'll be an interesting post, I thought, highlighting the absurdity of government policy when matched to the vagaries of geographic reality. But then the minister changed the advice, having been screamed at from all sides that opening schools in eleven seemingly-random London boroughs was madness, so now all primaries in the capital are to stay closed to pupils this week (and the school in Newham is a secondary so was never going to open anyway).

Still, there are three schools in the Olympic Park.
And they're all in different boroughs.

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digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards