diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 23, 2023


Cheltenham is a well-to-do market town on the edge of the Cotswolds and home to over 100,000 people. It owes its growth and character to the discovery of health-giving springs in the 18th century. It boasts copious streets of fine Regency architecture. Its largest employer shuns the spotlight while engaging in surveillance activities on an international scale. And it grabs the spotlight in March each year when racegoers flock to attend the annual Cheltenham Festival, an event I carefully avoided when timing my visit. All I saw was the aftermath. [Visit Cheltenham] [10 photos]

This is the Montpellier Spa, Cheltenham's first Georgian pumproom, which replaced a wooden structure on the same site when it became clear there was a lot of money to be made from wellness. The exterior has fluted Carytid columns in classical Greek style and the rotunda was added in 1824 to top off a new ballroom. The great and good came flocking, and to walk in Montpellier Gardens after taking the waters, at least until the fad for spa-going faded in Victorian times. By the turn of our century this splendid building had become a mere branch of Lloyds Bank and since 2017 has been a brasserie for The Ivy, so is catering ostensibly to the original clientele. The small Co-op tucked in alongside lowers the tone somewhat, but elsewhere along Montpellier Street it's designer shops and luxury items all the way.

The premier road through Cheltenham town centre is called Promenade and is faced by impressively ostentatious buildings including several hotels and the town council offices. I wasn't sure if the gazebos outside Clarence House were a temporary feature to accommodate Festival hospitality overflow or a permanent amenity for Gloucestershire's ladies who lunch. Up the road the Neptune Fountain was sadly waterless, which may just have been to stop racegoers making merry but left the sea god and his shell-chariot looking somewhat marooned. This Italianate fountain is fed by the local river, unsurprisingly called the Chelt, which runs in a culvert under the heart of the town. Close by is the turrety bulk of Cheltenham Ladies College, one of Britain's most prestigious boarding schools, which was built on the site of the town's first mineral springs. Water is never far away from the history of central Cheltenham even if it's turned off.

Because I was following the Historical Cheltenham self-guided tour I'd thus far only seen a rather splendid side to the town centre and wondered whether ordinary people also shopped here. The High Street answered that question with its Primark, John Lewis and M&S, plus if you walked far enough eventually an Iceland, Millets and Betfred. I wondered why Superdry had been included in the tour itinerary but it turned out to be because the brand was first established here in 2003, growing out of a clothing stall on Cheltenham market. Another locally-sourced business was the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society, inaugurated in the town in 1850 and finally dissipating under the weight of its ambition in 2009. As for modern malls the biggie is the Regent Arcade which contains what's thought to be the world's tallest mechanical timepiece, the Wishing Fish Clock. It was designed by Masquerade author Kit Williams and features a goose that lays golden eggs and a fish that blows bubbles every 30 minutes... but is alas currently undergoing essential maintenance. Visiting Cheltenham is all in the timing.

I also messed up visiting the local celebrity's museum. That'd be composer Gustav Holst who was born in a middle class townhouse on Clarence Street in 1874 that's now open to the public. It includes the piano on which he composed The Planets, not that he did that here, having left Cheltenham for London before he was 20. It also includes a Regency Sitting Room decked out as if his grandfather were giving piano lessons, not that he ever did that here either. Unfortunately Holst Victorian House closed at the end of February for a few weeks of "exciting redevelopment work" so I missed out on getting inside, indeed I'd never have guessed from the exterior that it was a museum at all. Instead I made do with looking at his statue in Imperial Gardens, a bespectacled man with arms and baton aloft surrounded by yet another safely-drained fountain.

The town's chief cultural attraction is The Wilson, an art gallery-slash-museum named after polar explorer Edward Wilson (one of Captain Scott's final tentmates). It's recently been extended via a modern glass slice, RIBA-approved, with a central staircase linking to an impressively varied selection of galleries. One has a nationally renowned collection of Arts & Crafts goods and locally-inspired furniture (like a micro V&A). Another does local history through art (though not in much depth). Other galleries host works by contemporary local artists, including a whopping textile swoosh and that witchy ceramic I showed you yesterday. There's usually a visiting exhibition - currently on the theme of Print with works by Picasso, Hockney, Yinka Shonibare and another chance to see Simon Patterson's The Great Bear. Just don't be put off by the fact the entire ground floor appears to be a cafe, the real nourishment is to be found upstairs.

I wonder how first time racegoers cope with Cheltenham's geography. The station lies adrift in the suburbs a good mile to the west of the town centre while the racecourse is another mile and a bit to the north. Getting to the Festival is a bit like being dropped off at Paddington and expected to walk to Camden Town. Near the end of the climb comes the Pittville estate, a mid 19th century new town comprising giant spacious homes in Greek revival style built to take advantage of Cheltenham's spa status. Pittville Park adds a stripe of formal greenery, much wandered, and above the ornamental lake sits the majestic pillared Pittville Pump Room. This housed the town's last and largest pumproom and still dispenses mineral waters, should it be open, but more likely you'll have to make do with bottled water from the Orangery cafe alongside.

The racecourse itself is on the very edge of town off the Evesham Road. It hosts regular Jump meetings between October and May, the next being mid-April, but the big one was last week when an avalanche of equinefolk, gamblers, drinkers and the Irish descended. A heck of a lot of additional infrastructure was required, including a ticket office they haven't taken down yet, assorted broadcasting equipment being taken away by the truckful and a footbridge I watched being disassembled. Annoyingly some of this stuff continues to block the public footpath that runs along the edge of the actual course, which remains closed, so I never actually saw the circuit where the Gold Cup is run. The backdrop of Cleeve Hill and the rim of the Cotswolds looked pretty impressive though.

In Benhall, another suburb on pretty much the other side of town, lies the circular headquarters of mastersnoopers GCHQ. 'The Doughnut' was opened in 2003 to consolidate the workforce and is surrounded by a protective ring of security fencing and cul-de-sacs. You get some idea of the scale of the workforce from the size of the car parks, one around the building and a separate enormous compound across the road, plus the fact the local bus company runs a regular service terminating at the gates. Among the staff I saw arriving for a shift at the cyberface were youngsters with lanyards, middle-aged men in suits and white-haired professor-types with improbable headgear, all candidate characters for some fictional spy drama except this was the real thing. And even though the complex rubs up against some very ordinary roads yes, a ring of cameras is keeping an eye on everything and numerous signs warn 'No Photography', so it did feel a bit uncomfortable contriving to walk by. I don't think they have a rule outlawing snaps from the top deck of a passing bus, which is where I took mine later, but I bet I'd been added to their database long before I got that far.

 Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A grand day out (at hourly intervals)

5am: I knew I'd wake up before my alarm went off.
6am: Radio 1 really is very poor before Greg James starts. I need to boil the kettle for my thermos. I think I can get away without a rainproof jacket. I must not forget my tickets.
7am: I had assumed she was asleep on her boyfriend's shoulder, but when he got off the train she just slumped onto the empty seat and carried on sleeping. Much respect to the bloke for enduring that.
8am: Our trolley attendant this morning is hugely apologetic that he hasn't been able to start the at-seat service yet because he's got stock checks and temperature checks to do. He only wants to bring us the coldest freshest juices, apparently, but if he stopped updating us repeatedly maybe some passengers might get a drink quicker.

9am: The trolley has finally arrived just as we're pulling into the provincial station most passengers want to alight at. The bloke opposite me pays £2.70 for a coffee and almost immediately stands up to disembark. Nobody is ordering Wolfy's Vegan Porridge or Mr Pullen's Fruit Cake Slice. I'm a bit peeved because I've arrived an hour late for the thing I hadn't realised was happening today.
10am: I really shouldn't have taken a photo of that building. I'll be worried all day now.
11am: I've never been here before. A lot of the people out shopping look like they know their way round a horse. The man on the plinth looks like an accountant. The fountains look bereft without water. I'm glad the sun's out because I booked this trip a long time ago.
12 noon: Damn, I hoped it'd all be cleared up by now but the public footpath is still closed.

1pm: I keep treating the pedestrian crossings like a Londoner and dashing across the road on red. You can still get wheelchairs onto buses here but the driver has to get out and unfold a ramp and it's quite steep.
2pm: I can see now why the museum offered me a cut-price ticket, it's nowhere near as extensive as I was expecting.
3pm: OK, this square is just as impressive as I remember, and all the better because it's nigh empty so I can get all the photos I could ever want. Shame about the signs to the cafe halfway round though.
4pm: No I haven't come to see the special exhibition. I'd be surprised if many people come to see the special exhibition. I bet your day's wages are higher than you'll be taking today for the special exhibition. Sorry, I didn't realise that was the way to the special exhibition, I'll just go back downstairs.
5pm: I have reached the special place, which today is doubly special but alas not while I'm here. It's further out of town than I'd have liked. I was considering walking back the scenic way by the river but then I noticed a) mud b) flooded meadows c) bulls so I'm slogging back via the main road again.

6pm: I appear to have taken over 300 photos. I also appear to have walked 40000 steps. The supervisor from the station office has just asked the barista at Costa if he'll wind his shutters up again so she can buy a sandwich.
7pm: Return journeys after dark are never as interesting. The girl sitting in the seat opposite has just picked up her bag of cruelty-free beauty products and settled into the seat immediately behind me.
8pm: I wasn't expecting the gate to spit my ticket out because the ticket for my outbound journey was retained, but that's good because I can add it to my longstanding collection of used train tickets. I wish there was somewhere to chuck a magazine after you've finished with it.
9pm: I have made tea and toast and sliced some cheese. Now to rewind Tim Dunn.
10pm: I'm knackered but I need to write something for the blog tomorrow otherwise nothing will appear and someone will leave a comment saying "Oh I thought you might be dead".
11pm: Well that'll do. I will sleep well tonight.

 Tuesday, March 21, 2023

London's most Londony London Something
(an entirely subjective listicle which nonetheless concludes with the correct answer)

Lots of things in London are called London Something. One of the biggest is the London Eye.

At 135m tall it has a good claim to be London's most Londony London Something. It was the world's largest cantilevered observation wheel when it opened and attracts millions of paying passengers each year. Its silhouette is so iconic it's often an integral part of any graphic London skyline. But it's not really called the London Eye, it started out as the Millennium Wheel, plus it's had multiple sponsors over the years. First it was the British Airways London Eye, then the Merlin Entertainments London Eye, then the EDF Energy London Eye, then the Coca-Cola London Eye, and since 2020 the faintly ridiculous lastminute.com London Eye. All of which means it's always been the Something London Eye, not a proper London Something, so we can discount its title chances.

London Airport is even larger, indeed at five square miles it exceeds mighty Richmond Park.

People all around the world know London Airport, even those who've never flown. Again the problem is it's not really called that, not since 1966 when London Airport officially became Heathrow. These days it's officially London Heathrow Airport owned by Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited and is one of six constituent parts of the London Airport system. This also includes London City Airport, London Gatwick Airport, London Luton Airport, London Stansted Airport and London Southend Airport, only the first of which is actually in London, plus additionally London Biggin Hill Airport (which is) and London Ashford Airport and London Oxford Airport (which aren't). London Airport is more nominal rabbithole than actual London Something, and so we move on.

How about the London Underground?

London's tube network is iconic, a proper global brand. The umbrella name emerged in 1933 with the dawn of London Transport, the unified public body, which in itself can no longer be the most Londony London Something because it's become Transport for London. The London Underground could well be Number One, its sprawling network used by millions and connecting multiple corners of the capital. I wanted to check if London Underground was the official name so I headed to the TfL website but there it seems to be called the Tube. I did eventually dig up a heritage page called 'London Underground' but that's mainly about the histories of the eleven individual lines instead.

The best place to check, I decided, would be the TfL editorial style guide. But that doesn't have an entry for London Underground, only London Buses (do not use 'Buses'), London Overground (do not refer to as 'Overground') and London Trams (not London Tramlink). It is clearly the proper name, as the entry for Tube makes clear...
'The Tube' (with a capital T) is acceptable colloquial shorthand for the London Underground.
...but the waters are somewhat muddied here.

London Wall is the oldest surviving London Something. It's part of the original Roman walls of the city, even if these days only chunks remain around the edge of the city. One of these chunks sits alongside the road called London Wall, or more accurately London Wall sits alongside one of these chunks. Impressive though its survival is, arguably it should be called Londinium Wall, or better Londinium Murum, or better still Murus Londinensis, and that takes it right off this London Something list.

London Zoo is back to being called London Zoo again, having previously been known as Regent's Park Zoo, London Zoological Gardens and ZSL London Zoo. It's now 197 years old, which is damned good going, and welcomed 1,045,289 visitors last year. It's undoubtedly in the Top Ten London Somethings but it's not top of the pile.

How about London Road? There are dozens of these, mostly outside London because it only makes sense to have a London Road if it leads towards the capital. But the boundaries of London have grown over the years so London Roads also exist in Barking, Brentford, Bromley, Croydon, Enfield, Feltham, Forest Hill, Harrow, Hounslow, Kingston, Mitcham, Romford, Stanmore, Sutton, Twickenham and Wembley. Paddington has a London Street, Hackney has a London Lane and there's even a Londons Close just south of Upminster. This is ironic because Londons Close is about as far from central London as London gets, but also true because Upminster's in London so London's very close indeed.

Not many neighbourhoods within London are called London Something. The chief exception is London Fields, the surroundings of former commonland in Hackney, but that's far too lowly to make inroads on a London Something list.

London Fields is also one of only two stations in London called London Something. Technically there are a dozen more if you include London Blackfriars, London Cannon Street, London Charing Cross, London Euston, London Fenchurch Street, London Kings Cross, London Liverpool Street, London Marylebone, London Paddington, London St Pancras International, London Victoria, London Waterloo and London Waterloo East but I'd rather not. The terminus that breaks the rule, the only one which doesn't need an extra London because it already has one, is London Bridge. And London Bridge, I'd argue, is the most Londony London Something of all.

London is only here because of London Bridge, indeed it was the spannableness of the Thames which drew the first important settlement to these banks. For centuries it was the capital's only bridge making it even more important, the sole fixed link between north and south. After several rebuilds it's still a key connection between Southwark and the City, being more resilient than Tower Bridge, plus it has that important station named after it. Of its many manifestations the current bridge is precisely 50 years old this month having been opened by the Queen on 16th March 1973, indeed I now wish I'd run today's post last Thursday.

London's most Londony London Something is London Bridge, no argument.

 Monday, March 20, 2023

In five weeks' time the Government intends to send an emergency alert to every mobile phone in the country.

It's a test of a new public warning system designed to alert the population to life-threatening situations in their locality. It'll set off a siren-like noise on your phone or tablet, even if it's on silent, and send a message to your homescreen which needs to be acknowledged. It's due to be sent out "early evening on Sunday 23rd April 2023".

This made me think "Why?" "How?" "But..." "What?" and "When?"
But mostly it make me think "Wow, this is going to be quite the event!"
And also "How do they plan on alerting the UK population beforehand?"
And "Sigh, ssssh."

Should there be a life threatening risk in your locality it would be useful to know. The chance to take evasive action in advance of a potentially catastrophic event could save lives. Other countries have implemented similar systems, e.g. the US, Japan and The Netherlands, so we're merely following good practice.

The alerts are sent to all phones within range of a specific mast or transmitter. This means the authorities don't need your phone number, they just send the same message to everyone. This also means that citizens in Bristol aren't going to be interrupted to be told about an imminent incident in Nottingham, or indeed Bath.

Obviously the alert will only work if your phone is on. More importantly it'll only work if your phone is connected to 4G or 5G, so nothing will happen if you're only on wi-fi or are in Airplane mode. If you're not connected at the time it's not clear whether the test alert will sound later when you connect or whether you've permanently missed it.

Initially at least, the plan is only to use the Emergency Alert system for weather-related emergencies like flooding or wildfires. Later they say they might use it for terrorist-related scenarios. It's not going to be like BBC Breaking News alerts that flash up to tell you a dog in Bolton has a sick paw. The expectation is that most UK citizens will never see an emergency alert, they're for extreme events only.

So far they've only said the test alert will be sent "early evening on Sunday 23rd April 2023". That tends to be one of the quieter times of the week when most people are at home, but millions will still be out and about, maybe driving, maybe attending an event, maybe at Evensong, maybe at the cinema, maybe in the middle of some family crisis, maybe asleep between shifts, and a blaring red flashing message is going to be one hell of a distraction.

"Wow, this is going to be quite the event!"
I think it's highly likely that The Test Alert will be the major national talking point on April 23rd, and maybe beforehand too. Imagine the anticipation as it approaches. Imagine the massive kerfuffle as it occurs. Imagine the deluge as people take to social media to tell their "You'll never guess what I was doing..." anecdotes, or to moan about the noise, or to complain they never got one, or to ask "what the hell was that?"

"How do they plan on alerting the UK population beforehand?"
I am fascinated by the publicity campaign the Cabinet Office is having to undertake to tell the population that a test message is being sent. The alert itself needs an alert, a warning in advance to tell people what's happening. It's important that as many people as possible are expecting the flashing siren on their phone lest they interpret it in a shocked, frightened or overblown way. Someone's had to draw up a publicity plan and that plan is now being put into operation.

The first announcements about the test alert were embargoed until just after midnight on Sunday 19th March, five weeks in advance, which is quite the run-up. The announcement wasn't in the midnight news broadcast but it did appear on the BBC website minutes later and was included in TV and radio news broadcasts over breakfast. I tweeted about it before 8am and got quite a bit of early traction, but that soon died down as I suspect people heard about the test alert via other channels.

So a fair proportion of the UK population learned about the upcoming test on Day 1, but I'd say maybe only about 30% because not everyone's as switched on as we earnest news-watchers. If today's blogpost is the first you've heard of it, you weren't paying as much attention yesterday as you could have been. A lot more people will read about the test alert in their newspapers today but it'll still have reached a minority of the population. This doesn't matter five weeks in advance, indeed it's a good start, and I suspect the campaign will start to ramp up as April 23rd approaches.

On the day itself you'd expect the news buzz to be so high that even the usual blinkered off-gridders will have noticed. But those who spend all their time consuming amusing videos, international channels, sporting wormholes, videogames or indeed no media at all could still be none the wiser, ditto those unaccustomed to the acquisition of information because their lives are quite busy enough thanks. A number of you chirped up on Friday to say you hadn't realised it was Red Nose Day, and if you can miss that then millions could miss this.

"Sigh, ssssh."
One thing I have already spotted, in part in reaction to official tweets, is that a number of people are depressingly pessimistic about this emergency alert test which they see as yet another example of oppressive government.

» This continual interference in our lives is absolutely exhausting.
» Project fear continues! Another way for our govs to create chaos and panic.
» You didn't listen to us about the various emergency's why should we listen to you?
» A jingoistic St George’s Day, UK-wide test like this is totally unnecessary.
» Will you be harvesting data from our phones? Who will get that info?
» The introduction of this system has war prep written all over it.
» How much more money have you wasted on this rubbish.
» A scared public is easier to subdue.
» Where do I opt out?

This is a risk-based alert system based on physical danger, more likely to be triggered by experts and the emergency services than scheming ministers. And yet a lot of people seem unable to decouple their dislike of politicians from the actions of government, seeing conspiracy in everything because blinkered opinions are easier than rational thought.

You can of course disable emergency missives on your phone by going to Settings and opting out of Extreme and/or Severe Alerts. That means you won't be jolted out of your seat by a sudden siren on St George's Day, but it also means that one day maybe you won't be told about a potential disaster evolving in your vicinity. If a killer hurricane or unexpected flood takes the life of an authority-hating refusenik, that might only serve them right.

 Sunday, March 19, 2023

Peripheral Postcodes: EN6, EN7, EN8 & EN9

In my quest to visit every postcode district in Greater London this year, let's investigate the challenge that is Enfield.

The M25 precisely marks the northernmost edge of the London borough of Enfield. The motorway and all points south are in London, which is where we find postcode districts EN1 to EN5. I've been to all of those. Meanwhile everything to the north of the M25 is in Hertfordshire, which is where we find EN6 to EN8 (plus EN9 in Essex).

not LondonEN6EN7EN8EN9

But the postcode district boundaries are a tad more approximate because they were drawn long before the motorway was driven through. My quest today is therefore to work out if any bits of EN6, 7, 8 and 9 dribble into Greater London, and if so to visit them.

i) EN6: The Ridgeway

The Ridgeway is a magnificent rural road, unsurprisingly along a ridgetop, running four miles from Enfield town centre to the edge of Potters Bar. The land to either side undulates with wide open fields and paddocks enjoying long distance views across valleys carved by tiny streams, and every time I come up here I'm amazed this is part of our global city. Almost all the addresses along The Ridgeway are in EN2 apart from those in the last half mile - essentially everything after the pylons. But Hertfordshire doesn't start until the last quarter mile, meaning a very short stretch manages to be in both EN6 and Greater London. It's pretty isolated and I think contains just four addresses.

501 The Ridgeway is a big twin-gabled detached house with a sturdy front fence and gates. This is just as well because a mastiff and a retriever appear should anyone walk past, which I guess is rare, and bark a lot until you go away. The owners have planted a shrubbery and a fir tree directly in front of their front door for maximum privacy, and also affixed a Jehovah's Witness logo to the fence for maximum publicity.
St John's Prep School is the junior part of the main Senior School up the road. That's in EN2 but this is in EN6, its top notch facilities shielded up a long drive behind another set of gates. Nobody here sneaks down to the chicken shop at lunchtime, partly because lunches come free with your £12000pa fees but mainly because there are no shops of any kind anywhere near.
New Cottage Farm is tucked behind the prep school and accessed up another drive behind yet more gates. From what I can tell it's more a 'diggers for groundworks' yard than an agricultural hub. It's also what the local bus stop is named after, indeed this is the northernmost bus stop in the whole of Greater London which is the only reason I'd ever been here before. I'm willing to bet you haven't.
Botany Bay Water Tower was converted to residential use twenty years back, because who wouldn't want to live in a four-bed brick turret with a roof terrace offering commanding views. It's looking less lived-in at present, however, as if building works got so far and the cash ran out, so that's one less address to deliver post to.

ii) EN7: Capel Manor

According to various postcode maps EN7 crosses the M25 to encircle Capel Manor. This environmental college campus is a top place to study if you're the outdoorsy type, or to visit if you like wandering around the handiwork of horticultural students. As well as the show gardens they also have a little zoo, a cafe and one of London's largest hedge mazes, should you ever fancy a genteel green day out. But Capel Manor's postcode is EN1 4RQ and no constituent part or adjacent building appears to have an EN7 address in which case I don't need to visit this one, EN7's not in London.

iii) EN8: Bullsmoor

This one's a relatively big overlap, EN-wise, in that it consists of eight streets rather than isolated outliers. Once again we're on the northern edge of Enfield, this time very nearly in Waltham Cross, along a thin strip of land once occupied by greenhouses. Bullsmoor Lane was then a minor lane and the houses built along it were designated EN1, but when infill started on the land behind this was appointed to EN8 instead. Here we find interwar pebbledash semis, postwar townhouses and lowly flats arrayed along minor roads and cul-de-sacs making the most of the narrow site. But it's the stripe of green facing Holmesdale that's the chief point of interest because this is the roof of a motorway tunnel and the M25 runs directly underneath.

The Holmesdale Tunnel was dug in 1983, a deep trench covered by a 670m-long concrete slab, acting both as an underpass and as part of junction 25. At the time it was the most expensive stretch of road in Britain, not that £30m would buy you much today, not even all the houses on the adjacent estate. The tunnel takes some looking after, hence the bunker-like control room at one end of Holmesdale and the substation at the other, both unseen by passing traffic. I wrote a full post about the Holmesdale Tunnel a few years back so you should go and read that if you want to know more. I'm not sure I'd want to live alongside this Ballardian mirage, but how fortunate that this narrow gap existed between London and Hertfordshire allowing the M25 to be squeezed through.

iv) EN9: Rammey Marsh

Only one house manages to be both in Greater London and in EN9 and it's a lockkeeper's cottage. It sits alongside Rammey Marsh Lock, the first lock south of Waltham Abbey on the Lee Navigation, and still feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. If the county boundary ran down the main river the cottage would be in Essex but instead the divide runs down the parallel flood channel so it lies marginally in London. Road access is over a humped bridge and along a pitted waterside track, which crucially comes in from the north so postal-wise the cottage is part of EN9 rather than EN3. And not very far along that pitted track the M25 goes swooshing over the river on concrete pillars, indeed this is the magic triple point where Greater London meets Hertfordshire meets Essex.

The lock was rebuilt in 1864 and if you look immediately beneath the bridge you'll see several blocks of Portland stone from the actual Old Westminster Bridge which had just been demolished. Alas the lockkeeper's cottage has also been rebuilt and in 1973 become a rather ordinarier bungalow, complete with attic rooms, PVC windows and Homebase lanterns. It's not the only property in EN9 1AL however, the tally also includes the Rammey Marsh Cruising Club, several moored houseboats and a cafe that I think now survives only in defunct advertising. It looked to me like some kind of community now exists on the cafe site behind chained gates but I didn't get too close because occupants were passing through, and because it was chucking it down with rain and I was a very long way from shelter.

In conclusion yes, EN6, EN8 and EN9 all sneak into London and no, EN7 does not. So if you've ever wondered whether or not you've been to all the postcode districts in London, unless you've been to New Cottage Farm and Rammey Marsh Lock no, you have not.

 Saturday, March 18, 2023

TfL are running fewer replacement bus routes than they used to.
And not because there's less engineering works but to save money.
And not to save your money but to save theirs.

It's been a very gradual process.

For example a decade ago there'd always be a replacement bus service if the DLR was closed between Stratford and Poplar but then they stopped that, expecting passengers to take a different route or hop on a normal bus instead.
For example back then they'd always run a replacement bus service if the Hammersmith & City line was closed between Hammersmith and Paddington, but last weekend they just left passengers at intermediate stations to cope without.
For example the Overground between Romford and Upminster is often closed at weekends but they just expect the handful of passengers to catch the 370 bus instead, indeed they could probably make that one permanent.

And now they're not running replacement buses through Bow when the District line's closed.

They ran replacement bus DL-6 repeatedly last year, a regular free shuttle from Tower Hill to Barking via Mile End and Canning Town. But they're not running it this year, other than very early in the morning or very late in the evening, and we're all being left to make do. Back in January I stood opposite Bromley-by-Bow station waiting for the replacement bus that always runs and took 20 freezing minutes to work out that it wasn't, because I hadn't read the poster in the station I'd just assumed.

The District line's closed again this weekend.

It's a complicated closure linked to the introduction of improved signalling at the far end of the District line. The entire line's closed before 8.30am on Saturday morning, then just Whitechapel to Upminster until 2pm, then just Barking to Upminster, and on Sunday just Becontree to Upminster. But in short it means no tube trains through Bow before 2pm on Saturday. And no replacement bus.

Here's what TfL are suggesting passengers at Bromley-by-Bow do instead.

For central London stations, take bus D8 to Stratford for the Central or Elizabeth lines.

The D8 runs every 12 minutes, which is less often than the replacement buses used to. Riding the D8 before catching a train will add £1.75 to the cost of your journey. But in the absence of the District line it's probably your quickest way into town.

For stations between Plaistow and East Ham, take bus D8 to Stratford and change there for bus 241 or 262 to Plaistow, bus 104 to Upton Park or bus 238 to Upton Park and East Ham.

Riding two buses will still cost £1.75 thanks to the Hopper fare. But even after you've waited for the D8 your expected journey time to East Ham is another 30 minutes. To be fair you couldn't have got the replacement bus to any of these stations either.

For stations between Upney and Dagenham East, go to Plaistow, Upton Park or East Ham (see above) for replacement bus service DL7.

Catch two normal buses and then catch a replacement bus is appalling advice. The replacement bus actually runs from Canning Town, and it turns out the 323 runs straight there every 15 minutes so you'd be better off catching that. The previous replacement bus connected direct to Barking which was fast and easy, but that's the bus they're not running because you're on your own now.

For Hornchurch and Elm Park take bus D8 to Stratford. Change there for the Elizabeth line to Romford and take bus 252.

A bus plus Crossrail plus another bus costs £1.75 + £2.60 = £4.35, whereas had the District line been running the fare would have been just £2.00. Also the 252 is not the quickest bus from Romford to Hornchurch, it goes all round the houses and takes 25 minutes whereas the 193 takes less than 20. Who wrote this advice?

For Upminster take bus 323 to Star Lane for the DLR to West Ham. Change there for c2c services.

Finally they've mentioned c2c services, the fast line that doesn't collapse when the District line closes. Unfortunately getting to it from here is a bit of a pain, and likely slow, but the last bit of the journey makes up for it. This is probably also the quickest way to get to Barking, certainly much faster than that three bus shuffle they suggested earlier.

For stations between Bow Road and Whitechapel take bus 323 from stop BH to Mile End. Change there for bus routes 25 or 205.

What seriously? As any Bromley-by-Bow resident knows, if you want to catch the 25 you walk up to Bow Road and catch it there. You do not walk to Devons Road and catch the occasional 323 for a meander to Mile End that drops you 250m short of your next bus stop. This is particularly the case if you're trying to get to Bow Road station because that is the most extraordinarily roundabout route wasting on average half an hour. Any sane human would walk, assuming they were able, rather than following this ridiculous charade.

A lot of this advice sounds like someone asked "what's the simplest route to describe?" rather than "which route is best?", or felt they needed to give step-free routes rather than offering faster alternatives for the majority. Sometimes the best advice is JUST WALK, not what some muppet who's never been here thinks.

But this is what happens when TfL can't be bothered to run a rail replacement bus and want us to spend our own cash instead. Let's hope it's a temporary lapse and not a bloody awkward rigmarole on multiple future weekends.

Update: You're right, it might just be a serious shortage of drivers.
You're right, how to get to Barking isn't mentioned anywhere.
You're right, it is less than impressive.

 Friday, March 17, 2023

Happy Red Nose Day!

The first Comic Relief event was held in 1988 with a big TV show and a plastic red nose you could buy to support the charity. They changed the nose on each subsequent occasion to boost sales (and to prevent you reusing the old one). I bought them all...

...right up to the year when they produced 9 different noses and packaged them individually in a "mystery bag". This meant you didn't know which variant you were buying so "collecting them all" suddenly became a wasteful trial with an expected outlay of £25 rather than £9, so I gave up.

But this year they're back to one single nose again, a special environmentally-friendly eco-nose made almost entirely from plant-based materials. It has a honeycomb-paper structure, folds flat for easy packing and was designed by Sir Jony Ive. So I thought I'd buy one of those.

You buy red noses in Sainsbury's, everybody knows that, which is good because there are Sainsbury's pretty much everywhere. Except this year for the first time they're not selling them. According to Comic Relief "Our partnership with Sainsbury’s is now solely focused on tackling food poverty both at home in the UK and internationally" which is simultaneously uplifting and dispiriting, and no use if what you want is a red nose.

Instead this year you can only buy a red nose from Amazon. Apparently this a good thing.
"We’re delighted to welcome Amazon on board as the new exclusive retailer of our Red Noses. This will help expand our reach enormously and make getting involved in Red Nose Day quick and easy."
It is indeed true that more Britons shop with Amazon than Sainsbury's, considerably more in fact, but that doesn't necessarily make getting your hands on a red nose quick and easy. If you're buying a book or a toaster then sure, adding a red nose at the checkout is pretty convenient. But if you don't have an Amazon delivery scheduled and just want a red nose by itself, the follies of online shopping become clear.

The nose itself costs £2.50, but then they wanted to charge me another £2.50 postage and packing making a grand total of £5. That's 50% of my money going to a delivery company rather than to citizens in need, which feels like an appallingly inefficient way to donate to charity. What's more it's estimated that only about £1.80 of the nose's cover price goes to the charity, the rest goes on costs, so Comic Relief would only be getting 36% of my £5. There must be a better way to buy one.
"They’ll also be available to pick up from Amazon Fresh stores from February 23."
Sounds good, except that's most of the UK's population excluded. At present there are only 20 Amazon Fresh stores in the country, 19 of which are in London and the other is in Sevenoaks. Unless you're anywhere near the capital, buying a red nose via mail order is your only option.

As a resident of go-ahead east London, however, I have at least one Amazon Fresh within walking distance and can get to the majority of the rest with ease. So that's what I tried.

If you're not familiar with Amazon Fresh it's a new kind of supermarket without tills, cashiers or even baskets. Instead you walk round, put stuff in your bag and walk out (in full view of the store's beady cameras), and the Amazon app on your phone charges you as you leave. I'm told it feels quite disconcerting the first time you try it. But you can only gain entry at the electronic gates by confirming that you have the app on your phone, which I don't, so I wondered how attempting to buy a red nose would go.

n.b. This is not the store I visited, lest anyone from Amazon be reading and keen to take their store assistant to task.

'Get your red nose at the hub', the sign outside on the pavement said. I wasn't sure what the hub was, it wasn't labelled, but I assumed it was the cashierless space just inside the front doors. Nobody was around but there was a button to press so I pressed that. Nothing happened except that the stand wobbled, this being an impressively flimsy way to support a button.

"You need to press the button," said a lady walking over. I pressed it harder and this time a green light lit up, but to no avail because it turned out the lady who'd walked over was the store assistant. She didn't have a name badge or an obvious uniform, but I may just not have been looking very carefully. "I'd like to buy a red nose," I said. And so the charade began.

I explained I didn't have the Amazon app on my phone, nor was I up for downloading it for a single transaction. She said that meant I wouldn't be gaining further access to the store but reassured me I would still be able to buy a red nose. I was told I couldn't pay my £2.50 by cash, which I had guessed, indeed I'd kept my stash of 50p coins in my pocket for fear of looking like a Luddite throwback. More importantly the store didn't have any tills so I couldn't pay by card, nor by waving my phone, essentially because there was nothing in the store to scan anything contactless against.

The assistant was being a bit apologetic by this point. "I don't know why they don't still sell them at Sainsbury's," she said, gesturing across the road. "We haven't sold a lot. They didn't send us many." Neither of these statements surprised me. "I'm afraid we have to ask you to scan this on your phone", she said, gesturing at a QR code propped up on the counter. "I do know how to do that," I said before she could issue point-and-click instructions.

The code took me to a page on the Comic Relief website where I got to choose how many noses I wanted and whether I wanted to be upsold anything extra. Then it wanted my name and email, so I typed in some rubbish, and then it wanted my address and card details. The assistant looked on almost pitifully as I stood in the doorway extricating my card from my wallet and attempting to enter all the details correctly. There was also some sympathy there I thought, the two of us being of roughly similar age.

"Now you need to show me your confirmation screen," she said, which I deduced was the 32-digit transaction ID on the page I'd finally reached. I flinched because the stupid alias I'd entered was now visible in a thankyou message at the top of the screen, but thankfully she seemed only baffled rather than suspicious. And then she reached behind the QR code and whipped out a red nose in its paper case and handed it over. I was out of the store quite fast.

I don't want to get all Old Man Yells At Cloud about this, because I did actually manage to buy a red nose in only about five minutes, which is a lot faster than if I'd ordered one by post. But it would have been considerably easier to buy one in a proper supermarket, not a bespoke cyber-walled auto-grocery, simply by handing over a stack of 50ps or waving a card.

This, alas, is the first year that a child can't save up their coins and buy a red nose on the high street. Adults are similarly stuffed unless they happen to live in one particular corner of the country and don't mind negotiating a digital rigmarole. When charitable goods essentially go delivery only, the danger is that we spend more on sending them than goes to those who need our help. The 2023 red nose is a thing of beauty but, unless you're Amazon-ing anyway, best give it a miss and just send a donation direct.

 Thursday, March 16, 2023

Join me on a bus ride within Essex.

Ten TfL bus routes enter Essex but only one returns to Greater London before the end of its route. That's the 275, a workhorse outer orbital operating between Barkingside and Walthamstow. For most of the time it weaves through the boroughs of Redbridge and Waltham Forest but for a brief while it serves the people of Essex, so that's what we're going to ride.

The first out-of-London bus stop is at the top of Tomswood Hill and comes just after a big sign saying Welcome to Essex.

Here is that very bus stop (which is in Essex) and coming up the hill is a 275 (which is in London). It's not a bad view if you like distant amorphous suburbs. The stop's named Stradbroke Park after the local cul-de-sac and you can tell it's in Essex because the adjacent house has Epping Forest bins. The houses on this side of the boundary are a bit grander and glitzier than the London lot, with bigger security gates, larger parking areas and lower council tax. Hop aboard and let's ride through Essex.

Tomswood Hill swiftly becomes Tomswood Road (because it's not a hill any more) and looks very much like this. Technically this is Chigwell although it's not proper Chigwell where Lord Sugar and Dorien from Birds of a Feather live, it's merely the other side of an invisible dividing line from some fairly ordinary homes. That said some of these do look like they were built with a fair chunk of money, quite possibly rebuilt with a few extra bedrooms and a double garage. And as the road veers to the left, look, you can now see down the hill towards amorphous suburbs on the other side, even as far as actual Loughton.

After the next stop we turn left onto the B173, otherwise known as Manor Road, and are now heading west. The houses here are bungalowier but still tarted up. To one side is the entrance to the luxury flats at the former Claybury Hospital, and oh look we've emerged at the top of Woodford Bridge just above the pond and St Paul's church. Yes that is a guide dog waiting with its owner in the bus shelter because this is precisely where the Guide Dogs association has their southeast regional centre. The problem is we just passed a sign saying 'Redbridge' pinned to a lamppost because after two stops we are already back in London. To keep our journey solely within Essex we should have alighted back at Audleigh Place, a total distance of less than 500 metres.


And the somewhat larger problem is that the stop at Audleigh Place is temporarily closed at present due to road works.

You'd have noticed this if you were on board, we got to wait at a red light for the duration of a 4-way cycle and it was very tedious. I sometimes think there are more temporary traffic lights in March than at any other time as councils try to use up their road budget before the end of the financial year. Whatever, the sad fact is that the 275 only has two stops in Essex and one of those is currently closed, making it entirely impossible to make a bus journey entirely within Essex. Dammit.

What's more, if you're travelling in the opposite direction it's not 100% clear whether the Stradbroke Park bus stop is in Essex or not.

It's beyond the sign saying Essex but it's outside the last house with London bins. It's also positioned almost exactly at the point where the tarmac and pavement change from Redbridge-maintained to Essex-maintained (just look at that photo!) and lies on the London side of the divide by approximately 20cm. Online maps however show the bus stop very marginally on the Essex side of the boundary, and most convincingly TfL's database of bus stops has it down as an Epping Forest bus stop so let's assume it is. That means there are exactly two Essex bus stops on the 275 in either direction, so a one-stop Essex journey is all that's possible.

And this matters, or at least it does if you've bought an Essex Saver bus ticket, the cut-price county rover ticket. For £10 this allows "unlimited same day travel on registered local bus services within the administrative boundary of Essex County Council", hence it's important where that administrative boundary falls. Should you want to use your Essex Saver ticket for a one stop ride between Stradbroke Park and Audleigh Place it's entirely valid. You can't buy it on a TfL bus but you can use it, it's in the terms and conditions.
Essex Saver - unlimited bus travel for £10
The Essex Saver ticket allows users unlimited same day travel on every registered local bus service within the administrative boundary of Essex County Council, and also into neighbouring authorities, providing the journey starts or finishes in the Essex administrative area (managed by Essex County Council). You can buy the ticket on the first bus you board. It is not available as a weekly or monthly ticket and it cannot be purchased online.
What's more the Essex Saver is actually valid on all buses starting or finishing in Essex (other than a few designated limited stop services) which is extra generous. Assuming you'd bought your ticket elsewhere you could board at Stradbroke Park and alight an hour later in Walthamstow, not that I can think of why you'd do that but you could. Ditto you could take the 20 from Debden to Walthamstow or even the 498 from Brentwood to Romford, indeed you could get all the way from Clacton to the Victoria line for £10 if you played your buses right.

The Essex Saver has been operational since 2008 and applies to journeys made on weekdays and Saturdays. On Sundays an even better value ticket exists, the £4.70 Sunday Saver, although that's balanced by the Sunday service being rather worse. Intriguingly the terms and conditions for the Sunday Saver specifically exclude "Transport for London Services 20, 167, 397 & 498", and you can't use it on routes 375 and 549 because they don't run on Sundays. As for the 150 and 215 they only run one stop beyond the Greater London boundary so you can't use the ticket for an entirely Essex journey. But you can ride the 462 for four stops round Grange Hill or the 275 for one stop here in Chigwell, should you ever want to see the expression on the face of the driver when you try it.

This has been a public service announcement.

 Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Everything you need to know about The Knoll.

It's in Hayes (the Hayes in Bromley, not the Hayes in Hillingdon).
It's a short walk uphill from the station, behind the shops.
(this may already be all you need to know)

It's a 4 acre strip of parkland squished between two residential streets and accessed at each end. It used to be part of the grounds of Hayes Place, the country mansion where William Pitt The Elder lived and died. Upon the death of the last owner, Sir Everard Hambro, the land was sold for housing and in 1933 the big house was demolished. The Hayes Garden Estate was the result. It's mostly stockbroker boltholes but with green gaps at Husseywell Park and The Knoll.

It feels like a woody valley but that's all a landscaped illusion, most notably the chain of five ponds running from one end to the other. The main path meanders centrally but you can cross to the far side of the water via some minor functional footbridges. Several of the big trees in the Knoll date back to Pitt's time, the largest being a whopping hollowed-out stand-inside-able oak that's had to be protected by fencing for its own good. It's still magnificent though.

The gates on Pickhurst Lane are proper municipal ironwork and are locked half an hour after dusk. Take care to avoid the sump near the north entrance. Daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops and hyacinths brighten any walk from top to bottom, or do at present. One tree commemorates councillor Percy Jones who helped save this patch of green. I have rarely seen more acrobatic squirrels. One of the adjacent streets is also called The Knoll. Buses 119 and 353 stop close by.

I have run out of things to tell you, so that must be everything you need to know.

What do @TfL tweet about?

You may not care, indeed even TfL don't much care, they said so...
"Twitter is not considered TfL’s primary means of communication and is ephemeral in nature."
...but their tweets do give an insight into what the organisation is thinking. Or at least what their social media managers are thinking, which is generally differently-focused and only rarely about transport.

In the first two weeks of March @TfL tweeted 22 times.

Three of those tweets were about safety on public transport.
» Did you know trams can travel at over 40mph at parts on the tramway...
» If you feel it's safe to do so, you can be an active bystander...
» We like what Sam has to say. Share this with a friend...
Three tweets were about International Women's Day.
» Ever wondered what it’s like to be a train driver...
» We spoke to Katie Kelleher, crane operator, about her career...
» Katie Kelleher, a crane operator, speaks about her career...
Two tweets promoted TfL tools.
» We have lots of tools to help on our website plus our handy TfL Go app.
» ...discover cycling routes with our interactive map!
One tweet was genuinely useful.
» Tube and national rail strikes will affect TfL services Wednesday 15 – Saturday 18 March
So far so good.

The dangleway got two big-ups.
» Top things to do on a day out in Greenwich! Hint: our favourite is a ride on the IFS Cloud Cable Car, of course
» 'It's a pretty sick view, isn't it' @GuvnaB joined us for our first episode of Conversations in the Cloud live from the IFS Cloud Cable Car!
Conversations in the Cloud is TfL's latest attempt to make the cablecar relevant to da yoof. In the 20 minute video a top rapper gets interviewed in the time it takes to cross the river and back. It's not aimed at you so don't sneer. But it's not reaching its target audience either because the full video's only been watched 310 times in two weeks. If you were hoping TfL's YouTube channel was full of transport videos you'd be wildly disappointed.

But about half of this month's tweets were promoting TfL's 'partners'.
» We’ve teamed up with Merlin to offer discounted entry...
» Ahead of springtime we’ve partnered with Kew Gardens...
» We’ve teamed up with the British Heart Foundation...
» To support you with your @TheBHF London to Brighton training...
» Introducing the latest additions to the #TfLBookClub...
» We've partnered with Jennie Becker’s Sliding Doors podcast...
» Pocket Living has received planning approval for 100% affordable scheme in Snaresbrook...
» Wherever you are in the city, you’ll be sure to find somewhere to work with @WeWork...
» Our Stuart Ross interns repping the @jumpman23 x TfL collection! Find out more about the collaboration and how it's encouraging young Londoners to go on their own journey to greatness
That last tweet is particularly finger-down-throat, a collaboration between a designer trainer brand and a fawning TfL commercial posse. Anyone who can write "Once again two authentic London brands have collaborated to create a collection that embodies TfL as the beating heart of the city" can clearly gush meaningless bolx with ease. But because Merlin, Kew Gardens, Hodder & Stoughton, WeWork, even IFS Cloud, are all throwing cash at TfL they get the privilege of a tweet and the actual transport network gets none.

Sorry, one.
» Who's taking the night bus this weekend?
@TFL's Twitter presence remains a dead useful way to talk to customer service staff about ongoing issues, for example today's tube strike. But the main feed has regressed into puff and branding froth, indeed very much 'ephemeral in nature'.

 Tuesday, March 14, 2023

100 things I have done in London

1) Walked home from the Olympics.
2) Driven a forklift truck at work.
3) Attended the Ceremony of the Keys.
4) Been to the top of the Shard nine times in one year.
5) Looked down on the Shard from a helicopter.
6) Voted for an MP who actually won.
7) Sat on Matt Baker's satnav.
8) Experienced an earthquake.
9) Done jury service.
10) Been stopped by plain clothes counter-terrorism officers for taking a photo.
11) Observed a Transit of Venus.
12) Followed the Sultan's Elephant.
13) Watched the Buggles in the presence of Prince Charles.
14) Walked the London Loop.
15) Walked the Capital Ring, twice.
16) Performed on mike at Maida Vale Studios.
17) Made tea for a world record holder.
18) Laughed in the audience of a BBC4 sitcom.
19) Climbed to the very top of St Paul's Cathedral.
20) Attended an intimate meeting with an MI5 spymaster's daughter.
21) Watched a House of Commons debate.
22) Seen both of General Roy's cannons.
23) Been underground to watch Mail Rail while it was actually operational.
24) Contributed to a top dubstep DJ's leaving present.
25) Attended the first flashmob.
26) Attended the Knolly's Rose ceremony.
27) Watched the world record women's marathon performance.
28) Stood beside my celebrity crush while drinking beers in the street.
29) Given the stupidest answer to an interview question.
30) Been on an overnight car rally round the City of London.
31) Grooved at Smithfield Market while Jarvis Cocker spun the turntables.
32) Ascended to the top of the Gherkin.
33) Spotted Michael Foot out and about in Hampstead.
34) Spotted Princess Anne rounding the Bow Roundabout.
35) Spotted Michael Portillo buying a ticket at Marylebone.
36) Walked through the Thames Tunnel.
37) Been on a guided tour of Beckton Sewage Works.
38) Stood in the Blue Peter Garden.
39) Watched Arsenal win.
40) Been to the 'Golf Sale'.
41) Passed Una Stubbs on a zebra crossing.
42) Stood in Trafalgar Square for the 2012 Olympic announcement.
43) Bought my first top shelf magazine.
44) Been up Goldfinger's Trellick and Balfron towers.
45) Aged three, took my parents to Putney Bridge on the tube.
46) Been to every grid square.
47) Been to a gallery opening with the Home Secretary.
48) Stood on the roof of Millennium Mills.
49) Rode every bus route in London.
50) Got tickets for a recording of The News Quiz.
51) Stood in front of Buckingham Palace for William and Kate's balcony kiss.
52) Walked out on a blind date after the first pint.
53) Watched The Mikado at Sadlers Wells.
54) Taken a photo which made pages 12 and 13 of The Sun.
55) Spoken on Radio 4, Radio London and the World Service.
56) Shown a zoo director my internal piping.
57) Watched Angela Lansbury being dropped off by Bus Stop M.
58) Stumbled upon the Queen in Docklands.
59) Seen the National Standard Kilogram.
60) Walked through the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
61) Seen in the Millennium opposite the London Eye.
62) Rung in sick from the resuscitation table in A&E.
63) Been down Aldwych station.
64) Dined in the House of Lords Dining Room.
65) Had my photo taken with the FA Cup.
66) Walked from Heathrow Terminal 4 to Terminal 5.
67) Attended a citizenship ceremony.
68) Queued behind Ricky Gervais in Waterstones.
69) Been the random witness at a stranger's wedding.
70) Endured a pandemic.
71) Seen multiple kingfishers.
72) Spotted intergalactic dominatrix Servalan (aka Jacqeline Pearce) in Soho.
73) Performed at the Royal Festival Hall.
74) Been inside the world's first TV studio.
75) Had lunch at St Pancras with a famous London author.
76) Climbed Beckton Alp.
77) Bumped into my first shag while on a Thameslink train.
78) Received a bottle of champagne from Time Out.
79) Waited for a Central line train with Bob Crow.
80) Watched the Tour de France go by.
81) Been to the Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies.
82) Stood beside the furnace where Margaret Thatcher was cremated.
83) Watched the original run of The History Boys with Messrs Corden and Tovey.
84) Broadcast Radio 2 from my living room.
85) Had a beer on the Palace of Westminster's riverside terrace.
86) Queued behind Su Pollard buying a train ticket at Waterloo.
87) Stood in my nephew's kitchen before he did.
88) Watched three Concordes simultaneously from the office roof.
89) Bought Christmas cards while Dame Judi Dench waited behind me.
90) Sat next to Sandra Dickinson on the tube.
91) Sat opposite Jack Whitehall on the tube.
92) Crossed Westminster Bridge at night on the back of a bike.
93) Stood in the throne room at Buckingham Palace.
94) Stood in the drawing room at Clarence House.
95) Found Reggie Perrin's house.
96) Had sex in Leicester Square.
97) Become bottom-rung famous.
98) Watched Dermot O'Leary buy a jigsaw.
99) Performed at the Royal Albert Hall.
100) Lost consciousness in the Barbican.

 Monday, March 13, 2023

A Nice Walk: Paddington Arm (13½ miles)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, a heck of a stroll, lots to see, pretty views, close to public transport, lots of history, lots of wildlife, all-weather-surfaced, widely contrasting, totally accessible, no gradients, several ducks. So here's a pleasant hike along the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, thirteen and a half miles if you choose but I stopped after nine. Stop whenever you like, it's a nice walk all the same.

Hayes → Southall → Yeading → Northolt → Greenford → Perivale → Alperton → Park Royal → Harlesden → Old Oak Common → North Kensington → Westbourne Park → Little Venice

I walked from Hayes to Harlesden but I'm not going to write a chronological travelogue, instead a series of themed paragraphs to give you a flavour of different aspects of this canalside treat.

The Grand Union Canal weaves from Birmingham to Brentford but the Paddington Arm is separate, bearing off at Bull's Bridge near Hayes. This was once a full-on narrowboat hub, and I was about to say it no longer is but while I was standing on the hump-backed bridge a pair of boats delivering coal and gas pulled up by the dry dock outside Tesco and their dog hopped off and it was almost like the old days. The graffiti, piles of damp abandoned clothing, empty beer cans and roar of traffic alas suggested otherwise. For Paddington head under the arch and if you're steering the good news is there are no locks whatsoever between here and central London, this being why the arm bears off here and follows the route it does.

Wildlife of the Paddington Arm
Abundant moorhens, ducks and other wildfowl - too early in the season to have offspring trailing behind them, perhaps courting. Swans, particularly seated across the towpath at Bankside just before the Uxbridge Road, exactly where I remember stepping out of the way last time. One dead rat lying on its side beside the towpath. A cormorant diving. Two cats being taken for a walk by their owners on fine string leads. Just the one parakeet. A squirrel looking somewhat out of season. Intermittent flocks of seagulls. "Look mummy what's that white thing floating in the water?" ...at first glance probably a dead swan but no it's actually a dead dog, one of the small sturdy breeds, haunches aloft bobbing inert in the water, and therein hangs a tale.

As industrial and residential tastes change, a lot of London's canalside is transitioning from somewhere to manufacture to somewhere to live. The warehouses in Alperton are now a cluster of coloured towers. The Hovis factory in Greenford is now the Quays, a thrusting development. The gasworks in Southall have been painstakingly demolished and thus far only a tiny stripe of flats erected so a kilometre of waterfront awaits balconies, benches and well, anything at all. The sheds on the bend before the aqueduct are becoming Grand Union, a sheer brick flank with a narrowboat raised out of the water as a point of interest. But industry remains prominent in multiple locations which leaves plenty more scope for transformation as businesses fail and house prices rise, so come back in another decade and it'll all have changed again.

People of the towpath
A pair of stubbly men in bobble hats, a lit fag in one hand and a phone in the other. Shoppers heading home from the big Sainsbury's because (during daylight hours) the towpath's the quickest way. A focused bloke in a Haka t-shirt walking very very fast, and then back again ten minutes later. A family with a spaniel. Polite two-wheeled dingers of the bell. A lady wondering how you get to Tesco because the Victorians inexplicably didn't build a bridge. The inevitable joggers. Unhappy toddlers who didn't realise towpaths went on this far. Small chatty ladies just walking a short bit. Three suspicious youths rapidly concealing whatever they were handling. If you're trying to get away from people it's a lot quieter at the Hayes end.

Several large green spaces border the canal. Generally only those on the south side are accessible unless someone's built a bridge. Minet Country Park is visible but completely inaccessible. Spikes Bridge Park used to be a haymeadow. Willow Tree Open Space is nice but really ought to be easier to escape from. Marnham Fields is a delightful off-piste oasis close to Western Avenue. Paradise Fields is not well named. Horsenden Open Space feels like a large swathe of hilly Middlesex countryside has been preserved. Sudbury Golf Course just goes on and on and on. Perivale Wood is only opened when the bluebells are in bloom. But after Alperton any greenery beyond the towpath generally gives up until you reach the Trellick Tower, so get your appreciation in early.

Boaters on the Paddington Arm
I passed maybe six boats on the water, less than one a mile. I got a wave from the lady steering this boat underneath the Central line bridge. I passed 'Womble' on the approach to Alperton. Annoyingly I reached the aqueduct just after one boat chugged through otherwise you'd have seen a photo of that. Items spotted on top of moored boats included pots of hyacinths, a mop, a chain of coloured lightbulbs, multiple bikes, a mast, smoking chimneys, a puppet in a purple dress, a tub of Ronseal, a candelabra, a coconut and a stack of contaminated-looking cardboard boxes. Time's up on winter moorings so it's time to chug off.

Bull's Bridge is numbered (21) because there were once only 21 bridges between here and Paddington, and subsequent spans have had to be suffixed with a letter. For example Black Horse Bridge is an original so numbered (15), then the later-inserted Greenford Road Bridge and IBM footbridge are (15A) and (15B) respectively. But the footbridge at the newly-built Greenford Quays development slots inbetween (15) and (15A) so has had to be designated (15AA) as the whole nomenclature gets technically very complex. Starting from Paddington I think the sequential list is 1E 1D 1C 1B 1A 1 2B 2A 2 3C 3B 3 4C 4B 4AB 4A 5A 5 6 7D 7BA 7B 7A 7 8C 8A 8 9E 9D 9C 9B 9 10 11C 11B 11aa 11a 11 12 13A 13 15B 15A 15AA 15 16B 16C 16AA 16 16A 17B 17A 17 18 19AD 19AC 19 20 21A 21, but I might have got that wrong. The 16s are particularly odd. The longest gap between bridges is a mile between (12) at Alperton and (13A) at Horsenden Hill. I reckon the prettiest bridge is (19AC) at Willow Tree Open Space, pictured below.

Spring on the Paddington Arm
Catkins, obviously. Daffodils, snowdrops and celandines. A few of the willows are doing that green glowy thing just before they burst forth. The chance for a nice walk in mild temperatures before all the views get blocked by leaves. Blackthorn in bloom. Two purple flowers that might have been periwinkles outside a back gate on Empire Avenue, Perivale. Not much in the way of birdsong. The upbeat realisation that I might have worn one layer too many.

Of course if you're the tutting type a walk along a canal will merely bring out the worst in you. Look at all that litter, it's mostly cans, I never realised there were quite so many types of convenience store lager, it doesn't matter where you go there's always a McDonalds wrapper, who do these people think they are? The strangest litter I spotted was the letter B from a discarded floral tribute and the worst was two dozen syringes and assorted cotton pads in amongst the obligatory Stella Artois. But you hardly see any rubbish in the water, and certain nice people are definitely out trying to clear the towpath because I saw their bulging blue sacks and I hope someone carts away their piles sometime soon.

But mainly, whatever the weather and however far you go, a canal is always a nice walk.

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