diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 11, 2016

It seems the Dangleway may finally have discovered its raison d'être. As an entertainment space.

With 14th February fast approaching, London's favourite cablecar has transformed itself to create the Valentine's Experience. For four consecutive evenings, starting tonight, couples will be able to book a private cabin and soar across the Thames (and back) enjoying a special sensual experience. With a glass of bubbly and edible treats thrown in for good measure, the £50 fares are proving a hot ticket.
Discover London's captivating night sky with your Valentine on a special private cabin round trip, from Thursday 11 to Sunday 14 February.
This isn't the first time the cablecar has gone all out to capture the romantic zeitgeist. Last year the gondolas were slowed down, free chocolates were dished out and an upbeat mix of love songs played out during the flight. It wasn't amazing, but it pulled in several hundred pairs of punters, and many enjoyed the aerial seclusion and panoramic views. What's different this year is that couples are being invited to book in advance, and for this they get a guaranteed private return flight with extras.
The experience includes:
• A glass of <brand name> champagne per person
• A box of 4 <brand name> chocolates per couple
• Romantic music
• An in-flight video
• A viewing guide
An unmissable treat, I'm sure you'll agree. And you'd not be alone. At time of posting all of Sunday's timeslots are already fully booked! That's every special flight from 3pm to 9pm, and also the post-sunset slot the day before, which could be a very nice little earner. And this is guaranteed income for TfL, rather than the situation last year where couples might have turned up or not, plus at a vastly inflated price. The risk remains that high winds might close the Valentine's Day offer down, and the refund policy isn't entirely clear, but on pre-sales alone this offer is an unqualified success.
Thursday 11 February: 18:00-21:00
Friday 12 February: 18:00-22:30
Saturday 13 February: 18:00-22:30
(sold out 18:00-18:30)
Sunday 14 February: 15:00-21:00 (sold out)
You could of course do the whole thing yourself and get considerably better value for money. First of all visit outside the special offer period, because then the two of you would pay only £13.60 for a return trip. First thing on a Sunday morning is usually quiet, which would mean a near-guaranteed private cabin, or stuff Valentinestide and simply turn up on any 'normal' day of the year. Then you'll need to smuggle some champagne on board, which shouldn't be hard, with the added bonus that a £28 bottle of <brand name> bubbly would fill six flutes, not a paltry two. That would leave £8.40 out of your fifty quid for a nice box of chocolates, and you could scoff the lot rather than only two each. For romantic music bring your smartphone, and rather than bother with the video or viewing guide just look out of the window.

Or simply stay at home. Whatever expensive romantic visions the media might bombard us with over the next few days, an amorous evening needn't cost the earth.

 Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Location: Hampstead Heath NW3 7JR [map]
Open: 10am-5pm (daily)
Admission: free (plus a free app to download)
5-word summary: houseful of world class art
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood
Time to set aside: up to an hour (plus the cafe and estate)

A country house set in its own private estate is not something you might expect to find in inner London. But such a house survives at the top end of Hampstead Heath, set in 112 acres of its own parkland, with a rolling landscaped garden visible from the front terrace. The sloping front lawn contains the headwaters of the River Fleet, and currently boasts a magnolia entering full bloom and several rhododendrons that are already there. Were the location more accessible the place would be packed, but that's part of Kenwood's isolated charm, almost a secret for locals and those in the know. Obviously it gets rather busier in summer, but in February you can enjoy the art in the mansion without people getting in your way, and easily get a seat in the cafe.

The estate is in the hands of English Heritage, having been handed over to the nation by its final owner Lord Iveagh, heir to the Guinness fortune. That was in the 1920s, whereas the neoclassical villa had first been created 150 years earlier by architect Robert Adam. His finest room is the Library, a stunning curved confection in pink and baby blue, recently done up in style by a Heritage Lottery grant. Closer inspection of the shelves reveals that the book collection wasn't exactly comprehensive, although there is a History of the County of Rutland in two large red leatherbound volumes, should pre-reservoir be of interest.

Pleasant though the rest of the decor is, the emphasis around the house is very much on the art hung on the walls. Lord Iveagh's collection was top class, good enough that English Heritage have volunteers and cameras in all the rooms to make sure visitors maintain respect. One of the highlights is the Rembrandt in the dining room, Portrait of the Artist, a 17th century selfie depicting the Dutchman in white cap and fur tabard. The same room also contains a true rarity, The Guitar Player, one of only thirty-odd Vermeers known to be in existence. Ask the staff on duty and they'll tell you all about it, and anything else that piques your interest, they're keen like that.

The collection features mostly portraits, a lot of painted poses, although the odd bit of sculpture and some quality furniture gets a look in too. Kenwood is also used for the display of collections the nation needs to store somewhere, like the stash of brooches, shoe buckles and tiara-bits in cases in an upper room, and a set of nine full length Tudor portraits in the room nextdoor. They're more impressive than they sound, and yes that is a lady called Emily Howard in a big ruff above the door. The orangery is nothing special, which makes it ideal for family-based stuff. And in the Breakfast Room look out for the skeleton clock (nothing ghoulish, it just means you can see inside the machinery), its creator painted in yet another portrait on yet another wall.

The art won't detain you forever, so Kenwood's other draws are food and drink and plants. The Brew House is from the same commercial stable as the champagne bar at St Pancras, so prices aren't cheap, but if you can resist the cakes and pastries then a pot of tea is quite decent. Last weekend the vegetarian breakfasts seemed to be doing a roaring trade, assuming you enjoy a squidge of spinach with your tomato and faux sausage. The clientele was also quite middle class, from pairs of dining ladies to well-heeled joggers pausing for a plate of carbs after a heavy run. Perhaps it's a bit early in the season for the garden shop to be buzzing, but that'll come. Combine your visit with a long walk on the heath and that's the best part of an afternoon sorted.

Bow bus news: As part of a major rejig of bus routes on the Isle of Dogs, plans are afoot to swap over the northern halves of routes 108 and D8. If TfL's latest consultation is ratified, the 108 will emerge from the Blackwall Tunnel and then follow the backstreets from All Saints to Bow Church DLR, while the D8 will follow the 108's former route along the dual carriageway to the Bow Roundabout. From here the swap will continue, with the D8 looping round Bromley High Street before terminating at Stratford Bus Station while the 108 nips off into the Olympic Park to end on the Westfield side of the tracks. The swap is being made so that both routes can benefit from larger buses, specifically so that the D8 no longer passes beneath the low bridge on Carpenters Road so can be run with double deckers, while the 108 gets longer single deckers to boost capacity. Two particular consequences are that the D8 will no longer shadow the DLR quite so closely (providing alternative linkage elsewhere), while the 108 will take slower roads to Stratford (unless it's rush hour in which case it'll avoid the A12 jams). Many of the other supposed benefits being bandied about by TfL in the consultation are specious, or are being added to one route at the expense of the other. But expect the swapover to take place in the early autumn when both contracts are renewed, and keep your fingers crossed that somebody manages to swap the tiles at Bus Stop M without making a complete pig's ear. [consultation] [map] [more from 853]

 Tuesday, February 09, 2016

 Route 508: Stratford City - Wanstead Park
 Length of journey: 3 miles, 25 minutes [map]

You'd hardly know this bus exists, and maybe that's the idea. It runs at wildly irregular times, it's barely advertised, and passenger usage is likely to be very low. But it has a proper route number and it meets a genuine need, indeed it's a perfect example of TfL's commitment to a comprehensive and reliable bus network. The residents of Albert Square might very well be lost without it. And it's all Crossrail's fault.

The situation is this. The 308 runs from Clapton to Wanstead via a circuitous route, dipping down to Stratford around halfway to make connections there. For part of its journey it runs along the northern side of the Great Eastern Mainline, specifically between Maryland and Forest Gate stations, along which section it is the only bus. However, intermittent Crossrail work at Forest Gate station requires part of the road outside to be acquired for works vehicles, every now and then, and this prevents buses from passing the full length of Forest Lane. The 308 is then diverted via Romford Road, which leaves seven bus stops unserved, hence the introduction of temporary route 508. But only at weekends. And only certain weekends. So good luck if you fancy catching it. I gave it a go on Sunday.

The 508 starts its stumpy journey at Stratford City bus station. Nobody seems especially proud. There is a 508 tile at Bus Stop W, but there's no timetable on the pole, and the 508's not shown on the map in the shelter, hence it's impossible to know where it's heading and when. I stand and wait. The next 308 whisks all the Wanstead-bound clientele away, so when the 508's unconvincing single decker spins around there's nobody else waiting. All the bus obviously says on the front is 'Special Service', which isn't useful, but evidently it wasn't practical (or economically viable) to add bespoke blinds. Look more closely and there are two A3 laminated sheets in the window, both of which say...

Stratford City &
Wanstead Park

...except the bottom of each card is obscured beneath the bottom of the window, hence the bus's destination is practically invisible. If you were attempting to run a secret bus to Ssssh Not Telling, you could hardly organise things better.

Not surprisingly nobody other than me chooses to board. A couple of people try, but this is because they think this is the rail replacement bus that's supposed to be departing from the same stop this weekend. "Are you going to Goodmayes?" "Are you going to Romford?" But no, we're stopping well short, so it seems the secret bus is all mine. Even better it appears to be free. I touch in my Oyster but the light is red, indicating either that the reader is switched off or that it hasn't warmed up yet. It soon becomes clear that the onboard iBus system isn't working either. Normally the electronic system chips in to announce the next stop, but no, it looks like nobody's been bothered to program this either. Thus far, nothing about the 508 is looking competent.

It takes a while to escape Westfield Stratford City, blighted as it is by several over-zealous traffic lights. But eventually, on the one-way system outside Stratford library, we pull in for actual passengers. A husband and wife board with several bulky bags of shopping and attempt to plonk these down at the front. There is then a slight altercation when the driver asks them to pay - it seems the Oyster reader has woken up. "But this is a free service," pleads the woman, "I'll show you the email if you like." The driver tries to ask again but she's having none of it. "No, it says online it's a free service!" I've tried my damnedest to find evidence of this since but there's almost nothing out there, indeed the 508 is conspicuous on the TfL website by its absence. At this point the driver gives up - the customer is always right - and we continue.

Around the corner lots of people are waiting, but not for us. No, hang on, a middle-aged gentleman seems keen to step aboard. He engages in some kind of conversation with the driver, as far as one can without a language in common, and beeps his card as normal. The shopping couple look on, but wisely say nothing. As we move off our latest passenger starts looking somewhat uncomfortable, there being few clues as to where the bus is actually going, until we stop again and he gets off. That's probably £1.50 wasted, mostly through ignorance. At the foot of Water Lane a second passenger does the same thing - boards for a one-stop journey - but in this case he's a seriously elderly gentleman with a stick, and the 508 has performed an immensely useful public service in getting him to within hobbling distance of home. There are genuine reasons why the secret bus exists.

Turning into Forest Lane we are greeted by large red signs warning 'Road Ahead Closed'. From here onwards we're entering the 508's exclusive domain, the community part-cut-off by Crossrail, living up a run of tightly-packed Victorian streets to one side. Ding! The shoppers are getting off at the first stop. I'm mildly surprised because the stop they boarded at is less than half a mile distant, via the direct route this bus hasn't followed, and I could probably have walked here faster in the time it's taken the bus to arrive. But they couldn't, of course, hence the 508 is again doing its job by providing a delivery of cereal boxes, loo roll and fresh veg almost to the front door. The woman makes a special point of waving her phone at the driver to show him her email before she alights. And look, this is the stop for Albert Square, the Newham street I've written about before, and which bears little resemblance to its fictional counterpart.

There's nobody else left to alight along the remaining stretch of road, although there are people waiting on the opposite side of the street, directly overlooking the railway cutting, for our driver to return. They can expect a long wait. Turning a bus round in this warren of streets isn't going to be easy, especially with the far end of Forest Lane irrevocably blocked. With the barriers fast approaching I wonder how we're going to do it, but at the last minute we turn left up a sidestreet rather narrower than TfL's diversionary planners would like. A chain of parked cars runs along each side of Field Road... clearly our luck is eventually going to run out when we meet something driving the other way.

It's not long before we meet something worse - a greedy parker. His Ford Galaxy is sat slap bang in the central gap, with the passenger door wide open and his hazard lights flashing as if this is somehow a suitable apology. Whatever the elusive passenger is doing, it clearly isn't quick, and it looks like we may be here some time. A local resident takes the opportunity to step over to the driver's cab and enquire when the next bus in the opposite direction might be. The driver explains that there isn't a bus stop here (this isn't some Hail and Ride zone, it's wholly unsuitable) and off she goes. And then she comes back, because the parking manoeuvre ahead is taking much longer than expected, and the driver relents and says if she waits right there he'll pick her up on the way back.

Eventually, after some sheepish reversing, we continue onwards in an attempt to escape this residential maze. I'm not entirely certain where the bus is going next because the only map of the route TfL have produced is chopped off after this point... but it does say "towards Wanstead Park" so I assume we're heading to the station. Not so. After two hopeful-looking right turns we suddenly head left away from the Overground, and I'm deposited rather further away than I'd like to have been. The last stop is at the bus stand on Bective Road, opposite Wanstead Flats, and if I'd genuinely wanted a bus to here I should have caught the 308 instead, because from this point onwards the diversion is over. Indeed I'd have been quicker getting off ten minutes ago and walking through the Crossrail parking lot, past where Forest Gate station is currently a hive of industry.

Which leaves me wondering how the 508 has been advertised to those who live along the key section of its route. I therefore walk back to the penultimate bus stop in the hope of finding a timetable, but all I find is a map of the diverted route, and a table listing which days the 508 bus is actually running. The last four Sundays in January, every Saturday and Sunday in February and March, back to Sundays in April and May, not at all in June and July, then approximately half the remaining Sundays until the end of the year. Oh, and always starting at 8pm the night before, and finishing at 6am the morning after. Has there ever been a more complicated bus schedule than this? But as for an actual timetable, TfL haven't chosen to provide one. I know the 508 runs every half an hour and when, because I've found this listing online, but in real life there's bugger all.

In some ways the 508 is a model service, running from before 5am until after midnight to keep a handful of residential streets connected. Someone's also done a perfect job adding fresh white '508' tiles at every bus stop along the way. But the remainder of the information provision, and the user experience itself, are considerably more substandard. Well, it wouldn't be a secret bus if it wasn't secret, eh?

 Monday, February 08, 2016

Yesterday was Visit My Mosque day. Did you go?

Jeremy Corbyn went. Zac Goldsmith went. Sadiq Khan probably didn't need to go specially. And I went.

I went to the East London Mosque, one of Britain's earliest and largest, with kneeling space for up to 7000 worshippers. It has a long history, far longer than you might expect from the relatively modern building fronting Whitechapel Road. Funding for London's first mosque began in 1910, but Muslims had to meet in temporary rooms until three houses on Commercial Road were bought in 1941. It wasn't until 1985 that the current purpose-built mosque was built, and the swelling congregation forced an extension on adjacent land in 2000. This was topped off with a further extension opened in 2013, adding even more communal facilities and an even larger area of carpet. And I never realised quite how much lay behind the brick façade until I stepped beneath the minaret.

I didn't go in the main door - that seemed presumptuous. Instead I entered via the London Muslim Centre nextdoor, part of the millennial extension, into a large and somewhat disorienting triangular atrium. There being no obvious clues as to where to go next, I stood and took in my surroundings. To the right a long large empty room awaited the mosque's females at the next call to prayer. To the left was a descending staircase beneath a sign labelled 'Ablutions', up and down which a variety of gentlemen were passing, and also a passageway leading off towards racks of shoes, which might just have been some inner sanctum so I held back. It took a couple of minutes to spot the VMM notice at the far end, and for the security guard to usher a few of us through, his presence because they can't be too careful these days, what with you know, stuff.

There was a definite sense of comings and goings, through every set of doors, with this warren of back rooms perhaps better resembling a community centre. Outside the lift a couple waited with their tiny babe-in-arms, beside a sign reading Circumcision Clinic 6th floor. Thankfully we were only off to the 1st floor, and the mosque's visitor centre, which comprises a few sets of information boards in an upper lobby. Here we were warmly welcomed, not just by various ambassadorial members of the mosque but by a table of free food and drink. Whatever cultural delicacies I might have been expecting of this spread, the reality was tea, coffee and fruit juice, some plates of digestive biscuits and several trays of chocolate cupcakes. This could very easily have been the same hospitality as at the church hall down the road, on any day with special visitors to greet.

An imam took time out to talk to us, in a small sideroom laid out with chairs. He explained some of the main tenets of Islam - the sharing of beliefs being one of the key objectives of Sunday's nationwide VMM experience. The word Islam, he explained, means both peace and submission, with that peace emanating from a conscious decision to submit your life to God. I was struck by the number of strict rules a Muslim has to follow, not just the requirement to fast through daylight hours in Ramadan, but the expectation of praying at astronomically appointed times five times a day, ideally at the mosque. It all makes being an Anglican look positively wishy-washy, indeed barely any commitment whatsoever. The group I was in asked several intelligent questions of the imam, obtaining several intelligent answers, until the call to prayer signalled one of those appointed times and off he went.

It wasn't possible to continue the tour while daily prayers were underway, so a further refreshment break was taken while the service played out. The visitor centre doubles up as a viewing gallery, so it was possible to watch the assembled worshippers lined up across the large room below as they went through the appointed motions. Whilst some religions shield their holy places from others, the entire visit to the East London Mosque felt very open and we were simply allowed to be 'present' while those in attendance continued around us as normal.

The delay allowed me to enter into conversation with some of the congregation, who were very keen to explain more about the religion they followed. The first to approach me offered a 'goodie bag' of information, and engaged in interesting chat about the ways of Islam and the life he followed. I fear I might have accidentally uttered one key word in my responses, because I was then politely passed on to a second gentleman who proceeded with a more animated approach. He explained the reasons why he believed Islam was the one true religion and how every word in the Koran was a God-given miracle, using individual verses as examples. There was never any pressure, but I did sense a subtext that he hoped I'd be impressed and search out more. Instead, well, if you ever want to completely waste your time, try persuading me to believe something - I'm a hopeless case.

Once the main service had cleared out somewhat it was time to descend to ground level and take a look inside the prayer hall. This required the removal of shoes, and passing through a door labelled For Health And Safety Reasons Please Do Not Leave Shoes Here. Whatever I'd been expecting before I arrived, the reality was more like a medium-sized sports hall with a comfy carpet. An adjacent linked hall had some colourful tiling at around head height, and the dome above us had minor decor around the inside of a mostly-white rim, but elsewhere the key sense was understated emptiness. One of the most prominent features was a bland electronic clock displaying date and time, a reflection on the importance of temporal precision, while latecomers stood directly in front of a southeast-facing wall and continued their prayers. Devout throughout, but never showy.

Rather than a downstairs tour as such, we were invited to sit on the carpet where minutes earlier several rows of gentlemen had been kneeling. Again we had a talk followed by questions, as worshippers of all ages dripfed out of the main hall ahead, giving our group a cursory look as they passed. Again our collective questions were intelligently framed and comprehensively answered, eventually hitting the not unexpected topic of why the ladies in the group had had to cover their heads before entering the hall, and why women prayed together in a separate room. However logical our spokesman tried to make the historic regulations sound, the underlying gist was awkwardly anachronistic, and doubly so when the next enquirer asked about Islam's approach to homosexuality. Some things remain totally unacceptable it seems, even today, but are tolerated because of the country we live in, and because any form of hatred is anathema to a true convert.

Over 250 of us took the opportunity to step inside the East London Mosque yesterday, with thousands more visiting mosques across the capital and around the rest of the country. And yet there must still be tens of millions of Britons out there who've never set foot inside one, and who may have distorted views of what goes on and what the community believes. Open days like yesterday are only a small step along the way to mutual understanding, but the underlying message of peace shone through.

 Sunday, February 07, 2016

It's Day One on the tube.

During 2015 TfL removed all the ticket offices from Underground stations, bringing staff out from behind the glass into public areas. Now in 2016 they're introducing brand new ways of working and a completely different staffing structure, which'll mean increased use of technology and fewer staff on duty. It's called Fit For The Future, and it's TfL's major current programme for increasing customer interaction whilst cutting costs. And this is the reason why the RMT scheduled a strike for this weekend, a dispute since called off following last minute tweaks to terms and conditions.

So radical is the restructure that it's taken over two years to plan and implement, with job descriptions changed, allocated stations altered and numerous staff offered redundancy. And so complex is the transformation that they're not rolling it out all in one go. Staff at the majority of the tube network will be switching over to the new way of doing things at the start of April. But staff at King's Cross St Pancras and at 22 stations at the eastern end of the Central line are switching over today.

The biggest changes are to station-by-station allocation of staff. Previously platform and gateline staff were always based at a single station, but from now on that'll only be the case at the very largest stations and everyone else will be grouped across a wider area. There'll still be staff on duty at every station, but you won't always see the same familiar faces in the same location, and many stations will have fewer staff on duty than you're currently used to.

For example...
King's Cross St Pancras is now classified as a Gateway station, the most important type. These are the main visitor entry points to London, used by a high proportion of people unfamiliar with the network (who are likely to need to purchase a ticket), and have dedicated Visitor Centres that provide travel and tourism information. The six Gateway stations will not share staff with any other stations, and neither will the 29 not-quite-so important Destination stations (for example Embankment, Green Park and Stratford).

Mile End is now classified as a Metro station. These serve predominantly inner London communities and are generally busy, with a majority of users being commuters who are familiar with the network. They're also usually underground. Under the new scheme most Metro stations are being paired off with one other (Mile End is being twinned with Bethnal Green) to create a single staffing unit.

Epping is now classified as a Local station. These are smaller and generally serve outer London, and usually have platforms at surface level. They also tend to be fairly quiet outside peak hours. Local stations are being grouped in larger clusters, typically of between four and six stations (Epping will form a Multiple area with all the other stations north of Woodford).
The 23 stations pioneering the Fit For The Future approach, starting today, will be grouped as follows.
Metropolitan line cover group 7: King's Cross St Pancras
Central line cover group 9: Mile End, Bethnal Green
Central line cover group 10: Leyton, Leytonstone, Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Woodford
Central line cover group 11: Buckhurst Hill, Loughton, Debden, Theydon Bois, Epping
Central line cover group 12: Wanstead, Redbridge, Gants Hill, Newbury Park
Central line cover group 13: Barkingside, Fairlop, Hainault, Grange Hill, Chigwell, Roding Valley
If you'd like to see the full underground map and how stations will be grouped from April, see page 18 of this official TfL pdf.

Then there's a whole new hierarchy of job descriptions for staff, some of which are a little lowlier than previously and might therefore be paid less.
Area Manager – Accountable for safety, performance and people leadership across an Area. Not located permanently on stations.
Customer Service Manager – Responsible for people management, customer service, safety and day to day operation of the station, or a group of stations. Visible to customers in the ticket hall and around the station, with some time spent in station offices dealing with people management.
Customer Service Supervisor – Responsible for day to day operation. At larger stations usually responsible for a given area of the station (e.g. control room). Not present at Metro stations. At Local stations, generally the single staff member.
Customer Service Assistant 1 – Assists customers in the ticket hall, at the gateline and on platforms. May perform other station duties (e.g. security checks). Not present at Local stations unless there is a specified need (e.g. detrainments or a busy second gateline)
Customer Service Assistant 2 - Interacts with customers primarily in the ticket hall or on the gateline. Not present at Local stations or smaller Metro stations, except perhaps during peak hours.
And finally there's new technology. Not only have ticket machines been updated, but all frontline staff have now been issued with their very own iPad mini. It's not a freebie, it's for work, and from today several processes at FftF stations can only be completed by using it. Bespoke apps created by TfL include Station Log (in which staff will return all activity at their station), Ticket Monitoring (for staff to report when ticket machines and gates need attention) and Fault Reporting (for recording faults such as damage to escalators and cracked roof tiles). I understand the iPads also come with Citymapper installed, which is just as well given how much easier it is to navigate than TfL's own 'mobile-friendly' website.

If you're a regular user of one of the first 23 stations for switchover, watch out for changes next time you pass through. From today you might see different members of staff. You might never see some previously familiar staff ever again. You might see fewer staff (at Leytonstone during the rush hour, for example, four staff will be trimmed to two - one downstairs in the ticket hall and one upstairs on the platforms). You might even be able to get travel advice off the iPad mini, in case you'd like to test out a member of staff with your Oyster or routing needs.

And from 3rd April, expect to see this model rolled out everywhere across the network. TfL hope that fewer staff in more useful locations will mean improved and more efficient customer service. But will this new model really be Fit for the Future? The next few weeks at the guinea pig stations, starting today, will help us to find out.

» Fit for the Future
» Fit for the future - Station Staffing Model guide
» Fit for the Future - Getting to Day One
» Fit for the Future - Process and Technology weekly blog
» RMT News - January 2016

 Saturday, February 06, 2016

For news channels reporting on the PM's EU deal, there appear to be only two main viewpoints at the moment, and they're these.

The PM's EU deal
is good enough
so I'll vote
The PM's EU deal
isn't good enough
so I'll vote

Public opinion, it seems, hinges around David Cameron's diplomatic mission to persuade European politicians to let Britain off the hook on a few things. A few significant things. Or nothing of any importance.

These two opinions are what everybody is thinking, we're told, and will have the greatest influence on the outcome of the upcoming referendum.

But a lot of people out there are surely thinking this.

The PM's EU deal
is irrelevant,
I'm still voting
The PM's EU deal
is irrelevant,
I'm still voting

Many people must be thinking the former. The PM's EU deal is a pointless sideshow that merely pisses off the rest of Europe, demanding all the good things about membership and none of the bad, like a child throwing a tantrum.

Many other people are similarly unimpressed, but to them it doesn't matter what the PM's deal is, the EU is an evil bureaucratic demon that does terrible things, and any excuse to leave it would be welcomed.

A lot of the population chime with one of those two opinions, I'd say. But there's also these.

I don't know any bad things about Europe, so I'll vote REMAINI know one bad thing about Europe, so I'll vote LEAVE

I'm unconvinced that many people fall into the former category. And that's because the latter category is so damned strong. For many Britons all it takes is one bad opinion about one bad EU thing and that's it, Europe is lost to them. It could be a trade law, it could be some health and safety regulation, it could be migrants, it could be benefits, it could be something entirely fictional about how bendy bananas are allowed to be, but that one thing swings the entire argument for them. These people don't see any of the good things the EU might do in other fields, or indeed the many good things the EU may do across several fields, they focus only on the bad thing and this colours their entire opinion.

If the Remain campaign wants to get the public onside, it needs to drive home all the good things Europe does like freedom of travel and funding for projects in poor areas and consumer rights legislation the government can't water down and smoothing trade deals with our nearest neighbours and boosting Britain's global influence, and then maybe people will see why the EU is a good thing. Whereas if the Leave campaign wants to get the public onside, all it has to do is point at one terrible thing the EU does and how terribly unfair it is, and leave fear and ignorance to do the rest.

I have no issue with UK citizens intending to cast their referendum vote for Remain or Leave based on a broad consideration of the issues. But when a sizeable proportion of the population seem willing to cast their vote based on a single blinkered issue, possibly even fictional, that's a much less comfortable way to decide the future. Indeed many Britons appear unwilling or unable to view the wider picture, and hence are more likely to be swayed by a single overwhelmingly negative issue.

Which means the people we might be most concerned about are this lot.

Foreigners have always made me nervous, because, you know.I'm letting my newspaper make my mind up for me, thanks.

Whichever way this once-in-a-generation referendum goes, we mustn't let the ignorant swing it.

 Friday, February 05, 2016

Out There is Historic England’s first major exhibition, a retrospective look at key postwar public art. It focuses on murals and sculptures dotted around estates and shopping centres, commissioned for the greater good, and particularly those under threat or lost. It opened this week at Somerset House and runs until just after Easter. You'll like this one.

There are several exhibitions on at Somerset House at present, including the big ticket Big Bang Data in the galleries at the front of the building. This one's upstairs in the courtyard, Out There, within a series of rooms in one corner. It costs to get in, but if you like this kind of thing don't let that stop you coming - I spent well over an hour inside. The guide book's good too, and a bargain, with 36 illustrated pages for a paltry £1. Amusingly you buy your ticket at one till, but then you have to buy the guide book from the lady at the till immediately nextdoor, because systems.

The first room looks at sculpture in the context of the Festival of Britain. A large number of public works of art were commissioned, but most of them on the cheap as they were always presumed to be temporary. Even the much-loved Skylon was scrapped by the new government after the exhibition closed - here we see one of the souvenir aluminium letter openers it was melted down into. But there had been pioneering collections of outdoor works before - Battersea Park hosted several annual displays, here illustrated with programmes and posters showing mysterious metallic forms.

The next room focuses solely on Harlow - Sculpture Town. This dormitory settlement beyond the fledgling Green Belt was built up into a new town of more than 70000 people with large-scale challenging outdoor works of art scattered throughout. A couple of the sculptures are here at the exhibition - the advantage of such works being that sometimes several casts were made - including Trigon (from the shopping centre) by Lynn Chadwick, and a bronze carcass of a bull slung over two market porters' backs. I really enjoyed watching a thirteen minute documentary filmed in 1956 explaining Harlow to Americans, featuring average workmen and housewives praising their new town, and the chief architect himself surveying his creation from the top of a tower block as strands of wiggly hair flutter in the breeze. To see the real thing in situ, a day trip to Harlow isn't as ridiculous an idea as it might sound.

Smaller projects also get the nod, like the statues made as an integral part of the Highbury Quadrant estate, and Hertfordshire County Council's post-war spend on art to brighten its secondary schools. Urban centres far from London are also included, particularly as part of a 1972 public sculpture programmme sponsored by a brand of cigarettes. Cardiff got climb-on geometric forms, while Cambridge's twirly spikes were comprehensively vandalised over six months by members of an unappreciative public. Birmingham appears to have hit the jackpot with a giant King Kong statue by the Bull Ring, but even they failed to keep hold of what would now be a much-loved piece, and it ended up first in a car showroom and then in private hands.

Sometimes commercial partnerships deliver public art of stature. One example is Barbara Hepworth's Winged Figure on the front of John Lewis in Oxford Street, whose stringed maquette is on display, while Geoffrey Clarke's The Spirit of Electricity remains in situ on a 60s office block in St Martin's Lane. Coming rather more up to date, TfL's commitment to public art is celebrated, with (for example) the colourful 'Wrapper' covering the outside of Edgware Road station, the Paolozzi mosaics recently disassembled at Tottenham Court Road, and a Labyrinth which appears to have been borrowed from the concourse at Embankment.

Heritage England are hoping that this exhibition, and its accompanying campaign, will make us more appreciative of postwar public art and more willing to protect it. As an example of what public pressure can do they've alighted on Old Flo, Stepney's beloved Henry Moore, which was very nearly sold off by Tower Hamlets' previous Mayor to raise money to plug funding cuts. Communities and charities came together to say "No!", and the current Mayor has pledged to keep this Draped Seated Woman for public enjoyment, once somewhere appropriate can be found to put her. Old Flo is one of the lucky ones.

Half a wall in the Save Our Sculpture room is given over to public art that can no longer be seen. Some is lost, some sold, some destroyed when the surrounding inrastructure was redeveloped and some stolen for scrap. Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms (Divided Circle) is one of the latter, nicked overnight from Dulwich Park five years ago and never recovered. There it is in the photo above, which I snapped on my phone while nobody was looking. Photography is prohibited in the exhibition, for reasons of copyright, but I decided to break that particular rule because the copyright holder was me. Yay, I have a photo in an exhibition at Somerset House, even if the reasons behind its appearance are rather sad.

I know at least a dozen friends who'd enjoy this exhibition, ticking all sorts of art and architecture boxes as it does, along with its focus on an era often unappreciated by the mainstream. There are no statues of army generals or kings and queens in this collection, more a diverse collection of forms and a keen sense of a bright uplifting future. I came away with a sense of a lost era in which artists and authorities tried to do what was best for communities, and a legacy at odds with today's more commercial sensitivities. Rejoice that 41 such sculptures were listed last month, thanks to Historic England's cataloguing diligence. And look around you while you're Out There, because the very best place to enjoy public art is in public space.

Out There: Our Post-War Public Art
3 February – 10 April 2016
Open daily 10.00 – 18.00 (last admission 17.15)
Late night Thursdays & Fridays until 21.00
Admission £6.50, concessions £5.00

» Exhibition video trailer
» Public Art 1945-95 (a 24 page illustrated history, from Historic England)
» Why not join the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association?

» very nearby: Beyond Beauty - the annual exhibition at Two Temple Place

 Thursday, February 04, 2016

Five times a year TfL holds a board meeting at which lots of high level issues are discussed in public. Five days in advance, all the papers for that meeting are tabled online, where anyone can read them. And often they contain facts, strategies and explanations you just don't get to hear anywhere else. A few news outlets scour the board papers for nuggets that might be of wider interest, while others continue to wait for TfL's press department to send them 'news' and republish that. I prefer digging to parroting, so below are 20 (not necessarily interesting) things you could have learned at this week's TfL board meeting.

• Significant changes to the proposed development above the new Tube station at Battersea, led by the Battersea Power Station Development Company, mean that the station design needs to be revised to ensure it can support their proposed new, more ambitious structures. These revisions will lead to increases in the overall cost of the project which we are seeking to recover from the developer.
• The 150th of the eventual 191 walkthrough air-conditioned S stock trains has now entered service on the Circle, District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines. One extra train has been purchased to ensure that the fleet will be large enough when the Metropolitan line is extended from Croxley to Watford Junction.
• The Mayor set a target in 2011 aiming to further reduce delays on London Underground by 30% by the end of 2015. Delays have since reduced by an impressive 38% and are at their lowest ever level.
• The refurbishment of the roof at Farringdon station, originally dating from 1865, has won Best Entry 2015 in the National Railway Heritage Awards.

• Crossrail remains on time and within the funding envelope of £14.8bn. Overall, the project is more than 70% complete.
• At Moorgate station, the newly-constructed passenger tunnel linking the Northern line to Crossrail runs less than a metre below the Northern line’s northbound tunnel.
• In advance of Crossrail, a new customer information display is being tested at Manor Park. The integrated display system provides information about TfL Rail and network-wide travel and details of disruptions to other transport services.
• To create a large-scale artwork in the Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station, gold leaf will be hand-gilded on the ceiling above the eastern ticket hall.

• As part of the Zero Emission Urban Bus System (ZeEUS) project, wireless charging is being trialled on range-extended hybrid double-decker buses on route 69 between Canning Town and Walthamstow.
• The introduction of digital advertising panel technology at bus shelters, from 22 February, will see 650 new panels installed by the end of August. This will provide an interactive way for advertisers to showcase their products and a means to provide local information to customers.

• The central section of the East-West Cycle Superhighway (Tower Hill to Lancaster Gate) will be completed by May, with works in Parliament Square targeted for completion before the London Marathon on 24 April. CS1 and the CS2 upgrade are scheduled to be complete by April.
• The Central London Grid is a set of connected routes for cyclists across central London. A total of 126 borough schemes contribute to the Grid, 33 of which (16km out of 100km) are now either under construction or complete. Designs for 104 of the 126 schemes have been received from the boroughs, of which 94 have been approved by TfL.

• On an average day 6.4 million walk-all-the-way trips are made, and walking accounts for 30% of all trips made by Londoners. Two-thirds of journeys of one mile or under are made on foot and walking is the most common mode for shopping trips and trips to and from school.

• The proportion of Pay As You Go journeys being made using contactless payment cards continues to increase each week, reaching 27% for Tube and rail journeys and 23% for bus journeys. These numbers are increasing at between 0.2-0.4% each week. Nearly 25,000 new cards are being used every day. The share of mobile devices in overall contactless use stood at approximately 3.5% in December.
• Oyster Pay As You Go top-ups, which represent about 70% of all sales transactions, are down year-on-year by about 8%, reflecting customers switching from Oyster to contactless. Changes introduced as a result of contactless have reduced the cost of revenue collection from 15% of revenue to below 9%, with initiatives already in place projected to reduce this to around 6% of revenue.
• Sales of Travelcard season tickets on London Underground have decreased by 9.5% overall with a much bigger drop of 12.9% per cent for weekly Travelcards where weekly capping is now available as a substitute. Annual Travelcard sales have increased in line with traffic. Sales of daily Travelcards have dropped by more than 50% in London, in line with the projections when the January 2015 fares changes were made.
• The closure of LU ticket offices has been accompanied by an increase in the number of ticket machines at major stations. When combined with a reduction in the number of sales transactions, this means that customers are seeing shorter queueing times and a better ticket buying experience.

Oyster failure
• On Saturday 2 January the Oyster system failed when the new 2016 fares were due to go into effect at 04:30. The cause was quickly diagnosed and a fix was tested and applied system-wide by 09:30. One of several data tables which deal with special fare types was configured incorrectly and this resulted in the readers detecting an incomplete set of tables. As soon as this fault was discovered a recovery plan was activated and the system returned to operation. The full revenue loss of around £250,000 will be recovered from TfL's contractors. This was the first Oyster failure since 2008. During the downtime period, contactless payment cards and paper tickets worked as normal.

• Visitor admission numbers at the London Transport Museum remained high throughout 2015, regularly exceeding target. It remains on track to reach record-breaking numbers of around 400,000 by the end of March. December trading for the webshop was up by £42,000 (67%) on last year.

New Year's Eve
• For the second year running there were fewer people in central London on New Year's Eve, with significant reductions in the numbers of non-ticket holders attempting to view the event. Although the reasons for this are not fully understood, a combination of factors including public information and the weather are likely to have had an impact.

 Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Before the month's too far gone, here are three things I did in January but never got round to writing about at the time...

You might have missed: Going up the Orbit
The Shard isn't the only lofty London landmark with a special annual deal. The Orbit in the Olympic Park has a similar offer, except it's cheaper, and properly unlimited, and the view isn't anywhere near as good. Book online and you can go up to the observation platform as many times as you like for £12 (or £2 less if you're a resident of an Olympic borough). But I fear the number of people seeking to view their neighbourhood from 80 metres up is rather low. It's not an attraction where you ever see queues, indeed I've always had the full attention of the staff when I've been. Admittedly the last time I went up was during a full-on storm, just to see what the experience was like, but the upstairs crew let out an audible sigh of relief when I appeared because they'd seen nobody for ages. Standing outside on the platform in driving rain was, let's say, an experience, even if my house was rather hard to spot through the gloom. With the attraction losing half a million pounds a year (I know, who would have guessed?), bosses hope that the adding the world's longest slide will finally draw visitors in. The lower of the two platforms was closed to visitors a few weeks ago so that construction of the slide can begin - it'll be heading down from the square hole in the middle, if any of you have actually been. When the slide opens to the public, sometime in the spring, you'll be able to whizz down five spirals and a long straight at up to 15mph (in 40 seconds flat) for the paltry fee of £5. Unfortunately that's on top of the entrance fee of £12, so not the bargain it might appear. And adding this exciting extra is costing the public purse £3.5m, which might be argued to be throwing good money after bad. But if marketed correctly (yes, seriously, the world's longest slide) this might just possibly validate the decision to build this red swirling oddity in the first place.

You might have missed: Green Chain 11
When BestMate wondered what to do at the weekend, I suggested section 11 of the Green Chain. We've walked several bits of this southeast London network before, but this is one of the better stretches, plus it (almost) passes the house where he grew up. We started at Crystal Palace, where BestMate declared the coffee in the station cafe to be the best he'd ever tasted (and that's no mean praise). We diverted off the designated path to the palace footprint beneath the TV mast, to enjoy the view, then crossed into the lesser known (but beautifully maintained) Sydenham Wells Park where unbelievably the rhododendrons were already out. Up on Sydenham Hill we disagreed over which of the grand houses we'd like to live in, a battle I later won when it turned out 'Six Pillars' was a Grade II*-listed Modernist classic by Berthold Lubetkin. Descending into Sydenham Hill Wood we were relieved we'd worn our boots - the former railway alignment was a quagmire - and we were almost embarrassed to walk into the Horniman Museum, past umpteen parents and pushchairs, caked in mud. And a fantastic panorama from the bandstand, especially for those who like 60s social housing and 21st century City skyscrapers. The next street turned out to be part of BestMate's walk to primary school, and we later found the family home up the end of a grand avenue subdivided into flats, and paused to worry the current residents by taking photos of their frontage. Camberwell Cemetery appeared to have a serious drainage problem, with several of the graves effectively underwater, which couldn't having a positive effect on any human remains below. There are a lot of cemeteries in this second half of the walk, the meandering path always really well signposted, and ending up in the Victorian splendour of what's now Nunhead's nature reserve. Five and a half miles of fascinating inner suburbia just goes to prove you don't have to spend your free time doing the obvious.

You might have missed: Streets Ahead
The latest exhibition at the Building Centre in Store Street is about streets. How they grew, how they are now, and how they might grow in the future. A series of information boards lead you through various aspects of London's streetscape, from sepia photos of early motor vehicles mixing with horse-drawn traffic, to artists' impressions of potential priority bus corridors. With London growing at a rate of nine new residents every hour, something has to be done to accommodate that growth whilst simultaneously ensuring excessive air pollution doesn't choke our lives. There are statistics aplenty (by 2041 there'll be 32 million trips on London's roads each day, up from 26 million today) and details of fresh new schemes that might help improve flow. This being a TfL-supported exhibition it's all terribly positive, hence proposals for the Silvertown Tunnel are presented as a boon, and a quite frankly scary proposal to burrow new road tunnels around central London is praised for "reducing severance" and "improving local environments"... unless you have the misfortune to live where it might burrow to the surface. Probably the most interesting feature is a 24-hour speeded-up video showing a representation of Greater London's daily passenger flow, while I also rather liked the abstract arrowed artwork based on Fitzrovia's one-way system. It's a fifteen minute sort of exhibition, so not one to drive in specially for, but you can always stop and stare at the amazing (and recently updated) 40-foot model of central London building projects to check what's planned. And don't forget to cast your votes in the wholly unscientific transport poll in the perspex containers on the wall, where it seems driverless cars split public opinion, whereas that road tunnelling idea is surprisingly popular. Runs until 24th February, alongside a small programme of get-involved events.

 Tuesday, February 02, 2016

I live in fear of card clash.

Sorry, I'm a bit late on this one. Bear with me.

It's now two years since TfL began scaring the bejesus out of us over card clash. Watch out for card clash, they screamed, beware of card clash, it could wreck your life!

This elevated level of alarm was somewhat unexpected, because it'd be six months before mere mortals could use their contactless cards to pay for travel on the Underground. Sure, they'd already been operational on the buses for over a year, where warnings of card clash had been made abundantly clear. But the relentless campaign on the tube in February 2014 was something new - you couldn't go five minutes in a ticket hall or on a platform without hearing recorded messages about the perils of double swiping.

Keep your Oyster card separate from your other contactless cards, they warned, else card clash might be the result. In those early days this might result in nothing worse than the gates not opening, and some mild tutting from the stream of commuters coming up behind. But as the trialling phase ended and general rollout ensued, it became increasingly vital "to only touch the card you intend to pay with on the reader to avoid paying with a card you did not intend to use". TfL's volley of card clash hype made journeys feel genuinely dangerous, so terrible might the consequences be.

But where is card clash now? Indeed can you even remember the last time you heard a recorded message specifically mentioning it? The danger should be greater now than ever, what with an increasing number of contactless cards in wallets and purses, and various other electronic means by which you might accidentally end up paying twice. Is TfL's silence because we've all learned to avoid the card clash demon? Was it possibly never a big issue in the first place? Or are they now going out of their way to promote the positives rather than the negatives?

TfL's message has most definitely changed, specifically to "contactless is great!" It's great for customers because they need never top up again, and because they'll never pay more than they would have done with Oyster. And it's great for TfL because it offloads all the effort of collecting fares to your bank, and saves TfL millions they can then invest elsewhere. Indeed if you look at any recent fare-related publicity you'll see that contactless is now always given maximum prominence, with Oyster as an also ran, because contactless is the future.

I don't have a contactless card.

Or rather I didn't, until the very end of last year when my bank finally sent me a new card with a contactless chip. It even arrived on the very day TfL snuffed out their last ticket office, which I thought was somewhat ironic.

I haven't rushed to use it, indeed I hung onto my old card until the very last day. I'm in no hurry to embrace new capability, not because I'm a Luddite but because I'm perfectly happy with what I know. Some of my friends are the complete opposite. They leapt on contactless as soon as it appeared, indeed they've embraced the technology to such an extent that they've been known to tweet their frustration when they discover a vendor who doesn't take Apple Pay, as if this inconvenience were some kind of financial crime. But I'm not someone who goes round town buying coffees, beers or pastries, nor a bag of groceries on the way home, so small plastic payments aren't a big thing for me.

And anyway, I have zero need for contactless payment on the tube. Contactless currently only works for Pay As You Go, whereas I have a Travelcard which works in a completely different way. Contactless can cope with weekly capping, but not yet monthly, and is of no use whatsoever for my annual one-off payment. It's known that TfL will be updating their technology before too long, perhaps replacing Oyster functionality with something that tots up travel and deducts a single payment at the end of the day. But for the time being those of us with Travelcards can simply ignore the lure of contactless, because we've already paid, and it'd likely charge us more.

Indeed it's pretty important that we Travelcard users don't use contactless. When I make a journey within my zones, it's not supposed to cost. When I venture outside my designated area, I pay a lesser extension fee. And even if I travel entirely outside the area I've paid for, my special Gold Card discount kicks in and I get one third off. I absolutely definitely do not want to pay for my tube or bus fare using contactless, which up until yesterday was fine, because I didn't have a card with the designated ability.

But at the end of 01/16 my old Chip and Pin expired, and suddenly I was kicked screaming into the modern world. My new card has a clever security feature whereby no contactless payment can be taken until it's been used at least once in a cash machine. But I needed fresh cash yesterday, and suddenly my contactless functionality is unlocked... imagine my fear and terror.

I now get to approach the ticket barrier carrying an additional card for payment. Suddenly I'm introducing financial risk into my daily travel where previously there was none. I don't usually swipe my wallet across the reader, I wave my Oyster card instead, but what if I suddenly get it wrong? What if the two cards suddenly ended up together in some freak mis-filing accident, and the wrong one beeped? Or what if I was getting onto a bus and the radio field picked up the contactless card I might have in a top pocket and accidentally charged that? And if it did, how would I know? I'm not scouring my bank balance for potential fare outlay, so who knows how out of control the drain on my spending could become.

I worry that a fear of card clash has been hardwired into me by TfL's lengthy awareness campaigns, hence I've become inordinately concerned that the dreaded double charging issue will happen to me. I know the rest of you are months ahead - you got all your Early Adopter Terror out of the way several months ago. Indeed you've probably long recognised that 'card clash' in fact never happens, and was merely a headline-grabbing scare story designed to tip us over into leaving our Oysters at home, shunting us over to the new way of doing things more quickly. I'll reach that state of mind eventually, I really will, but it may take a while.

So if you do spot a petrified geezer frozen with fear by the ticket gates, please have pity. I do have a contactless card, all of a sudden, I'm just not yet ready to use it.

 Monday, February 01, 2016

If it feels like the upgrade of Cycle Superhighway 2 has been going on for ages, that's because it has. The first roadworks kicked off twelve months ago, indeed this road sign by the Bow Roundabout is about to enter chronologically ambiguous territory.

And it's now six months since TfL sent me (and hundreds of other local residents) a letter outlining what the imminent restructure of Bow Road would involve. "The following changes are expected to apply between July 2015 and January 2016", they said. It's now February, and Bow Road still looks like a building site for most of its length, with plastic barriers and construction teams in abundance. The intended completion date is now March, so there should be plenty of time to transform the street into a model Cycle Superhighway. But blimey there's still a heck of a lot of work to be done, and until then the single lane traffic and slow-moving vehicles remain.

As a reality check, here's what TfL predicted would happen to Bow Road's six bus stops in their letter in July, along with what's actually happened.
Spoiler: All the predictions were wrong. Very wrong.

Bus stops (eastbound)
• Bus stop Y (Bow Road Station) will be temporarily suspended from early December for around six weeks
No, it hasn't closed yet. It's already February, but this is one of two bus stops yet to be affected by significant rebuilding work.
• Bus stop A (Bow Church Station) will be temporarily suspended from mid-September for around six weeks
Work eventually started not in September but at the beginning of January! It's still not finished, but the basics of the new bus stop bypass are all in place and, to their credit, the contractors got the bus stop reopened in only three weeks.
• Bus stop E (Bow Church) will be relocated 50m east and combined with bus stop G (Bow Church) permanently from late October
You already know all about this one. The transformation began in August with the closure of existing stop G, and concluded in mid-October with its reopening as bus stop M. But even though that was more than three months ago, the bus stop bypass still isn't open to cyclists. It looks finished, now the lamppost's been removed, but a sandbagged barrier prevents cyclists from taking the safer route behind the island. The next tiny bit of CS2 isn't officially upgraded yet, which I assume is the reason for this petty delay, but any cyclist would be in less peril on the not-quite perfect rear alignment than having to cycle past stopped buses in busy traffic.
• Bus stop M (Bow Flyover) will be closed permanently from from late December
No, it was actually closed permanently from early October. This closure ought to have made cycling onto the Bow Roundabout much safer, but alas not because the empty space is currently being used by bus drivers on route 205 to park up between journeys. Never underestimate how dangerous the construction phase of a segregated cycle lane can be for the cyclists who will later benefit from it.

Bus stops (westbound)
• Bus stops J, K and L (Bow Church) will be temporarily suspended from late October for around three weeks
Rebuilding work began in November and is now pretty much complete, with three new bus stops (and two shelters) strung out along a very long bus stop bypass. Impressively, by sequencing the construction work carefully, at no point did the bus stop have to close. Unimpressively the cycle lane still isn't open yet. A depressingly familiar tale.
• Bus stop B (Bow Church Station) will be temporarily suspended from early November for around three weeks
No, not yet. Three months on from the intended start date no major work has begun, and the bus stop has not been suspended.
• Bus stop Z (Bow Road station) will be temporarily suspended from late October for around three weeks
From late October? No, this bus stop closed only a couple of weeks back, three months behind schedule, and is currently very barriered and very dug up. As usual the only guidance to displaced bus passengers is a tiny sentence on a notice in a barely-legible location advising people to use the stop before or the stop after - the default advice and none too helpful. But then that's the kind of lax shoddiness we've come to expect during this 58-week upgrade. The end result had better be worth it.

For thirteen consecutive Februaries on diamond geezer I've kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a stats-tastic 28-day feature called The Count. You therefore won't be surprised to hear that I intend to do exactly the same again this year, indeed you'd no doubt be disappointed otherwise. I kicked off this annual exercise way back in 2003, so I now have over a dozen years of thrilling historical data to analyse. Expect a post or two of comparisons at the end of the month, if you're vaguely interested, and if you can bear the wait. Here's my selected list of ten countables for February 2016.

Count 1: Number of visits to this blog (Feb 2015 total: 58380) (↑13% on 2014)
Count 2: Number of comments on this blog (Feb 2015 total: 625) (↑31%)
Count 3: Number of words I wrote on this blog (Feb 2015 total: 30363) (↓6%)
Count 4: Number of hours each day I sleep (Feb 2015 total: 163) (↓1%)
Count 5: Number of nights I go out and am vaguely sociable (Feb 2015 total: 8) (↑33%)
Count 6: Number of bottles of Becks I drink (Feb 2015 total: 0) (↓100%)
Count 7: Number of cups of tea I drink (Feb 2015 total: 129) (-)
Count 8: Number of trains I travel on (Feb 2015 total: 124) (↑23%)
Count 9: Number of steps I walk (Feb 2015 total: 282391) (↑11%)
Count 10: The Mystery Count (Feb 2015 total: 0) (again)

I probably ought to tweak the Beck's-related sixth count, because it's proven increasingly over-specific over the years. Back in 2003 my bottled lager of choice was readily available, but now it's much more likely to be absent from the choices offered, thereby forcing me to drink something else. Good riddance, you might say, but focusing the annual statistics on Becks is making my alcohol consumption appear unnaturally low. I'm not intending to change Count Six, for reasons of tradition, but I will also be totting up the number of alternative bottles/pints of lager I get through. Last year that was only four, and all in one night in a Sam Smith's pub where the options were limited. My liver looks safe for some years yet.

The Count 2009Once again I'll be using an online website called Daytum to keep track of my counts. Daytum is a real-time data tracker which displays numbers in a pretty way, and which somehow hasn't gone offline since I started using it. For a while it'll be displaying last February's totals, but then I'll set everything back to zero and start reporting this year's counts from scratch. I then intend to update my counts on Daytum at least once a day until the 28th of the month, and then I'll come back and tell you how my February went. Who knows, the Mystery Count might even require enumeration this year, although I wouldn't get your hopes up. Stalk away.

» The Count 2016

 Sunday, January 31, 2016

When The View From The Shard opened to the public three years ago, I looked at the price and decided not to bother. £25 seemed a bit steep to ascend the tallest building in Western Europe, amazing though the view might be, and even that required booking ahead and risking it with the weather. The price has since gone up another pound, indeed it's now £30.95 if you turn up on the day, which is tourist-milking of the rankest order. But then the best bargain in London came along, so I've been up for rather less, and I'm going up again, and again, and again.

Last Monday at Stupid O'Clock in the morning, the ticket desks at the Shard opened early to dispense special 'Love London' tickets. These cost £20.16 and allow unlimited access to The View from The Shard for the rest of the year - that's less than the usual cost price and you can go up as many times as you like. Phenomenal value, I'm sure you'll agree. Only 2016 of these tickets were made available, hence long queues built up, and yet unbelievably the entire stock didn't quite sell out on day 1.

More to the point, "Due to popular demand, 500 additional Love London cards will be available for purchase on Sunday, 31 January 2016 from 10am." You need to live in London, you need to bring a utility bill and photo ID, and you can only buy on behalf of yourself. But I'd be willing to bet that if you turn up this morning (or even this afternoon) you'll easily bag one, particularly given how poor the weather forecast looks. And then you can go up the Shard in sun, in fog, in rain, in darkness, indeed at any time it's not totally booked out between now and New Year's Eve. I'm going at least once a month, at a cost of £1.68 a time, so maybe see you up there?

The View From the Shard

The Shard rises 1016 feet above what it likes to call London Bridge Quarter, but you probably think of as London Bridge station. Going up is a minor faff, thanks to the not entirely unexpected requirement that everyone proceeds through a full body security check. Then there's the lift, or rather two lifts, the first of which whisks you up to the 33rd floor at ear-popping speeds. From here you're ushered round the lobby to lift number two, which feels slightly slower, and this deposits you on (blimey) floor 68. The view starts one floor up, which means stairs, although there is another lift if accessibility is an issue. And finally you step out onto a broad lofty (indoor) viewing platform, wrapped around four sides of the central shaft, and all of London is laid out before you.

No, really, all of London. Normally when you go up a tall thing in London you can see a long way, perhaps to Wembley's arch, but not quite to the outskirts. Up here the horizon is a distant upland ring, in part the North Downs, in part the Chilterns, confirming that the capital is indeed hemmed in by green. I easily picked out the four tower blocks at Ponders End and the church at Harrow on the Hill (but not the O2 because it's hidden behind Canary Wharf). This is all in decent visibility, of course, you wouldn't want to be up in here overcast gloom... although with an annual ticket I will of course be up at some point to check.

Nobody is looking at the horizon. The Shard rises amid some of the most famous real estate in the world, much of which is straight down, so everyone's staring at that. Tower Bridge is close by to the east, St Paul's not far to the west, and the Gherkin/Walkie Talkie/Cheesegrater cluster immediately to the north. Tiny trains file into London Bridge station, immediately below, and journey onwards along model railway tracks. but the Thames is the main point of interest, snaking off in each direction, with a particularly impressive meander heading off towards Docklands - if you've ever wanted to fully understand central London's geography, up here is the place to do it.

And everybody is taking photos, of course they are. This means polite jostling for the best spaces by the window, perhaps waiting patiently until the couple or family between the struts have moved on. Some have cameras, others are attempting to zoom in on their phones, while others blunder in with oversize tablets. Grinning groups with selfie sticks are surprisingly thin on the ground, but most people want photos containing themselves or with other family members in, just to prove they were up here. The Shard even has its own official photographer, impeccably groomed, skilled in pressing his clients up against a chosen backdrop, point and click.

Except this isn't the ideal location for a photo. Every shot is through glass, which means annoying reflections in certain directions, and smeary blotches where it's rained. They send the windowcleaners down regularly, you'll have seen them on the news, so it's by no means a critical issue. But direct sunlight can be more of an issue, making staring into south London tricky at midday, and Westminster potentially dazzling in the afternoon. Overcast skies solve that issue but diminish the rooftops of London somewhat, so getting a perfect shot is unexpectedly hard. Getting a unique shot is impossible - remember thousands have already taken (and shared) exactly the same substandard picture as you.

And then there's upstairs. Three internal flights of steps lead up to the observation deck on floor 72, a full 244 metres above ground level, where a member of staff advises you to put your coat on. This level is open to the elements, but still mostly shielded by a rising spire of glass. In midwinter it's definitely nippy up here, and the wind whistles surprisingly loudly around the rooftop. But that's all good because it keeps the numbers slightly lower, so you're more likely to get a window to yourself and breathe in the amazingly open view. Reflections in the glass may be slightly more of an issue, but wow, won't you look at that?

There are of course little added extras to improve the experience. The highest bar in London, for starters, dishing out warming drinks and alcoholic beverages... for a lofty price. Champagne starts at £10 a glass, but plenty of bubbly was flowing for those who'd come up the Shard to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or special event. There are nibbles too, currently candy floss and popcorn to match the midwinter makeover that 'events' duo Bompas and Parr have given the upper level. Essentially it's a white carpet and some frosty crystalline decor, so nothing amazing, but it's being removed after tomorrow after which the viewing deck should then return to normal.

The upper deck is by no means the top of the building - technically the tip of the Shard is floor 95 - but you won't be passing through the maintenance access gate and climbing the increasingly narrow spire. Even so, you might be wondering how confident you'd be standing here behind glass, at a ridiculously high altitude above London. Fear not, my head for heights sometimes completely fails me but I was absolutely fine, which I suspect is thanks to the building's tapering profile. And rest assured that once you're up here they don't kick you out, you can hang around as long as you like to get value for money. I shall be going back to get phenomenal value for money throughout 2016.

» My 2016 View From The Shard photo album (there are 23 in the set so far)

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