diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 18, 2014

Official name United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland minus Scotland (tbc)
Number of constituent countries fourthree
Population 64,100,000
(22nd most populous worldwide)
(23rd most populous worldwide)
Population by constituent country England 84%, Scotland 8%, Wales 4%, N Ireland 3%England 92%, Wales 5%, N Ireland 3%
Area 243,610 sq km
(80th largest country worldwide)
164,838 sq km
(92nd largest country worldwide)
Area by constituent country England 53%, Scotland 32%, Wales 9%, N Ireland 6%England 79%, Wales 13%, N Ireland 9%
Population density 262 people per sq km
(51st densest country worldwide)
357 people per sq km
(36th densest country worldwide)
Recognised languages English (official)
Scots, Ulster-Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic
English (official)
Ulster-Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Irish
Ethnicity 87.1% White, 7.0% Asian, 3.0% Black, 2.0% Mixed, 0.9% Other86.3% White, 7.4% Asian, 3.2% Black, 2.2% Mixed, 1.0% Other
Religion Christianity 59%, No religion 33%, Islam 4%, Hinduism 1%, Other religions 2%Christianity 60%, No religion 32%, Islam 5%, Hinduism 1%, Other religions 2%
Largest cities London, Birmingham, GlasgowLondon, Birmingham, Manchester
Lies between latitudes 49° to 61° N
longitudes 9° W to 2° E
latitudes 49° to 56° N
longitudes 9° W to 2° E
Geographical centre Morecambe BayHigh Ercall, Shropshire
Highest mountain Ben Nevis (1343m)Snowdon (1085m)
Longest river River Severn (350km)River Severn (350km)
Temperature range −27.2 °C to 38.5 °C−26.1 °C to 38.5 °C
Number of inhabited islands 12528
Length of coastline 32,000 km13,500 km
Land border 360 km456 km
% covered by forest 12%9%
Currency pound sterlingpound sterling
Members of Parliament Con 304, Lab 256, Lib 56, Other 34
[650 MPs] (Coalition government)
Con 303, Lab 215, Lib 45, Other 28
[591 MPs] (Conservative majority)

 Wednesday, September 17, 2014

You probably didn't notice, but a brand new long distance path opened to the east of London earlier this year. The Thames Estuary Path runs for 29 miles through the South Essex Marshes, from Tilbury Town all the way to Leigh-on-Sea, and is a proper waymarked trail. Don't expect hills, expect flat walking through an eerie riverside landscape scattered with power stations, winding creeks, container ports and remote marshland. It could be misery itself in the wrong weather, or else a glorious opportunity to get away from it all and watch shipping sail down the Thames. Download the free app before you go and you get not only a map but an audio-visual presentation which pops up automatically at various points along the way to tell you what you could be looking at. One day all walking trails will be made this way.

For convenience the path has been split into five sections, each starting and finishing at stations on the Fenchurch Street to Southend line, which makes it really easy to get to from London. If you can manage 10 miles in one go you can split the walk in three - sections 1&2, 3 and 4&5. I thought I'd have a go at 1&2, with varying degrees of success, but blimey what a bleakly interesting way to spend a day. And if you'd care to follow along, I've uploaded 50 photos to Flickr to let you see what you're missing.

The Thames Estuary Path
[section 1]
Tilbury Town to East Tilbury (7 miles)

Oxford, Windsor and Westminster are prettier, it has to be said, but maritime Tilbury has a certain downcast character of its own. From the station take the road along the dockside, away from the semi-boarded-up town centre, taking care not to get run down by the procession of container lorries thundering past. The app comes into its own here, feeding stories of past glories (a hairpin bridge, a hospital, a hotel) on the long trudge to the water's edge. Here you'll find the London International Cruise Terminal, once the embarkation point for many an ocean-going voyage, and the building where the Empire Windrush's advance guard first stepped onto British soil. There's more information here, if you're interested. The ferry to Gravesend departs regularly from the end of the pier, but taking that would be copping out when there's proper loneliness ahead.

At the end of the road is the appropriately named World's End pub. It looks welcoming enough, but beyond the car park the marshes begin, and beyond that the twin towers of Tilbury Power Station loom down. You'll be seeing a lot of this over the next half hour, possibly even too much. A very muddy beach makes way for a high sea wall, leading before long to the entrance to Tilbury Fort. This is the famous spot where Elizabeth I addressed her fleet before the Spanish Armada, although the pentagonal defences behind the arched gate date back to the time of Charles II. English Heritage run the place now, and it's well worth a look if you could ever be tempted to visit. There's more information here, if you're interested. Anyone walking further than this is either out with their dog and intending to turn round soon, or in it for the long haul... the next link to civilisation is miles away.

A metal staircase leads up and over the sea wall, and the path now hugs the edge of the power station's concrete defences. Best avoid high tide if you're coming this way, else the Thames may be lapping at plimsoll height. Below the jetty the path is still regularly flooded, so you may be forced to take one of the weirdest diversions I've ever followed, through undergrowth and up and over a caged set of metal steps, always on the outside of the power station's security perimeter. And then the wall continues, now more exposed, and at one point with a run of 1970s graffiti still clearly visible. The Merton Parkas and "Julie the Modette" get a namecheck, along with the miners strike and a particularly badly punctuated Torie's Out!

Last time I walked this way, in the spring of 2008, the next mile of riverbank path threaded freely through golden rape dotted with tiny newts and butterflies. That beauty was deceptive, covering a vast expanse of landfill, and overshadowed by several lines of pylons. Alas diggers have long since scraped the earth clean of vegetation, indeed are still doing so, and I passed a cluster of hi-vis chaps sat high in their cabs behind the fence waiting to scrape some more. It'd been a very long time since my app had stirred, but suddenly it awoke to tell me about The Clinking Beach, a shoreline composed entirely of Victorian waste. Stepping to the riverside I discovered chunks of glass and quarters of willow pattern plate, not quite as attractive as the commentary had made out, but an unexpected survivor all the same.

So very remote, even the view across the river had passed from urban Gravesend to low empty Kentish marshland. Eventually the path widened and the occasional family appeared, which meant the car park at Coalhouse Fort couldn't be far ahead. On the bend in the river at Coalhouse Point an experimental radar tower from the early 1940s still stands, on the site of a fifteen cannon Tudor blockhouse. I watched as various very large ships passed down the Thames to and from Tilbury, their stately progress visible for miles thanks to the low-lying landscape. And then I missed the path which was supposed to take me past the front of Coalhouse Fort, instead walking around its vast horseshoe moat for what was probably a better view. This Victorian defence was meant to deter invasion of the capital up the Thames, and is open on the last Sunday of the month should you fancy a look inside. There's more information here, if you're interested.

There follows a mile and a half along the sea wall, unless you choose to wimp out and take the direct route to East Tilbury station. With ex-landfill on one side and mudflats on the other, the most striking sights are the disused Bata shoe factory inland and the huge cranes of London Gateway Port on the far shore. This is the southeast's newest and largest container terminal, built on the site of the former Shell Haven oil refinery, and far enough out that most Londoners have absolutely no clue of its existence. Meanwhile the sea wall wiggles on, with concrete slopes at regular intervals each labelled 'Duck Ramp', though all I saw using it were snails. And on past agricultural marshland, and on past strengthened foreshore, to the point where the Thames Estuary Path suddenly goes very wrong.

It looks like the path continues along the river, edging past the end of the sea wall towards a distant set of jetties. But that's a lengthy dead end, a proper timewaster, and there should instead be a sign directing you inland along the edge of fenced-off landfill. Not so, and the path's well-enough concealed you'd probably not spot it without help, so do check your phone/app/map carefully at this point. The true path follows not a stream but a drain in the marshes, past an embarrassingly rich crop of blackberries that very few have reached to harvest. And on past reeds and rushes, and on past echoing silence, to the point where the Thames Estuary Path used to go very wrong indeed.

The Thames Estuary Path
[section 2]
East Tilbury to Stanford-le-Hope (3½ miles)

It's here that Section 2 of the path breaks off, or rather should have done, because the next lengthy stretch across Mucking Marshes was firmly sealed when I arrived. A small sign apologised that the opening of this section of the Path had been delayed, and recommended instead that I take the train from East Tilbury to Stanford-le-Hope to avoid a mile on pavement-less roads. Stuff that, I thought, and grudgingly took the long diversion from one level crossing to the next, avoiding the oncoming traffic as appropriate. I was planning to advise you to give Section 2 a miss, but the official Thames Estuary Path Twitter feed finally chirruped over the weekend that the crucial footpath link is now open. They've not updated their website yet, where the previous closure is badly concealed within a pdf, but I think you might now risk visiting and taking the shortcut.

The village of Mucking is tiny but historic, one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon sites in the country. A vast excavation took place here, revealing a settlement of over 100 souls and the burial site of 800 more. On this walk there's no sign, nor will you see the parish church, now a private residence hidden behind a shield of trees. Section 2 then heads across the fields towards the outskirts of Stanford-le-Hope, a none too inspirational route unless you're keen to catch the train home. But if you've time you should deviate in Mucking to visit a landmark project based on reclaimed landfill - the Thurrock Thameside Nature Park - which opened to the public only last year. This route's also the first part of Section 3, should you be continuing that way.

The northern end of Mucking Marshes is now landscaped and grassed over and is becoming an Attenborough-approved haven for wildlife. Bees and birds and reptiles live across its umpteen acres, and twitchers with binoculars are a common sight during migration-friendly months. Back by the riverside, overlooking another bend in the Thames, is a squat cylindrical visitor centre designed to resemble a Martello Tower. Behind the ribbed wooden exterior are a gift shop and a cafe - the latter served me a fine cream tea which I ate staring out towards the industrialised estuary. Best of all you can climb a spiral ramp to the roof and train your binoculars across the whole site, down the Thames and across to the Hoo peninsula where Boris Airport isn't going to be. Most visitors drive out here, then let their offspring run amok across the adjacent adventure playground. But why not walk, indeed why not give the Thames Estuary Path a try, someday, maybe, when you fancy an utterly atypical experience.

» Thames Estuary Path: website, Twitter, app, app, full map, map of section 1, map of section 2, 50 photos, 50 photo slideshow

 Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I shan't be using a contactless card on the tube today.

Reason 1: I have an annual travelcard

One thing TfL haven't gone out of their way to remind us recently is that contactless travel isn't for everybody. It's not for you if you're over 60 and have a concessionary Oyster - you should carry on using that. It's not for you if you get discounted travel, for example if you're a London Apprentice or on Income Support. And it's not for you if you have a monthly or an annual travelcard. Weekly travelcards are different, as Monday to Sunday capping comes into force, which could mean savings via contactless if you can synchronise your week with TfL's Monday start. But contactless can't yet cope with monthly travelcards, so anyone using one of these should definitely stick with Oyster for the time being. And contactless definitely can't cope with annual travelcards, ditto, and there's no indication as yet regarding when they might ever come on board.

I have an annual travelcard, which I always thought was by far the most sensible fare option, economically speaking. I only have to travel into work and back daily for 45 weeks out of 52 to recoup my expense, and every week beyond that is money saved. And obviously I travel around London rather more frequently than that, within my allocated zones and without, so my travelcard saving is even greater. Yes, I realise that I'm in a ridiculously small minority in having a regular office-based job and the ability to stump up over a thousand pounds in one go once a year. Instead most Londoners sail through ticket barriers on Pay As You Go, as you'll see if you watch the displays on the gates as people pass through. Only a few of us have the financial footing to be able to save money on fares, either monthly or annually, and contactless travel isn't enabled for the likes of us.

Reason 2: I always keep my Oyster card and bank cards separate.

I'll not be succumbing to the perils of card clash because I keep my bits of plastic apart. I always have. Not for me a single receptacle with every card I own stuffed inside. Instead I've always kept my Oyster card in a little plastic wallet well away from all my other cards. I think that's because TfL provided me with one when they first came out, back in the days when the wallets had useful extra pockets and didn't have a sponsor's name slapped all over the outside. My original wallet fell apart eventually and I had to source a new one - one of those freebies people give away rather than the IKEA-wrapped advert TfL later provided. But it lives entirely separately in my pocket, and when I reach a ticket barrier only the little plastic wallet comes out, not an entire portmanteau of digital currency.

I have an advantage, being male, in that I actually have pockets. Even in the height of summer there's somewhere I can stash my Oyster that isn't tucked inside a purse or at the bottom of a bag. I'm not hunting manically when the ticket gates approach, increasingly desperate to find my small rectangle of plastic, I can put my hand in the right pocket straight away. And that means I'm never tempted to whack my bag down on the card reader and wiggle it around to operate the barrier, even in a hurry. Because it's the bag-swipers and wallet-wavers who are going to be caught out today, when suddenly the contactless card that lies within wakes up and fires a charge into the system. They've not taken heed of six months of nagging, and they're the ones who'll be penalised when card clash makes the barrier stall or nabs an unexpected payment.

Reason 3: I don't have a contactless card.

Every time TfL go on and on about how fantastic contactless payment will be I sigh, because I do not own one of the magic bits of plastic of which they speak. This surprises me somewhat because I'm a solvent member of the public with a long-standing bank account, but no, my debit card remains a bog standard version. I thought when my latest card arrived last year that I'd be upgraded but no, and the expiry date is in 2016 so I'm not expecting contactlessness any time soon. TfL's endless promotion of their new way to pay therefore washes over me, despite their seeming assumption that we must all by now be appropriately enabled. I'm relieved that there are no up-front plans to discontinue Oyster, because it works for me, and I don't want to join this new suboptimal contactless system just yet.

Every time I mention that I don't have a contactless card I get comments from readers telling me how I should go about getting one. All I need to do is call my bank, apparently, and explain that my current card is "very worn and sometimes doesn't work", and ask for a replacement. That line's always successful, apparently, and yet I'm still not interested. You might think contactless the bee's knees, but I'm in no hurry to be upgraded to a payment system I don't need. I'm not forever spending little bits of money here and there on food and drink, plus I still like paying for things with cash. You might well shake your head and cry "get with the program, Grandad", but no thanks, I'm perfectly happy with coins, a debit card and Oyster. It still works, and it can cope with an annual travelcard, and I can't be accidentally stung by swiping the wrong card by mistake.

So no, however much hype is swirling around, I shan't be using a contactless card on the tube today.

But the rest of you, you have fun out there.

 Monday, September 15, 2014

Harrow Heritage Open Days

Having seen how much it costs to sign up for Open House this year, the London Borough of Harrow decided to go it alone. They allied instead with the Heritage Open Days project and opened up several intriguing buildings this weekend. Here are three.

Zoroastrian Centre
The Grosvenor Cinema opened on Rayners Lane in 1936. It was designed by Ernest Bromidge - the Rio in Dalston is another one of his - and couldn't look more Thirties if it tried. A grand scrolling elephant's trunk runs up the front of the façade, with a wall of curved glass to either side, apparently meant to represent reels of film. Over the years the cinema became an Odeon, then a Gaumont, then an Odeon again and finally an Ace. It closed four days after its 50th anniversary and was reopened as a bar, but that didn't thrive for long and the building slowly began to decay. It was bought up in 2000 by the Zoroastrian religion as a centre for their UK operations, and they threw money into restoring the building and its decorative interior. And it all looks rather splendid again, if a peculiar mix of Middle Eastern religion and celluloid temple. You'd have enjoyed Saturday's knowledgeable tour and a look around. [7 photos]

The foyer has a bit of a wow factor, not like the entrance to your local multiplex today. A great moulded swoosh floats along the ceiling, while at the centre is a sunken area once used as the cinema's restaurant. The current decor relates more to the building's existence as a pub, rather than a cinema, plus a sprinkling of religious portraits on top. As for the main auditorium, the rake's long gone but the ribbed swirl across the roof is quite something. The Zoroastrians now use it for functions such as weddings, and an urn rests beneath the proscenium arch upon the main stage. But to reach their sacred space you have to climb the grand staircase to balcony level, and then take your shoes off and cover your head. They worship now in the old projection box, with a congregation of chairs facing a bowl of occasional fire within a gilded cage. It's not what you'd expect to find in Harrow, but this religious takeover has helped a great old building to survive.

Harrow School
It's not Eton, but Harrow is one of the top fee-paying schools in the country, especially if you measure success in terms of Number Of Prime Ministers Educated. Its origins are humble, a small school on the hill founded by local farmer John Lyons, offering a free education to boys from Harrow village but charging those from elsewhere. That fee-paying aspect snowballed when a new school building was opened in 1615, and before long most pupils were the offspring of wealthy merchants and landowners. Amazingly the 399 year-old classroom survives, no longer used for lessons but still part of the everyday fabric of the school and occasionally opened up to visitors. It's an amazing room with rough-hewn benches and wood panelled walls, into which generations of pupils have carved their names. There's Byron, there's Peel, there's Fox-Talbot, there's Sheridan, and the rest are mostly schoolboys who never made the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

From the symmetrical exterior the building nextdoor appears to be of a similar age but is in fact 200 years younger. This is the Old Speech Room, created for the practice of public speaking, more recently converted into a gallery for the advancement of cultural education. It's very nicely done, as you'd expect, with an emphasis on art and historical displays. When you did the Egyptians at school you probably read about them in books, whereas Harrovians have their own artefacts laid out in glass cases, quite possibly 'liberated' by old boys. You'll not get in here normally, but a small Museum of Harrow Life is open most Sunday afternoons in term time at the top of the hill down to the playing fields. With teenagers walking past in tails and rugger kit, there's something more than surreal about the road along the ridgetop, and a school both embedded into the local community and entirely distinct from it. It was good to peer inside.

West House
West House sits at the far end of Pinner Memorial Park, overlooking the culverted River Pinn. Admiral Nelson's grandson once lived here, which is the building's vague claim to fame, before the surrounding estate was handed over to Metroland developers and the house passed onto the council. It's not, to be fair, an architectural masterpiece, in part because the council decided to knock down the Tudor bit in the 1950s. The rest of the house got used for meetings and evening classes, that sort of thing, before falling into disrepair and being boarded up. The Pinner Association leapt into action and launched an appeal which sought to reopen West House as a community concern. It was all boarded up last time I was here, but reopened in 2010 and now contains a thriving cafe, that's Daisy's In The Park, and a brand new chiropractor on the top floor.

Rather more exciting are the plans to open a museum in honour of cartoonist William Heath Robinson. He lived locally in Moss Lane for several years, and the Trust have 500 original artworks of his amazing gadgets and wonderful contraptions, just nowhere to properly display them. A few are up on the walls in the small gallery beside the cafe, not that most of the tea-drinking mums have noticed, and it's here that I met the Chairman of the Trust for a chat. He told me that plans are well advanced, following two decades of fundraising and a million-plus Heritage Lottery grant. If the last hundred thousand can be found then building work can begin on the car park next spring, and a brand new Heath Robinson Museum opened in 2016. It's inspiring stuff (you can donate here), and will hopefully bring these wildly inventive works to a new generation.

The girls at St Helen's School had been duly inspired and created a Heath-Robinson-esque tea-making machine which they were demonstrating in an upstairs room. A marvellous rotating contraption with an urn on top dished up my cuppa, with just a little help from one of the girls to nudge a sugar lump down a ramp at the crucial moment. One of William's descendants was on hand nextdoor alongside a few more genuine cartoons, many of them just as witty and apposite today as they had been almost a century earlier. If you want to pop in and see the ground floor gallery and tiny shop, come along on a Wednesday or a Saturday afternoon. Or hang on a couple of years and a proper fascinating attraction should have opened in, heavens yes, Pinner.

After my visit to West House I wandered around the annual Pinner Village Show which was taking place in the park outside. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many tombolas in one place before. There were farm animals to pet, bagpipers to listen to and scouts to throw wet sponges at. And then I went to the Duckpond Market in Bridge Street Gardens, near the station, where I perused the craft stalls and treated myself to an Angus beef burger for lunch. Whatever London's listing magazines and events websites might suggest, there's a wealth of cultural life outside Zones 1 and 2 that's woefully overlooked and deserves a wider audience.

 Sunday, September 14, 2014

From Tuesday 16th September, contactless payment goes live across London's transport network. Warnings about card clash started more than six months ago, so keen were TfL to adapt customer behaviours and make the system work. But what happens if you DON'T touch in properly with your contactless card at the start of your journey? This could be because of card clash, it could be passenger oversight, or it could be deliberate fare evasion. What happens if the card reader didn't beep on the way in and an inspector calls?

We know what happens with Oyster. Inspectors have a hand-held device which checks your card and lights up green if all's well and red if not. A red light prompts them to enquire further what might have gone wrong, which might lead to a telling off or might lead to a penalty fare. Whatever the outcome, there is a fairly foolproof way for TfL staff to to tell if your card has been properly touched in or not, and they'll tell you so.

But contactless cards are different. They're not issued by TfL, they're issued by banks, so TfL don't know who's using a card unless the owner chooses to register. Also contactless cards don't deduct money for travel straight away, the fare is only totted up at the end of the day (specifically the early hours of the following morning). The card's chip provides no direct link to journey history, at least not one that can be easily checked on a bus or train, so there's no easy way for an official to know whether you touched in your contactless card or not.

What happens on buses, where contactless has been active for some time, is well established. If an inspector boards your bus they'll ask the driver for a printout of every card number that's been used to touch in since the journey began. Then when you present your contactless card to the inspector they'll be able to check their list to see whether or not you're on it. If you are, all well and good. And if not, then you either sneaked on or mis-swiped, and you're bang to rights.

But this only works because buses are sealed environments with card readers at the entrance. You have to touch in as you board, and if you don't the system knows. But trains are different because the gateline is elsewhere, so precisely where and when you boarded is unknown. There is no way to print out a list of every card holder on a train, neither can a hand-held device flash up the validity of your travel.

So how will TfL detect contactless fare evaders on trains? On the tube this isn't much of a problem because virtually every entrance and exit is gated - the system essentially polices itself. But on the Docklands Light Railway, for example, almost all stations are ungated and the scope for deliberate evasion is much greater. The current system relies on regular spot checks by staff on board as a deterrent to Oyster card misuse. And from Tuesday that regime will continue, but with a brand new gadget in the train guard's hand.

All DLR staff are being issued with a special Revenue Inspection Device as part of the move to contactless. What makes this one different is that it'll only read your card, it won't feed back information to the user. Instead the status of your contactless card, used or unused, will be known only by the computer back at TfL HQ. If you touched in, great, but you won't be told. And if you didn't touch in then there'll also be silence, but a marker will be set on TfL's database and they'll punish you later.

Somewhat awkwardly, fines for fare evasion with contactless cards will be applied overnight while you're not looking. What'll happen is that at approximately 4.30am, which is when the daily contactless fare total is totted up, TfL will attempt to take a Maximum Fare from your card. That's £8.60 these days, which is quite a hit, though obviously deserved if you're cheating the system. If there isn't £8.60 on your card then they'll attempt to take the payment later, probably the next time you go into the black. But again, I bet you won't notice at the time.

This invisibility is something you're going to have to get used to with contactless cards. Currently when you swan round town with pay-as-you-go Oyster, the gates flash up the cost of your journey and your remaining balance. Neither will be the case with contactless. No amounts of money will appear on the barrier as you pass, you'll be completely in the dark, at least until you check your bank balance or payment history later.

Now there are several reasons why a ticket inspection might reveal that your contactless card hasn't been touched in. One is that you're an evil fare evader, in which case your delayed punishment is well deserved. Another is that you thought you'd touched in but hadn't, which does happen, especially on the DLR where there are no gates to act as clues. Your innocent error will be fined the full amount, just as it would be now, except the ticket inspector won't be able to tell you at the time. And then there's card clash...

Card clash, as you'll be sick of hearing by now, is when you have two cards on your person and the wrong one gets read by the reader. You're then riding the system with the card you swiped plus a card you didn't, but you don't know which is which. Present the right one to the ticket inspector and all's well. But present the wrong one and you'll be slapped with an £8.60 fine, a fine you'll only find out about the following day, and then only if you look specially.

From Tuesday onwards, a lot of Londoners who haven't got to grips with card clash are going to be charged a Maximum Fare for not using the system properly. In some cases they'll be charged two, that's £8.60 for touching in with a card they didn't touch out with, and £8.60 for touching out with a card they didn't touch in with. This'll happen on normal journeys - it doesn't take a ticket inspector for the system to know you've mucked up. But a ticket inspection will trigger the fine for sure, and I don't think people are going to enjoy finding these whopping extras already taken from their account.

Furthermore, contactless users beware, because if your card is read a second time without having been touched in, it will be blocked from use. You'll then have to get in contact with your bank, not with TfL, and they'll have to resolve the block on contactless travel before you can ride again. Conquer the card clash issue and it shouldn't happen to you. But those attempting to travel for free, and caught twice, won't be allowed to get away with it again.

A twelve page Contactless travel leaflet is arriving in stations this weekend - it's blue, look out for it. If you own a contactless card you should read a copy, even if you have no intention of using the card for travel. Pay attention to the bit where they suggest you register your card in order to view your journey history and apply for refunds. And watch your TfL online account like a hawk in case a ticket inspection, or an everyday mis-swipe, lands you an £8.60 fine you weren't expecting.

Contactless payment cards - conditions of use (pdf)

 Saturday, September 13, 2014

Next weekend is London Open House, when all London-based readers of this blog should, unless they have a damned good excuse, be out exploring the architectural secrets of the capital. But the rest of the country plays the same game this weekend, under the Heritage Open Days umbrella. And some bits of London choose to join in, either because they don't believe they are part of London or because they're too mean to pay the subscription. So here's a list of Heritage Open Days events you can take part in inside the capital either today or tomorrow. And if you're too late to make plans, there's no excuse for not planning ahead to next weekend already.

Red House (Sat 11-4): The National Trust are opening up William Morris's Arts & Crafts home for free today. And their new cafe's open.

St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance (Sat 10-1) (Sun 12-4): A simple chapel, with 17 stained glass windows, on the edge of Biggin Hill airfield.
High Street Heritage Trail (Sat 11 & 3) (Sun 11 & 3): Two walking tours daily along Chislehurst High Street.

[Harrow's one of the boroughs that's defected en bloc with its own Heritage Open Days programme]

Pinner House (Sat 10-4): It's now an old people's home, but this early Georgian house was once the home of the vicar of Harrow.
West House, Pinner (Sat 11-4): This old house in Pinner Memorial Park is being transformed, at last, into a museum to cartoonist extraordinare Heath Robinson. Tours will be given. Meanwhile, coincidentally but brilliantly, the annual Pinner Village Show is taking place in the park outside.
St George's Church, Headstone (Sat 10-5): Late Gothic revival/Arts & Crafts interior. Organ recital at noon, piano recital at 3.30.
Zoroastrian Centre for Europe (Sat 11-5): Grade II* listed Art Deco interior, formerly the Grosvenor Cinema, near Rayners Lane station. Architectural tours on the hour.
Headstone Manor (Sat 11-4) (Sun 11-4): Moated manor house, parts of which date back to 1310. Four tours daily, two of them aimed at families. I thought the tour was really interesting.
St Lawrence’s Church, Little Stanmore (Sat 2-5) (Sun 2-5): Grade 1 listed continental baroque church, 300 years old next year.
Harrow School (Sun 1-5, 2-5): Take a tour of the best preserved 17th century schoolroom in the country, or look round the famous Old Speech Room Gallery. While you're waiting, look round the Museum of Harrow Life.
St Mary's Church, Harrow (Sun 2-6): Medieval church on Harrow Hill, alongside Harrow School if you want to pop in as an add-on.

Battle of Britain Bunker (Sat 10-5) (Sun 10-5): Deep under RAF Uxbridge the Battle of Britain was plotted. Who'd not want to take a look into the command room, and associated museum, 76 steps down. I really enjoyed my trip.

Kensington & Chelsea
Museum of Brands (Sun 11-5): How much do we love the Museum of Brands? Indeed it feels wrong to suggest you might visit and not pay. But if cornflake packets, tins of soup and chocolate bars are your thing, make haste to Notting Hill.

[Kingston loves to believe it's still in Surrey, hence there's a full programme of 40 Heritage Open Days events this weekend and nothing next. Here are a few highlights]

County Hall - Heritage Day (Sat 10-4.30): That's the official seat of administration for Surrey, which is in London. Take a guided tours and see the Grand Hall, Council Chamber and former courts and cells.
The Guildhall (Sat 10-12): See inside various rooms, including the Council Chamber, and meet the Deputy Mayor in the Mayor's Parlour.
John Lewis Kingston Riverside (Sat 10-4) (Sun 10-4): Probably the only department store with the foundations of a medieval bridge perfectly preserved in its basement.
Kingston Crematorium (Sat 10-1): Hourly tours behind the scenes of the crematorium. "Your questions answered".
New Malden Library Tour (Sat 11 & 3.30): Let the librarian lead you on a tour of this hybrid Art Deco/WW2 styled building.
Coombe Conduit (Sat 12-4) (Sun 12-4): A Tudor conduit house built to supply water to Hampton Court Palace. Small, subterranean, suburban and fascinating.

Memorial Community Church (Sat 1-5): For those who've always wanted to explore a Plaistow belfry, and play the bells themselves.

Carshalton Water Tower (Sun 1-5): It's not on the official list, but the gem I told you about yesterday is open tomorrow.

Cabbies Shelters (Sat 7-6): Normally the interior of these roadside huts is solely for black cab license holders. But today, and next Saturday (and on some other as yet unconfirmed dates before mid-October), three of them are opening up in conjunction with a special art project. On Northumberland Avenue (7-6) Kathy Prendergast is presenting a map of The Knowledge, at Temple (10-4) take away a cup of tea in a limited edition paper cup, and in St John's Wood (7-4) just have a look inside. There's also a learning guide for kids, and a website with more information.

Meanwhile, just outside London: Kent, Surrey, Berks, Bucks, Herts, Essex

 Friday, September 12, 2014

Having once decreed Sutton London's least interesting borough, I'm always on the lookout for something that makes me change my mind. And so I trotted down to Carshalton at the weekend to tick another heritage attraction off my list. It had to be the right weekend, in this case the first Sunday of the month, because a lot of Sutton's sightseeing spots open only infrequently. But you can still do half of what I'm about to describe on the next three Sunday afternoons (and on two of those for free).

Carshalton Water Tower
Location: West Street, Carshalton, SM5 3PN [map]
Open: Sunday afternoons from 2.30pm to 5pm (from the end of April to the end of September)
Also open: for Open House on Saturday 20th September
Admission: Adults £1, Children 25p

You may have learned about the South Sea Bubble at school, an unprecedented stock market crash caused when shares in a speculative trading company collapsed. One of the chief protagonists lived in Carshalton, then a small Surrey village (and still with an attractive cluster of weatherboarded cottages at its heart). Sir John Fellowes was made bankrupt by the Bubble busting in 1721 but continued to live at Carshalton House, and the mansion was passed on to a succession of other wealthy types. Enlarged and landscaped, the house was later used as a prep school for military cadets, and finally bought out in the 1880s to create a Roman Catholic girls' boarding School. They're St Philomena's College, no longer with boarders but still going strong, and whose gates are occasionally unlocked to allow visitors to explore some mighty fine buildings within.

The most notable of these is the Water Tower, Grade II listed, the top of which is easily visible from outside sticking up behind the brick wall. But what's less obvious until you walk through the sidegate is that the tower is merely the ornate top of a high-ceilinged one-storey building, and that there's genuine treasure within. The long airy room across the front is the Orangery, within which some of the Friends of Carshalton Water Tower will be waiting to meet and greet and inform. It becomes more obvious why they volunteer once you pass through the door at the end. A sequence of further rooms includes a decorated Saloon, decked out with historical info and memorabilia. The Pump Chamber has recently been restored and includes a Victorian water wheel which used to lift spring water into a cistern at the top of the tower. And then...

And then there's the plunge bath, or Bagnio. An 18th century creation, this deep tiled pool was used for private bathing - a luxury in its day - and is an exceptionally rare survivor. It's really very deep, more like one end of a swimming pool, not that you'd ever want to dive in. It's not immediately obvious how bathers did enter the water, but rest assured there are steps down, in marble, obscured from the prescribed viewing position. A trio of recessed arches provide places for those out of the water to perch, and the walls are emblazoned with an impressive selection of blue and white Delft tiles. It's no surprise to discover that Lucinda Lambton loves the place, and a recording of her Sublime Surburbia visit is screened on a portable TV outside. You'll not get in as close as her, nor will you officially be allowed to take photos, but you will I think be impressed.

It's also possible to go up top. "Only 37 steps to the roof" says a sign at the foot of the staircase, presumably to encourage those less fleet of foot who might not otherwise bother. This gets you much closer to the tower itself, and perhaps to some pigeons perching in the central void. Ignore the adjacent primary school and look further across the grounds to the main house, as symmetrical as was the fashion at the time. You should also be able to see down West Street into Carshalton Village, except that the tower's only open while trees are in full leaf, so probably not. You'll be doing well if you spend half an hour looking around, that's upstairs and down. But for a one pound visit, it's worth every penny.

Additional Attraction: The Hermitage
Open: the first Sunday of each month from May to September
Admission: Adults £1, Children free

So no, you can't follow in my footsteps here until the weekend before next year's General Election. But for an extra quid on the right date the Friends will throw in a guided tour of the school grounds, and that's an even better deal. Sunday's tour guide was just the right mix of personable and informative, leading us off round what was once an ornamental lake. This drained away many years ago and is now a swampy expanse of brambles, but apparently it filled up again briefly during this year's unseasonably wet spring, and even the pump chamber beneath the water tower saw a light trickle. The path leads past the Sham Bridge, which is really a dam, but pimped up on one side to look impressive from the house. And the house is impressive too, with its Corinthian porch and symmetrical façade, even if somewhere behind the windows are staffroom coffee cups and piles of textbooks.

The highpoint of the 45 minute tour is a visit to the Hermitage, tucked away behind the main lawn on the banks of the former lake. It's a single-storey folly, built 250 years ago from flaky chalk and brick, half-buried beneath a turf-topped mound of earth. Restoration has been expensive but means we can now go inside, to a space designed for getting away from it all. One niched opening leads directly to a circular chamber with echoing recesses, and a rather more modern cross tiled into the floor. And another leads to a dark curved passage, leading eventually to the same point, with 18th century graffiti carved into the rock. It's not what you expect to find on a school field, but then Sutton is full of surprises.

Interesting places to visit in Sutton
Honeywood Museum: Lovely and local, and recently restored, a short distance from the Water Tower [I've been] (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Whitehall: Tudor timber-framed house in the heart of Cheam village [I've been] (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Little Holland House: DIY Arts and Crafts home in Carshalton Beeches [I've been] (open on the first Sunday of the month)
Mayfield Lavender: Picturesque purple farm on the Surrey border [I've been] (open June to mid-September) (closes this weekend)
Carshalton Water Tower: as above [I've been] (open Sundays from the end of April to the end of September)
Carew Manor: Tours of the Tudor Great Hall and dovecote run four times a year (still to go this year, 14th September, 12th October) [I've not gone yet]

 Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two years (two years!) after the Paralympics closed, the spirit of the Games returned to the Olympic Park. At Prince Harry's request over 400 disabled servicemen and women have come to Stratford for the Invictus Games, four days of international competition in the face of adversity.

The Opening Ceremony took place last night. Yes, the whole thing was broadcast live on BBC1 but only on The One Show, rather than a mass global broadcast. Unlike 2012 there were no special traffic lanes down Stratford High Street, no police hovering round the Bow Roundabout and no razorwire CCTV-topped fencing around the perimeter, which meant it was simplicity itself to wander down to the Greenway and cast an eye over proceedings. A stream of commuters and cyclists passed the other way, oblivious to what was about to happen, unless perhaps they'd spotted the hint from the helicopters in the sky. One hi-vizzed guard blocked the footpath ramp down from the View Tube, where a makeshift barrier waited to admit last minute limousines via the Loop Road. And as seven o'clock came round, a tiny handful of spectators in-the-know stood on the sewertop and waited.

No eyes were on the Olympic Stadium. That's because it's still out of action post-Games, as cranes and workmen crawl all over it to transform it into West Ham's new home. And it's also because the Invictus Games couldn't possibly have filled it. Instead they sort-of filled the great grass lawn between the Orbit and the railway, where a crowd milled around the edges of the temporary arena and a single grandstand stood part-empty overlooking the field. One day all this will be flats, which'll make holding big outdoor events in the Olympic Park a little harder. But how exciting to have your living room on the site where Charles and Camilla sat and watched his son open an international event he'd organised, while his big brother, another future king, looked on.

From the Greenway every word the announcer made was audible, plus the grandstand was part visible through the trees at approximately sniping distance. The national anthem floated across the Lea, a highly abbreviated version, before an unfamiliar specially written fanfare followed. Local residents would have noticed little thus far, but then a low roar started and grew steadily louder. Whooosh!

I tip my hat to Ian who pointed out in advance that at two minutes past seven the Red Arrows would fly past. They appeared behind the stadium, billowing red white and blue smoke, as is their wont. The royal party, assembled crowds and TV audience saw them approach straight on, but from the Greenway their path was angled and passed directly behind the top of the Orbit. Blimey.

The Red Arrows go past ridiculously fast, of course, especially if you're fiddling with a camera rather than just staring in awe. In seconds they were heading south towards Stratford High Street and on towards Docklands, their tight lines of colour rapidly dissipating in the sky. And by the time they reached surprised residents in Greenwich and Hither Green, their presence in the Olympic Park was little more than a lingering tinge of red and blue in sunset-lit clouds.

To find out what was really happening in the Opening ceremony I had to head home to my television. Some military bits and an athletes' parade played out, along with Matt Baker being earnest and Claire Balding meeting a dog. And I watched as an Apache and a Merlin made their own Invictus fly-by, choppering over the South Lawn to the delight of the ceremonial audience. But I'd failed to put two and two together, so was somewhat surprised when the rotor noise grew louder and louder... and blimey there were the two helicopters outside my back window. I enjoyed my own private almost-flypast as the pilots pulled up, hovered briefly and headed back north.

I then wondered whether I could have stayed at home to watch the Red Arrows too, whether they had perhaps gifted me a personal flypast which I'd missed by going out. No matter, the view over Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park had been indubitably better, and more in the spirit of the Games too. I won't be attending any of the sporting events, I had my fill a couple of years back thanks, but I can recommend the wheelchair rugby if you want to watch something wild and brutally dexterous. And it's nice to have an echo of 2012 back again, if only for a brief weekend.

 Wednesday, September 10, 2014

So what's been going on with the cablecar since we last spoke. Quite a lot, actually, mostly to increase marketing, branding and commercialisation. Three things...

1) Upselling

Time was when the most important Dangleway fare was how much it cost to travel from one side of the Thames to the other. Not any more. The single fare now appears right at the bottom of the list below five other options, all of which are returns, and most of which promise something else into the bargain.

Top of the pile is the Full Experience plus River Package, which I blogged about a couple of months ago. This permits a trip (or trips) on a Thames Clipper, a look round the sponsored Emirates exhibition on the south bank and a return trip on the cablecar. Viewed one way this is a saving of about £4 on the total price of each bought separately. Viewed another way, it's up to five times more expensive than a simple ride on the cablecar, which is probably what most tourists come here to do. I do wonder how many foreign visitors are tempted to buy the top option without thinking, perhaps not understanding precisely what it involves, nor that they'll need to make multiple riverboat journeys to get their money back. Indeed, what's the point of buying a Thames Clipper return ticket back to North Greenwich when most tourists will have travelled out here from Central London already? But it must be selling, because this combined offer was officially due to expire at the end of August, and now appears to be the lynchpin of the cablecar's marketing operation.

The next option on the board is something else visitors don't really need, but is being sold to them anyway. The Full Experience combines a return trip across the river with a spin round the Emirates exhibition, which is essentially a room full of advertising material. Reading the smallprint you'll discover that the return trip is non-stop, i.e. you'll be getting off on the same side you embarked with no opportunity of visiting the opposite bank. They can't really mean that, can they, else those buying a Full Experience ticket on the Royal Docks side would never get to the exhibition? Note that there's a special "Discount Adult" price, which you might assume was only for the over 60s but is actually for anyone with Oyster... so don't buy the £10 ticket, Londoners! And only at the bottom of the price list do you finally come across the austerity option, the non-pimped-up single trip, the up-and-over ride. With TfL now upselling its expensive add-ons in preference, there's no longer any pretence that the cablecar is for commuters.

2) The Feature Tour

Previously, when you rode the cablecar, you did it in silence. That's assuming you hadn't been shoehorned into your cabin with a jabbering family, or taken some particularly noisy children with you. But the silence option has now been superseded, as you'll discover a few seconds after stepping inside your pod and preparing to take off. "Welcome to your southbound journey on the Emirates Airline", goes the script, and hey presto you're in for an eight minute travelogue as you cross. You might be expecting "...and on your right you can see..." but it's not quite like that, more an East London regeneration documentary. Heading south the first point of interest is the Olympic Park, which merits a minute of audiovisual bluster out loud and on the in-car screen. It was when an athlete chirped up and described the Games in 2012 as one of the most amazing moments in his life that I started to despair and wished I'd brought earplugs. I can watch this kind of stuff on YouTube, I don't need it on public transport.

A banker popped up to explain about the importance of London's financial quarter, and then a boatman gave his thoughts from down the estuary in Purfleet. Halfway through the presentation a thinly veiled advert for the Thames Clippers riverboat service kicked in, conveniently located "just five minutes from the southern terminal", and then of course sponsors Emirates got their airtime too. And near the end of the video I was subjected to a full description of The Line, a most worthy sculptural project coming soon down the Greenwich Meridian, but absolutely not something I want to hear about while high in the sky above London. Riding the cablecar as a tourist ought to be about spotting stuff and taking in the view, because when else do you get the chance to be 90 metres above the Thames in a glass capsule? Instead the Feature Tour distracts from what's outside the window, in a persistent "Look at me! Look at me!" manner, so you waste your time looking at pixels on a display screen rather than the rooftops of London.

The cablecar's regular commuters will be glad to hear that the Feature Tour is switched off during peak hours. That's not out of kindness, it's because the video is too long for the speeded-up five minute crossing. But the best news is that if you ask the staff at the embarkation point they can turn the Feature Tour off. One pressed button and the screen in your cabin will be muted, and a series of slides and maps played out instead. Just don't leave it too late, because once those doors close and the commentary begins, there is no escape.

3) The app

Yes, I'm afraid so, there's now an official cablecar app. It's designed to be used while you're aboard, indeed it's heavily promoted just before you get on, so it's best to download the app before you arrive. Better still, don't download it at all, not unless you're a smartphone addict with a limited attention span who never wanted a ride in the air anyway.

There are only four options on the app's main menu, one of which lists the opening times and warns that "temporary disruption due to weather" may occur. The programming's not clever enough to display the cablecar's current status, nor even to link to the correct page on the TfL website, but instead advises you to ring an 0343 telephone number to hear a recorded message. Another homescreen option tells you how to get to the cablecar, including an invite to "Tap to view Tube Map", except this takes you through to the TfL website where the Tube Map doesn't actually show the cablecar. And a third menu button lists some of the attractions you might be able to see from the air, or perhaps visit after your flight. Surprise surprise the Emirates Aviation Experience and Thames Clippers are top, because this is the influence that sponsorship gets you, followed by a list which includes an eclectic set of places to visit - from the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park (half a mile distant) to Wembley Stadium (a 20 mile trek).

But the main point of the app is to allow you to "Check-in" and play an interactive game during your ride. Be warned that you can't check in elsewhere, even a few hundred yards from the terminal, the GPS won't allow it. Once aloft the idea is that you point your smartphone towards the horizon, allow the camera function to kick in, and try to spot 25 different attractions. These pop up in a short list down one side of the screen, according to the direction you're pointing in, and then you tick them off one by one as you spot them. In fact you don't need to spot them in real life, you just have tick them off, ideally as quickly as you can because there are 25 to get through in eight minutes. Play to win and you won't have time to read the accompanying text, or indeed enjoy the view, merely flailing around in all directions to see if you can collect the full set. Most of the attractions are genuine but alas one is is an Emirates A380, a promotional plane which appears in animation only, while another is a time-travelling mammal which can only be 'seen' by looking down.

And all the time you're being urged, by a menu option in the corner of your screen, to take a #MyEmiratesView selfie. This is just like a normal selfie, but with the Emirates Airline logo stamped in the corner, because the app's designers really hope you'll be compliant enough to download a promotional photo to your Facebook or Twitter timeline. Meanwhile back at the so-called game, expect to be awarded a score out of 25 at the end of your trip, although with no clues as to which of the attractions you found and which you missed. And then perhaps you'll reflect that you just spent several pounds to ride high across the Thames but were so preoccupied that you failed to look at anything properly along the way, and what a total waste of an opportunity that was.

TfL appear intent on adding extra trinkets to cablecar journeys in an attempt to make the sale of tickets more attractive to punters. Instead they're contaminating the experience with noise, digital frippery and additional advertising, as if somebody's allowed the marketing department to run riot. It's a bloody cablecar for heaven's sake, it ought to be exciting enough all by itself.

 Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Who'd live in Barking Riverside? Not enough people, as it turns out... not because the location is Barking but because there aren't enough houses.

The area in question is the site of the defunct Barking Power Station, a huge expanse of land beside the Thames roughly halfway between the River Roding and Ford's Dagenham works. At 443 acres it's approximately two-thirds the size of the City of London, which is big, indeed big enough for an intended eleven thousand homes. The site was snapped up by a housing developer twenty years ago, with City Hall coming onside in 2004. How can it be, then, that a decade later the site holds barely one thousand homes? And the answer is trains, or the complete lack of them.

Back in the day, before the turn of the century, there were plans to bring a tram service to Barking Riverside. It'd be part of a project called the Thames Gateway Transit, and would link Barking to Thamesmead via this new housing estate and a brand new bridge across the estuary. The tram idea was later downgraded to a segregated busway, to make up for which a DLR extension was planned, snaking out from the Beckton branch to link the new estate to the rail network. Plans had almost reached the public enquiry stage when Boris came to power, and he promptly pulled the plug on the project for not providing value for money. At the same time the Thames Gateway Bridge was scrapped - a project only recently revived - and the guided busway curtailed to a part-segregated bus route with limited capacity. No more transport, no more homes, simple as that. Until now.

Yesterday TfL launched another consultation for bringing trains to Barking Riverside, but this time via the Overground rather than the DLR. The line from Gospel Oak to Barking would be extended along the line of the existing c2c railway to Dagenham Dock, before turning off on a raised viaduct to a new terminus at Barking Riverside. They've provided a very rough map to show the route, but very little more, because this is a particularly minimal consultation which essentially asks "So, this extension, a good idea or what?"

And it is a good idea, indeed a better idea than the DLR extension scrapped five years ago. That would have seen Riverside residents linked to Newham rather than Barking, and taken ages to ply its way through about ten stations to Canning Town. Instead the Overground would link directly to Barking town centre and its decent range of shops, and from here to a variety of rail links including fast services to the City. If there is a disappointment it's that no intermediate station is planned along the four kilometre extension, just a single outpost by the Thames. That'll be great for houses yet to be built, but the northern end of the Thames View estate could surely do with an extra station to improve connectivity, and that's not on the cards. It seems the only drivers for new stations these days are fresh residential developments, and existing communities be damned.

If you've ever been to Barking Riverside, for example by visiting Dagenham Sunday Market, you'll know that the site is currently about as bleak as London gets. Part of the site is decommissioned power station, a large area of fenced off tarmac and transformers. The waterfront starts as smelly ex-industry and switches to patchy vegetation growing on spoil heaps. Lines of pylons cut across the sky, occasional horses graze, and resilient forms of bird life flit across polluted hillocks. A lonely footpath winds from the warehouses on Choats Road down to the Thames and then along the waterfront to a futuristic environmental centre, with less than gorgeous views of Thamesmead across the river. I'm never certain whether the path is public or not, but I love the walk for its isolation, at least until the promised wall of flats arrives.

The new Overground plans already have funding - the government stumped up the cash in a Budget announcement last year. If all goes to plan construction could begin in 2017, and the extension could be up and running by 2019. That's only two years slower than the proposed completion date for the original DLR extension, because that would have required an awkward river crossing whereas this is much more straightforward.

And this is all part of a massive expansion of the Overground network in northeast London. Suburban lines to Cheshunt and Chingford are coming under the orange umbrella next year, along with an entirely separate branch line between Romford and Upminster. As part of this consultation TfL have provided a map of the proposed network by 2026, depicting an increasingly disjoint collection of lines that all too rarely intersect, potentially spelling confusion for passengers trying to work out which route to take to where. Careful study reveals a proposed new Overground station at Old Oak Common in West London, but alas no new station at Surrey Canal Road which lost out on funding in 2010 and it seems will never be built. Best therefore that we all get behind Barking Riverside in the latest consultation so that ten thousand new homes can be unlocked... far too late, of course, but better late than never?

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