diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yesterday, and most likely today as well, air quality in London will have triggered a 'Very High' alert. This is bad news for anyone with lungs, and particularly bad for anyone with breathing difficulties.

 At-risk individualsGeneral population
Very HighAdults and children with lung problems, adults with heart problems, and older people, should avoid strenuous physical activity. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often.Reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat.

The Mayor headed to Twitter to warn everybody who follows him.
The shameful state of London’s toxic air today has triggered a ‘very high’ air pollution alert under my new air quality warning system.
This is the highest level air quality alert. Everyone, from the most vulnerable to the physically fit, may need to reduce physical exertion.
Warnings were issued at bus stops, on roadside signs and at tube stations, although I will confess I missed all of them. I caught a bus, and saw nothing, and rode on a couple of trains, and saw/heard nothing either. Maybe I wasn't looking properly, or more likely I was unlucky with the journeys I made, Whatever, I missed it.
Use public transport if you’re able to. It will help us cut emissions and pollution.
If you are making an essential car, van or lorry journey please avoid idling and turn your engine off if stationary for more than a minute.
I wonder how many drivers, and potential drivers, noticed and/or acted on that advice. And they'd have been wise to. All the evidence suggests that polluting gases and particulates are worst alongside major roads, indeed if I value my health I should probably move away from the Bow Roundabout at the earliest opportunity.

On this occasion major news outlets gave high priority to news articles about the high levels of pollution , so I learnt about the alert from the BBC, and adapted my behaviour to cut back on roadside aerobic activity. But I wondered - and this is a genuine question - what is the best way to find out about air pollution in your immediate locality?

I have the 'London Air' app on my phone, powered by data from King's College, which ought to do the job. It ranks the air pollution at various points around the capital on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0-3 being normal, and 10 being what we're enduring right now. Previously I had the app set up to notify me about one site near work and two near home, but both of the Lea Valley sites blanked out a while back and no longer seem to report at all, so it's no longer especially useful.

The associated 'London Air' website is packed with pages and features, including a regularly-updated map showing a pollution score at various sites across London. I don't remember seeing it this bad before.

But zoom in and it turns out the data is only available at certain clustered spots. Central London is well covered, but (for example) Newham, Hackney and Waltham Forest have nothing, and Tower Hamlets has only one site at an unrepresentative point north of the Blackwall Tunnel. In a city of eight million people, this is hardly ideal.

Other pages on the website include a pollution 'Nowcast', which (as I write) suggests that everywhere inside the M25 is at a uniformly high level. There's also a written 'Forecast', which is up-to-date and splendidly informative about conditions today and tomorrow. There are numerous background pages with advice on how to reduce potential health damage regarding how you travel and where you live. And there's a summary map which shows average air pollution levels in 2013 where you can zoom in and see whether your street is more dangerous than a few streets back. Try not to live in inner London or close to a dual carriageway, appears to be the message.

The Mayor mentioned another website, airtext.info, in his flurry of pollution-related tweets.
You can sign-up for air quality alerts from @airTEXT here: http://www.airtext.info/signup
This has a more basic set-up, which at a high level is less confusing. At time of writing this too is suggesting a uniform risk within the M25, apart from a bubble around Heathrow Terminals 2 and 3 which is presumably plane related. It (currently) differs in its assessment of Tuesday's risk, having decided on Moderate rather than London Air's Very High. As well as offering text alerts to your phone it also has its own app - maybe I should give that a try.

Or there's the government's official air pollution site, specifically DEFRA's, whose data is impressively up-to-date. This has a overall map (pictured below), as well as a simpler regional map which is (currently) suggesting London's at maximum risk, which isn't what the other websites are saying. There's also an interactive map covering individual sites across the entire country, but again it gives East London a wide berth. Apparently we do have a monitoring site on the Mile End Road but it isn't working, or there isn't any data from it, or something. If you live nearer one of the functional sites, you may find this level of information quite useful.

Anyway, I hope that some of this air quality information might be useful to you, some of the time, depending. It also begs the question of whether there's anything better I could be using, and whether there's any better way of being alerted when conditions locally get bad.

Overall, however, it turns out that I could hardly be living anywhere worse than on the A11 very close to the A12, which means I'm shortening my life expectancy on a daily basis simply by inhaling. If only there was some way of cutting the pollution in the air, maybe by reducing vehicle use or replacing engines, or by not building massive road schemes in the first place. I'm not holding my breath.

 Monday, January 23, 2017

One thing Middlesbrough has that nowhere else in England has is a transporter bridge.
"A transporter bridge, also known as a ferry bridge or aerial transfer bridge, is a type of movable bridge that carries a segment of roadway across a river. The gondola is slung from a tall span by wires or a metal frame. The design has been used to cross navigable rivers or other bodies of water where there is a requirement for ship traffic to be able to pass. This has been a rare type of bridge, with fewer than two dozen built, and just twelve that continue to be used today."
What's more Middlesbrough's is the world's longest transporter bridge and, even better, it's still in operation.

The Tees Transporter Bridge was opened in 1911, replacing a steam ferry service. It spans the mighty River Tees, about five miles upstream from the North Sea, before the refineries and chemical works begin in earnest. Two steel towers rise into the sky, currently painted blue, but in their time they've been red, brown, green, whatever. Between these stretches a striking latticed cantilever, approximately 50m above the river, and it's along this that the wires supporting the gondola are drawn. The bridge stands alone on the skyline and is a much-loved local landmark, even featuring in the town's logo in symbolic form.

Unless there's high wind, fog or heavy rain, the bridge is operational every day of the week except Sunday. The gondola shuttles back and forth repeatedly in the morning and evening peaks, and every fifteen minutes at other times of the day, unless any shipping happens to be passing in which case it waits. Staffing levels require a one hour break at noon so that lunch can be taken, and also to allow the machinery holding up the wires to be checked. But for the rest of the time anybody can turn up and be carried across - cars pass for £1.30 and pedestrians for 60p. There's space for nine of the former or 200 of the latter, assuming no other vehicles are on the deck. Bargain. And when in town, surely a must-visit.

To reach the Transporter Bridge head north from the town centre - it's about a ten minute walk from the station. A few heritage buildings remain to the north of the railway, but these fade away across a half-demolished landscape ripe for redevelopment, which is precisely what the council have in mind. A new district called Middlehaven is planned, overlaying the original dockside street layout with tree-line boulevards and parkland, and filling in the gaps with flats. Middlesbrough College has been first to move in, its campus bringing teenage life to a desolate quarter by the Dock Clock Tower. Further downstream lie the Riverside Stadium and Temenos, Anish Kapoor's recent enormous 'butterfly-net' sculpture that rivals the Transporter in scale and size.

Before crossing the Transporter Bridge, be sure to pop into the adjacent Visitor Centre on the south bank. This was recently upgraded with lottery money as part of a post-centenary refurb of the entire structure, with the crossing being closed to traffic for 18 months. The tiny Visitor Centre now has displays including 3D projections, plus a hatchway described as a shop, and a viewing window in front of the Winding House where you can watch the rope uncoiling as the gondola sweeps across. A long-retired volunteer was on hand to chat to me about the bridge, its operation and its character, which added greatly to the experience.

The most amazing facility added during the upgrade is a glass lift. This rises from a ramp beside the Visitor Centre and ratchets up one of the towers on the southern bank, taking about a minute to reach walkway level where there's now an observation deck. From here there are amazing views across Middlesbrough and down the Tees, plus the unnerving sensation of being exposed at the top of a lofty steel structure where only maintenance engineers were ever intended to go. The combined cost of a lift ride, guided tour and double gondola crossing is only £5, which is gobsmackingly good value. But it pays to book ahead. There were no tours during the half-day I was in town - news which I greeted simultaneously with enormous disappointment and vertigo-avoiding joy.

A trip on the gondola more than sufficed. Even better I was fortunate to get the deck entirely to myself, the intermittent stream of vans and taxis having unexpectedly paused. The whole operation's now programmed by computer, hence every crossing takes precisely 2 minutes and 19 seconds, but two staff are still required on board to close the gates, lock the glass doors and collect the fares. Off we glided, revealing the ironwork on which the gondola rests when docked, and passing the bottom of the glass lift on the riverward side. Newly installed glass windows allow flat estuarine views to be seen, if not necessarily enjoyed, while the roof of the gondola obscures the cats-cradle of cabling vaulted overhead.

"Are you coming straight back?" asked the gondolier, well aware that there's very little on the opposite shore for anyone to enjoy. A small linear settlement called Port Clarence follows the adjacent freight line, while the A178 continues north past silos, inland lakes and oil terminals towards, very eventually, the Seal Sands bird reserve and Hartlepool. "There are some benches down there," the man advised, so I walked along the riverbank wall while he and his mate carried nobody back. I loved the bleak loneliness of it all, gazing back towards Middlesbrough's peculiar combination of culture and dereliction, while seagulls wheeled above the grey waters of the Tees. And of course I stared back at the amazing Transporter Bridge, a proud testament to engineering and preservation - long may she operate!

I also had time to explore some of central Middlesbrough before leaving town, in particular mima - the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. This contemporary art gallery opened precisely ten years ago, as part of the wave of civic cultural buildings aimed at kickstarting various peripheral English communities. In this case mima is a fairly typical glass and steel box, run in cooperation with Teesside University, with a mission to be "useful" rather than simply pretty. One long open staircase rises through the atrium at the heart of the building, from the gallery and shop on the ground floor to the events space and roof terrace on the third. The art on display was variable, in some places minor, in others beautiful. I enjoyed the colourful Winifred Nicholson exhibition, and the Brexit-focused scribblings in The Office of Useful Art. I greatly admired a marvellous earthenware necklace punched out from a plate in the Collection Gallery. I almost worked out what the slabs inlaid in the adjacent garden square were meant to represent, while joining a young mum and her toddler on the upper terrace. I did not stop for coffee and kedgeree in The Smeltery.

The civic heart of town rubs up beside streets of close-packed terraces, where dock workers and their families would once have lived. One glance in an estate agents window reveals a few homes for sale here for under £50000, more generally under £100000, as if to mock anyone stupid enough to pay hugely more for hugely less in London. The shopping centre stretches to all the big name chains, and there is one street of perky cafes and boutiques for those not wedded to the necessity of Aldi. I didn't have time to head south to the Dorman Museum, nor to the suburb that was Captain Cook's birthplace where (in the summer months) another heritage home awaits. I think I was expecting Middlesbrough to be a more prominent kind of place, whereas the Tees Valley is more a sprawl of merged industrial centres with collective importance, a one-time powerhouse getting by on EU grants and chemical works that nowhere else would bear. There's much to explore hereabouts, but the marvellous Transporter Bridge will do nicely for a first attempt.

My Middlesbrough gallery
There are 36 photos (mostly of the bridge) [slideshow]

 Sunday, January 22, 2017

The National Railway Museum comes in two parts, sixty miles apart, both refreshingly distant from London. The main collection (with the most stuff and the most visitors) is in York, immediately adjacent to the station. But the annexe is in Shildon, a small town ten miles north of Darlington, and consequentially less well known. The location may be out on a limb but it's historically faultless, slap bang on the route of the world's first passenger railway.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825, its purpose to link the collieries around Bishop Auckland to the estuary of the River Tees. A local enginewright called George Stephenson championed the use of steam-driven loco-motives on the line, the first named Locomotion No. 1, which duly left Shildon that inaugural day with around 500 passengers on board. They crowded into coal wagons fitted with seats and puffed intermittently towards Darlington, eventually reaching the heady speed of 15mph on the final run into Stockton. Along the way one wagon wheel fell off, and one passenger fell out and had his foot crushed, but the owners still deemed the day a great success and celebrated with a slap-up dinner.

Shildon became the place where engines were built and maintained, and most of the men in the town worked on the railways rather in the pits. A massive set of workshops and sidings grew up, with a few key buildings preserved to this day, and before long production switched to focus on wagon building and repairs. The freight business kept Shildon afloat until 1984, when British Rail closed the works down, and a small museum was maintained in the cottage home of a former chief engineer. Plans for a much larger building took root after the millennium, with an area of former sidings cleared for the construction of a vast silver shed, seven tracks wide. Tony Blair opened it in 2004, he being MP for the constituency nextdoor, and Locomotion: the National Railway Museum at Shildon was born.

The museum's unusual in that it's spread along a kilometre of old railway line, with the existing Shildon station roughly in the middle. All the heritage buildings are at the western end, adjacent to the edge of the town, and freely available to view from outside. These include a former Goods Shed, a Parcel Office, and a line of brick Coal Drops formerly used for refuelling. The 'Welcome' building used to be the Methodist Sunday School, and I thought this was where you were supposed to go first, except it was firmly closed. The interior, and that of the adjacent chief engineer's cottage, are only accessible on tours booked at the other end of the trail, and January isn't the best month to expect these to be running.

The Collection is where the action is, this in the aforementioned silver shed, which is home to over 70 vehicles of historical provenance. The oldest is Sans Pareil, the local entrant at the Rainhill Trials (the three-way 1829 competition which brought Stephenson's Rocket to prominence), which is normally kept in the Welcome building (but currently presumably not). Locomotion is also here, except that's a replica, lined up as part of a phalanx that impresses the moment you walk in.

Most of the engines on show are steam driven, from a variety of eras, great sleek shiny beasts with footplates you can peer into and marvel at the pre-digital interface. A number of old carriages have also been crammed in, including Edward VII's over-upholstered smoking saloon, a cross-Channel sleeper and the actual baggage van used to transport Winston Churchill's coffin on its last journey to Blenheim. Shildon's freight wagon tradition isn't ignored, although most visitors probably gloss past that. Up in the far corner a number of volunteers are working on restoring a Network South East carriage, because all eras deserve representation, and yes of course there's a model railway layout at the back staffed by old men who prefer things small.

The train that stirred me most was a unique creation from the 1970s, the Advanced Passenger Train. This tilting wonder was due to revolutionise high speed travel, but the technology didn't deliver, and British Rail rolled out the ubiquitous High Speed Train instead. The APT-E at Shildon is a glimpse into a future that never came, with a sharp silver snout and streamlined body, its unfulfilled status reflected in the serial numbers roughly hand-painted onto locomotive and carriage. Adjacent displays and videos reinforce the message that the APT concept was in fact brilliant, and most of the world's modern tilting trains can trace back their underlying technology to BR's engineers. But instead here she sits, severed and shortened - for your own safety, No Entry.

The museum's essentially four long sets of parallel tracks, with the focus very much on vehicles rather than other railway paraphernalia. Careful thought has been given to keeping children occupied, and also in keeping the local community involved, with space given over (at present) to a display about historic local non-league football teams. A cafe and a gift shop fill out two corners, the latter with a considerable model railway section, and yes admission's free, because that's how the NRM rolls.

Trains on the Bishop Auckland line run every two hours during the day, and I'd say this two hour gap is all you need to enjoy the contents of the Collection. Unless the other historic buildings are open there's not much else to see in Shildon, so you might want to nip back to Darlington where the actual 1825 Locomotion is on show in a smaller museum alongside North Road station. Alas that was closed when I passed by, so I can confirm there's not much else to do in Darlington either, except for staring at the Town Hall and wandering around the shops. Never mind - it left me half a day free to venture elsewhere...

» NRM Shildon website/Facebook/Twitter
» A walk around historic Shildon [8 photos]
» Visit Darlington [4 photos]

 Saturday, January 21, 2017

I was heading home late on Thursday evening when I discovered that Bow Road station was closed. I'd been waiting for a train at Mile End, expecting to be able to ride one stop down the line, with no indication to the contrary. But when I stepped on board the train the driver announced that the next station was closed, so I got off again, and walked home instead.

And this isn't the first time Bow Road's been unexpectedly closed. There have been several closures "due to an absence of staff" over the last couple of months, usually first thing in the morning or late at night. Bow Road is a Section 12 station, because part of it is underground, so staff have to be present for safety reasons at all times. And if not enough staff turn up, for whatever reason, the gates are shut and travellers have to go elsewhere instead.

Last February staffing on the tube was reduced and rejigged as part of a programme called Fit For The Future. The plan was to make staff more visible, and staffing more flexible, with stations grouped together to share personnel. Bow Road was coupled with Stepney Green, and it seems that when staff go short it's Stepney Green that takes priority. Bow Road's less than ten minutes walk from Mile End, and three buses head that way, so passengers can generally cope if Bow Road is closed.

It's closed a lot. On ten occasions since the start of December the station's closed early, including five times this week. On seven occasions in the last month it's opened late, and on 3rd December it closed for an hour in the early afternoon. When not enough staff are available it's the public that suffers, and we've been suffering more of late, because these kinds of closures weren't happening so frequently before.

So I've trawled back through Twitter to try to determine the scale of the overall problem. I've focused on the District line, and used tweets on the @districtline account to tabulate every staff-related closure since the start of December.

Tweets related to strike action or security incidents are not included. Please note that the data may be incomplete (there's no guarantee that every closure's been included), and will be inaccurate (the times given are the times of the tweets, not the closures). But with all those caveats, three stations really stand out.

District line station closures due to staff shortage
Dec 2016 - Jan 2017
StationOpened lateClosed during dayClosed early
Temple5th Dec, 07:02
6th Dec, 07:06
17th Dec, 07:07
24th Dec, 05:50
6th Jan, 06:06
19th Jan, 07:09
20th Jan, 07:17
21st Jan, 15:08
22nd Jan, 07:30
23rd Jan, 07:23
17th Dec, from 12:27
18th Dec, 2hrs, morning peak
2nd Jan, 7hrs, from 16:30
6th Jan, to 15:19
7th Jan, 8hrs, to 15:20
8th Jan, 10 hrs, to 16:26
18th Jan, from 14:35
4th Dec, 22:35
5th Dec, 22:41
8th Dec, 23:08
11th Dec, 22:47
13th Dec, 23:58
14th Dec, 20:54
15th Dec, 24:43
16th Dec, 20:34
18th Dec, 20:44
24th Dec, 22:20
19th Jan, 22:29
20th Jan, 22:25
21st Jan, 22:35
22nd Jan, 22:31
Bow Road22nd Dec, 07:59
23rd Dec, 07:50
24th Dec, 07:45
3rd Jan, 05:37
8th Jan, 06:58
16th Jan, 07:06
21st Jan, 07:18
22nd Jan, 06:49
23rd Jan, 06:55
3rd Dec, 1hr, early afternoon10th Dec, 22:44
11th Dec, 22:21
21st Dec, 23:30
24th Dec, 22:36
15th Jan, 23:35
18th Jan, 21:51
19th Jan, 21:00
20th Jan, 22:34
21st Jan, 22:35
22nd Jan, 22:31
St James's Park28th Dec, 06:10
21st Jan, 06:52
3rd Dec, 3hrs, evening
4th Dec, 40m, early evening
10th Dec, 1.5hr, late afternoon
17th Dec, 6m, morning peak
31st Dec, from 07:26
1st Jan, from 07:15
7th Jan, 1.5hr, evening
14th Jan, 1hr, morning peak
20th Jan, 22:46
Mansion House3rd Jan, 05:58 13th Dec, 23:59
Stepney Green19th Dec, 05:38
23rd Jan, 05:52
 18th Dec, 22:57
22nd Jan, 22:32
Blackfriars  18th Dec, 23:58
Monument19th Dec, 05:41  
Earl’s Court  19th Dec, 23:13
Tower Hill24th Dec, 05:39  
Aldgate East24th Dec, 06:17  
Becontree 26th Dec, from 07:27 

Temple is easily the District line station with the biggest staff shortage problem. It's closed early fourteen times since the start of December, sometimes before 9pm, with closures commonplace in the weeks before Christmas. It's opened late ten times (frequently, it seems, saved by a member of staff turning up around 7am). And it's closed during the day seven times, in some cases for several hours, which must have been annoying to anyone who'd walked to the station expecting to get in.

St James's Park is an interesting one because it's the station underneath TfL's historic HQ, and it's suffered eleven closures at a wide variety of times since the start of December. I note that St James's Park is paired with Embankment as part of the Fit For The Future programme, and presumably it's deemed more important to keep Embankment open. Similarly Temple is paired with Blackfriars, and Blackfriars will always be the priority when staff numbers drop.

Other than those three stations, staff-related closures on the District line are very rare. There haven't been any at any station beyond Earl's Court, and there's only been one to the east of Bow Road. Stations underground are always going to be most at risk, because of fire regulations, and at other stations it's always possible to leave the gates open and unstaffed. Indeed at Bromley-by-Bow it's so incredibly rare to see someone in uniform that it's as if TfL have given up on staffing the station completely.

If you're thinking come on, opening slightly late in the morning doesn't hurt, think of all the people who've missed connections or got to work late. If you're thinking come on, closing early in the evening's not the end of the world, think of all the people who've been forced to travel less safely after dark. If you're thinking come on, this doesn't affect where I live, the point is that previously it hardly happened at all, and now it's a regular issue in several locations.

It's hard to know precisely why these three particular stations have been singled out, and what might be the specific situations that differentiate them from other similar locations. But when unions threaten strike action over inadequate staffing, and TfL admit they might have reduced staffing numbers too far, something about the current system is very much Unfit For The Future.

 Friday, January 20, 2017

It's not every day that Bob Dylan appropriates your photograph, or at least it's not every day the world finds out that he did. Several people were interested. Actually that would be an understatement.

The world of Twitter got excited. Gizmodo gave it a mention. Various internet forums posted a link, including the venerable b3ta and a longstanding Dylan-related board. Not all the commenters there were impressed - they reckoned it could have been anybody's photo, and they objected to me being described as an "esteemed blogger". Various sarcastic gifs were deployed.

Then the newspapers got in touch. The Evening Standard wanted a chat, but it wasn't a good day for a chat, so they went silent. The Daily Telegraph were next, and the i paper, and then the Blackpool Gazette (which pleased me, because they're local news). These three journalists also wanted a chat, but were happy with email instead, aided by the fact that I'd already posted several of my thoughts on the matter online. One of the contactees even said they were a long time reader, which was nice.

All of the journalists at all of the newspapers were professional and pleasant, as you'd hope and expect. Both the national newspapers offered payment for use of the photo, which is as it should be, and in both cases I asked them to send the fee to charity. The RNLI have done rather well out of my trip to Blackpool, having previously earned £50 through corporate use of a completely different photo taken from the same pier.

One particularly cheering thing was that Hilda commented on my post - she was the lady who discovered the Blackpool link in the first place. I also received an appreciative email from Scott Warmuth, who'd been the researcher who initially contacted me about the Blackpool connection. And still the readers kept coming, mostly from Twitter, making Wednesday the third most popular day this blog has ever experienced.

The i newspaper whipped out their story first, whereas the Daily Telegraph's had to wait until their afternoon news conference had decided what was worthy of appearing in the printed paper. My story eventually made it to page 11, indeed half of page 11, although Bob's painting was afforded rather more square inches than my photo because he's the star. Their online version also came complete with a clever sliding gizmo that allowed readers to compare painting with photograph directly.

The Blackpool Gazette published their piece a little later, and it contained some original information because their reporter had thought to email me a short list of questions, so well done Michael. The story even made this week's front page - as a strapline at least.

The Daily Mail released their version of the story at two o'clock yesterday morning, along much the same lines as the others, except they hadn't got in touch with me first. They'd obviously read my post, because they quoted from it extensively, but chose to skip over the sentence where I slagged off the Daily Mail - ironically for stealing one of my photos on a previous occasion. Back in 2009 they replaced it when I complained, but on this occasion I have yet to hear back from them, the shameless plagiarising bastards.

I haven't heard anything from Bob Dylan, or his people, or the gallery who exhibited his work. But the Daily Telegraph got a quote out of the latter...
A spokesman for the Halcyon Gallery said: “There is no attempt on behalf of the artist to name the scenes accurately. While the essence of the exhibition is a journey through America, the compositions of the paintings are based on a wide variety of sources including archival and historic images.”
So there you go, Bob's paintings aren't always of where they say they're of, which is how Blackpool came to stand in for Norfolk, Virginia. That's fine, that's art. Bob is simply creating an evocative collection of works, and an entertaining puzzle for anyone attempting to deduce the true locations.

And he admits his works are sourced from a variety of images, historic or otherwise, which is how my Blackpool holiday snap came to be plucked from the internet for Bob's attention. I'm chuffed. I should even be honoured. And trust me, it's a joy to get a photograph into a national newspaper that isn't of a Romford skinhead in an abusive T-shirt.

 Thursday, January 19, 2017

100 years ago today, just before seven o'clock in the evening, London's biggest ever explosion occurred.

The location was Silvertown, between the Royal Docks and the Thames, and the cause was munitions work for the Great War. A former caustic soda factory on the waterfront had been taken over for the production of TNT, and on Friday 19th January 1917 it exploded. 73 people were killed and more than 400 injured, which is the kind of mess 50 tons of high explosives can make in a built-up area. So great was the blast from the Silvertown Explosion that 900 adjacent properties were destroyed, the windows at the Savoy Hotel were blown out, and the bang was heard as far away as Norfolk and the Sussex coast.
The explosion was followed by a scene which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It seemed as if some vast volcanic explosion had burst out in the location in question. The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour. A fiery glow seemed to have come over the dark and miserable January evening, and objects which a few minutes before had been blotted out in the intense darkness were silhouetted against the sky. The awful illumination lasted in its eerie glory only a few seconds. Gradually it died away, but down by the river roared a huge column of flame which told thousands that the explosion had been followed by fire and havoc, the like of which has never been known in these parts. (Stratford Express, 27th January 1917)
The explosion had its origin in the melt-pot room, where bags of crude TNT were emptied into a hopper leading to the giant cauldron at the heart of the process. A fire broke out, which workers and firefighters attempted to extinguish, but all too quickly it reached further stores which then ignited. An entire week's supply of TNT went up in flames, much of it sitting in railway wagons close by, because wartime needs had trumped safety concerns. The explosion flung rubble and shrapnel across a considerable area, and the death toll would have been even higher had the day shift not already gone home. The fire continued until the Sunday afternoon, not helped by the local fire station being located immediately opposite the plant and (almost) entirely demolished.
A visit to the scene after the explosion was sufficient to give anybody an idea of the terrific nature of the calamity. It is not too much to to say that the whole aspect of this busy manufacturing centre has been entirely changed. Where the munitions works once stood there remains nothing but a great heap of bricks, rubbish and ironwork, twisted into strange shapes by the fire and explosion. In the main road lay a huge mass of iron, which at one time was a powerful boiler. It is said to have weighed 15 tons, but it was wrenched from its place when the explosion took place and dropped in the roadway. Here it had to remain until Monday morning when a large body of soldiers, by means of a windlass, managed to remove it to the side of the road. (Stratford Express, 27th January 1917)
The government were forced to admit in the morning papers that something disastrous had happened - such a display of pyrotechnics could not be concealed. Volunteers tended to the injured and helped the homeless with their plight, and the Prime Minister duly turned up to tour the aftermath. It wasn't World War One's largest explosion (the Great Explosion at Faversham in 1916 was equivalent to 200 tons of TNT), neither did it bring the largest loss of life (134 died at at the National Shell Filling Factory near Nottingham in 1918), but it remains the largest explosion the capital's ever known. Haven't we been lucky for the last 100 years?

A memorial to the disaster was erected by the company outside the factory gates, and stood until recently under the DLR viaduct on the North Woolwich Road. It doubled up as a war memorial, so only one of the four faces commemorates the explosion, and only employees of the company got a mention, which isn't ideal. It was also carved from limestone, so the lettering hasn't fared too well in London's polluted air and has become increasingly hard to read. Meanwhile the site of the explosion remained barren wasteland until a couple of years ago, deliberately undeveloped, before bowing to inevitable commercial pressure. And that's where the centenary story gets unexpectedly modern.

A huge area of the Silvertown waterfront is being redeveloped into a residential development, namely Royal Wharf. Bankrolled by a Singaporean corporation it's due to bring over 3000 new homes to Newham, sandwiched into the space between Lyle Park and Thames Barrier Park, with much of the land a former Shell oil plant. Royal Wharf's website describes the new neighbourhood as "forging the way for the most exciting new chapter in London's history", which it quite clearly isn't, but this kind of ballyhoo tends to sell units off-plan to east Asian investors. And as part of the plans they've shifted the Silvertown Memorial deep into the heart of a building site. I went looking.

Most of the site's half-kilometre northern frontage is sealed off, unless you're in hi-vis or driving a concrete mixer. But there is an opening opposite Mill Road, by the rebuilt fire station, close to where the memorial used to be. A single lane of tarmac wiggles inside the building site, then continues arrow-straight, hemmed in between tall branded barriers. A pavement has been provided because this is the only way in to Royal Wharf's waterfront marketing suite, hence public access is available from 10am daily. Halfway down this lengthy slog is a muddy gap where tipper trucks nip between the two halves of the construction zone, while swarms of workers troop overhead via a temporary footbridge. I'm glad I didn't wear my best shoes.

After four minutes the access road gently bends to reveal, blimey, a green oasis in the middle of a building site. Plans for the final development show one large garden area opening out onto the Thames, and this has been built first so that the Marketing Suite has an attractive backdrop. A large patch of landscaped grass is criss-crossed by paths that will one day lead somewhere, but for now end at a ring of hoardings, behind which rise numerous blocks of flats at varying stages in their construction. Trees and flowers have been planted, along with a bank of reeds and a rockery, plus a small footbridge across what may eventually be a water feature.

And here's the Silvertown Memorial, scrubbed up and standing proudly in a flower bed. It's certainly a nicer location than before, although that wouldn't be difficult, and I haven't been able to establish whether it's any closer to the centre of the original blast. An information board alongside tells the story, and tells it well, again moved from its former position out on the road. A commemorative event will be taking place here today, attended by the great-grandson of the owner of the munitions factory along with the families of some of the victims. That's a private affair, but you could pay your respects some other time - the marketing people in the triple-decker timber cabin don't seem to mind visitors, indeed perhaps they hope you'll pop in afterwards and take a look round their sample apartment layouts.

While you're here, follow the stepping stones underneath the mock-up balconies to enjoy the view from the waterfront. The Thames is impressively broad here, just upstream from the barrier at Woolwich, and faces a riverbank still occupied by the remnants of London's industrial past. As that history fades away, and a residential wall goes up in place of wharves and workplaces, the new setting of the Silvertown Memorial feels all the more incongruous. A heavy price was paid on this site 100 years ago, and future residents would do well to remember the sacrifice that demolished a community where theirs now rises.

Further background:
» A century on: the mysterious cause and tragic legacy of London’s biggest explosion
» Forgotten Stories at the Royal Docks
» Ian Visits visits the memorial's former site
» Fifty Great Disasters and Tragedies that Shocked the World (as told in the 1930s)
» The Silvertown explosion of 1917 - Museum of London video

 Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An art exhibition by the singer Bob Dylan was held in London a couple of months ago. I wish I'd been.
Bob Dylan, The Beaten Path
05 Nov 2016 - 02 Jan 2017

The Beaten Path features a wide collection of drawings, watercolours and acrylic works on canvas which depict the artist’s view of American landscapes and urban scenes. The Beaten Path invites the viewer to accompany Dylan on his travels as he criss-crosses the USA through the back streets, alleys and country roads. Reminiscing about a landscape unpolluted by the ephemera of pop culture, fleeting snapshots of America emerge from the exhibition.
You can take a look through all 200-or-so drawings and paintings on the gallery's website, here.

I'm particularly interested in this one.

According to the catalogue it's a watercolour, painted by Bob in 2015-6, and shows a Pier in Norfolk, Virginia.

The perspective's perfect, as the planks on the old iron pier lead off towards some domed pavilions at the far end. It's all very evocative.


I received an email earlier in the week from an interested party asking me if I recognised the image. "It looks very much like a photo you took in Blackpool in 2009," they said.

And you know what, they're right!

The illumination's different, but the alignment of the pier and lampposts is identical, as if the artist were standing precisely where I was standing six years earlier. "When I superimpose them they align perfectly," confirmed my correspondent.

What's more, Norfolk (Virginia) does have a pier but it doesn't look like that, it looks like this. Bob Dylan's painting isn't of the USA, it's of the North Pier in Blackpool, and it's been constructed not from the artist's perception but using a photograph I took. This is the actual Bob Dylan we're talking about, the 2016 Nobel Laureate.

It seems highly likely that a projection technique has been used to help to transform my photograph into art - Dylan himself almost admits as much.
"Some of these works have much complexity of detail. Some are less demanding … in some cases my hand couldn’t do what my eye was perceiving. So I went to the camera obscura method."
Such techniques are nothing new, they've been used by some of the greatest painters (for example Caravaggio and Vermeer) to help them to achieve perfect perspective in their work. What's of far greater concern is the production of a painting based on a photograph somebody else took, and appropriating the image as your own, and then telling everyone it's a location somewhere else.

It turns out there's considerable scholarly speculation that many of Bob Dylan's paintings aren't always what they say they are. In this particular exhibition, for example, the painting that's supposed to be of "Classic Car Show, Cleveland, Ohio" is actually located on Route 66 in Arizona, while "Motel, New Mexico" is really in Borrego Springs, California. Passing off a picture of Blackpool, England as Norfolk, Virginia is just the kind of thing Dylan does.
"In every picture the viewer doesn’t have to wonder whether it’s an actual object or a delusional one. If the viewer visited where the picture actually existed, he or she would see the same thing. It is what unites us all."
And it's not just random photos that have been appropriated. Several of Bob's paintings are actually sourced from film screengrabs, including stills from such classics as Rain Man, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Lolita, Paper Moon and Paris, Texas. A full investigation of this recycling phenomenon has been carried out by writer and musician Scott Warmuth, who's written this lengthy essay based on painstaking detective work. When Dylan writes in the exhibition's foreword that "Appearances can be deceiving", that's no lie.

In my case, the Norfolk, Virginia image piqued the interest of a Dutch lady called Hilda, intrigued as to whether it came from another film or from a photo of a landmark elsewhere. She spent almost 24 hours researching piers across the USA, until eventually spotting no, it was the North Pier in Blackpool! Another researcher then noted that my Flickr photo was the definitive source image, and got in touch with me to check, and that's how I found out.

There wasn't just one painting of Norfolk, Virginia Pier in Bob's exhibition, there were two (plus a pencil sketch for good measure). This second version is in acrylic and is from precisely the same viewpoint as the first, except this time there's a couple getting amorous on the boardwalk.

The reviewer from the Irish Times liked this one.
"Dylan portrays a small-town America apparently suspended in the middle of the 20th century, when he was young, a world of diners, movie theatres, hot dog stands and classic cars. Even when he paints a contemporary scene, such as a couple on a pier in Virginia in 2015, the figures are dressed as if they could have been from the 1950s."
And how do I feel about the appropriation of my photograph? I'm not angry. It's not like the Daily Mail or Guido Fawkes pinched it, neither is it in my nature to expect massive compensation. I'm not exhilarated. My photo's been the basis of a minor painting by a major star, which is hardly life-changing, and I'm not the type to gush. What's more, there has been considerable speculation that Bob Dylan doesn't actually paint his own paintings, they're done for him, so where's the joy in that? But I am astonished, because who wouldn't be?

An art exhibition by the singer Bob Dylan was held in London a couple of months ago. I wish I'd been.

 Tuesday, January 17, 2017

8 Deptford/Greenwich
This would have been an oddly shaped borough, had it ever been created, but better fitting the name 'Greenwich' than the Royal Borough we know today. The Herbert Commission's proposal would have combined the area around Deptford that's now in Lewisham, the A2 hinterland from Kidbrooke to the Thames, and actual Greenwich where the meridian is. For my one-off journey I've chosen to walk the riverbank round the North Greenwich peninsula, which would have been mostly gasworks in 1965, to see how all that post-millennial redevelopment's been getting on...

Thames Path: North Greenwich (3 miles)

I'm starting by Greenwich Yacht Club, once easily visible from inland, but now screened behind a curtain wall of rainbow-shaded apartments. Call into the Marketing Suite to find out more, says the hoarding opposite these playbox stacks, behind which yet more flats will one day arise. It's taken long enough. The Millennium Dome was built at the tip of the peninsula nearly 20 years ago to kickstart development on this brownfield expanse, and yet it'll be the 2020s before even half of the area's full potential is met. The developers' marketing campaign strikes a smug note, promising "village life in the city" and boasting "amazingly we've found a new bit of London to live in". I wouldn't rush.

Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park is a long-established wetland enclave, with boardwalks across the reeds and shallow streams running through the alder carr, and an enjoyable place for a brief stroll. The Thames-side promenade, meanwhile, is being used for a much more futuristic activity - the trialling of driverless vehicles. An electric pod called Harry will be trundling around the peninsula from a yellow rectangle painted on the promenade outside Maurer Court, assuming pedestrians and cyclists notice. The boulevard should be quiet enough and wide enough to avoid 'incidents', although it narrows where building work spills out towards the river, creating a couple of more challenging stretches with modal overlap.

A scattering of unusual signs hints that this is a modern-facing corner of the capital. A row of newly occupied homes on the waterfront is described as 'Platinum Riverside'. An enclosure of shoreline play equipment is 'intended for use by age appropriate children.' The event space on the pier called 'Farmopolis' is currently 'closed as we enter hibernation'. An unprepossessing thirty-storey tower is an early signal that five 'towers cut like prisms' are on their way, each with a 'renew floor' where gym, spa and pool will be located. This an 'emerging neighbourhood' of tightly-packed pseudo-luxury, a landscape sprinkled with marketing dust, and becoming denser with every passing year.

The ideal spot, therefore, for the UK's first urban cablecar to have its roots. On a sunny winter Sunday its pods are well frequented, rising sharply between building sites to enjoy the sweeping view - on a Tuesday rather less so. Here too is North Greenwich pier, stopping off point for the eight quid clipper to Westminster, and where shivering operatives wait for potential passengers who might have found their way through the maze of hoardings between here and The Entertainment Tent. On this walk we only get to see the Dome's backroom service area, with all its commercial shebang accessed solely from tube-side.

The upcoming half-circumnavigation is always quiet - building work excepted. Look out across the great bend in the river towards an industrial hinterland where high-rises are not yet the norm and then, on the other side of Trinity Buoy Wharf, an area where they definitely are. Yachts play on the Thames and gulls above it, perhaps picking over the spoils on the beach beyond the long grasses if the tide is low enough. Watch out for the looping lump of sculpture, and the rusting slice of ship, and the ironwork cyclepost, and the reedy wildlife jetty. I've been walking this path for years and very little along the way has changed, at least not on the outside of the O2's security perimeter.

Inside, however, it's a shame. All sorts of pavilions and wetlands were established for the millennium, the latter with the expectation of sustainability, but almost nothing survives. Up by the hotel a particularly sad plaque describes a "newly created environment" on a previously "poisoned" site "which will gradually develop over time", and hopes that the change wrought will be "inspirational". Nah. All the reedbeds and irrigation channels have been ripped out to create delivery areas and a building site, while the meridian poetry plaques around the bend have been absorbed into a sealed-off hotel car park. The automated self-driving pod terminates here.

At Point Drawdock a small girl is rolling empty nitrous oxide capsules down the slipway while her mother watches, seemingly approvingly, because it's something for her to do. A more upmarket game is afoot at what used to be Delta Wharf, now the Greenwich Peninsula Golf Range, an astroturf expanse of thwacked balls, filling in the time before this entire waterfront becomes flats. Developmental delays mean it's still possible to walk the riverside, including the sludgy dockside of the Victoria Deep Water Terminal. The wharf is safeguarded from development, so expect the silos, conveyor belts and piles of aggregate to endure, and be sure to wear something that's not your best pair of trainers as you wade through.

And then the inland diversion begins, supposedly only for six months, so that river defence works can be completed. It's a common tale along this formerly desolate stretch of river, where flats are sequentially replacing wharves and warehouses, and a cruise terminal for mega-liners is on the cards. Pedestrians meanwhile are cast out to the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, sandwiched between industry and exhaust fumes for rather longer than is desirable. Watch out for the optic cloak at the peninsula's Energy Centre - Conrad Shawcross's geometric cover for a 49m flue. Maybe even drop in at the Meantime Brewery, location 0° 0' 30'', for an ale, a tour, or some crafty bottles from their shop.

I'm ending my walk by negotiating back to the waterfront, via a Victorian terraced street that marks the northern limit of former settlement hereabouts. At the end of the road a far more modern cluster of apartment blocks has captured the waterfront, with coloured facades and gleaming glass, but not yet a great deal of life. Potential shops at ground level are boarded up, awaiting interested tenants, and the A3 restaurant unit that Harry Cody-Owen has been trying to rent since 2015 remains unclaimed. Only when the path finally reaches the cobbles of Ballast Quay, and the Cutty Sark pub, does any sense of character return. Three miles of the peninsula's edge are evolving at glacial pace, but irrevocably, into an antiseptic high-stacked city.

 Monday, January 16, 2017

If you enjoy sitting by the window when you travel by train, it's increasingly likely that on the tube you can't.

Time was when most seats faced forwards or backwards, allowing you to sit by the window and watch the outside world go by. But over the years TfL has moved towards increased amounts of longitudinal seating, either when introducing new carriages or by rotating existing seats to face the centre of the train instead. This helps to increase the space available for standing, and so boosts capacity, which means fewer passengers being left behind on the platform at peak times. Sometimes this is even achieved without loss of seats, which is no bad thing. But it does mean we now have to stare at our fellow passengers (and the adverts over their heads) instead of being able to look out of the window, and that's a pleasure lost.

So I thought I'd knock up a table to chart the decline of the window seat, on various forms of TfL transport, over the years.

 Window seats?Currently...Previously...
BakerlooYesIn most carriages, 16 central seats face forwards or backwards (in four groups of four). The other 24 seats face the centre. Carriages might be replaced (with 100% longitudinal seating) in the early 2030s.No change since the 1970s.
CentralNoThere are 38 longitudinal seats in each carriage.Before 1995, the unrefurbished carriages had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in four groups of four).
CircleNoIn most carriages, 30 longitudinal seats (and 6 tip-up seats).The previous carriages, refurbished in the early 1990s and in use until 2014, also had 100% longitudinal seating.
DistrictBarelyA handful of old trains survive for the next few weeks (see next column). In the new carriages there are generally only 30 longitudinal seats (and 6 tip-up seats).In the soon-to-be extinct D stock carriages, 8 central seats face forwards or backwards (in two groups of four). The other 38 seats (and 2 tip-up seats) face the centre.
Hammersmith & CityNoIn most carriages, 30 longitudinal seats (and 6 tip-up seats).The previous carriages, refurbished in the early 1990s and in use until 2013, also had 100% longitudinal seating.
JubileeNoIn most carriages, 34 longitudinal seats.Before 1998, the old carriages had 8 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in two groups of four).
(but fewer)
In most carriages, 16 central seats face forwards or backwards (in two groups of two groups of four). The other 16 seats (and 6 tip-up seats) face the centre.Before 2012, all 58 seats in the old carriages faced forwards or backwards.
NorthernNoIn most carriages, 34 longitudinal seats (and 8 tip-up seats).The previous carriages, in use until 2001, had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in four groups of four).
PiccadillyNoThere are 38 longitudinal seats in each carriage.Before 2001, the unrefurbished carriages had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards (in four groups of four).
VictoriaNo32 longitudinal seats (and 4 tip-up seats).Before 2011, half the old carriages had 16 central seats facing forwards or backwards, and half had 100% longitudinal seating.
Waterloo & CityNoThere are 34 longitudinal seats in each carriage.Before 1993, each carriage had 20 central seats facing forwards or backwards.
(but fewer)
Refurbished layouts have been introduced in newer carriages, with the 16 seats at the ends still facing forward/backward, but the remaining seats (36 in total) now longitudinal.Older carriages retain 32 seats facing forwards or backwards, and 20 longitudinal seats.
OvergroundNoOn the vast majority of the Overground, all the seats are longitudinal - generally 32 seats per carriage.Before 2008, most seats in the old carriages faced forwards or backwards.
(for now)
On the Gospel Oak to Barking line (currently closed), most/all of the seats face forwards or backwards. New electric trains (with 100% longitudinal seating) are due to be introduced in 2018.Before 2011, most/all seats in the old carriages faced forwards or backwards.
YesOn the lines out of Liverpool Street and the Romford to Upminster line, almost all of the seats face forwards or backwards. After 2018, new trains will be introduced with mostly longitudinal seating.-
TfL RailYesAll of the seats face forwards or backwards. New Crossrail stock (with more longitudinal seating) is due to be introduced from May 2017.-
Crossrail-Carriages look like they're going to have 16 seats facing forwards or backwards (in two groups of two groups of four) and about 34 longitudinal seats.-
TramYesOn most trams 64 seats face forwards or backwards, and only six seats face the centre. Newer trams, introduced from 2012, have two additional seats.-
DanglewayYes100% of seats face forwards or backwards!-

The table's bound to be wrong, so let me know where, and I'll update as necessary.
potential errors here, please

And I wonder what you think about the decreasing number of window seats (and the consequential increase in standing room).

Sources of data include...
» TfL Rolling Stock information sheet (25 page pdf from this FoI request)
» Wikipedia: London Underground, Overground, Silverlink, Class 710, Class 487
» Other websites: Squarewheels, Tubeprune, Croydon Tramlink, New Crossrail trains, London Transport Forum

 Sunday, January 15, 2017

Number maze: Can you make your way from the 6 in the corner to the 0 in the centre?

The number in each square shows you how many squares to move next. Moves must be either horizontal or vertical.

For example, from the 6 you can only move to the 4 in the top right corner or the 3 in the bottom left corner.


And can you do it in ten moves?

[Answer tomorrow. Please don't reveal the solution in the comments box, but do tell us how you get on]

A large hollow wooden egg has arrived in London. It's not just an egg, it's an artist's studio, and it floats. It spent a year on a river in the New Forest, and is now travelling around the country on tour. It's the creation of the artist Stephen Turner (who once spent six weeks living alone in the sea forts off the north Kent coast). It's the Exbury Egg, and it's in town until the end of the month.

The egg started out on a salt marsh in Hampshire, just down the estuary from Beaulieu, within the grounds of horticultural attraction Exbury Gardens. It was specially created using boatbuilding technology, and tethered to the shore via a short pontoon so that it could rise and fall with the tide. Inside, Stephen created sustainable artworks based on digital imagery and found objects, focusing on the experience of a year spent up the creek. Later he took the egg to a canalside in Burnley and spent six months living and working there, and now he's taking the egg on a tour of four further locations, of which Trinity Buoy Wharf is the first.

You won't stumble upon the Exbury Egg by accident. For a start you're unlikely to visit Trinity Buoy Wharf by accident, it's at the most inaccessible point in Tower Hamlets at the mouth of Bow Creek. Even then the egg's well hidden, this time indoors, just past Fatboys Diner and the lighthouse, within the Chain Store on the Thames-facing quay. Step inside to view the egg in its London guise - as a large-form sculpture - and to see a small exhibition of associated artworks.

The egg's wooden shell is beautifully constructed, with openings for doors on either side and now stained with a tidal patina. With this stop on the tour being landlocked you have to climb a stepladder to clamber inside, and to discover the artist's studio laid out like a particularly cosy cabin. Jars and bottles, candles and books, all manner of items are tucked along the walls, plus a bed at the far end and a tiny galley kitchen to the side. What looks like the broom cupboard doubled up as a rudimentary shower, but it's not too hard to picture the place as an artistic laboratory among the reeds.

The exhibition includes several ovoid forms constructed from natural materials, including blackthorn thinnings and bladderwrack, plus a variety of drawings using oak ink. A long cabinet includes such delicacies as Blackberry Wine, Sloe Gin and Dandelion Root Coffee, originally locally sourced, while there are also three videos to watch (except, as with most exhibitions, nobody ever sits down and takes the time). You'll enjoy the exhibition more if you stop to engage with Stephen or his wife - they're very keen to fill in the background detail (and delighted to have visitors who haven't merely turned up to scope the room as a potential wedding venue).

The Exbury Egg will be at Trinity Buoy Wharf for the next two weeks, with outreach activities including a downriver walk on Saturday 28th January led by Stephen starting out from the Nunnery Gallery in Bow Road. After that it's going to another canal (Grand Union, Milton Keynes: 3 Apr - 14 May), a shopping centre (Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth: 16 Jun - 3 Sep) and the seaside (Jerwood Gallery, Hastings: 16 Sep - 15 Oct). It'll probably look much more impressive on the water in these other locations but, given Easter's still some way off, an indoor egg certainly has its appeal.

 Saturday, January 14, 2017

50 things to do in London this weekend

1) Go geocaching in Penge.
2) Window shop on Neasden Parade.
3) Watch the pigeons on Camberwell Green.
4) Head to your local Tesco Express for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread.
5) Share photos of Mitcham Parish Cemetery on Instagram.
6) Scroll through Netflix looking for a film you've already seen and know you like.
7) Buy some new underwear from Walthamstow Market.
8) Walk aimlessly along the South Bank.
9) Wake up too late to get out of the house in time for brunch.
10) Do a couple of lengths at Edmonton Leisure Centre.
11) Walk your dog round Harrow Weald Recreation Ground.
12) Find a copy of Friday's Metro and read that on the tube in lieu of real news.
13) Sit on a bench in Carshalton Park and stream some Ed Sheeran.
14) Dither over which pastry to have with your latte at Starbucks in Orpington.
15) Praise the Lord at Belvedere Pentecostal Church.
16) Meet with friends and go for a drink and have a chat.
17) Stand outside a Mayfair restaurant and look at the menu.
18) Go for a ride round the Hainault Loop.
19) Catch that film that's going to win the Oscars at the Odeon Uxbridge.
20) Check your Facebook feed on the Bakerloo line.
21) Make a cup of tea and open some digestive biscuits.
22) Tackle the Wormwood Scrubs parkrun.
23) Count the CCTV cameras overlooking the Kingsway Underpass.
24) Walk alongside the River Brent through Tokyngton Recreation Ground.
25) Buy some vegetables from a stall in Shepherd's Bush Market.
26) Use Zoopla to check the price of that nice house you can't afford.
27) Ride the R68 bus to Kew Retail Park.
28) Mull over whether to do Pizza Express or upgrade to Jamie's Italian.
29) Sell your tat at the Bounds Green School Car Boot Sale.
30) Play crazy golf at Kelsey Park in Beckenham.
31) Check the price of an Uber home from The Bald Faced Stag in Finchley.
32) Visit the Treaty Centre, Hounslow, to select a new vape flavour.
33) Pop up to Level 4 in Northwick Park Hospital for a Costa coffee.
34) Catch up on some hoovering.
35) Have a go on the swings in Beckton District Park while nobody's looking.
36) Walk round the Whitgift Centre a couple of times.
37) Pick a savoury bake from the selection at Greggs in New Malden.
38) Check Twitter to see if your friends are having a better weekend than you.
39) Take the kids to the free chess club at Redbridge Central Library.
40) Sit on your sofa and order a pizza, some wings and a bottle of Diet Coke.
41) Upload some photos of the heritage ironwork at Bromley-by-Bow station.
42) Play your favourite tunes out loud on the upper deck of the 353 bus.
43) Hire a Zipcar to get a new flatpack bookcase home from IKEA.
44) Argue with the Jehovah's Witnesses outside the Bentall Centre, Kingston.
45) Walk round the block until your Fitbit tells you you've finished.
46) Stand on the terraces and cheer on Pitshanger Dynamo FC.
47) Hunt for bargains in the charity shops on Sidcup High Street.
48) Grab a kebab from the takeaway outside the Night Tube.
49) Play Candy Crush until your phone battery runs out.
50) Explore Romford.

 Friday, January 13, 2017

Q Feltham/Staines/Sunbury-on-Thames
Against the odds, my second Herbert Dip borough is immediately adjacent to my first. What's more, it's one of only six boroughs proposed in 1960 that extend outside what became the boundary of Greater London in 1965. Staines and Sunbury merged to create what's now the Surrey district of Spelthorne, whereas Feltham became the westernmost part of Hounslow. For today's post I've eschewed the Home Counties and chosen to explore Feltham, because I've seriously underblogged the area over the years. I used a local bus route to help me tour the sights...

 Route H26: Hatton Cross - Sparrow Farm
 Length of journey: 6 miles, 30 minutes

So meandering is the route of the H26 that you can actually walk from one terminus to the other quicker than the bus. I did something even more senseless, I walked from one terminus to the other along the actual route itself, diverting to adjacent points of interest along the way, then returning by bus to confirm how much easier that would have been. My journey started at Hatton Cross station, which I'm not at liberty to write about because it's in Hillingdon. But thirty seconds across the A30 the H26 enters Hounslow, and then it's Feltham Urban District all the way.

Hatton: Before Heathrow was built, Hatton was a minor hamlet on the Great South West Road. It's now a hollowed-out trading estate and service hub, a bleak circulatory surrounded by truck depots and freight hubs, although one burger-friendly 17th century pub survives. Behind one battered fence the landing lights for the airport's south runway sweep across bleak pasture where shaggy ponies graze, which must look amazing (and sound appalling) when flights boom low overhead.

Hatton Road: One bus stop down, The Orchard is the home of Bedfont and Feltham FC, a recently-merged entity in the Combined Counties League Premier Division whose chief sponsor (somewhat unexpectedly) is the frozen food company BirdsEye. A few streets of semis dare to exist airportside, their peace regularly shattered by loud ground-based roars which anywhere else in the country would have residents reaching for social media to check the world wasn't ending. A bridge then crosses the Duke of Northumberland's River and the Longford River, at the point where the two artificial channels finally diverge. Terminal 4 is only a brief walk up the riverbank, should you wish to connect with my previous post hereabouts.

East Bedfont: One of two former Middlesex villages, this incarnation is now mostly suburbia, whereas West Bedfont is mostly oil terminal. A hint of rural Georgian charm exists around the conservation area at Bedfont Green, but the pièce de résistance is St Mary's church, Hounslow's oldest place of worship. The timber and tile spire would normally be photogenic enough, but this is completely overshadowed by a giant topiary sculpture outside the front door where a pair of yew trees has been clipped into the shape of two peacocks on pillows linked by an arch. Two dates appear into the base - 1704 which is believed to be the year the yews were first trimmed, and 1990 which is the date of the most recent restoration - and the end result is indeed as amazing as it sounds.

Bedfont Lakes Business Park: This anodyne commercial centre helps keep London's tech businesses ticking over, plus it's also where BirdsEye has its HQ, hence that sponsorship deal I mentioned earlier. Employees at IBM and Cisco have roof terraces overlooking the eponymous lakes for when the weather's better, and a bespoke bus service to the nearest stations so they don't have to ride with the commoners.

Bedfont Lakes Country Park: This is more like it - 180 acres of rolling meadows, woodland and water, landscaped from gravel pits and opened to the public in 1995. The H26 stops at the eastern end, near Bedfont Cemetery and the car park where Volvo drivers coerce muddy dogs back into their vehicles. A swirl of paths leads off around the central grassy expanse and along the edge of various migration-friendly lakes, some of the banks of which are fenced off as nature reserves. In the woods at the far end are a fishing lake, a cafe and an animal rescue centre, while possibly the most interesting feature is slap bang in the middle. Monolith Hill is an artificial mound with a rocky block on the top, and was intended to be the highest point in the borough of Hounslow, reaching a lofty 29m above sea level. Unfortunately certain areas around Heston top 35m, so the record lies elsewhere, but the view from the summit's considerably better.

Feltham Young Offenders Institution: ... or HMYOI Feltham, as the sign outside this juvenile sinbin has it. The H26 stops at a shelter in the car park, where staff and visitors mingle, well away from the Union Flag hoisted prominently by the front gate. Up to 550 young people and young adults are secured within the fenced perimeter, beyond which can be seen numerous slanted rooftops, an industrial-sized chimney and several cameras on very tall poles.

Feltham High Street: Feltham's main drag runs from St Dunstan's to St Catherine's, the former Georgian, the latter now vacant after once being converted into council offices. A few old buildings remain, especially around the Green where the Red Lion has been serving pints since 1800. I spotted a heron on the island in the middle of the pond, and a sign on a lamppost pointing the way along the Feltham Heritage Trail (of which no documentary evidence exists, so best not follow). But most of Olde Feltham has been swept away, the shopping centre twice, with a semi-substantial mall called The Centre now feeding custom past numerous chainstore units to a large Asda at the rear. Bland, but useful,

22 Gladstone Avenue: In September 1964, just before this corner of Middlesex became London, the Bulsara family arrived in Feltham from Zanzibar. Dad Bomi got a job as a cashier, Mum Jer became an assistant at Marks & Spencer, and son Farrokh went to art school. Known to his friends as Freddie, he was still living in this modest semi behind Feltham Park in 1970 when he met drummer Roger Taylor and local guitarist Brian May with whom he formed the band Queen. Rock history ensued. A previous attempt to commemorate Freddie Mercury's life - a flamboyant star-shaped plaque in Feltham shopping centre - suffered such bad weathering that it had to be removed after a couple of years, and was replaced by a lesser slab outside a nondescript office block across the road. Thank goodness then that English Heritage have stepped in and placed a blue plaque in the pebbledash at number 22, unveiled last year, and a proud reminder of the precocious talent nurtured in this most ordinary of streets.

Sparrow Farm: Housing developments have an uncanny knack of naming themselves after what they replace. In this case that's a farm on the banks of the River Crane, formerly fields and orchards and now a minor 1930s estate. The H26 terminates outside a brief brick parade, topped by flats, offering residents a chippie, a Londis and a Christine's World of Beauty. It's a seemingly lacklustre finish to my exploration of Feltham, but locate the exit to the riverbank to enter a much more peaceful world, with shallow waters rippling beneath stripped branches, and Hounslow Heath rising on the opposite bank.

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