diamond geezer

 Saturday, September 24, 2016

100 years ago today a bomb fell on the Black Swan pub in Bow Road, and five people were killed, including the publican's two daughters.

And this might be just another wartime tale, except that the flying machine causing the damage was a Zeppelin, the German crew were later captured by a village policeman, and the two daughters reputedly came back as ghosts.

This is the story of L33, one of four Super Zeppelins which targeted London and the South East on the evening of 23rd September 1916. At 200 metres long, these rigid airships were Germany's latest masterweapon and on their inaugural mission, and only one of the four would return safely to base.

Zeppelin L33 was captained by Alois Böcker and had a crew of twenty-one, plus a cargo of high explosive bombs and incendiaries stashed in a compartment in the centre of the keel. After crossing the Channel it passed over Foulness Island at 10.40pm, approaching the capital via Billericay (11.27pm) and Upminster (11.40pm). Here it dropped its first bombs on the common, causing no damage, before reaching Wanstead at a minute to midnight. A change of course took the Zeppelin down towards the Thames, passing between the anti-aircraft guns at Beckton and North Woolwich, then zigzagging back towards West Ham. It was a misty night, but East London was well served with searchlights and these picked out the aerial invader with ease, and a few minutes into Sunday 24th September one of the ground-based defences scored a direct hit.

With hydrogen now leaking from within, the German crew needed to lose weight fast, so an impromptu bombing raid began. The first cluster of high explosives landed off St Leonard's Street near to the junction with Empson Street (today just off the A12 opposite Bow School). Four terraced houses were wrecked, many nearby windows were shattered, and six people were killed. Some larger bombs were dropped on the North London Railway Carriage Depot, a maze of sidings and engine sheds beside what's now the DLR, north of the Limehouse Cut. Considerable damage was done to a boiler house, to rolling stock and to the tracks themselves. The next bomb damaged several houses and a Baptist Chapel on Botolph Road, a slum street long since vanished (behind the betting shop on Stroudley Walk). And then the Zeppelin reached Bow Road.



The Black Swan pub had stood on the corner of Bromley High Street for a hundred years, opposite St Mary's Church in the heart of the old village of Bow. The landlord in 1916 was Edwin John Reynolds, and he and his extended family lived in a suite of rooms above the bar. At precisely 12.12am a single 100kg bomb hit the pub dead centre, taking out all the floors down to the basement, and leaving a heavy pall of smoke in the air. The wife of the licensee was found in the cellar, and his two daughters Cissie and Sylvia were killed by the blast. His mother-in-law Mrs Potter also lost her life, and firemen found the dead body of Sylvia's one year-old daughter stuck in the rafters. Seven other local residents were injured when the neighbouring premises were destroyed, after what had been a wholly unexpected and tragic night.

The Zeppelin continued to the north, dropping another 100kg bomb at the eastern end of Wrexham Road (now the junction with the A12 dual carriageway). Three women were injured here, but little damage was done. Turning east towards Stratford the flight path now crossed what was then an industrial zone along the River Lea. A bomb fell on Cook's Soap Works (on Cooks Road) and failed to explode, while the British Petroleum works on Marshgate Lane were not so fortunate - several underground oil pipes were broken and a large water main damaged. Most of the airship's remaining bombs fell inconsequentially on Stratford Marsh (now the southern part of the Olympic Park), but one hit Judd's Match Factory, setting it on fire and destroying most of the stock.

Even with its ammunition dropped, L33 was still losing height and the captain made the decision to withdraw into Essex. The wounded Zeppelin headed off via Leytonstone, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill, taking another hit from ground defences at Kelvedon Hatch, eventually reaching the coast near West Mersea. Böcker's plan was to sink his airship in the North Sea to prevent the British from recovering its technology, but at 1.15am a gust of wind brought the craft down tail first in fields outside Little Wigborough. All of the crew survived the crash landing, and promptly set their craft alight in the hope that it would be destroyed. Then they marched off down the lane, where they promptly bumped into a Special Constable on a bike with a flashlight, attracted by the blaze. He was, understandably, suspicious.

"How many miles is it to Colchester?" asked Kapitänleutnant Böcker, in a not-quite-convincing English accent. Suspicions confirmed, the constable followed the Germans up the lane to Peldon, where they were delivered to the village constable who formally arrested them. Böcker and his crew became the only armed soldiers to be captured on English soil during the First World War, and were swiftly transferred to the military base on Mersea Island. Meanwhile the frame of the Zeppelin was still mostly intact, and attracted a quarter of a million sightseers and souvenir hunters over the subsequent weeks. The military were also delighted to have foreign technology to investigate, and incorporated aspects of the German design into later British airships.



The crash of the L33 is the most exciting thing ever to have happened in Little Wigborough, and is being celebrated this weekend with a centenary event called Zepfest. A £10 ticket will allow you to walk the crash site, hear talks from experts and see a selection of World War 1 vehicles, as well as experience a flypast (weather permitting). You should also be able to pop into St Nicholas church to see the memorial to Zeppelina Williams (1916-2004), a baby girl born in the neighbouring village on the day of the crash and whose name was suggested by the doctor who delivered her.

Back in Bow, the Black Swan pub was eventually rebuilt in 1920. All sorts of apocryphal tales exist of the ghosts of Cissie and Sylvia Reynolds appearing in the building, and of beer taps starting and shutting off by themselves. It's clearly tosh, especially any supposed sightings in the last 40 years because the pub was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the widening of Bromley High Street. Head down today and you'll see Hardwicke House, a none-too exciting block of flats, and absolutely no pubs at all. So entirely has pre- and post-war redevelopment wiped away the Bromley side of Bow that few who live here now could even begin to picture the scene 100 years ago when fire rained down from a Zeppelin overnight. But what a story.



» Other accounts of the L33 raid
» Ordnance Survey map of Bow (1898)
» Photos of the Black Swan before demolition (1970)
» Two-minute video clip from Little Wigborough (BBC)
» An incendiary bomb that fell on Bromley-by-Bow (now at the IWM)

 Friday, September 23, 2016

Should we build the Garden Bridge? I've been down to the intended site to decide for myself.

I started at the northern end of the proposed span, at Temple. Very few people were using the station, which is fortunate because it's going to have to be closed for six months when construction gets underway, and this means nobody will be inconvenienced. When the bridge finally opens the station will be immediately adjacent to a world-class tourist destination, thereby justifying its existence, and providing useful access to Somerset House and the Strand.



The area immediately around Temple station is an inaccessible backwater, adjacent only to the Thames Embankment, and would be greatly enhanced if tourists from the South Bank were able to reach it more easily. Also the East-West Cycle Superhighway passes this way, so cyclists won't need to go up to the new bridge to push their bikes across the river, and £30m of transport funding won't have been wasted.

At the moment the immediate locality can only support a small independent cafe, an Australian-themed bar and two stalls selling magazines and fruit. Although this makes it easy to buy a proper breakfast and a copy of Private Eye, modern visitors expect so much more, and the opportunity to introduce chain outlets selling mass-produced pastries should not be understated.



Alongside in Temple Place is a Grade II listed Cabmen's Shelter, a small green hut opened in 1880, providing rest and sustenance for the taxi trade. This will have to move when the road is pedestrianised, shifting parking spaces for the cab trade into neighbouring Surrey Street, and with the added benefit that passers-by will then no longer be distracted by the offer of a freshly-fried bacon butty or toasted ham sandwich from the hatch for £2.50.

Access to the Garden Bridge will be via lifts or stairs to an upper deck on top of Temple station. This upper deck already exists, and is a bland featureless expanse with only a table tennis table and more than thirty benches. Bad planning means that any view across the river is blocked by trees, so in summer there really is nothing to see, and heaven knows why quite so many people were up there.



The view from the centre of the river will obviously be much better, there being no annoyingly massive trees in the way, because the deck of the bridge can't support substantial roots. But the span will thrive with plantlife, which means nobody will miss the three plane trees on the Victoria Embankment which will have to be felled so that the Garden Bridge can carve through. From what I saw, the leaves are already turning yellow and starting to fall off, so the removal of these diseased trees can't come soon enough.

A big gap exists between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, a ghastly planning oversight which makes crossing the river very difficult. To reach Waterloo Bridge from Temple I had to walk for three and a half minutes, which is clearly beyond the ability of most people. More to the point I passed only forty trees along the way, suggesting that the new Garden Bridge will really bring this barren stretch of the Thames to life.



The view from Waterloo Bridge is distinctly substandard, with some domed cathedral in the background, and a big watery space where the Garden Bridge ought to be. Also there's no vegetation on Waterloo Bridge, only an awful lot of traffic, and none of the deck is sponsored. Especially confusing are the rules which mean the bridge is permanently accessible to the public and not sealed off overnight, nor watched over by private security guards, nor closed twelve days a year for jollies.

The South Bank is of course ridiculously busy, and urgently needs an additional exit to ease the pressure. My trek back from Waterloo Bridge to the Garden Bridge's intended landing point took all of three minutes, so was a real slog, and involved walking past another forty trees. Again the riverside walkway isn't really suitable for cyclists, so preventing them from riding across a beautiful arboreal span will prove no hardship.



The Garden Bridge clearly has to touch down somewhere, and a patch of lawn in front of ITV's South Bank studios is more ideal than most. Hardly anybody uses it, so a concrete and steel platform will be more welcome than the risk of treading in something unpleasant. A number of occasional coffee vans already utilise the embankment close by, and IBM's office block isn't exactly scenic, so the arrival of a grey structure with retail outlets won't look entirely out of place.

Somewhat disappointingly a pressure group has attached signs to each of the three dozen trees on the South Bank they say will be cut down to make way from the bridge and its associated podium. But they may be lying, and these mature specimens may somehow be left standing around the footprint of the new building, so long as the row of shops and cafes doesn't stretch out too far. What's for certain is that this invasive propaganda has an impact on those walking by, and many strike up a conversation about the integrity of the Garden Bridge as they pass.



It's surprisingly hard to envisage the impact the Garden Bridge will have at its two endpoints, even given the vast amount of publicity this landmark project has had over the last few years. Only when the trucks arrive and the chainsaws start to whirr will the reality start to bite, and it'll then be a couple of years before the utopian crossing opens and the sponsors start to get their money's worth.

The Lumley-Heatherwick Bridge, as it will surely be known, is a bold architectural project unique in its ability to divide public opinion. How astonishing it might be to walk across the Thames between horticultural specimens from around the world, pausing to enjoy the vistas opened up mid-river and paying heed to all necessary bye-laws. Tourists will flock to London to see it, two vibrant cultural districts will be linked, and an ever-changing seasonal landscape will be unlocked each day at six.



But how can the project's questionable funding be justified, and should we be encouraging the privatisation of public space, and wouldn't any bridge be better located elsewhere? Let's hope this folly is never built.

 Thursday, September 22, 2016

300 things I love about London
[because it's fifteen years today since I moved here]

Life, nightlife, the sense of history, the Underground, the Overground, canalside strolls, the view from Greenwich Park, the fact there's always somewhere new to discover, cutting-edge architecture, classical architecture, curvaceous Regent Street, the chimes of Big Ben, the 2012 Olympics, layers of history, nightbuses, investment, world cinema, world cuisine, the world in a city, a Muslim Mayor, London is Open, sunlight on the Thames, the museums in South Kensington, the museums that aren't in South Kensington, not needing a car, the wobbly Millennium Bridge, the City's dragons, a bus stop within 400m, it's quicker to walk, being able to choose from more than two local radio stations, suburbia, Trellick, Balfron, step-free travel, Tate Modern, mudlarking, Hampstead, the view from Hampstead Heath, diversity, acceptance, mind the gap, five of Arsenal's Premiership away matches being nearly at home, strolling along the South Bank, Waterloo sunset, the view from the top of anywhere tall, low tide, festivals, the Royal Festival Hall, pavement swagger, ghost signs, ghost stations, sitting in the Radio 4 audience, Trafalgar Square, knowing that I could walk home from Trafalgar Square if I really had to, art-filled piazzas, 100% style, tracing a line on a map, taking the tram, realising that the person drinking next to me in the pub is a celebrity, the Woolwich ferry, Hammerton's Ferry, the plurality of alternative routes, St Pancras station, cultural gravity, the highest pod on the London Eye, lost rivers, not-yet lost rivers, walking up the escalator, decent mobile phone reception, clapping the Marathon, density of infrastructure, free newspapers, the Night Tube, cab drivers, memories embedded in every streetscape, heritage Routemasters, the tiles along the Victoria line, blue plaques, global landmarks, having a local library, taking a shortcut down a back street I've never walked down before, realising that Dr Johnson was right, scouting the rural outskirts, Hawksmoor, Soane, Holden, watching the dawn over Tower Bridge, watching twin bascules rise, Blue Badge guides, the forgotten corner of a Victorian cemetery, the West End, the East End, the Congestion Charge, 24 hour bagel shops, 24 hour fridge-filling, culture on my doorstep, Banksy on the wall, the original of that famous work of art, an unexpected rainbow, deckchairs in Green Park, Roding Valley, Ruislip Lido, the Embankment illuminated, eyeballing a famous person in the street, recognising where a film was shot, Riddlesdown, revisiting Nairn's London, the DLR, sitting at the front on the DLR, meeting up with mates, Totters Lane, 0° longitude, standing in two hemispheres, the City, parklife, knowing when your bus is coming, Citymapper, the Ceremony of the Keys, being alone under the Thames in a foot tunnel, greasy fry-ups, fast trains to the coast, the view from Primrose Hill, far less fog than everyone imagines, snow on terraced rooftops, a good service is operating on all lines, Covent Garden, yes they deliver, creative possibilities, the view from the front seat on the top deck of a bus, alleys, tunnels, the middle of Richmond Park, free-roaming deer, D Stock, getting caught up in West Ham turfing out, street art, street food, Kenwood, being out at 4am, an unexpected smile in the rush hour, the Gherkin, critical mass, Soho, pie and mash, Longplayer, the opportunity to pop into Parliament, street markets, lidos, late-openings, rooftop terraces, gasholders against a bright blue sky, Open House, speeding down the river beneath world famous bridges, bleak estuary strolls, film premières, Farthing Downs, regular flypasts, garden squares, General Roy's cannons, not needing to drive home from the pub, pedestrian countdown lights, postcode identity, hyperlocality, Epping Forest, swiping my Oyster, pay-as-I-go, the smell of bacon from a Cabmen's shelter, undeveloped farmland, the Low Emission Zone, finding myself somewhere you've never been, Northala Fields, high streets that stay open after 5:30, art galleries that stay open after 6, still buzzing on a Sunday evening, always having something to do even when it's raining, Mornington Crescent, pocket parks, atypical roundels, characterful terraces, Denis Severs' House, urban wildlife, a night at the dog track, outstaring a fox, Foyles, youthfulness, a nearby launderette just in case, lights at night, pounding the Loop, free fireworks on Blackheath, the National, the Saatchi, the Serpentine, the Sales, garden squares, suburbs pretending to be villages, actual proper unswallowed Kentish villages, anything that Bazalgette built, one hundred different burgers, the heat island effect, Remain, the Hainault loop, crossing Oxford Circus diagonally, cycle superhighways, living in a medieval village, Sister Ray, walking faster than the traffic, overtaking a jogger, Kew Gardens, standing under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, living in a city that tourists pay £100 a night to visit, not needing a hotel before catching the red-eye, Spitalfields, King's Cross, never needing to Uber, windmills, forest, hills, fields, Hilly Fields, Strawberry Hill House, the 4th plinth, Norway's gifted tree, the Geffrye at Christmas, the top floor at the V&A, the Sultan's Elephant, gelateria, lavender fields, Limehouse to Little Venice, this not being Ipswich, following in Roman footsteps, stepcounter heaven, plane trees, grime, world-class design, the Freedom Pass, heron-spotting, New Johnston font, so many cinemas, still so many bookshops, wi-fi, 1908, 1948, E20, EL2, RV1, 4G, Zone 6, crossing Westminster Bridge at night on the back of a bike, the skyline at dusk, Eel Pie Island, do not touch the walrus, do not feed the pelicans, Beckton Alp, the Hoover Building, a sewing machine museum, gridlessness, reaching the middle of Hampton Court Maze, long-term planning, wondering what the Turbine Hall will hold next, anything you need within half an hour, if the local branch doesn't stock it ten others might, floating towpaths, legacy, Little Waitrose, international churn, the sheer variety of Theatreland, the contrast between Erith and Twickenham, nipping down to national celebrations, it's only a short dash to the country, knowing the ambulance will get here in time, the British Museum, arthouse pop-ups, brutalist symmetry, some pubs still aren't flats, free stuff-to-do every weekend, whatever I want, anything I need, the anonymity of not knowing my neighbours, being one in nine million, collective consciousness, common ground, independence, invisibility, togetherness, cosmopolitan coexistence, centrality, accessibility, the proximity of possibility, social autonomy, human availability, the fact it's not as scary as out-of-towners think it is, Metro-land, moquette, deserted Thames-side beaches, a 600 square mile playground, the buzz, infinite choice, the city's constant resilience, feeling alive, simply living here.

 Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The sheer variety of Open House venues keeps the event fresh.

Open House: SELCHP



A self-guided tour through the heart of an operational power station? Don't mind if I do. SELCHP stands for South East London Combined Heat and Power, and is a waste incineration plant tucked into the railwaylands west of Deptford. You've probably seen it from the train on the way out of London Bridge, a large industrial shed with a thin chimney rising forth - it's been tucked in opposite The Den since 1994. But I've actually been inside as part of an Open Day timed for Open House, and organised with a particular eye on enticing local residents to learn more about their neighbour. Hard hat on and goggles poised I was directed off towards the steam turbine and generator, technically the end of the process, then followed a maze of walkways and landings to the hoppers where rubbish is tipped into the belly of the machine. SELCHP was set up by three councils keen to curb their reliance on landfill, and now creates enough electricity to power 48000 homes. From the main control room we peered down into the gargantuan bunker where binbags and rags and smelly shreds accumulate, and a grinning five year-old girl was shown how to operate the giant grabber as if this were an oversized amusement arcade. The whiff worsened on the other side of the door, where each measured dose of clutched organics is dropped into the incineration grate. Yes it's fine, nodded the security guard from behind his ear protectors, go ahead and lower the handle and peer inside the furnace to watch the raging flames. From here the steam heads upwards to be treated to remove toxins, and to create the electricity, while the solid residue is cooled and sorted and shaken and dumped in ashen piles at the end. It was eerie wandering through the industrial passageways like some kind of Crystal Maze contestant, but also hugely educational concerning the process that takes place within, which was of course the intention. If you have small children to entertain and this Open Day runs again next year, which I suspect it will, you'll enjoy learning where your power comes from, and where your rubbish goes.

Open House: Billingsgate Roman House and Baths



101 Lower Thames Street is an unprepossessing City office block with an astonishing relic in its basement. First uncovered in 1848 when the Coal Exchange was being built, the remains of this 2nd century dwelling were swiftly recognised as something special and became one of Britain's first scheduled ancient monuments. Now under the care of the Museum of London, there's not much to see at what's now ground level. But follow the staircase down from the lobby and you'll enter a long low chamber left undeveloped when the 60s office block was plonked on top, save for a few concrete supports drilled down where they'd do least damage. First up are the foundations of what would have been a riverside house, back when the Thames was wider than it is now, most probably used by visitors to Londinium as the equivalent of a cheap hotel. The remains of the central heating system can still be seen, along with some extensive but crumbly-looking walls, hence visitors walk around the top on metal gangways. Better preserved, hence more impressive, are the remains of a 3rd century bolt-on bathhouse. Its shape is somewhat phallic, sorry to be frank, with one larger rectangular cold room and two smaller warm and hot rooms on opposite sides at the far end. An impressive number of towers of tiles remain in the warm room, plus several of the flagstones laid on top where decades of sweaty feet would have trodden. Curators were on hand to explain what we were seeing, but there was a touch of conveyor belt about visitor throughflow given the size of the queue waiting outside. If you missed out, or if you'd prefer longer to stare in better-informed conditions, 45 minute tours can be booked (for £8) at weekends between now and the middle of December. [3 photos]

Open House: Roman Bath



Yes, another one, although this antiquity up a sidestreet behind Aldwych station is a misnomer. A single plunge pool, curved at one end and rectangular at the other, this brick-lined cistern is of sufficient size to squeeze in a football team, in some discomfort, but not much more. It's thought to date back to 1612, at least a millennium after the decline of Empire, and started its life feeding a nearby fountain before being transformed into a public bathing facility. Even David Copperfield came to Strand Lane for a dip, or would have done had he been less Dickensian. A century ago, with memory of its origins lost, a local rector convinced himself and others it was Roman, and the bath became a public curiosity. Now under the care of the National Trust and Westminster Council it's seen little love, and lingers on in a musty chamber off a locked passageway up a dead end lane. Worth a brief look, but if all you do is peer through the window you've not missed much.

Open House: Salters' Hall



The City of London supports 110 livery companies, of which the first twelve are the most important, of which the Salters come in at number 9. They made their money when food preservation was at its most basic, and mined salt particularly expensive, before branching out later into the wider chemical trade. These days they're mostly a charitable concern, and a bastion of tradition, and are somewhat unexpectedly based in a Brutalist livery hall close to London Wall. This is the building's sixth incarnation, the fifth having been destroyed in the Blitz, and was designed by Sir Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame). A crystalline confection in hand-chipped concrete, it was opened in 1976 and for the last ten has been undergoing a refit, which is why it's not been open for Open House before. One of the architects showed us round, which is always a good sign, and generally means a longer more in-depth tour. Unusually the company's main hall is on the top floor, perched on top of five floors of office space (which are being leased out to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). Spence's contemporary wood-panelling has been retained, overseen by an anachronistic Buglers' Gallery and a 'Ladies Dining Room' that's no longer single sex. A whopping great big salt crystal, mined in Cheshire, has pride of place in the hallway outside, and even the lights dangling in the stairwell have ornate salty shades. 2016's main addition is a lofty glass-roofed entrance lobby, sympathetically attached and facing the new Barbican-Guildhall pedestrian axis. "And if you look up there," said the architect at the end of our hour, "you'll see a new pedway under construction." New pedway? Fantastic, and all the better to see Salters' Hall from. [4 photos]

Open House: St Paul's, Bow Common



The UK's Best Modern Church is in Bow, according to the National Churches Trust and Ecclesiastical Surveyors and Architects Association. Built between 1958 and 1960, and designed by two 20 year-olds, it replaced a Victorian church destroyed in the Blitz with something that looks more like a squared-off shopping mall than a place of worship. But St Paul's exterior gives little away, and only stepping inside past the mercurial font reveals the striking use of space. The altar is positioned centrally beneath a pyramidal lantern, placing the congregation in the round rather than as a body to be preached at. Most impressive is the ring of mosaics around the upper rim - The Heavenly Host - a chain of ten blue-green angels with an elemental creature in each corner. Each Venetian tile was individually placed over a five year period by the artist Charles Lutyens, grandson of Sir Edwin, displaying an astonishing level of dedication to a single work. The overall interior effect feels somehow more Catholic than Anglican, but this is a high church establishment, the architecture springing from the wishes of the post-war congregation. What's more the modern day bunch are more than welcoming, with a better website than most, and a 347 page downloadable illustrated guide to their building's unique heritage should a quick video not suffice. [4 photos]

My Open House 2016 gallery
There are 60 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Next up, two classic 1960s Tower Hamlets estates with very different futures.

Open House: Robin Hood Gardens

A patch of land off Poplar High Street overlooking the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel ought not to be desirable real estate, not least because of the noise. The site was cleared by the GLC in the mid-Sixties and the challenge of rebuilding offered to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson. They adopted a novel approach, designing two long low concrete blocks with a large open space between, the taller eastern block forming a barrier to blot out the sound of the traffic. They also embraced the concept of the street in the sky, as at the contemporary Balfron Tower a few streets to the north. The end result is one of the most famous Brutalist council estates, much admired by those with a bent for architecture. But the scheme was never listed, and while the first residents in 1972 loved the place the latest residents aren't as keen, and so in a few months time its demolition begins.



Robin Hood Gardens looks nothing like any of the other housing in the area, more like a pair of gargantuan walls with windows, softened greatly by the contoured landscape inbetween. The older kids have a kickabout space at one end, probably not original, while the central grass and trees and mound don't see the toddler footfall they once did. A community centre of sorts lurks in one corner while I assume the vanful of police positioned in the road outside was a random weekend thing rather than a permanent presence. And although the estate's wide open, should you want to take a look, the walkways were sealed off some time back to help prevent vandalism and crime, so it was only thanks to a photography project (and Open House) that any of us got inside. I'd better not tell you how we unlocked the door.

The lifts aren't lovely, and the stairs not much better. They wind round a narrow stairwell with crumbling treads and poor sightlines, so were once places of fear, and the exits aren't exactly obvious either. The lowest elevated passageway comes at floor two, then five, then eight, due to the Trellick-like way the flats have been crammed in. Tenants live on two floors, alternating upwards then downwards from the front doors along each 'street'. These looked safe and homely over the weekend, with bikes and plants and even an exercise bike enlivening the alcoves, plus extended families wandering back with shopping and querulously eyeing up the middle class invaders.



Stepping inside your flat the hall's not enormous but the kitchen's large, that is assuming you want to use the space for cooking rather than dining. Most of everything else is upstairs (or downstairs, depending), in this case with four bedrooms and a living room leading off a labyrinthine landing. The whole set-up felt a little compact, although dimensions were in excess of the minimum standards laid down at the time, and the disrepair in the empty flat we got to view won't have helped. But there was a balcony, if you can call a ledge no more than one person deep running along the front of the flat a balcony, this doubling up as a fire exit in case of the unthinkable.

Having visited both the Balfron and Trellick Towers courtesy of Open House in previous years, there were a number of similarities to the feel of the place. But the flats at Robin Hood Gardens were perhaps a little less brutal, and with added layers of design, such as the way all the kitchens faced out over the central park so that Sixties mothers could watch over their Sixties kids while cooking. This was the only social housing that the Smithsons ever built, even though they entered every municipal competition going, and the 20th Century Society have used this and several other mitigating reasons to try to get the building listed. But there are better examples elsewhere, the argument goes, and a lack of care means that the structure is economically past the point of saving.



What happens next is Blackwall Reach. This multi-stage project is a joint venture between Tower Hamlets and a housing group, and phase 1 beside the East India Dock Road is already complete. This has allowed the council to move everyone out of the western block (or disperse them elsewhere if their tenancy wasn't protected), which now stands empty. Phase 2 will see the western block demolished, starting in the New Year, and when that's complete in a couple of years those in the eastern block will move across. The replenished estate will eventually have 1500 flats rather than the current 214, with half deemed affordable and an overall increase in socially rented homes. In further good news they're keeping the open space in the centre, but marketing to the over-privileged of Docklands has already begun, and the dynamic of the site is going to change utterly.

You have approximately four months to come down and see Robin Hood Gardens in its natural denuded state (and pick a bright day if you can to bring out the monolithic splendour of the concrete). This time next year it'll resemble more of a worksite, and by the end of the decade we'll have to rely on photos to remember. And while the replacement architecture won't look awful, it won't look amazing either, just another bog standard late-2010s estate, and I very much doubt that Open House will ever be coming back. [10 photos]

Open House: Cranbrook Estate

To Bethnal Green and a site off Roman Road, south of Victoria Park, formerly covered by workshops and terraced houses. In 1955 the council decided upon wholesale clearance, with all the existing residents to be rehoused in a new high-rise neighbourhood of groundbreaking design. The architects they appointed included Berthold Lubetkin, the modernist pioneer, in what was to be his final public scheme. His plans for development included fifteen-, thirteen- and eleven-storey blocks, each with four flats per floor, plus some rather lower infill and a row of old people's bungalows out front. Each tower was named after one of Bethnal Green's twin towns - they had enough in those days - and the development was officially opened in 1965. [history here]



Although densely-plotted the site feels spacious, with plenty of open space and little in the way of traffic. Originally the street pattern was based on two diagonal axes, but that's since been upgraded to a figure of eight to make vehicular access a bit easier. The exterior of each block features characteristic green cladding arranged as at the intersections of a grid, and the windows alternate in pairs to accommodate shifts in the balcony space at each corner. Oh, and you'll have seen the Cranbrook Estate on TV, if only fleetingly, as it was where Little Britain's Lou and Andy used to live, not that this is particularly relevant architecturally-speaking.

What happens if you add a Modernist housing estate to the Open House listings for the first time is that dozens of people turn up. A good idea, then, to have opened up the estate's Community Centre for an informative exhibition of photographs showing before, during and after construction, plus the official mayoral programme for the opening ceremony. An inspirational idea to have a handful of long-standing residents present to provide first-hand reminiscence (they were lovely, as you'd expect). And an exceedingly brave idea to invite members of the public into your flat, especially when there are quite so many of them, and your flat isn't especially enormous.



The stairwells are magnificent, a very Lubetkian trait, in the case of Mödling House a teardrop-shaped lightwell with a single railing spiralling down fourteen floors. The council later added bobbles to the banister to discourage boisterous children from skidding down the banister, although I suspect vertigo would be the clincher for most. As at Robin Hood Gardens the central circulatory space used to be open access, but about twenty years ago the council added ground level entry doors which means only those with friends here will ever see inside, but no doubt makes residents feel a lot more comfortable.

Into the flat we crowded, impressed that the hallway was large enough to hold us all, although the living room with all its furniture was more of a squeeze. Originally all the walls were painted battleship grey, bar one in each room which was instead pillarbox red, if you can imagine living under such indecorous conditions. Free underfloor heating was provided, a municipal perk which was rapidly withdrawn once the council worked out how much cheaper giving every flat its own boiler would be. Our Open House host was extremely keen to share her enthusiasm for the building, and rightly so, though with a mild hint of terror at the thought that one day Tower Hamlets might decide it's time to build something new. As yet there's no sign, hurrah, as these homes of character pass their half-century unscathed. [6 photos]

 Monday, September 19, 2016

It wouldn't be London Open House if 2012's Olympic legacy wasn't still dribbling on.

Open House: Here East

Here East is a silly name, but not as silly as iCity, which was the original brand name for the giant sheds at the top of the Olympic Park. In 2012 they were used to house the world's media - one for the press and one for TV, plus another for a multi-storey car park. The car park is still there but the media are long gone, which left the thorny issue of what to do with a vast amount of interior space which had been used for only eight weeks. There were pipedreams at one point for the construction of a snowdrome and artificial ski slope, then plans for the filming of EastEnders to move here from Borehamwood, given that the postcode genuinely is E20. But all of that fell through, and a decision was ultimately taken to turn Here East into a place for design, innovation and making things. It's all very Hackney Wick, I think was the inspiration.



The Press Centre has a quarter of a million square feet of floor space, which is a lot to let, spread over four waterside floors. Most of the building is still empty, awaiting negotiation with clients, with the prime space probably on the first floor beside the roof terrace, from which the City, Docklands and several local flats can be seen. One huge chunk is pencilled in as an open plan innovation incubator, where start-ups can gain a toehold and grow before moving off somewhere bigger. A hotel, or members' club, has an eye on part of the southern end, and a row of foodie-nibbly stuff has invaded the retail spaces on the canalside. If you've ever wanted to dine at a branch of Breakfast Club where the queues aren't out the door, and don't mind the trek, Here East is for you.

The Broadcast Centre has two thirds of a million square feet of floor space, plus a dozen tricky-to-sell central voids which in summer 2012 housed huge TV studios. But 'windowless' is just what some clients want, so six have become a data centre, one will be a university robotics lab, and two have been taken by BT Sport. All that football continuity you watch before, after and sandwiched inbetween the big match, all that comes from here, and may soon be scripted in an amazing globular meeting space suspended above reception. Meanwhile Loughborough University have taken the building's northern slice, all the better for attracting foreign students, while an open-fronted grid facing the main park called The Gantry is being filled in with artists' workshops, a bit like a Boxpark for the arts.



Perhaps most intriguingly, linking the two main buildings is a smaller-but-still-large building on stilts. It has to be on stilts because all of the main pipes and cables servicing the Olympic Park pass in a conduit underneath - that string of electricity pylons they removed in 2008 had to go somewhere. This building is The Theatre, or that's its intended future use, providing conference and events space on a scale not generally available hereabouts. But for London 2012 it was designed as a refuge for the world's journalists, somewhere safe to hide should an act of terrorism break out, which of course it didn't. But it pays to be prepared, even if this huge room was used only once during the Games, for a press conference where Seb Coe attempted to explain why there were empty seats. Please hire it soon, someone, and bring it life.

I've read the marketing blurb for Here East and found some of it nauseating. "East London is transformation, graft, talent, spirit. It is a landscape in making." Whoever writes this stuff needs to get out more, or have a bit more respect for the intelligence of their audience. "Here East is a meeting point. Creative businesses growing in scale collide with businesses of scale growing in creativity." But listening to the two gentlemen in charge of the refit and subsequent sell-off gave me a much more positive view of the development, as they explained function and future plans with enthusiasm, experience and candour. One of Open House's greatest strengths is connecting us to our environment, making us understand why buildings are how they are, and helping us to see architecture anew. [9 photos]

Open House: Three Mills Lock

A more unusual form of Olympic legacy sits downstream, near Bromley-by-Bow, astride the River Lea. More accurately it sites astride the Prescott Channel, a thread of the Bow Back Rivers, a distinction which has proved to be important. Three Mills Lock is the only lock to be built on a waterway in London this century, and it's a biggie. It was planned with good intentions, and £23m of cash, the idea being to provide access for large barges delivering construction materials to the Olympic Park and thereby reduce the number of journeys made by road. Unfortunately the lock was completed ten months behind schedule, by which point contractors had already defaulted to lorries, and so very little freight or waste actually passed this way.



Still, British Waterways were pleased. They'd always wanted to upgrade the derelict Bow Back Rivers but could never afford it, and now they had a long-term restoration project plus a giant state-of-the-art lock. Property developers were delighted too, because the new lock permanently stops the channel upstream from being tidal, and it's so much easier to sell property beside a river that doesn't ebb twice a day revealing mud and discarded tyres.

For Open House the lock was opened up to visitors, and a steady stream trotted across Three Mills Green to take a look. It was also possible to look inside the central control tower, a three storey structure linked by a spiral staircase, and with an observation deck on top. This provided good views of the adjacent area, including the Bow flyover, the gothic Abbey Mills Pumping Station and its modern replacement, and the gasholders at Twelvetrees. I was particularly interested to be able to see the cap of the Lee Tunnel, Newham's new supersewer and the deepest bore in London. Alongside is the site of the first Big Brother house, now covered by a landscaped pile of spoil, and destined (one day) to be reopened as a public space. But don't get your hopes up - the footpath alongside has been sealed off for the best part of nine years, and the sign saying it reopens in "early 2016" looks increasingly fictional.



Three Mills Lock has quite a complicated structure, ably explained to us by the two employees of the Canal and River Trust who pop over to operate the machinery should the automated systems be insufficient. On the far side is a fish pass, a series of chambers on a gradient allowing upriver migration to take place, although apparently there's no evidence it's being used by anything more substantial than a few eels. Next come the weir gates, one of which automatically rises or falls every ten minutes to help balance the water level on either side. And then there's the main lock, by far the longest and widest in the area, with 20 ton 'fish belly' gates at either end which can be opened in ten minutes if they're ever needed.

They're rarely needed. Apparently only one boat a month(!) uses the lock, on average - usually a dredger keeping the channel clear. The Prescott Channel's somewhat out on a limb, so pleasurecraft tend not to go this way, heading up the Limehouse Cut or nipping across the tidal divide at Bow Locks instead. Even when Carpenters Lock is restored in the Olympic Park and recreational boating kicks off big time, Three Mills Lock is still likely to remain untroubled by traffic. It's arguably London 2012's biggest white elephant, but while it keeps the water level constant upstream its existence hasn't entirely been in vain. [7 photos]

 Sunday, September 18, 2016

To kick off my London Open House round-up, somewhere you'll not be going for a couple of years.

Open House: Tottenham Court Road (Crossrail)

Building a new underground railway doesn't happen quickly, not these days, because there's a heck of a lot to be done. It's now seven years since the Astoria and the other buildings opposite Centre Point were demolished to make way for Crossrail, during which time giant shafts have been opened up, new entrances have been dug out and twin-bore tunnels have been driven through. To showcase all the hard work so far, construction company Laing O'Rourke led a select few Londoners below ground for Open House to see current progress, and blimey didn't the tickets go fast?

It's a measure of how far Tottenham Court Road's Crossrail fit-out has already progressed that we didn't all need to change into hard hats and hi-vis before venturing down to explore the platforms. Nevertheless there aren't yet any escalators to glide down, nor would it be ideal to take the stairs, so instead we all took the hoist. This judders a little but doesn't take long, and it's how all the workforce (and a lot of the materials) will have headed 24 metres down over the last few years.

Once you reach the bottom and walk out, what strikes you first is the cavernous space. This is very much a feature of all the subterranean Crossrail stations, each designed with smooth future-proof passenger flow in mind, and you'll already have gained some idea of this when TCR's new Eastern ticket hall opened last year. A long, broad escalator bed is in place, six treads wide if I counted correctly, landing closer to the eastbound platform than the westbound.



A faintly complex grid of passageways then leads off, this because the two platforms are at least 50 metres apart at this point. One central distributor passageway has been burrowed between the two, which looks like it goes on forever, but in truth not even halfway to the other end. It's broad and arched and has been sprayed with concrete, itself an attractive finish, but you're unlikely to enjoy its texture because I understand all this is to be covered over.

A trio of similar-looking cross-passages link through to the eastern ends of the two platforms. At the moment they join at a sharp right angle, but these are being covered over with swooshing curved sections to improve safety and sightlines. Again you'll not notice, but we saw various moulded white panels laid out on the floor and a few already pinned up on the walls, each resembling a stormtrooper's breastplate or perhaps a giant's cricket box.

The eastern platform is unique amongst central Crossrail stations in being curved. This became necessary to avoid the foundations of Centre Point a short way ahead, and required some particularly accurate boring when the tunnelling machines dug through. Thus far the tracks are invisible, mainly because they haven't been laid yet, but also because a long temporary screen is in the way. This is to be replaced by a Jubilee-style glass barrier with opening doors, with real-time information scrolling past along the top.



And my word, it's long! We're used to tube platforms up to about 130m in length, whereas TCR's platforms are double that - sufficient to stable a nine-carriage train and future-proofed for ten. The curve hides the overall dimensions a bit, but commentators weren't joking when they said it'll be important to try to be at the right end of a train for your eventual destination. Because we were on a guided tour I couldn't time it precisely, but I'd say it'll take the best part of three minutes to walk from one end to the other.

The platforms are so long that central Crossrail stations have been designed with two exits, in this case an additional ticket hall on Dean Street. It'll be the minor of the two access points, this because there are no tube lines to interchange with at the western end, but it is likely to be your better option if you're heading to the shops. This time the escalator bed is three treads wide, and will go all the way up in one go, so I wonder if it'll end up with similar "no walking" rules to Holborn?

We had plenty of time to look around the western concourse, and to engage the manager and architects in Q&A. One of the joys of a good Open House visit is the opportunity to hear from the experts who've actually been involved in building the place, rather than a volunteer simply reading notes hesitantly off a sheet. We therefore got the full lowdown on materials and structure, as well as the practicalities of construction and just a little nudge at underlying politics, and this really brought the tour to life.



Tottenham Court Road's two ticket halls will have subtly different characters, we were told. The Dean Street end will be "dark and cinematic, reflecting the nocturnal economies that characterise the area", whereas the St Giles end will be "bright and well lit to reflect the 1960s iconography of the nearby Centre Point". You can expect a lot of this kind of underlying artistic piffle at stations throughout the route, but if that means the upper levels of each station gain their own particular character, all well and good.

At lower levels the design will be more uniform, with a common Crossrail style and palette. And that's what's currently being added to the western concourse, as the original breezeblock shell is inexorably blanketed by more public-facing materials. Several large granite slabs have been lowered down the adjacent shaft and the first two have been affixed to metal brackets in front of the wall, while the rest are scattered across the floor awaiting their turn, By the time the fit-out of this space is complete every single surface we saw will have been covered over, save for the upper half of the supporting columns whose concrete will be left clear.

It wasn't possible to exit the station at the Dean Street end, which was good because it meant the tour got to walk all the way back down the westbound platform. This one's straight and therefore more typical, and still daubed with painted codes on the floor and chalkmarks on walls and ceiling. Engineers have also taken the opportunity to lay three slabs of paving, just to see what it looks like and how it performs, as well as installing a single four-seater bench, as yet unwrapped. When you get down here you'll be at least six inches higher up than we were, once the proper depth of platform surface has been laid.



What a privilege to be allowed deep beneath the streets of Soho for a sneak preview of London's newest transport system. Indeed Open House has provided several opportunities to do this over the years, but we can't all get that chance, not until Crossrail's central section opens up twenty-seven months hence. Tens of thousands of passengers are expected down here daily, not enough of whom will stop to consider precisely how they came to be down here in the first place. And only a few of us will remember how it used to look along the way.

» Sixteen photos from down under at Tottenham Court Road
» Ian (and his camera) headed down into Bond Street today

 Saturday, September 17, 2016

London country diary: Riddlesdown

On the last day of summer, before the deluge breaks, a mile of grassy upland gleams in unbroken sun. One of the chalk fingers that stretches out from Croydon into Surrey, Riddlesdown is a contoured glory, one hundred acres of scrub and meadow above a precipitous dry valley. On the opposite slope the spire of Kenley church bursts forth beneath a thick shield of forest, and giant semi-detached houses with bold red gables rise gently in pristine rows. This should also be the fate of my lofty viewpoint, indeed the northern side of the ridge has long been covered with steep suburban avenues. But Riddlesdown has been protected from development thanks to its unlikely owners - the City of London - and survives as a place of leisure, of relaxation and of understated agriculture.



A steady trickle of dogs with owners heads east from the car park, taking the ridgetop path past a chain of well-positioned benches. Off-leash they scurry down into the grassy brow, this recently trimmed, to root out odours or to leave a fresh smell of their own. A drinking fountain has been provided through a distant act of benevolence, which ought to be adequate refreshment in this heat, but nobody's risking it. Here comes the Coulsdon Common Ranger's van, sidling up to the main gate above the railway tunnel, unlocking it and passing through. Cattle are grazing somewhere ahead, but they stay out of sight in the shade, as the old Roman road veers gently downhill between curtains of yew, sycamore and ash.



Woodpecker Fields are usually quiet, at least before the local academy turfs out. Today, however, is different. All the grass in the field has been cut and piled up into long thin ridges, each running parallel and a few metres apart. Amongst the grass are leaves and stalks of flowers, dried to a husk by the summer drought, and churned together to create additional nutritional variety. A man in a tractor is out and about, pulling a large green hopper which scoops up each ridge in turn and compacts the contents until full. Every minute or so the tractor pauses and a green mesh coating is added, before a drum of hay rolls out of the back, and the process continues. Two magpies watch the action from the sidelines, expending minimal effort and hoping that their next meal has been disturbed.



In the adjacent field the hay is already baled, and scattered across the hillside in seemingly random locations. A second farmhand is busy collecting them all, in pairs, this time in a red truck with extendable claw. He uses one bale to knock the second upright before piercing down on both, then slowly manoeuvres his twin cargo to the lowloader at the top of the slope. Once twenty-four bales are in place another tractor hauls them away, past the rim of a deep quarry, aiming for a narrow gap in the hedge that initially seems too small. Somehow the load squeezes through, rocking on the uneven ground as it passes, at this precise point crossing from the very edge of London to the very edge of Surrey. Each bale will overwinter in large barns on the outskirts of Hamsey Green, unwrapped as necessary to provide sustenance for local livestock.



With the golden slopes harvested, Riddlesdown awaits the turning of the season. A last flurry of butterflies dots the uncultivated scrub as a final day of untimely heat plays out. Across the valley a dense canopy of green shines forth, as yet without pockets of yellow and brown to spread and fall. Those fortunate enough to live in this corner of the capital rejoice at such vistas on their doorstep, a far more pleasant place to stroll than some patchwork Zone 2 park, and alive with so much more than pigeons and squirrels. Imperceptibly, fluffs of cumulus bubble up in the azure sky, one eventually growing thick enough to block out the sun, heralding the downfall of summer.



And then it riddles down.

10 Last Minute Open House Considerations

Senate House (Sat, 10am-5pm) (wander around Holden's university masterpiece)
Wilton's Music Hall (Sat, 10am-1pm) (the oldest grand music hall in the world)
Trinity Hospital (Sat, 10am-4pm) (annual 17C open day on the Greenwich waterfront)
Royal Courts of Justice (Sat, 10am-4pm) (there's so much to see at Legal Central)
City Hall (Sat 10am-6pm) (the only day of the year the Mayor lets you see round London HQ)
Crossrail - Farringdon (Sat, 10am-4pm) (come view the worksite -and no need to book)
Portcullis House (Sat, 10am-5pm) (see Parliament's new-ish offices and committee rooms)
The Clockworks (Sat, 10am-5pm) (world class private museum of timekeeping in West Norwood)
William Booth College (Sat, 9am-5pm) (the Sally Army in Denmark Hill, with great views from the tower)
Modernism in Metroland (Sat, 10am & 2pm) (guided tours round Stanmore to see suburban art deco treasures)

» Don't forget to check the list of amendments, additions and cancellations before you go
» Four pdf location maps are available: Greenwich, City/Tower Hamlets, Islington/Hackney, Southbank
» Three lists of suggestions from Modernist Dreams
» A long list of suggestions from Caroline

 Friday, September 16, 2016

Long before Boring there was Interesting. One conference inspired the other, then went into hiatus for a good few years before re-emerging afresh in 2016. Ably curated by Russell Davies, digital strategist extraordinaire, more than a dozen speakers tuned up at Conway Hall last night for Interesting 2016, to deliver whistlestop talks on topics of genuine interest. Here's a quick summary of what the audience of 300 enjoyed.



Abbey Kos - Wine tasting, with actual wine: Abbey had been down to Waitrose before the conference began, and returned with a suspiciously large number of bottles of a fruity white. Everyone in the audience was provided with a decent portion in a plastic cup and, on a given signal, asked to sip and to mull over appropriate adjectives describing its taste. When this proved tricky we were implored to disregard the coded language used by wine snobs and embrace our own feelings, as these are just as valid. I thought the wine was sharp and grape-y, which wouldn't gain me entrance to the Court of Master Sommeliers, but what do they know anyway?

Rachel Coldicutt - 'A close reading of Julianna Margulies' hair and make-up in The Good Wife': Whether we'd watched the TV series or not, Rachel enthused about the big hair and the smokey eye-shadow of the leading character, and how this varied from scene to scene to reflect the elevated state of the drama. She also provided each of us with a page from 'The Good Wife Coloring Book' and invited us to shade our own depiction of Alicia's fierce gaze, a competition which attracted over 100 entries from the assembled audience, with the winner acquiring a pack of ocular cosmetics as his worthy prize.

Lucy Blackwell - 'The story of my life through calendars': Lucy's closest friends, approximately 50 in total, receive a special calendar each Christmas on an artistic theme decided by the year's events. In 2004 Lucy presented a giant 'infinity loop' poster with 366 phrase-filled blobs, in 2013 a series of pictorial musings on her daily commute, and in 2014 a series of twelve custom fabrics based on experiences from her life. This year it's fantasy boats. Lucy explained she feels creatively empty if she ever misses a year, and made me feel slightly guilty for abandoning my own annual creative project a few years back.

Mags Blackwell - 'Do you listen?': Next up was Lucy's mother, formerly a college tutor, her talk pre-recorded on video while she watched from a chair in the front row. She explained why it can be good to fail, and listed four specific beneficial outcomes which can ensue. One such example related to screwed-up paper balls and Parkinson's, a disease she now endures, and another pointed out that pretending you have a parrot on your shoulder can be truly beneficial when learning how to walk again.

Rujuta Teredesai - 'Agile for Social Development': Rujuta chose to speak without slides, relating tales from India of applying modern project management techniques to a grassroots gender equality programme. Her pioneering agile approach to an embedded behavioural problem, encouraging boys to think better of the opposite sex, could have far-reaching positive consequences. She was also the first speaker to significantly overrun her timeslot, even after nods from the wings, and should perhaps have concentrated less on scrummage and more on the sprint.

Ella Fitzsimmons - Swedish Rules for Sex and the Supernatural: They do like rules in Sweden, so it came as no surprise to hear that sex with supernatural entities was a criminal offence until 1864. Even today's Swedes are hardwired to provide porridge for their house trolls, and nobody would ever follow a skogsrå into the woods. The country's laws on fornication (or 'Otukt') were relaxed further in 1944, initiating a permissive society several decades ahead of most, although bestiality slipped through and wasn't recriminalised until 2014.

Nat Buckley - 'Why flyknit is the most revolutionary thing since sliced bread': In 2012 Nike invented the knitted training shoe, and in the process revolutionised footwear. The outer fabric had previously been sewn, adding points of weakness where individual parts are stitched together, whereas flyknit can be created as a single piece and then wrapped round without undue wastage. Nat reminded us that sewing is essentially a two-dimensional mesh whereas knitting breaks out into the third dimension, and we should embrace this traditional handiwork as something even cooler than 3D printing. [you can read Nat's talk here]

Ade Adewunmi - 'The importance of watching TV': Ade loves TV, and watches a great deal of it with her ethnically diverse group of friends. Not only does television provide a shared conversational framework in many social situations, but it also allows the nation to explore difficult ideas and issues in a low-risk situation. In this era of social media it's all too easy to live in a filter bubble and embrace only opinions from the echo chamber, whereas we also need to hear from people who aren't like us, be they Ross or Nadiya or female police detectives or whoever. Ade's presentation could never have fitted into the allotted five minutes, and she made no attempt to try, but did lead us thoughtfully into the break.

[End Of Part One]



Kim Plowright - 'What it feels like to preserve memories and talk about dementia and death on social media, whilst still occasionally making people laugh': Wow, Kim's presentation hit hard. As photos from her parents' later life scrolled past, she recounted scenes from her father's gradual slide into dementia, and the debilitating effect on her mother's health. Kim recalled various incidents via her tweets at the time, chronicling shopping trips with bladder control problems and the pain of realising that key facts are no longer being remembered. You do your very best, said Kim, but "caring is really lonely". She could be any of us, and if we one day face a similar long-term challenge, will it be with strength of character, or blissful ignorance?

Tom Whitwell - 'Hippies, synthesisers, giant squid and the military industrial complex': How could you follow that? Our first male speaker of the evening followed that by building a very basic synthesiser live on stage and attempting to tell the instrument's history as he attached the wires. We learned the provenance of the Hex Schmitt Trigger, how a racist genius at a Californian defence company kickstarted Silicon Valley, and of the wired box which provided the experimental sound on the Grateful Dead's tour bus. Even better, Tom's basic circuit-board with plug-ins eventually delivered a convincing 'tune' of psychedelic bleeps and tones. [Tom's slides can be viewed here]

Tim Dunn - The Sierra Leone National Railway Museum: Tim levelled-up from ordinary rail-related geekery to Extreme Trainspotting by enthusing about a favourite project in a far-off land. When Sierra Leone gained independence in the Sixties one of the first things the government did was trash the railway in favour of a road network which was never built. Five locomotives survived hidden inside a welded-up shed, released with joy a few years back, and these now form the basis of a fledgling museum whose programme and outreach projects are bringing enormous benefits to the wider community. Perhaps the SLNRM's story will bring a smile, and a sense of perspective, to your daily commute.

Lisa Rajan - The story behind Tara Binns "But Mummy, ladies can't be mechanics!" is the unfortunate attitude Lisa's young son expressed after reading several much-loved construction-related picture books. So when a daughter followed, and the supply of gender-specific books proved nauseatingly pink and shallow, Lisa set about writing her own. Her lead character is Tara Binns, a girl who dresses up to join the world of work and solve problems, and everyone in the audience was gifted with a free book of her adventures to take away. Lisa visits schools to share and discuss her series, and the positive reaction in one all-boys establishment has reassured her that prejudice is not always engrained.

Diego Maranan - 'Why I'm Making Vibrating Underwear': As a professional dancer and scientist, but with more talent in the latter, Diego's studies have led him into the world of embedded cognition. If our perception can change the way we think and feel, then simple changes in posture through muscle control can make us all feel better about ourselves. Diego wanted to reproduce his discoveries for the benefit of his parents in Manila, so constructed a dress with pressure pads which allowed him to touch their spines with rhythm at a distance, and which can even be played as a kind of musical instrument.

Alby Reid - Polonium Poisoning: As soon as the 1g of polonium entered Alexander Litvinenko's body, administered via a pot of green tea in a Mayfair hotel, he was a dead man. Polonium is one of the most dangerous toxins known to man, with a radioactive power calculated at 141 watts per gram - the equivalent of two pre-EU lightbulbs. A tiny speck the size of a grain of salt could kill 6000 people, and the hitmen targeting Litvinenko delivered 500 times the lethal dose. One of the chief suspects is now a Russian MP, so has immunity from extradition and prosecution, but has suffered long-lasting physical effects himself providing a smidgeon of justice. [you can view physics teacher Alby's slide deck here]

Helen Castor - Digging up Kings: Following Richard III's discovery under a council car park in Leicester, pressure to exhume the old and famous has been gathering pace. Henry I might well be under a car park in Reading, and Charles I almost certainly is in the same Windsor vault as Henry VIII. The job of the medical historian is to deduce what they can from scans and bones, but Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon flatly refuses to allow anyone to open William Shakespeare's unusually small tomb, so we may never discover whether or not the Bard was buried with his head missing.

Alice Bartlett - Tampons and Tampon Club: And finally, somewhat later than originally scheduled, Alice led us into the office ladies' toilet and questioned why tampons aren't as freely available as toilet paper. At her GDS workplace she initiated a simple receptacle packed with tampons and towels by the sinks, providing enormous reassurance for any woman forced to take the walk of shame from her locker in a hotdesked office, or living in fear of an unexpected all-morning meeting. The concept has since spread to at least 200 other offices nationwide, and if your workplace would also benefit from a Tampon Club, why not get on board? [you can hear Alice's talk here]

[Blimey that was interesting. Thanks Russell!]

 Thursday, September 15, 2016

Three months ago, after a four decade wait, pedestrian crossings were finally installed at the Bow Roundabout. Previously we had to take our chances dashing through the gaps between the traffic, and there's a lot of traffic because this is the junction of the A11 with the A12 dual carriageway. But now we can simply press some buttons and wait, our safe passage across this killer gyratory assured. Or at least that was the plan. How do you think it's turned out?



Previously there were eight unsignalled crossing points, in pairs, arranged in a big loop around the four arms of the junction. Crossing each arm took two goes - one at traffic lights and therefore safe, but one a madcap scary rush requiring psychic ability to predict which of the swirling vehicles might be about to turn off the roundabout next. It wasn't fun, but the able-bodied amongst us generally coped, and those in wheelchairs stayed away.

TfL's solution has been to convert the "O" into an "H", with pedestrians directed across the centre of the roundabout for the first time. Not everybody has to go this way, only those attempting to cross between Bow and Stratford, but that's the majority of the pedestrian flow, so it's a significant change.



Those crossing Bow Road have it easier, now with two push-button pedestrian crossings to help them. One of these was added at the existing traffic lights, slightly modified, while the other is freshly installed and intermittently stops the traffic. Those crossing Stratford High Street have a very similar set-up, passing underneath the flyover in two relatively simple steps. But anyone attempting to walk between Bow and Stratford is now expected to cross onto the central reservation under the flyover, cross to the centre of the roundabout, then depart the centre of the roundabout and finally head back to the edge on the other side. This requires four crossings rather than the original two, but is guaranteed to be safe which the original route never was. Here's the original route.



Last time I wrote about the changes I wondered how TfL were going to dissuade people from taking the original route. Would they add bollards or bobbles or barriers to physically dissuade people from the more direct path, or would they add signs saying "For your own safety don't go this way, take the safe route across the centre of the roundabout"? It turns out they did neither. Instead they got workmen to dig up the dropped kerbs and tactile paving, and to erase the LOOK RIGHT signs they'd painted only a couple of months before. And all they left behind was a normal kerb - no notices, no signs, indeed nothing special whatsoever.



This kerb should definitely be enough to persuade someone in a wheelchair to take another route. It might be enough to persuade someone with a pushchair to take another route, although the new kerb's manoeuvrable enough to be ignored. But it's not been enough to persuade able-bodied pedestrians to walk elsewhere, indeed they probably haven't noticed the kerb's been tweaked at all. So you can probably guess what the end result of all this expensive roadworks has been. The vast majority of pedestrians crossing between Bow and Stratford completely ignore the new crossings via the middle of the roundabout and continue to take the dangerous route around the edge.

And who can blame them? The new route involves twice as many crossings as the old. The new route is longer. The new route starts by going perpendicular to the way you're expecting to go. And the new route isn't obviously signposted, despite a plethora of maps and information boards having been plastered beside the road and under the flyover.



The expectation was that pedestrians would interact with a series of five Exit Numbers, as if this was a subway ring, then realise that to reach their Exit they had to cross first to the centre. But nobody really sees their passage this way, instead instinctively walking past the maps and boards and numbers to reach the corner of the roundabout which is where they'd expect to cross. And once here they take the old route, because the new route is now behind them, and many of them probably don't even realise it's there.

I've been down to do a quick survey to show you what I mean.
» I went down for ten minutes before the evening rush hour. During that time 13 people crossed between Bow and Stratford, and all of them walked around the edge of the roundabout, ignoring the new safe route across the middle.

» I went down for ten minutes at the start of the evening rush hour. During that time 23 people crossed between Bow and Stratford, and 20 of them walked around the edge of the roundabout. This included a mother with a pushchair who risked all rather than take the meandering four-step diversion. Only three people took the approved route across the centre of the roundabout, one a schoolchild, another a more elderly lady.

» I went down for ten minutes at the end of the evening rush hour. During that time 30 people crossed between Bow and Stratford, and 26 of them walked around the edge of the roundabout. Again this included a mother with a pushchair who chose not to take the safe four-step route. Only four people took the approved route across the centre of the roundabout, again a varied mix of age and gender.
I should add that during my survey 32 different people crossed either Bow Road or Stratford High Street - simpler journeys which don't require diverting to the centre of the roundabout. These two-step routes are now much safer than before thanks to the new lights, which have not been installed in vain. Even so most of these people never stopped to push the button, let alone wait for the lights to change, instead dashing across during a gap in the traffic as before.

But this still leaves a total of 66 people crossing between Bow and Stratford over the space of 30 minutes, and an astonishing 89% of them walked around the edge of the roundabout.



All the evidence suggests that TfL have spent a large amount of money at the Bow Roundabout building pedestrian crossings that most pedestrians aren't using. In particular they've created a safe route across the middle of the roundabout, and the vast majority of people are ignoring it in favour of the previous more dangerous route.

Local residents can't have failed to notice the new lights - they've been operational for almost three months. But maybe they haven't realised how the new lights are supposed to help, or more likely they do realise and aren't interested, preferring to take their chances in the traffic as before. Of greater concern, pedestrians arriving at the junction for the first time probably don't understand where they're 'supposed' to go, so continue to follow the desire line route, unwisely taking their chances with an unfamiliar junction.

Do we blame the signage, which is counter-intuitive, ill-positioned and easily overlooked? Do we blame the underlying concept, sending pedestrians via an unexpected route rather than adding traffic lights around the edge? Do we blame the expectation that people will walk a longer distance to follow a safer route? Do we blame perception of risk, whereby people assume they'll manage to slip safely across the oncoming traffic because so far they always have? You might blame the lack of barriers, although I'm rather pleased there aren't any and we've been left to make our own choices. A nudge is usually better than coercion, except in this case the nudge may be too small and the new route is being ignored.

After years of waiting dangerously, it's truly excellent that there is now a safe pedestrian route across the Bow Roundabout. Anyone with mobility issues can now cross successfully from one side to the other, whereas previously they'd have been driven away. But as projects go, this cunning H-shaped crossing is proving an expensive practical failure, as local residents continue to sacrifice their safety to save some time. It's a solution which delivers, but isn't working.


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