The ticket office at Bromley-by-Bow station closed this week.
Monday was a normal day, inasmuch as any bank holiday is normal. But on Tuesday the ticket office didn't open, and never will again, as part of the rolling closure of every single TfL ticket office in London. Did anybody notice?
Bromley-by-Bow has long been at the vanguard of reduced ticket office opening hours. Back in September 2010, when the first round of massive cutbacks was announced, Bromley-by-Bow's ticket office had the greatest reduction of any station on the entire Underground network. On weekdays the opening hours were cut from thirteen to one and a half, on Saturdays from eight to one, and on Sundays from eleven to one. From 84 hours a week the total was cut to less than ten, as TfL made it clear they didn't think the ticket office had much of a future.
As it happens, Bromley-by-Bow's ticket office lasted five more years. During that time if you needed to buy a ticket and turned up in the morning peak you probably got personal assistance, while at the weekend you had to be lucky to hit the seemingly random single hour. At all other times of day you had to use the machines, of which there are two, and people did. The vast majority of the station's passengers are regular travellers, not lost tourists, so using the machines wasn't generally a problem. If a human touch was required there might have been someone in the ticket hall, or you could have visited a nearby station with better hours, or you could simply have coped with the self-service option. In this, Bromley-by-Bow was much like many other peripheral London stations, its ticket office being quietly run down through lack of use.
So this week's closure won't have been too much of a practical hardship. Most passengers won't even have noticed, given that the shutters have usually been down as they pass through, and still are. TfL even sent me an email to tell me how not very traumatic my experience would be.
From 1 September, we will be carrying out improvement work at Bromley-by-Bow Tube station; this is part of our plans to modernise the Tube. As a result, we are making changes to the ticket hall and the ticket windows will be permanently closed.
I'm not expecting very big changes. If other stations are anything to go by, they'll slap an 'i' sign on the wall where the window used to be and add a tube map.
We are moving our staff into the ticket hall where they can assist you more effectively; the station will continue to be staffed between the first and last train times.
The provision of visible staff has been a very big part of TfL's war of words over ticket office closures. But have they delivered?
The station now has smarter ticket machines, offering guidance in 17 languages, making paying for travel easier; staff will be on hand to show you how much more these machines can do.
There's mention of the availability of staff again. Don't worry if the idea of machines worries you, goes the message, help will be at hand.
To pay for travel, you can now:
• Use the smarter ticket machines
• Use your contactless payment card. It’s the same fare as Oyster and no need to top up
• Buy tickets or top up your Oyster card online or at nearby Oyster Ticket Stops
Because it's all do-it-yourself now, isn't it? Most people already pay electronically, and contactless cards make life even easier. But if you do still need to buy a ticket with the human touch then there's an Oyster Ticket Stop within five minutes walk of the station, and a couple more within ten.
Work to the ticket hall and improvement to facilities is expected to continue for up to one month. The station will remain open during this period.
That last sentence always makes me laugh, every time TfL send me a 'modernisation update' email. Of course the station will remain open, because almost nothing of significance is changing.
And if you do visit the website, you find yet another promise regarding available staff. Specifically that "in future, all stations will be staffed from the first to last Tube. We are closing our ticket offices and moving our staff into ticket halls where they are more visible and can assist you more effectively." Well it isn't happening.
I've been through Bromley-by-Bow station four times in the last couple of days, and this is what I've seen.
5pm: A member of staff by the ticket gate, offering assistance to a passenger who wanted to talk about refunds. Great stuff. 7pm: Two members of staff chatting at the top of the stairs. 10pm: No visible member of staff, and the ticket gates open. 11pm: No visible member of staff, and the ticket gates open.
If Bromley-by-Bow station is supposed to be staffed until the last train, then either that's a lie, or the member of staff is hiding somewhere.
And this is nothing new. I regularly travel from Bromley-by-Bow in the evening when visiting BestMate, and I can assure you that the pattern hasn't changed for years. In the early evening the station is staffed, usually by someone sitting in the kiosk behind the gateline, but later on they vanish and the ticket gates are left wide open. Indeed if you fancy a free tube journey between Bromley-by-Bow and Plaistow after ten o'clock in the evening, I can pretty much guarantee that there'll be no staff at either end and both sets of gates will be wide open, every day, every week, without fail.
In terms of staff availability, the closure of Bromley-by-Bow's ticket office has changed nothing. The big plan to move staff into ticket halls is a hollow promise, here at least, because there's still no visible uniformed presence in the evening, just as there hasn't been for years. Indeed if you were ever to be mugged at this station late at night I've seen no evidence that any member of Underground staff would be around to notice.
As such, to be fair, Bromley-by-Bow is no worse than Bow Church DLR down the road. This isn't meant to be staffed, and isn't, nor have a ticket office, and doesn't, and passengers use the station perfectly fine. It's only TfL's insistence that their Underground modernisation programme means making staff "more visible" "from the first to last Tube" that grates, because it evidently isn't happening.
Closing this month: Bayswater, Buckhurst Hill, Bromley-by-Bow, Chalfont & Latimer, Chesham, Colindale, Colliers Woord, Croxley, Dagenham East, Dagenham Heathway, Edgware Road (both), Elephant & Castle (Bakerloo), Euston, Finsbury Park, Fulham Broadway, Gants Hill, Greenford, Hammersmith (H&C), Heathrow Terminal 5, High Barnet, Highgate, Hounslow East, Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge (west), Paddington (Bakerloo), Ruislip Manor, Victoria, Whitechapel
Sorry, I was trying not to write about Bow again so soon, but TfL clearly have it in for us. Our streets are filled with year-long roadworks, our roundabout kills people, and our buses don't run as smoothly as they should. Now TfL bosses have discovered a fix to make the 25 bus run faster, and they're putting out their plan to consultation. It's great news... unless you happen to live here. [consultation][map]
The plan is to divert the 25 bus over the Bow Flyover rather than sending it round the Bow Roundabout. This would mean missing out two stops eastbound (the two crosses on the map below) and missing out one stop westbound (immediately before the roundabout). Other buses would continue to run at ground level and serve the omitted stops, but they're less frequent and they don't go as far. But the 25 would sail past, creating a 1km gap in service, as London's busiest bus skips Stratford High Street West forever.
To be fair, this is what already happens. Back in March TfL suddenly decided to send route 25 over the flyover in both directions to make up for all the travel chaos that Cycle Superhighway upgrade work was causing elsewhere. A few wasted minutes in Whitechapel could be made up if the bus missed out some stops in Bow, and buses would run better to timetable, and the service would be more reliable. Managers communicated the change very badly, and have been shilly-shallying for months regarding when the diversion might end. In March they said it'd end in June. In June they said it'd end in August. It's now September and we discover they have no intention of ending it at all, and the diversion of the 25 is to be made permanent. Yeah thanks. [previous report]
The sole reason given in the consultation for the 25's diversion is the number of roadworks along the A11.
No matter how much your bus is slowed down elsewhere, goes the argument, we can catch up a few minutes by skipping the Bow Roundabout. But the Cycle Superhighway upgrade ends next spring, and the Aldgate Gyratory upgrade ends next autumn, so these aren't permanent changes at all. They might be reasons for diverting the 25 over the flyover for the next twelve months, but they're irrelevant to its route and timing beyond next year. All of which suggests that the true reason for the 25's permanent diversion is the other project in the list, the Bow Vision road scheme, which is a most interesting admission.
The Vision for Bow proposals are major aspirational plans to remodel the entire Bow Roundabout junction, as yet unplanned, unfunded and uncertain. Ultimately they might end with the removal of the flyover, a far distant dream which'd bring the 25 back down to earth with a bump. But as a stopgap measure there are more immediate plans to add seven pedestrian crossings to the roundabout, meeting a long-awaited need, with all roadworks completed by this time next year. Crucially TfL have admitted that the change will increase waiting times for traffic at the roundabout, including buses, and that's why the 25 is being sent permanently over the top.
Forget the roadworks smokescreen, the true reason for the 25's diversion is economics. If buses end up stuck in lengthier jams at the Bow Roundabout then this makes the service less reliable and less efficient, ultimately requiring more vehicles to maintain the same levels of service. Sending the 25 over the flyover means that however bad the traffic gets down there, drivers are not held up and the service can be run with a smaller fleet.
The 25's permanent diversion is excellent for passengers passing through, especially at peak times, because they won't end up wasting several minutes in queues. Given that the first eastbound stop is being closed permanently at Christmas (because it's incompatible with a Cycle Superhighway), technically the 25's only skipping the second stop anyway, so why waste time serving it? But the big losers are those who live between the roundabout and the Greenway, because they either face a long walk getting home or will have to wait for a less frequent, less useful bus. Admittedly that's precisely what they've done for the last six months, but now it's forever, because never mind.
There'll be far more winners than losers, sure, but there is a reason why the losers matter. The deliberate creation of a 1km gap between bus stops on the busiest bus route in London suggests that residents in that gap aren't important. And yet Stratford High Street is one of the busiest building sites in East London, with stratospheric towers erupting forth and vast acreages of post-industrial land about to become flats. In particular there's the Strand East development on the quadrant adjacent to the roundabout, bringing 1200 new homes to E15 by 2020. The 25 stops right outside, or rather it did, but won't again, because this is one of the bus stops being sacrificed. Strand East's future residents will be able to catch a direct bus to Stoke Newington, Hackney or Lewisham, but no longer to Whitechapel and the City, not without a walk. This is not how public transport provision is supposed to work.
If you might be affected by the 25's permanent diversion, make sure you submit a response to TfL's consultation by Friday 16th October. Tell them why you think skipping stops is a bad idea from a local's point of view, and how these plans disregard future growth in the immediate vicinity. TfL will then compile all the responses into a report, explaining why they're ignoring all the negative ones, and go ahead anyway, because this is how consultations work.
The eventual outcome will be great news if you ever ride the 25 straight through the area, because your journey will be permanently speeded up, plus there's a really nice view of the Olympic Stadium from the flyover. But some of us will regret the day the 25 became a partial express service, catering for everyone along its route apart from those in our local 1km gap. Bow's dysfunctional roundabout strikes again, and the 25 bus is its latest casualty, starting six months ago.
The creation of a Cycle Superhighway is a mighty complicated thing. The creators of the original CS2 overlooked this fact and painted a blue stripe down Bow Road, hoping this would do. Thankfully four years on their successors have thought far more carefully about what makes two-wheeled travel safe, and in particular how the street furniture needs to be reorganised to comply.
Bow Road ought to be an easy street to adapt. It's very wide, currently with two lanes of traffic in either direction all the way down. The pavements are unusually broad, often enough for an entire extra lane of traffic if required (and then some). There are few major road junctions between Mile End and the Bow Roundabout, hence not much traffic turning off or on. But the precise layout of the road isn't always simple to adapt, and the scheme's architects have had their work cut out, for several reasons.
Because trees. Trees it turns out are a problem because you can't just go chopping them down to make way for bikes. A few have proven dispensable, however, like the trio of young trees that used to stand outside Thames Magistrates Court near Bow Road station. Engineers decided there was no possible way to insert a bus stop bypass around them, so contractors nipped along in February and chopped them down while nobody was looking, months in advance of any actual construction work taking place.
But these deaths are very much the exceptions. TfL have been extremely careful to ensure that their upgrade plans involve the removal of as few trees as possible, and that's admirable because Bow Road has dozens. Indeed in many places the position of the segregated Cycle Superhighway path appears to have been defined solely by the existing line of trees along the kerb. Rather than cut down a tree, the cycle lane instead eats into what used to be the carriageway, making the road narrower than it was before. In some cases there'd be plenty of room behind the treeline for a cycle lane, but instead a massive width of pavement survives intact, because trees.
And because lampposts. Lampposts it turns out are a problem because you can't just go dismantling them to make way for bikes. Well actually you can, but it's expensive and very time-consuming, so increases the cost and complexity of the upgrade project considerably. The cables to which lampposts are connected generally run under the pavement just inside the kerbline, because that's where lampposts are erected. Change the kerbline and suddenly those cables aren't quite in the right place, and it's such a lot of extra faff. So wherever possible, as with trees, TfL have tried hard to locate the segregated cycle lane without having to move any streetlights.
The lampposts along Bow Road seem to get changed a lot. They've all been replaced at least twice in the last ten years, the most recent new set arising in April 2013. They proved a doddle to change because all you do is embed a new lamppost beside the old, above the cables, and connect the wiring. Shifting lampposts away from the kerb is not a doddle, but is sometimes unavoidable. For example by St Mary's church the bus stop bypass that's currently under construction embraces an existing lamppost, which must now be removed, a project whose timespan is measured in weeks rather than a handful of days. Trees may be sacrosanct but the costs of streetlight rearrangement are sometimes met, because lampposts.
And because pedestrians. Bow Road is a street that lots of pedestrians want to cross, which is why there are lots of pedestrian crossings along the street. But they aren't always located immediately nearby, hence large numbers of jaywalkers choose to cross at intermediate points along the street. In this they're helped by an intermittent central reservation, which allows people to nip across halfway when a suitable gap in the traffic appears... this gap usually created by a pedestrian crossing a few yards up the road. But a central reservation takes up valuable space that CS2 engineers now desperately need, not least because trees and lampposts have restricted outward expansion of the carriageway.
So the central reservations are being dug up to ensure there's still room for double lanes of traffic alongside new segregated cycleways. That's good news for everyone on wheels, but bad news for those on foot whose halfway muster points are being removed. In future what all well-behaved pedestrians should do is walk up the street to the nearest official crossing point, because that'll always be safe, but a significant proportion of Bow Roaders won't be bothered. They'll try to cross anyway, half the road at a time, except in future there'll no longer be a safe perch in the middle of the road on which to wait. Cycle Superhighway architecture is always optimised for perfect behaviour rather than reality, even if that ends up placing more people in danger, because pedestrians.
And because buses. Buses are a nightmare for cyclists to pass because they hug the kerb and frequently pull in and stop. TfL's 'bus stop bypass' design is an excellent solution for bikes, but less so for pedestrians who face another line of traffic between pavement and bus. The bypass island also takes up a large amount of space, certainly a lot more than a typical stop and shelter. The island also has to be gouged out of existing pavement, which doesn't work when that's narrow, or even of average width. It also has to extend the length of two or three buses, in case two or three buses turn up, so swallows up pavement that'll only be sporadically used.
For example at bus stop G (by St Mary's church) only half the pavement is staying as pavement. The remainder of the pavement (where passengers used to wait for a bus) is becoming a cycle lane. The first lane of traffic (where buses stopped) is becoming an island (where passengers will wait for a bus). The second lane of traffic is becoming the first lane of traffic (where buses will stop). And the third lane of traffic is becoming the second lane of traffic, narrowing the width of the carriageway by a third. The net result is that a stopped bus will now leave only one spare lane not two, slowing traffic approaching the roundabout and flyover, because buses.
And because cyclists. Several road junctions along CS2 are being remodelled to provide 100% safe passage for bicycles by keeping them well apart from turning traffic. This is an admirable intention, indeed might even be seen as the main reason for the entire upgrade project. The diggers are out at this week at the foot of Fairfield Road, for example, helping to create a junction that'll allow cyclists to turn safely in any direction rather than the restricted choice officially available at the current time. Traffic chaos this week will eventually be translated into a junction considerably more functional, but also more complex, than that which previously existed.
The creation of non-intersecting paths for cyclists is now deemed essential, but generally requires increased use of traffic lights, and in particular additional phases to feed bikes through. The price of safety is therefore to be paid in additional journey time, because over-engineered junctions always seem to expect participants to wait longer than before. They're also always set up for rush hour traffic, a worst case scenario, whereas if you turn up off-peak they often appear excessive. Hence the new lights on Cycle Superhighway 2 are likely to prove extremely tempting for cyclists to jump, because at times it'll look insane not to, because cyclists.
The creation of a Cycle Superhighway is a mighty complicated thing. TfL's planners have worked smartly within the constraints provided, but have also had to adopt a safety-first approach that sometimes trumps practicality. Many will rightly celebrate next spring when the CS2 upgrade is complete, but the end result can never be optimal for all road users, and there will be long-term losers as well as winners.
Yes, it's September already. Then next month the clocks go back, then it's Fireworks Night and before you know where you are Christmas will be rolling round again. Never fear, London always puts on a last flurry of events and activities and happenings before the nights draw in, and we're all invited. Here's my weekend by weekend guide to free September delights.
» Totally Thames (Sep 1-30): There was a time, not so long ago, when the Mayor's Thames Festival filled the South Bank and lit up the sky for one weekend in September. No more. Now we get a whole month of events, many of them ticketed, kicking off this morning with The Big Thames Tidy on a slipway by the O2. If you fancy a Lost Rivers walk or a talk by an expert, prepare to stump up, but there are also plenty of splendid freebies if you explore the programme carefully.
Weekend 1: September 5/6
» Camberwell Bus Garage Open Day (Sat, 11-5): If you've ever fancied riding through a bus wash, get down. See also Willesden on Saturday 19th.
» The Riverside Festival (Sat, Sun, noon-7.00): This assemblage of stalls and family-friendly activities by City Hall is all that survives of the original Thames Festival. Don't expect fireworks.
» Angel Canal Festival (Sun, 11-5): Waterside gaiety beside City Road Lock. Expect the Mayor of Islington to arrive by narrowboat.
» Palmers Green Festival (Sun, 12-7): All the fun of music on the green, Salstricity and Britain's tallest mobile climbing wall (in Broomfield Park).
» Brentford Festival (Sun, from 12): Funfair, stalls and a dog show, plus visiting Routemaster, in Blondin Park W5.
Weekend 2: September 12/13
» Heritage Open Days (Thu-Sun): Hundreds of buildings that aren't usually open, are open. Most of them are outside London, but there are plenty open in Kingston (which is spending the weekend pretending it's in Surrey). (See also Berks, Bucks, Essex, Herts, Kent)
» St Katharine Docks Classic Boat Festival (Sat, Sun, 11.00-5.00): Annual gathering of small boats near Tower Bridge. Includes a visit by the The Barnet Hill Lifeboat Crew Shanty Singers.
» The Great River Race (Sat, 10.45-15.45): 300 craft engage in a spectacular paddle up the Thames from Docklands to Richmond.
» Hidden River Festival (Sat, 12-6.30): Now-annual music festival and family funday on the banks of the New River at Woodberry Down.
» Tour of Britain (Sun, 11.00-5.30): The final stage of this cross-country bike race is a lycra-tastic sprinty circuit heading in three directions out of Trafalgar Square. Ironically, Cycle Superhighway works mean that the route no longer follows the Embankment.
» Kings Place Festival (Fri-Sun): Head to King's Cross for 100+ performances of spoken word, comedy, dance, jazz and classical music. Here's a list of the free events.
Weekend 3: September 19/20
» Open House London (Sat, Sun): The grand-daddy of architectural festivals, with hundreds of weird and wonderful buildings throwing open their doors across the capital. Some of the really special events are fully booked, but you're not too late to sign up for this three-property raffle. Also, today's the day to grab a ticket to modernist Highpoint (now sold out), while the five Crossrail building sites go live at noon on Friday. There'll be tons to see over the weekend, in fact far too much to choose from. Be there, or regret it for the next 52 weeks.
» Great Gorilla Run (Sat, from 10.30): Dress up as a gorilla and run 7km to raise money for charity (or just come along and watch sweaty knackered apes).
» Bermondsey Street Festival (Sat, 11-7): A designery "village fête", plus dog show, plus food and stalls (with or without Zandra Rhodes).
» London Design Festival (continues until next weekend): Hundreds of design-er events will be taking place across the capital, based in seven on-trend clusters. Having struggled through the programme online, I think the V&A looks your best bet.
Weekend 4: September 26/27
» Thames Barrier Closure (Sun, 6.30-4.30): Annual all-day maintenance closure (peaking around high tide at 12:30pm). Last year's was blue-sky brilliant. Come and see water piled up on one side only... while it's only a practice.
» Autumn Ambles (Sat, Sun): Normally by now, Walk London have announced their late September programme of 40-ish free guided walks. This year, nothing yet. Maybe the funding's finally run out.
» Deptford X (from Friday 25): Wait a couple of weeks, and their website should then tell us what contemporary visual art to expect down SE8 way.
» There must be something else on this weekend, surely.
ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
10) Hackney Wick → Bow(2 miles) [26 photos]
And finally, on my circumnavigation of the borough of Tower Hamlets, the Olympic fringe. The boundary cuts into a small slice of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, including some bits you'll recognise. And then it follows the Lea, which proves problematic because the only path is on the Newham side, so an awkwardly meandering detour is required. If you're ever planning to walk this twenty mile circuit for yourself, the sudden descent from world famous to backstreet irrelevance probably isn't the best finale. [map]
White Post Lane continues across the Lea Navigation, with fresh slipways down to the waterside as part of the as-yet underwhelming Canal Park. Acres of empty land mark the site of the former Carpenters Business Park trading estate, which one year soon will arise as Sweetwater, one of the post-Olympic residential neighbourhoods. Its twee name came from the Clarnico sweet factory based across the road, of which today only Kings Yard survives. The last vestiges of the remainder were laid low to build QEOP's massive bio-friendly Energy Centre, almost with a look of the multi-storey about it, were it not for the modern chimney releasing steam into the sky. Ahead is Carpenters Road, as yet wilfully undeveloped, with the Park's administrative headquarters housed in blue portakabins to one side. Most visitors passing between the northern and southern halves of QEOP cross high above the road, passing through windswept Mandeville Place, its elevation required to cross the Overground.
It's no coincidence that three of London's poorest boroughs meet at the centre of the largest development site in the capital. The precise intersection is the centre of the railway bridge across the River Lea, which is also the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary turns south and follows the centre of the waterway all the way to the Thames. There's also a footpath, and what's more it's actually open, curving past the mooring crayons to what used to be Carpenters Lock. All of the tumbledown mechanical structure was removed before the Games, leaving a couple of gates and a depth marker, but the mirrored bridge that zigzags across the top is a crowd-pleaser, and the secluded waterside is the highlight of many an Olympic stroll. I still don't understand why there's no longer a footbridge at ground level, but the Tower Hamlets side definitely has the best views (and usually the best flowers).
Laid into the path where three rivers meet is a Pindaric Ode, commissioned (but not written) by Boris Johnson to commemorate London 2012. The path then follows the Old River Lea to the Great British Garden, a triple-centred RHS project based on 'gold, silver and bronze' that too few spectators stumbled upon three years ago. Though still very pleasant its lush planting shines less with every passing summer, and even the swing bench at its heart has recently been broken, taped off and (very) recently removed. My route passes through a tunnel of intertwined branches (avoiding a snogging couple), round the back of the lily pond and past a cleared area with a couple of cheap DIY bee hives.
And then the feel of building site returns, with two helmeted gents guarding Bridge 3 across to Stadium Island, and another barring traffic from the Loop Road. This month pedestrians have been allowed to walk through to the Greenway for the first time, even to duck beneath sewage pipes along the Old River Lea, but they're in the wrong borough again, so my next destination has to be Old Ford Lock. Yes, the Big Breakfast Cottages still stand, the latest owners increasingly concealed and fortified, but not averse to a nice game of croquet on the lawn. And the locks are still busy with narrowboats passing through, watched over by the clientèle of the tiny E20 Lockside Cafe, an angling-friendly hideaway, and about as far from a trendy caffeinated pop-up as it's possible to get.
As the crow flies I'm only 1km from the end of my walk, directly ahead along the River Lea towpath. But at the next footbridge this passes into Newham, so I face a 2km walk through some less lovely parts of Fish Island and Bow instead. Given that I've been walking now for almost eight hours, and my legs feel it, it's not the route I'd choose to take.
Fish Island, named after constituent roads that include Roach, Bream and Dace, ought to be a lowly commercial quarter. Instead the rise of the Olympic fringe has brought increased developmental pressure, held at bay at present thanks to a conservation zone which keeps the warehouses full of artists rather than hipster incomers. I pass a few of the former on bikes, for example at the former Percy Dalton peanut factory, and a few of the latter standing around in the street trying to locate the nearest Eggs Benedict via their smartphone. An uneven staircase leads up to the Greenway, this the point where Bazalgette's main northern sewer emerges above ground level and heads for Beckton. 150 years on it's topped by an important cycleway and footpath, alas again heading into the wrong borough, and the final accessible crossing before the Bow Roundabout.
Wick Lane must once have been a rural backwater, rather than a built-up rat run between decaying echoes of the past. A well-known storage company now occupy the premises of Dudley Stationery Ltd, while other businesses have sequentially been taken over by whopping apartment behemoths for those who'd like to pay over the odds to live out of the way. One one side of the road a derelict brick shell remains, on the other canalside flats butt up against automotive overhaul units, and stumpy streets named Iceland and Autumn. Increasingly tired now, I reach the A12 for the penultimate time in my journey. If only it hadn't once been a motorway it might have a pavement and then my journey south would be easier, neither can I continue along the neighbouring lane. Crossrail sealed off the direct route years ago for the construction of the Pudding Mill Portal, and I can't wait for them to finish so that I can walk around my local neighbourhood unimpeded again.
Instead I have to walk round three sides of Bow Quarter, one of the original gated communities (circa 1990) housed in a repurposed match factory (circa 1910). Once the largest factory in London, and a touchstone in the history of industrial relations, its residents now have their own shop, swimming pool, and restaurant/bar to save them ever having to leave. Beyond the low bridge is Bow bus garage, its location awkwardly forcing every departing double decker to turn left, behind which a small enclave of elegant Victorian terraces survives. And following this dead end avenue leads finally back to the fumes of the A12, and a bleak pavement past substations and a door handle factory to the Bow Roundabout. After eight hours and twenty miles I'm finally back where I started, where the Bow Flyover crosses the Lea, my circumnavigation complete. I've learned a heck of a lot about the borough where I live by walking its perimeter... and my kettle and sofa are thankfully only a couple of minutes away.
London's busiest bus service is the 25, which runs from Ilford to Oxford Circus. But sometimes it feels like two bus services split at Bow Church, roughly halfway, which is where the drivers change over. They're based at a bus garage in Leyton, off-route, but are mustered at Bow Church to chat, swap over and clamber up into the cabin. Sometimes when a bus arrives all the passengers are turfed off off to wait for another service, more often they get to wait for a few minutes while the switch occurs, while at certain times of day the changeover is scheduled elsewhere and there's no delay at all.
Mid-route driver changeovers are never fun, although often essential when garages don't coincide with termini. The lingering 25 particularly annoys me when I'm trying to make a quick dash from Bow to Mile End to catch a train, as the changeover can take longer than the whole of the rest of the journey. Another consequence is that several vehicles often pile up outside the DLR station, as waiting 25s get in the way of stopping 25s and other services. In total three other bus services stop here, the 205, 425 and D8, as does the regular A8 coach, next stop Stansted Airport.
So I thought I'd pop down to Bow Church to watch the drivers swap, and the buses queue, and to see how bad the cluster gets. I picked a Friday afternoon, tried to look like I was waiting to travel, and noted down the times that buses arrived and left. I thought I might have to hang around for an hour, but in fact I learned everything I needed to know in less than fifteen minutes. Oh, and there is a point to this, which relates to the imminent arrival of an upgraded Cycle Superhighway. Bear with me.
Here's what happened at eastbound bus stop A between two o'clock and ten past. Imagine that the buses are running from right to left.
2.00: At the start of my survey there are five buses waiting at the bus stop, four of these 25s. The front two 25s (a and b) are empty, the third (c) is waiting while its driver changes over, and the fourth (d) has just arrived. Meanwhile a D8 bus turns up and leaves.
2.01: The front two (empty) 25s are going nowhere. The second two 25s finish changing over and depart.
2.02: The front two 25s are still going nowhere. Another 25 (e) turns up and the driver plays the "this bus will now wait for a short time for a change of driver" announcement. Meanwhile a 205 turns up, drops off its final passengers and heads off round the corner into Bow Garage.
2.03: On the 25 front, nothing happens. The driver of the third bus is having a chat with a member of bus company staff who's popped aboard.
2.04: Another 205 arrives, drops off and departs. The three 25s do nothing.
2.05: Another 25 turns up and joins the back of the queue. A second driver changeover is underway. The first has been underway for three minutes, and shows no signs of completion.
2.07: Here's another 205 to briefly join the party on Bow Road. That's the second time there have been five buses parked up in a bus stop designed for maybe three.
2.08: Lots happens. The empty bus at the front of the queue is finally given the nod to drive back (empty) to the garage. The second driver changeover completes, after three minutes, and the passengers finally depart. Yet another 25 turns up to begin the charade, so there are briefly five 25s on this side of the road (and, incidentally, three on the other). But the poor folks on the bus that arrived six minutes ago are still hanging around. Some of them look pretty pissed off by now.
2.09: Finally, thankfully, the new driver of the Marie Celeste faffs his last, and his busload of delayed passengers moves on. Meanwhile the A8 Stansted coach turns up and, what with the majority of the bus stop still blocked, zips straight by without stopping. I wonder what he'd have done if I'd brought a suitcase with me.
2.10: This is the quietest it's been for some time - just three buses, still with an empty 25 at the front and with two driver changeovers underway behind. And that's where I'll end my blow by blow account, because the graphic for 2.11 would have been exactly the same. But I did hang around long enough to see bus (g) eventually move off at 2.12, and bus (h) finally leave at 2.14.
Of the five driver changeovers I observed, one took one minute, one took three, one took four, one took five and one took seven. That's an average delay to passengers' journeys of about four minutes. Again I'll remind you that the 25 is the busiest bus route in London, so that's potentially a lot of people's lives cumulatively wasted sitting around in Bow. And whilst I recognise that every changeover has to take some time, it did look like the staff were engaged in a lot of merry gossiping, and in at least one case some thoughtless shilly-shallying. Does the 25 bus run for drivers' convenience or for passengers'?
Of more immediate relevance, the Cycle Superhighway 2 upgrade is now in full effect in the Bow area, and considerable amounts of construction work are underway. In particular the bus stop I've been surveying is due to be temporarily suspended from mid-September for around six weeks while a bus stop bypass is engineered behind. Where are all the driver changeovers going to take place then? If it's the bus stop opposite the church where additional buses also stop (and which they're digging up as I speak), just how congested might the queues of vehicles then be?
And when the new bus stop bypass has been created at the bus stop I reported on, will the pedestrian island actually be long enough to cope with four, five, maybe even six vehicles all lined up in a row? Cyclists won't care, they'll get to whistle by in their own safe private lane with a smile. But drivers, pedestrians and bus passengers might not find the arrangements quite so convenient once the pavement's been re-engineered. I'm sure the CS2 planners have thought about this. I'm sure we'll be fine.
Firstly, all Thames Clipper services will accept Oyster Pay As You go for the first time. Currently you have to show your Oyster card at the pier kiosk or on the boat to get a discount, but from mid-September you'll be able to touch in and touch out like you do on the tube. Not having to queue will speed up boarding, which is great, but means you'll no longer be able to buy a ticket on the boat. The 'pay before you travel' policy also means staff need to see you touching in as you board, so passengers will be warned not to touch the reader while they're waiting for the boat to arrive. But the lack of hassle might just encourage you to sail more often.
Secondly, the fare structure for river tickets is changing. Currently there's a flat fare according to which service you use, entirely irrespective of distance. A ride on the main route (RB1) all the way from Embankment to Greenwich costs £7.15, exactly the same as a short hop from Bankside to the London Eye. A ride on the West London commuter route (RB6) always costs £6.70, whether you go from Putney to Chelsea or all the way to Blackfriars. But in future there's going to be an attempt at linking fares to distance, as river routes are split into three different zones.
The Central zone runs from Vauxhall to the Tower, where the majority of journeys made by river begin and/or finish. The West zone runs from Putney to Chelsea, where the only passengers are rush hour travellers. And the East zone runs from Canary Wharf to Woolwich, frequented by both tourists and commuters alike. Travel in two zones, pay more, restrict your journey to just one, pay less. And maybe a lot less.
Let's compare Oyster single fares now and Oyster single fares-to-be by looking at RB1 - the main river service between Westminster and Woolwich, running every 20 minutes.
Embankment → Tower (Central only)
Embankment → North Greenwich (Central & East)
Canary Wharf → North Greenwich (East only)
If you only travel in the Central zone, your Oyster fare decreases, but only slightly. If you travel between the Central zone and the East zone - the most popular journey of all - your Oyster fare increases, but only slightly. The big winners are those who only travel in the East zone, whose fare decreases by a third.
Similar savings might be made on RB6, the peak-hours-only West London commuter route.
Putney → Chelsea (West only)
Putney → Westminster (Central & West)
Putney → Canary Wharf (All three zones)
Most commuters will ride through two zones, where the fare increases slightly. Docklands commuters (on occasional express services) will travel through all three zones, with their fare rising by 7%. Meanwhile there's a big decrease on a West-only journey, but no sane commuter would do that because it's barely any distance at all.
I'll mention one other route, and that's RB4, the cross-river Hilton Ferry.
Canary Wharf → The hotel on the other side of the river
Canary Wharf → The hotel and back (return ticket)
This brief journey lies entirely within the East zone, and a single fare rises only slightly. But currently you can buy a paper return ticket for your Oyster card and make a saving on the second trip. Once 'touch in and out' begins you'll pay the same on the return as on the way out, which is an overnight 18% price hike.
And what if you pay with something other than Oyster, say on the most popular tourist route?
Embankment - Greenwich (Cash)
Embankment - Greenwich (Oyster)
Embankment - Greenwich (Travelcard)
Embankment - Greenwich (Contactless)
The full headline fare is expensive, at £8.00. Oyster fares are 10-20% off what anyone who turns up with cash has to pay, which is a smaller discount than most other forms of TfL travel. If you have a Travelcard on your Oyster card, like I do, you get a much better 33% off the full fare, which might suddenly make taking the boat look worthwhile. But if you only have a contactless card, sorry, the system isn't going to be able to cope with these until next summer, so for now you're going to end up paying full whack.
Most Londoners won't pay these prices to travel by river when there are cheaper faster options by train. Westminster to North Greenwich, for example, is only 12 minutes by Jubilee line rather than 45 minutes by boat, and the journey costs £4 less. Only if you like the view from the river, or hate the squash on the tube, is a Thames Clipper ticket a good deal. Equally I'm now looking at an all-East river journey from Canary Wharf to Woolwich with my Travelcard and thinking £2.80 might be a damned good price for a 25 minute trip.
So anyway, in summary... 1) Some time next month you'll be able to use Oyster on river services to touch in and out 2) The changes to fares aren't really terribly dramatic 3) If you're going to pay over six quid for a boat ride, make it a long one.
ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
9) Cambridge Heath → Hackney Wick(2½ miles) [25 photos]
Here's a long section across the northern edge of the borough, the majority of which is park. Anywhere other than Tower Hamlets this could be a bit dull, but the park in question is Victoria Park, one of the borough's outdoor treasures, so all's good. Then on to Hackney Wick, the part which isn't actually in Hackney, before returning to the Lea and knocking on the door of the Olympic Park. By the time I reached this part of my circumnavigation I'd been walking for seven hours and had only stopped for a rest once. If you're struggling too, rest assured there's only one more section to go. [map]
Cambridge Heath Road (Tower Hamlets) becomes Mare Street (Hackney) at the bridge over the Regent's Canal. It's a busy spot, more so on the road than the water, although the towpath can be chock full with bikes and feet at times. I'd like to take the riverside route from here but am again thwarted by the towpath being on the left hand side and therefore in the wrong borough. Shame, because the canal would be the direct route to Victoria Park, but I now need to take a backstreet diversion instead. Vyner Street looks a bit grim, a cobbled thoroughfare lined with warehouses and the wrong kind of offices, and a string of taxis parked up so that they can be maintained. The only sign of life is The Victory pub, outside which one lone drinker eyes me suspiciously as I pass by with my camera. Only later do I discover that Vyner Street is a celebrated art hotspot with a cluster of cutting edge galleries... or at least was. A handful remain, but most moved out a couple of years ago due to excessive rent increases, and would anybody like to buy a luxury duplex apartment?
Housing kicks back in at the end of the street, initially in a nondescript way. Along Lark Row there's even a big enough gap to see through the fence across the canal, most notably the western entrance to Victoria Park, tauntingly unreachable on the opposite bank. It looks pretty, and pretty busy, and I'll be there in about ten minutes. Oh but Sewardstone Road is lovely too, the kind of desirable Victorian terrace that makes homeowners smile and estate agents leap. Tower Hamlets still boasts residential gems like this in unbombed, unredeveloped clusters, and this area around the London Chest Hospital is a good example. Or rather that's the former London Chest Hospital, whose services transferred to Barts in April and so is now up for grabs as a 'Residential development opportunity'. Potential purchasers are advised that "the site is subject to a number of Tree Preservation Orders", but that none of the buildings are listed, so imagine the profits four acres of shiny towers could bring.
A broad bridge finally leads across the canal into the splendours of Victoria Park. An ice cream van often awaits those arriving here, as do two howling hounds perched on plinths at the Bonner Gate. These are the Dogs of Alcibiades, sculptures from classical Rome copied from the British Museum and posted here in 1912 (or rather they're recent copies, the originals having been heavily vandalised a few years back). Next there follows a walk of over a mile and a half around the edge of Vicky Park, that's almost 10% of the perimeter of Tower Hamlets. Everywhere within the park is within the borough, whereas all the houses, roads (and two pubs) immediately across the fence belong to Hackney. For once I'm walking the right side of the line.
Initially my route demands that I walk back along the canal to the entrance I spotted earlier, past narrowboats tied up along the bank. But then I leave the water and curve round through the park proper to head back in the opposite direction. It's a hot and sunny day (remember those?) so the grass is liberally dotted with peeled and peeling bodies taking full advantage. On the floral lawns a Staffie rolls over and waves her legs in the air, while her owner picnics behind a palm tree and pretends not to notice. Meanwhile on the internal roadway the occasional scarlet-painted TfL-funded hirebike wobbles past, and a fleet of kid-powered mini-scooters pushes by. It's nice here, and tens of thousands of local residents know it.
Grove Road divides Vicky Park into two very unequal halves, the smaller western bit more ornamental and the much larger eastern bit more recreational. At the interface is The Royal Inn On The Park, a Lauriston local, after which it's grass and trees pretty much all the way. One particularly splendid feature is the Burdett-Coutts Fountain, a Gothic granite creation provided for the people of the East End by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a banking heiress who devoted most of her life to philanthropic largesse. Her gift no longer dispenses drinking water, but was recently renovated to celebrate its 150th anniversary and looks loftily magnificent. Alas most of the park's other fine features lie away from the perimeter, so I plod on along the avenue with a cricket match the most notable attraction.
The furthest north that Tower Hamlets goes is the park's Molesworth Gate, by chimneyed Molesworth Lodge, leading down and out onto busy Wick Road. I'm pretty much knackered now, having been on my feet for a good seventeen miles, so in need of a decent place to rest. Thankfully a much better option than a bogstandard bench exists, one of the fourteen stone alcoves from Old London Bridge, of which four still survive. Two are here, a decent distance apart, donated to the pioneering park in 1860 and now with convenient seating inside. Once rested I exit the park along the boundary through a gap in Cadogan Terrace, where a hooped footbridge crosses the chasm of the A12 dual carriageway. There's a pretty good view across Hackney Wick from up here, and also of occasional military flypasts - any plane heading for The Mall generally flies over here first.
The border here follows Wallis Road to the Overground station, then tracks directly along the railway line. The area hereabouts somehow remains packed with backstreet businesses and a creative vibe, as yet unwrecked by the 2012 tornado immediately across the river. Long-dead pubs are covered with better-than-averagegraffiti, artists' studios remain affordable, and the smell of baking bagels wafts out across White Post Lane. The Wick retains its cool, and draws in copious numbers of the young and hip to craft beer pizzerias, concealed skateparks, pop-up cider gardens and the occasional flea market. Wandering through without a beard, I feel almost out of place. And while I love that the neighbourhood survives, I can't help wondering how long landlords will be able to resist piecemeal replacement of commercial yards and buildings with more profitable residential boxes, until nobody'll think it worth bothering to come at all.
: Sometime this morning, just after nine o'clock, diamond geezer will receive its five millionth visitor. More accurately it'll be the five millionth time that a slightly ropey stats package has registered a unique visit, which isn't quite the same thing at all, but I think still very much worth celebrating. Five million visits is an impressive total - the equivalent of everyone in Scotland reading my blog once. But viewed another way it's not much - on average one packed tube train of readers a day, which is only 0.01% of the population of London. What I do know is that my audience is coming faster. The first million took just over five years, the last million's taken nearer a year and a quarter.
These visitor numbers rack up essentially in three different ways. The bedrock of the figures are those of you who come back on a regular basis to read what I've written, maybe even every day, to whom I say enormous thanks. Some days you're rewarded with a post that hits your target, other days I'm droning on about something you care little about, but hopefully you find plenty of interest eventually. Then there are the folk who land here because a search engine, usually Google, has directed them here. I've published over six thousand posts since 2002, many on obscure and under-featured locations, so there's a good chance a reference to my words will appear in the results. Most searchers never return again, but a few hang around, and a special hello if that's how you first arrived. And then there are people who turn up because someone somewhere has read something interesting or relevant on my blog, and then specifically linked through in the hope that other people will read it. These visits come in spikes, some huge, most small, and often with no rhyme or reason as to why some posts inspire and others fall.
What I like to do, every time one of these millionaire milestones rolls by, is to look back and analyse where my visitors came from. In particular I like to draw up a league table of top linking blogs, ordered by volume of visitors clicking here from there. This used to be quite interesting, and important, back in the era when blogs thrived solely because other blogs linked to them. How times change. Now when people like what you've written they no longer announce it via their own blog, because writing paragraphs is too much hassle. Instead they tap a few characters into some micro-blogging portal or social media messageboard, that is when they're not too busy commenting on national news stories or sharing an swift selfie. The ability to drive traffic to blogs has wholly shifted, away from those who generate their own content towards those who merely digest the content of others.
So my regular linking league table again includes a range of websites broader than mere blogs. I've not gone as far as including Google, because that would be top of the list by a factor of 20. But you'll spot three particular services that didn't exist when I started out, and which now dominate beyond expectation. My apologies if they've shoved your website down the top 20 since my last league table at Easter last year. And thank you all for linking (assuming you still exist).
Over the last million visitors, Reddit is the star performer. Members of this geeky messageboard are always on the lookout for quirky jewels to share, not that they find them here too frequently, but a single mention does tend to send the Redditors flooding. As yet they've not come close to topping Twitter, and both are still a long way off dislodging Girl With A One Track Mind from the summit, but they're easily the dominant force in blog referral of late. As for Facebook, I'm not a member so I have no idea what you lot are up to behind the password wall. But posting (or tweeting) a link takes almost no effort at all, and people are ever so willing to click through on blind faith, and hey presto that's another DG visitor notched up.
Meanwhile in blogworld, surprisingly little has changed since the four million rankings. Londonist sometimes kindly mention me, and a small fraction of their million readers a month take an interest, which maintains their lofty position in my table. They ditched their blogroll some years ago whereas the über-transport site London Reconnections introduced one at the very bottom of their new template, an act of kindness which has led to them becoming my highest climber. They'll be in eighth place pretty soon, but the underlying totals suggest seventh will be a much tougher nut to crack.
I extend a special hand of solidarity to Scaryduck and (the football-related) Arseblog, who like me maintain the absurd notion of publishing at least one post every day. And look, I have two new entries, both positioned at twenty-something last time. Ian Visits arrives thanks to his regular Friday transport round-ups, cheers. As for affable-lurking, well, if you'd started a blog ten years ago and clicked through to mine once every day, you'd be in the second column of the table too. Thanks David. But also feel the tumbleweed. Four previously mega-active blogs have slipped into long-term hiatus or been completely deleted, while four of the others now appear to post only every blue moon, and hence are inexorably slipping back.
Interestingly, every single blog that was in my one million Top 10 back in 2008 is still in my five million Top 20. Click-throughs really were at their highest in the early days of blogging, and very few blogs that have come along since have ever had that level of traction. Indeed since my two and a half million league table in 2011, that's the halfway milestone to today, the Top 20's mostly just shuffled around a bit rather than done anything exciting. You probably spend most of your surfing time on professionally-resourced online platforms these days, as the Huffingtons and Buzzfeeds of this world monetise what many of us used to write for fun.
My visitor counter still counts those of you who surf in via smartphone, because I refuse to allow Blogger to serve you up a generic mobile template (unless you've somehow opted out). But I've completely lost track of the significant number of you using RSS and various feedreaders, whose simplicity allows thousands to read this blog without ever visiting it. As far as you're concerned I'm no longer writing a continuous story, I'm generating atomised blogposts - which makes a complete mockery of attempting to count visitor numbers accurately anyway. In reality I passed the magic five million many months ago, but didn't realise it. Never mind the inexactitude. I don't mind where you come from, I'm just well chuffed that you bother. Hello and thanks to all of you. And here's to many more...
ROUND TOWER A walk around the edge of Tower Hamlets
8) Shoreditch → Cambridge Heath(1½ miles) [18 photos]
If I had to call it, this is the least interesting section of my walk round Tower Hamlets. The northwestern edge of the borough butts up against the southern edge of Hackney, kicking off somewhere fairly trendy and then heading somewhere less so. There should be a pretty bit near the end, but then a gasworks gets in the way. But don't let any of this put you off. [map]
Although Shoreditch High Street seems the epitome of cool, the Tower Hamlets boundary runs one street back. It's even called Boundary Street, in case you hadn't got the message. A few on-trend ripples have washed out this far, with a white-blinded organic cafe/bakery at the junction with Redchurch Street offering bourgeois on-pavement dining opportunities. How things change. Off to the east was once the worst slum in London, the Old Nichol, less a housing estate than a maze of jerry-built misery, for families living one rung above the workhouse. Thousands of people were crammed into tiny rooms and cellars, disease was rife, and the area wasn't properly cleared until 1891. In its place rose the Boundary Estate, the world's first council estate, and still a model scheme for how to do these things properly. A series of tall brick tenements radiates from a central circus, where a bandstand sits on top of a rounded pile of slum rubble. It's a restful scenic spot, but I only spy it from a distance walking by.
Shoreditch's 'Oranges and lemons' church lies just across the yard in Hackney, while Boundary Street peters out as a narrow lane with a dead Tudorbethan-style pub at the end. At least The Conqueror is still standing, which is more than can be said for the Mildmay Hospital, over whose remains a fleet of yellow diggers now scavenge. A replacement opened recently close by, but the ward in which Princess Diana famously shook the hand of an AIDS patient is now dust. The latest casualty hereabouts is The George and Dragon, Shoreditch's most achingly kitsch gay pub, on the tip of Austin Road. A "dramatic" rent hike forced its owners to put the lease up for sale earlierthismonth, as rapid gentrification hereabouts continues to snuff out the creative spaces that made it possible. But the pub's not gone yet, and a Drag Sale was in full swing as I passed, with glamorous punters picking over racks of vintage dresses.
After a considerable amount of wiggling, the Tower Hamlets boundary now latches onto one street and sticks to it for the whole of the next kilometre. That street is Hackney Road, gateway to the East, which should be top of your list should you ever desire to buy a wholesale handbag. The brightly painted shops at the Shoreditch end are most likely to sell you expensive bling, while the bargains are with the older traders further up. The first junction with Columbia Road is marked by a portaloo and a Welcome to Tower Hamlets sign, after which boarded-up shops intermingle with minor commercial premises along graffitied brick parades.
I nearly rented a ground floor hovel here when I moved to London, a possibility I abandoned the split second I walked through the door. One of the nearest shops is now occupied by a professional whittler, the magnificently monikered Barn the Spoon, who sculpts his wooden cutlery either here or in the middle of a wood in Herefordshire. Alternative entertainment used to be provided by the enormous bingo hall across the road, formerly an Odeon cinema, but the last balls were drawn inJune after the business received a financial offer they couldn't refuse. The area's elderly residents are now ferried to a neighbouring hall in Camden by gleaming white bus, and the replacement buildings will no doubt appeal to a much younger (and wealthier) demographic.
The second junction with Columbia Road marks the point where the Tower Hamlets boundary cuts a dash to the north. To one side of Goldsmith's Row is Hackney City Farm, a delightful outpost of Haggerston Park, which mixes pettable animals with a rustic Italian cafe in a way that many local families find irresistible. On the other until recently was Queen Elizabeth Children's Hospital, currently being transformed into a few affordable homes and a series of unaffordable apartments under the unutterably pretentious name of Mettle&Poise. Apparently "Mettle represents the area’s resilience and strength, whilst Poise demonstrates the elegance and sympathetic addition the development will bring to Hackney", because there are lots of well paid jobs in on-brand hogwash these days. What housing lies behind is more reassuringly standard, notably the sinuous brick blocks of the 1930s Dinmont Estate, so very Tower Hamlets.
At this point, were geography kinder, I ought to follow the boundary on to Broadway Market. The edge of Tower Hamlets then follows the Regent's Canal, which would be a great walk, except the only towpath is on the Hackney side. And because there's no way out without changing borough I can't even follow Pritchard's Road to the waterside, and bring you tales of pie and mash, boutiques and gentrified food. Instead a diversion round the Bethnal Green Gasworks is required, at least for a few more years before the housing estate it's due to be replaced by is opened. The gasholders lookfinest from the side I'm not allowed to go. Enjoy them while they last.
Straining advertising standards somewhat, the Hotel Shoreditch is a chunky newbuild located far from the area most Londoners would describe as such. Their website says "this is a highly fashionable area so please dress to impress", whereas I doubt Billy's Cafe across the road sees much in the way of haute couture. At the Lithuanian church on backstreet Emma Street I have to divert round a large (and jolly) wedding party billowing onto the tarmac. From here a low key commercial zone finally leads down to the canal, bifurcating round 'The Oval', which turns out to be an elliptical car park. A two-storey office block made of shipping containers looks out over the water, while Empress Coaches (founded 1912) still somehow plies its trade from a characterful cobbled yard. The road beneath the railway is blocked off to vehicles, but thankfully those of us on foot can stroll by to reach the canal bridge at Cambridge Heath Road.