Thursday, December 12, 2013
CIRCLE: The Victoria Embankment
As traffic rattles along the Victoria Embankment, so the Circle line rumbles underneath. This artificial wedge of land was opened in 1870, reclaimed from the Thames, and curves through ninety degrees from Westminster to Blackfriars. Previously the closest street to the river had been the Strand (there's a clue in the name), now suddenly North London was fifty metres wider. That so much of the Embankment remains green space is thanks to newsagent magnate WH Smith. He fought a sterling battle in the Houses of Parliament to maintain public access to what had been the foreshore, defeating the Prime Minister's plan to build acres of offices instead. Hurrah for his stubborn diligence. And today my journey reaches the central section of this Victorian masterpiece, between Embankment and Temple stations.
My Embankment gallery
» There are 59 photographs so far (another 30+ today) [slideshow]
» All about the construction of the Victoria Embankment
Golden Jubilee Bridges: Barely ten years old, these twin walkways have revolutionised pedestrian access to South Bank. Mind the buskers and pause midway for a contented stare along the sweeping curl of the Embankment.
Embankment station: The renaming of this station, and adjacent stations, is probably the most over-referenced fact on this blog, so I'll not delve into the story again. Above ground the architecture has classical pretensions, although this illusion is ruined somewhat if you look down at the building's drab roof from the footbridge. In case you've not heard, Bakerloo and Northern line trains won't be stopping here for most of 2014, starting on January 8th, so that four ancient escalators can be refurbished. Thankfully Charing Cross station is barely any distance away, and a swift walk down Villiers Street should sort it.
Victoria Embankment Gardens (west): This splendid recreational haven dates back to 1874, and tucks into the former riverbank at the embankment's widest point. The gardens are also firmly fenced, and a proper municipal parkkeeper-type goes round at dusk jangling keys and shooing everyone out. At the west end is a large bandstand, still used in the summer, beside a lush lawn usually overplanted with flowers. I would show you photos but the area's currently covered by a temporary hospitality village delivering corporate Christmas parties and the like, which won't be clearing off until next week. At more normal times go stand by the cafe, near a suspicious looking grating, and you can easily hear trains passing beneath into Embankment station.
York River Gate: A wonderful relic of Stuart London, this Italianate stone gateway was once the Thames-side exit from the London home of the Archbishop of York. That's long gone, as have all the grand homes along this section of the riverbank, but the gate was deliberately retained as a reminder of the great transformation wrought by the Embankment. If you're ever showing visitors round town bring them here, and point out how the Thames now runs 150 yards away, and watch them gasp.
Victoria Embankment Gardens (central): As the gardens narrow to the east, so a central footpath bends through past a motley collection of memorials. A Coronation Oak, a statue of Robert Burns, a pond presented by a council leader called Alfred, a nod to the 7/7 Book of Remembrance, the bust of a blind Liberal statesman, that sort of thing. It's almost like whenever Westminster Council needs to commemorate something they bung it here. One large circular pool (dotted with sculpted storks) sits in front of a particularly massive memorial to Major General Lord Cheylesmore of the Grenadier Guards. Only if you exit the gardens does the Belgian War Memorial on the opposite side become apparent, and the scale makes sense.
Adelphi: Once the site of a grand palace overlooking the Thames, London's first neo-classical building was erected here in the late 18th century. They knocked that down in the 1930s, the philistines, and built a splendid white Art Deco block in its place, so that's maybe good. And good luck trying to follow the maze of stairwells and hidden roadways underneath.
Shell Mex House: Another 30s office monster, this replacing the Hotel Cecil, and with London's largest clockface beaming down from on high. Situated bang on a bend in the river, the views from the 10th floor balcony are exceptional.
Carting Lane: At the foot of this steep hill, formerly the riverbank, is the answer to a classic pub quiz question. Where is London's last remaining functional gas lamp? It's here, once powered by sewer gas, now a little more natural.
The Savoy: You're probably more used to viewing this über-premier hotel from the front, on Savoy Court (that other classic pub quiz answer, the only street in London where traffic drives on the right). But many a top-level guest arrives here, beneath the glass canopy round the back (and the occasional member of staff nips out for a fag too, when the footman isn't looking).
Savoy Street: Along with parallel Savoy Hill, this road is another convincing slice of evidence that the Thames once flowed here, at the foot of the slope.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Cleopatra's Needle: We have one, New York has one and Paris has one. They're genuine obelisks, floated by sea from Egypt, but none of them actually date from the time of Cleopatra. The hieroglyphics carved in the granite are from Ramesses II and are well over 3000 years old. Buried beneath London's needle is a time capsule from 1878, containing (amongst other things) a box of hairpins, a rupee, a portrait of Queen Victoria, a Bradshaw's Railway Guide and copies of 10 daily newspapers. Due to a Victorian oversight the two bronze sphinxes on either side are looking the wrong way, facing inwards rather than guarding the monument. Neither are originals, merely window dressing. Beneath each sphinx is a set of steep slippery steps leading into the Thames, or down to a muddy beach if it's low tide. When the Embankment was built it was envisaged that this would be an embarkation point for riverboat traffic, but passenger usage never really took off.
Queen Mary: You're too late, she's sailed, to make way for this...
Savoy Pier: Luxury pontoon with midriver events venue and departure point for private yacht charters, opens 2014. You won't be going.
Waterloo Bridge: The second bridge on this site, opened during World War 2 and (it's said) constructed mainly by women. It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (see also Battersea Power Station) and features cantilevered concrete beams creating mock arches across the river. The twin staircases up from Embankment level often have an unfortunate air of urine about them, but the view from the bridge is about as good as London gets.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Somerset House: It's one of the 18th century's greatest neoclassical buildings, originally home to the Admiralty, later the Royal Academy, and now lots of arty fountainy icerink stuff. But take a fresh look at Somerset House the next time you pass along the Embankment. That run of stone arches along the pavement used to dip into the Thames, which lapped alongside. Meanwhile the low central archway - today's Embankment entrance - was flooded with water to allow barges to drop off passengers beneath the terrace. While most of the other grand buildings along the waterfront were demolished to make way for the Victoria Embankment, how fortunate we are that Sir Joseph Bazalgette spared Somerset House.
(and we'll stop there for today, just before we arrive at Temple station)
posted 02:00 :
Wednesday, December 11, 2013CIRCLE: The Victoria Embankment
The birth of the Circle line is intimately connected to the development of the capital's sewer system. London's appalling sanitation, which peaked with "The Great Stink", inspired Joseph Bazalgette to build the Victoria Embankment in the 1860s. He hid the Northern Low Level Sewer within, and there was room alongside for a tunnel to house the Metropolitan District Railway. The Embankment was constructed by narrowing the Thames, a much better idea than digging up the Strand to lay pipes and rail tracks below. Which means that when you ride the Circle line between Westminster and Blackfriars, you are in fact passing through what used to be the river. Time for a long slow walk along the Embankment, I think...
Palace of Westminster: You know all about this one. Plus the Circle line doesn't go underneath... the Embankment starts across the road.
Portcullis House: This is Parliament's office block, with space for MP's desks and committee rooms and some expensive fig trees. And the Circle line does indeed run underneath, and the Jubilee line too, in that sheer deep magnificent extension station.
New Scotland Yard: The building alongside Portcullis House is Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard, headquarters of the Metropolitan Police from 1902 to 1992. There never was an Old Scotland Yard.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Boudicca: It's one of the busiest pedestrian junctions in town. Tourists throng and queue on towards Westminster Bridge as they make their way between Parliament Square and The South Bank, or wherever tourists go. On the corner is a kiosk selling five-pound-plus pancakes, because tourists don't realise they're being ripped off, and a man selling roasting chestnuts. Several red-coated tour bus guides lie in wait hoping to snap up punters, while a stall festooned with flags sells I Love London t-shirts and Union Jack jester hats, plus lots of other merchandise no self-respecting local would wear. Looking down over the furore is a statue of Queen Boadicea in her knife-wheeled chariot, carved by Lord Thomas Thornycroft, and placed here in 1902.
Steps: Steep steps lead down to one of Westminster station's many subway entrances. On the way watch out for a mysterious locked door in the side of the plinth, behind which a ladder leads down to a network of service tunnels. Beside the riverbank is a tall octagonal copper case, green in hue, containing an unseen tide gauge. Then best move along, because there's a public toilet along here which whiffs a bit.
Westminster Millennium Pier: This is the touristy one, with a multitude of competing services offering boat trips mostly downstream. Of interest is the step-free access gate, the only way on and off the pier if you're in a wheelchair, but officially part of London's flood defence... so if you see it closed during service hours, worry.
Lamps: Tall black globe lamps appear every 70 feet along the edge of the Victoria Embankment. They feature gorgeous entwined fishes and are part of the original decoration. They were also amongst the first lights in London, nay the world, to make the switch from gas to electricity.
Jogging civil servants: They're everywhere at lunchtime, nipping out of the office in their running gear for a pant up the Embankment and back. Mind the torrent doesn't knock you down.
Battle of Britain Memorial: Erected in 2005, this pair of low long memorials commemorates the sacrifice of The Few (from Sergeant H H Adair to Sergeant R C Young). Most impressive are the bronze high relief sculptured panels depicting the height of the Blitz.
RAF Memorial: Up next, on a similar theme but very different, is the RAF Memorial. This has been here since 1923, and stands tall and proud with a gold winged eagle on top. Per Ardua Ad Astra.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Whitehall Gardens: A long expanse of grass covers the area in front of the Ministry of Defence. Its stark stone façade reveals little, and only a collection of particularly obscure martial memorials hint that this is the military end of Whitehall. The Chindit Memorial commemorate WW2 campaigns in Burma, then there's a statue of Hugh Trenchard who founded the Royal Air Force. The Fleet Air Arm is remembered via a slightly scary winged figure, then there's Lord Portal (honest) and General Gordon of Khartoum. But mostly grass.
Queen Mary's Steps: These are an amazing survivor of 17th century London. Sir Christopher Wren built a landing stage for Queen Mary II so that she could disembark from the Royal Barge below what had once been Whitehall Palace. Construction of the MoD building in 1939 uncovered the steps and part of the Tudor wall, and these can now be seen on public display behind a low fence. It's amazing to stand alongside, now 50 metres from the water's edge, and to realise that the Thames once lapped here. Few other sites along the Embankment reveal the scale of Bazalgette's engineering achievement quite like this.
Whitehall Gardens: These continue, a lot garden-ier, on the opposite side of Horse Guards Avenue. Three statues act as focal points amidst the palm trees and vegetation - one at each end and one in the centre. Statue number 1 is of William Tyndale, printing press pioneer, rather out of place in this combat-themed neighbourhood. There are bonus quiz points if you know why Sir Henry Bartle Frere and General Sir James Outram are famous (five points for the British colonial administrator, ten for the English general quashing rebellion in Indian). As many civil servants have spotted, this is a fine place to sit and eat lunch, or perhaps pass secret messages by hiding them under the benches.
Samuel Plimsoll: Facing away from the gardens towards the river is London's memorial to maritime saviour Samuel Plimsoll, erected by the ever grateful National Union of Seamen. That circle with a line through it is his Plimsoll line, and very definitely not the first appearance of the Underground's roundel.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the road...
Tattershall Castle: Here's the first of the boats moored up along the Embankment, this one named after a fortress in Lincolnshire. With its big slanting funnel, this paddle steamer used to ferry folk across the Humber Estuary, and is now a bar, restaurant and general entertainment venue.
RS Hispaniola: Ditto this boat, with slightly higher class dining, and a website that reveals nothing of the vessel's history, just that they sell lots of food and drink.
Joseph Bazalgette: And here he is, opposite the end of Northumberland Avenue beneath the Golden Jubilee Bridge, the great Engineer Of The London Main Drainage System himself. Sir Joseph is commemorated in a memorial that's not as large as you might expect, but still grand and ornate. At its heart is the bust of a bald man with a seriously brush-like moustache, looking simultaneously both gruff and kindly. The traffic that rumbles by, the trains that run beneath, and the passers-by not choking with cholera... every Londoner owes him an enormous debt.
(and let's pause here, at Hungerford Bridge, immediately before Embankment station)
posted 01:00 :
Tuesday, December 10, 2013Prior to 2000 there was only the Tate Gallery. Then Tate Modern opened at Bankside, and everyone embraced it, and mostly forgot about its elder sister parked up the Thames in Pimlico. The older gallery became Tate Britain, now home to a diverse collection of historical and contemporary British art. It was built on the site of a former penitentiary, the scary Millbank Prison, and started out because sugar magnate Henry Tate wanted to leave his art collection to the nation. Since 1897 there have been seven enlargements, including a move into the ex military hospital nextdoor to create the Clore Gallery extension. The latest upgrade opened last month - a major rejig up front plus an internal rehang. And well worth a look around, I'd say.
It's lovely to be able to walk back in through the front doors again. Imposing though the rear basement entrance is, nothing quite beats the clean chequered black and white of the proper foyer. Step through to see what all the fuss has been about - the restoration of the rotunda and the creation of a new staircase. This spirals down beneath the dome, not far, but enough of a spiral to be absurdly photogenic. Best viewed without people, obviously, so I plumped for Monday morning, and that worked. But going down doesn't lead to anywhere spectacular, just cloakrooms and a couple of dining options, so best not yet. Two smaller staircases curve upwards, one marked Grand Saloon, the other Members Room. I took the former to reach an elevated balcony, where an employee stationed at the top told me I could look around but couldn't use the facilities. There didn't seem to be much up here apart from cosy places for members to sit, so I scuttled back down at the earliest opportunity feeling distinctly unwelcome.
So, best head straight ahead into the gallery proper. The main hall is really long, and the Tate has a habit of not filling it with very much. Previously there's been an athlete running up and down, and a film showing what it might look like if it were full, and currently there are some piles of sort-of bricks. The full-size aeroplane, once, was a nice touch, but otherwise too often dismissed. A couple of side galleries currently impress. One holds rather a lot of Henry Moores, including the model for the Draped Seated Woman that Tower Hamlets council attempted to sell off. Another, much smaller and darker, is host to a temporary sound installation consisting of three free jukeboxes. Their playlists are eclectic, including pop, classical, folk and speech, plus vinyl discs recorded by members of the visiting public. I synched together When I'm Cleaning Windows with George V's Silver Jubilee Message, which was novel, then fired up Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald and left this reverberating around the inner galleries as I fled. Childish, delightful.
The main focus of the Tate Britain's new look is a chronological rehang through twenty galleries around the perimeter. Its umbrella title is "BP Walk Through British Art" - not because the petrochemical multinational are well known for their creativity, but because the marketing department have paid a substantial amount in sponsorship. I considered being minorly offended by this, then remembered that the gallery is itself named after a sugar dynasty that exploited slaves and rotted teeth. The 500-year art tour starts in 1540, then promptly rockets up to the 19th and 20th centuries. For old masters the National Gallery remains the place to go, although Constable's Flatford Mill and Millais' Ophelia are amongst the classics Henry Tate assembled. Again Monday morning proved the perfect time to visit, often with an entire gallery to myself rather than having to jostle and shuffle for a clear view.
The 20th century half of the circuit has considerable overlap with Tate Modern, although I found that collection unexpectedly unexciting the last time I visited and too full of bluster. In comparison Tate Britain's decade by decade highlights speed by, with Bacons and Hockneys and Rileys to peruse, and not too much chunky, lah-di-dah faff. Right up at the far end is a darkened room containing what looks like three dozen primitive wooden sculptures, but which on closer inspection include the faces of Ronald McDonald and Hamburglar, courtesy of Jake and Dinos Chapman. In total contrast, across the hall are some of Sylvia Pankhurt's suffragette paintings, and then there's an entirely empty gallery where the lights go on and off. This is Martin Creed's Work No 227, The Lights going on and off, which I was amazed to read has been bought for the nation, and will shortly be going on tour.
Miss one door on the right and you could overlook an entire wing. The Turner Collection lurks round a corner beyond 1940, and boy do they have a lot of J.M.W.s. Many of these are unfinished works, not that it's always easy to tell with Turner, given how his canvases usually have that glowing woolly look. Others are proper and complete, while others are merely sketches that didn't get damaged when the Thames flooded here in 1928. A room of Constables lurks down the back, and William Blake is hiding upstairs, if you get that far. Perhaps you ought to download the free app to guide you round, in case you miss anything important. Or why not try the Walk through British Art audioguide, with commentary on 50 key works, before you go, for nothing. The new Tate Britain, sweet.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, December 09, 2013Only in Central London is the Thames easy to cross. Head upstream past Chelsea and the bridges space out. Venture beyond Hammersmith and the crossings spread further apart. But once you pass Richmond, then any bridges become genuinely far between. Traffic can't drive across for three whole miles between Richmond and Kingston, while pedestrians get only a single bridge, at Teddington. But there is another means of passage, a water-borne means of transport that harks back to an earlier age. It's Hammerton's Ferry. And it's an absolute bargain. [website] [twitter] [history] [map]
The Thames above Richmond is a place of beauty. Stand on Richmond Hill, as hundreds of artists have done over the years, and the river meanders round a sharp curve through verdant meadows. Nobody lives down there, bar the Petersham herd of cows, though there are two impressive mansions hidden in the trees. On the south bank is Ham House, now a National Trust jewel, for three centuries home to the Earls of Dysart. Their private estate covered many acres, hence there was no need for the hoi polloi to ever cross the river here. For them there were ferries at Richmond and upstream at Twickenham... at least until the turn of the 20th century. In 1901 Marble Hill House, a Palladian mansion on the opposite bank, entered public ownership. Local resident Walter Hammerton opened a boathouse close by and began hiring out boats to daytrippers, some of whom pleaded for a ferry across the river, and so Hammerton's Ferry was born.
The owners of the Twickenham Ferry weren't best pleased, so started legal action to shut their competitor down. The case eventually advanced to the House of Lords, who ruled in Hammerton's favour, and his 12 seat clinker-built skiff continued to ply back and forth. Walter finally retired in 1947, passing on ownership to a boy called Sandy Scott. Both ferries survived in competition until 1985 when the Twickenham Ferry faded away, but Hammerton's is still going strong and is claimed to be the last privately-owned ferry on the London stretch of the Thames. The latest pilots are a father and son team, Francis and Andrew Spencer, and if you turn up at the right time they'll chug you cheaply across the river.
A jetty stretches out from the edge of Orleans Gardens, with no obvious place to stand if the ferry's not in. To the left is a big barge with a disguised portakabin on top, used by the ferrymen as a comfort stop and hideaway. To the right are the boats and kayaks for hire, not really a goer in December, nor are the 60p cans of soft drink currently a big seller. But continue ahead to the end of the jetty, at this time of year weekends only, and the ferry should be returning soon.
The latest iteration is an aluminium hulled boat, shallower than previous because the river's rarely dredged, but still with seats for 12 to get across. She's called the Peace Of Mind, a very simple beast with a throttle at the back and three lifebelts perched on the front. Yesterday it was Andrew on duty, wrapped up warmly in blue jacket and grey beanie, running a slimmed-down service 'til three. Fine weather had lured many families, walkers and dog walkers out, so the crossing service was surprisingly well patronised.
The fare to cross is £1 single - up from 60p ten years ago, and one penny when the ferry opened in 1909. Pay up and sit down, taking care not to sit in the muddy patch left by a recently disembarked dog. Once everyone's stepped aboard, then the journey can begin. There's quite a view as the crossing progresses, notably towards Petersham Meadow and Richmond where the Star and Garter Home looks down from the hillside. All around are some post-autumnal trees, upstream that's the tip of Eel Pie Island, and across the water is the splendid frontage of Ham House. Breathe it all in quickly because the crossing's only brief - I timed it at two minutes flat.
These are the final miles of the tidal Thames so the height of the river varies. Stepping off at the other side might therefore deposit you on the riverbank, or might leave you having to ascend a set of damp stone steps to reach grass level. A bench and a muddy patch mark the point of departure for those returning the other way, and then Andrew's off on his endless shuttle again. Make sure you're back in time before he shuts down for the afternoon, else it's a bloody long walk around.
Fare check Ferry Cablecar Single cash fare £1 £4.20 Time taken 2 min 5 min Cost per minute 50p 84p Distance 120m 1100m Metres per pound 120m 260m Elevation 0m 90m Bikes allowed? ✓ ✓
» Ham House: Georgian villa, owned by the National Trust, house reopens February
» Marble Hill House: Palladian Villa, owned by English Heritage, house reopens April
» Orleans House Gallery: Palladian villa, owned by Richmond Council, open afternoons (not Mondays)
» Eel Pie Island: Open two weekends a year, which you just missed because it was yesterday, but I thoroughly enjoyed a second look around the artists studios. [previous report] [new photo] [new photo]
posted 01:00 :
Sunday, December 08, 2013Saturday night at the London Palladium...
Eat Pray Laugh!
Barry Humphries' Farewell Tour
Expecting an evening of Dame Edna? No, the clue's in the title. Melbourne's housewife superstar does take centre stage for the entire second half, but expect a very different tranche of characters before the interval. Australia's cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson splutters forth, quite literally for those in the stalls, as he shows off some of his barbecue cooking skills. Vulgarity and inappropriateness are the order of the day, which may prove tough for those in the audience who aren't braced for it. Do the audience laugh because they recognise the inanity of the overt racism or because they agree with it - it's hard to tell. Les's reverend brother Gerard is inappropriate in an entirely different way (there's a reason he wears a prison tag) before the backyard scene changes to something unexpectedly ethereal. The tour's website insists that Sandy Stone is "perhaps Humphries' greatest creation", although his ghostly monologue isn't played for laughs, and may kick off several "what are we actually doing here?" conversations in the half time bar.
Dame Edna's shimmering arrival (on the back of an elephant) raises the pitch somewhat. She's found spirituality, that's the underlying theme, although it's a tentative hook all told. Much of the hour and ten is spent insulting the audience, indeed some would say bullying, so sharp is the Dame's wicked tongue. Pay extra to sit at the front of the stalls and you risk total ridicule, if you're very unfortunate. A substantial portion of the show consists of Ms Everage marrying off two members of the audience, a pretence which very much stands and falls on the enthusiasm of the pair chosen. Total success last night, with Barry extemporising brilliantly as the ceremony ended up with a phone call to the groom's mother in Germany. There are songs, there are routines about the family, and there's rather a good joke about a coffee enema. It all ends with gladioli, of course, and a final appearance from the man beneath the make up, smiling and taking his leave of the UK audience.
Edna's eight week run at the Palladium continues until the first week of January, before heading on a two month national tour. I'm not convinced the London show's worth the face value of the ticket (ouch), nor even that this really is his farewell tour. But at 79-pushing-80, and still fresh as a koala, you can only applaud Barry's comic aplomb, possums.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, December 07, 2013Today's the day that route 390 changes over to brand new buses. You know the type. Sleek and red with curvy corners and swooshing stairs, plus an extra door at the back with an open platform. Boris said he'd introduce them when he was first elected, and now here they are rolling out across their fourth new route. But what precisely are they called?
Up until now TfL have gone out of their way to be careful not to call them Routemasters, because they're not. Routemasters are much-loved 50-year-old inaccessible workhorses with a permanently open rear platform, and these shiny things very much aren't.
Except that earlier this week TfL sent out a press release calling this same bus the "New Routemaster".
Route 390 to be served by New Routemasters from SaturdayIt seems a quite deliberate re-branding. TfL even tweeted the new name three times.
"From Saturday 7 December route 390 will become the fourth in the capital to be served entirely by New Routemasters."
• From Saturday bus route 390 will become the fourth in the capital to be served entirely by New RoutemastersI wonder what's brought this about all of a sudden. Because TfL didn't describe the last three rollouts like this.
• Passengers on route 390 will travel on New Routemasters from Saturday as the fourth bus route is converted
• New Routemasters will operate on route 390 from Saturday as the fourth bus route converts to these green vehicles
27 February 2012: First passengers jump aboard the new bus for LondonThis was very definitely the New Bus for London, not the New Routemaster, before this week's re-naming. So I thought I'd dig back into TfL's press release archive and search out every mention of the new bus over the last five years. And that's interesting, because the name has definitely been evolving.
17 June 2013: Route 24 to be served by iconic New Bus for London from Saturday
21 October 2013: Route 9 to be served by iconic New Bus for London from Saturday
Five years ago, when the original design competition was underway, the key descriptor was the bus's 21st-century-ness.
2008: "A new Routemaster fit for 21st Century London", "a new bus fit for 21st century London based on the iconic Routemaster", "21st Century Routemaster moves closer", "a bus inspired by the classic Routemaster"×2, "a 21st Century Routemaster bus"×6
Four years ago when the Heatherwicks won, the 21st century description was phased out and the "new bus" phrase appeared.
2009: "a 21st Century Routemaster bus", "a new bus for the Capital, inspired by the iconic Routemaster", "a new bus for London, based on the iconic Routemaster", "the New Bus for London, based on the iconic Routemaster"
Three years ago there wasn't much to shout about, as the new bus's development inched forward.
2010: "taking inspiration from the old Routemaster"
Then two years ago, as the first prototype prepared to take to the roads, the "New Bus" gained its capitals.
2011: "The New Bus for London - inspired by the iconic Routemaster", "The New Bus for London symbolises a stylish, modern and fully accessible version of the much loved Routemaster", "a contemporary take on some of the best-loved elements of the original Routemaster", "a full-size, 3D mock-up of the Routemaster inspired New Bus for London", "Inspired by the famous red Routemaster"×2, "in common with the iconic Routemaster"×2
Last year, alongside the actual launch, the word "iconic" was bandied about a lot.
2012: "in common with the iconic Routemaster"×2, "a new bus for London that drew inspiration from the iconic Routemaster but was fit for the 21st century", "the new Routemaster-inspired vehicles", "New Bus for London launched, taking its design cues from the iconic Routemaster"
And finally this year... still inspired, still iconic, but still definitely not a Routemaster.
2013: "The New Bus for London, inspired by the classic Routemaster", "Inspired by the classic Routemaster", "The new bus for London incorporates iconic design, echoing the historic and incredibly popular Routemaster"
Until this week.
December 2013: "the fourth in the capital to be served entirely by New Routemasters", "The New Routemaster is the greenest diesel electric hybrid bus in the world", "The introduction of the New Routemaster is part of a comprehensive programme to reduce emissions"
Is this change a deliberate attempt to embrace the power of the Routemaster name? Or is dropping "Bus for London" a deliberate attempt to broaden the bus's sales appeal beyond the capital, given that other cities like Hong Kong have shown absolutely no interest in buying any? Only London wants a fleet of three-door two-staffed omnibuses, it seems, hence the bus needs rebranding.
And obviously that's allowed. TfL can call their bus whatever they like, be that the New Bus for London, the New Routemaster or whatever. Hell, they could even rename it the Ecobus, the Boris Bus or the Emirates Airbus if they wanted, it's their prerogative. But New Routemaster seems to be the 21st century iconic name they'd like us all to adopt. No longer "inspired by", but properly actual. So please be aware of what TfL's branding team have done, and then every time you see the name in the future you can join me in muttering "but it's not a Routemaster..."
posted 07:00 :
Friday, December 06, 2013If you're in touch with London, you'll know dining out is where it's at. Fine food and good company, optimally priced, are the cornerstone of many a good evening. So I'm pleased to be able to follow the trend and bring you news and reviews of top cuisine, and restaurants to die for.
Uncle Jim's Fish Bar ✮✮✮
27 Balaam Street
Plaistow, E13 8EB
You'll find Uncle Jim's on Balaam Street, Plaistow's premier gourmet boulevard. A welcoming blue gateway awaits your attention, just down the parade from Fancy Fried Chicken and the Good Friends Chinese Takeaway, UJ's has been embedded at the heart of the E13 community for many years, and is fast becoming Mecca for the East End's fried fish fanciers.
The restaurant's window proudly promotes the current à la carte menu, with signature Doner Kebabs in pride of place. A wide variety of these delicacies are available within, along with a variety of alternative dishes depicted with french fries, salad and light garnish. As the sign says, 'tasty'!
It's all in the name. Uncle Jim's has been a family concern from the beginning, although the eponymous proprietor was absent on the day of my review. Instead two jolly Turkish gentlemen, later joined by a third, stood behind the bespoke glass counter to prepare the high class meal of my choice.
My eyes alighted on the specials menu displayed to the rear. The burger selection was appealingly priced, including quarter pounder with cheese topped with sesame-sprinkled bap for less than three pounds. Meanwhile an octet of chicken nuggets vied for attention with moist barbecue wings amongst the chicken collection.
I considered briefly the selection of wrapped Peter's pies upturned upon the hotplate. That or the pair of twisted saveloys sweating softly in the compartment alongside, or maybe a composite kebab meal from the numbered four-choice set menu. But when at UJ's always dine like a local, hence fresh fish was destined to be my catch of the day.
By now the queue of patrons was growing longer, indeed some might argue a reservation to be advisable. Mums and couples and single gentlemen had arrived in their evening finery, mostly market-stall outerwear, and chatted loudly but politely whilst waiting their turn.
"I don't do cooking, I do fish and chips," muttered one Irish workman to his companion, neatly echoing the culinary aspirations of a generation. Instead he opted for the trademark twisting stick, and watched as thin slices of spitting meat were carved elegantly into a plastic tray.
When my turn came the waiter reached for a prime fillet of cod, battered and golden beneath the artificial glare. But chips large, or chips small? ...it's tough decisions like these that make dining at Uncle Jim's such a joy. Why large, of course, and soon three scoops of chipped potatoes dropped lovingly into a paper cone.
Naturally I added salt and vinegar, the latter issued from a tray of condiments including a bijou bottle of Daddies ketchup. And then my catch was expertly parcelled in paper before being swapped for the better half of a ten pound note. No need to tip, you'll be pleased to hear - impeccable service is included.
It was with great expectations that I unwrapped my prize onto an oven-warmed plate, ripped open a can of soft drink and tucked in. No complaints. The cod was succulent and light, its white flakes breaking away cleanly within a coating of batter. And all of this laid across a warm carpet of fried potato, surely cuisine at its finest.
Forget your Michelin cordon bleu, your exclusive Mayfair brasserie and your pop-up Mexican cantina. London's media are obsessed by reviewing poncey expensive dining options, the sort of thing most of us try once in a blue moon or never at all. No, to experience what the majority of the capital eats just head to Plaistow, or a high street near you, and see what's frying up.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, December 05, 2013CIRCLE: Exclusively Circle
The Circle line shares most of its track with other lines. From Hammersmith to Liverpool Street it's no different to the Hammersmith & City line. From Tower Hill to Gloucester Road it's essentially the District line. And from High Street Kensington to Edgware Road it's basically the District line again. But there are three points where the Circle line breaks out and enjoys a solo identity, three places with platforms for the Circle line and no other service. So that's where I've been.
ALDGATE: (platforms 1 and 4)
Aldgate is the Circle line's proper special station, the only place the Hammersmith & City and District lines fail to touch... although they scrape close by. From the southern end of Aldgate's platforms you can watch District trains go by, rather close, and from the northern end of platform 1 the occasional H&C, rather close. Platform 1 is one of Aldgate's pair of Circle line platforms, the other being 4 on the far side, with two Metropolitan line platforms tucked up inbetween. I like it down here, at the bottom of the forking central staircase beneath the station's vast vaulted roof. A couple of heritage platform signs remain, with proper old font and feathered arrows, and they're lovely. Bulging pillars support the ceiling, and proper Victorian brickwork rises on either side. It could almost be the 1880s down here, apart from the gleaming Chesham-bound carriages humming alongside.
But sorry, did you want to know when the next Circle line train is due? There is a Next Train Indicator on platform 1 but it doesn't change, it just says "Southbound trains; Circle line" all the time, even when one is pulling into the platform. Either the signalling systems here are dire or TfL have insufficient money, or probably both. Expect an improvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade due in 2018, perhaps, or perhaps maybe later. If you want to anticipate the next Circle line train, whicht could be up to 10 minutes away, you have to stand in precisely the right place at the bottom of the steps and raise your eyes. That's because the only functioning Next Train Indicator at Aldgate station is on the landing halfway up (even the modern square NTIs in the ticket hall are permanently blank). This old and dotty display reveals the next destination from each platform and an actual time until departure, or perhaps even "READY" if you need to dash down really fast. At least you'll have seen this board on your way in, as you descend the grand staircase and enter this Escher drawing of a station. The Circle's realm awaits.
GLOUCESTER ROAD: (platform 2)
Here at Gloucester Road, in one direction only, the Circle line branches out on its own. Head anti-clockwise and you'll roll in on platform 3, which is shared with the District so is almost ordinary. But head clockwise and you'll filter off before entering the station and arrive on exclusive platform 2. Two and three form an island together, should you ever want to change between them, which is probably unlikely. Meanwhile switching between one and two (the westbound shuffle) involves an up and over, which is more fun at the far end where the footbridge is more properly an emergency exit. I'd say passenger clientèle at Gloucester Road is more upmarket than might be found at Aldgate or Edgware Road - better dressed, more finely groomed - because this end of Kensington is a top part of town. It's even properly indoors here, actually underground, near enough.
You might expect the Next Train Indicators here to be quite good, but you'd be wrong. They're better than at today's other two stations because they do actually work, although you only get a minute's advance warning, so for roughly 90% of the time they're 'blank'. Either the signalling systems here are dire or TfL have insufficient money, or probably both. Expect an improvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade due in 2018, perhaps, or perhaps maybe later. But it's no pain waiting here thanks to one of the finest outposts of Art On The Underground. The arches on what was once platform 4 are regularly filled in with graphic wonders, in a long sequence stretching the length of the station. Sometimes that's a single artist's oeuvre, but currently it's a multiplicity of works celebrating the Underground's 150th anniversary. So long as there isn't an annoying train heading east, you'll get a great view.
EDGWARE ROAD: (platform 2)
It's now been four years since the Circle line was rejigged to terminate at Edgware Road. A lot of regular users cursed when that happened, especially those who used to make continuous journeys through the station. Since 2009 they have to get out and change, which isn't always straightforward, and usually slows everything down. On the brighter side, de-looping the Circle has helped to make the service more resilient, with fewer annoying long gaps between trains. And it's created a platform at Edgware Road that's (essentially) used only by Circle line trains. Platform 2 used to be for terminating Districts and various through services, but now it's where the Circles stop, and has its own yellow sign to celebrate. If you arrive clockwise into Platform 2 you're one of the lucky ones, because it's easy to continue your eastbound journey by stepping across to platform 1, where you might catch another Circle line train going somewhere useful. It's the folk who arrive via the District line who suffer, requiring an up and over hike from platform 3 at this extremely non-step-free station.
Edgware Road's not the loveliest place to wait, especially if you're trying to work out when it's time to leave. The Next Train indicators are rubbish, seriously rubbish, and also ancient, which is probably why. Weak red LEDs display the lines served but never the time to departure, with finer detail provided by closed circuit TV screens relaying a picture of the platform indicator in the ticket hall. Either the signalling systems here are dire or TfL have insufficient money, or probably both. Expect an improvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade due in 2018, perhaps, or perhaps maybe later. In the meantime watch out for the Circle line drivers swapping over in their cabs because Edgware Road is a key duty changeover point. And platform 2 is rarely busy, as the next yellow train sits waiting (and waiting) for the time to depart. Hammersmith is over an hour away, or barely quarter of an hour if you head over to platform 4.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, December 04, 2013At last the Mayor has made the annual announcement on tube/bus fare rises. He may not know how much a tube fare costs, nor understand the fare tables he signed off, but let's not hold his low IQ against him.
This year's average price rise is 3.1%, which isn't the "freeze" some have claimed, but is definitely less than last year's 4.2%, which was itself much lower than the 7% increase the year before. Here are a few of 2014's fares in historical perspective, with Ken's years in red and Boris's in blue.
Cost of a single central London tube journey 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Oyster £1.60 £1.70 £1.50 £1.50 £1.50 £1.60 £1.80 £1.90 £2.00 £2.10 £2.20 Cash £2.00 £2.00 £3.00 £4.00 £4.00 £4.00 £4.00 £4.00 £4.30 £4.50 £4.70
The Zone 1 Oyster tube fare rises 4.8% in January to a new high of £2.20. Pessimists will note that this is 47% higher than when Boris came to power. Optimists, however, should note that it's still only 38% higher than a decade ago. Meanwhile anyone paying by cash continues to be screwed, as TfL try ever harder to persuade people not to pay by cash.
Cost of a single central London bus journey 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Oyster 70p 80p 80p £1 90p £1 £1.20 £1.30 £1.35 £1.40 £1.45 Cash £1 £1.20 £1.50 £2 £2 £2 £2 £2.20 £2.30 £2.40 £2.40
The pay-as-you-go bus fare rises by 3.6% in January. It's more than doubled over the last ten years, with the great majority of that increase occurring on Boris's watch. Meanwhile the cash fare doesn't rise at all, but that's probably because TfL will be scrapping cash fares on the buses next summer, probably.
Cost of a tube journey from Green Park to Heathrow 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Oyster (peak) £3.50 £3.80 £4.20 £4.50 £4.80 £5.00 £5.00 Oyster (off-peak) £2.00 £2.20 £2.40 £2.70 £2.90 £3.00 £3.00 Cash £4.00 £4.00 £4.50 £5.00 £5.30 £5.50 £5.70
It's a better picture if you travel further out. Oyster fares for tube journeys outside Zone 1 won't be rising, which is excellent news if that's the journey you make every day. But that's only on Pay As You Go. It's bad news if you plan to buy a weekly, monthly or annual travelcard because these prices will be increasing in line with National Rail fares (which is +4.1%), not TfL fares (which is +3.1%).
Next year's fare announcement includes yet another nail in the coffin of the paper Travelcard. There used to be six of these (Z1-2, Z1-3, Z1-4, Z1-5, Z1-6 and Z2-6), until three years ago when the Z1-3, Z1-5 and Z2-6 were discontinued. Now the Z1-2 and Z1-4 are disappearing, off-peak, which means that weekend visitors to London will only have the option of the most expensive Z1-6. Expect further retirements in years to come as TfL try to shift everyone over to Oyster and its "one day caps", because that's much cheaper for them to collect.
How do these fare changes affect TfL's revenue in 2014? Bus Tube Rail Total Cash single - +£4m +£0.3m +£4m PAYG fares +£23m +£23m +£2m +£48m PAYG cap freeze -£10m -£5m -£1m -£16m Travelcards +£1m +£13m +£1m +£15m Season tickets +£24m +£33m +£5m +£63m Total +£39m +£68m +£8m +£115m
If London's to have a better transport network then fares do have to rise, and the table above shows how this will be achieved. Increasing bus cash fares will add £4m to TfL's coffers next year, while increases to Pay As You Go add a much more significant £48m. Freezing PAYG caps will actually benefit passengers to the tune of £16m, whereas Travelcard users will end up forking out an extra £15m. Throw in a massive £63m boost from season ticket holders and the total increase in TfL's revenue is £115m, which is precisely 3.1%.
Cost of a single cablecar journey 2012 2013 2014 Cash £4.20 £4.20 £4.40 Oyster £3.20 £3.20 £3.30 Regular user £1.60 £1.60 £1.60
And what do you do with a cablecar that doesn't have many users? You put the fares up, obviously... the first fare rise since the thing opened back in summer 2012. But on the bright side, hurrah, the fare for the cablecar's four regular commuters remains unchanged. I'm sure Rory, Peter, June and the other one will be very pleased.
posted 00:00 :
Tuesday, December 03, 2013I have a lot of stuff.
I'm not one of these people who could squeeze their life into a suitcase and move on. I have lots of bits, and things, and stuff. It accumulates, it hangs around, it hides away.
You'd notice if you came round. Most people have a bit of stuff, like ornaments or bookcases or racks of DVDs. I have that and then some, mostly paper-based, piled up tidily and stored away. You might even call it clutter, although it's no obsession that'd ever be the subject of a Channel 4 documentary. But my amount of stuff generally increases, rather than ebbs away, which over five decades rather adds up.
I have an album of greetings cards announcing my birth, and a 1970 tube map, and exercise books from infant school, and a completed Brooke Bond Race Into Space tea card album (price 5p, 1/-), and the cuddly rabbit I used to take to bed, and a dozen awful photos I took on the Channel Islands when I was ten, and those free gift Dr Who cards they gave out with Weetabix in 1975, and some board games I was given back when I had people to play against, and a set of part-filled-in I-Spy books, and five sets of Top Trumps cards, and every Christmas Radio Times since 1979, and two (correctly orientated) Rubik's cubes, and the letter they sent me saying yes you can come to university, and a checked shirt I really loved in 1984 but doesn't fit any more, and a national newspaper from the day after The Great Storm, and a train ticket from the time I went to Penzance, and an old cable that probably once connected something important to something important, and my first mortgage statement, and an ammonite I found on a Dorset beach, and a shelf-full of cassingles, and the Bedfordshire episode of Treasure Hunt on VHS, and a mug from Disneyland, and a 21st century-incompatible computer, and the magazine that came free with the Brit Awards in 1997, and my Cornwall solar eclipse glasses, and the box my second mobile phone came in, and a tin of butterscotch drops I cleared out of my car when I sold it but have never eaten, and the 2001 TfL fares leaflet, and a stack of writeable CD-ROMS, and three juggling balls, and a Woolworths carrier bag, and some loose change from Iceland, and a London 2012 teacosy, and that isn't even scratching the surface.
Don't worry, I do go back and revisit this stuff sometimes because it's quite interesting to look through. Sometimes it's even useful as research material, although more often than not I just like knowing that it's there. That's my life stacked up in the spare room, a hoard of irreplaceable keepsakes and memories, almost the very definition of what I'm about.
It is therefore just as well that I'm a very bad shopper. I don't rush out and buy myself a new outfit every month, or keep up with all the latest gadgets, or replace my soft furnishings regularly, or trawl Amazon for yet more stuff to own. When I buy something it's invariably because I really want it, not because it's impulsive and disposable, so my purchases tend to hang around. Indeed when I visit shopping malls I invariably walk away empty-handed, unlike the hordes I see there dangling several bags apiece. Do these people have even more stuff than me, or are they just much better at getting rid of it more quickly?
As a non-shopper, my amount of stuff shouldn't be excessive. My DVD collection fits a half metre shelf, my shirts fill up one rail, and I probably only buy a couple of books a month. Except yes, that makes 100 books every 4 years, which is a lot of books over several decades, and I can rarely bring myself to dispose of one. It's the same for music, which I own in a variety of physical formats collected over the years. I have hundreds of cassettes and CDs, but I'd never dare upload them all and bin the lot for fear of electronic data loss. And I have a particular weakness for paper-based stuff - books, important newspapers, leaflets, special copies of magazines, maps, that sort of thing. Paper's bulky and heavy if aggregated, but it's also the 20th century's storage medium of choice, and absolutely not the same if stashed away as a stored image.
So, yes, I know that I don't need all this stuff. I know that I could bin a fair amount without adversely affecting my life, apart from leaving a hole, which is probably why I don't. I do bin some of it sometimes, but barely enough to make a difference. And I do try to be a bit ruthless in not keeping this stuff in the first place, but inexorable accumulation eventually takes hold. I'm sure if I ever had to move house I'd manage a thinning out, but I wouldn't enjoy it, it'd be like chucking my past away.
Whatever, I do worry that one day I might walk in front of a bus or have a heart attack or something, and then someone'll have to come round and try to find the 5% of stuff worth keeping in amongst the 95% that meant something only to me. That someone is probably reading this post today... and if it's you, sorry, my apologies in advance. But I'd hate you to miss my grandmother's teenage autograph book, or the announcement of my father's christening in the local church magazine, or my tiny maternity ward wristband, or the Coronation edition Radio Times, or my complete set of Red Nose Day red noses, lurking somewhere in the spare room amongst several other hidden treasures. Do please have a thorough rummage before you bin the lot, won't you?
posted 07:00 :
Monday, December 02, 2013Over the last three years I've lost count of the number of times TfL have tweaked the Bow Roundabout. They painted a blue stripe across the roundabout and added a segregated lane around the outside as part of the introduction of Cycle Superhighway 2. Then they came back and relaid the kerb alongside the segregated lane around the roundabout because vehicles were clipping it. Then Brian died. Then Svitlana died. Then they came back and erected big yellow signs saying "Drivers Look Out For Cyclists Ahead" and "Cyclists Beware Vehicles Turning Left". Then they came back and added a set of cycle early start lights on the eastbound, plus a newly segregated lane on the approach. Then they came back and relaid the kerb alongside the segregated lane approaching the roundabout because vehicles were clipping it. Then they came back and added small yellow signs saying "Cyclists Stop On Red" because the lights were over-complex. Then they came back (in the lead up to the Olympics) and repaved the centre of the roundabout to make it look more attractive, adding two metal sculptures, two planters and some night-time illuminations. Then they left the roundabout alone for a year. Then they came back and added a set of cycle early start lights on the westbound, plus a newly segregated lane on the approach, as part of the Cycle Superhighway 2 extension. Then Venera died. And now they've come back again.
Last week contractors working for TfL have removed the blue paint across the western half of the Bow roundabout. There never was any across the eastern half, but the western stripes have been scraped away revealing black tarmac underneath. It looks a bit of a mess, to be honest, especially with a rectangular blue CS2 stencil stamped on top. But at least the paint has gone, the "un-bordered blue strips" described by a coroner recently as "confusing". She said that "motorists and cyclists are confused about who has right of way and the lane lulls riders into a false sense of security." And now TfL have responded by getting rid of them, with a minimum of fuss.
There never was any blue paint daubed across the eastern half of the Bow Roundabout, because TfL left a short gap here when they extended CS2 to Stratford. But all the other blue paint remains - along the segregated lanes to Stratford and back along the length of Cycle Superhighway 2. There are still blue stripes egging cyclists to cross Burdett Road, Cambridge Heath Road, Commercial Street and many more, whilst in fact offering no protection whatsoever. Will these be scraped off too? Cyclists need to know where CS2 goes, but they don't need to be enticed forwards into danger, tempted ahead by blue paint. That's the lesson learned, at long last, at Bow. Will it be learned elsewhere?
posted 07:00 :
Fares on transport in London are due to rise on 2nd January 2014. That's one month from today and yet, unusually, nobody's yet announced how large that rise will be.
Quick check: Over the last 10 years, when was the fare rise announcement made?
21 Sep 2004, 4 Oct 2005, 12 Sep 2006, 30 Sep 2007, 4 Sep 2008, 15 Oct 2009, 20 Oct 2010, 14 Sep 2011, 7 Nov 2012
That's five Septembers, three Octobers and an early November. Admittedly two years ago Boris announced rejigged figures on 2nd December after obtaining an extra government grant, so maybe something similar is holding things back, but the 2014 announcement is getting rather late. As a benchmark, I thought I'd throw together a table to show how 2013's fares stack up. I've picked a four-mile journey from London Bridge to Greenwich, because that's possible via several different transport modes, and tried to calculate how much each costs.
* Travelcard including zones 1 and 2
Cost of travelling from London Bridge to Greenwich Mode of
Bus £2.40 £1.40 £0.00 Rail £3.00 £2.40 £1.90 £0.00 Tube & DLR £4.50 £2.80 £2.10 £0.00 River £6.50 £5.85 £4.30 Taxi £15 £15 £15
The table's arranged in increasing order of cost, with travelling by bus not surprisingly the cheapest. But there isn't a direct bus from London Bridge to Greenwich, so I've assumed you don't mind a short walk at each end, because otherwise all the fares on this row double and suddenly going by bus isn't good value at all. The next cheapest option is to travel by rail - much quicker than the bus and not much more expensive. Taking the tube and DLR via Canary Wharf costs a little more than the train with Oyster, but 50% extra for cash. It's not distance that adds the extra, it's that rail sometimes (but not always) costs less (or sometimes more) than the tube, which just goes to show how inconsistent, complex and counter-intuitive fares in London are. The real shocker is travelling by river, which costs an astonishing £6.50, with only 10% deducted for using Oyster. Only Travelcard users get a decent discount, that's one third off the usual fare, although their card would have allowed them to travel for free by bus or train. And bringing up the rear are taxis, by far the most expensive mode of all, but then you knew that.
I wonder how different these fares will look in 2014. Perhaps Boris will tell us soon.
posted 01:00 :
Sunday, December 01, 2013If you live in a brick house in London, there's a good chance those bricks came from Bedfordshire. The fields south of Bedford were rich with clay, so Victorian entrepreneurs moved in and started digging. One of the largest sites was at Wootton Pillinge, a village you'll not find on the map today, where hundreds of acres were turned over to the production of stock Fletton bricks. Here the London Brick Company ran the largest brickworks in the world, which by the 1930s was churning out 500 million bricks a year. At its height the kilns fed 23 separate chimneys belching sulphurous smoke high into the sky. The brickworks survived several economic downturns, and a takeover by the Hanson Trust, but was finally halted by environmental legislation whose clean air standards became too expensive to meet. The whole place closed down five years ago, leaving four tall chimneys adrift on the mid Beds skyline and a vast site in need of redevelopment. [full history]
To house the brickworks' employees, a 'model' village was constructed alongside. It was named Stewartby in honour of LBC boss Halley Stewart, who sought to provide optimal accommodation for his 2000 workers. Its handful of streets wound round crescents and triangular greens, in an attractive suburban manner. The houses were built from brick, naturally, in large semi-detached pairs with spacious gardens. They're still there, still part of a rather special community, although with residents now sorely lacking in employment options. At the heart of Stewartby village is a community hall in a colonial style, complete with clocktower and cupola. In its day the hall would have hosted dances and concerts, whereas yesterday the highlight was a Christmas Fayre and the switching on of a few icicle lights. The building is set on a central axis, aligned via two mini-roundabouts to the main entrance to the brickworks. One long brick wall remains, with a central doorway leading nowhere much, and three forlorn flagpoles out front flying nothing. Beyond is an expanse of empty space and empty buildings, leading eventually to low arched brick kilns spreading out from the base of the surviving chimneys. Bedfordshire Council have plans for an industrial/residential renaissance, as yet unfulfilled, and somewhat at odds with the garden village alongside.
The surrounding area, between Bedford and the M1, is home to the Forest of Marston Vale. This is a major environmental feature, created in partnership with the Countryside Agency and the Forestry Commission, which aims to develop several dozen square miles of woodland over the next couple of decades. And at the heart of the developing forest is the Millennium Country Park, a wetland zone based around a number of flooded clay pits. The largest of these is Stewartby Lake, home to an impressive-looking sailing club, and with a three mile path around its perimeter. The other half of the park is greener, and marshier, with a sealed off central nature reserve. It's rather quiet over here, as soon as you step away from the car park, because all the action takes place within the central Visitor Centre. This is a spacious two-storey wood-framed building, complete with gift shop and a rather impressive cafe. Any remote facility that can attract several dozen visitors in late November is doing well, and I suspect the food offering (toasted sandwiches, yum) is responsible. But it would be a shame to get this far and not head out for a stroll, or a circuit, or a 20-step climb up to the central viewpoint.
And you can get here, if you want to visit, via the Marston Vale rail line. This backwater branch runs between Bedford and Bletchley, with one- or two-carriage trains rattling back and forth roughly hourly. The service isn't what commuters in the southeast are used to, but provides a lifeline for a string of communities nonetheless, and seemed relatively busy yesterday. Stewartby station is three stops from the northern end, and Millbrook one stop further down, with the Millennium Country Park linking the two. The latter sits at a bleak crossroads close to the Millbrook Vehicle Testing Centre, a large site with a swirl of circuits where all kinds of road transport is taken for a spin. But you won't see much, it's a private site, so a wetland walk to the brickworks makes a much more tempting proposition.
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