Saturday, July 04, 2015
The London Olympics? 2012
Ten years ago, even though it seemed unlikely to happen, I blogged about what might happen to the Lower Lea Valley if London won the 2012 Olympics. By cut-and-pasting what I wrote then, and updating each paragraph underneath, let's see how I did.
Olympic snapshots 2005: Olympic Park
Heaven knows why the IOC originally complained that the Olympic Zone area was inaccessible and underconnected because you can't move around here for train tracks. Branch lines, mainlines, light rail lines, tube lines, they're all here already. And sidings - acres and acres and acres of railway sidings. Some are already in the process of being transformed into Stratford International station, immediately to the east of the proposed stadium, and ever so convenient for (ahem) all those eager Parisian visitors to the 2012 Games. However, as you'll see from this photo, Thornton Fields sidings have yet to be transformed. They run off the mainline from Liverpool Street to Norwich, sandwiched on a long island site between two of the Bow Back Rivers. During the week inter-city trains are stockpiled here during that daytime lull between the morning and evening rush hours. But visit at the weekend, as I did, and the sidings are completely deserted. I'd been out taking a stroll down the Waterworks River, not another living soul in sight, when I noticed an unlocked iron gate beckoning invitingly from the towpath. There was no warning sign telling me to keep out so I wandered through into the empty sidings and stood all alone beside the vacant tracks and gantries. It was an eerie experience, and I had a gut feeling that this was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. Come 2012 and these sidings will be wiped from the map to be replaced by a wide paved pedestrian walkway linking together the major sporting facilities up and down the two-mile-long Olympic site. I look forward to standing here again, still not a train in sight, but surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bustling spectators.
Olympic snapshots 2015: Olympic Park
So, that happened. Not the trains from France thing, because Stratford International station remains as inappropriately named as ever. But Thornton Fields sidings disappeared as planned, and were indeed replaced by a wide pedestrian walkway. If you came to the Olympics and walked up from the food courts by the Orbit past the stadium to the bouncy coloured flooring, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bustling spectators, you walked across former railway sidings reappropriated for international leisure. I still suspect I really wasn't supposed to go wandering into these sidings ten years ago, but equally I really wish I'd taken more photos with a better camera and then stored them somewhere more carefully. The parkland site remains threaded with railway tracks, including what wasn't then the London Overground (which passes in tunnel beneath the centre), and what's now the DLR to Stratford International (which skirts round the edge). But it's the old sidings that remain the busiest part of the new park, with all of the playgrounds, most of the catering and the only gushing fountains. If you live within fifty miles of London but haven't been yet, you really should.
Olympic snapshots 2005: the Olympic Village
A Velopark is planned for the very northern tip of the Olympic Park, tucked inbetween the A12 and New Spitalfields market. £22miliion will be spent constructing a velodrome and an outdoor BMX circuit where blokes in tight lycra can wear enjoy wearing streamlined pointy helmets in public. But there's already a major cycling facility just a few hundred yards to the south - the 53 acre Eastway cycle circuit. A mile-long tarmac track curves invitingly through hilly green heathland, with challenging off-road tracks scattered around inbetween. London cyclists love Eastway and, as a visiting pedestrian, I was quite taken by it too. Not that there was any evidence that this circuit is ever used by cyclists any more. The changing rooms were padlocked, the admission prices were years out of date and the only official presence as I wandered around the track was a security guard with a very large alsatian. If the IOC award the 2012 Games to London, the Eastway circuit will be eradicated so that the Olympic Village and other sporting facilities can be constructed on the site. The world's best athletes and Paralympians will live right here, for a fortnight each, on the very spot from which I took this photograph. The Olympic village will also consume some really (really) nasty student flats nextdoor at Clays Lane (yes, I know they all belong to a well-meaning co-operative, but you'd really only live here if you had no choice). Hopefully the social housing left behind by the Olympics will create a more worthwhile place for disadvantaged local Londoners to live.
Olympic snapshots 2015: the Olympic Village
Well I got a lot of that wrong. Not the bit about replacing a cycle facility with a cycle facility, because that happened. The 2012 Velodrome is one of the most loved of the Games venues and, after a seven year hiatus, finally returned far greater biking opportunities (track, road, mountain, BMX) to the community than the somewhat ropey old circuit. But the location of the Olympic Village I got wrong, I think because the official plans were shuffled somewhat after the reality check of actually winning the Games. Clays Lane did indeed get the chop, but the majority of the apartments were located further south, again on railway land, and rather closer to the emerging retail hub at Westfield. The density of squared-off buildings has a certain Eastern European feeling to it, although the developers have been careful to thread sufficient greenspace through the site to prevent it feeling too shoeboxy. And remember how, back in 2005, everyone thought the mass of housing planned for the Olympic Park might be hard to sell? That's why the Olympic Village was eventually sold off cheaply to a foreign consortium, who no doubt now are rolling in it, while developers got breaks to speed up construction and reduce the amount of affordable housing. The very idea that a major Olympic legacy might be 'social housing' now seems ludicrous, but perhaps that's just a measure of how much London and its governance have changed, and not necessarily for the better.
Olympic snapshots 2005: Hockey Stadium
Wander through to the southern edge of the Eastway cycle circuit and there, hidden down a well-hidden footpath, you may stumble upon the delights of the Bully Point Nature Reserve. I was charmed to discover this verdant mini-valley hidden away between some allotments and a giant building site, extremely close to the tunnel mouth into which Eurostar trains will plunge on their seven minute journey to St Pancras. Here the tiny Channelsea River flows, here trees and bushes explode each summer in a riot of green, and here butterflies silently flit between the fragrant flowers on the riverbank. Even kingfishers are regularly seen, here, bang in the middle of a godforsaken East London wasteland. To be honest it's only the urban location that makes this lowly spot feel so special. But a successful London Olympic bid would erase this natural beauty spot forever. The Channelsea river would be diverted and the allotments concreted over, while Bully Point would disappear forever beneath the pitch of a new Hockey Stadium. In fact the entire Olympic development zone would have to be fenced off for several years leading up to 2012, its green corridors made wholly inaccessible to us local residents while all evidence of reality was obliterated. Sure the new Olympic park would have trees and flowers and rivers but they'd all be fresh, sanitised and artificial. And somehow, I suspect, rather disappointing. Standing here in peaceful silence amongst the leaves and buzzing insects, I hoped for the first time that London's Olympic bid might fail so that the wildlife residents of Bully Point could survive into a more permanent future.
Olympic snapshots 2015: Hockey Stadium
Bully Point Natural Reserve is long gone, indeed when I went back in 2007 'before the park was closed off' they'd already dug it up. Against all the odds, its replacement is far better. The northern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a triumph, not only during the games themselves but also since. Resculptured earth mounds have given the area height and shade, rising up to a ridgetop where the Olympic Rings still stand. The Lea flows between wide reedy banks, the plantlife already so high in places that if London 2012's big screen were still here you'd not be able to see it. The whole place combines gorgeous wetland with a major drainage project, the riverside designed to flood in case of heavy rain to protect areas downstream. It's also a big hit with wildlife, with frogs hiding out in marshy pools and the skies busy with birds and dragonflies, which isn't bad for a habitat that didn't exist even five years ago. Not all of the riverside paths are yet open, the latest obstructed by a lengthy project to reduce the size of a temporary bridge across the Lea, which supposedly had post-2012 obsolescence planned in, but seemingly not in the right way. The Channelsea River exists now as a series of wetland pools to the west of the Athletes Village, the Waterglades, much prettier than its pitifully light footfall merits. This is in part the fault of a still-sealed path, with the southern exit (past the half phoneboxes everyone loved during the Games) blocked because officials can't be arsed to add a footpath connection along busy Waterden Road. Utterly wasted opportunity, folks. Equally deserted is the legacy Hockey and Tennis Centre at Eton Manor, where every tennis court was empty yesterday afternoon, in perfect sunny weather at the height of Wimbledon. Something's not right there either. But the heart of the Northern Park is marvellous, and reassuringly appreciated, and even more of a riot of green than I could have imagined.
Olympic snapshots 2005: Media Centre
I am, very nearly, an Olympic resident. A marathon runner could jog from my front door to the edge of the Olympic Zone in one minute flat (and, if all goes to plan come 2012, they'll be doing precisely that). The prospect of wholesale urban regeneration on my doorstep is therefore a very desirable thing, and would be even more desirable if I owned my flat rather than renting it. My corner of the Olympic Zone, between the Bow flyover and Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, has been designated as the Media Village and International Broadcast Centre. This means that we'll be descended upon by the global equivalents of Gary Lineker and Sue Barker, their task to link together the latest reports from the taekwondo, the weightlifting and the synchronised swimming. I look forward to sharing a bag of chips with everyone outside Mam's Fish Bar. Construction of the Media Village requires that a whole swathe of heavy industrial units are cleared away from the site first, although most of these appear to specialise in waste disposal so maybe they can dismantle themselves. I'd like in advance to thank you, the British taxpayer, for funding a project that my local councils could never ever afford by themselves. True community gold really could be unearthed at the end of this Olympic Zone rainbow. But I wonder how easy it would be to live with the biggest building site in the country at the bottom of my road for seven long years before any of the rewards can be felt.
Olympic snapshots 2015: Media Centre
I didn't end up quite so close to the Olympic Park as I expected. The Media Centre intended for Stratford High Street was relocated a mile further north in Hackney Wick (much to the abhorrence of local residents whose green view was promptly replaced by a huge shed). Instead the industrial estate on the northern flank of the Bow Roundabout survived, at least until Crossrail eyed it up and said hang on, we'll take that. They sealed off Cooks Road in 2009, and stuck up a sign saying they'd reopen it in Spring 2015. That seemed impossibly far away at the time, but has now passed, and there's no sign of Crossrail departing any time soon. You can see their tunnel-building enclave from the DLR near Pudding Mill Lane station, itself expensively relocated to make way for emerging tracks. A brand new flyover is being constructed as we speak, with three new blue-bottomed bridges across Marshgate Lane, and pedestrians hereabouts are often temporarily barriered-off while a JCB drives through. What with the stadium also as yet incomplete, it means the southern end of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park still has the feeling of a mega-building site, although this time it's trains and not athletics making a mess. Simultaneously marooned are half the replacement allotments for the much-loved Manor Gardens site, destroyed at the end of 2007 to make way for the northern parklands. A few dozen identikit wooden huts stand empty beside plots of uncultivated soil, as the 2015 growing season wastes away for no readily obvious reason. Two adjacent footways also remain barriered off, restricting access from the High Street until Crossrail have the good grace to disperse. Ten years on much of the Olympic Park may be blazing forward, but down south we have years more growth and inconvenience to go.
» thirty photos from 2005
» fifty-four photos from 2015 [slideshow]
posted 07:00 :
Friday, July 03, 2015The London Olympics? 2012
Ten years ago, even though it seemed unlikely to happen, I blogged about what might happen to the Lower Lea Valley if London won the 2012 Olympics. By cut-and-pasting what I wrote then, and updating each paragraph underneath, let's see how I did.
Olympic snapshots 2005: the Olympic Zone
This is Marshgate Lane, about half a mile west of Stratford and just up the road from my house. I guess a long time ago it was quiet a country lane snaking between the triple braids of the River Lea, surrounded by grass, farm animals and the odd passing bird. Not any more. Marshgate Lane now runs through some of the most dismal scenery East London has to offer. It's a drab polluted wasteland covered by warehouses, small factories and discarded junk. Pylons stalk the grey horizon. Lorries thunder down from the M11 delivering fats and waste cooking oil to tall belching incinerators. Workers in orange dungarees eat their sandwiches surrounded by a sea of litter. A long queue of rusting cars lie trashed along the roadside waiting their turn to be cannibalised for spare parts. And, just to give you a true sense of the place, I took this photograph while standing on top of a giant sewerpipe. Marshgate Lane is a place you'd hate to work, not a place you'd like to live, and it could be so so much better. If London is awarded the 2012 Olympics, this part of London will be transformed. And about time too. Look down from the sewer pipe in seven years time and you'll see a striking Olympic Stadium rising anew in the centre of the photograph. It takes quite a leap of imagination to picture anything quite so enormous and important here today, but maybe a leap of imagination is exactly what's required around here.
Olympic snapshots 2015: the Olympic Zone
I think I was a bit harsh on Marshgate Lane there, it was a place of employment for thousands, and with the occasional green vista. But no, it wasn't lovely, more an overlooked backwater few visited unless they had to, where all sorts of businesses nowhere else wanted got on with making do. I have my doubts whether it would have been left alone had the Olympics not come to town, the price of remediating the land and rising above the flood plain might have been too huge. But with the delivery of a 1000-page compulsory purchase order its fate was sealed, and the tyre merchants and oilmen moved away. Almost nothing tells the story of 2012 quite like the view from the top of the sewer pipe, which I went back and photographed on a monthly basis once the area was sealed off. And nothing remains of that initial panorama, not even the pylons in the background, as a world-class arena and an entirely new road network was carved out. The building work's still not finished, with acres of flats pencilled in (eventually) to screen the stadium from view. But for now the View Tube on the Greenway remains well named, and still somehow sells enough cake and coffee to keep going. I may need to come back in 2020, or even 2025, to discover Marshgate Lane's true destiny.
Olympic snapshots 2005: the Olympic Stadium
Here's a view from the opposite angle, looking south towards the intended site of London's 2012 Olympic stadium. As you can see there's a lot of water round here. The River Lea passes along the western perimeter of the site, and we're only a stone's throw from the lockkeeper's cottages from which the Big Breakfast used to be broadcast. But there are several other rivers threading through the site, all part of the Bow Back Rivers, each with their own wildlife and ecosystem. Here at Carpenter's Lock two of those braids join, leaving a scrap of land inbetween that's just big enough to hold an Olympic stadium. The water also provides a useful natural barrier that would act as a security cordon around the future arena, should it ever be built. Today you can still walk freely following a series of overgrown footpaths along the riverbanks, taking in the greenery, the desolation and the silence. Very few local people appear to bother to tread these paths, far from the madding crowds, but those of us who frequent the remoter stretches of the Bow Back Rivers prefer it that way.
Olympic snapshots 2015: the Olympic Stadium
Sometime before 2005, someone, somewhere, first spotted that the outline of an athletics stadium would fit between the banks of the Bow Back Rivers. It only just fits, with the perimeter of the service area backing down to the water, but that simple observation sealed the area's fate. A second decision to create an arena with a sustainable athletics legacy now looks less sensible, with hard cash subsequently dictating that football took over instead. Unbelievably West Ham won't play their first match here until the next Olympics kick off in Rio, such was the expensive mis-step an altered legacy decreed. There are currently men on the roof, men round the rim, men on the embankments, and no doubt several helmeted women too. Whilst Stadium Island's waterside paths remain off-limits, almost every other riverbank walk has reopened in barely recognisable form. If I stop and concentrate on the curves I can just about remember how they looked before their serious scrubbing up, the greatest transformation along the west bank of the Waterworks River. I strode through here with undergrowth at head height, where now punters laze on lawns overlooking the Aquatic Centre. Far freer to follow, but an entirely different character altogether.
Olympic snapshots 2005: the Stadium (interior)
If you try standing here in seven years time you'll probably be arrested, because this is the very centre of the proposed Olympic stadium. Stand on this spot on the evening of Friday 27th July 2012 and you'll be whisked away in a heaving sea of choreographed flag-waving schoolchildren, all taking part in the extravagant made-for-TV spectacle of the opening ceremony of the XXXth Olympiad. And over the following fortnight the world's best athletes (and the world's most convincing steroid-takers) will stand here on the winners rostrum to receive their Olympic medals. Hence I was very disturbed to discover that there are already three flags fluttering over this very spot, and that they're all German. That's because there's a Mercedes after-sales centre on the site today, the sort of grey shed you bring your car back to when it stops working - I guess it beats turning up early and staking your claim with a beach towel. But a single cross of St George still flutters proudly in the forecourt of Bywaters skip hire service nextdoor, so maybe there's still hope.
Olympic snapshots 2015: the Stadium (interior)
For two years after London's successful Olympic bid was announced I made a point of returning regularly to this cul-de-sac, in an attempt to fix its footprint beneath the would-be athletic track. When I returned four years later for a test event, I tried to trace out the path of the former road, with Bywaters skip hire I think the location of the winners rostrum, and the Mercedes after-sales centre replaced by the javelin-chucking zone. Later, sat high in the back row for the Paralympic Closing Ceremony, I looked across to the flaming torch on the site of the salmon smokery and the filled-in Pudding Mill River beneath the Royal Box. I'm willing to bet I'm one of very few people who can still picture the old within the new. Of course to see inside the stadium today you need to look from above, either from a helicopter (ahem) or from the viewing platform of the Orbit. The new roof is on, the largest cantilevered roof in the world don't you know, its purpose to keep every football spectator dry in case of rain. It should also improve the acoustics, which is good to know if you've got tickets for the Rugby World Cup in the autumn.
Olympic snapshots 2005: Aquatics Centre
These two ramshackle buildings are fairly typical of the industrial skeletons to be found scattered around London's Olympic development site. They were half derelict when I took this photograph 18 months ago, a crumbling example of what happens when an area is left quietly to fall apart, and have since been demolished. We're looking out across the Waterworks River on the eastern edge of the Olympic Zone, on the very spot where London's new Aquatics Centre is about to be constructed. The powers that be have promised to build two 50m swimming pools and a 25m diving pool here, whether we win the 2012 Games or not, which is the sort of government commitment this deprived area so desperately needs. The inhabitants of nearby Stratford wait expectantly to see whether this new water feature will be full of international champions breaking world records or just teenagers divebombing one another and urinating in the shallow end when they think nobody's looking.
Olympic snapshots 2015: Aquatics Centre
Blimey, I'd forgotten the government had pledged a swimming pool to Newham whether we won the Olympic bid or not. Thankfully that commitment wasn't tested, and we ended up with the swish Zaha Hadid version. Residents can now book sessions for £4.50, or a pound less during the day, assuming you can find a slot between coaches of local schoolkids. Or perhaps you'd prefer to book with the Tom Daley Diving Academy, although before you get too excited his branded sessions also run at the Brixton Recreation Centre and the Waltham Forest Pool, so don't expect the chiseled boy wonder to triple somersault in front of you. Or there's a gym hidden downstairs, should you want to pump your body inside an Olympic icon for £450 a year. I can't say any of this appeals to me, because I'm one of the millions of dead loss Londoners who've not chosen to adopt a healthier lifestyle as a rest of Seb Coe's festival of sport. Still, it's damned convenient for those who have.
» thirty photos from 2005
» thirty-two photos from 2015
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, July 02, 2015Ten years ago, that week in London began. On Saturday 2nd July, the enormous Live 8 concert was held in Hyde Park. On Wednesday 6th, the city learned that it had won the Games of the XXXth Olympiad and jumped for joy in Trafalgar Square. And on Thursday 7th, well, we remain thankful that nothing so ghastly has happened in the capital since.
Ten years ago I started a series of Olympics-based posts, leading up to the big decision day itself. We had no idea then how things would turn out, indeed at this point Paris was the hot favourite with London looking like a plucky also-ran. So I took the opportunity to write about my corner of East London and all the phenomenal things that were scheduled to happen to obscure run-down bits of the Lower Lea Valley if only the IOC's delegates agreed. I thought this was my last chance to highlight the recycling centre that could be a stadium and the derelict riverside that could be an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Amazingly no, it all came to pass, and I got to bore you silly for almost a decade reporting on the world-class transformation at the bottom of my road.
So I thought it was time for a retrospective, to see how much had utterly changed (for better or worse) and how much was somehow still there. I've been down to the Olympic Park with my camera and wandered through, starting off at Stratford station and ending up two miles later back at home. The journey would have been impossible ten years ago, unless I'd followed the main roads to the south or taken a giant detour to the north almost via Leyton. So, a huge improvement, then?
I started off at Stratford station, at a platform that didn't exist back in 2005. At least half a dozen new platforms have been added since, the Olympics having been a major catalyst to increase connectivity and accessibility. Remember how London was going to be gridlocked for a fortnight during the Games? It's for fear of that, or at least in mitigation, that Stratford now has one of the best and busiest stations in the capital. I headed off through passageways that didn't exist to a northern entrance which wasn't there, although by 2005 it was at least planned. Some people forget that Westfield was already pencilled in before the Olympic decision, taking advantage of surplus railway lands to the north of the station. All London 2012 did was speed up the shopbuilding, taking advantage of the whole area becoming a giant building site.
Westfield is buzzing, with local youth lolling through the doors and a posse of puffers hanging around in the smoking zone. Signs direct Park visitors up via the shops, because the place was designed that way, but I prefer the less commercial route to the right past the mouth of the multi-storey. But it's not pretty. The access roads round here form a peculiar split-level network, which must once have made sense on a masterplan document, and which are punctuated by 90%-pointless sets of traffic lights. They're also in the process of being surrounded. If you remember where the line of security tents was during the Olympics, that entire stretch (and then some) is being transformed into the somewhat pompous 'The International Quarter'. Thus far we're up to about fifteen storeys of the two main residential buildings, that's Glasshouse Gardens, while a serious start has just been made on the offices alongside - the pedestrian crossing across to the park closed on Monday.
To access QEOP from Westfield you now have to walk up to John Lewis, rather than walk past that retail shed that pretends to be a pub. This leads you past the DLR's emergency exits, no longer signposted, and past the Information Centre (which, to its credit, looks like a mobility scooter showroom). You'll have to get used to this diversion, it's in place until 2017 while building works continue. And look, here's the Aquatic Centre now in full Newham Swimming Pool mode. It looks a lot swooshier since its temporary wings were removed, and it's being well used too. Having said that the swimmers' entrance is awkwardly located down by the river, ideal only if you've come by car. And the upper spectators entrance always seems to be locked, unless there's an event on, and in either case the public don't seem to be welcomed inside.
Standing on the bridge above the railway it's easy to forget how down-at-heel this area was just a decade ago. A run of breakers yards and car spares depots lined one side of the river, while a variety of motor trade suppliers ran the length of Carpenters Road. They were the lifeblood of the area, long since demolished and dispersed, and their potential long-term replacement by Boris's so-called Olympicopolis would complete a most astonishing cultural transformation. As for the raised strip between the rivers, where the Olympic Park proper begins, that used to be a massive sprawl of railway sidings. A lot of earth-moving later millions of London 2012 spectators milled around here between events, and loved the place, and then the whole site was changed again to create a legacy-focused recreational strip.
It's ridiculously popular. Ok, so it's the middle of summer and the weather couldn't be better, but even so, QEOP can certainly claim to have worked. Kids are shrieking in the sinuous fountains, especially at the one point in the ten minute cycle where they burst from dribble to gush. Mums sit patiently watching, while their offspring either get wet or enjoy jumping about in the adjacent playground. A dozen people are sat on the roof of the main bar/restaurant, soaking in the sun, while the Orbit is perhaps not busy immediately beyond. More of that later in the week. Facing the Aquatic Centre are the 2012 Gardens, not quite as fabulous as during the Games, but still bursting with brightly-coloured flowers, because this park has far-better than average gardeners. And still they come.
Meanwhile the Olympic Stadium remains entirely inaccessible. All the bridges to Stadium Island are sealed off, unless you happen to be walking by when someone's opened the gate, while a huge army of workers busy themselves to turn the athletics venue (35 months ago) into a Premiership hangout (13 months to go). The amount of money that's been poured into this double transformation almost doesn't bear thinking about, so one can only hope two dozen Hammers matches a year are worth it. For the rest of us, the good news is that there are finally firm signs that a path is going in around the northern half of the island, which should finally mean the surviving arched iron bridge can be reopened. I used to walk frequently from here to the former Big Breakfast cottages, and it's great to see (after eight long years) preparations underway to unblock the entrance.
The centre of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park remains a bit bleak, to be honest. They call this tarmac expanse Mandeville Place, and only very recently has anything resembling a 'feature' been installed. It's a pavilion created from a wall in the Paralympic Village, surrounded by an 'orchard' comprising fruit trees from the home town of every UK Paralympic gold medallist. Alas it's still somewhat overwhelmed by nothingness, the tract of fenced-off land alongside awaiting transformation into the Sweetwater estate. But the Great British Garden remains a landscaping triumph, unarguably nicer than the former riverbank, even if no longer as colourful as during the summer of 2012. I'm delighted to find the Blue Peter swing chair empty - it's usually got some canoodling teens rocking back and forth - and take full advantage while nobody's looking.
Once back on the Lea, and heading south, what strikes me instead is how little has changed in the last decade. Lying just outside the security perimeter, this area's been left relatively alone (apart from a welcome widening of the towpath, paid for from the Olympic budget, to allow cyclists to pass without having to stop all the time). There are a lot of cyclists, many dinging furiously on their approach, although one has the misfortune to meet me below a bridge just as a jogger is arriving behind, and promptly skids and falls over... thankfully not quite into the water. I also meet a group of actors filming a scene beneath the Greenway, which never used to happen round here, and several ducks, who definitely did. Approaching the Bow Roundabout it's really only the 30+ storey lift shaft rising into the sky that joltingly reminds me that nothing round here will ever be quite the same again after 2005, and hence 2012. From nowheresville to internationally sought-after real estate, the IOC's 54 votes delivered so much more than a one-off month of sport.
My Olympic Park 2015 gallery
There are 20 photos at present [slideshow]
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, July 01, 2015Ten years ago, that week in London began. On Saturday 2nd July, the enormous Live 8 concert was held in Hyde Park. On Wednesday 6th, the city learned that it had won the Games of the XXXth Olympiad and jumped for joy in Trafalgar Square. And on Thursday 7th, well, we remain thankful that nothing so ghastly has happened in the capital since.
Ten years ago I started a series of Olympics-based posts, leading up to the big decision day itself. We had no idea then how things would turn out, indeed at this point Paris was the hot favourite with London looking like a plucky also-ran. So I took the opportunity to write about my corner of East London and all the phenomenal things that were scheduled to happen to obscure run-down bits of the Lower Lea Valley if only the delegates agreed. I thought this was my last chance to highlight the recycling centre that could be a stadium and the derelict riverside that could be an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Amazingly no, it all came to pass, and I got to bore you silly for almost a decade reporting on the world-class transformation at the bottom of my road.
So I thought it was time for a retrospective, to see how much had utterly changed (for better or worse) and how much was somehow still there. I've been down to the Olympic Park with my camera and, oh hang on.
This photo can't be displayed. You might not have enough memory available. Close some programs or, if your hard disk is almost full, free some disk space and try again.I've been having some memory problems on my laptop of late, and this is the latest manifestation. I can open up a single photo, but if I try to move to the next one in the folder it complains, indeed refuses. I can shut down my photo viewer and then open it again to view a different photo, but essentially only one at a time, which is a right pain when you've taken two hundred.
Low Disk SpaceI've been having memory issues for some time, what with my laptop being a 2009 vintage model. My hard drive nearly filled up a couple of years ago, so I cleared out unnecessary files and wiped never-used programs and hived most of my enormous photo library off to an external hard drive. That held off gridlock for some time, as did trying not to save anything big onto my laptop, but computers are always attempting to download updates in the background and I found my memory being inexorably eaten away.
You are running very low on disk space on [name of drive]Since 2013 my free space has fluctuated between about 500MB and 5GB, the former the approximate limit of unfettered operation, bouncing up and down on a daily basis as unseen processes play silly buggers with system files. It's not been ideal, indeed on occasions it's been damned awkward, but generally I've been able to cope with browsing, writing, editing and general faffing about.
Click here to see if you can free space on this drive.When necessary, 'clicking here' to free some space has generally worked well, deleting unnecessary files that somehow piled up, and bringing the available free space up to workable levels. But over the last few weeks this hasn't been enough, with all the potential spare capacity already squeezed, and my available megabtyes pushed down to double figures. Not surprisingly this isn't conducive to efficient multi-tasking, and my ability to blog efficiently has been severely curtailed.
Your computer is low on memoryLast week my browser became particularly unstable, barely able to survive half an hour before collapsing, and I was spending substantial time restoring and reloading sessions. I think I've managed to part-fix that - my browser now holds out for a few hours before collapsing unannounced - but this is hardly an ideal state of affairs.
To restore memory for programs to work correctly, save your files and then close or restart all open programs.
We're sorryThen there are the memory issues when my laptop restarts, as a window pops up to tell me that my 'paging file' is sub-optimal. And when I attempt to change the menu options, as it suggests, it refuses, for lack of space. Dammit.
Firefox had a problem and crashed. We'll try to restore your tabs and windows when it restarts.
Windows created a temporary paging file on your computer because of a problem that occurred with your paging file configuration when you started your computer. The total paging file size for all disk drives may be somewhat larger than the size you specified.I've not been stewarding my laptop optimally I know. And although I've attempted to make several cunning tweaks to settings on submenus of submenus, I'm reticent to go for any nuclear option for fear of making things worse. I've deleted about as much as I'm willing, and learned to cope with less than ideal operating conditions for months. But it is getting increasingly difficult to multi-task, hence the prospect of writing a meaningful Olympic post and manipulating a stack of QEOP photos has defeated me.
I really ought to buy myself a new laptop, because I could, and because a five and a half year-old machine is increasingly ancient. But I've been trying desperately to hold off until the ghastly Windows 8 is consigned to history, and finally we're nearly there, with only four weeks to go until the launch of Windows 10. I hope I can survive until then. Yes, I know Windows 10 will be a free downloadable upgrade, but my current bloated system is never going to cope with that. And no I am not buying a Mac, so sssh.
In the meantime I'm sure I can knock up an illustrated Olympic blogpost given a sufficiently long run-up, so please be patient. If London can create a global sporting village out of a decaying industrial estate, I'm sure I can write a few words and show you what it looks like.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, June 30, 2015THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Stapleford Abbotts → Romford → Dagenham (3 miles)
[Bourne Brook → Rom (+ Ravensbourne) → Beam → Thames]
Technically the Beam River begins three paragraphs down today's report, at the confluence of the Rom and the Ravensbourne. But I decided to break off from part one of my report early because a) it balances the two halves, b) the character of the river changes below Roneo Corner, c) there's only so much Havering you can take in one go. Next stop, Dagenham. [10 photos]
After crossing the main road at Roneo Corner, the Rom is allowed to return to being a river rather than a concrete channel. Initially it's a slow transition, up a trackway past the YMCA, but then green banks open out alongside yet another patch of recreational space. Despite the lovely weather Grenfell Park is not over-occupied, my visit interrupting one middle-aged couple being amorous on a bench, and absolutely nobody else. I can only assume that Havering's children don't go running around outdoors any more, or aren't allowed to. An unsigned path leads through a thicket to an extensive riverside meadow, which I follow with increasing joy at being the only person here. Eventually the grass tapers out and a narrow path weaves into a strip of woodland beside the meandering river. The path is well-trodden enough that it must lead somewhere, but there are no clues as to precisely where. Fingers crossed.
At one point an earth bank appears to my left, so I scramble up and am surprised to find myself staring at a young driver through a stationary windscreen. She seems reticent to turn left and move on, down what looks like a minor private road serving absolutely no houses at all. I later discover that this peculiar facility is the Cardrome Learner Centre, a 12 acre network of pseudo-roads for the benefit of those learning to drive. Opened in 1955 (and it looks it!), users can hire a car or bring their own - ideal for any not-yet-17 year-old keen to get behind the wheel. And on the far side is the Rom Skatepark, Britain's only Grade II listed skatepark, unchanged since 1978 and built from seamless pressurised concrete. A series of hollows and ramps provide considerable challenge, including an obligatory halfpipe and the iconic Vertibowl. Alas the surrounding wall means you'll only catch a glimpse from a passing double decker, or satellite mapping, or even better by getting out your board or BMX and coming down.
It's here or hereabouts, at the foot of Harrow Lodge Park, that the Beam River officially begins. The Ravensboune joins the Rom unseen, having disappeared beneath the hillside after pooling in the park's (rather attractive) central lake. This is also where my progress south switches from the Havering to the Barking and Dagenham side of the stream, at a single track lane leading to some riding stables, in what feels very much like the middle of nowhere. I'm negotiating the hidden delights of The Chase Nature Reserve, while to my right is Eastbrookend Country Park, a vast tract of gravel pits transformed into public space 20 years ago. At this least-accessible end I find a group of grazing horses, and also Britain's rarest native tree, a Black Poplar inside its own fenced-off enclave. There are also other people - it's been a while - most of them out walking the wolves that pass for dogs in these parts.
The Beam River's progress feels wonderfully natural, through reedy shallows along banks strewn with manure, until the stream meets the District line and disappears through an arch beneath the tracks. If you've ever ridden out towards Upminster you'll know The Chase Nature Reserve as the big green gap between Dagenham East and Elm Park. There's only one footbridge across too, in a not entirely accessible location, screened off more vehemently than usual to prevent local youth from damaging passing trains. The Beam is readily spotted on the other side, with a further bridge leading to yet another floodplain park where Havering dare not build. On the B&D side I'm left to wander flourishing riverbanks tinged with summer's red, with the occasional weir and stepping stones, again wondering why nobody else is out to enjoy the scene.
And finally a road! There's been no other through road cross the river since Roneo Corner over two miles back, which just goes to show how much of a barrier a natural waterway can be. This particular dual carriageway links Old Dagenham to South Hornchurch, the latter blighted by a large landfill site on the eastern riverbank. Thankfully the footpath follows the western bank, entering the Beam Parklands, a major flood prevention scheme completed in 2011. To the untrained eye it looks like a bowl of woody parkland, but in fact there's sufficient drainage capacity here to fill 180 Olympic-sized swimming pools should the Thames come knocking. Also present are the remains of a canal, the not so legendary Romford Canal, on which work began in the 1870s but was never completed. This is the wrong time of year to see it, dry and overgrown, but a rough indentation can be clearly seen where footpaths cross the former channel.
Another (brief) river joins the Beam here, the Wantz Stream, arriving in a blaze of colour through a stepped concrete weir. Here too is an fenced-off sluice, installed by the Environment Agency to permit a gap in the flood defences. I shouldn't have headed this way to escape, the gate at the end was locked, so I was forced to nip up and over into one of the adjacent protected estates. And I'd not be getting much further after that either, sorry. The Beam's last three quarters of a mile run through private land, the former Ford Dagenham car works. This vast post-industrial swathe now includes Eurostar tracks, a large Tesco distribution centre, the elevated A13 and what remains of Ford's operations, including car parks full of imports and the odd giant windmill. One day there may be 5000 homes and a new station here, Beam Park, but don't count your chickens. Until then the Beam reaches the Thames unseen, except perhaps from Belvedere on the opposite shore, but let's not go there.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, June 29, 2015THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Stapleford Abbotts → Romford → Dagenham (6 miles)
[Bourne Brook → Rom (+ Ravensbourne) → Beam → Thames]
Well what did you expect the river that flows through Romford to be called? It's a long one too, given three different names on its downhill journey. The River Rom rises just beyond the M25 as the Bourne Brook, a dully tautological name, but thankfully that's in Essex so I've not got to walk that bit. Three miles down, in the village of Stapleford Abbotts, it turns south and transmogrifies into the Rom. Then below Romford, at the confluence with The Ravensbourne (no, not that one), it changes its name again to become the Beam River. This last three mile stretch perfectly defines the border between Havering and Barking and Dagenham, which just goes to show how crucial rivers are in defining modern London. Checking on a map before I set out I assumed I'd be walking a lot of the route along roads, but this turned out not to be the case because there were extensive riverside paths. Indeed what I'd been expecting to be a trifle purgatorial proved anything but, although I doubt the riverbanks would be quite so welcoming in February. [10 photos]
Stapleford Abbotts is the first village out of London on its far northeastern rim, located a few dips beyond Havering-atte-Bower. As such to reach it requires travelling on one of TfL's least frequent buses, the 90-minutely 375 from Romford, and some carefully coordinated scheduling. About half of the passengers on the post-shopping run alight in H-a-B, while the rest of us continue to the straggly strings of mostly modern houses that define S A. The Bourne Brook has its own bus stop, which is more than this trickle of water between cottages rightly deserves, and its own lane which doglegs off towards Lambourne End. The stream next appears at Bourne Bridge, as a barely perceptible feature, and it's from this point down that the river is officially known as the Rom.
A footpath tracks the Rom's first few hundred metres, running up the side of a house with horses, then across a field littered with evidence of their diet. Within a clump of trees two narrow footbridges lead across a tributary (the Spurgate Brook) and then the main stream, now at least with perceptible flow. The next mini footbridge may not look significant but it's where London begins, as can be deduced by the Essex-style footpath marker on one side and a Havering-esque roundel on the other. Alas by now the river has darted off across private land, the local landowners confining ramblers to a narrow strip of grass between paddocks so that their horses can safely graze.
You'll know the next bit if you've ever walked London Loop section 20, ascending a low hill along the wooded edge of Havering Country Park. There's also a fantastic view across central London, from the spiky Dome and dense Docklands cluster to the familiar silhouettes of the South Bank and City. I've trained my camera on the horizon, across the green indentation of the Rom valley, and very definitely not on the farmer and his family out inspecting the horses at the foot of the nearest field. Nevertheless I'm unnerved to see his Shogun slowly ascend the slope, pull over alongside and wind down the window for a chat. In the awkward conversation that follows he moves from outright suspicion to inviting me to pop down to the farm to share the negatives, and I think we're both equally relieved as the other moves on.
That's it for fields. The Rom hits built-up London alongside Carter Drive, where some suspiciously young lads in baseball caps sit in souped-up motors waiting for me to get out of the way. This is Havering Park, a low-spec interwar estate which would have swamped the valley to the north had not the Green Belt been slapped down. I'm expecting to have to walk the streets but was pleased to find a freshly-mown waterside path to follow between the backs of tiny gardens - the Collier Row Green Link. The river is barely visible beneath lush billowing vegetation, a more than pleasant scene which will be repeated at several other points downstream. And yet absolutely nobody else is out taking advantage of this half mile natural amenity, presumably because local residents are more car people than walkers.
I enter Collier Row Recreation Ground behind a trio of young girls leading their toddler brother towards the playground. "Run!" they shriek, "the old man's going to get you!", and the littl'un runs with all his might. It's a very friendly borough, Havering, so long as you fit in. The Rom gets a namecheck on the bridge at Collier Row Road, flowing through its first drab concrete channel between a builders' merchant and the Gospel Hall. And then it dashes off across inaccessible nomansland, past allotments and the back of a school playing field, so please bear with me while I walk fifteen minutes of pavement.
King George's Playing Fields are a triangular kickabout space, seemingly for the walking of dogs around the perimeter, with the Rom forming a decorative border along one side. Approaching the 'Teenage Area' the river looks at its most normal, a shallow brook overshadowed by trees, with the mandatory blue rope dangling above the shoals. And then the river escapes again, ducking beneath the Eastern Avenue dual carriageway to enter a wedge of retail sheds to the north of Romford town centre. The cul-de-sacs leading off North Street have names like Brooklands Approach and Riverside Close (very close, if you live in the latter).
Romford has learned to be cautious of its namesake river. In August 1888 the Great Flood inundated the High Street to a depth of several feet, destroying shopkeepers' stock and washing thirty thousand beer barrels far downstream. It took the town six months to clean up, and the disaster finally spurred the council to build better drainage across the town. In the 1950s the Rom was reengineered as a deep concrete channel, with what looks like a slightly-raised footpath to one side, the banks now much beloved by grafitti artists. Meanwhile the section between the ring road and the railway was permanently culverted, much of this stretch now covered by The Brewery superstores complex, or more accurately its car park. Little do they realise as they hunt for a parking space, or take the scenic escalator to the cinema, or waddle into the Toby Carvery, that the town's namesake river lies beneath.
The Rom reappears beyond the viaduct, still tamed by concrete, emerging to public view on the ring road (round the back of an office building which, damn, I've been trying not to revisit for over 15 years). The river has been honoured with its own streetname, Rom Valley Way, and consequently by the Rom Valley Way Retail Park (which boasts both a Mothercare and Carpet Right). It's a shame there isn't a computer warehouse for some wag to name Rom ROMs, but the river always feels tolerated rather than celebrated round here. And then we're at Roneo Corner, named for the Roneo Vickers factory that once stood here, now an extra-busy road junction. It's here that the boundary with Barking and Dagenham feeds in, and continues to the Thames, but we'll do that tomorrow if you don't mind. Or even if you do.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, June 28, 2015It was a lovely day yesterday, so I went for a 12 mile walk. I am eventually going to tell you all about this 12 mile walk, in more detail than you'll probably require, because that's how I roll. But to do this properly will take more hours than I have available, so you can have that report later, whether you want it or not. In the meantime I'm going to write about my day out from a completely different angle, and one which hopefully completely disguises what I did.
It was a lovely day yesterday, so I went for a 12 mile walk. This wasn't the plan when I woke up, indeed I had no plans at all at this point, so over a cup of tea I selected a "Thing To Do" from my great unwritten list. Of all the things I could have chosen, this felt like a suitably offbeat way to waste a gloriously sunny afternoon of opportunity. I wasted the morning away, and had a bath, and had another cup of tea, and finally at twelve noon I was ready to leave the house.
I took a couple of trains to a town in outer London, where I walked through the main shopping centre but didn't buy anything, not even a snack or a drink or anything. If anyone ever comes with me on any of these trips they invariably stop for liquid refreshment at this point, usually caffeine based, because they know I won't have organised my day out based on proximity to barista availability. But I was fine at this point, because I'd had two cups of tea for heavens sake, and there was only a 12 mile walk to go. One bus ride later, off I strode.
There were no shops in the village where I started, so far as I could tell, so it was just as well I wasn't hunting for a bottle of water. I should have brought one with me, to be honest, but I never remember, and my London 2012 bottle leaks anyway so what would be the point? I found the footpath I needed down a country lane, and set off south across the dung-strewn fields. There even was a damned excellent view of central London at one point, which was fortunate because I could point at it when the highly suspicious local farmer drove over to ask what on earth I was taking photos of.
Eventually the countryside faded out and, somewhat suddenly, the suburbs of London kicked in. There are no shops in these back streets, I suspect everyone drives to Tesco, although I understand I narrowly missed a Costa Coffee at one point because everywhere has to have one these days. There wasn't a footpath where I really wanted to go so I had to divert, past a parade of shops which had a newsagent but it was sponsored by The Sun, so I gave that a miss on principle. In the next playing fields I spied a cafe of sorts, which I was sorely tempted to pop into for liquid refreshment, but it appeared they'd closed two minutes ago, dammit.
By now I'd been walking for over five miles and was re-approaching the town I'd passed through earlier. This was packed with queueing traffic and reddening people in t-shirts, most of them milling around the main shopping centre for the opportunity to consume. It's the last place I'd want to spend an afternoon, an artificial conglomerate of pizza restaurants, big chains and cinema, so I eschewed the opportunity to join the masses and their frappucinos, and walked on.
In the retail park beyond the ring road, the only purchasing opportunities were clothing, white goods and a sit down meal, so my burgeoning thirst went unquenched. Never mind, I thought, I've brought a tube of Polo mints with me and one of those will see me through. I was then expecting to follow the main road for a mile except there was an unmarked footpath so I took that instead, which turned out to be an excellent move. However no liquid dispensaries were located along this route, indeed I passed nobody at all, just a stretch of languid river unsuitable for consumption.
The horses along the next section seemed to have enough water to drink, but I was now set on a southerly course somewhat distant from civilisation. A few dogwalkers schlepped by, but I was amazed by the solitude afforded by this lengthy London stroll. I'd now survived over six hours without a drink, which for you might be the end of the world but for me, even on a sultry afternoon, was merely par for the course. A locked gate forced another mile's detour, which my legs didn't especially enjoy, and took me no closer to anywhere selling bottled anything.
At the very end of my walk I spotted a conveniently-located McDonalds, except there was a bus leaving in two minutes so I waited for that instead, only for the driver to pull off from the stand and leave everyone standing. Muted curses ensued. At this point I thought I'd just head home and have a drink there, because how long could it take, the answer being a whole extra hour of slightly parched tongue. And once through my front door I gulped down a large glass of water, and made myself a cup of tea, and checked on the scales and noted that I now weighed three pounds less than I had that morning. It's not a recommended dietary option, the 12 mile dry walk, but I complete such journeys far more often than you'd think.
I shall tell you this story again tomorrow, but with the emphasis on geography rather than refreshment. My apologies that the proper report may be less interesting.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, June 27, 2015How expensive is it to rent in London.
Very, obviously. But how expensive, roughly? I've tried to numbercrunch, borough by borough, to find out.
Suppose you're on the average London salary - that's about £28000 at present.
Suppose you're willing to pay out up to a third of your salary every month.
And suppose you're looking for a property with an average (median) rent.
Here's a map showing how many people earning an average salary would need to club together to pay the rent.
To live in Westminster requires four of you to flatshare to make the property affordable. The remainder of a central island stretching from Islington down to Wandsworth requires three people on an average salary to share. If you're hoping to live as a couple, anywhere else in London will do. But if you're single, or just fancy living by yourself, then these average properties are no longer affordable.
Maybe you should lower your sights. Don't aim for an average property, go for a lower quartile rent instead, that's three quarters of the way down the housing stock. And then the map changes.
To rent a smaller property, Westminster no longer requires four salaries coming in but three. Almost the whole of the rest of London is affordable to couples, or to two people willing to share. But if you're single, or just fancy living by yourself, only Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Bexley are affordable.
If you're a singleton and willing to increase the proportion of your salary paid on rent, say to 40%, then more of Outer London opens up. Specifically that'd be Hillingdon to the west, Enfield to the north, Newham and Redbridge to the east, Greenwich, Lewisham and Bromley to the southeast and Croydon and Sutton to the south. But inner London is essentially off limits for solo tenants unless they're wealthier than average, or willing to fritter away more than half of their hard earned salary on rent.
We're not all fortunate enough to earn as much as the average salary. What if, instead, you're on the London Living Wage? This currently amounts to £9.15 an hour, and I'm assuming you work a 38 hour week. My final map shows how many London Living Wage earners it takes to share a lower quartile property, i.e. not a very big one.
No borough in London is affordable if you're on the London Living Wage and have only one income coming in. Pair up with someone else and most of Outer London is available, bar a few of the more affluent boroughs like Barnet and Richmond. But inner London is again a no-go zone unless there are three of you... and this in a property that's very likely to have fewer than three bedrooms. As for the West End, essentially the poor can bugger off, unless four or them of are willing to cram together.
Welcome to London 2015, an increasingly overcrowded over-expensive city with insufficient housing stock and relentlessly rising rents. And a city in which, unless you've gained a toehold on the property ladder, it's increasingly untenable to live alone. The queue for your bathroom can only lengthen.
posted 07:00 :
Friday, June 26, 2015For one of the most peculiar walks in London, head to the western edge of the capital. That's the very western edge, as far west as you can go, in a nomansland just beyond the end of Heathrow's runway. Normally the authorities don't like you walking right up close to the perimeter of a international airport, this for reasons of safety and security. But a broad strip of open land exists between the M25 and Terminal 5, somehow with public access, where you can be divebombed by whatever giant plane is taking off for foreign climes. And I stumbled into it completely by accident.
Let's get the geography sorted first, starting from Heathrow Terminal 5. To the west of that is a bus station, a hotel and a swirl of access roads, then the airport's Western Perimeter Road. That's followed by not one but two rivers, the Duke of Northumberland's and the Longford. Both were diverted when Terminal 5 was built, and both also provide a passive security perimeter, a useful means of keeping pedestrians out. Stanwell Moor Road is next, linking the northern and southern edges of Heathrow, across which a recent motorway spur emerges. There then follows the strip of land we're interested in, an undeveloped swathe of rough meadow no more than half a mile wide, on either side of the River Colne. And that's followed by the M25, just to the north of Junction 14, along the edge of which London suddenly becomes Slough.
I'd been precisely here before, back in 2009, with a report from the roundabout that's the westernmost point in London. Grim, I think would sum the place up, not least the litter-strewn thicket at its centre. I hoped never to come back, but Saturday found me in the village of Stanwell Moor attempting to escape. It's a strange place Stanwell Moor, a few cut-off streets with a number of rivers threading through. The main shopping parade (such as it is) features the T5 Stores and the Heathrow Launderette, and a fat boy sits on the swings by the village hall haranguing random passers-by (although he may have been a one-off). It also now has a rotten bus service, the 441 having recently been diverted elsewhere. And I couldn't walk to Terminal 5, because that's not allowed, so headed instead to what Citymapper told me was the nearest Oyster-enabled bus stop, a mile and half north on the Bath Road.
There are no public footpaths or accessible roads to the north of Stanwell Moor, which was a pain. But a map on my phone suggested there was a mysterious path, or track, or something, wiggling up the side of the M25, so I thought I'd risk it. This first required returning to the very western roundabout I'd hoped to avoid, crossing the boundary back into London in the process. I left the main road into unkempt undergrowth, stepped past a pile of dumped clothes in boxes and headed cautiously through a concrete subway. And here I found a gated entrance, not quite welcoming, to an area called the Heathrow Biodiversity Site. Access seemed possible, indeed there were just enough signals that this probably wouldn't be trespass, so I continued through the trees.
The track opened out onto a lush rolling slope, once a gravel pit, hemmed in between the motorway and an unseen stream. This was the River Colne, lost as a line of reeds amid a weave of white and yellow wild flowers. In the near distance, beyond further open country, stood the long silver shed of Terminal 5 with its Control Tower to one side. And every minute or so another plane shot up off the northern runway, sometimes small and buzzy, sometimes huge and booming. Annoyingly, never the latter when I had my camera trained on the terminal roof. The footpath curved round to join up with another track from the J14 roundabout, this gated and locked, which was odd because OpenStreetMap had suggested this should be open and the path I'd just followed was barred. Thankfully the path beneath the M25 motorway spur was still clear, passing a stilted concrete lagoon where the waters of the Colne inelegantly pooled.
Beyond the viaduct the planes drew closer. I'd reached a point half a mile from the end of the northern runway, a seemingly insignificant distance but enough for pilots to have started to turn in readiness for the first stage of their flight. This meant there was by now no one line of ascent, more a curving fan of possibilities, with a slight deviation all it would take to drive an aeroplane overhead. The footpath headed up a particularly prominent ridge just as one such monster appeared above the trees. The British Airways A380 seemed almost low enough to touch, booming low across the meadow, and I wished I'd been thirty seconds further ahead to have been directly beneath the fuselage. I suspect you can get a similar sensation on the roadside near Hatton Cross, but this was all the more surreal for being in a pseudo-rural setting.
And so isolated. Nobody else was out enjoying the HBS, which given that it links the almost-edge of two minor villages was perhaps not entirely surprising. And yet Heathrow's management seemed to be expecting people, with one sign urging visitors not to spread footwear-borne disease, and another giving the field's postcode should I need to ring 999 in an emergency. It was perhaps best that I didn't quite twig what that might have been referring to as I passed underneath. The track now passed a fenced off area named Orchard Farm, here more directly beneath the flightpath, although on this occasion nothing quite so giant emerged up the runway. And at the Bath Road further signs confirmed that I had indeed been within my rights to pass through, but no motorcycles, and watch out for nesting birds, and horseriders please stick to the bridlepath. Here I waited for a number 81 at London's most westerly bus stop, as yet more aeroplanes screamed over, and promptly made my escape.
The Heathrow Biodiversity Site (Colne Valley) is one of several spaces watched over by the airport to boost its green credentials. Others include Harmondsworth Moor, just to the north of where I ended up, which is a fascinating place (and can be explored via this Discovering Britain walk). But Heathrow aren't acting as eco-guuardians purely out of the goodness of their hearts. They need wetlands to soak up the risk of flooding around their large expanse of tarmac, and they prefer nobody to live in the liminal areas where planes are loudest and at greatest risk of a crash. But most importantly it helps them to own this land to make any potential expansion of the airport easier.
Terminal 6 is pencilled in for the heathland to the west of Terminal 5, and any new NW Third Runway would see Orchard Farm and the northern half of the Heathrow Biodiversity Site vanish beneath an enlarged apron. Should the Davies Commission recommend the wildcard option, the two mile western extension of the existing northern runway, then the whole of the HBS will be unceremoniously sacrificed to the gods of international travel. The Colne will be culverted, the M25 sunk into a tunnel, and the wildlife I saw will have to find somewhere else to be biodiverse. In the meantime I'd recommend a visit to this remote mile of unkempt valley only if you're a fervent plane-spotter, or perhaps if you ever want to get away from it all without actually visiting an airport.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, June 25, 2015Sorry, I'm running a bit behind schedule here. But the arrival of the Night Tube also means the launch of a brand new tube map. Hurrah?
Most of the first media outlets to report this news on Monday had in fact got excited by the old night tube map, originally released in 2013, which had been attached to their press release by mistake. They'd then cut and pasted a selection of TfL's spoonfed sentences into their news articles and pressed publish, because that's modern journalism, before swiftly updating their articles with the new Night Tube map later in the morning. It's the official Night Tube map, as seen below, and I wonder what you think.
It's certainly pretty. The two-tone blue background looks rather swish, and provides a recognisably different design to the ordinary daytime map. It's easy to imagine this map in poster form adding a bit of class to a nightclub wall or a student's bedroom. There are far fewer lines than on the ordinary tube map, so the whole thing looks more like a transport network and less like a bowl of spaghetti. It doesn't have an advert for a credit card slapped across the bottom of it, at least not yet, or for some other big name brand that fancies buying nocturnal streetcred. And who wouldn't love the cute owl logo that's been created to give the Night Tube its own identity? I fear that at some point it may be given a name, but this is surely an image destined for stacked shelves of mugs, t-shirts and sofa cushions.
And yet the key test of a tube map isn't how well it sells, but how well it works, and the Night Tube map doesn't appear to have been designed with usability at the top of the agenda. In particular, consider the choice of colours for the background. Two not very different shades of blue make it anything but easy to distinguish the boundary between, say, zones 2 and 3. More importantly, two not very different shades of blue make it bloody difficult to distinguish the lines themselves. The Piccadilly is a dark blue line on a dark blue background, and virtually invisible. The Northern is a black line on a dark blue background, and almost as unseen. The Jubilee and Victoria lines are brighter, although are from the same colour palette as the background so not as contrasty as they could be. Of the five Night Tube lines only the Central truly stands out, indeed even the River Thames is markedly more obvious than the other four.
But then I've been looking at the map on my laptop, where it's quite small. View the map instead at its largest resolution and each line is edged by a strip of white, which makes everything much easier to see. When this map is printed at full poster size and stuck up in a frame at a station, it should be relatively straight-forward to follow the lines and trace a route. Indeed there's a hint here that the map has been designed by someone with a big screen, to whom everything would always have looked fine and dandy. But below a certain resolution the white borders shrink away to insignificance, and the darker lines almost merge with the dark background. One can only hope that there aren't millions of excessively-blue Night Tube maps printed and ready to go at the same scale as the existing folded tube map, because at that size they'll likely be unnecessarily difficult to read.
And then there's the font. On a normal tube map the font size has to be small, otherwise you couldn't squeeze in the station names between the tangle of lines. On the Night Tube map there's a lot more space, because more than half of TfL's lines don't appear, but still the same tiny font size has been used. I'm sure there's room for larger and more legible station names, which for anyone long-sighted would be enormously helpful, but instead the designers have matched the same size font as the daytime map and so the visually-deficient will have to squint. They've also insisted on keeping the same kinks as the daytime map, even when there's nothing in the way. The Central line for example bends unnecessarily towards Bank, and then incorporates another twist west of Bond Street that's only existed on the actual tube map for a month. This in particular could have been straightened out, providing a useful stylistic straight line across the centre of the map. But instead the Night Tube map merely mimics the daytime layout, incorporating its less than ideal features in an attempt to be consistent.
Another feature that's been copied, this time for entirely understandable reasons, is the presence of accessibility blobs to show stations with step-free access. There aren't many of these on the Night Tube, indeed on the Central line only two step-free journeys will be possible, namely from Stratford to Woodford or Hainault. What blobs there are appear in two colours, with white blobs for step-free access from street to platform and blue blobs for step-free access from street to train. The white blobs appear most clearly on the blue background, but alas it's the blue blobs that represent gold standard access, and they're by far the harder to distinguish. On the brighter side, non-step-free interchanges stand out rather better, and they make up three-quarters of the dozen interchanges on the Night Tube.
I thought I'd finish by presenting a Night Tube map of my own. I don't claim it'd be any use for navigation, but it does depict the network's topological information in a much more geographical way. What I've done is to count up the number of Night Tube stations in every London borough, and hopefully got the totals approximately right, then shaded the map accordingly. Now at last you can see where the Night Tube actually goes, and where it actually doesn't.
The three most fortunate nocturnal boroughs are Westminster and Camden, as you might expect, and Redbridge, which you might not. TfL have been very kind to Redbridge and agreed to service both sides of the Hainault Loop, admittedly only every 20 minutes, but lucky them. Ealing and Lambeth also do well, in each case because two Night Tube lines pass through the borough giving fairly decent coverage. East London does less well than west, this because the District line and DLR aren't yet on board, and North London does better than south, but then 'twas always thus. Hackney and Greenwich do particularly badly, each with only one overnight station tucked away on the very edge of the borough, which means night buses for the majority. And an entire arc of Outer London from Richmond round to Romford gets nothing at all. To be fair, most of these zero-scoring boroughs have no Underground during the day either, but something's certainly awry when Essex gets two Night Tube stations and Lewisham gets none. I should at this point also mention Thameslink, which already runs early hours trains every morning except Sundays, so technically Croydon's not as disconnected as it looks.
Things will eventually change. If the London Overground comes on board in 2017 as planned then cross-capital coverage will greatly improve. The eventual addition of the DLR will help to fill in some obvious gaps in east and southeast London, although this can't happen before 2021 when the current franchise expires. The sub-surface lines may follow after that, although if you live in Pinner or Upminster don't hold your breath. And the Bakerloo line probably won't join the overnight party until twenty thirty something, but if you look at my map of existing geographical coverage you'll see that's not necessarily a critical loss. At least when it does finally arrive the brown should show up properly on the official Night Tube map... assuming they haven't ditched the over-dark-blue background by then.
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