diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The London Loop
[section 24]
Rainham to Purfleet (5 miles)

If you ever decide to walk the London Loop, the capital's outer strategic walk, section 24's where you'll end up. A bleak stretch of estuarine footpath, far beyond where settlement stops, through what might be the most un-London-like landscape in London. Even if you decide not to walk the whole circuit, these last five miles make for a memorable couple of hours, plus it's quite flat, and there's a station at both ends so the whole thing's easily accessible. I combined my walk with a trip to Rainham Hall at the beginning, and the Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve at the end, to make the day even more special. [map] [10 photos]

Rainham's still ostensibly a village, not quite swallowed into the Hornchurch sprawl. It also has the last shops, pubs and houses you'll be passing for the next five miles, so best stock up now on anything you might need. The area around the station's had a bit of a facelift of late, coinciding with the construction of a new flat-topped library which looks as yet out of place. Some elegant signage directs walkers and cyclists north along the Ingrebourne Way (Loop 23) or southeast to Purfleet (Loop 24), without ever hinting at the desolation that lies ahead. It used to be a simple walk down Ferry Lane from the station, until they built the High Speed Chunnel Rail Link as a barrier. Now it's up and over a twisty bridge, beside a row of vividly coloured sheds, to be deposited in the contour-free nomansland on the opposite side.

Rainham Marshes spread for miles along the Thames, broad and floodable, blighted by a row of pylons and a series of viaducts. In some parts grazing cattle roam, while others thrive with reedy vegetation, across the last remaining ancient wilderness in London. But here too is another East London landscape stalwart - riverside industrial - with an extensive chain of factories and warehouses bordering the last mile of the River Ingrebourne. It's not lovely. Thankfully the footpath veers along the edge of the marsh and then through it, pausing only to duck beneath the thundering A13. Havering Council have decorated the off-slip roundabouts with what look like giant upright hairbrushes, and which might just possibly illuminate after dark. And don't worry about getting lost, stencilled metal fingerposts will guide your way at every possible point of indecision, with confirmation posts every hundred metres - we're in elite waymarking territory here.

At the next turnoff, sorry, we're not heading the nice way. One path heads off into deep marsh lined by intermingled grasses, while the official Loop path aims for, and then between, the line of grubby warehouses. There is a reason for this, other than nobody bothering to update the route since the nicer path was laid, which becomes clear when you finally emerge onto a road beside the Thames. You may not notice the river at first, hidden behind a high concrete bank to protect against inundation, but clambering up top reveals a mighty wide river in grey low-slung glory. The flat panorama of manufacture and recycling, plus a lofty incinerator on the Bexley bank, is something you're going to have to get used to. Passing through on a Sunday the hum of commercial machinery was dormant, the only racket a lad on a small motorbike doing endless wheelies back and forth to inconvenience nobody.

Just when an inland diversion looks inevitable, the Loop nips out along the river wall between a line of tall silos and a working pier. As five large letters confirm, this is the Tilda rice factory, manufacturers of the UK's best selling basmati rice, perched here on the most distant edge of the conurbation. But it's swiftly forgotten, because there's proper history beached on the foreshore ahead. These are Rainham's concrete barges, constructed during the war when building materials were scarce, and used on D-Day as part of the Mulberry harbours. A decade later they were dumped here in the Thames as protection from the great flood of 1953. And here they remain, sunk into a beach at a variety of angles, slowly not-rusting away. If the tide's low and your footwear's appropriate then you might consider trudging out across the squelchy grass to stand alongside, but I'd recommend not, best leave the crew of pigeons to roost in peace.

And that's not all that's peculiar around here. A short distance away, anchored eight metres down into the riverbed, is a twisted mass of galvanised steel in humanoid form. This is The Diver, a submersible artwork, and allegedly the only sculpture to be located actually in the River Thames. It was installed here overnight in the year 2000 by artist John Kaufman, and dedicated to his grandfather who used to be a diver in the old London Docks. Come at low tide and the entire sculpture stands proud above water level, but as the Thames slowly rises so the diver starts to vanish, until at certain spring tides each year the top of the helmet is fully submerged. It's a lovely idea, well delivered, and at such a remote location that only those in the know ever come visiting.

And if you thought that was bleak, keep going. A triangular expanse that used to be two riverside farms has been swallowed up over the last century by London's landfill, and a vast pile of rubbish has grown up to hillock heights. 2000 tonnes of fresh rubbish arrive by river each weekday, unloaded at a huge warehouse on a pontoon before being unceremoniously added to the working half of the site. Much of the rest of the Rainham Integrated Waste Management Facility has been sown with grass seed and will one day be a country park, although the plastic pipes sprouting from the hillside for ventilation purposes suggest that safe public access may still be some time off. Meanwhile the Loop continues around the headland towards Coldharbour Point, possibly the remotest spot within the Greater London boundary, and still the location of a squat red lighthouse (placed here for bend-turning navigational reasons). Several centuries ago a ferry crossed the Thames here to the town of Erith, its flats and houses now clearly visible on the opposite shore, but now reachable only via the lofty bridge that's just come into view on the horizon.

Passing portakabins and piles of pallets, the next section of riverside path is less than a decade old, permitting passage through to Purfleet. It smells a bit too. A fenced-off road allows Veolia staff in and out of the landfill dump, broken at one point by a deliberate gap in the fence. It would be easy to mistake this for a public footpath, the illusion strengthened by a humped zebra-style crossing and road signs warning drivers to slow for pedestrians. And that track winding its way up the hill beyond looks official, properly fenced on both sides to prevent access to the wider site, so you might indeed be tempted to follow. And once ascended to the summit, 25 metres being an unnaturally rare height in this corner of East London, you might gasp at the glorious panorama below, as the Thames sweeps round Crayford Ness past hundreds of acres of lush marshland, and the occasional Eurostar train flashes across the Aveley Viaduct. Indeed you might concur that when this rubbish dump is finally given back to the public as a public park, this viewpoint will become a must-see. But don't be tempted, there's as yet no evidence that the spiralling ascent is kosher, and who'd want to encroach illicitly?

The final remote stretch of this walk begins at a wholly unexpected car park and continues alongside Aveley Bay, finally crossing from Greater London into Thurrock. Officially the path follows the tarmac track beneath the river wall, but feel free to walk up top for an unshielded view because the metal gates at each end are probably unlocked. The low wetland to the north belongs to the RSPB, it's their Rainham Marshes reserve, and the peculiar brown-striped building in the distance is their visitor centre. You'll need to get that far before you can gain access, but I can heartily recommend you do, and if you want to fit in make sure you bring binoculars with you. The network of boardwalks, hides and reedy scrapes on this former MoD rifle range provide an ideal location for monitoring waders and waterfowl, and if you're feeling particularly fit you should add on the full 2½ mile circuit around the perimeter. If nothing else it'll delay your arrival in the letdown that is Purfleet.

Once across the Mar Dyke the houses begin, not the finest in the property portfolio, their cheery inhabitants perhaps spilling out onto the grassy promenade. Come on the right day and the bricked-up gunpowder store housing the Purfleet Heritage and Military Centre might be open, mistime and you might have to step out of the way to avoid being mown down by a teenage girl on a quad bike. And whilst you'd hope the end of the 150 mile Loop would be marked by something special, there's not even a sign, and the official exhortation to pop into The Royal Inn for a celebratory pint couldn't tempt me across its tattooed portal. Instead I strode on to the station, determined to catch the hourly train, after what had been a fabulously stark and wide-skied walk.

» London Loop section 24: official webpage; map and directions; map
» Who else has walked it? Tetramesh, Stephen, urban75, Mark, Oatsy, Maureen, Tim, Richard
» See also sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24

And if walking takes your fancy, be aware that this weekend Walk London are organising forty free guided walks across the capital, about a third of which are decent hikes like this one. Under the umbrella of Autumn Ambles, they come highly recommended.

 Monday, October 12, 2015

The National Trust run only a dozen properties in London, and not always in the most likely locations. One of these reopened last week after a lengthy restoration, in a large village on the Thames Marshes in deepest Havering. It's Rainham Hall, a particularly fine example of a Queen Anne house, and £1.5m has brought it back to life in a community-tastic manner.

Rainham Hall was built in 1729 by Captain John Harle, a seafaring merchant from County Durham who married an East End lass. He bought up the local wharf, then connected to the Thames by creek, and used it successfully as a base for trade. His house was upwardly mobile but not upper class, hence not the National Trust's typical stately home, and all the better for it. Three storeys tall, plus basement, its square frontage stands proudly (behind particularly ornate iron railings) beside the parish church as befits its local status. Plus outside there's an orchard, plus private gardens, plus public gardens, plus a stable block, plus a giant Victorian dog kennel - at least one of which houses the new cafe. So it's a winner, obviously.

I'd been to Rainham Hall before, back in 2011 when it was open only intermittently and awaiting a much-needed injection of cash. In those days a guide took a small group round, apologising for the fabric of the interior and pointing out aspects of interest. In the refurbished building the emphasis is different, as the National Trust branches out and tries a rather different approach. Now you're allowed to wander round unbidden, and the focus has switched from the building itself to its inhabitants. A wide cast of characters has lived at Rainham Hall over three centuries, and the NT proposes to focus on a different resident in turn, each for a year or so, in an attempt to bring their story to life. In the future we're promised an insight into a 18th century Methodist preacher, a postwar nursery child and a photographer for Vogue. But first out of the personality brantub, and rightly so, is the Hall's first owner, John Harle.

John's bewigged wife was waiting at the front door when I arrived. This may have been an opening weekend special, or it might be normal, it's hard to tell. My visit on Sunday coincided with a community fete designed to welcome those who live nearby and help make them feel part of the project. Rainham Hall was thus teeming with people, a wholly atypical experience hereabouts, but which'll have delighted the general manager sitting out back on a sunny bench. If you visit you'll be able to explore three floors but we were only allowed two, the attic floor being too weak to support a torrent of freeloaders. But you might also miss the animated atmosphere, and a sense of collective exploration, as the over-50s of almost-Essex swarmed all over, and enjoyed.

The most impressive room is the entrance hall - as would have been expected in the first area seen by guests - dark and wood-panelled with a coat of arms above the fireplace. There are then three ground floor rooms to explore, the idea being that if you see a door you open it, and who knows what surprise you might find behind. For example nobody'll be expecting one room to contain nothing but a video of the rolling sea projected onto all four walls (won't be expecting unless they've read this sentence, sorry). The front room houses a board game played with gloves inside a perspex box, this because the counters are actual 18th century coins, though I fear the rules are too complex for the average visitor to want to engage. Meanwhile out back is the kitchen, the ideal blank canvas for historical invention. For this opening exhibition it's become a Lloyd's Coffeehouse, as merchant Harle would have been a regular visitor, with fact-packed freesheet to read or take away.

Upstairs follows the same minimalist pattern, one concept per room. John's wife is imagined through what might have been her wedding dress. John's trade is celebrated in a cabinet of splendid shiny seafaring equipment loaned by the National Maritime Museum. A front room contains nothing but a table to practice Georgian handwriting, spurred on by the Great Vowel Shift John would have experienced in his journey south. The bath has been filled, somewhat playfully, with solid blue water and a fleet of ships. And then there's the house's pride and joy, an artefact by rights it shouldn't own, namely John Harle's will. This was discovered completely by chance by Rainham's postmistress, stopping off at a car boot sale half way up the A1, and her tale is engagingly told behind the sealed vellum she donated.

I liked the garden, especially the long herringbone path leading directly from the back door. Out back, on a long terrace, the house's orchard is currently dripping with apples and sweet-smelling pears. And you won't get this, but on Sunday a handful of stalls were laid out across the lower public garden, the lady from local hospital radio clearly wishing she'd set up her fleamarket closer to the path. Other stallholders had taken over the top floor of the stable block, including a representative of the craft group commissioned to sew something appropriate for each regeneration of the hall's display (for example a Delft tile, to match the rare ones in the fireplace). And the stable block is also where you'll find the cafe, doing a roaring trade on my visit, as an army of volunteers got to grips with how precisely the till and (more importantly) the milk frothing machine worked.

The cafe's going to be open daily, with the upstairs space available for community groups, which sounds like an excellent local resource. The Hall will be open every day except Monday and Tuesday, so don't head there today, and avoid Wednesdays and Thursdays too once the winter season kicks in. But that's still hugely more accessible than "the occasional Saturday afternoon", which was the building's previous fate, as befits the impressive transformation wrought beneath its roof. I'm not entirely won over by the focus on characters at the expense of architecture, and some of the minimalist displays underwhelmed, but the fine detail is excellent, and the chance to tell a variety of stories over the forthcoming years is an inspiring idea. And Rainham Hall's a really easy walk from the station, and only two stops past Barking, assuming you've never been out this way before.

» Map: Rainham, RM13 9YN
» Open: 10am-5pm (Wednesday-Sunday), £5
» National Trust Rainham Hall webpage (and video)
» Rainham Hall on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram
» Detailed reviews from Londonist, the Thurrock Enquirer and the Guardian

 Sunday, October 11, 2015

Last month there were three bus stops along my local bit of Bow Road.

Now there's only one.

Thanks cyclists, you did this.

Old Bus Stop M was incompatible with the Cycle Superhighway, blocking access to the segregated lane immediately before the Bow Roundabout, so had to die. Only the shelter now remains, barriered off and awaiting removal. Anyone who used to catch the bus here now has to walk 200 yards up the road to catch a bus, which is hardly the end of the world, but annoying all the same.

Bus Stop E was also incompatible with the Cycle Superhighway, there being insufficient space behind to carve a bus stop bypass, so had to die. On Wednesday the bus shelter was surrounded by barriers, but on Friday it was removed altogether. Workmen moved in to wrest it from the pavement, making good the paving slabs in its wake, and creating ample space for pedestrians for the first time in years. So thorough was their work that there's now no clue that a bus stop was ever here... apart from the words BUS STOP written in the road, and that won't last long once the Cycle Superhighway drives through.

Which would be the end of the story, indeed for passengers turning up to catch a bus it is. They all now head for New Bus Stop M, on the site of Old Bus Stop G, and nobody waits at Old Bus Stop E at all. But one outstanding issue remains, which is that the electronic information regarding New Bus Stop M is incorrect, and all because somebody took a cheeky administrative shortcut behind the scenes.

To explain the mess I need to go back a year. Back then every bus stopped at either Stop E or Stop G, and then every bus stopped at Stop M. Here's a list.

Old Bus Stop E (Bow Church): 8, 488
Old Bus Stop G (Bow Church): 25, 276, 425, D8, N205
Old Bus Stop M (Bow Flyover): 8, 25, 276, 425, 488, D8, N205

Today there's only one bus stop, and every bus stops at it. So it must have made sense to somebody somewhere to hang on to that bus stop, and its letter, and its timetables, and shift it 200 metres up the road.

New Bus Stop M (Bow Church): 8, 25, 276, 425, 488, D8, N205

Contractors were ordered to rip out the bus stop pole by the flyover and reinstate it by the church, remembering to change the nameplate (from Bow Flyover to Bow Church) in the process. None of the route number plates or timetables would need changing, and all the electronic "next bus" jiggery pokery would work too - it should have been the perfect easy option. Apart from three things.

Firstly, buses reach New Bus Stop M a minute earlier than they reached Old Bus Stop M. This means all the timetables are wrong, both at the stop and online, because nobody's bothered to adjust them. They're only a minute out, which you'd think ought to be no big deal. But this means app users who turn up when a bus is "due" will actually have missed it, because it'll already be a minute down the road. And there are accurate timetables, I know, because they were posted up at Bus Stop G when it stood in precisely the same spot in August. In a world of accurate data this smacks of slapdash inconsistency.

Secondly, if you're on board any bus heading east, the electronic display shows the wrong name for the stop. It should say 'Bow Church', but instead it says 'Bow Flyover', because that's the name in the database associated with the bus stop lettered M. This too suggests that somebody behind the scenes hasn't completed all the digital changes associated with the switchover.

Thirdly, and more awkwardly, route 25 stopped stopping at Old Bus Stop M back in March. TfL rerouted the 25 over the flyover to speed up the service, skipping Old Bus Stop M and the next bus stop on the other side of the roundabout in the process. They've since decided to make this rerouting permanent, and are currently running a box-ticking consultation to ensure this happens. But this diversion meant the list of bus routes stopping at Old Bus Stop M became one bus short, with the 25 deleted...

Old Bus Stop M (Bow Flyover): 8,     276, 425, 488, D8, N205

...and TfL's computer still thinks this is the case.

The 25 bus does stop at New Bus Stop M - it's the last stop before the flyover. But the 25 doesn't appear in the list of departures on TfL's webpage for Bus Stop M, even though all the other buses do. If you text '55457' to 87287 you get back a list of departures in which the 25 does not appear. In fact I believe it's impossible to get next bus information for route 25 at new Bus Stop M, whether you use the TfL website or an app, now that Bus Stops E and G have been electronically eliminated. And all because somebody somewhere decided it would be a smart idea to switch Old Bus Stop M 200 metres up the road, rather than retaining Bus Stop G and amending the routes served.

Nobody outside Bow cares, I know, but when you actually live here this stuff matters. It also matters that Old Bus Stop E used to have a Countdown display in its shelter, but new Bus Stop M doesn't, so the people of Bow Road are now making do with less information than they had before. And I haven't even started to tell you about the other problem with New Bus Stop M, namely the big gap in the middle. Once the lamppost stump is removed and the final barriers come down, I'll be back to tell all.

» All six 'bus stop posts' on one page

 Saturday, October 10, 2015

Outer Hebrides, Edinburgh
The diamond geezer Tour of Britain
(excluding posts in and immediately around London)
Northumberland, Beamish/Durham, Isle of Man, Blackpool, Liverpool, Salford, Bradford/Saltaire, Leeds, Wakefield, Grindleford, York, Hull
Stoke-on-Trent, Lichfield, Much Wenlock, Birmingham, Birmingham, Birmingham, Birmingham, Coventry, Stratford-on-Avon
Worksop, Skegness, Rutland, Northampton, Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Stewartby, Ivinghoe, Chequers, St Albans, Letchworth
Cromer, Horsey, Berney Arms, Neatishead, Dereham, Mid-Norfolk, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Ickworth, Ely, Duxford, Sudbury, Aldeburgh, Sutton Hoo, Flatford Mill
Bicester, Oxford, Didcot, Henley, West Wycombe, Bekonscot, Bray
Harwich, Colchester, Walton-on-the-Naze, Burnham-on-Crouch, Harlow, Ongar, Kelvedon Hatch, Canvey Island, Southend, Shoeburyness
Severn Bore, Bristol, Imber, Stonehenge, Winchester, Dorchester, Chesil Beach, Weymouth, Bournemouth
Gosport, Portsmouth, Isle of Wight, Amberley, Shoreham, Devil's Dyke, Brighton, Newhaven, Box Hill, Leith Hill, Bluebell Railway, Bexhill, East Grinstead, Beachy Head, Eastbourne, Hastings, Rye, Camber Sands
Sevenoaks, Isle of Grain, Rochester, Chatham, Sheppey, Faversham, Canterbury, Whitstable, Herne Bay, Maunsell Forts, Margate, Ramsgate, Deal, Dover, Samphire Hoe, Tenterden, Dungeness

 Friday, October 09, 2015

Sprawled across a valley ten miles north of Durham is where you'll find Beamish, a fantastic attraction dubbed the Living Museum of the North. It started out in the early 1970s as an open-air attempt to keep alive the area's rural and industrial heritage, the museum accepting any old artefact from a farmer's shovel to a mining winch. A large proportion of these are now on display across the 300 acre site, grouped into historically themed areas with a particular emphasis on 100 years ago and several decades either side. And it's all beautifully done, each cluster of heritage buildings packed with evocative interiors and machinery that bring the past to life. Throw in some vintage vehicles for getting about and the occasional chicken, and what's not to love?

n.b. I visited on a wet late-season Wednesday, which hopefully won't colour the review that follows (because that colour would be grey)

Entrance is through a steamhammer gate via a giant five-tier car park, to an echoing entrance pavilion sized for summer crowds. Admittance isn't cheap, currently £18.50, but for that you get an annual pass, and if you arrive by bus (like I did) you get 25% off. Once inside the site the first thing reached is a tram stop, where tracks lead out of sight in either direction, but you don't have to wait, it's perfectly possible to walk. Closest by is the Pit Village, a row of Edwardian cottages complete with vegetable beds out front, a Methodist chapel and a primary school. All of these were shipped in from elsewhere and rebuilt, not that you'd immediately know, and are fully functional (as the children undergoing a stern slate-based lesson could testify). Elsewhere there are pit ponies to meet, plus a recently-arrived Fried Fish and Chip Potatoes restaurant, its entire lunchtime menu fried in dripping (and much tastier than your average chippy chips, I can confirm).

Nextdoor, unsurprisingly given which county this is, stands a semi-functional colliery. This too was reconstructed from elsewhere, as the economic fate of the surrounding coalfield became clear, and stands as testimony to a way of life more recently departed. For us southerners it's the most unusual experience on site, not least the opportunity to wander round and through the buildings that would have topped a dirty shaft. The museum specialises in miners safety lamps, first successfully demonstrated 200 years ago this month, with a variety of specimens from throughout their evolution on display. But best of all was when a volunteer handed me an unexpected hard hat and directed me towards a hole in the hillside. This was once the Mahogany Drift Mine, following a coal seam stretching a mile underground. Only the first 100 feet has been restored, but that's far enough to discover from an ex-miner how the coal was removed and how claustrophobic that would have been. Mines were generally only as high as the coal seam they traced, in this case four and a half feet, which meant crouching and ducking for almost the entire ten minutes underground. Excellently done.

Other areas touch on a more rural past. Pockerley Old Hall and its surrounding fields aim to recreate an 1820s landscape, with several rooms, nooks and crannies to explore inside. Down the hill is a Georgian Waggonway, the precursor of all modern railways, with brief steam train rides available on busier days. Meanwhile on the other side of the site Home Farm has been dressed up with 1940s wartime ephemera, and boasts geese, chicken and a particularly enormous pig. The country farmhouse is very cosy at this time of year, now that the fires have been lit, and the smell of baking from the Aga was especially welcoming. Much of the furniture and fittings in the farm cottage reminded me of how my grandmother's house had once been kitted out, which was a good excuse to chat to the Land Girl sat knitting by the fireplace. But as for the British Kitchen, a kiosk offering a spin on wartime food, I fear the man inside spent most of his day looking wistfully at occasional passers-by rather than serving up much in the way of tea or Spam.

What Beamish is known best for is its 1900s Town. A medium-sized High Street has been painstakingly recreated, with period businesses and an ex-Gateshead terrace lining the pavement, and a web of tram tracks and wires down the centre. The shops and period houses are excellent, not just in the way they're stacked full of period produce, but also because there's a shopkeeper in each ready to draw you into the illusion. The landlady at the Sun Inn has dandelion and burdock for sale, the bloke at the Co-Op will explain the divi, and the dentist will tell you things you'd rather not know about the economics of tooth extraction before the electric drill. The sweetshop is as well stocked as you'd expect (I walked away with a quarter of rhubarb and custard), while the Masonic Hall is far larger than you'd guess from the street. And every ten minutes or so a tram rolls by, in one direction or the other, completing the illusion that you've somehow stepped back in time.

Of course there's a old station, locally sourced, although I'm not sure quite how much railway activity it sees. A small fairground gives kids a spin in the summer months, beside a large patch of lawn that won't be seeing any picnics for several months. And further up the road is one of Beamish's many store cupboards, this a huge warehouse rammed with sliding racks of 'stuff'. It was like walking into an old catalogue, or indeed not-so-old in places as childhood toys jostled with a box of Marguerite Patten recipe cards, a row of salon-style hairdriers and precisely the same stack of Tupperware bowls (in autumn shades) my family used to own. Beamish has always had a policy of accepting any donation, and one day scholars will want to look back to see what 20th century hi-fi systems, liquidisers and office chairs actually looked like.

All in all I took three hours to look round, which should have been at least four, which it might well have been on a day when more was open. I didn't explore the farthest recesses of the site, nor the rare breeds grazing in the central fields, nor ride the tram around the perimeter quite often enough. But although the rain meant I didn't get the chance to enjoy the pastoral autumn landscape at its best, there was the huge bonus of having large numbers of exhibits to myself. Only one school party was out and about - the benefit of visiting in October rather than July - plus a few hardy groups and families in dripping waterproofs. So whenever I came across an employee playing their part in some heritage scenario, I was free to engage in proper one-on-one conversation and so get a lot more out of my visit. They'll be doing it all again at Beamish today, treating every visitor afresh, at the living museum that's several days out in one. [10 photos]

 Thursday, October 08, 2015

It's bright and sunny today in Durham, the North East's most scenic cathedral city. Unfortunately I went yesterday. It rained almost non-stop, heaviest in the morning, with the dank clouds parting only as I boarded the train home. Still, never mind.

Take my advice and never book a day trip to Durham at the start of October. It's Freshers Week, which means students everywhere, and they tend to take over a bit. Durham Castle doubles as student digs, so for one week only there are no tours for 'student acclimatisation' purposes. And on the Wednesday they pack out Durham Cathedral for Matriculation, five times over, so don't think you're getting any further than the font at the back of the building. Damn, that was the city's two biggest hitters off the list... and did I mention the rain?

This is the week the university's 18 year olds are finding their feet, making tentative long-term friendships, and thinking about maybe growing a beard. For Matriculation they were also swishing around in gowns, or M&S suits if their college is less traditional, as they processed through the city centre to their first age-old academic ceremony. I had to step aside as a horn-blowing official led a bedraggled crocodile up Saddler Street, somewhat embarrassedly, with those at the rear sheltering from the downpour as best they could beneath the college banner. Elsewhere various young reps were out trying to persuade fresh meat to join their societies and associations, the most impressive of which was the Ski and Snowboard Club who'd dumped a snowdrift in Market Square. For all of us who've ever experienced the wide-eyed optimism of Freshers Week, walking into the middle of one takes you right back.

I wasn't expecting to be writing about students when I pre-booked my rail ticket. I thought I'd be telling you about Durham's oh-so picturesque location on a deep meander on the Wear. The river bends right back on itself, creating a historic tongue of elevated land on which the World Heritage Site is set. Narrow cobbled streets fork south, lined by shops, then ecclesiastical squares and university accommodation. So tortuous is the root-like road network that Durham beat London to introducing a congestion charge by a few months. Meanwhile a main road crosses the neck of the peninsula, where the council have managed to squeeze in a shopping mall and millennial entertainment zone without upsetting UNESCO too much.

The turbulent swirl of the Wear is best seen from a bridge. There are several of these around the loop, most merely footbridges and all the better for it. Elvet Bridge inclines relatively steeply, and feels like a historic hiatus, while Framwellgate Bridge links the shops on either bank and has a fine view of the weir (on the Wear) below. Most of the slopes around the curve remain undeveloped, so the low level footpaths along the banks are somewhat off the beaten track, ideal for jogging but a bit puddly after heavy rain.

Another reason not to visit midweek in October is that the Durham Museum and Heritage Centre is closed. The building's not huge but, in the absence of the cathedral and the castle, it might have helped fill my eight hour itinerary. Crook Hall Gardens were open, but I didn't fancy spending a fiver to see some damp autumnal flowerbeds, The Antarctica exhibition at Palace Green Library doesn't open until next week, a Light Infantry collection rarely floats my boat, and I never made it as far down as the acclaimed Oriental Museum. On a decent day I'd have climbed up to the lofty earthwork of Maiden Castle and enjoyed the panorama, maybe walked a little further, but Wednesday wasn't the best day for independent exploration.

So I gave up on Durham early, sorry, with a pledge to try again some day in better weather. Instead I took a bus and headed elsewhere, because when you're only rarely in Country Durham hell why not. I'll definitely come back to 'do' Durham properly... but not in early October. [10 photos]

I need to return (briefly) to three bus stops on Bow Road.

The one that's open (was G, is M?) doesn't appear to have changed. But the other two (E and old M) have sprouted additional accessories to emphasise that they're closed. And I think somebody's overdone it.

Old bus stop M was first. A loop of orange and white plastic barriers was positioned around the shelter, removing all pedestrian access. As signals go, it's pretty unambiguous. Would-be passengers can no longer hang around and wait, even if they'd like to. Perhaps more importantly, bus drivers can clearly see that they shouldn't be stopping here any more, so they don't. So far so good.

Then yesterday somebody did the same to Bus Stop E (pictured above). Except this time the ring of barriers sticks out a bit, because it's not been carefully placed. Again it's now obvious to all and sundry that this is no longer a bus stop, so nobody waits, and no bus stops. Bus passengers, tick. Bus drivers, tick. But who have we forgotten? Ah yes, the local pedestrian, who'll now find it harder to walk past. The pavement past Bus Stop E was always fairly narrow, but the haphazard positioning of chunky barriers has made it narrower still, unnecessarily obstructing the footway. At the pinchpoint I'd say the pavement is now only 60% of its former width, a problem with a pushchair, and impossible to anyone with any sort of mobility aid. By adopting a sledgehammer approach, the bus stop's closure may at last be blatantly obvious, but at what cost?

 Wednesday, October 07, 2015

How dirty is your mug?

Or rather, how long can you go before you need to give your mug a scrub?

Some people feel compelled to clean a mug after every use. No sooner is their tea or coffee consumed than the mug is whisked off to the kitchen to be washed. That might mean a run under the tap, or might mean filling up the bowl, or might just mean hiding it away in the dishwasher to await purification. For these people a dirty mug is an object of peril, and must be eradicated at the earliest possible opportunity. Obviously the dishwasher option is nothing but a delaying mechanism - out of sight, out of mind - but for these people all that's important is signalling intent, because this mug must be clean.

Others leave it a little longer, but each mug only gets one use. A single tea or coffee in each is all they'll approve, because every drink requires a fresh receptacle. These are the Mug Cupboard Emptiers, a new vessel on every occasion, which at least helps keep the whole collection in circulation. Too many of us own more mugs than we know what to do with, and a refusal to re-use is the best way to ensure that even those at the back of the cupboard get their chance. This often means that the draining board becomes a ceramic forest, gradually accumulating before the critical number is reached. But a 'one drink one mug' philosophy is favoured by many for its clarity of purpose.

Some are willing to reuse their mug a certain number of times before feeling the need to cleanse. It might just be the once, before the nagging voice at the back of your head insists that any further recycling would be unwise. It might be twice, the second refill the moment your unease at repetition becomes palpable. Or it might be more often, because what the hell, it's only a mug, what harm could reusing it actually do? A certain logic kicks in, that all this excess washing up might perhaps be pointless, and you could be spending more of your life enjoying tea rather than forever trying to scrub it away.

I'm a multiple user myself, edging around the borderline of double figures. I have no qualms with dropping my teabag into a mug I've used before, several times, not least because it saves the hassle of getting another mug out of the cupboard. I have a favourite mug I always use, much bigger than all the others, so there's no great incentive to work my way through my collection of lesser receptacles. My used mug then waits until there's sufficient other crockery piled up beside the sink before it gets a wash, which I see as a pragmatic solution to household hygiene. And even if there there is an issue with cleanliness by the tenth repeat, it's surely nothing that can't be solved by a fresh burst of boiling water.

Not everybody downs their hot beverage of choice before it goes cold. These people leave a dribble at the bottom, maybe an inch, and leave that to settle, congeal and stagnate. The resulting liquid may be no big deal an hour later, but it's not a nice thing to stumble upon the following day. With this pattern of reuse the surface above the meniscus remains mostly clean, but tannins and/or caffeine have plenty of time to stain the lower interior of the mug, and a deep brown shade ensues. And whilst some Last Inch Refusers give their mug a good wash after every unfinished drink, others simply compound the problem with refill after refill, and the muck becomes increasingly engrained.

And a few people go the whole hog and never let their mug see detergent. Its surface must once have been perfectly clean, on the mug's first outing, but with each successive use a patina has slowly built up. After a few weeks the interior will be looking distinctly brown, and after a few more perhaps approaching black. Ultimately a crust appears, which could be described as 'adding character', perhaps even 'protective', or might be considered an organic entity in itself. But isn't this precisely what our grandparents used to do with teapots - the insides were never washed - and all we're doing is continuing the tradition?

Or perhaps the entire situation never arises. An increasing number of people never drink tea or coffee from a mug, only from a one-off paper cup. Modern caffeinated beverages usually come from a machine - a simple single-use operation ultimately requiring you to chuck the cup away. Or in the case of coffee more likely the special blend comes from a takeaway counter, where some barista wields beans and foam and nozzles to create the perfect mix, then delivers it in a paper vessel and slaps a plastic lid on top. This may not be the most environmentally friendly way to consume, each daily purchase emblematic of a throwaway society, but at least there's never the need to worry about washing anything up.

Assuming you still make drinks the proper old-fashioned way, how dirty is your mug?
    1 Instant Washer
    2 Mug Cupboard Emptier
    3 Double Dip Filler
    4 Single Digit Recycler
    5 Serial Offender
    6 Last Inch Refuser
    7 Crusty

 Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Hurrah, this is yet another post about three bus stops on Bow Road.

Because yesterday, at last, everything got sorted out. Apart from the things that didn't.

Nothing new happened on Sunday.
No change. Still a total organisational mess with passengers running from one stop to the other, and buses stopping mostly at G, sometimes at E, and occasionally at both.
And nothing had happened by daybreak on Monday.
A lady waiting at Bus Stop E looks up at the sign reading ALL BUSES STOP HERE and wonders why the last three didn't.
But on Monday morning, official things started to happen. I know this because somebody called Ray left a comment telling me all about it.
DG, your blogs WERE read by TfL and things started happening this morning.

I arrived to have a look at 11.45 and a guy in a TfL hi-viz was there to have a meeting at midday with a couple of people from the Cycle Superhighway project. While he was waiting, I mentioned Diamond Geezer and his somewhat lengthy reply made it plain that you were the reason that he was there. He explained that the Cycle Superhighway people have been doing work ahead of the date that had been agreed and scheduled, with the result that TfL were not aware when changes had been made around bus stops. Judging by the vehemence of his explanations and his determination to show that TfL were in no way at fault, it would seem that your blogs have been rattling around the command structure.

The Cycle Superhighway people arrived at midday and I left, as it had started raining. Hopefully, if you check this evening, the problems with the bus stops will have been sorted.
I arrived home after dark, and I was delighted to see that changes had indeed been made.

Stop E

Two very important things have happened here. Firstly the temporary bus stop sign on the lamppost has been removed, so there's no longer a roundel with the message ALL BUSES STOP HERE to lure in passengers. And secondly a proper 'Bus stop closed' sign has appeared. It's yellow, and proper, and stuck to the bus shelter so it's legible from within and without. We at last have conclusive proof that Bus Stop E is intended to be closed, and if the Cycle Superhighway upgrade continues as planned, it'll never open again. So that's all clear.

Not everybody's noticed yet, of course. You'd think a 'Bus stop closed' sign would be pretty unequivocal, indeed it's hard to do much more to get the message across. But some people are still waiting at what used to be Bus Stop E through passenger inertia, because it's been a bus stop for years, and for the last six weeks it's been the only bus stop hereabouts. And whilst it'd be good to think that people only wait where they see a bus stop sign, in fact they'll happily wait wherever they see a bus shelter, and it'll be a while before that's physically removed. But I was surprised to see a few buses still stopping at ex-Bus Stop E - during the couple of minutes I was there a 25 pilled in followed immediately by a 276. Perhaps a bus stop isn't truly closed until someone tells all the drivers... or perhaps the drivers are simply being thoughtful in rescuing passengers who shouldn't have been waiting there in the first place.

Stop G (or is it M?)
Where once there were three bus stops, now there's only one. Bus Stop G is the great survivor, mothballed for six weeks so that a bus stop bypass could be carved out behind, and now mostly unveiled in linear island form. Only one change took place at Bus Stop G yesterday, which was a tweak to the timetables on display. You'll remember that the pole for Bus Stop G has been recycled from Bus Stop M down the road, where the buses were the same except that route 25 didn't stop. So the important change has been to remove the yellow notices stating that 'Route 25 is diverted and will not be serving this stop', revealing the timetable for route 25 underneath. This is all good.

But everything else that's on display here is simply what was on display down the road uprooted. The pole says M on top instead of G. The timetables are very definitely those for the Bow Flyover stop rather than Bow Church - no more than a minute out, but technically inaccurate. And nobody's altered the 'next bus information' panel at the top of the pole, so if you text '55457' to 87287 you still get the next bus information for the bus stop by the flyover, where the 25 didn't stop, and so whose services do not appear. I'll return to this mysterious G/M dilemma shortly.

Stop M

Meanwhile down by the flyover, as suspected, the former Bus Stop M appears to have absolutely definitely closed. A 'Bus stop closed' sign has been pasted up on the bus shelter, the same as at Bus Stop E, to warn passengers that there is no point in waiting here... even though the occasional bus still stops. More importantly, a proper individualised notice has gone up too, officially printed with specific information. It too says 'Bus stop closed.' It gives an actual start date, which is Monday 5th October, despite the fact the stop's been dormant for over a week. It says the closure is 'until further notice', which is the polite way of saying forever, because Cycle Superhighway plans require that it never reopens. And that's the niggle-free part of the notice.

The remainder isn't quite so helpful. Underneath the headline somebody's printed out a list of what they think are the affected bus routes, namely the 25, 276, 425, D8 and N205. But unfortunately they've missed two routes out, namely the 8 (which has stopped here since the 1980s) and the 488 (which has stopped here since 2008). The list of affected routes would be correct if this was Bus Stop G and it was last year, but it's not, and so the list is 28% incomplete. The notice then goes on to advise passengers to use the bus stop on Bow Road at Bromley High Street, which is not a helpful way of describing the location, indeed it suggests what whoever wrote the notice has never been here. And most importantly the notice tells passengers, indeed urges passengers, to please use Bus Stop M.

Hang on, this is Bus Stop M! The bus stop pole always used to have an M on it. If you look at the bus map in the bus shelter it very definitely describes this stop as Bus Stop M. If you head to the TfL website, Bus Stop M is still this stop, the bus stop by the flyover. And yet - as we've seen - what used to be Bus Stop G up the road now has an M on top, so maybe that's the new Bus Stop M, even though the TfL website still thinks it's G. Perhaps the final outcome of this major bus stop reshuffle is that bus stops E and M have closed, and Bus Stop G has survived but been renamed M.

And by this point you might think I'm merely quibbling, but there is a reason why this matters. TfL are currently running a consultation regarding the rerouting of route 25 over the Bow Flyover which will involve the skipping of certain stops. In that consultation they clearly state that route 25 will no longer be serving Bus Stop M, but will continue to serve Bus Stop G, indeed there's even a helpful map showing where bus stops G (Bow Church) and M (Bow Flyover) are. But the consultation no longer matches the situation on the ground, where M is G or G is M and the old M no longer exists, or something, my brain is quietly throbbing at this point.

It's also made clear that Bus Stop M will be closing later this year, which (if it's the old M) it already has, and (if it's the new M) it had better not. Whichever is actually the case, there's now an official consultation giving entirely contradictory information to reality, or a reality giving entirely contradictory information to what's intended, it's hard to be sure. And the consultation still has ten days to run. I hope that somebody can clarify which stop's actually called what before the deadline passes.

Sorry, I never meant to write four long posts about three bus stops you'll probably never use. But I hope it's been illuminating to see how poor communication and poorly thought-out processes can impact on bus users in unanticipated ways. It's amazing how long a misinformation issue can go unnoticed, with the travelling public inevitably the losers. Equally it's been encouraging to see the bus companies, Cycle Superhighway contractors and TfL management finally talking to each other, and if this blog gave that a nudge, then hurrah. I don't think the situation's yet sorted, and there are still some illogical inconsistencies in labelling and in the provision of customer information. But give it a few days and I suspect Bow's bus passengers will finally work out where they ought to be standing, as if none of this ever happened.

 Monday, October 05, 2015

Every now and then, more recently more often, the London Transport Museum organises tours deep underground. Only last month hundreds of tickets were snapped up for Aldwych (closed 1994), Charing Cross (closed 1999) and the Hidden London holy grail of Down Street (closed 1932). And if you were quick back in the spring you might have got tickets to a special space that was never a station, nor even intended to be so, namely the Clapham South Deep Level Shelter.

75 years ago this month, with the blitz at its height, the Government decided to build a series of deep level shelters beneath the capital. London Transport were the obvious partners, being experts in all things subterranean, and various stations on the Northern and Central lines were targeted for construction. Vague plans existed on these lines for express tube lines running parallel to the existing tunnels, their construction aborted by war, but at least LT had already undertaken the geological surveys. Each of the three Clapham stations would have been skipped by the express line, making them ideal for a twin-tube shelter, so the go-ahead was granted and completion took less than a year. But by this time the Blitz was over, so the facilities were mothballed and remained so until the first V1 bombs prompted their public opening.

Clapham South admitted its first shelterers in July 1944. There were two entrances down deep shafts, one in the corner of Clapham Common and the other on Balham Hill, plus a staircase link to the station itself that was rarely used. What met them at the bottom, 36 metres down, were two long concrete tunnels filled with bunk bed after bunk bed. Cunningly each tunnel had been split into a top floor and a bottom floor, each subdivided into curving chambers the length of a football pitch. Each was named after a naval general, sixteen in total, ordered alphabetically from Anson to Hardy on top and Inglefield to Parry below. People were expected to carry in their own bedding, which meant lugging a mattress 180 steps down, and everyone had to be out by seven in the morning, which meant repeating this day after day. Clapham South had space for eight thousand people, though these numbers were rarely reached, and the authorities had to tempt Londoners down with free health care and off-ration treats. The entire set-up lasted less than a year before the war ended, and the trains never came, leaving these tunnels to a very different fate.

The tour is damned good. It sets off not from the obvious shaft on the common but from a white-glazed drum beyond M&S Simply Food. A modern apartment block has been built above and around, whose residents were intrigued by the sudden intense interest being taken in their building, and appeared unaware of the secret space stashed away in their foundations. With feet checked for flat shoes and all cigarette lighters temporarily confiscated, we were off down fifteen spiral flights around a miniature lift shaft. Everything's mostly intact, this is no Down Street-style ruin, with full lighting throughout and no unexpected damp patches. Northern line trains sounded jarringly close, their passage rumbling regularly through the walls, but we were reassured that their tracks were at least ten metres above us. And many of the old wartime signs remain, perfectly hand-painted no less, which is just as well because a double decker twin bore cavern can get pretty disorienting pretty quickly.

And blimey, this place is big. Led into one of the sixteen chambers it seemed to stretch on almost forever, but that was most probably the bend which mirrors the curve of the main road above. Many of the bunk beds remain, these little more than stacked boards on springs, originally longitudinal along one wall and perpendicular on the other. Some had canteens where twopenny teas and jam tarts were dispensed - such luxury - while all-too-brief passages at each end were designated for recreation on a Lilliputian scale. Also tucked away, in the occasional side-gallery, were a small medical centre and the all-important lavatories. The most serious of these were chemical-based, requiring users to unload the contents of their bucket into a hopper at the end of the room for later evacuation, while what looked like a faint row of tube roundels along the wall was actually where the urinals were fixed.

We had two guides, who alternated at each stop on the hour-long tour, and each was fully briefed and excellent. They knew how the control room had worked, and where to stop to see the best graffiti, and at precisely which point the iron rings of the tunnel skeleton switched to concrete (for speed of construction, and availability of resources). Commentaries were informative and animated, and never felt rushed, which is precisely what you need on a whistle-stop underground trek. The guides' favourite phrase was 'witness marks', which I must confess I've never come across before, but relates to evidence from back then that's survived to the present day. In this case a lot of the original fittings have been swept away by subsequent use, but details like a power socket in the infirmary and the colour-coded painting of dormitory poles helped make the connection to the building's wartime heritage.

A really nice touch were the photos and information boards, the former often blown up to full size and located in precisely the same place they'd been taken seven decades previously. Perhaps most impressively the tour managed to tell the story of the shelters chronologically, whilst leading us on one floor or the other through the entire complex. After a detailed wartime trawl we then considered what came next, as the Government tried to work out what to do with thousands of underground beds. They tried creating a penny hotel for the austerity tripper, and (most famously) in 1948 they housed the Empire Windrush arrivals on their first nights in the mother country. The closest Labour Exchange to Clapham South was in Brixton, so these Jamaican immigrants found jobs and made their homes nearby, and through this quirk of administrative geography changed the ethnic spread of south London forever.

Health and safety meant hostel use soon became impossible, and in the 1960s the tunnels were instead given over to the storage of materials. Government archive boxes filled the passages, those thousands of bunk beds becoming ideal sets of shelving, and later a private company took over instead. But they pulled out in 2008, and since then the Clapham South shelters have been sitting around in need of a purpose. The London Transport Museum hope that public tours might be an occasional solution. The need to walk up 180 steps to get out is certainly a drawback, as some of the less fit members of our tour party discovered. Meanwhile one of Clapham's other deep level shelters - that's Common, not South - has been taken over by a hydroponics company for the growing of micro-salad destined for high end restaurants. It may not be the express version of the Northern line that London Transport once proposed, but it just goes to show that in London you never really know precisely what's lurking beneath your feet. Unless you get tickets next time, that is.

» Eight photos
» Better photos from Susan and Sarah
» Photo-packed report from Ian
» Full Subbrit report
» Full history from the Clapham Society

 Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sorry, this is yet another post about three bus stops on Bow Road.

Because yesterday, once again, things got worse.

This time nothing changed at the stops themselves.

Bus Stop E still has a shelter, a roundel and a sign saying ALL BUSES STOP HERE
Bus Stop G is still half-unveiled, with a shelter and a proper roundel on a pole
Bus Stop M: still has a shelter but has lost its pole, and is probably no longer a bus stop

What's changed, overnight, is the behaviour of the drivers. On Friday they stopped at Bus Stop E, then sped past Bus Stop G before continuing towards the roundabout. But as of yesterday they speed past Bus Stop E and stop at Bus Stop G instead. It's as if a message has gone out to all the bus companies that Bus Stop E is now closed and Bus Stop G is open. Unfortunately nobody's thought to tell the passengers.

On Friday it was passengers standing at newly-unveiled Bus Stop G who were left standing, and a little bit angry. But on Saturday things were the other way round, with passengers at Bus Stop E left behind as buses stopped thirty metres down the road. And they weren't happy. They especially weren't happy when drivers passing Bus Stop E looked across and pointed repeatedly down the road, as if to say "But the real bus stop is down there!" They might have been thinking "But the real bus stop is down there you stupid idiots!" or they might have been thinking "But the real bus stop is down there so I'm not allowed to pick you up!", it was hard to tell. But they still made no attempt to pull in, as passengers found out the hard way that allegiances had been switched.

For example. A family group arrived at Bus Stop E and settled in the shelter. "Are you sure this is the right place?" asked Mum. "Yes," said Grandpa, with some certainty, "they switched all the buses over here several weeks ago." When a 425 went past and stopped down the road they barely blinked, but when a 25 also failed to stop they finally started to twig. The passing of another 25 was the signal for them to dash off in an attempt to catch it at Bus Stop G further down the road. The kids arrived first and held the bus for Mum, slowing down the service for longer than if it had stopped at both stops in turn. Later a 276 headed on to G in preference to E, causing a young bloke with a suitcase to career off down the pavement. He made it, while the granny following on behind wasn't so lucky.

Just when I thought I'd got the hang of what was going on, a number 8 arrived and pulled in at E instead of G. Other buses then all chose G over E, but then several minutes later another 276 picked E over G. If a message has gone out to all bus garages that Bus Stop E is now closed, then not every bus driver's got it.

But then who wouldn't be wildly confused?

Bus Stop EGM
Bus stop pole?NoYesNo
Bus stop sign?YesYesNo
Bus timetables?NoYesNo
Bus shelter?YesYesYes
Bus maps?YesNoYes
'Bus stop' written in road?YesNoYes
Sign saying bus stop closed? NoNoNo

What I think has happened is that we've reached the end state of the Cycle Superhighway upgrade, i.e. that Bus Stop G is open and bus stops E and M are permanently closed. If so we've reached that state three months earlier than initially scheduled, and without anybody on the ground being told.

The issue here is simple - a mismatch between what the drivers are doing and what the bus stops are saying. All that's needed is for any bus stops that are closed to actually look closed, either through the removal of street furniture or the addition of a big sign. Could somebody official possibly pop down and sort this mess out?

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