diamond geezer

 Monday, February 20, 2017

The Every Day NewsThe nation has spoken, claims defiant minister Brexit outcome is obvious, says politicianBrexit proposal infuriates half the population
President wakes and tweets garbled furyPresident suggests insane clampdownPresident contradicts himself, and realityWhite House in disarray, claims media
Opposition hints that things are imperfectNo easy solution to please everyone, says PMScotland says it thinks differently to EnglandPoll definitely predicts result of next election
Another part of the NHS isn't workingScientific discovery expected to change livesNew figures suggest lifestyle changeCriminal sentenced for doing bad thing
Migration issues seemingly unsolvableEU leader's comment proves controversialForeign election may swing unexpectedlyIncident confirms Middle East no closer to peace
Social care funding crisis set to continueRail strike misery enters another weekDeeper cuts in local services inevitableLong-term outlook for millennials is bleak
Stock market heads in opposite direction Falling pound is excellent for someFalling pound is ghastly for othersFinancial situation less clear than it seemed
Small child almost dies in UK cityBriton dies in country you might holiday inSix die in nearby developed countryHundreds die in country nobody’s interested in
Unseasonable weather is on the wayUK to be warmer than another part of the worldBad weather may be sign of global warmingNatural catastrophe looks great on camera
Top player may or may not play in next gameSports team beats opponents as expectedSports team loses unexpectedly to opponentsSports manager under pressure after bad match
Singer from 1960s pop group diesActor from 1970s sitcom dies1980s entertainer not what he seemed Much loved artist diagnosed with disease
Unshakeable marriage ends in divorceSinger wears revealing dress to restaurantNew film released - stars say it will be good!Celebrity spotted looking older than she used to
Pet acts adorably while being filmedLook, people are being hilarious on TwitterReal life proves stranger than real lifePress release makes exciting claims
Hundreds takes offence at woman's actionsThousands takes offence at man's opinionsAlleged racist makes allegedly racist commentsBREAKING: President says something mad again

 Sunday, February 19, 2017

 Route EL3: Little Heath - Barking Reach
 outer London east; 7 miles, 40 minutes

Welcome aboard London's newest bus. The EL3 is one day old, replacing the 387 which until yesterday ran along (almost) exactly the same route. The change brings together all the buses serving Barking Riverside under the East London Transit brand, joining the longer established EL1 and EL2. And all three routes are to get brand new vehicles, previously unfamiliar in these parts, kicking off with overnight replacement on the EL3.

Regular passengers were surprised to see gleaming New Routemasters waiting outside Little Heath Food and Wine in place of the bog-standard double deckers they remember. "Are we sure this is the right one?" asks one, who hasn't read the freshly-posted notice at the bus stop. "Wow Mum, that door opens as well!" cries another, rather younger. "Nice bus, do you like it?" asks the beaming driver as I board. I hedge my response somewhat, but am relieved to see route EL3's been gifted the updated model with the opening windows, part of the last batch bought by Boris. Upstairs smells a bit of newness, and the windows are already a bit grimy because that never takes long, and off we whirr.

Don't worry, I'll not regurgitate the full details of the southbound journey because we covered that yesterday. Take it as read that the EL3 went round the hospital, down Barley Lane past all the houses, through Goodmayes, down to Longbridge Road past lots more houses, past the bus garage, along the bus lane past yet more houses, and onwards to the centre of Barking.

The EL3's groupies are waiting outside the station with their cameras. They often come out on the first morning, the Men Who Like Buses, to grab their own mugshots of London's very latest vehicles. Today not only do they have a new route to celebrate but this is the first time New Routemasters have been seen as far east as Barking and Dagenham, plus there are all these new numberplates to record in their notebook. The largest group of MWLB is hanging around by the bus shelter, while one man has crossed the street to get a more oblique profile. Although a couple of their lenses are quite big, they're nothing compared to the monster I saw being wielded by two gentlemen earlier in the journey with a massive furry microphone attached, which seemed somewhat over the top.

Now that the 387's route has the EL3 label, it's allowed through the centre of Barking Town centre and no longer has to negotiate its way round slower peripheral streets. I don't think most regular users had noticed this yet so they all got out at the station rather than the next stop which is more convenient for the shops. Here the next batch of passengers awaits, the EL3 being essentially two half-routes bolted together, as are its partners EL1 and EL2. I'm struck by how much quicker the journey from the station to Lidl is than previosuly, although on the downside residents of Barking Riverside no longer have a direct route to the leisure centre, the theatre or Asda, only three buses to the shops.

And then there's a whole chunk more route that we covered yesterday, down Ripple Road and Movers Lane, across the A13, and straight ahead into the industrial backwaters of Creekmouth.

I didn't spot it on my 387 journey, because I was too excited to have spotted 'The Men Who Change The Bus Tiles Over', but a new-ish bus depot has been stashed away amid the metalworks and cash and carries. This is the River Road garage, opened in May last year, and is home to all of the EL-branded double deckers. So far only the EL3 has New Routemasters, while the EL1 and EL2 retain their original vehicles, but eventually they'll all be swapped over, using up another 46 of Boris's belated bequest. As yet all of the new buses are red, but it's expected they'll eventually get the East London Transit's trademark dusky autumn shades.

The grimmest part of the EL3's existing route is along Long Reach Road, which is currently a dead end so the bus turns off before the end. But this used to be the boundary of Barking Power Station, and is now the edge of a burgeoning housing estate, so contractors have been busy laying a cut-through. Already complete and labelled Bus Only, it passes along the side of some fairly lacklustre new flats, but is currently barriered off. Come autumn this gateway should be open for the exclusive use of the EL3, as the route is permanently diverted to serve the west and south of the new estate. They've even painted two bus stops on the other side, at the foot of Crossness Road, just before the road ends at another temporary fence and disappears into a pile of earth.

A bridge of sorts is being built across drains that cross the mud that used to be a power station. This'll eventually border a landscaped pool and several more new homes, but for now is the one missing link between here and a broad somewhat austere boulevard already rising on the other side. Bellway have a well-hidden showhome open, and hundreds of flats to flog, while workmen yell at one another and lower slabs into place outside. The development's publicity rather oversells the site's accessibility, and hints that owning a car might be a better option than taking the bus, but there aren't many other places in London where a newbuild 2 bedroom apartment is available for under £290,000.

The EL3 is due to pass along the southern edge of the community's centre, now complete with church, school, clocktower and three whole shops. One's a pharmacy, one occasionally sells coffee, and the third is a small supermarket with a big notice on the door warning 'No Hoodies!' It may not be much of a parade, but it's infinitely better than the zero shops Barking Riverside had until last year, and I suspect that residents remain over-reliant on online grocery services. Again the EL3's exclusive bus lane is already ready but out of bounds, leading to a bus-only junction and a short link out of the estate.

And out of the estate means River Road, where the 387 used to venture twice a day, which is Creekmouth's bleakest corner. The place livens up once a week when the Dagenham Sunday Market is held, still annoyingly inaccessible from existing bus routes, then for the rest of the week returns to a less agreeable existence as a dusty half-demolished backwater. It's amazing to think that a location once served by two buses a day might very soon be getting sixteen an hour, but perhaps less amazing when you consider that the Sunday Market site is pencilled in for hundreds of highrise riverside apartments, with thousands more on neighbouring sites.

Welcome to the proposed site of Barking Riverside Overground station, currently a pile of soil behind a fence near a mega-pylon, down a mucky road where HGV drivers park up overnight. Beyond this is the biggest redevelopment challenge of all, a long-abandoned expanse of polluted earth between Choats Road and the Thames, worth nothing as is but hundreds of millions as flats. Thus far the only building on site looks like a giant stack of portakabins but is actually going to be a secondary school for 1800 pupils, already with its motto out front, but as yet disturbingly unwelcoming. An unlikely public footpath still skirts the side of the river, a bit quicksandy at present, but easily the best place to see the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.

Look carefully and two new roads are being carved out, or maybe it's two ends of just one road, the very beginnings of a brand new community hereabouts. But there's no sign of this utterly desolate land being ready for housing any time soon, despite the dozens of heavy lorries making their way into the site. If all goes to plan the EL3 (and EL1) are due to terminate outside the school this September, down roads not yet complete, the first tendrils of connectivity which'll help bring this estuarine pipedream to fruition. In the meantime the existing terminus at the Riverside Centre is where the buses turn, for pioneering residents only, as this long-awaited transformation slowly ignites.

» route EL3 - route
» route EL3 - timetable
» route EL3 - consultation
» My previous in-depth report on Barking Riverside and the amazing Footpath 47

 Saturday, February 18, 2017

 Route 387: Little Heath - Barking Reach
 outer London east; 8 miles, 40 minutes

Welcome aboard the bus you can no longer ride. The 387 used to exist until yesterday, or more accurately until the last vehicle rolled into Barking Reach just after midnight. As of five o'clock this morning the bus is now known as the EL3 - and the former route number exists in limbo until some other bus route one day wants it.

A quick geography: We're out east, in Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham. The 387's route runs almost due south, from almost the A12 to almost the Thames, via Barking.
A quick history: The 387 first ran in 1993 to replace the B1, part of a short-lived Barking-centred local network. At its southern end it serves the Thames View Estate, with peak hour extensions round the industrial estate at Creekmouth cut back in 2013.
A quick rationale: EL stands for East London Transit, a bus upgrade scheme introduced in 2010 to better serve an isolated community with considerable potential for growth. Until yesterday there were two routes - EL1 and EL2. Today there are three.
A quick future: Apart from one tweak in central Barking, the EL3's route is identical to that of the 387, but will extend this autumn to an as-yet unbuilt secondary school on the Barking Riverside development.

Little Heath is a little known residential corner one mile east of Newbury Park, once a tiny hamlet, now conveniently bypassed by a busy dual carriageway. The 387 starts its journey outside a closed pub, formerly The Hawbush, facing out across a decent-sized triangular green. But you wouldn't have known. When I made my journey earlier this week the timetable at the first bus stop had been changed over prematurely to that of the EL3, and the tile above gleamed freshly white. There was no danger here of being late for Saturday's rebrand, just unnecessarily early.

A number of buses visit Little Heath because it has a hospital, in fact it has two, one with a lofty Victorian water tower visible from some distance. The bus's first stop involves driving into the grounds of the King George's Hospital and negotiating the central turning circle, avoiding the cars of visitors too hurried to park where they're supposed to. By starting near a hospital the 387 already has a decent number of passengers, a state which increases because this is the only route heading south along Barley Lane. The houses to either side aren't the council homes found further out in B&D, but smarter villas from a time when this was the edge of the London conurbation, with Avenues, Drives and Gardens behind.

In the recreation ground by the High Road, a row of pigeons lines up along the top of a mucky bench, holding court over a large congregation of their fellows. Here the bus crosses into a bustling parade, past a giant Tesco that hasn't yet sucked out all the street's life. Many of the shops have fairly generic names, like Pharmacy, News or Food Store, perhaps enhanced by flags to suggest a more specialist offering within. This is Goodmayes, where a stacked blue portakabin outside the station heralds the not-yet imminent arrival of step-free Crossrail. Thousands live hereabouts but somehow I've never dropped in before, which is one of the serendipitous effects of taking a near-extinct bus journey.

Across Green Lane, past the millennial clocktower, another string of housing awaits. Older terraces merge into low-slung bungalows and then council pebbledash, with a sign up one sideroad pointing to the local Temple should fresh worshippers need to find their way. At Goodmayes Park we turn right onto the main road, now one of a number of buses on this key route. One of these is the EL2, providing an unnecessarily good combined frequency to the Thames View Estate, as the freshly minted EL3 tile makes clear. Just past the bus garage the turreted Royal Oak pub signals its preferred clientele with a surfeit of St George's Cross bunting, and a bus lane then speeds us towards the place most passengers actually want to go, which is Barking.

Along with every other numbered bus route, the 387 isn't allowed through the centre of Barking town centre so has to negotiate its way round slower peripheral streets. That's why most people get off outside the station, because it's at least a couple of minutes to the stop more convenient for the shops. The bus meanders past pre-redevelopment rubble, the edge of the market and a medieval abbey, because this town's mixed like that. And I note that somebody's already removed (and not replaced) the 387's tile and timetable, again unhelpfully prematurely, because it won't be coming this way soon. Once promoted to the title EL3 it'll be allowed through Barking's streamlined central shortcut along with the EL1 and EL2, because these are bus route royalty round here, and now there are three.

That's the only tweak to the 387's route this weekend, and past Lidl we're back on the direct line down Ripple Road. On the first bend another pub lies as rubble, now covered in withered buddleia, knocked down before plans for its rebirth were fully thought through. All the EL buses turn right into Movers Lane and queue to cross the busy A13, sometimes queueing for quite a while. It's this which makes the Thames View Estate feel quite so far away, despite the flood of high frequency buses that stream towards it. "Motorway!" exclaims the young child sitting with his mother on the top deck, then (rightly) queries why on earth the next miserable-looking stop is called something 'Gardens'.

We've reached the netherworld beyond the A13, originally marshland, then somewhere to hide a cluster of mucky estuarine industries. Homes came later, and the EL1 and EL2 swing off to service those, while the 387 continues down increasingly ill-kept roads past cash and carries, timberyards, metalworks and waste transfer stations. At Keirbeck Wharf I'm amazed to spot 'The Men Who Change The Bus Tiles Over', their white van parked up by the next stop, doors flapped open revealing a host of bus stop-related equipment inside. Every bus stop tile up to this point has read EL3, and every tile from this point on will read 387, which is correct but imminently endangered.

For its last hurrah the 387 turns back to serve Thames Road, a dated chain of warehouses and depots on some of the cheapest land in London. UPS, TNT and DHL have delivery centres here, alongside charismatic churches, skip hire firms, builders merchants, cheap fry-up cafes, haulage concerns, white van depots, frozen food wholesalers, forklift traders and the Lithuanian Beer company. Later in the year the EL3 will skip this section, prioritising newly-built homes on the Barking Riverside estate instead, but a new bridge has to be built first and that's not ready, so for now Thames Road is fully served.

Two peak time services in the 387's timetable used to be extended round the most miserable streets in east London to serve Creekmouth, where Barking's original power station once stood, and on which site this enormous housing development is being built. Londonist's Will Noble visited a couple of weeks ago with a camera, and his detailed report will give you an appropriate flavour of this unnervingly downbeat location. But with most of the local industry defunct, those peak time journeys ceased in 2013, and the 387 nudged into the estate instead, terminating on a loop by a lake beneath some pylons. Here residents queue to escape, which this morning they'll be doing by EL3, and they might even have some New Routemasters to ride in too.

» route 387 - EL3 consultation
» route 387 - route history
» route 387 - The Ladies Who Bus

 Friday, February 17, 2017

Last month I queried what was going on with station closures on the District line, and how much of this might be down to staffing issues. Andy from the Calling All Stations blog took this one step further and put in a FoI request to TfL.
Can you please let me know for each tube station the number of times it was closed in the last 12 months due to "staff shortages" and for how long each closure lasted.
Thanks for the tip-off, Andy. TfL have duly responded with a spreadsheet detailing every shortage-related closure in 2016, complete with dates, timings and a long list of excuses. Kindly they've also totted up the total disruption time for every station, which allows me to present...

London's Top 10 most-closed tube stations due to non-availability of staff in 2016

1) Temple (District and Circle lines) 25 closures - 3430 minutes
By some distance Temple was the most disrupted tube station due to staff shortage last year, being closed for a total of 57 hours and 10 minutes, which is the equivalent of three working days. Its woes really kicked in on Wednesday 23rd November, before which there were only four closures and after which there were twenty-one. What's more these were significant closures, almost all of them over an hour in length, and most of them nearer two hours or more. The worst day was Saturday 17th December when the station closed at lunchtime and stayed closed until the end of service, 11½ hours later. Usually TfL's reason is simply "Non-Availability of Staff", this particularly at the start or end of the day, but on eight occasions the closure was due to "Operational Reasons". Specifically staff from Temple were shuffled to either neighbouring Blackfriars or more-distant Aldgate East to keep these more important stations open. Temple, it seems, is a low-priority station which can be sacrificed when necessary, and very much has been.

2) Holland Park (Central line) 17 closures - 2793 minutes
And here's another. Holland Park's problems were almost all concentrated in the second and third weeks of December, and were almost all over two hours in duration. One particular closure, thanks to Night Tube, lasted thirteen consecutive hours from 6.30pm on a Saturday evening to 7.30am on Sunday morning. Again "Operational Reasons" were to blame for most of the closures, with booked-on staff redeployed to either Notting Hill Gate or Shepherd's Bush - in one case both - to ensure these more important stations remained open.

3) Blackhorse Road (Victoria line) 9 closures - 1803 minutes
All thirty hours of closures at Blackhorse Road are due to other stations on the Victoria line being understaffed. Six closures helped to keep Walthamstow Central open, and others supported Highbury & Islington, Seven Sisters and Tottenham Hale. One of the issues on the Victoria line is that all the stations north of King's Cross are interchanges, so shutting any of them inconveniences passengers on other lines. At present, however, the Overground through Blackhorse Road is closed for an upgrade, making this an easy target when there aren't enough employees to cope with unforeseen circumstances.

4) Queensway (Central line) 7 closures - 1586 minutes
Queensway was doing pretty well until the week before Christmas, when staff started to be shuffled off to keep Notting Hill Gate open (we heard something very similar at Holland Park). Christmas Eve was by far the worst day, with not enough staff over breakfast, then a total closure from 2.30pm making thirteen hours altogether. And you might be thinking so what, it's only Christmas Eve, who was really inconvenienced, but this is a tube network that's supposed to function, and used to, and seems to have hit some sort of crisis at the end of last year.

5) Bow Road (District and Hammersmith & City line) 12 closures - 1285 minutes
My local station appears at number five, which as a regular user comes as no surprise. It had occasional problems with unavailability of staff before December, then in the two weeks before Christmas entered some kind of rapid staffing decline. In particular there were six occasions when the station didn't open at 5.15am as it should have done, kicking into action up to 2½ hours later when sufficient staff turned up, and five occasions when someone's shift finished around 10.30pm and the station remained closed for the rest of the evening. It was even worse than that in January, but these figures only cover 2016, else I suspect Bow Road would be rather higher on the list.

6) Manor House (Piccadilly line) 8 closures - 849 minutes
7) Chancery Lane (Central line) 7 closures - 797 minutes
8) Bond Street (Central and Jubilee lines) 7 closures - 761 minutes
9) Goodge Street (Northern line) 13 closures - 739 minutes
10) Tufnell Park (Northern line) 4 closures - 704 minutes
And so the list continues, now down to 'less than one working day per year' lost to lack of staff. Manor House's total includes a member of staff being taken ill with chest pains while on duty. Bond Street's interesting because almost all the closures are at the very start of the day, as if somebody kept getting into work late. Goodge Street was repeatedly closed so that stations either side could be kept open. And again, the majority of the closures that contributed to these totals took place in December.

One other station stands out in TfL's overall list, and that's Canary Wharf. Although 'only' closed for 325 minutes over the course of last year, it has the second highest number of closures overall, which is seventeen. With one exception each of these closures is at the beginning of the day, just after 5am, as some member of staff fails to make it in on time. The 'reason' column in TfL's spreadsheet repeatedly mentions a staff taxi being late, and occasionally the closure of the Blackwall Tunnel, suggesting that some key employee lives south of the river. But the delays in opening the station are generally less than half an hour in duration, and peak in the summer, which is definitely atypical for the rest of the list.

Before we finish, let's churn out some more statistics regarding the 360 staff-related Full Station Closures in the 2016 list.

• 91 different tube stations were affected by staff-shortage closures in 2016. 87 of these are underground, and therefore have strict fire safety rules regarding minimum numbers of staff.
• 179 stations had no staff-shortage closures in 2016. Almost all of these are above ground, which means the gates can be left open and the station left unstaffed as necessary... which at some stations is quite often.

• Almost two-thirds of 2016's staff-shortage closures began first thing in the morning, that's between half past four and six o'clock. This suggests employees are having trouble getting into work, which is perhaps not surprising given that the tubes are shut, or perhaps staff are simply oversleeping. Whatever, there were more than 200 occasions last year when early-bird passengers will have turned up at a tube station to find it closed.
• By contrast, only about 50 of last year's closures were at the very end of the day, with stations shutting down and not reopening. Temple, Holland Park and Bow Road account for half of these.

• The shortest staff-shortage closure was 2 minutes, at Hyde Park Corner, at the start of service on 24th August.
• One-third of closures lasted over an hour, 15% over two hours, 5% over three hours, and three over ten hours.
• The average length of a closure was 67 minutes.

• Almost three-quarters of staff-shortage closures were because of "Non-Availability of Staff".
• 20% of closures were for "Operational Reasons", generally staff being sent to other stations which would otherwise have been forced to close.
• 5% of closures were specifically due to issues with staff taxis running late.

• There were only 6 staff-shortage closures in January 2016, and only 8 in February. Monthly totals increased to a bit of a peak in the summer, hitting 35 in August, before falling back. November wasn't great, with 34, but December was a disaster with 149. That's 41% of the entire year's total in a single month!

• TfL's 'Fit for the Future' reorganisation, which cut back staffing numbers at stations, was introduced in April. There was no obvious uptick in closures at the time, but the staffing system was now much more reliant on overtime.
• The RMT union called an overtime ban for station staff on 23rd November. The number of station closures rose considerably from this point onwards.
• The RMT called additional action from 15th December, asking members to refuse to train staff sent to cover from other stations. The number of station closures duly leapt in the immediate run-up to Christmas.

And finally here's the table the Evening Standard headline writers will like the best...

The five worst tube lines for staff-related station closures in 2016

1) District line (7240 minutes)
2) Central line (7196 minutes)
3) Circle line (5410 minutes)
4) Piccadilly line (3630 minutes)
5) Victoria line (3477 minutes)

Before anyone gets too excited, I should point out that this league table is terribly misleading. Almost half the District line's total is explained by Temple, and two thirds of the Circle's. Meanwhile Holland Park and Queensway contributed over 60% of the Central line's appalling-looking total. The surprise might be the Victoria line, which managed to have staff-related closures at 14 of its 16 stations. At the other end of the table obviously the Waterloo & City line had the least disruption, but the Metropolitan was next with only 369 minutes, because most of it is above ground.

Take all of this with a pinch of salt, because you can prove anything with statistics, and 2016 was a wholly atypical year. But what's for sure is that December saw an unholy station-staffing debacle on the Underground, with 150 station closures in just one month. The RMT's overtime ban was the trigger, suggesting it was only overtime holding TfL's staffing reorganisation together, and this all too easily fell apart. A pledge to reinstate hundreds of jobs will hopefully solve the problem... the travelling public can only hope.

 Thursday, February 16, 2017

7 Woolwich
It's week seven of my year-long project, and so far all my visits have been confined to three distinct geographical clusters. Today I'm heading back to riverside southeast London, to the former Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich, which since 1900 had been the most stuck-out part of the County of London. It comprised the southern and eastern parts of the current Royal Borough of Greenwich, plus an anomalous bump north of the Thames around North Woolwich. I've chosen to walk an elevated footpath between Plumstead and Thamesmead - the Ridgeway - because criminally I never have before. And, golly.

The Ridgeway (2½ miles)

Every time you flush your toilet across a large part of South London, your bowlsworth makes its way through a network of Victorian sewers to the sewage treatment works at Crossness. At Plumstead the tributary sewers combine and rise above ground before heading in a straight line across the marshes, which were almost entirely undeveloped when Joseph Bazalgette delivered his plan in the 1860s. It was only in 1991 that Thames Water decided to open up the embankment covering the Southern Outfall Sewer to pedestrians and cyclists, adding arched entrances and motorbike-proof gates to create an elevated promenade from Plumstead to the sewage works. It's very similar to the Greenway atop the Northern Outfall Sewer in Newham, except this southern twin has been named the Ridgeway.

The western entrance lurks unappealingly down a spiral ramp beyond a concrete flyover opposite Plumstead station. Here to welcome you are a tipped-up traffic cone and several split bags of rubbish, but don't let that put you off proceeding along the edge of a self-storage depot and up a zigzag to the sewertop. Greenwich council realised the Ridgeway had an image problem back in 2014, and have recently completed an upgrade of access points, signage and surfacing. The path used to be grassed and occasionally boggy, but is now a wider gravelled stripe stretching off in to the distance, and far more likely somewhere you might take for a shortcut.

The main plus point of a walk on a major sewer is being six metres higher than the surrounding landscape. This means an enhanced view of southeast London, specifically Plumstead, more specifically the semi-industrialised sector to the east of Plumstead, which it has to be said is more atmospheric than pretty. Down to the right is a Crossrail worksite with stacked sleepers and corrals of coiled cable, plus a car spares unit intriguingly named Megabug. Down to the left are auto repair centres, levelled warehouses, and the HQ of England's oldest drinking water cooler specialist. And that brick fortress you can see nudging up beyond is Belmarsh prison, behind whose walls Jeffrey Archer and numerous other high risk male prisoners have been confined.

Blimey, this path is straight. There are also very few access points, meaning the next set of steep steps down to reality can be some distance away, adding to a general feeing of unease. Greenwich's latest upgrade has addressed this by installing a series of security cameras along the way, whopping great monsters on thick black poles, ruthlessly scanning the neighbourhood for misdemeanour. Some have a button at footpath level labelled Help Point, which you can press if a hooded knifeman or pack of feral Staffies approach too close, although during half term the biggest risk is being brushed aside by a phalanx of pre-adolescent cyclists.

White Hart Avenue is the first of only three roads which cross the Ridgeway, this via a flyover, providing a welcome breakpoint. On the far side stands the Plumstead phone mast, and a three-storey block marking the walk's first residential outpost on the edge of the Abbey Road Estate. Sewell Road runs parallel to the sewer all the way up to the borough boundary, faced by outstandingly ordinary flats and terraced houses, and with sets of battered garages nudged up against the embankment. On the opposite side are Greenwich's recycling centre and dustcart depot, because why wouldn't you hide these in Thamesmead, before the Western Way dual carriageway sidles up and roars behind a screen of poplars.

At regular intervals a small square concrete platform hangs out to the side of the embankment, originally constructed to provide access to inspection hatches, now part-fenced with railings lest anyone get the wrong idea and jump. Aside from this the banks are steep and often brambly, suggesting considerable potential for autumn harvest, with discarded cans and clothing chucked in for good measure. But hang on, the chain of security cameras has suddenly ceased, as if Greenwich council ran out of money or wasn't interested in surveilling the residential section, so for the half mile beyond the pumping station you are completely on your own. Thankfully I only met a well-behaved hound and a couple of tokers, so I was fine.

Harrow Manorway marks the dividing line between Greenwich and Bexley, originally an invisible north-south boundary across the marshes, now more administratively significant. The Ridgeway skulks beneath a low concrete slab to enter the centre of the roundabout above, where a swirly blue sculpture has been placed to provide a moment of wonder. Local residents generally disregard the sewertop path, despite two welcoming arches, preferring to cut straight across the Eastern Way footbridge or down past the library on more useful journeys. By rights I shouldn't be going any further either, because the remainder of the walk takes me out of my chosen borough, but I needed to see this through.

The Bexley section of the Ridgeway is very different, because it's what the entire elevated footpath used to look like before Greenwich threw some money at their end. That means it's all grass, not wheel-friendly gravel, with a narrow perhaps-underused track worn down the middle. Past the shell of the Lakeside Bar someone's been hard at work hacking away all the trees and undergrowth on one side, leaving a barren bank and an open vista down to the shores of Thamesmead's big lake. I've walked around Southmere several times without ever realising this sewertop walk was here, as I suspect have many others.

But the elevated section doesn't last long. At Eastern Way the pipes duck beneath the viaduct with almost no headroom, perhaps just enough to crawl, while the main path slopes down to one side and all useful signage unhelpfully disappears. The way ahead is broad but messy, littered with cans and ashes and several telltale piles of horse dung. Close by is a notice stuck up on behalf of Thames Water warning that any horses or ponies grazing on this site last weekend would be removed and either rehomed or sold at auction - a warning that must have been either enacted or heeded. Meanwhile up at the top of the bank is the main entrance to the Crossness treatment works, which is another reason why the footpath can no longer follow the pipes.

So the walk ends with a peculiar shunt through a gap in the fence to follow the edge of a landscaped open space. If it looks contoured and scenic, that's because it used to be a 9 hole golf course until economic reality caught up with this Thamesmead fantasy back in 2014. It's a bit muddy to start, but the willowy pools have matured nicely, and I loved watching a heron swooping up from the large pond and circling overhead. One last archway leads out to the Thames, roughly opposite Ford's Dagenham works, where the Ridgeway path concludes. Head left for Thamesmead and 'civilisation', or right for a walk past the sewage works... which is absolutely fascinating, but not for here.

» Here's what a walk along the Ridgeway looks like in summer
» 2011 Resonance FM podcast on walking the Ridgeway
» 12 Flickr photos (not all the same as those posted above)

 Wednesday, February 15, 2017

For four weeks last Autumn, a TfL trial tracked the movements of millions of WiFi users at 54 tube stations. All the data was anonymised, and no browsing activity was recorded, but a mammoth amount of information was gathered about how passengers travel on the Underground. You can read James's in-depth analysis of the outcomes of their study here, thanks to an FoI request, whether you're standing on a underground platform or not.

But what might be the eventual outcome of having your location monitored while you're travelling on the tube. Might a future journey go something like this?
» Beep beep! Welcome to Bow Road station Mr Geezer, we're pleased to see you back.

» Beep beep! Have you considered going back outside and buying a coffee from Bean Around Town?

» Beep beep! Don't forget to pick up a copy of Metro from behind the door. You'll never guess what Beyoncé did last night!

» Beep beep! There is a good service operating on all London Underground lines, so come on through!

» Beep beep! Sheesh, are you still using Oyster? Contactless is fab, you should try it.

» Beep beep! Turn left at the top of the stairs. We know you know this, but we're just showing off.

» Beep beep! Perhaps you should be watching your step on the stairs rather than reading this.

» Beep beep! The next train's about two minutes away. Sorry, we're not clever enough to be able to display this information on the platform yet.

» Beep beep! There's a really interesting advert further up the platform we think you should go and see. It's about 12 steps to your left.

» Beep beep! Please stand back from the yellow line while waiting on the platform.


» Beep beep! PLEASE STAND... oh, hang on, you're actually on the train now, aren't you?

» Beep beep! The next station is Mile End. Doors will open on the left hand side. Step-free access is not available at this station.

» Beep beep! Hey, we've arrived at Mile End. Assuming you're making your usual journey, you'll want to change here.

» Beep beep! Thank you for travelling on the District line.

» Beep beep! The next train to Ealing Broadway will arrive in two minutes.

» Beep beep! Two minutes is enough time to watch this hilarious video from our friends at LockedRoomChallenge.com buff.ly/t80a5u2

» Beep beep! If you nudge three steps to your right, you'll be standing almost in front of the doors when the train arrives.

» Beep beep! You could make this journey by Uber in 45 minutes for just £11.50 (sponsor)

» Beep beep! There are seats in the rear carriage, but not the cattletruck hellhole whose doors you're about to be standing in front of.

» Beep beep! The train in front of you is for Ealing Broadway. The train behind this one has a lot more space.

» Beep beep! Please move further down inside the carriage. And could you nudge the lady with the enormous rucksack too, thanks?

» Beep beep! Mmmm, maybe consider a Deliveroo takeaway from the Ashanti Bengal in Bethnal Green this evening buff.ly/yw9i4oh

» Beep beep! Why not sign up to our premium service, so you can keep track of where your significant other really goes every morning?

» Beep beep! You are now entering Zone 1. So far this journey has cost you £2.40.

» Beep beep! That woman sitting opposite has been within 10 metres of you on every journey this week. Assuming she's not a relative, how about flirting with her?

» Beep beep! We've just opened a Costa at the foot of the escalators at Liverpool Street. The chocolate brownies are to die for.

» Beep beep! Did you know you're only 10 stops away from London's first cable car, in the opposite direction?

» Beep beep! To turn off notifications, locate the hidden menu on your Oyster app and try to remember your 16-digit passcode. Good luck!

» Beep beep! If you do turn off notifications, expect to be charged 10p more for your journey.

» Beep beep! Alternatively you can opt out by simply turning off your WiFi, but how boring would that be?

» Beep beep! 11 things you didn't know about St Paul's Cathedral buff.ly/2kXSjx2

» Beep beep! Sorry, we lost your wi-fi connection there, just when you were in the process of re-logging back in to check Twitter again.

» Beep beep! You are being held at a red signal and you should be moving shortly.

» Beep beep! That lady standing next to you is pregnant. For heaven's sake offer her your seat.

» Beep beep! You are being held at a red signal and you should be moving shortly.

» Beep beep! Five minutes late? Congratulations! You are now eligible for a 25% refund via our Delay Repay Pledge.

» Beep beep! It looks like you're heading to Oxford Circus. While you're there, don't forget the gorgeous waffle cones at Ponti's Italian cafe buff.ly/c6r42zj

» Beep beep! 17% of people making your journey actually went via Embankment instead. Maybe give that a try next time.

» Beep beep! The next station is Oxford Circus. Doors will open on the left hand side. Step-free access will never be available at this station.

» Beep beep! Thank you for travelling on the Central line.

» Beep beep! Ok, turn left, walk to the end of the platform, take the left fork along the subway and then the escalators are on your right.

» Beep beep! Alternatively, it's really busy up there at the moment, so maybe hold back and look at the adverts on the platform.

» Beep beep! OK, the congestion's cleared, if you want to make a break for it.

» Beep beep! Keep walking to the left of the passageway and you can probably carry on reading that Facebook post without bumping into anyone.

» Beep beep! Could you hurry up a bit please, there are hundreds of people trudging behind you.

» Beep beep! Now look up from your phone, the flashing adverts alongside the escalator are really interesting.

» Beep beep! STAND ON THE RIGHT OR WALK ON THE LEFT! Not what you're doing...

» Beep beep! Take exit 8 for Hamleys, exit 7 for Urban Outfitters or exit 5 for the great Niketown sale.

» Beep beep! Thank you Mr Geezer. We look forward to intruding on your privacy again on the way home.

 Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Yesterday we looked at the first and last London postcodes, alphabetically speaking, that's E1 0AA and WC2R 3XP. Today let's look at the first and last postcodes in London, alphabetically speaking, because they're very much not the same thing.

The London postal district consists of eight postcode areas, namely E, EC, N, NW, SE, SW, W and WC. But they by no means cover the whole of Greater London, with another thirteen postcode areas used on post delivered in the capital. There's HA for Harrow, for example,and KT for Kingston and RM for Romford. Most importantly, for our purposes, some of these outer London postcode areas come before E in the alphabet. Take DA for Dartford, for example, which covers parts of Bexley. Or CR for Croydon, which would be fun because Croydon is another of those rare postcode areas with a district zero. But one other area beats the lot of them, alphabetically speaking, and that's BR for Bromley.

London's first postcode (alphabetically speaking)
BR1 1AA: Ask Italian, 3 East Street, Bromley

Yes, the very first postcode in Greater London belongs to an Italian restaurant. It's not even a proper Italian restaurant, but a chain, but then that's precisely what you'd expect in the middle of a large town centre. If you fancy a Pronto Lunch or a Ravioli Marittimi then this Bromley North Village eaterie is the place to be, but maybe give the outside tables a miss until the weather gets a little warmer. There is of course a very good reason why a pizza outlet should be top of the list, and that's because up until ten years ago the building it occupies was Bromley's main Post Office. This opened in 1897, with the slightly less ornate extension where Ask Italian now trades added in 1913. As this was the location of the district head office it was central Bromley which won the designation BR1, back when all of this was in Kent, with this pre-eminent building allocated the postcode BR1 1AA in the 1970s.

But there is a postcode mystery bubbling here. The restaurant nextdoor at 3a East Street is a Tex-Mex eaterie called Chimichanga, whose copywriters promise buzz and zing and dazzle should you choose to dine within. Look up above its three arched windows and you can see the words 'Post Office' beautifully carved into the stonework, confirming the building's original tenure. But Chimichanga has the postcode BR1 1AB, despite being the older and more important bit of the former Post Office, and it's not alone. Eight luxury flats were carved out of the upper storeys after counter services moved to the local W H Smith, and they all have the postcode BR1 1AB too. Only Ask Italian appears to have kept the top prize of BR1 1AA... and the only convincing evidence for this is on the restaurant's website.

So maybe it's not Ask. A number of online services peddle postcode information, and if you ask them where BR1 1AA is located they don't mention East Street at all. Instead they suggest that this super-postcode is to be found a quarter of a mile down the High Street, up a rather less important sideroad, in a newbuild block...

London's first postcode (alphabetically speaking)
BR1 1AA: Henry House, Ringers Road, Bromley

Ringers Road is a short sharply-descending street, tumbling down from Laura Ashley and TK Maxx on Bromley High Street to a small Quaker meeting hall at the bottom. It's the road where the 126 bus parks up before heading off to Eltham with a hill start, and where you come for your dialysis appointment if your kidneys are dodgy. The site of a former department store on the southern side had been lying dormant for a while, with a footbridge that needed demolition, and a sequence of redevelopment plans were drawn up and referred to the Mayor because they proposed building at height.

A pair of nine-/ten-storey blocks is the result, recently completed and awkwardly laid out thanks to the sloping ground. The toppermost tower is Henry House, presumably named after somebody locally relevant, and it's here that our postcode of interest unexpectedly appears. Several flats in the block have been awarded the postcode BR1 1AA, maybe all 30-odd of them, or maybe only a selection - the internet again refuses to provide rock-solid evidence. But if you've snapped up a starter home here in the last few months then you have the very first postcode in Greater London. You and maybe an Italian restaurant.

Surely there'll be greater certainty regarding the last postcode in Greater London? Well, don't be so sure. What's definite is that we need to cross town to the Watford area, because WD is the only postcode area which lines up alphabetically after WC. Intriguingly only a tiny, tiny fraction of the Watford postcode area falls within the boundaries of Greater London, and deliberately so. There's a patch north of Harefield along Springwell Lane, where very few people live, which is part of WD3. There's a smidgeon of land by Stirling Corner, outside Borehamwood, which is part of WD6. And there's a row of cottages in Bushey Heath, near Bentley Priory, which is part of WD23. It should be obvious which of these comes last, alphabetically speaking.

London's last postcode (alphabetically speaking)
WD23 1NX: Magpie Hall Lane, Bushey Heath

Let's start with a bit of Watford's postcode history. Watford used to have seven postcode districts, numbered 1 to 7, but the first two of these became subject to "postcode exhaustion" and were redesignated in September 2000. WD1 was split into WD17, WD18 and WD19, managing to make all of central Watford sound less significant overnight, while WD2 was subdivided into WD23, WD24 and WD25. The new postcode district for Bushey was WD23, and it's this which nudges over the Greater London boundary at Bushey Heath. Magpie Hall Lane is the exact dividing line where Herts meets London, but it makes sense for letters on either side to be delivered from the same van, so a handful of properties in the borough of Harrow have a Watford address.

The only two Bushey postcodes within Greater London are WD23 1NT and WD23 1NX. The first of these contains three detached properties, two currently shrouded in scaffolding so that builders can swarm all over them. It's a shame this isn't the last postcode, because one of the houses is apparently the address of 'The Bag Factory Limited', and it would have been interesting to dig up what that's about. Meanwhile WD23 1NX contains six residences, half of which are substantial modern detached homes set back in their own secluded cul-de-sac. This trio are called Ashdown, Woodland and Fernwood, because house-builders always reckon tree-related names have a classy suburban cachet. More full of character are the three homes known as Heathfield Cottages, which are older conjoined stock with front-facing gables. Number 1 is the poshest, or likes to think it is, hence the lions on the gateposts and the sharply-pointed conifers. Numbers 2 and 3 are plainer, but none the less desirable, plus they had their bins out which is always the best way to confirm that this is Harrow not Hertsmere. Definitely the last unit in London's postcode list, this, unless...

There's one last problem to consider, and that's what 'alphabetical order' really means. You'd think WD3 comes before WD6 comes before WD23, because that's the way the numbers run, but a computer would see things rather differently. The generally accepted convention for sorting an alphanumeric list is that spaces come before numbers come before letters, which means WD23 isn't at the bottom of the list. It has a '2' as its 3rd character, whereas WD3 has a '3' as its third character and WD6 has a '6', so they both appear after WD23. Indeed if you try sorting these three strings in a spreadsheet, it will confirm the correct order as WD23, WD3, WD6. And if you accept that, then we need to travel four miles east to a roundabout on the Barnet Bypass.

London's last postcode (alphanumerically speaking)
WD6 2RW: Elstree Park, Stirling Corner, Borehamwood

Stirling Corner is a ridiculously busy roundabout where the A1 crosses the A411, and sits on the very edge of the capital. Two of the surrounding quadrants are wholly in London (the Shell garage and the Harvester) and one is wholly in Hertfordshire (the Morrisons). It's the southwest quadrant that's the problem, because that's a bit of both. This didn't matter when the Greater London boundary was drawn up in 1965, but in 1990 the Berkeley Leisure Group came along and built a retirement park. Specifically they swirled two looping roads around a field, called it Elstree Park and added approximately 150 mobile homes. Some of these lie in Hertfordshire and some in London, and some in both because you can plonk a chalet anywhere. But the whole park is in the WD6 postcode, and all the tenants pay council tax at Barnet rates, making this one crazy mixed-up location.

I really wanted to go inside Elstree Park and have a look, but a sign at the entrance pointed out that this was private property and so I chickened out. In particular the park office is located in the first cottage past the white posts, and they'd no doubt have been peering out, plus a number of residents were walking back from Morrisons with their shopping and they'd soon have spotted I didn't fit in. A shame, because I would have loved to try and locate one of the chalets that straddles the unseen line, and to be able to show you a proper photograph from within. Instead I got no further than the park noticeboard, where I learned that milk is delivered daily, parking a boat is forbidden, and the only permitted pet is one cat per chalet. I am now old enough to move in, however, should I ever decide that a geographically schizophrenic location at the foot of London's postcode pecking order is for me.

Clear as mud.

 Monday, February 13, 2017

I received this email last week from a reader.
"I recently had to go to Whitechapel and realised the postcode I wanted was probably one of the first in an alphabetic list of postcodes of London, which made me think, what would be the first and last and what would they be like."
Well, there's an irresistible idea, I thought.

The London postal district consists of eight postcode areas, namely E, EC, N, NW, SE, SW, W and WC. Top of the shop alphabetically speaking is E for East London, specifically E1, the postcode district for Whitechapel. These numbered districts were first introduced in 1917, with the location of the district head office allocated '1', and subsequent districts numbered alphabetically.

The first London postcode (alphabetically speaking)
E1 1AA: Royal Mail Whitechapel Delivery Office, 206 Whitechapel Road

Whitechapel hasn't always been home to the Eastern District Office - this started out in Commercial Road until it became clear in the 1880s that far larger premises were required. A patch of waste ground alongside the Royal London Hospital was selected, and a three-storey redbrick building constructed with a sorting office out back. Around the turn of the century a doubling in size was required, and the Mail Rail arrived in the basement in 1927, this being the eastern terminus of the line.

The most recent expansion on site came in 1970 when a tall Modernist building was erected to a standard concrete design, presenting a stark modular frontage towards the Whitechapel Road. A mechanised workflow occupied the open-plan rooms on the upper floors, while ground level comprised a loading yard and the public-facing Crown Post Office. Over 2000 workers were employed here in the building's heyday, processing mail for the entire ‘E’ postal district, at what eventually became known as the East London Mail Centre. But the majority of work was later transferred to an industrial estate in Bromley-by-Bow, and subsequently Mount Pleasant, with all operations at Whitechapel ceasing in 2012. [full history]

A variety of temporary tenants now lurk on the building's upper floors, including Crossrail staff, while the site has been classified by Tower Hamlets council as a 'strategic regeneration opportunity'. But the E1 1AA postcode survives, for now, in the form of the Whitechapel Delivery Office. This is where you come if live locally and your postman tries to deliver a package while you're out, and consists of a small grim room for queueing and collection. As for the former Post Office nextdoor, that's been an echoing empty space for a few years now, with all its fixtures and fittings ripped out... as you can see if you peer in through the grime on the front window. A less Crown-like Post Office has been installed in a shop unit a few doors up the road, slotted underneath the Methodist Church, now reduced to a queueing slalom and a counter, and sharing space with an independent travel company and currency exchange.

Except hang on. I assumed E1 1AA would be the first E1 postcode, except some subsequent research revealed it's not. E1 turns out to be one of seven high-density postcode districts in London to have been additionally subdivided, which is how a riverside strip was reallocated to E1W in 1999. More importantly, for alphabetical purposes, an E1 0 postcode sector was introduced along E1W's northern border, and E1 0 beats E1 1. So I had to go out with my camera again...

Actually the first London postcode (alphabetically speaking)
E1 0AA: St Mary & St Michael RC Church, The Presbytery, 2 Lukin Street

I was not expecting this. The first E1 postcode belongs to a Roman Catholic church on Commercial Road, roughly in the vicinity of Shadwell station, a few streets east of Watney Market. St Mary & St Michael is a high-peaked whopper, opened as 'The Cathedral of the East End' in 1857, although that's an entirely unofficial title. In its day this was the largest Roman Catholic church in the capital, its parish taking in most of Stepney, hence the need for all those pews inside. The most dramatic event here was a wedding in March 1945, interrupted as the guests were arriving by the unexpected impact of one of the last V2 rockets to strike London. Although the church's roof was destroyed, and a number of people sadly died, the participants dusted themselves down and the ceremony went ahead amid the rubble.

Technically E1 0AA is the postcode not of the church but of the Presbytery nextdoor, a plainer block on Lukin Street which acts as church hall and office, and thereby hosts the letterbox into which the church's mail is delivered. It's not the only E1 0AA building along here either, eleven others share the same postcode, including the neighbouring Bishop Challoner Community Centre. This mostly sporty facility is under the care of the local secondary school, which too is a whopper, with a girls' school on one side of the street and boys' on the other linked by a curving grey skybridge of intrusively modern design.

The school itself isn't within our chosen postcode, but ten modest terraced homes fill out the remainder of the postie's round. They're very much late 20th century, when Tower Hamlets still built houses rather than flats, and with a cul-de-sac of similar properties squished in behind. I did at first wonder whether every house around here was owned by a cabbie, given how many black cabs were parked up along the road, but it turns out two of the arches under the DLR belong to a bodyshop approved by the London Taxi Company, hence the queues. Whatever, I love the fact that the first London postcode belongs collectively to a few random council house residents who may not realise the pre-eminence of the last line of their address.

As for the last London postcode I'd initially assumed this would be a W, and indeed wasted time touring the streets of Westbourne Park to investigate. But no, WC beats W, so I had to divert my attention to central London instead. The West Central postcode is split into two parts, that's WC1 and WC2, with WC2 further subdivided into six alphabetically-appended districts. It's the last of these that interests us, namely WC2R, which covers a broad area between the Strand and the Embankment, roughly around Somerset House and the Temple.

The last London postcode (alphabetically speaking)
WC2R 3XP: Liberata UK Ltd, PO Box 36838

Now that's disappointing. The last London postcode currently in use belongs to a PO Box, not an actual place you can go and visit. OK, technically somebody has to go and collect the post, so technically the location is the Mount Pleasant sorting office in Clerkenwell, but that'll also be the case for thousands of other PO Boxes. The business with the good fortune to be served by London's concluding postcode is Liberata, which is one those service companies that delivers things on behalf of government rather that government employing civil servants to do it for them. Founded in 1975, Liberata rejoices in being a "trusted and reliable operating partner delivering specialist business process services", with a modern nod towards automating and digitalising, natch.

Except hang on. Liberata's Head Office is in Wood Street in the City of London, postcode EC2V 7AN, and I'm not allowing that when this is supposed to be WC2. So let's pick again.

Properly the last London postcode (alphabetically speaking)
WC2R 3LL: The Temple Bar, 1 Milford Lane

Hurrah, it's a pub! What's more it's a pub in the warren of streets down the western edge of the Temple, so you're quite likely to find a clerk or barrister supping within. Milford Lane is a narrow thoroughfare leading south from the Strand and meandering down to the Thames, quite picturesque in its pedestrianised lower reaches. The Temple Bar is at the northern end, on the street corner opposite St Clement Dane's, and has been inebriating the local population since 1839. As a free house it serves more interesting beer than most, and there's a distinctly sporting theme to much of its publicity - come watch the Six Nations in our second floor bar, that kind of thing. The pub also promotes itself as a filming location, should you have a legal drama requiring lubrication, and the exterior boasts delightfully evocative bay windows and wooden panelling.

Or so I expected. Alas the currently reality is roadworks, on a massively disruptive scale, with all bar a narrow strip of lane outside the pub sealed off for digging and replacement. The guilty project is the 190 Strand development, a massive residential landgrab currently swallowing up a substantial area to the north of Temple station. A 1960s office block is being replaced by "a luxurious new development of suites, apartments and penthouses", entirely unaffordably, coupled with "a range of streetscape improvements including substantial upgrading of the public realm". At present the repaving of Milford Lane is running at least two months behind schedule, and The Temple Bar's landlord must be cursing every additional day. But if you head down to WC2R 3LL, and can be heard above the noise of drills, you too can down a pint in what's technically the ultimate pub in London.

Today we've been looking at what I believe to be the first and last London postcodes. Tomorrow we'll take a look at the first and last postcodes in London...

 Sunday, February 12, 2017

When was the best year to be born? Or is it still to come?

Sorry, my mind wanders to these things when global and homegrown events suggest the future might not be as bright as we'd all hoped.

So what I thought I'd do is imagine a typical UK citizen born in 1850, and every twenty years thereafter, and consider the quality of the decades they lived through. Which year of birth will win out?

Below is a table showing the lifespan of a person born on 1st January 1850. Average life expectancy at birth in 1850 was 41, which is why I've underlined the 1890s. But I'm assuming this imaginary person gets to live ten years longer than that, because it's nice to be an optimist.


For a typical 1850-born citizen, assuming they survived infancy, life got inexorably better the older they became. Industrialisation and the spread of Empire brought increased prosperity, and improvements in science enhanced the nation's health and living conditions. That won't have been everyone's experience, I know, but generally speaking an 1850 birth beats every previous year.


An 1870 birth should have been better, indeed twenty years better, in terms of technological and social progress. Life expectancy had now increased to 43, so the average 1870-born child died in 1913. But for those who lived through to the following year the Great War brought a tragic downturn, even if they were no longer young enough to be conscripted. I've used orange to suggest that the 1910s was a challenging decade to live through, and a slightly brighter shade of green for improvements in the decade beyond.


Despite advances in society, and an increase in life expectancy to 46, anyone born in 1890 ended up having it tough. In their mid-twenties when World War 1 started, this was the generation sent off to fight in the trenches, and those who survived into their 50s then had to endure the Home Front of World War 2 too. With two red sections in their life to face up to, 1890 was by no means the luckiest time to be born.


A child conceived at the end of the Edwardian era may not have noticed the setbacks of their wartime childhood, and may have flourished in the enlightenment of the Twenties and Thirties. But aged 29 when World War 2 broke out, and unavoidably involved in the 20th century's ghastliest war, a heavy price was paid. Thankfully for those who made it through, on average to 1963, life got inexorably better.


Those born in 1930 missed WW1 and were too young to be called up for WW2, but will have endured the many trials of a wartime childhood. Rationing won't have made their young adulthood easy, but improvements in living standards then came thick and fast, with retirement better than any had known before, and average life expectancy tipping over sixty years of age.


At last, for the first time since 1850, we see a lifetime unblemished by global war. It turns out that 1950 has been a great year to be born, with life made increasingly comfortable as advances in science and technology took hold. I hesitate to mention that the average life expectancy for a 1950 birth is 68 years, but rest assured that if you're a 67 year-old and you're reading this, official statistics suggest you've an even chance of reaching the end of the 2020s. All we don't know at this stage is what the 2020s are going to be like...


By default a 1970s birth should be better than a 1950s birth, indeed this generation's generally done better than its parents. But look at how much of this row is grey, and hence as yet undecided. By the mid 2040s, which is the decade current life expectancy suggests, there'll have been 30 further years we so far know nothing about. These could be brilliant, with steady steps towards a comfortable technological utopia, or they could be more restrictive and precarious, bringing an unexpected downgrade from green to orange.


Hello to those of you born in 1990, or thereabouts. The society in which you live is better than any have previously known, even if you're not feeling the economic benefits those born earlier enjoyed. On average you still have over half a century of life ahead of you, so long as nothing ghastly happens in the meantime, like that climate change they warn about, or the robots taking over, or some idiot in a bunker with a button. By rights your future should be an even brighter shade of green, but will it be... and can we avoid red?


Which brings us to the latest generation, still under ten years of age, and projected to live through to the last years of the 21st century. These children still have everything to look forward to, for decades to come, the colour of their timeline almost entirely undecided. The rest of us ought to be jealous of every amazing thing they'll see, but it's also possible it was better to have been around before depression, repression and turbulence become commonplace.

It is of course too early to judge the best year to be born, and that year should still be far, far into the future. But if politicians and society get it wrong, then we may look back on our current decade as a golden age of prosperity and freedom for all, assuming we're even around to look back at all. Let's do our best to make sure 1950 doesn't turn out to have been the optimal start of the best possible life, and work to make all our grey years green.

 Saturday, February 11, 2017

4 Paddington/St Marylebone
After the Ace and Three of Diamonds I've dealt the Four, which corresponds to an adjacent non-existent central London borough. The Metropolitan boroughs of Paddington and St Marylebone found themselves part of a city in 1965, and covered (approximately) all of Westminster to the north of the Central line. Westminster actually spreads a lot further north than most tourists realise, so for this excursion I thought I'd head up to the extremes of St John's Wood, Maida Vale and Queen's Park.

Specifically I've been hunting for blue plaques, of which there are tons in the other half of Westminster, but rather fewer in this. I used English Heritage's website to track them down at home, and their excellent (free) Blue Plaques app in the field. This shows all the blue plaques near you, assuming there are any, plus details of the commemorated individual and their address. I'd say it's a good urban winter activity, given it's mud-free and there are always cafes nearby. Here are six plaques I tracked down in the northern half of Paddington and St Marylebone.

BEECHAM, Sir Thomas, C.H. (1879-1961)
Conductor, Impresario
31 Grove End Road, St John's Wood [more info]
Estimated property value: £4,788,000

A lot of music fans flock past Sir Thomas Beecham's house every day, but they don't stop. They're on their way to the zebra crossing at the end of the road, the one outside Abbey Road Studios made famous by The Beatles, where they stop the traffic and take photos of themselves striding across the road. Close neighbour Sir Tom used his musical talent and family fortune to achieve prominence in classical circles, and lived at a number of London addresses before ending up in this Georgian villa in 1950. By this time he was living with his second wife, a concert pianist 29 years his junior, and both were regular visitors to the recording studio up the road. The six-bedroomed house behind the high brick wall is currently the base for a registered osteopath and bioresonance therapist, according to another plaque on the gatepost, which might make you think twice about popping inside for an appointment.

TUSSAUD, Madame Marie (1761-1850)
24 Wellington Road, St John's Wood [more info]
Estimated property value: £5,485,000

Artist in Wax is a fantastic title, don't you think? The famous French sculptor lived here only briefly, three years after her first permanent exhibition opened not so far away on Baker Street. The precise location of her home is just to the north of Lord's Cricket Ground, on the main road out of town, immediately opposite the Wellington Hospital. Specifically it's opposite the BP garage, which isn't necessarily the kind of thing you expect to find squashed underneath the largest private hospital in the UK, or maybe it is. 24 Wellington Road looks like small fry compared to the villas squashed on either side, but a massive luxury overhaul has taken place behind the period facade, including 1000 square feet of open plan living space on the ground floor, and a gym and swimming pool in the basement. The now-unhistoric property sold for five and a half million pounds at the end of last year, which is almost as expensive as a ticket to Madame Tussauds these days, or feels like it.

BAZALGETTE, Sir Joseph William (1819-1891)
Civil Engineer
17 Hamilton Terrace, St John's Wood [more info]
Estimated property value: £1,931,000 + £920,000

Joseph William Bazalgette is the great man responsible for the Victoria Embankment and London's intricate network of sewers. As chief engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works his endeavours banished the 'Great Stink', and helped make our capital sufficiently sanitary to expand. 17 Hamilton Terrace is the only one of his homes that survives, an elegant townhouse in yellow brick with three elliptical-arched recesses adjacent to a square porch. The family moved in when Joseph was about 12, at which point the "very excellent gentleman’s residence" was new, and they moved out in 1847. Hamilton Terrace remains a gorgeous street, a broad thoroughfare of eternally aspirational villas arrayed with tightly pollarded trees and enough space down the centre of the road to park an additional line of cars. What's more the drainage system is sorted - Bazalgette made sure his Middle Level intercepting sewer ran directly underneath St John's Wood Road at the end of the street.

TURING, Alan (1912-1954)
Mathematician, Computer Scientist
2 Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale [more info]
Now the Colonnade Hotel

I will confess to being surprised when I saw what I took to be Alan Turing's childhood home. A white stucco residence over five floors isn't the kind of place I'd expect Britain's greatest computer scientist to have grown up, and indeed it turns out he didn't. Instead this one-time Victorian home was knocked together with the house nextdoor to create a boarding school in 1880, and a few years later became the Warrington Lodge Medical and Surgery Home for Ladies. Ethel Turing checked in briefly in June 1912, while her husband was on leave from his position with the Indian Civil Service, and it was here that baby Alan Mathison was born. The building became a hotel in 1938, first the Esplanade, now the Colonnade, and now offers 43 rooms to mostly Middle Eastern guests, which is why there's a posh Persian restaurant on the ground floor. And Alan it turns out grew up in St Leonard's-on-Sea while his father's Indian commission continued, spending his pre-boarding years in the care of a retired army colonel. The blue plaque on Baston Lodge is far better deserved.

LOWE, Arthur (1915-1982)
Comedy Actor
2 Maida Avenue, Maida Vale [more info]
Estimated property value: £1,138,000 + £3,339,000

OK, so this isn't a 'real' blue plaque, but I couldn't resist stopping by this tribute to one of Britain's best-loved comic actors. Arthur Lowe was born in the Peak District, where Derbyshire council have erected their own blue plaque, and made his stage debut in Manchester in 1945. A key role in the early years of Coronation Street brought him to national attention, and taking on the role of Captain Mainwairing in Dad's Army cemented his fame. He moved into this grandly symmetrical house the year after the sitcom first aired, and it remained his base until a heart attack cut short his life at the age of 66. His former home is now two flats, and is located overlooking the mouth of the Maida Hill Tunnel on the Regent's Canal, at the start of the final stretch down to Little Venice. Arthur enjoyed a watery vista, and spent a lot of time on his steam yacht Amazon, which he bought as a houseboat but later made seaworthy - there's no way it would have fitted on the canal. This plaque is one of ten installed in London by the Dead Comics Society, now the less macabre British Comedy Society, still celebrating a run of mirthsome stars from Peter Sellers to Richard Briers.

ARDIZZONE, Edward (1900-1979)
Artist, Illustrator
130 Elgin Avenue, Maida Vale [more info]
Estimated property value: £2,200,000

At last, here's a house the name on the plaque spent most of his life living inside. Edward Ardizzone was a British painter and illustrator of many talents, including that of official war artist, but is best known for his children's books. If you went to school in the 70s or 80s, your copy of Stig of the Dump was liberally illustrated by him, and his penmanship will be innately familiar. Ardizzone grew up in Ipswich, but the family moved into Elgin Avenue in 1920 when he was working as an office clerk, and Edward was still there in 1972 after retiring as a tutor with the Royal College of Art. Alas these days his home at number 130 is another hollowed-out sham, a four bedroom split level luxury apartment with a minimum of interior walls, not that you'd ever guess from out front.

There are no blue plaques in Queen's Park.

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