diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Next, a pair of Open House visits with a manufacturing background....

Open House: Kaymet

Kaymet are "a maker of trays and trolleys since 1947", whose south London factory flung wide its doors over the weekend for anyone to look around. That's the kind of Open House offer I find hard to resist, so I headed down the Old Kent Road to track the metalworkers down. Their factory's at the end of Ossory Road, a light industrial dead end (with evangelical infill) backing onto an Asda superstore. Turn left at the stonemasons, walk past the tiny hut doubling up as a showroom, and here is a small business doing what small business do best.

The building's the seventh Kaymet has inhabited over the years, and nothing special, merely a large functional shed seemingly haphazardly laid out. But the product which emerges at the end of the line is premium stuff, sold in Harrods and John Lewis, and fundamentally the same design which first emerged in 1947 and was exhibited at the Festival of Britain. The handles are attached more efficiently these days, and the range of colours is a more recent diversion, but the benchmark tray is still made by thwacking a sheet of aluminium in a big press, then hand-finishing the edges and anodising the result.

Kaymet started up under a German owner, surname changed for postwar anonymity, and his son still helps out with day to day operations. But the current owner of the business is an escapee from City Hall whose department disappeared under Boris, and who couldn't bear to see a long-standing local business slide into liquidation. He and his wife are now more deeply involved in day-to-day operations than they ever expected, and mesmerisingly enthusiastic too, which made the tour an especially engaging half hour. It was a privilege to wander amongst the workbenches, machinery and boxes of frames, and to learn the 'trade secret' of how they punch through the rubber squares that make the non-slip trays non-slip.

It's reassuring to know that some of London's manufacturing industry survives, indeed Kaymet have discovered that 'Made in London' still resonates with luxury foreign markets. What's less reassuring are the relentless economic pressures on land in inner London, which mean that small-time manufacturing has a tendency to metamorphose into flats. The Old Kent Road is under particular pressure on this front. Over 800 small businesses in the immediate area provide work for around 10000 people, but various Southwark Council redevelopment plans loom large on the gentrification drawing board. The Bakerloo line extension, if it ever happens, will plonk two new tube stations either side of Ossory Road, and tomorrow's Londoners want accommodation more than they want trays.

Had the owners thought to have Kaymet trays on sale at the end of the Open House tour they'd have sold several, instead making do with disposing of a few hastily-sourced seconds at less than market price. Even I was tempted, which is saying something. Instead it proved more tempting to sign the Vital OKR petition, supporting a pressure group speaking out for the economy of the Old Kent Road. They plan to fly maritime signalling flags down the street which read "We are not nothing", just as John Edgington's did in 1969 before their tent-making premises were brushed aside by the Bricklayers Arms flyover. We all need somewhere to live, but let's try not to destroy what makes London special in the process. [video]

Open House: The Clockworks

Tucked away in an old printworks in a backstreet near West Norwood station is a unique collection of mechanical timepieces. Most horologists tend to collect wind-up antiques or intricate watches, but James Nye has a passion for the electro-mechanical, and had long been searching for somewhere to keep them. The ground floor of this post-industrial building proved ideal, and his clocks now have collective life rather than being stashed away where hardly anyone ever sees them.

Electro-magnetic clocks are pulse-driven, some with an internal oscillator and others a pendulum. They were often used in institutions where it was important to have a network of clocks all telling the same time, for example in an office, hospital or school. The master clock would be maintained at the correct time and a series of slave clocks would be connected by wires to run synchronously elsewhere. Most of James's clocks are the masters, and have the look of a long-case timepiece about them, while other exhibits include regulators used for the very precise timing of astronomical observations.

The Clockworks exists not just as a museum but as a conservation workshop. A raised concrete platform at the rear of the floor proved ideal for the installation of tools and benches, and more importantly provides somewhere for horology graduates to continue to practice after completing their degree. Several apprentices (from West Dean and Birmingham) have worked here over the last five years, maintaining the collection two days a week and practising the art of conservation on the others. If you have any kind of vintage clock or watch which might need repairing or bringing back to life, hold this place in mind.

It's a lovely mixed-use space, with a small library up front and various historical oddities scattered elsewhere. Dr James is a twinkly and engaging curator, as befits the chairman of the Antiquarian Horological Society, while the apprentice I spoke to was equally cheerful, dedicated and keen. I suspect my lengthy Open House visit merely scratched the surface of all there is to know about the world of distributed timekeeping. Thankfully the collection's also open 'by appointment', particularly if you have a small group you'd like to bring round, should you too ever fancy a fascinating insight into what makes these things tick.

 Monday, September 18, 2017

Open House: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners at The Leadenhall Building

Many London skyscrapers have a dull name and a nickname. The Leadenhall Building is dull-ly titled because it's on Leadenhall Street, but is better known as the Cheesegrater because of its distinctive wedge-like shape. Here it is in Lego, in case you need reminding.

The Cheesegrater is the second tallest building in the City of London (or the tallest if you think the Heron Tower's 92ft mast is a cheat). It's the shape it is to protect views of St Paul's Cathedral from Fleet Street - the upper storeys taper back to keep out of the way of Wren's dome. Its planning application was approved in 2005, but construction was held back by the economic downturn and so final completion took place only two years ago. It's unusual in that the building's spine is at the rear, with a 'cassette' of liftshafts and utilities bolted onto the back, allowing the floors to cantilever forwards in open plan style for maximum office flexibility. 48 floors, 225 metres high, if you're counting.

The architects were Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, better known as "the agency Richard Rogers started", but since renamed to reflect new talent rising up through the ranks. Although it was never intended, the company needed new premises a couple of years ago and the 14th floor of the Leadenhall Building was available, so they now run their international practice from a building they designed. They were also the ones providing guides for the Open House tours, which meant visitors were particularly well informed.

The Cheesegrater squeezes a significant amount of public space into its small footprint because there's a gap where the ground and first floors ought to be. Bring your table tennis bat and you can even have a game of ping pong underneath the overhang in this outdoor atrium. Two sets of escalators swoop up through the void, on weekdays delivering a suited insurance salesforce to the main lobby on the second floor. Head through the security barriers and, surprise, you're already pretty much at the back of the building. Three sets of glass lifts shoot up from a lofty corridor fringed in geometric yellow, with (whoa!) an all round view if you stand at the rear.

What does a top-rank architectural practice have just inside its entrance? Security, obviously, and then a long rack of scale models of some of the more famous buildings they've designed. Lloyd's of London (1978-86) is there in wood at 1:500, while the Pompidou Centre (1971-77) is a colourful burst of perspex at 1:1000. Several far flung global landmarks are included - the practice has a particular penchant for airport terminals - but the Cheesegrater itself doesn't fit on the shelf and gets to stand elsewhere. Some modern clients now prefer to see a digital blueprint, but all the physical models are still cut, carved and stuck together in a glass-fronted workshop located in the room behind.

This being expensive real estate the RHSP workforce are tightly packed in, but there are also meeting spaces and a cafe area, plus breakout tables with a rather distracting view. The dome of St Paul's is clearly seen to the west, while other buildings the practice has designed are picked out by stickers on the glass. It doesn't take a sticker to identify the Lloyd's Building, whose metallic Grade I bulk rises immediately opposite, extruded service shafts and all. It must help for getting work done that this is only the 14th floor, not up in the forties, although the amount of floor space does get considerably narrower up there.

The guide for our group had worked on designing the unsexy part of the building - the basement - rather than the cheaper visible stuff in the sky. He therefore knew his stuff, in considerable depth, without cramming a few key facts the night before or having to read the salient points off a cribsheet. Maybe that's why he also ended up apologising for talking too much at each of the stopping-off points and making our tour much longer than everyone else's. When you're up a special skyscraper for a one-off visit, hell yes, these are the kind of guides you want. [7 photos]

Open House: Watermark House

Not every Open House building with a lofty view is a pre-book. Some are turn-up-and-walk-in, capacious enough to cope without a queue, and offering a perspective only employees normally see. This year Watermark House was one such venue, the employee base for a Japanese bank previously sited out in Docklands and now tucked in by the Thames adjacent to Cannon Street station. Their office block is built partly on the site of a Roman wharf and partly on the site of a key medieval trading post, which sounds dreadfully destructive except that several centuries of later development had already destroyed what was previously here, and all Nomura's tenancy replaced was a 1970s telephone exchange.

For Open House, all visitors got to see was the lobby and the 6th floor, but the 6th floor is home to the City of London's largest roof terrace, so that's all good. Open decking surrounds various bits of garden, some shrubby, some floral and one raised section used to grow vegetables. With a beehive or two, a row of deckchairs and a reflective pool, it all feels appropriately zen. The lack of pigeons is also a bonus, which is thanks to the two year-old Harris Hawk which handler Laura wields on site two days a week. Bumping into a falconry display in an elevated Japanese garden is one of the delights which helps keep Open House fresh.

the crash location, beneath the bridge, east of St John's

I don't know how many of the employees bring their coffee or lunch out from the cafe inside, but what a great resource, and what splendid views. The twin brick towers of Cannon Street station dominate, but one's eye will more likely turn to the thread of the Thames. Immediately opposite lie Pickfords Wharf and the Golden Hind, while the Shard is unmissable further downstream, and then an unobstructed view of Tower Bridge. Pick your City employer carefully and every day can have a scenic interlude to balance out the hours of slog. [6 photos]

My Open House 2017 gallery
There are 35 photos altogether [slideshow]

 Sunday, September 17, 2017

Open House: Crossrail - Canary Wharf

Only 64 weeks remain until London's grand new east-west rail artery opens. Only 8 weeks remain until trains start being tested along the completed track. And minus one days remain until Open House made available tours of Crossrail building sites deep underground. Three of the stations opened up to the public were Bond Street, Whitechapel and Farringdon, whose limited availability was very rapidly snapped up. Rather more tickets for Canary Wharf were available, because that's far enough advanced not to require a guided hard hat tour, indeed has been for some time. So I grabbed a slot down there, and got to see what you'll all be seeing next year, once it's all finally finished.

The first time I descended into Canary Wharf for Open House, five years ago, we spiralled down a rickety temporary staircase to a cavern with no platforms, tracks or tunnels. Today all these are in place, plus platform-edge walls, and most of the escalators now work. The escalators are very yellow, almost unnervingly so, in what may or may not be a reference to the 'canary' part of the station's name. They are terribly photogenic.

Several banks of escalators are in place to speed you from platform level up to the ticket hall, and further banks then lead up to ground level. Some even have the Canary Wharf brand plastered across the glass up the side, perhaps as a subtle reminder that you're entering a private commercial estate and maybe you'd like to visit the shops and restaurants now you're here.

The layout's a bit like Canary Wharf on the Jubilee line, in that there's an intermediate level which runs the entire length of the station. It's nominally the ticket hall, but expect minimal ticket sales action to take place here, being more a vast circulation space between (as yet uninstalled) barriers. Various banks of electrical cupboards appear to run along some of the length, and not much else in the way of features, it's actually a bit drab... but after fifteen further months of fitting-out this could obviously change.

Platform level is where all the action is, or will be. Another broad concourse stretches 250 metres down the length of the station (board this end for Liverpool Street, and the other end for Moorgate). All that so far fills the central void are escalators and chunky liftshafts - any seating and roundels are yet to come. There isn't yet a proper floor to stand on either, we were walking around on timber planks, and the majority of the platform area remained out of bounds.

What's being installed at the moment are the platform doors. The entire length of the westbound appears to be complete, and covered up, but not yet the eastbound so we were able to have a good stare along that. Some of the mechanism above the doors was visible, and the screen itself didn't look quite as chunky as on the Jubilee line. In a few places the glass panels haven't yet been installed - perhaps this makes access to the track easier - and we were offered a clear-ish view down onto the rails you won't see.

Did I mention how yellow the escalators are?

It was great to be able to have a look round, and to meet with several of the workers and engineers who are helping to bring this project to its conclusion. Their enthusiasm and keenness shone through, and they probably can't wait to show off their handiwork to the rest of you. I've been particularly impressed across three separate visits to see this hole in the ground transform into proper infrastructure, so many thanks to Open House for the sequential opportunity they've provided.

One day this construction phase will be but a memory, and these yellow escalators will be just another part of commuting in London. That day is 448 days away. Keep counting.

» 18 photos from Crossrail Canary Wharf

 Saturday, September 16, 2017

With only 100 days to go until Christmas, the time has come to decide how you want to throw your money away this year.

One prime candidate appears to be the Wintertime Festival, which is taking place in a particular southeast London borough throughout the month of December. I won't name it, or link to it, because I'm not here to the provide the oxygen of publicity. But rarely have I seen quite such an over-hyped landgrab for the contents of your wallet, should you be tempted within.

According to the up-front marketing, this will be London's Most Unique Winter Festival Ever!

My inner grammarian is already screaming. Unique suggests the festival is one of a kind, in which case Most Unique is technically impossible. As for Most Unique... Ever, that's a modified absolute of logically unattainable proportions. These are empty words thrown together by a marketing team which doesn't care for truth. Bodes well.

What are the six components of this Most Unique Ever festival?
1) A Bespoke Covered Ice Rink
They surely can't mean an ice rink covered in bespoke? No, this is just the lazy use of a buzzword that was already out of date several years ago. Thirty bespoke minutes on the bespoke ice will be permitted.
2) London's Finest Independent And Innovative Lifestyle Winter Market
London's Finest is an audacious boast for a festival that's never taken place before. It's also not clear against which standards this superlative claim is to be judged. As for Lifestyle, that's another buzzword thrown into the mix, and which has landed awkwardly somewhere it makes no particular sense. Apparently the Winter Market will present an array of independent creative designers and brands. Whatever festive gifts and trinkets are available, it doesn't sound like they'll be cheap.
3) The Very Best Of Artisan Festive Food and Drink
The Wintertime Festival's publicity appears to be running at a rate of 1 Buzzword per claim. This time it's Artisan, which suggests hand-crafted treats and definitely not a few sausage stalls and some mulled wine. Again, it's impossible to believe that the refreshment selection could possibly be The Very Best, given the scale of comestible competition across the capital.
4) Magical And Enchanting Entertainment
The full festival entertainment line-up is due to be released later next week. It might be outstanding, but the only artistes I've seen specified so far are a brass band. Daytime acts on the big tented stage will apparently be family-friendly, while evening visitors should expect live music and DJs performing pop, soul, jazz, swing, classical and folk. Meanwhile wandering around the site will be a troupe of performers and street entertainers to surprise and delight at every turn. If there isn't a fire-breathing unicyclist conjuror, I'll be unimpressed.
5) An Authentic Father Christmas Experience
You what? Whatever a Father Christmas Experience might be, sorry kids, the one thing it can never be is Authentic. What's more this isn't your usual one-on-one perch on Santa's knee. Instead expect a magical and mesmerising audience with Father Christmas lasting approximately 15 minutes, in the company of up to 40 other children, concluding with a small gift and the opportunity to take part in a group photo. I wonder if you get that group photo for free, or whether it costs extra?
6) An Art Exhibition
The marketing agency appears to have run out of superlatives here. Their description is simply An Art Exhibition across all collateral. I guess that means the art won't be especially exciting.

The cunning thing about the Wintertime Festival, or the exploitative thing, is that if you want to go ice skating you have to pay twice. First you have to pay to get inside the main enclosure, which'll set you back at least £15, and only then can you pay extra for a spin on the ice.

Buying tickets works like this. Each day's operations are split into three allotted sessions of 3 hours. Evening sessions cost £18 for adults, while Morning and Afternoon sessions cost £15 before 22nd December, and the full £18 for the rest of the month. This entrance fee gets you inside to enjoy the Entertainment and the Art Exhibition, plus the opportunity to spend more money in the Winter Market or on Food and Drink. But the Ice Skating costs extra - £10 for thirty minutes - and if you want to see Santa that's another £8 per child. And because these tickets are being sold online, a 10% booking fee is then applied on top of the total amount. Ouch.

Let's have a look at how a trip to the Wintertime Festival might add up.

» An adult attending an evening session (with ice skating) should expect to pay £30.80, plus extra for food and drink.
» A family of three attending in the afternoon (with ice skating and Santa) is looking at an outlay of £81.40 if they visit before 22nd December, or £88 if they wait until the school holidays start.
» As a special introductory offer, the entrance price on Friday 1st December is only £10, with ice skating a mere £5 on top. This is no doubt a cunning ploy to make the place appear packed out on Day One, allowing photos of the "successful event" to be splashed across social media.

London's Most Unique Winter Festival Ever could be an enormous success or it could be a terrible flop. Many Londoners do seem to enjoy forking out large amounts of money to enter exclusive food and drink enclosures, especially those with a bit of added sparkle. If the entertainment options truly are magical and enchanting, it might even be fun to spend three hours inside a serviced compound this Christmas. But I suspect there'll be better places to get an Authentic Bespoke Artisan Lifestyle Experience elsewhere, with zero admission charge, and the enterprise may struggle.

The dynamic agency who came up with the marketing campaign for the Wintertime Festival describe it as a truly unique and contemporary experience and the ultimate Christmas destination. It might be the former. But it most definitely won't be the latter.

With only 100 days left until Christmas, you have plenty of time to find something better.

 Friday, September 15, 2017

If the future is driverless cars, then it's also driverless buses. It'll be some years before double deckers can glide around London without accidentally crashing, but some tentative first steps are being taken this month in the Olympic Park where you can take a ride on a bus that drives itself.

The catchily named Autonomous Shuttle Bus Trial is underway to test out what happens when you let loose an electric bus with passengers inside. The Olympic Park's an ideal location because it contains broad paved thoroughfares that aren't public roads, so there's no need for present and future vehicles to intermix. But with pedestrians and cyclists sharing the same paths there's still plenty of challenge to test sensors and software in a variety of wholly unpredictable situations, and you can come take a ride for free.

The shuttle bus circuit is in the northern half of the park, by the riverside lawns, with stops at the Velodrome, Timber Lodge cafe, Copper Box and Here East. The bus is only programmed to cross one of the two bridges so the route isn't a loop, more of a U-shape, and you could easily walk to your destination faster. What's more you're only allowed to get on at Timber Lodge, because that's where the security guards are, and they have to check your bag for food, drink and explosives before you board. I'm assuming this requirement is merely modern corporate paranoia for the safe running of the trial, rather than a necessary inconvenience of the transport of the future.

Boarding is through doors on the side of the vehicle, with a not insignificant step up from the road surface. The interior has four seats at each end, another three flip-up seats inbetween, and four grab handles dangling from the roof, making a total capacity of 15. I was intrigued to see that the seats came with seat belts, given that in the QEOP trial the maximum speed is capped at only 2mph. But the electric vehicle can actually reach 45mph, at which speed the 'Powerful Braking' warning notice might come into significant play.

The vehicle is programmed to follow a particular track... initially north past the playground towards the Velodrome. Within fifteen seconds of setting off it had proved intelligent enough to bypass a parked truck belonging to the park's gardening team which was obstructing half the road. Within half a minute it had proved intelligent enough not to drive into a pedestrian walking the other way, instead coming to an immediate stop, and pausing until the way ahead was clear. Just as impressively it didn't brake when a pedestrian passed close to the side of the vehicle, because they weren't a potential obstruction, so on we whirred.

You soon get used to being transported by a sentient machine. At 2mph you're never exactly in any danger, and even though there are no rails to follow you always sense the onboard navigation knows what it's doing. At faster speeds or out in proper traffic you'd likely not feel so safe, thanks to the unpredictabilities of other drivers, but such autonomous scenarios remain years off. The vehicle's manufacturers instead propose future use at airports, hospitals, university campuses and shopping centres - not so much replacing existing travel options as adding a new one.

Just like the DLR there may not be a driver at the front but there is a member of staff on board. Their job (in this trial) is to confirm at each stop when it's OK to close the doors and set off again, to reassure and inform, and to troubleshoot as necessary. And troubleshooting was indeed necessary on my journey when the software suddenly broke down. It might alternatively have been that someone didn't press the right bit of the right screen to move us forward, but whatever, we stopped with the doors open for over five minutes and another member of the trial team had to wander over and 'rescue' us.

More permanent obstructions require the operator to switch to manual operation, which I was surprised to see involves use of an Xbox controller whipped out from under a plastic panel. Other objects which you might consider to be an obstruction the autonomous vehicle happily drives straight over. It was a windy day in the park yesterday and the flags set up to mark bus stops had a tendency to blow over... but a bit of toppled fabric didn't upset the sensors at all. I wondered how tall something would have to be (briefcase-height? toddler-height?) for the automatic brakes to kick in.

This shuttle bus trial is up and running until the end of the month (September 16th, 23rd and 26th excepted), and no pre-booking is required. You might be asked to fill in a survey about your 12 minute trip, but otherwise it's free, and more of an experience than any useful service. But one day, if all works out, who knows? A shuttle to the other side of the hospital? An app-hailed taxi that turns up to carry you the last mile home from the station? The electric future of independent on-road travel? This short pootle around the Olympic Park might be the precursor to changing the way we all get around... or merely a sidelined novelty.

 Thursday, September 14, 2017

10 Kingston upon Thames/Malden & Coombe/Surbiton
Kingston is another London borough which came together in 1965 exactly as the Herbert Commission had proposed. Of its three constituent parts I've chosen to visit the Municipal Borough of Surbiton, whose rural hinterland is responsible for a peculiarly long tongue of land distending the boundary of southwest London. To properly explore this pastoral extension I've been out following the Chessington Countryside Walk, a five mile waymarked loop which ticks off a lot of bits of everything.
» [leaflet] [map] [OS map] [written instructions]

Chessington Countryside Walk

If you don't have a car and are coming from elsewhere in London, the obvious place to start this walk is Chessington South station. Trains go no further, even though the tracks do, this being as far as the railway had (just) reached when WW2 started. Green Belt legislation then prevented further suburbanisation in the fields beyond, so the extension to Leatherhead was never completed, and the rural landscape you're about to explore is the happy consequence.

You're looking for Barwell Lane, just past the Business Park, on the other side of the busy Leatherhead Road. Barwell Lane is anything but busy, being a cul-de-sac frequented mostly by people who like horses, and which boasts a Pressure Reducing Station partway along its length. The first proper footpath begins beside an overgrown sign warning those who venture further that Animal Behaviour Is Unpredictable, which isn't necessarily what you want to hear this close to a safari park.

Chessington's savannah simulation Ride into Africa! is barely 100 metres away, behind a row of trees which perfectly conceal participating giraffes, white rhinos and zebras. Instead the only beasts you're likely to meet are grazing horses, as the path rises up to an open paddock on the flat summit of Winey Hill. All the usual comments about being able to see the City and Docklands on the skyline apply (although a plaque which ought to explain which building's which has been untimely ripped).

The path continues to skirt Chessington World of Adventures, whose well-fortified rear fence becomes increasing apparent as you progress. I walked past yesterday when the park was closed, and silent, but the Tomb Blaster and Kobra rides immediately behind the fence are likely to be livelier today. Only those visitors who park their cars in Gorilla Field will ever see the last field in London, which rolls down to an unseen lake and the Esher Bypass before rising up to a scenic plateau on the Surrey side.

I've never before seen a sign marked Theme Park This Way on a waymarked walk, nor the entrance to a luxury glamping enclosure. I was wholly unimpressed by two No Pedestrians signs that Merlin Entertainments had erected on this peripheral public footpath, presumably with their car park visitors in mind, attempting to funnel them towards the park's back entrance. But most disturbing of all was a sign reading Welcome to the Leopard Field - an unfenced expanse of grass used for overflow parking, so thankfully home to nothing scarier than a Beetle or a Jaguar.

It's a pleasure to get away from the theme park environs, recrossing the busy Leatherhead Road to follow a half mile wooded path littered with snapped-off oak branches. You'll only find it quite this covered by acorns if you too walk through on the day of an autumn gale. What follows was my favourite part of the walk, across a vast open field that's gently valley-shaped, but flat enough that it was used an airstrip during WW1. The wonderfully-named Bonesgate Stream rises close by, and wiggles down to Rushett Lane within a tree-topped trench.

6 Beyond the field boundary might have been London but is actually Surrey, fractionally the borough of Epsom and Ewell. A coal tax post marks the divide (and there's another shortly afterwards, if you're a collector). This spot marks the northern edge of Ashtead Common, a sizeable nature reserve run by the bottomless pockets of the City of London. It looks well worth exploring, but the Chessington Countryside Walk merely skirts the woods and heads instead for the corner of Epsom Common.

Well this is all very pleasant. The forested paths emerge alongside the Stew Pond (where Stew is a ye olde word for 'fish'). A sign warns owners to keep their dogs out of the water, so this is of course where I encountered the most dogs on my walk, including two lively damp labradors and a very inquisitive boxer called Lola. Epsom Common's bridleways are one of the reasons that the CCW leaflet recommends "boots or stout footwear", indeed even in September several pre-mudbath stretches were already apparent all around the route.

Next up is Horton Country Park, formerly the site of the largest complex of psychiatric hospitals in Europe, now mostly paddocks. West Park Asylum has been reimagined as Noble Park, a vast private estate of desirable residences, its water tower still visible for miles around. The country park's logo promises green woodpeckers, but I saw only ponies and a squirrel... plus, ooh, a field of deer staring back at me inquisitively through the fence.

10 For the last mile it's back to London, reached by stepping through another gap where a stile used to be. Here is another huge field straddling the Bonesgate valley, the remains of its harvest already ploughed back in, and a phalanx of pylons stalking down the centre. The aforementioned stream now has more width, depth and flow, and requires a proper footbridge to cross, before the path reaches the backs of some back gardens, and hey we're back in Chessington proper.

The 12th century parish church sits at the top of equally medieval Green Lane, but you're not going that way, you're bypassing flats and catteries to follow one last footpath. This climbs a bit of a hill to look south across Chessington Golf Centre, and beyond that most of the undulating green landscape you've just orbited. It's a nice finale to try to pick out the route you've been following, before a few simple minutes lead you back to the station.

"Allow four hours" they said, but I did it in precisely two. A fine walk for cobweb-blowing, I'd say, and yet another to add to my Unbelievably This Is Outer London list.

 Wednesday, September 13, 2017

For no especially good reason, let's have a dig in the National Archives.

The Whitechapel and Bow Railway was established at the turn of the 20th century to link the Metropolitan District Railway at Whitechapel with the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway at Bromley-by-Bow. The new underground connection was two miles long. It opened in 1902. Trains could now run through to East Ham and beyond. Three new stations were opened - Stepney Green, Mile End and Bow Road. Trains were initially hauled by steam. The line was electrified in 1905.

Along with electrification came a new set of signals on the line. In November 1906 Charles King, one of the engineers in the company's offices at St James' Park station, sent a typed letter to the Railway Department at the Board of Trade proposing how the new signals would be set out.

Dear Sir,
Herewith I send you (in duplicate) plan showing the proposed new Automatic Signals on the Whitechapel & Bow Railway, between Whitechapel and Bow Road. This will join the existing Mechanical Signalling at Bow Road at the East end; at the West end we are at present proceeding with the introduction of the Electro Pneumatic Signalling in Whitechapel Station, and shall shortly be in a position to submit plans and locking sheets for your approval.
The proposed design combined Automatic Signalling, Mechanical Signalling and Electro Pneumatic Signalling. The Underground has never been simple.

True to his word, Charles slipped (duplicate) plans into the envelope he sent to the Board of Trade. Each is gorgeously hand-drawn on card, as things always used to be, and show the tracks and signals from just outside Whitechapel to just past Bow Road. Platforms in yellow, signals mostly in green, and Bow Road's signal box in red.

(click to embiggen)

The only semi-automatic signals on this section of track were either side of Bow Road station, most likely because of the signal box. The remainder of the signals, all the way back to Whitechapel, were automatic.

Bow Road's signal box was needed because there were points here, indeed some trains used to reverse at Bow Road in those early days... which given the gradient just beyond the station can't have been ideal. 19 of the 29 levers on the mechanical frame in the signal box were not used. The points and the signal box are long gone.

What's great about this 1906 signalling diagram is the accuracy of the measurements. From the (automatic) signal at the head of Mile End's westbound platform it's precisely 844 feet and two inches to the next (semi-automatic) signal, and then 459 feet and 5 inches to the rear end of Bow Road's platform. To this day it's still one of the shortest gaps between stations on the suburban Underground, all 1303 feet and 7 inches of it. That's barely 397 metres in modern parlance.

Charles' accompanying letter continued.
I shall be glad to have your provisional sanction to bring these signals into operation, subject, of course, to any alterations which you may wish after inspection. Probably it would suit you to have these signals inspected at the same time as the new Whitechapel installation.
In due course the Board of Trade carried out their inspection.

They sent along a gentleman called Major Pringle, because that's how civil service employment worked in those days, and he duly filed a report.

I have today inspected the new works between Whitechapel and Bow stations on the Whitechapel & Bow Railway. Automatic signalling, on the electro-pneumatic system, has been brought into use, and the up and down lines have been divided into eight sections, as shown on the diagram attached. Repeating signals (with an orange light for danger) have been provided where necessary for sighting purposes.
The old signal boxes at Stepney Green and Mile End stations have been taken away...
Over the next few paragraphs the Major simply rephrases all the arrangements the engineer outlined in the first place - a useful parroting technique employed by generations of project managers since.

He concludes thus.
The arrangements are satisfactory, and I recommend the Board of Trade to approve the new works.
I have etc,
J.W. Pringle, Major
That valediction is short for "I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,", if you were wondering.

Electric District Railway trains continued to pass along the Whitechapel & Bow Railway using the new signalling. In 1907 this eastern spur merited four electric trains an hour off peak, running between East Ham and Ealing Broadway.

Meanwhile Charles's plans and the Major's reply were stamped and filed away in manilla folders, and ended up a century later in the National Archives in Kew, which is where I found them. That's Freedom of Information for you, if a little on the belated side.

Signalling in the Bow Road area is old and frail and in the process of being replaced, with occasionally mixed results (as previously reported). But there can't be any of this Edwardian infrastructure left between Whitechapel and Bow Road, surely, can there?

 Tuesday, September 12, 2017

For Heritage Open Weekend this year I took myself to Sandwich on the east Kent coast. Or rather it used to be on the Kent coast until the channel connecting it to the sea silted up, and beached the town two miles inland. In early medieval times Sandwich had been the second most important port in the country, and one of the big five of the Cinque Ports. But after the 16th century all the money moved out, and redevelopment basically stalled, with the happy consequence that Sandwich is now one of the most gorgeously unspoilt towns in England. Seriously, I was well impressed. [12 photos]

The old town snuggles between the River Stour and the former town walls, with a dozen or so streets lined by houses of character and distinction. I kept thinking surely the next lane won't be so impressive, maybe it'll have a horrible 1970s rebuild on it, but it was, and it didn't. Frontages with half-timbered overhangs, townhouses with Dutch influence, cottages built from bricks nicked from the local Roman fort, all combine architecturally to create a Pevsnerian wet dream. 1-41 Strand Street is reputedly the longest run of extant medieval buildings in the country - once facing the sea, now hemmed in by something more modern.

One of the original town gates survives down by the Quay, a barbican and toll bridge, on what used to be the main road north to Ramsgate. These tolls ensured the town stayed afloat after the ships left, and were last charged in 1973, just before Sandwich was swallowed up administratively by Dover District Council. Beyond the bridge the marshes used to be the commercial stronghold of drug company Pfizer - Viagra was invented here - but they moved out a few years ago shedding thousands of manufacturing and R&D jobs. The town retains a white collar vibe, but feels rather more of a retirement hideaway, and it's easy to see why you'd stay.

13 Sandwich buildings were on the list for Heritage Open Days, which kept me busy for a full six hour stay, and most of which you wouldn't normally get inside. A back garden on Strand Street, for example, which on closer inspection turned out to be the remains of a 12th century chantry, its high walls cobbled together from a variety of historic stone. A couple of ex-churches deemed surplus to requirements, given that Sandwich only needs one parish these days, one with a tower to climb. One of the oldest United Reformed churches in the country, its roof supported by two ship's masts donated by Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. And, as they say, many more.

The best tour of the day, indeed possibly of my year, was round Sandwich Guildhall. Kevin the Town constable greeted us at the back door dressed in full Town Constable regalia, which appears to involve old naval dress, a frilly ruff and tricorn hat. Walking in front of the mayor is one of his jobs, caretaking another, and giving tours of the Guildhall a third. He led us round the new bit, the old bit and the very old bit, built with maritime wealth in 1579. Amongst the treasures on the tour were part of a gold coronation canopy from 1761 (Cinque Port Mayors are always invited to a coronation), a mace handled by Queen Elizabeth I (and by me), and downstairs the town's historic courtroom. Visitors to the town's small museum also get to see the courtroom - the rest is tour only.

Down very-much-not-new New Street is the small cottage where Thomas Paine ran a shop. If you were American you'd be more likely to know who he is - a champion of human rights and one of the founding fathers of the fledgling United States. Tom only spent a year in Sandwich, but met his wife here and married her too, in one of those churches that's no longer a church. His shop was still a sweetshop a few decades ago, but is now a holiday let, which is why the owner doesn't mind the local populace traipsing through it once a year. Downstairs is irregularly charming, upstairs the floor slopes alarmingly, and apparently American tourists aren't as interested in staying here as you'd expect.

Out beyond the station is St Bartholomew's Chapel, funded by French booty from the Battle of Sandwich in 1217, and part of an even older Hospital facility. It's surrounded by 16 quaint cottages dedicated to housing older local townspeople - a very polite contest for residence starts up every time one of the existing tenants dies. On the other side of town is the White Mill Rural Heritage Centre, an agricultural collection surrounding one of Kent's few surviving windmills. Being left unsupervised to climb two sets of steep ladders to the milling floor was quite an experience, but I made it safely up and back down without accidentally dying.

Not every building open for the day was old. The Art Deco Empire Cinema is a mere youngster - 1937 vintage - and had cancelled matinees to allow visitors to peek into the auditorium. Even better it was possible to join the owner in the projection booth, where the traditional reeled projector was recently replaced by a more practical electronic beast, fed by films on hard drives delivered by courier. I'd always wondered. The Masonic Hall is even younger, a postwar lodge now fitted with a very-necessary stairlift to the upper temple. My guide showed me round and earnestly explained how the long rituals soon make sense and bring a sense of shared camaraderie. When pressed on precisely what that big rock was for, or why the carpet had a bold chequerboard pattern, however, he was far less forthcoming.

Thirteen buildings meant encounters with 13 sets of volunteers, mostly old, and deeply attached to their own special part of the town. One of the ladies in one of the churches seemed genuinely delighted that someone from London was actually interested in her leaflets and treasures, and another seemed amazed that I'd travelled down by train so quickly - she'd never dream of making the reverse journey. I had a long conversation elsewhere with a gentleman, originally from Clapham, whose failing health meant family were now asking him to leave his adopted hometown, so was making bittersweet plans to sell up. It's true to say the people of Sandwich made as memorable an impression on me as its architecture.

Visit on a normal weekend and you'll only get inside the Guildhall Museum, the windmill and a couple of the churches. That said, the streets are lovely in themselves, and dotted with small shops and dining opportunities to keep you occupied (including, yes, a cafe called The Sandwich Shop). Next time I go back I shall walk a mile out to Richborough Fort, a Roman bridgehead during the invasion of Britain, and maybe hike across the famous golf courses to the sea (the Open's coming back to Royal St George's in 2020). But overall, simply take my word how relentlessly well-preserved this Kentish jewel is, and it's all thanks to silt.

» Visit Sandwich
» Sandwich Town Trail leaflet
» Discovering Britain - self guided walk (with fantastically detailed 44 page pdf)

n.b. Southeastern Trains are running an extra-special ticket offer this September, with super off-peak returns to various coastal towns for just £10, so long as you book before 6pm the previous day. Specifically that's London to Broadstairs, Chatham, Deal, Dover, Faversham, Folkestone, Margate, Ramsgate or Whitstable - saving over £20 on the usual fare. Sandwich isn't on the list, so I bought my ticket to Deal and then another ticket for the last six minutes, which was still a bargain. And I'll be using the offer again to reach the Folkestone Triennial before the end of the month, just as soon as the weather improves.

 Monday, September 11, 2017

Thunderbirds Are Go!

Take off with Thunderbirds at London's only cable car this September and October

Visit the Air Line Cable Car from Friday 22 September to Sunday 29 October 2017 for a unique flying experience. Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds are taking over the cable car in celebration of the launch of the second half of the second series of children's TV programme Thunderbirds Are Go on ITV and CITV. FAB!

During this time, visitors to the cable car can immerse themselves in scenes from Tracy Island as they travel through the themed terminals, which we're intending to decorate with several fake palm trees. Cabins will be themed as the Thunderbirds vehicles, so expect us to have stuck some big numbers on the outside, and probably a grinning face alongside. You can probably imagine how tasteful it's all going to look.

Visitors will also take off to the legendary '5-4-3-2-1' countdown. Our regular commuters are advised to bring earplugs.

Specially edited sequences from the series will be played on-board, including combined scenes with aerial footage of the cable car and the surrounding London landmarks. Don't expect actual drama, we've merely intercut clips from the show with some stock cablecar footage, and then stuck an orchestral accompaniment over the top.

Basically we intend to trap you in a cabin for ten minutes and plug an ITV show on a screen you can't avoid, and charge you money for the privilege. Never mind, your five year-old will love it, and force you to watch the TV programme later, which is the entire point of the exercise.

All of this amazing fun can be enjoyed whilst flying at heights of 90 metres over the River Thames. If you want to enjoy the view properly, please wait until November when we'll be peeling the stickers off the windows and you'll be able to see clearly again.

Stand by for action

Enjoy the unique photo opportunities around the terminals, including large-scale models of Thunderbirds 1 & 2. You can also take selfies in the cabins with characters from the show, indeed we'll be pleading with you to do this, because ITV's financial outlay will only be maximised with social media traction.

We should point out that this is the new Thunderbirds series, not the old one from the 1960s, so don't come along expecting puppets. All you'll be getting is cartoon characters - well drawn, but for any adult of a certain age, absolutely definitely not the same.

There will also be themed announcements and Thunderbirds music around the terminals to set the mood. In case you were ever in any doubt, we are no longer maintaining the pretence that the Air Line Cable Car is a serious means of public transport. But come on, it might be worth spending £3.50 on a ride just for a laugh.

"Feel like you are part of the Thunderbirds story", it says here (although this would really only be the case if the cablecar suffered a dramatic malfunction trapping you in mid-air, followed by structural collapse and a last-second rescue, and we'd rather you didn't think too long about that possibility).

Thunderbirds Day

For some added extras, visit on the first ever Thunderbirds Day on Saturday 30 September, when an exclusive Thunderbirds character toy will be handed out to children on a first-come first-served basis. It'll probably be a Gordon, because nobody likes Gordon and the shops can't shift him.

Someone in a marketing department actually got paid for thinking up the idea of Thunderbirds Day. Expect us to go on and on about Thunderbirds Day on social media for several days in the hope that an unspecified giveaway will drum up some excitement for our white elephant Thames crossing.


There will also be some surprises in store during half term, with Thunderbirds souvenir caps being handed out to children daily, on a first-come first-served basis. We've done the research, so we know people will do almost anything to get their hands on a freebie, including spending money up front on tickets which cover the added cost.

There will also be a special appearance from Virgil himself every day during half term between the hours of 10am and 3.30pm.
Disclaimer: Not the actual Virgil, but some unfortunate member of staff dressed up as a cartoon character, obviously.

Family Discovery Experience tickets

If you're visiting as a family and want to make the most out of your visit, Family Discovery Experience tickets will be available at the special discounted price of £27.50 for two adults and up to three children. We normally charge £40 for this, so paying only £5.50 each for fifteen minutes above a river is a proper bargain.

The ticket includes a non-stop return trip, souvenir guide and free entrance to the Air Line Aviation Experience. Please don't commence your non-stop return trip from the Royal Docks terminal, otherwise you'll miss getting off on the side where the Pretend Museum actually is.

Prices and booking

There is no additional cost for The Thunderbirds Are Go flight experience, but customers are advised to book in advance online. This means we get your money up front, even if the weather's awful on the day you selected and no sane family would have traipsed to East London for a rain-splattered view of the tops of some industrial units. It is October after all.

Afternoon Tea is go!

The InterNational London Hotel at the O2 has also partnered with ITV to create an inventive Thunderbirds-inspired Lady Penelope Afternoon Tea with a special menu available from 15th September until 30th October. Why not blow £31 on some fancy cake after you've enjoyed your cable car flight?

Visitors will be able to relax in the stylish and decadent surroundings of the Meridian Lounge, as they sample delicious themed treats fit for International Rescue's stylish London Agent, including Tracy Island coconut pineapple verrine, FAB 1 pink bonbon torte, Parker's pistachio praline posh choux and Lady Penelope monogrammed macarons.

A specially created Lady Penelope cocktail will also be on offer, for £13 extra, providing those with money to burn with the perfect finishing touch to a decadent afternoon.

The event will also be attended by the Lady Penelope and Parker puppets themselves, as seen on TV recently in the Halifax Savers Are Go adverts. Guests will receive a welcome card with a special message from her Ladyship, signed by Rosamund Pike as Lady Penelope, her role in CITV’s reboot Thunderbirds Are Go.

Please note on 23rd September, Lady Penelope Afternoon Tea will be accompanied by live music and be priced at £36 per person. Let's hope it's Virgil playing on the piano, with Tin-Tin on backing vocals.

Notes for editors

Dave Fisher, TfL’s Head of the Air Line Cable Car, said “What better way to celebrate new episodes of Thunderbirds Are Go than to bring the fun of Tracy Island to the iconic Air Line Cable Car for all to enjoy. Taking off to the legendary 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, visitors can soar over the Thames and immerse themselves into the world of International Rescue. With clips from the show being played during the flight, entertainment for the kids and exciting giveaways, especially around half term holidays, it’s going to be a FAB day out at the Air Line Cable Car.”

Danny Price, former head of the Air Line Cable Car, said “Thank heavens I'm now in charge of the Docklands Light Railway and doing something meaningful with my life.”

Diamond Geezer, regular thorn in the side of the Dangleway, said “You may have thought I was taking the piss, but all this Thunderbirds stuff is actually happening, including the five weeks of rebranding, the giveaways and the afternoon tea. Some days I don't actually have to make these things up.”

 Sunday, September 10, 2017

8 Ilford
Let's make Ilford (Essex) a London borough, said the Herbert Commission, but eventually threw in Wanstead and Woodford too (to make Redbridge), and so the Municipal Borough of Ilford disappeared. For my journey to this ex-district I've chosen to walk the five longest footpaths in Ilford, according to the Redbridge Public Rights of Way plan. As blog content goes, psychogeography is rarely more niche.

Five Ilford Footpaths

1) From High Road, Goodmayes in a southerly direction over railway footbridge to Green Lane

Where? Out on the eastern edge of the borough, approximately following the line of the (buried) Mayes Brook. High Road runs to the north of the Great Eastern Main Line railway, and Green Lane runs similarly parallel to the south. The footbridge here provides the only crossing between Goodmayes and Chadwell Heath stations. [map]

How long to walk it? Just under 10 minutes

What to see? Like all the best walks, this one begins beside a Harvester restaurant opposite a police vehicle depot. The alleyway slips off up the side of Wickes, past lowrise flats with limescale deposits splayed out beneath the overflow pipes, and a fence crammed with empty bottles. The footbridge rises up to a caged overpass, painted green, with lamps overhead at regular intervals. Crossrail trains will be passing underneath next year, by which time all the maintenance materials piled up beside the track may have been removed.

Dominant to the south are the playing fields of Mayfield School, once attended by songstress Jessie J, and the grey/black blocks of the establishment itself. A supermarket trolley dangles elegantly from the perimeter fence. Students pass in and out through a gate onto the alleyway, secured by a keypad whose four-digit code a departing pupil announces out loud as he passes, and I wince at its simplicity. A new community pool is being built on site, and the lady who lives in the house at the end of the street wanders out of her garage to tut at the workmen. The path passes bollards, skips and snack-hunting sixth formers, to emerge in the centre of Brook's Parade between the off licence and the pharmacy.

2) Known as Philpot Path from Winston Way (Eastern Gyratory) in a south westerly direction to Mildmay Road

Where? Ilford High Street, where all the shops are, is thought to follow the line of the Roman road to Colchester. It was bypassed in I'd guess the 1980s by Winston Way, a concrete dual carriageway round the back of the library, with broad subways beneath for pedestrian osmosis. Philpot Path is the landscaped track behind the sound insulation wall on the southern side, which follows the line of the last end terrace not to be knocked down. [map]

How long to walk it? About 10 minutes

What to see? Philpot Path attaches itself to several surrounding streets, including Sunnyside Road (where the corner shop still claims to be in Essex, according to the address on its awning). The alleyway passes between two schools, one "now enrolling for September 2016", the other much louder. At a junction piazza which urban planners presumably intended to be attractive, shoppers emerge from the subway with orange carrier bags, a man smokes a cigarette by the grit bin, and far too many pigeons peck at something invisible beneath just one tree.

One side of the path is for bikes and the other for pedestrians, but it's not always obvious which. A Sikh family go by clutching a big box of Lego. At the end of Woodlands Road a huge pile of opened envelopes has been dumped on the verge, the contents blown across a large area. The driver of a 51-reg Classic Mercedes has driven repeatedly across the Dartford Bridge, seemingly every day for over a month, without ever paying the necessary toll charge. Each scattered sheet represents a separate £70 fine, unfolded and disregarded, adding up to a potential four-figure bombshell if the authorities ever catch up.

A small boy appears round a zigzag bend on a skateboard, flat on his stomach, arms outstretched. His mother smiles, somewhat apologetically, as he speeds by. At Mildmay Road the path goes no further, diverting down steps to the broad subway beneath the main road. Here shoppers trudge and bikes whizz (definitely on the wrong side), up and past the blank wall of the multiscreen cinema. A lady wheels a trolleyfull of packed sandwiches across the zebra crossing towards the theatre where somebody pretending to be Frank Sinatra will be singing later in the month. Easily the most urban of my five walks.

3) From Ravensbourne Gardens in a NW dirn through Cocked Hat Plantation to Roding Lane North

Where? Clayhall - a large residential suburb which goes generally unnoticed by the wider populace because it sits slap bang in the middle of the Central line's Hainault loop without a station to its name. Specifically Claybury Park, a splendid open space with numerous meandering tracks through the woods but just the one official public right of way, arrow straight towards the edge of Woodford Bridge. [map]

How long to walk it? Over 10 minutes

What to see? The unprepossessing entrance to park and path lurks behind the house at number 23, its front garden liberally scattered with bins and recycling tubs. No Open Fires Or Barbecues, warns a sign whose season has just passed. Just within the perimeter is a reedy pool, then an outdoor gym, plus some other numbered features the map on the information board refuses to divulge. "Refer to Claybury Woods walk leaflet for details", says the legend - a folded sheet I failed to have to hand.

The path heads west alongside proper dog-exercise meadow, with a separate woodland track immediately parallel. Most of the trees here are oaks, acorns ripe and tumbling, and younger than the remnant trees in neighbouring Cocked Hat Plantation. The path turns from gravel to grass (and later I suspect to mud), rising gently to a large acreage of acid grassland, part landscaped by Humphrey Repton back when this was the Claybury Estate. Claybury Hall can still be seen on higher ground, no longer a stately mansion, nor mental asylum, but at the heart of an enclave of luxury flats. Further exploration is required.

4) From E end of Station Rd in an E then SE dirn to Oaks Lane.
From Bridleway No.94 in an E dirn N of St. Peter's Church at Aldborough Rd.

Where? Technically this is two footpaths, but they join in the middle, and the fingerposts at each end point straight through. The station referenced is Barkingside, from which the path skirts Fairlop Waters Country Park and then rounds an actual farm on its way to the church in Aldborough Hatch. That's another incognito London suburb the Central line just missed. [map]

How long to walk it? About 15 minutes

What to see? Past the bridge where tube commuters leave their vehicles, past Redbridge FC and the council offices, the double yellows end and a locked barrier blocks the road. At the next bend the entrance to the country park has been marked with a ring of carved posts, a modern oak-henge, erected as art in 2014 with TfL money. This commemorates the Fairlop Oak, an ageing tree east Londoners once flocked to each first Friday in July for riotous bacchanalia. Through the next hedge two tractors are collecting hay, and then the paddocks begin.

Aldborough Hatch House Farm has a somewhat horsey feel, the main residence more villa than cottage, surrounded by scattered barns and assorted vehicles. There used to be a much larger mansion at the tip of Oaks Lane, but today only its chapel survives, converted into a pert private residence after storm damage in 1987. For the local parish church, walk to the end of the path past a meadow dotted with sharp agricultural implements and Michaelmas daisies. St Peter's is Victorian, erected to serve the expected increase in the local population as farms replaced forest, and is built from Portland stone recycled from Westminster Bridge (the demolished-in-1862 version).

5) From Hainault Rd S of Hainault Farm in an E dirn to Billet Rd, adjacent to farm track opposite Crooked Billet House

Where? Redbridge's back-of-beyond is the open farmland on its eastern flank. Large expanses of arable land survive either side of Hainault Road, of no great quality, but protected by Green Belt legislation from becoming the housing estate it probably deserves to be. A single public right of way doglegs across the fields, and has done for decades, although finding it proved entirely problematic... [map]

How long to walk it? At least 20 minutes

What to see? On one side of Billet Road, experience everyday suburbia on the outer fringes of Marks Gate. On the other, hedgerows, rolling fields and a single farmhouse guarded by wolfhounds. Ilford's longest footpath sets off (somewhat unexpectedly) from a bus stop, across discarded cans, then into the midst of rural oblivion. No sign or fingerpost marks the way, only a line on a map, but initially it seems self evident which way to go - up the side of the first field past a burgeoning bank of brambles.

All is safely gathered in, so the soil has recently been ploughed into huge broken clods, like waves of clay lapping across an earthen sea. Two tractors are busy in the upper field as I approach, turning the earth in sequential rows, providing crows and gulls with something fresh to pick over. The drivers seem to be eyeing up this rare rambler crossing their land with suspicion, so I wait for them to reverse on the verge before heading by towards the lone tree. My map suggests the path carries on, whereas reality suggests no such thing, merely a perpendicular track, so I follow that, and then lose confidence that I was ever even vaguely correct. No signs, no clues, no chance.

It's an odd sensation standing lost in the middle of a hedgeless field within the confines of Greater London, ominous rainclouds on the horizon, and the skyscrapers of the City clearly arrayed along the distant skyline. I might have risked traipsing further had the tractormen not been watching, but I'm now certain I've strayed from the official path, and I can't be sure where the other end might be. So I retrace my steps, ultimately pointlessly, defeated by an unsigned path the farmer was clearly in no hurry to encourage. But think you know London? This adventure made me think again.

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