diamond geezer

 Monday, August 21, 2017

One cold February morning way back in 1971, just before playtime as I remember, the headmistress at my infant school came bustling into our classroom. She asked us all to go outside, to stand in the middle of the playground and to look carefully upwards. The sky was blue apart from one large fluffy cloud, obscuring the sun but just transparent enough to allow sight of a horned black crescent behind, its upper half eaten away by some unseen cosmic force. This was the first eclipse of the sun that I'd ever seen, and it made quite an impression (though thankfully not by burning out my retina). Since then I've always gone out of my way to make a special effort to view any solar eclipse if I possibly can - although the number I've managed to see has only just crept into double figures, that's how rare these things are.

While I was still at primary school I discovered in a reference book that a total eclipse of the sun was due to cross the UK in 1999. That date seemed impossibly far off at the time - I'd be, ooh, absolutely ancient - but it was most definitely a date to look forward to. Immediately I knew I wanted to be in Cornwall on that August morning several decades hence, simply to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. As the end of the century approached I got time off work, booked a vastly overpriced hotel room and lumbered myself with a less than enthusiastic (Cornish) travelling companion. We braved the traffic jams and the increasingly pessimistic weather forecast to head southwest, enduring it all just to be in the path of the moon's shadow during that unique two minute slot.

It was sunny in Cornwall at ten past eleven on every other morning that week, but on Wednesday 11th August the cloud rolled in and obscured the sky throughout the entire three hour spectacle. At the crucial climactic moment a huge dark shadow whooshed in from the Atlantic and blackened the land like some eerie premature twilight, but the true spectacle was sweeping across the cloudtops a few hundred feet above our heads. So near, and yet so far. I was crushed. The event I'd been dreaming of for so long had proved the most enormous disappointment, and I suffered "Was that it? You brought me all the way down here for that?" for the rest of the week. London friends crowed on our return that they'd seen everything perfectly and unobscured, except they'd only seen 97% and it was the uniqueness of totality I'd felt compelled to experience.

In amongst all the eclipse paraphernalia I acquired at the time was a book listing every future solar eclipse up to 2020. There seemed to be plenty, but once the partial and annular eclipses were stripped out only 13 total eclipses remained. What's more most of these were in awkward locations like Antarctica or across the open ocean, so I wasn't going to get to see any of those. But one stood out, a total eclipse on 21st August 2017, whose path would cross the entire width of the United States of America and thus be easily accessible. Having failed in 1999, I pencilled in USA 2017 as my next attainable totality.

Last time I was standing in a queue with an eclipse chaser I made sure to ask where the best weather prospects would be found along its track. The Northwest, she said, specifically Oregon, confirming in my mind which side of the country would be optimal. Nobody wants to travel all that way and then see nothing, as I'd discovered in 1999. Meanwhile Idaho and Wyoming seemed too remote for a Brit with no transport, Kansas City was too peripheral to the line of totality, and Nashville had a reputation for summer cloud. There was a time in the last ten years when I had a friend living in Charleston, South Carolina, but they moved swiftly on and that option disappeared. The Great American Eclipse remained a possibility rather than a planned reality.

"We should definitely go," I said to BestMate, and more than once over the entire time I've known him. His work often takes him to the west coast of America, he even has a visa, so that would help. Except, it turned out as 2017 drew closer, his visa expired at exactly the wrong time for a midsummer visit, so going together was suddenly off the table. Never mind, I had one last trick up my sleeve, I lost my job. My time was now my own, and nobody was going to tell me I couldn't have that week off because there was some deadline or a meeting they thought important. If I wanted to go and watch the moon glide precisely in front of the Sun, I could.

But I haven't gone to America. I could have, and I wanted to, but I never got round to planning it. More to the point, just when I was actually thinking about planning it, America changed. From being a sort-of welcoming country under the previous administration, the inauguration of Donald Trump set in train a series of pronouncements on borders, security and immigration control which deterred me from going. Travelling into an American airport is never fun, and if additional procedures were going to make things worse, I didn't want to go. It's probably only a perception issue - a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing - but Trump changed my mind and put me off visiting his country. Totally.

Instead I shall have to watch today's total eclipse virtually from across the pond, from 18:16 BST in Oregon to 19:48 BST in South Carolina. It'll be nowhere near the same as actually being there - no substitute ever comes close to experiencing totality with your own eyes - but I've let this prime opportunity slip away. And then, to rub salt in my wounds, the partial eclipse will come whizzing across the Atlantic and reach the UK just before sunset. The first black nibble over London comes at 19:40, with maximum coverage at 20:04, just before sunset at 20:11. But that means the sun'll be really low in the sky, plus only 4% of the solar disc will be covered which is pathetically small as eclipses go, so this one's really not worth bothering to look at at all.

Three other not very good partial eclipses will be seen from London over the next eight years, before the next cracker in the summer of 2026. Over 90% of the sun will be covered on 12th August 2026, which is as good as it gets until 2081, if you're planning on still being around then. But there are two nearby countries where the 2026 eclipse will be total, namely Iceland and Spain, so maybe I should start making plans to be there instead. That once-in-a-lifetime spectacle deserves to be seen one day, but not today... opportunity spurned, opportunity missed.

London's next ten partial solar eclipses
• Mon 21 August 2017 (20:04 BST) 4%
• Thu 10 June 2021 (11:13 BST) 20%
• Tue 25 October 2022 (10:59 BST) 15%
• Sat 29 March 2025 (11:03 GMT) 31%
Wed 12 August 2026 (19:13 BST) 91%
• Mon 2 August 2027 (10:00 BST) 42%
• Sat 1 June 2030 (06:21 BST) 48%
• 21 Aug 2036 (19:07 BST) 60%
• 16 Jan 2037 (09:06 GMT) 46%
• 3 Jan 2038 (14:34 GMT) 5%

The UK's next five total solar eclipses
3 September 2081 (Guernsey, Jersey)
23 September 2090 (South coast, Cornwall to Sussex)
3 June 2133 (Outer Hebrides, Dunnet Head, Shetland)
7 October 2135 (Central Scotland and Northumberland)
25 May 2142 (Jersey)

London's next total solar eclipse
14 June 2151 (the last was on 3 May 1715)

 Sunday, August 20, 2017

I spotted this advert for Royal Museums Greenwich on the tube.

Greenwich is one of the UK's 10 most-visited attractions.
UNESCO are so aware of Greenwich they gave it World Heritage status.
The system of time the entire world uses is based on Greenwich.
Greenwich is not London's best kept secret, in any way whatsoever.

Marketing liars are evil people.


Geoff and Vicki finally finished their All The Stations journey yesterday, after almost 15 weeks on the trains. They started out in Penzance back in May and reached Wick yesterday evening, having visited all of Britain's 2563 National Rail stations. In doing so they've travelled the length and breadth of the country, via almost everywhere, including places you'll never go, and knocked out over 50 videos along the way. Damned impressive stuff.

Should you ever want to follow in their footsteps and undertake a lengthy railway adventure, the ticket you need is an All Line Rover. Try gadding about wherever you like on a normal ticket and an inspector will shake their head, because random meandering's not allowed. Meanwhile all the other rover tickets, of which there are many, are geographically quite restrictive. But an All Line Rover allows allows unlimited travel on any National Rail services for either 7 or 14 consecutive days (certain peak trains excepted, terms and conditions apply), which is definitely the way to go.

The only catch is the price, which is a heck of a lot of money. The Standard Class All Line Rover (7 Days) costs £492, while an All Line Rover (14 Days) costs £745.

All Line Rover7 days£492£70 a day
All Line Rover14 days£745£53 a day

Walk-up tickets for some long-distance journeys are ridiculously expensive, in which case £70 a day is a bargain. But unless you're planning to do a lot of cross-country journeys without getting off to explore, those aren't very appealing fares.

So here's some news that may make you very cross. If you're not British, you can travel for half price.

The Britail GB Pass is sold online by Visit Britain and allows 8 days unlimited rail travel for £250. Several other durations are available, including 15 days for £372, which is half the cost of the equivalent All Line Rover. What's more a Britrail GB Pass has no peak time restrictions, so it's actually a better product. But it's only available to tourists coming from abroad. As the website confirms, "You can't buy a BritRail Pass if you have a UK passport".

BritRail GB Pass3 days£140£47 a day
BritRail GB Pass4 days£173£43 a day
BritRail GB Pass8 days£250£31 a day
BritRail GB Pass15 days£372£25 a day
BritRail GB Pass22 days£466£21 a day
BritRail GB Pass1 month£550£18 a day

Look, overseas tourists can even buy a 22-day go-anywhere rail ticket for less money than Britons pay for 7 days. How can that fare be fair?

Stringent checks are made to ensure you can't buy a Britrail GB Pass if you're not entitled to one. You have to provide the date of your outbound departure from the UK, plus details of the flight number, train or ferry booking number, and you have to be staying in the country for 6 months or less. During ticket checks inspectors will expect to see "proof of return travel from Britain", and if you live here you can't do that, so you have to pay twice as much.

Britrail GB Passes are clearly marketed as offering "preferential rates as an overseas visitor". That's great, if it helps overseas visitors take the train rather than fly or waste time travelling by coach. But there is a general underlying air of admitting Britain's fare system is ridiculously complicated, so buy this expensive ticket and save the worry of having to queue up or pre-book tickets before you arrive.

Other Britrail Passes are available, but UK residents can't buy any of those either. For example the BritRail England Pass costs £199 for 8 days, which sounds nice, but you can't have one. Only if you surrendered your passport and went and lived abroad could you have the freedom of England's railways for £25 a day.

All of this preferential treatment might make you very cross. But if you are peeved, the thing to be angry about isn't "why do foreigners pay half price?" It's "why do Britons have to pay twice as much?"

 Saturday, August 19, 2017

20 London Museums You've Never Heard Of


All of the borough's historic heritage under one roof

"I never knew Uxbridge was so interesting"

Celebrating 13th century life as it was lived

Half price for senior citizens on Mondays

Egyptian column with unrivalled views across Edmonton

Unsuitable for those with vertigo

World-class display of armoured vehicles

Follow us at @chingfordtanks

Officially London's oldest Tudor relic

Free entry for National Trust members

Teaspoons through the ages

2-for-1 offer available in the cafe

Includes full history of local agricultural implements

Please wash your hands after visiting

Neolithic stone circle

Early closing on Wednesdays

Middlesex's most exciting big game adventure

n.b. sight of lions not guaranteed

Britain's finest collection of National Hats

Top Trilbies exhibition - final weeks!

Unique copies of Dickens' First Folios are on display

As recommended in the Northbank Gazette

Madame Tussaud's eastern outpost

Combined London Eye ticket available

Guiding traffic down the Thames since 1648

Access at low tide only

Best place to see the Great Impressionists

Evening Standard Top Pick ★★★★★

All the candles. All of them.

Closes at dusk

The stately home of Lord Bexley

Gardens currently closed for renovation

The famous museum of hedges and topiary

Children must be accompanied at all times

See the night sky without leaving London

Weather permitting

Where the leftover Henry Moores are kept

75% off with an Art Pass

Henry VIII's secret jousting HQ

Car Boot Sale every Saturday

 Friday, August 18, 2017

4 Croydon
The County Borough of Croydon came into existence in 1889, with the parish of Addington added in 1925. Local burghers have long been keen to grant the borough city status, but proximity to London, and then being amalgamated into it, seem to have quashed that dream. For today's post I've chosen to visit the tongue of farmland which became New Addington and to walk around the edge of the infamous estate. In news which may surprise you, I had a lovely time and it was very pretty.

A walk around New Addington

It's unexpectedly difficult to leave New Addington. Despite the estate's boundary being over five miles long, only two roads lead out of the built-up area and connect to their surroundings - one to the north and one to the south. Both exits follow the line of the sole country lane which once wound across open fields, and inexplicably no other roads (only a tramline) have been added since. What's more, if you check on an Ordnance Survey map, only one public footpath leads out of New Addington to the east, and none at all to the west. Can somewhere with a five-figure population really be so insular, I wondered.

The obvious place to start a circumnavigation of New Addington is the bus station opposite 'old' Addington at the foot of Lodge Lane. Most residents drive or bike or bus or tram or walk up the hill from here to get home. Instead I headed along the dual carriageway towards Selsdon to follow another survivor from agricultural days, Featherbed Lane, which runs parallel to the west. Initially it's very suburban, with a crescent and cul-de-sacs off to one side and the woody ascent into Forestdale on the other. A large meadow opens up on the eastern flank, seemingly somewhere for local hounds to run and defecate, then a Jehovah's Witness hall with a Sunday-sized car park. But all further access to the east is blocked off by the largest landowner hereabouts, Addington Court Golf Club, and they're not letting any New Addingtonians through.

Its 18 holes are split, unseen, on either side of the lane, which proceeds serenely screened through the centre. A long strip of unmown meadow runs along half a mile of footpath, alive with yellow flowers, in complete contrast to the housing estate out of sight atop the ridge. And aha, there is one track straight down from there, it's just not been designated an official public right of way so tends not to appear on maps. It's also a very steep path, so steep that the council have added barriers to prevent two-wheelers speeding down... and this being New Addington each barrier also has a motorbike-width diversion pressed into the surrounding undergrowth.

The upper entrance to this path is poorly signed, and runs down the side of Fishers Farm, a council tip, where cars queue to chuck away recyclables and crushables. It's no alluring exit. But there is a marvellous scenic treasure to be discovered beyond, namely Hutchinsons Bank, a steep chalk escarpment blessed with long grass, woodland and scrub. A labyrinth of gated paths runs along its length, at various heights, ripe for exploration, and with fine views out towards thick leafy canopy on the opposite bank. The shrieks you can hear over there are from a Scout camp, fractionally into Surrey, the capital coming to an abrupt end just across Featherbed Lane.

So quiet were the paths in Threecorner Grove that I startled a deer, right up close, which attempted escape through a concealed fence before realising its mistake and hopping off Bambi-style down the path. I don't think I've ever been closer in the wild, and felt like I was having my own proper wildlife adventure. I'd have expected this doorstep wilderness to be well used for rest and play, especially in the school summer holidays, but the only other people I met across its many acres were white-suited contractors here to spray the grass. Instead this half-mile-long natural resource is barely accessible from the estate above, linked via overgrown footpaths most modern offspring are kept well away from.

'Twas not always thus. At the top of a particularly brambly footpath I reached Fairchildes Avenue, once the home of author John Grindrod, whose latest book Outskirts explores the influence of the edge of the Green Belt. In this case the Green Belt begins immediately across the street, a fringe of trees and undergrowth above a sharp dip, tumbling down towards the amusingly-named hamlet of Fickleshole. John lived in one of these houses facing the outer edge of the estate, occasionally venturing out down the track I'd just panted up... and now I've visited, Chapters Three and Ten make a lot more sense.

At the end of Fairchildes Avenue is a cluster of schools, the secondary named after the Greenwich Meridian which cuts directly across its site. Here too is the only other road out of New Addington, King Henry's Drive, winding briefly towards fields, narrow lanes and Biggin Hill. Even here the public rights of way are non-existent, the only footpath down the side of the playing field unsigned until it crosses into a neighbouring borough. The path also follows a former Roman road, which once linked London to Lewes, and later marked the boundary between Surrey and Kent. As such it defined New Addington's entire eastern boundary, the line beyond which development could not take place, and my next task was to attempt to follow it north.

Initially that was impossible and I had to walk through the estate instead. This meant passing postwar semis nestled round communal greens, with occasional modern infill where the council later realised they could squeeze in more. If you've never visited, it's nicer than you probably imagine. An outlier shopping parade has local needs perfectly sewn up... two supermarkets, two takeaways and a hairdressers... while opposite is New Addington's low key industrial estate, home to welders, car repair centres and evangelical churches. From the pavement at the top of the hill a fine view of distant City skyscrapers can be enjoyed, briefly, before the road dips. And somewhere round here is the entrance to the woods, and another way out...

Croydon council's contempt for New Addington's peripheral space is summed up by the unwelcoming gates and faded warnings across the only entrance to Rowdown Wood. Nothing suggests it might be enjoyable to wander past, deeper into the trees, to meet a forest track along the (approximate) alignment of that Roman road. Five minutes to the right the path stops abruptly at the wall of the industrial estate, with no way of nipping through, before doglegging into the adjacent agricultural nowhere. Even though you could walk out of New Addington this way, it's hard to see why anyone would want to.

But in the opposite direction the track weaves down through the woods, rubbing up against a golden harvested field, before briefly breaking out beside an open space. Alsatians are sometimes exercised here, I noted. I also noted a rough road which I thought might be the elusive 'other way to drive out of New Addington', but it stopped abruptly at the gate of a large electricity substation a few metres beyond the boundary. And then I dived back into the woods, another verdant linear treat, again with the dappled paths entirely to myself. Does nobody ever venture out here, I wondered... and then I got my answer.

Five burnt-out mopeds had been abandoned beside a footpath junction near the top end of Birch Wood. It didn't take long to discover an access point close by, and the boxy closes of Fieldway just beyond, whose youth clearly enjoy having a scrambling track on tap. Logs have been placed strategically along the main path to make driving through the woods more cathartic, and burning your steed at the end of a circuit is presumably sometimes par for the course. When the riders aren't here, however, a mile's hike through the woods is highly enjoyable... all the way down to the main road, one stop from the bus station where I started.

Having been to New Addington several times before, it was a surprise to break out to explore its perimeter, having previously been hemmed in by miserably limited road and footpath access. I don't expect you'll ever follow in my green and pleasant footsteps (although you might give Hutchinsons Bank a try). But I do now understand why John Grindrod describes his home estate as "not just on the edge of the green belt but encircled by it", "an atoll of concrete and red brick surrounded by a sea of green". Unless you know where to find its minimal exits, New Addington really is an isolated residential island.

 Thursday, August 17, 2017

Open House is returning to London in a month's time, specifically Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th September. It's also the project's 25th year! Only 20 buildings took part back in 1992, but this year there are more than 800. What's more, this is the first year all 33 London boroughs are taking part. Harrow has stopped going its own way, Bromley and Bexley have chipped in, and even Kingston has finally stopped pretending it's still in Surrey and is joining for the very first time.

Obviously if you're interested you should get hold of the official printed Guide (now £7 plus p&p, I remember when you could pick up a free copy at your local library, etc etc). There's also an app, which I understand is free, and arrives on your favourite electromagnetic store today. Today's also the day the website goes live, glitches permitting, so you can try to search through the mountain of stuff and see what there is to visit this year. I've searched the print version, and here's a selection of good stuff which requires prompt action in advance.

n.b. 8am: Links may be incorrect or blank because booking's not supposed to be live yet
n.b. I'll try to add some more links and information after the website updates (which is usually 10am-ish)
n.b. Some of the stuff appears to have 'sold out' already, because booking went live before today (grumble grumble)

n.b. 3pm: The website is now starting to go live, but so far only the homepage and none of the events
n.b. 4pm: The website now appears to be live, but is struggling and keeps falling over
n.b. I'd quite like to meet the designer who gave the website non-scrollable dropdown menus and shout at them, very loudly

n.b. Fewer venues seem to require pre-booking this year, which is good
n.b. Here's Ian Visits' list of bookable choices
n.b. Don't be greedy now...

28 Open House treats to be pre-booked online

Tall stuff
• Tower 42 (Sat 10.00-17.00) [sold out yesterday]
• One Blackfriars (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [sold out yesterday]
• South Bank Tower (Sat 10.00-16.00) [sold out yesterday]
• The Leadenhall Building (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• St Paul's Cathedral - Triforium Tour (Sat 11.00-18.00) [sold out]

Station stuff
• St Pancras Chambers and Clock Tower (Sat/Sun 10.00-16.00) [sold out]
• 55 Broadway (London Underground HQ) (Sat/Sun 11.30-15.30) [sold out]
• Tottenham Court Road Station (Sat/Sun 11.00-15.00) [sold out]
• Piccadilly Circus Station (Sat/Sun 11.00-15.30) [sold out]
• Jubilee Line Night Tour (Fri 23:59) [sold out]

Old stuff
• The Queen's Chapel, St James' Palace (Sat 10.00-14.00, Sun 10.00-17.00) [open]
• Lambeth Palace (Sat 09.00-14.00) [sold out]
• Royal Automobile Club (Sat/Sun 10.00, 11.30, 15.00) [open]
• Islington Town Hall (Sun 12.00, 14.00) [sold out yesterday]
• Fishmongers Hall (Sat/Sun 10.30, 12.00) [sold out]
• Lancaster House (Sat/Sun 09.30-15.30) [open]

Cultural stuff
• Alexandra Palace (basement) (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• The Old Vic (Sat 09.00, 10.45) [sold out]
• Government Art Collection (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• The National Archives (Sat 10.00-17.00) [sold out]
• Lakeside Centre, Thamesmead (Sat/Sun 14.00) [open]

Utility stuff
• Abbey Mills Pumping Station (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [sold out]
• Oak Room, New River Head (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [open]

Housing stuff
• Central Hill Estate (Sun 11.00-18.00) [sold out yesterday]
• Dawsons Heights (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• Cranbrook Estate (Sun 12.00-17.00) [open]

Other stuff
• The Francis Crick Institute (Sat 11.00-15.00) [sold out]
• New Scotland Yard (Sat/Sun 11.00-16.30) [booking starts 30th Aug]

6 Open House treats to be pre-booked by email

• One Canada Square (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• Silvertown (inc Millennium Mills) (Sat 10.30, 12.30) [open]
• Underground Bunker, Neasden (Sat 08.30-17.30) [open]
• Deephams Sewage Treatment Works (Sat 10.00-16.00) [open]
• Battle of Britain Bunker & Visitor Centre (Sat/Sun 10.00-17.00) [open]
• The Building of a New Town: An Architecture Tour of Thamesmead (Sat 11.00) [open]

5 Open House treats to be pre-booked by telephone

• Yeoman Warders Club, Tower of London [open]
• Phoenix Cinema, Finchley [open]
• Wrotham Park, Barnet [open]
• Fuller's Griffin Brewery [open]
• 155 Holland Park Avenue [open]

3 Open House specials with tickets available by ballot

• 10 Downing Street (expect MI5 to check you out if you win this one) [open]
• BT Tower (includes access to the iconic revolving floor) [open]
• The View from The Shard (OK, it's not so special this one, just a great way to get up top for nothing) [open]

 Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Approximately three-quarters of London's nineteen-thousand-or-so bus stops have a letter on top. About five hundred of them have a D on top, and about four hundred have a G. But only five of them have a DG on top. I've been to all five.

n.b. Regular readers will already have realised this is not a post about bus stops.

Location: Dudden Hill Lane, Dollis Hill, NW10 1DG
London Borough of Brent
Buses: 226, 302, N98

All of London's DG bus stops are in southeast London, except this one. It's in quintessential northwest London, on the outskirts of Willesden, outside a chicken shop and a Polish delicatessen. The chicken shop has bright orange frontage and also does pizzas, plus a special "1 piece chicken, 2 lamb ribs, regular fries" deal for £3. The deli looks rather more decrepit, with a faded sepia sign and several sheets of card in the window shielding goodies from abroad. Other delights in this parade include the Supersavers off licence, Tech Dry Cleaners and the Two Wheels motorcycle shop. No branded coffee outlet has contemplated digging in anywhere nearby.

And yet. Just across the road one corner of the Sapcote Trading Estate has been knocked down and is rising again as The Verge Apartments, a discordant development of panels, balconies and glass. Without wishing to belittle the existing residents of Dudden Hill Lane, there is no way that this downbeat street "nestles in a buzzing cosmopolitan corner of North West London", neither is this in any way "the perfect area to escape from the hustle and bustle of city living". But the Jubilee line from "Dollis Hills" is indeed only just round the corner, so I wonder how long before the neighbouring tyre-fitters, MOT garage and plant hire depot go the same way.
A special message to The People Who Update Bus Stops: The timetable for route 302 is missing. An out-of-date poster for Jubilee line replacement bus service D fills the third space instead.

Location: Barry Road, East Dulwich, SE22 0HP
London Borough of Southwark
Buses: 12, 197

I've crossed London to another Victorian district, but what a contrast. The streets of Dulwich are cosily affluent, with Barry Road fractionally one-up on its neighbours. This leafy avenue runs from Peckham Rye Park to Dulwich Library, the elusive destination often seen on the front of a central London bus but rarely visited. Sturdy villas line the street, the number of constituent flats easily approximated by dividing the number of bins out front by 3. Several, it seems, have still never been subdivided. One has been transformed into the local British Legion HQ, so has a Union Jack fluttering outside, while others have giant lanterns in their porches and/or wine bottles in their recycling.

Bus Stop DG, however, sits outside a large block of mansion flats, presenting a face of decorative brickwork towards the street. One of its tiny balconies is bedecked with hanging baskets and miniature globes of privet, another with twin satellite dishes, according to the tenants' priorities. Barry Road is one of those streets where the bus stops have been built out into the road, narrowing the carriageway, in this case merely reducing the space for parking cars. This being almost-Peckham there's a barber shop at one end of the road; this being almost-Dulwich there's a boulangerie a little further down.
A special message to The People Who Maintain Bus Stops: The lime tree beside the bus shelter is in such fine fettle that the top of the bus stop pole has been entirely smothered by the foliage, making it really difficult to read which two buses stop here, and nigh impossible to read the point letter on top.

Location: Woolwich High Street, Woolwich, SE18 5QE
Royal Borough of Greenwich
Buses: 161, 177, 180, 472, N1

A regenerative nucleus is blossoming on the Woolwich waterfront, as well known names in the world of housebuilding move in and stack up flats in lustrous towers. This bus stop lies just beyond the developmental boundary, past the triple-header at Mast Quay, on the start of the run down to Charlton. There has been no redevelopment here. Instead the council estate sweeping back around Woolwich Dockyard station holds sway, and the glory days of the pub adjacent to the bus stop are long past. Happy Hour at the Greyhound now means 50p off a pint, while the 'Weekend Entertainment' promised on a fading painted board is now merely Sky Sports.

As for Kingsman Parade, I might have explored the shops further had there not been a herd of teens holding court outside the bookies and lurking loudly by the chippie. I'm not generally put off my explorations by the local subculture, but here I decided to make a special case. Instead I took a closer look at the mural on the long ramp down into the subway, which I think depicts boatbuilders on a galleon, and waited for a bus to whisk me somewhere, anywhere else.

Location: Bromley Hill, Plaistow, BR1 4HZ
London Borough of Bromley
Buses: 208, 320, N199

That's Plaistow in Bromley, rather than Newham, as my southeast London tour continues. Bromley Hill climbs gently up from Downham, with a decent view back down from the bus shelter towards one of Lewisham's greener hilltops. This Bus Stop DG doesn't immediately look like it serves any local houses, but a drab bungalow is hidden up a driveway opposite and numerous For Sale boards confirm the existence of several dwellings behind the screen of trees. It's also the second Bus Stop DG with an advert for McDonalds emblazoned across the shelter, this drive-thru in Downham supposedly new and 'freshly prepared'.

The hotel in the bus stop's title is located off the main road up what appears to be a driveway but actually leads to a separate suburban street. The Bromley Court Hotel are keen to point out that this is a private road, which they've emphasised by draping shrubbery over both pavements forcing any pedestrians to walk in the traffic. It's quite a building, though, knocked up around the turn of the 19th century as a government minister's country estate, hence the Italianate gardens which survive (for guests only) round the back. £35 will get you a seat at their Rod Stewart tribute night in September, although step back fifty years and the real David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd once played here.

Location: St Paul's Wood Hill, St Paul's Cray, BR5 2SR
London Borough of Bromley
Bus: R1

As is usually the case if you head on a random journey across London, one of the locations comes up trumps. What I wasn't expecting is that that location would be St Paul's Cray, the postwar overspill estate to the north of Orpington. But this particular bus stop is out on the more affluent fringe, where Arts and Crafts style detached houses rub up against the edge of Chislehurst Common, and that was much more pleasant. One one side of the road is a large patch of thistly flowery meadow, and on the other an expanse of fresh-mown grass leading down to a wall of trees. And that's where I went.

Hoblingwell Wood is a remnant of once-ancient woodland, occupying several acres around a dip where a spring feeds a stream. The name does indeed refer to 'the well of the hobgoblins', as evil spirits were once thought to live here, whereas lizards and foxes are now more common. I traced a newly-laid path round the rim of the green bowl, then a narrower, older track back, startling a cat who thought this was her private domain, and avoiding acorns falling from above. Despite being peak summer holidays no other humans were to be seen, the adjacent recreation ground generally getting all the attention, and I relished the opportunity to explore nature alone. This is the Bus Stop DG I'm most glad I made a (brief) pilgrimage to.
A special message to The People Who Pick Adverts For Bus Shelters: Nobody in outer Bromley is interested in the Santander Cycles app, it does not Unlock Their London.

 Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Garden Bridge will absolutely definitely not be built.

The Chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust threw in the towel yesterday.
"The Garden Bridge Trust, the charity established to build and run the proposed Garden Bridge in central London, today announced that it will be winding up the project. It has informed the Mayor of London, as well as Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport, who have both allocated public funds to the project, of its decision. The Trust has had no choice but to take this decision because of lack of support for the project going forward from the Mayor."
I went down to Temple station and wept.

This lacklustre corner of the Northbank could have been transformed by groundbreaking design, but instead has nothing going for it, as can be clearly seen from the featureless roof terrace above the station.

What kind of a view is this supposed to be?

It's impossible to see the Thames because there are trees in the way. How much better it would have been to chop them down and replace them with plants on a bridge. But no, the new Mayor thought he knew better.

He's also turned his back on a direct crossing of the Thames at the precise location London needs it most. At present it's almost impossible to walk from Temple to the South Bank, not without hiking four minutes to Waterloo Bridge and crossing there, which inconveniences hundreds of people daily.

And have you seen the view from Waterloo Bridge? There's not a beautiful flower in sight, which there could have been if only the Mayor hadn't been so pettily narrow-minded.

Queueing to cross a sponsored garden would have been a proper experience, smiling at the security guards on the way through the gates, then weaving through the heavy crowds without breaking any of the bye-laws.

What's more the bridge would only have been closed to the public for twelve days a year, or every day if you were a cyclist, because the last thing central London needs is another superhighway.

It's hard to believe that this desolate stretch of the South Bank won't now be demolished. The site currently suffers from scrappy grass, litter-strewn tarmac and a bloke trying to flog smoothies, when it could contain so much more!

How much more realistic to replace it with a beautiful bridge, the space underneath artfully crammed with gift shops and cafes - tourist facilities criminally lacking in the locality at present.

London could have had another world class attraction like the cablecar or the Orbit, but instead a dazzling icon conjured up by the previous Mayor has been cruelly spurned. Fewer international visitors will now flock to our great capital, and we will all be poorer for it.

£37m of public money has been wasted on this drawn-out planning debacle, which is entirely the fault of Sadiq Khan for lacking vision, and definitely not the bridge's trustees who couldn't raise the money themselves.

Next time a privatised bridge comes along demanding public funds, pretending to be a transport link rather than a tourist attraction, we should have the nerve to embrace its folly whatever the long-term cost.

Instead these trees survive, the existing view remains, no further money will be wasted, and some quite rich people have seen their dreams of a floating paradise cruelly dashed. Weep with me.

 Monday, August 14, 2017

Folly Brook
Mill Hill → Totteridge → North Finchley (2¼ miles)
[Folly Brook → Dollis Brook → Brent → Thames]

The amazing thing about the Folly Brook is that, although it flows across north London for over two miles, its valley is almost entirely un-built-up. Wealthy Totteridge residents stepped in to protect the land from development between the wars, since when the Green Belt has done the job for them. What remains is mostly farmland, woodland and haymeadows, so that's lovely, although it's not always possible to walk alongside the river, especially in its upper course.

The Folly Brook divides Totteridge from Mill Hill, its valley a gentle dip between the ridges to north and south. It rises near the foot of Holcombe Hill, best accessed by 251 bus if you're coming by public transport, across a field occupied by two grazing ponies. The opening few metres run between clipped hedges through a pristine plank-lined trench, which I suspect forms part of a water jump when horsey types come to ride. Beyond that the fledgling brook disappears off into a wedge of woodland, which you can't follow because the paddock's owners have put up 'Private' signs on every available approach. You sense they don't approve of the perpendicular public footpath, but can do nothing to stop it.

The stream's first mile is accessible in only two places, the first on a footpath sweeping down from Totteridge to Mill Hill. I walked in from the former, the posh linear village preferred by celebs, showbiz names and football managers, which always looks like it belongs in Surrey but was in fact once part of Hertfordshire. On my shady descent I passed a haybaler weaving back and forth to bring in the harvest, and a farmer dashing out to watch proceedings on his red quad bike. Folly Brook was barely visible from the footbridge, recent downpours not having been enough to set this end of the stream in motion.

The ascent to Mill Hill is more eventful, passing through the livestock-filled grounds of Belmont Farm. Take care crossing the horse track, for fear of being knocked down by a canterer, then watch out for grazing cattle and pigs snuffling right up against the path. This large-scale visitor attraction is open to all, especially families with young children, with daily activities including Meet The Cows, Meet The Sheep and Meet The Tortoise. Posters out front also seem insistent that Belmont Farm's cafe serves the finest waffles in London, which must be annoying for any foodies who've been grazing in Shoreditch or Peckham instead.

Mill Hill Village, like Totteridge, is a corner of the capital that makes you gasp "seriously, this is London?" The ridgetop road is lined with posh schools and institutions, including the copper-topped bastion of the former Francis Crick Institute. The High Street is 100 metres of quaint terminating at a duckpond, by the almshouses, opposite a church now taken over by a white-robed congregation with Nigerian roots. A couple of streets of posh houses lead steeply down the hill, one of which screams Private but actually has a public footpath at the end, which subsequently crosses the local cricket pitch on a brazen diagonal.

If you were hoping to read about the Folly Brook, the good news is we're finally back on track. To rejoin it turn right at Folly Farm, a residential fortress with a supremely whiny hound, and the only building along the first two miles of the river. Alongside is a meandering channel, which actually has some water in it after the downpours of the last week, though is nothing special to look at. This section of the walk is a favourite for people who've parked up at the garden centre and fancy a short stroll, nothing too strenuous, maybe down to the gate and back, or perhaps across the next open field. One of Totteridge's ginormous deluxe mansions is wilfully visible at the top of the rise.

A previous mansion-on-the-ridge, Copped Hall, is responsible for the highpoint of today's journey. Its formal gardens included an ornamental lake created by damming the Folly Brook, which was then transformed in the 1970s into Darland Lake Nature Reserve. The lake's also really shallow, which is how I got to watch a heron striding purposefully across the centre in search of lunch. A limited number of footpaths lead through the woodland site, including either side of the lake, with connections to the dogwalking meadows below Totteridge as appropriate. I walked round twice, because all was so joyously peaceful, and also slipped off piste into the trees, jumping across the rippling stream like a big child.

The finest stretch of actual river follows, meandering between earthen banks twisted with roots from towering horse chestnuts. Any other river in London would have been confined in some way by now, this far into its descent, but the Folly Brook has been left to flow naturally because there are absolutely no houses anywhere nearby to threaten. Planks and logs in the footpath hint at the mudbath this track becomes in winter, the underlying clay being easily sodden, and even in August there are sections that'll leave your best trainers anything but pristine.

After crossing the ancient trackway of Burtonhole Lane, the brookside path opens out into Dells Down Acre. Brambly scrub and tracts of open meadow make for pleasant walking, occasionally diverting round the remains of a gate or stile installed when the route was a little less welcoming. Only now do the back fences of suburbia brush down towards the stream, specifically the outer edges of Woodside Park Garden Suburb, one side pre-war and the other-post. Emerging alongside the local Sports Club the river abruptly reaches Southover, the only road it crosses along its entire length.

Ahead, just ahead, is the confluence at which the Folly Brook feeds into the Dollis Brook. What's unusual this juncture is that's totally accessible, simply by stepping off the tarmac of the Riverside Walk and advancing carefully through the trees. The stream ends gingerly, braiding around flat pebbled beds in rippling rills. With water levels low it's possible to step across the shallows to a decaying bench sometimes used by littering lager drinkers, or to stand on the very stones where one brook gently enters the other.

» Pre-1965 the entire Folly Brook marked the boundary between London and Hertfordshire.
» To the best of my knowledge the Folly Brook has not yet featured in the Peter Grant novels, which if you're familiar with Ben Aaronovitch's magical detective series is perhaps surprising.
» There are some excellent walks in this part of Barnet, championed by the Mill Hill Society [map]
» If you'd prefer a longer walk in the area, try the Totteridge Circular, #228 from the Saturday Walkers Club [map]

 Sunday, August 13, 2017

I hesitate to mention (again) the westbound Next Train Indicator at Bow Road station.

But they tweaked it again midweek, and now it's malfunctioning in a completely new and unbelievable way.

No longer is there any pretence that the screen is showing you what the next train might be.

Instead, when you get down to the platform, the display invariably says this.

1 Check Front of Train  
2 Check Front of Train 0 mins
3 Check Front of Train 1 min

Zero minutes. Seriously, zero minutes.

Most worryingly of all, it's the second train.

How does a train zero minutes away arrive into the platform second without there being an almighty crash?

What's more, the first train isn't necessarily in the platform yet. The top line on the display now says 'Check Front of Train' all the time, with no number of minutes attached, whether there's a train in the station or not.

Most of the time the second line says 'Check Front of Train 0 min' and the third line says 'Check Front of Train 1 min'. The third train being only one minute away is almost as untenable as the second train being zero.

But every minute or two, for a few seconds, the display flickers and changes to something even more insane.

1 Check Front of Train  
2 Check Front of Train 1 min
3 Check Front of Train 0 mins

How is that order even possible?

Either somebody at TfL has invented time travel, or there is something extremely wrong with this Next Train Indicator.

(Spoiler: Nobody at TfL has invented time travel)

The 'second train 1 min, third train 0 min' version of the display stays up for about ten seconds or so, then flips back to the original.

1 Check Front of Train  
2 Check Front of Train 0 mins
3 Check Front of Train 1 min

And this cycle then repeats, with the 0 and 1 shuffling around for no obvious reason...
...or at least it has repeated all the times I've been watching since the middle of the week.

How poor can a datafeed be to generate a zero, repeatedly, in the number of minutes? More to the point, how unfit for purpose is the underlying programming which allows these impossible orderings to appear?

Alas, it seems there's no longer any useful information being provided on Bow Road's westbound platform.

• Two weeks ago, before the upgrade, the display offered one minute's notice of the (correct) destination of the next train.
• One week ago the display offered the next three trains, but generally to incorrect destinations at incorrect times.
• Now have we 'Check Front of Train' as a permanent fixture, and no clue whatsoever as to what's going where or when.

On the bright side, at least people walking onto the platform can now immediately deduce that the information on the display is gibberish. Last week they'd have believed it, unless they looked up more than once and saw the seemingly random combinations flipping around.

I'll also remind you that a seriously archaic signalling system is being upgraded, in stages, and that the data arriving at Bow Road is reliant on what stage that upgrade has reached and where. It may well now be impossible to provide good information if enough connections have been broken, or if the data reaching the display can no longer be translated.

But if the best anyone can now do is...

1 Check Front of Train  
2 Check Front of Train 0 mins
3 Check Front of Train 1 min

...wouldn't it be less wholeheartedly misleading to cover the display or turn the damned thing off?

 Saturday, August 12, 2017

2 Acton/Brentford & Chiswick
The Herbert Commission proposed combining Acton, now in Ealing, with Brentford & Chiswick, now the eastern end of Hounslow. That pairing may not have come to pass, but the two former boroughs are still linked by twin battles during the early days of the English Civil War. In 2007 the Battlefields Trust erected six information boards at the appropriate locations, each of which I attempted to locate, like a giant game of heritage orienteering. If you're resident in this part of west London, do you, perhaps, live on the site of the third largest battle on British soil?

a) The Battle of Brentford (Saturday 12th November 1642)

Syon House [panel 1]

The English Civil War was barely three months old when the focus of hostilities reached Middlesex. Royalist forces were on the move down the Thames Valley after the indecisive Battle of Edgehill, while the Parliamentarians had slipped ahead and returned to their stronghold in London. The two sides met again just west of Brentford, the King's advance guard disturbing a group of red-coated artillerymen outside the house of royalist Sir Richard Wynn. Hedges on each side of the road provided cover for defensive cannon fire, which kept the King's horsemen at bay until a larger group of footsoldiers arrived, and on they pressed.

This early action took place in what was known as New Brentford, a ribbon of housing along the main road to the west of the town, where Sir Richard's house was located by the main exit from Syon Park. That exit is long closed, but the Lion Gate still stands with its classical colonnaded screen and a stone beast prowling on top. As for the Battlefield Trust's first information board, that's been plonked in a flower bed on the Syon Estate, just outside the entrance to the Wyevale Garden Centre. I can't believe many shoppers with pelargoniums on their mind stop to read it, nor long distance coaches dropping off their pensioners, but I did, and then set off to find the rest.

Brentford Bridge [panel 2]

Brentford Bridge has been replaced at least twice since the Civil War standoff in 1642. This key crossing of the river Brent was the strategic position Parliamentary forces were hoping to defend, and had set up a barricade to try to repel the advancing forces. Unfortunately the earlier cannon fire in the initial skirmish had scared off most of the Parliamentary horsemen, so the bridge took less than an hour to capture and the King's men streamed into the town.

The bridge is still a bottleneck, and now crosses a river which doubles up as the Grand Union Canal. It's also considerably more built-up than it was, not least the speculative marina-style residential development that now surrounds the canal basin. Today a large Holiday Inn stands in the prime defensive position, a poster in the window keen to welcome passing trade to the Starbucks within using the bland slogan "Visit our new open lobby concept". I resisted. A worrying proportion of the commercial premises in the parade across the road are up for sale or rent, but Artisan Chocolates remain available, most probably to a royalist demographic.

County Court [panel 3]

A second barricade, close to the top of Ferry Lane, held back the King's forces for a couple more hours. But Lord Brooke's Regiment of Foot were soon almost surrounded, and fled for their lives, either by road back towards London or by escaping into the Thames. Here several drowned, discovering too late that they weren't good at swimming in battle dress. Total Parliamentary losses in the Battle of Brentford were about 50, while fewer than 20 Royalists lost their lives, and they celebrated by ransacking the town. King Charles' men were on the advance, and the next day's battle might prove conclusive.

Information Board number three is outside Brentford County Court, which isn't as illustrious as it sounds, unless you think 1960s reinforced concrete bastions count. Also outside is a pillared monument commemorating this Battle and other key moments in Brentford's history, including some proper big hitters like Edmund Ironside's battle against Canute and (allegedly) Julius Caesar's crossing of the Thames. Meanwhile the heart of Brentford is being systematically wiped away, as boatyards and warehouses are replaced by Waterside Living, but if you still fancy exploring then several old wharves and alleyways survive... for now.

b) The Battle of Turnham Green (Sunday 13th November 1642)

Turnham Green Terrace [panel 4]

On Sunday morning the action switched a couple of miles up the road, to open land in Chiswick, where the two forces assembled at dawn. Only two battles on British soil ever involved more soldiers than this. The Royalists numbered 13,000, and were low on ammunition and provisions. The Parliamentarians who faced them numbered 24,000, their total swelled by untrained militia who'd walked out from London to join the fight. These inexperienced soldiers were sandwiched into the centre of the Earl of Essex's line, as a prominent signal to the King's men that the capital was firmly in favour of Parliament.

Both armies fitted into the gap between what are now Chiswick Park and Turnham Green tube stations, with the Parliamentarians in a line starting close to the latter and stretching south towards what's now Hogarth Lane. It's hard to imagine Turnham Green Terrace as a warzone, unless the battle was gentrification, in which case this upmarket Chiswick parade won long ago. Sushi bars and kids' clothing boutiques mix with patisseries and the ultimate symbol of retail pointlessness, an Oliver Bonas outlet. Board Four is located up the less posh end, opposite the tube station, on Chiswick Back Common. Impressively I had to wait for a mother and son to stop reading it before I could take a look myself, confirming that historical interest is not dead.

Barley Mow [panel 5]

With the opposing armies only 500 metres apart, something of a standoff ensued. The King's troops knew they were greatly outnumbered so were reticent to attack, particularly this close to the capital, and because to be seen to slaughter inexperienced Londoners might be a politically poor move. The Parliamentarians also preferred to stand their ground, aware that their role was simply to prevent a Royalist advance. They also had the advantage that a large crowd of spectators had turned up from London, bringing much needed food and occasional applause, although they also tended to run away when the fighting got too loud.

I took some time to locate information panel 5, the only clue on the overall map being the words 'Barley Mow'. I interpreted this as Barley Mow Passage, home to the Barley Mow Centre, a historic back alley leading off from Turnham Green. But there was no board here, only an interwar office block, a former Post Office and the rear of a pub. I turned to the Battlefields Trust website for clues, but their 2007 photo showed a Woolworths in the background which didn't really help. Eventually I found the board on the High Street round the other side of the pub, which it turns out had been called the Barley Mow since 1788, but changed its name to The Lamb in 2012. No sense of history, these Chiswickians.

Acton Green [panel 6]

The Royalist front straggled off into hedgerows towards Acton, the plan being to protect the army's northern flank from attack. But a Parliamentary manoeuvre soon flushed these diffuse soldiers out, leading to some of the only casualties of the battle. In a separate move the Earl of Essex sent foot soldiers up onto the higher ground in Acton, then thought better of it, withdrawing his troops for fear of splitting his army in two. A stalemate ensued, and late in the afternoon the King's troops withdrew to Hounslow Heath to avoid further confrontation. King Charles would never again come so close to taking London, and a war which might have ended before Christmas dragged on for four more years.

The final information panel is at the western end of Acton Green, a long strip of parkland in the shadow of the railway embankment, and a remnant of the open commons which existed hereabouts in the 17th century. It's now the kind of place where mummies do yoga under the trees, and daddies try to encourage toddlers to ride scooters with due respect for health and safety. Equally it's where a funfair has turned up this week, with a handful of whirling rides and a village of caravans, trailers and generators stretched out behind. It takes a very vivid imagination to strip away the surrounding shops and houses, and to picture tens of thousands of soldiers facing off in a battle which could have been a turning point in our island's history, but wasn't quite.

» Battlefield Trail website
» Battlefield Trail
» Battlefield Trail leaflet

 Friday, August 11, 2017

The London borough of Hounslow punches well above its weight for stately homes; Chiswick House, Osterley Park, Boston Manor. But there's one I'd never properly been to, even after fifteen years of blogging, and it's probably the best of all. It's Syon House, on the Thames between Brentford and Isleworth, and it packs a whole lot of history within its landscaped grounds.

In the 15th century an impressive abbey was built here at Syon which, thanks to royal patronage, became the wealthiest convent in England. It didn't last long, alas, courtesy of the Privatisation of the Monasteries. Chief protagonist Henry VIII imprisoned Catherine Howard here before her execution, and his coffin rested for one night in Syon Abbey on its final journey to Windsor, reputedly oozing fluids from the bloated body. Within 10 years all trace of the abbey had been removed, and a Renaissance style mansion was built in its place.

The 9th Earl of Northumberland acquired the house in 1594, and it's been in the Percy family ever since. It's not their main residence - understandably that's Alnwick Castle - but various heirs have lived here over the years, and the house has been open to the public since 1951. It's damned impressive inside too, a sequence of ornately decorated rooms packed with period furniture and copious works of art - precisely the kind of thing you have lying around when you're one of Britain's oldest and wealthiest dynasties.

The entrance hall is a double cube in Graeco-Roman style, a proper 'wow' with intricate stucco coving and bold mosaic floor. The next room is completely different, dark and square-ish featuring a dozen green columns topped with golden statues (and with a door in the corner leading down to a historical display in the cellar). The refashioned Syon was one of Robert Adam's first commissions, and the ornate interiors truly dazzle.

In the Red Drawing Room are mirrors the equal of Versailles, as well as 239 individually painted roundels on the ceiling. The Long Gallery is probably the most impressive room, over 40 metres in length, and with various finishing touches designed for the amusement of ladies parading through. It required two fireplaces to heat, and doubles up as a library, with one fake bookcase concealing a door out into the gardens. It's said that Lady Jane Grey was offered the English throne in this room, maybe, perhaps.

She's not the only royal with links to the place. Queen Victoria was sent here at the age of 12 to learn courtly etiquette, and her bedroom remains much as she'd have known it on the first floor. The corridors are a bit more spartan up here, passing bedrooms the 20th century Percy family would once have used, indeed their very-1980s selection of reading matter has never been cleared away from a few lowly shelves along Nursery Passage.

Be sure to chat to the volunteers scattered about the place, they're excellent and know their stuff, and there's a heck of a lot of stuff to know. Who's the lady in the portrait, what's the provenance of these curtains, why are there only columns on one side of the room, which American institution was founded by which member of the Percy family? The information sheets you wander round with are very good too - accessibly informative, but detailed rather than dumbed down. Thumbs up to the Historic Houses Association for their ongoing work here.

And then there are the gardens. More visitors come for the gardens than the house, not just because they're open every day of the week rather than merely three. The grounds are vast for London, covering 200 acres of 'unspoilt countryside', in reality landscaped to high heaven by Capability Brown. His tidal water meadows are off limits to all but cattle, and the trout fishery is similarly private, but a not insignificant segment to the north of the house is fully accessible once you've paid up.

Essentially the gardens are a long thin lake surrounded by wooded parkland, with a single path on one side and plenty of room to meander on the other. You'll know them well if you've ever visited Syon's Winter Wonderland, although I suspect they look better in summer daylight blessed with ducks and flowers. The goddess Flora looks down from a column at the broadest point, while grassy paths and boardwalks weave through attractive pastoral beds, and a couple of slender footbridges span the water. The chief target audience will appreciate several benches for a nice sit down.

Most impressive of all is the Great Conservatory, one of the first massive showcase glasshouses, combining symmetrical ironwork and a bulbous central dome. So pioneering was the design that Joseph Paxton visited for inspiration when coming up with his plans for the Crystal Palace. Inside the conservatory is still decked out with cacti, palms and subtropical plants, but also power points for plugging in hospitality-friendly tables and trolleys, should you have the money to hire it out.

An adult ticket for the house and gardens costs £12.50, with 20% off if you can prove you live in one of a dozen local postcodes. You can also get 20% off by claiming to have seen a Syon House advert on the back of a bus and quoting the code BUS17 at the till, which is what I did. A ticket for the gardens costs £7.50, and is available daily, whereas the house is only open to the public on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Don't come for the Butterfly House, because that closed ten years ago to be replaced by a Hilton hotel. And if all else fails the Syon Park cafe is hidden inside a Wyevale garden centre, which seems to be where most visitors end up, more's the pity.

 Thursday, August 10, 2017

Last summer, you may remember, TfL printed a tube map with a mistake on it.

Morden station accidentally ended up in a 'Special fares apply' zone, along with the trams, when it should have been in zone 4. An easy mistake to make when adding the tram network to the tube map for the first time.

Unfortunately, due to insufficient checking, the error wasn't spotted before the map went to print. Lots of copies were printed, all of which had to be reprinted later after the error was spotted.

But how many copies were pulped, and how much money was wasted? Well, the Daily Mirror put in a Freedom of Information request, and got the answers.

Bungling Tube bosses pulp half a million maps after printing them with a tiny but crucial mistake
(Daily Mirror, 8 Aug 2017)

They asked three questions.
1. How many hard copies have been printed/produced of the Tube Map which places Morden in the same 'special fare zone' as the tram network, instead of Zone 4? Please itemise these by the number printed/produced of each size, giving the dimensions in each case.

ProductDimensions (mm)Quantity printed
Type 1 Ticket Vending Machine240×125700
Type 2 Ticket Vending Machine292×204200
Type 3 Ticket Vending Machine233×156600
Quad Royal poster1270×10163980
Pocket tube map297×149460800
Large Print Accessibility Tube Map1012×6278000
Add that lot up and the total number of Morden Error Tube Maps printed was 474280 - pretty much the half million copies the Mirror's headline states.

The vast majority of these were copies of the pocket tube map, the version available to pick up for free in station ticket halls. I've long wondered how many of these they print, and now we know, at least for one print run (prior to the error being spotted). 460800 copies would be enough to provide for 1700 maps at every tube station, not that that's how they're distributed, but it gives an idea of scale.

Meanwhile 8000 copies of the large fold-out Accessibility Tube Map were printed, as well as a few hundred of each of the types they get to stick on ticket machines across the network. The unexpectedly high print run is perhaps the Quad Royal Poster - that's the metre-wide tube map displayed on platforms - although 4000 maps would be enough for six at every station in London, so that's not an unrealistic number either. They're big maps, though. I wonder how much money was wasted there?
2. If the information is available, how many of these hard copy maps have been put up in public areas or on trains on the Tube network?

No copies of the map were put up in public areas or on trains on the Tube network. However a delivery was sent to Victoria Coach Station and Gatwick Airport, these were then collected.
I have a copy of the Morden Error Tube Map. I picked it up in a station on the Circle line where, inexplicably, the racks had been filled with copies of the incorrect map. This was on the first weekend the new maps were supposed to be rolled out across London, but had mysteriously failed to appear elsewhere. I'm not sure quite what lapse in the supply chain led to paper copies of the incorrect map being put on public display at this one station, especially given that the error was already public knowledge at this point. But it is simply not true that no hard copy maps were in circulation, because I have one. I may even have more than one.

What I think we have here is a prime example of 'FOI weaselling'. The question the Daily Mirror asked was "how many of these hard copy maps have been put up...?" and TfL have chosen to interpret "put up" as "placed on walls or in poster frames". No large maps destined to be "put up" ever made it that far. However, numerous pocket maps destined to be "put out" definitely did.

An employee at one particular tube station told me at the time, "we got a delivery but they were recalled before we could use them". It seems TfL only noticed they had a ghastly error on their hands after boxes of pocket maps had reached stations, and only just managed to recall the misprinted batch in time. That's everywhere except at one particular central London tube station where the staff put them out anyway, for whatever reason, and where the duff maps hung around in the racks for at least a week. TfL's FOI response is at best misleading, and at worst a lie.

The Daily Mirror managed to get a bit more information out of TfL once they discovered the story was about to be published. "The minor error was identified by TfL part-way through the initial printing in May 2016," they said. Minor error? Anything that results in the destruction of every single copy of a tube map is not a minor error. It's also the case that TfL were happily crowing about their new tube map in a press release and in a Londonist video before a member of the public pointed out the mistake. They missed this one. It got away.
3. Please give the actual or estimated cost of these hard copy maps. If not available please give the standard cost of printing each size of the Tube Map.

ProductCost per map product
Type 1 Ticket Vending Machine0.30p
Type 2 Ticket Vending Machine0.99p
Type 3 Ticket Vending Machine0.31p
Quad Royal poster£2.06
Pocket tube map0.08p
Large Print Accessibility Tube Map0.25p
I've often wondered how much tube maps cost to print, so the release of this information is fascinating. If the cost of a pocket map is only 0.08p, that means twelve pocket maps can be printed for a penny, which is remarkably cheap. Meanwhile each big full-colour poster map on a tube platform costs just over £2... and in this case all of those £2s were wasted. Indeed I can now work out precisely how much TfL spent on the whole Morden debacle, like so.
ProductQuantityCost per mapTotal cost
Type 1 Ticket Vending Machine7000.30p£2.10
Type 2 Ticket Vending Machine2000.99p£1.98
Type 3 Ticket Vending Machine6000.31p£1.86
Quad Royal poster3980£2.06£8,198.80
Pocket tube map4608000.08p£368.64
Large Print Accessibility Tube Map80000.25p£20.00
That's a total of £8593.38, or about £8600, which is a wholly insignificant amount in the overall TfL budget. It seems the Morden error has wasted almost no money at all - less than, for example, the income received from four Zone 1-6 annual travelcards. This is no story of wasteful excess, so move along.

Except, I don't know about you, but those costs for the individual products look remarkably cheap. Taking the pocket map as an example, I don't believe it's possible to print a full colour double-sided triple-folded card for a twelfth of a penny, even if the printing company strikes a really good deal. Likewise the maps on vending machines are large and colourful, so I genuinely don't believe the bill for 700 of them could be as little as £2, and 8000 Large Print Tube Maps for £20 surely isn't credible either.

My suspicion is that TfL's response to the FoI request may contain a schoolboy error regarding currency notation, where £ and p have been confused. The cost of a pocket map may well be 0.08, but that would be £0.08 not 0.08p, and somebody somewhere has misunderstood how units work and inserted the wrong symbol. I'd be a bit happier with the idea that a pocket tube map might cost 8p to print, given the colourful complexity of its production, while a larger fold-out Accessibility tube map might well cost 25p.

And if the table published in the FoI request is indeed wrong, then the true figures are these.
ProductQuantityCost per mapTotal cost
Type 1 Ticket Vending Machine700£0.30£210.00
Type 2 Ticket Vending Machine200£0.99£198.00
Type 3 Ticket Vending Machine600£0.31£196.00
Quad Royal poster3980£2.06£8,198.80
Pocket tube map460800£0.08£36864.00
Large Print Accessibility Tube Map8000£0.25£2000.00
Now we have a total of £47656.80, or nearly fifty thousand pounds, which seems a more likely figure for a totally pulped print run of half a million maps. That's the sort of total a newspaper or London Assembly member might get righteously indignant about - fifty thousand pounds squandered by a public body because its checking procedures were insufficiently rigorous.

Except there was a caveat to TfL's answer to question 3, which was this.
Please note we did not pay for the incorrect maps. We were able to work with our print suppliers to have the required numbers and types of maps produced within the original agreed budget.
Whether the total was £8600 or £48000, it seems that the taxpayer didn't end up footing the bill. Some arrangement was reached, the specific details of which have not been revealed, and it seems only the printers were out of pocket.

My assumption had been that TfL were plainly to blame, either their design team for placing Morden in the wrong zone or their proofreaders for overlooking the error. I guess it is possible that the mistake was at the printers' end - perhaps they sent the wrong version of the design to the presses. But all the evidence, specifically the fact that the final printed maps were initially despatched to stations, suggests that nobody at TfL noticed the Morden error until someone else pointed it out.

The Daily Mirror managed to extract a little more detail from TfL about printing costs for the misprinted maps, specifically this. "These were subsequently recycled (the pocket maps are printed on 100% recycled paper) and through the procurement efficiencies that we have been making, we were able to recover these costs and still produce the required number of Tube maps within our overall print budget."

This version of events suggests all TfL are admitting is that their budget wasn't exceeded, and maybe there was a cost but it was covered by other savings. Who knows? The whole point of FOI responses is to be vague and evasive, and TfL have certainly achieved that here. They may also have made an error in their presentation of the information, which in an FOI response about an error would be both ironic and embarrassing.

All we do know for certain is that almost half a million tube maps had to be withdrawn and recycled because of a mistake, and that several thousand pounds which might have been spent elsewhere was lost. What Morden confirms is that it pays to check stuff carefully before you print it, and that insufficient checking costs.

» Daily Mirror, 8 Aug 2017
» Evening Standard, 9 Aug 2017

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