diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Most of you don't leave comments on this blog. Today's post is about the 5% of you who sometimes do.

When you enter a comment on this blog there are four boxes. One is for the comment itself. One is for 'Name'. One is for 'Email'. And one is for 'URL'.

Most of you leave a name, of sorts. Some of you leave an email address. But not many of you write anything in the URL box. Today's post is about why the URL box is usually empty.

First off, I've tried to quantify how empty the URL box is. I've scanned back through all the comments made by readers in the first half of this month. Thanks for all roughly-400 of them. And then I've totted up how many of these comments include a web address in the URL field. It's about 5%. Only one commenter in every twenty leaves a URL.

Sarah's one of the handful of people who left a URL. She has an actual blog. So does Andrew, and so does DrD, and so does Margaret, and so does Richard, and so does rasbhre, and they still update them regularly. A couple of other October commenters have a blog but haven't posted lately. But that's it for bloggers leaving comments so far this month. A paltry eight.

A couple of people left a personal website address in the URL box - Adrian left his Twitter handle and Tetramesh left his Flickr ID. These are both good ways of dropping a hint about the person who's actually leaving a comment, something deeper than just a name. Nobody left a Facebook login or an Instagram feed in the URL box. Nineteen out of every twenty commenters left nothing at all.

I wondered if URL-less-ness had changed over time, so I went back five years and ten years and took a look. I checked for URLs in all the comments made by readers in the first half of October 2012, and then did the same for all the comments made by readers in the first half of October 2007. In each case there were about 300 comments to consider. Here's what I found.

» In October 2007, about 45% of comments included a web address in the URL field.
» In October 2012, about 20% of comments included a web address in the URL field.
» In October 2017, about 5% of comments included a web address in the URL field.

That's quite some decline. What is going on? Here are ten possibilities.

1) Far fewer people have blogs these days.
We know this one's true. Blogs have had their day and people don't start writing them any more. A few of us maintain them, keeping the faith and providing the web with longform content on a semi-regular basis. But most people don't blog, and most people who did have long given up. When there are so few blogs out there, the URL box is almost always going to be empty.

2) People now do their commenting elsewhere.
Commenting on blogs is old hat now that people have Twitter and Facebook to broadcast their every thought. Why leave a comment on a blog where almost nobody will see it when you can shout it to a far wider audience and get direct feedback. The conversation has moved, hence far fewer of my commenters now have a blog of their own.

3) People no longer have a single web identity.
People now have multiple identities across several platforms, rather than one go-to site of their own. And while some people still have a personal homepage which acts as a CV, privacy concerns mean few people want to leave a URL revealing their name and contact details in a blog's comment box.

4) People don't think Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook count.
There is a general feeling, I suspect, that what goes in the URL box ought to be a proper blog. A Twitter address doesn't come to mind, even though it could, and would provide a bit of background to what makes a commenter tick. Even an Instagram link, YouTube channel or Facebook connection would adds a bit more depth, rather than simply being a "Mark" or a "Chris" who could be anybody.

5) The people who leave comments on blogs have changed.
In the early 2000s most of the people who left comments on blogs were also bloggers, adding to the discussion. Today most of the people who leave comments on blogs have no focused online voice, they solely want to comment on what others have written. Social media is increasingly reactive these days, and a much smaller proportion of people now provide the original material everyone else comments on.

6) Regular commenters without blogs are skewing the figures.
Several of my most regular commenters don't have a platform of their own, which surprises me given how persistently opinionated they are, and how much they always seem to have to say. Get a platform, gents.

7) It's harder to enter an accurate URL on a mobile.
I wonder if this is a potentially important issue. On a laptop it's easy to cut and paste your own personal URL (or Twitter handle or whatever) from one browser tab to another. On a smartphone that's a hassle, perhaps a nightmare, so it's increasingly the case that people can't be bothered to go to the effort of typing from scratch or copying a URL across.

8) URLs have to begin with http://, not @
Web addresses aren't the same as social media IDs, so some people might not actually know what URL to put in the box. If you're @malcolm1952 on Twitter, for example, then what has to go in the box is https://twitter.com/malcolm1952 or https://www.instagram.com/malcolm1952 or whatever, and that's quite complicated. But remember to tick the box marked "Please store my details for next time" underneath the comments box and you'll only ever have to type it once.

9) People are lazier that they used to be.
The number of people who leave the "Name" box empty is also increasing, as certain commenters fire off accidentally anonymous comments, and others choose not to fill in a name because they know who they are. Without even a pseudonym to go on, all the rest of us see is an unattributed opinion, which I think devalues the content of the comment somewhat. And if people can't be bothered to leave a name, why would they leave a URL?

10) There are more trolls than there used to be.
A lot more commenters these days are on the snarky side, leaving pointed remarks to make a personal dig. These people don't want to be traceable, indeed the names they're using won't be their real names, so they don't have their own URL to add. As the internet gets nastier, so personal accountability is on the decline.

I'm getting more comments these days than I was five or ten years ago, thanks, so leaving comments hasn't yet fallen out of favour. But far fewer of those commenters are leaving a URL, which seems a shame. There are always reasons why some of you will never have, or want to share, an online identity. But if you do have one somewhere, perhaps you'll consider sharing it in the future, and the rest of us might even take more seriously what you have to say.

 Monday, October 16, 2017

Framlingham Castle is a castle. It is in Framlingham. Framlingham is in Suffolk.

It was built in the 12th century. It is a Norman castle. It sits on a big mound. It does not have a central keep. It has a curtain wall. The wall has thirteen towers.

The castle was built by Roger Bigod. The Bigods ruled Suffolk in early medieval times. King John took the castle from the Bigods. Then he gave it back. The Bigods gave it to Edward II. Edward II gave it to the Earl of Norfolk. Several other families owned it. Henry VIII got it at one point. Edward VI gave it to his sister Mary. Mary marched on London from Framlingham when she became queen. This is the most famous thing ever to happen in Framlingham. James I gave it to the Earl of Suffolk. The Duke of Norfolk got involved later. The castle ended up as a poorhouse. It now belongs to English Heritage.

Ed Sheeran wrote a song about Framlingham Castle. It is called The Castle On The Hill. It got to number 2 in the charts earlier this year. It is the UK's only million selling castle.

You can visit Framlingham Castle. You pay to go in. You get a wristband to show you have paid.

The best thing to do is walk around the walls. The way up is through the gift shop. The top of the wall is very high. There is a good view from the walls. You can see the grass inside. You can see the lake outside. You can see the barleysugar brickwork on top of England's oldest chimney. You can walk across high bridges linking the towers. You can take a selfie in an arrowslit. It is a good walk.

There is also a slide. There was not a slide in medieval times. The slide is a curly metal tube. It twists down from a high metal staircase beside the north wall. It is called the Time Tunnel. Children love going down the slide. Adults sneak a go when they think nobody else is looking. They can go down the slide as many times as they like.

The non-slidy way down from the walls is through the museum. The museum is in the Poorhouse. The Poorhouse is the only building remaining inside the curtain wall. The Poorhouse also contains the gift shop. The Poorhouse also contains the cafe. Once you have seen the walls and the Poorhouse you have pretty much seen Framlingham Castle.

But you have not yet seen Framlingham. Framlingham is a historic market town. It has cottages painted in pastel colours. It has a twisted one way system. It is frequented by people who wear red trousers and drive sports cars. It has a famous public school. It has a market triangle. The market sells chilli sausage rolls, knitted bags and hanging baskets. It also sells other things. The market is only a few minutes walk from the castle.

A good day out is to visit Framlingham Castle and Framlingham. Wave your wristband and you can wander between the town and the castle as often as you like. But you will have to go to Suffolk to see them.

 Sunday, October 15, 2017

Once a month the big screen comes to the village hall. A film is chosen, long since played out in metropolitan circles, but fresh to folk in the heart of Norfolk. Tickets are sold in advance for a fiver at the village store, but one pound dearer on the door. Skip Strictly and come down Saturday night.

A band of volunteers sets out rows of chairs on the wooden floor, approximately within the white lines of the badminton court. The overhead projector on the balcony is fired up, and a screensaver zaps around a large screen lowered to cover the stage curtain. The seating may not be of multiplex standard, but the table by the entrance has Cushions For Hire, seemingly sourced from a suite of local sofas.

The audience, when it arrives, is almost entirely past state retirement age, with occasional late 20th century infill. They queue patiently and show their tickets to the ladies at the trestle table, writing down their email addresses on a sheet of paper to be informed of future events. Seating is unreserved. Drinks are purchased. There is time for gossip and chatter, which stops abruptly at seven thirty sharp.

A B-movie has been scheduled, sourced from the BFI's Britain On Film series. Of the hundreds of available films, this month's archive treat features TV documentary footage from the East Anglian coast in the 1960s. We watch the lifeboatmen of Cromer run down to the pier, we reminisce with the officers of the Cley coastguard and we join the crews of once-essential lightships trapped for a fortnight offshore. It is all very evocative of the time. No women play any part whatsoever.

The inter-film intermission soon arrives, providing time for a loo break or a refreshment top up. Wine and beer are available for £3 through a hatch in the back of the hall, and mugs of tea for 50p. These prove popular. Proper tubs of posh ice cream are on sale, but far better value are the scoops of vanilla or raspberry ripple hewn from a supermarket tub and served in a small bowl. Exploitative popcorn, nachos and Haribo are not available.

The Film Audience Network has provided questionnaires, completion of which will help them to gain further funding for rural screenings. The questionnaire stretches to 18 questions, which seems excessive for a night out, and at times intrusive. A precise age is requested, four alternative gender choices are provided, and Q12's interrogation of sexual orientation offers the option to self-describe in a separate box. Many sheets remain incomplete when the lights go down.

The main feature kicks off from a Blu-ray menu screen. The committee have picked well, choosing a wartime drama with a sense of humour, and events almost within the memory of many of those present. Laughs occur at infrequent appropriate moments. No phone calls are received during the performance, nor are bright screens switched on to check Facebook. There may be the odd tear in the eye during the final scenes.

Nobody stays seated until the end of the credits. It's already after ten o'clock, which is late for round here, and the hall has to be cleared prior to tomorrow's activities. The chairs disappear row by row, the washing up begins in the back kitchen and the poster for this month's film is unpinned from the noticeboard. Next month's film remains open to suggestion, please email with ideas, non-blockbusters preferred. The village cinema will return.

 Saturday, October 14, 2017

The M25 famously passes underneath a cricket pitch on the edge of Epping Forest, where the need to preserve sporting status quo demanded the creation of the Bell Tunnel. But another (longer) tunnel exists to the north of London, on top of which you can play basketball, pick fruit or even have a picnic (so long as you've checked the grass really carefully first).

The Holmesdale Tunnel carries the M25 through the built-up neck of the Lea Valley. The planners of Ringway D identified a thin strip of land where Waltham Cross touches London where they could drive through a six lane motorway with a minimum of demolition. The area had once been full of glasshouses for market gardening, but after the war these were mostly replaced by housing, leaving a green space locals nicknamed the Backfield. It divided Cameron Drive in Waltham Cross from Holmesdale in Enfield, with houses in the latter facing out across the grass. Many children used the Backfield as a playground, with camping and dogwalking also popular pursuits. Right, we'll have that, said the engineers, and they made plans to dig it up.

The Holmesdale Tunnel would be 670 metres long, linking M25 junction 25 to a viaduct over the railway and the River Lea. It would be a super-underpass, built to motorway standards, and constructed using cut and cover techniques. There'd be room for three lanes in each direction, plus a raised walkway either side for evacuation purposes, plus a central wall to keep the two carriageways apart. Once the trench was completed a concrete slab was laid across the top and then covered with topsoil, allowing a new recreational space to be created. When completed in 1983 it was the most expensive section of road ever built in Britain with a price tag of almost £30m.
If you'd like to read more about the technical intricacies of its construction, this four-page article from the July 1982 edition of Ground Engineering magazine will tell you more than you ever need to know.

Millions of vehicles have passed through the tunnel since it opened, but local residents see none of that, only the Holmesdale Tunnel Open Space. It's mostly grass, and mostly featureless, but there is a multi-purpose sports pitch up one end with basketball hoops and goals for football, plus a wildflower area beyond. At the other end is a brick building owned by the Department of Transport which houses the ventilation system and a pumping system for removing groundwater. Trees can't be planted because the topsoil is too thin, but a short line of fruit trees has been added along one edge, and a couple of footpaths wend across the centre to link the two sides.

The old Backfield site is still the boundary between Hertfordshire and London, with the motorway and everything above it in Enfield and the houses to the north in Broxbourne. It's also still technically private government land, "to which the public is permitted to have access". A Friends group exists to organise kickabouts for kids and help keep the Open Space in order, but there are several hints that this may be in decline. It's been three years since they last tweeted anything, their webpage has expired, and it seems their last meeting in August had to be cancelled. The golden years of replanting the fruit trees after they were "destroyed by Dogs jumping up and ripping the the branches off" appear to be long gone.

There have been a couple of important upgrades recently, however, one down below and one up top. The motorway has been widened by removing the raised walkways, which allowed a merge lane to be added to/from the J25 roundabout, removing a two-lane bottleneck for through traffic. Alternative emergency access points were provided in the tunnel in the gap between the two carriageways, and the life-expired ventilation system was upgraded for good measure. This keeps all the motorists happy.

Meanwhile at the eastern end of the open space, close to the portal where the traffic rushes out past the Tesco Distribution Centre, an arty Gateway feature has been created to mark the point on the High Street where two boroughs meet. Several 'alphabet cubes' have been scattered across the pavement, which read ENFIELD from one direction and BROXBOURNE from the other. A bee-friendly garden with raised planting areas has been created between parallel gabions, plus an actual bench to sit on, which is a bit of a departure around here. There's also a mysterious churchlike sculpture, tiled and ideal for clambering, but with no hint as to precisely what it represents.

What I liked most about the Holmesdale Tunnel, other than the surreality of an invisible motorway, were the information boards scattered along its length explaining the site's past and present. I'd never have been inspired to come home and write all this otherwise, indeed much of the backstory would have passed me by. Next time you're orbiting London by car give a thought for the community you're ducking under, dead ordinary but spared the wrecker's ball, and still playing basketball on the roof a third of a century later.

 Friday, October 13, 2017

K Cheshunt/Enfield
Had the Herbert Commission had their way, Cheshunt Urban District would have become part of Greater London, whereas in fact it stayed in Hertfordshire (and is now part of Broxbourne). That leaves Enfield, today the northermost part of the capital, its boundary following the line of the M25. I've been out walking within a mile of the motorway to visit six of the lesser known settlements across the top of Enfield, some of which you might never have known were there. Click on the placenames to read the Hidden London summaries of each.

Botany Bay

Beyond Cockfosters the northwestern quarter of the borough of Enfield is mostly fields, and rather attractive fields too. Botany Bay is the single settlement on a long ridgetop road between Potters Bar and Enfield, part of a landscape carved by two tiny brooks to either side, and part of what was once the royal forest of Enfield Chase. It's more hamlet than village, and doesn't stretch as far as a church (although there is a lowly shed called The Shack which local Christians are hoping to turn into a 24/7 prayer venue). At the centre of the string of houses lies the Robin Hood pub, which must rely on passing drivers rather than residents, and whose pre-book festive menu inexplicably runs from 1st November to 31st January. At Botany Bay Farm they're already ready to flog you pumpkins, plus almost-locally sourced sausages for Bonfire Night.

One thing Botany Bay has plenty of is open space, with a cricket club and a rugby club crying out for new members on posters attached to numerous walls and gates. The clubhouse appears to double up as a venue for almost anything, including the North London MG Club (every Monday), Googlies Jazz Supper Club (every Tuesday) and Big Boppa's Rock'N'Roll Club (every Wednesday). East Lodge Lane is very much Beware of the Dog territory, with angry hounds champing behind many a fence should a rare pedestrian walk by. I also surprised a lone pony in the next field, who leapt with brief delight to have company, then switched to indifference when it became clear I had no food.

Crews Hill

This garden centre mecca is the northernmost settlement in London, assuming you can spot the houses among the retail sheds. Crews Hill is an entirely atypical location, essentially a collection of horticultural corrals subdivided into smaller units which'll flog you almost anything for your house or garden. Rattan, turf, bonsai, paving, resin, koi, rockery, fireplace, granite, trellis, lantern, sapling, rug, shrubbery, reptile, bench, mirror, decking, gnome, incense, jacket potato - it really is all here. One of the larger sites is a Wyevale, complete with pretend windmill, but most of the other businesses are as independent as they come, perhaps just a shed selling stone cherubs or a hut packed with New Age tat. On spring weekends hundreds queue in their cars to find a parking space, while on autumn weekdays a few pensioners find solace with a hyacinth and cuppa.

Given the nature of the goods on sale arriving by car or van is all important. You don't want to have to rely on the bus (the W10 is the 2nd least frequent bus in London), and while Crews Hill station has a pretty good service, it's also bleak and somewhat poorly used. Venture beneath the railway bridge to discover the eponymous hill and a few gated mansions, plus a golf course advertising several special offers should any individual, group or society fancy a round. But most visitors venture no further than the small business boulevard, perhaps topped off with a lager and an at-scale meal in The Plough, then spend a lot of time in the garden when they get home.


Whitewebbs Lane runs east from Crews Hill, parallel to the M25, and packs several fascinating features into its remote mile and a half run. First up is London's other transport museum, the Whitewebbs Museum of Transport, open Tuesdays and one Sunday a month. Its collection would best be described as eclectic, with various sheds and old vehicles outside and numerous smaller exhibits inside an elegant two-storey building which used to be a pumphouse for the New River. [my previous visit] [Ian Visits visit] [Londonist visit]

I kept walking, past a smallholding guarded by two angry rottweilers, to the edge of Whitewebbs Wood. It's large and dark, and somewhat oppressive, with muddy bridleways to follow should you choose to venture within. Keep going and it morphs into Whitewebbs Park, a slightly less dense patch of woodland almost nobody in Enfield lives anywhere near, complete with tarmac paths and the occasional lake. Half of the former Whitewebbs estate has been given over to a golf course, as is the modern way, but the grand mansion at the centre survives. Initially it was repurposed as a Home For Aged Men, but has recently become London's most architecturally impressive Toby Carvery. Sub-£7 diners feast within its sweeping wings, while the smell of gravy wafts out across the ornamental garden.

The carvery has competition from a 16th century pub back on Whitewebbs Lane, The King and Tinker, which claims to be one of England's oldest pubs. Its name comes from a fabled encounter between James I and a pub regular over an ale, after the incognito King slipped his courtiers after a hunt. As if that's not enough history for one spot, Whitewebbs Farm across the road is the site of a key meeting in the Gunpowder Plot. In October 1605 Guy Fawkes visited the house which used to stand on this site for a meeting with his co-conspirators, to discuss how Catholic peers might be spared the upcoming explosion. An ill-advised letter on the subject later blew their cover, rather than blowing up Parliament. Pop down to The King And Tinker and you can enjoy a pint in the Refreshment Garden's and a jump on the bouncy castle while reflecting on this remote spot's unlikely backstory.

Bull's Cross

At the eastern end of Whitewebbs Lane, within sight of the M25, a Premiership football team has bedded in. Tottenham Hotspur's training ground used to be a lot further up the A10, but this new state-of-the art site allows them to practice their ball skills in all weathers a little closer to home. Your best chance of catching sight of a top player is at the main gate on Hotspur Way, waiting for the blue and white barrier to raise. Elsewhere the perimeter is securely fenced off with a row of fast-growing shrubs immediately behind to inhibit paparazzi or over-zealous fans.

The hamlet of Bull's Cross can be found surrounding a mini-roundabout close by. It's been here a while. The Pied Bull pub claims it was once owned by James I as a kennel for his hunting dogs, which seems plausible given how much the king enjoyed living at Theobalds Palace close by. Bull's Cross is also home to the agricultural college at Capel Manor, and to Myddleton House, both of which have super-splendid gardens, and both of which I always urge you to visit whenever I write a post about the neighbourhood.


Bullsmoor is less lovely. This residential district is strung out between the new A10 and the old A10, squished into the last gasp of the Lea Valley conurbation before it slips into Hertfordshire. It has a peripherally arterial feel, with unpleasantly wide roads to cross and pylons stalking through the middle, and plenty of petrol stations and drive-thru takeaways to cater for the just-off-the-M25 market. Four separate shops in the local parade take the Bullsmoor name, the most appropriate of which is definitely the Bullsmoor Butchers, although that appeared to be shuttered and closed when I passed by... maybe something to do with its recent rockbottom Food Hygiene rating.

(there is one feature of particular note here, but I'll come back and tell you about that tomorrow, because it deserves a post of its own)


What a fantastic name for a London suburb. Freezywater can be found straddling the Hertford Road, the former A10, immediately to the south of Waltham Cross. It's been here a while too, with several avenues of late Victorian terraces tucked in between the main road and the railway, and some rather tasteful cottage villas scattered within. I searched in vain for the Freezywater Shopping Centre promised on Enfield Council's fading signs, but maybe a betting shop, chippie and Turkish food cash and carry suffice. I did however find a peculiar pocket park with contoured benches and artistic metal gates, apparently called Painters Lane Neighbourhood Park.

Freezywater is named after a marshy pond near the River Lea, which used to ice up in winter, but this disappeared a long time ago when the Rammey Marsh Sewage Works was built in it place. Now this too has vanished, replaced by the Innova Business Park in the late 1990s, a sprawl of distribution warehouses and low-key office units. Its streets have Blairite names like Kinetic Crescent, Velocity Way and Power Drive, a bit rich for the reality, but the central reedy lake is a nice throwback to the original Freezy Water. Enfield Lock station lies nearby, should a fast getaway be required.

 Thursday, October 12, 2017

I have a cold, and for once I know which complete stranger gave it to me. Thank you Kieran.

We met for two hours on Saturday evening, on the train home from Manchester to London. He had the window seat on the opposite side of the table to mine, as I discovered when I boarded and went hunting for my window seat. It genuinely was a window seat too, unlike on the journey up when I'd had a perfect view of a beige bulwark for the entire journey. My homebound window seat was essentially pointless given that it was dark outside, but I smiled all the same.

I faffed around getting all the necessary stuff out of my pockets and rucksack, stowed my jacket on the rack above, and sat down in my seat. I plugged my phone into the electricity it had been missing, and opened up the prize crossword in case it was actually doable this week. And then Kieran sneezed. Cheers Kieran.

Kieran was a slight lad with lank dark hair, probably in his late teens. His grey shirt and glasses made him look withdrawn and waifish, whereas his blue and white Cartoon Network Dr Marten boots suggested quite the opposite. An attempt at a beard made an advance across his face, still some way off needing a first shave, but still better than anything my cheeks have ever managed. His silver scooter gleamed above us in the luggage rack. And then he sneezed again. It was gong to be a long journey.

It rapidly became clear that Kieran was in the throes of a dispiriting virus. His sneezes were violent, and relatively closely spaced, interspersed with the occasional coughing fit. Kieran seemed a well-brought-up boy, and always attempted to cover his mouth when a respiratory attack emerged. But I could tell that his attempts weren't going to achieve 100% containment, not over the full 140 minutes and here I was sat immediately opposite him in a humid air-conditioned bubble. A Pendolino carriage makes the perfect incubation chamber.

I wondered whether Kieran's journey was really necessary. It's not generally a great idea to deliberately sit in a confined space with dozens of other individuals for two hours if you know you're at a contagious stage of an illness, even one as common as the common cold. Equally if you need to be at the other end of the country and have paid an extortionate amount for your ticket, and would need to spend even more if you travelled at a different time, obviously you're going to take your seat and hope for the best.

It can't have been fun being Kieran on that long journey south. He struggled to get settled, repeatedly interrupted by another involuntary sneeze. He flicked through his Windows Phone for several minutes, and looked pointlessly out of the window. He attempted to get comfortable across a double seat, pulling his coat on top of him and trying to get off to sleep. But every time he almost nodded off his throat jerked into action, and so the cycle repeated, and his misery continued.

I could have moved, but the train was busy and most of the other seats were taken. I could have moved, but I had a table seat and a charging point and they were like gold dust. I could have moved, but the lady sat beside me was fully settled and looked like she was attempting to fall asleep too. I could have moved, but I decided it'd look a bit odd to pack up all my things and then squeeze in next to someone else instead. I could have moved. I didn't move. I accepted my fate.

If you're wondering how I know Kieran's name, it's because he was wearing it on a plastic badge clipped to his belt. It amazes me how so many people these days are happy to display their full name (and often job title and place of employment) in public. I know a lot of workplaces and educational establishments now require their members to be readily identifiable at all times, but surely if you value your privacy you'd take that badge off (or at least turn it over) after stepping outside. Kieran Carter didn't seem to care.

Eventually he dropped off to sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train as it sped south. He managed a good hour, apart from the time he pulled out an inhaler to help him breathe a little more easily, and apart from the time the sneeze came anyway even though he wasn't ready for it. Oh great, I thought, that's settled it. And then I went back to failing at the crossword.

At Euston I was up and out of my seat before Kieran, who was still drifting back into consciousness and discovering how to sneeze again. I made it to the end of the platform before he caught up, scudding along on his silver scooter and overtaking me up the ramp onto the concourse. He swiftly disappeared off to wherever he was going to feel under the weather next, and I resigned myself to viral takeover later in the week.

Sunday passed with no negative health issues, and Monday too. By Tuesday I was beginning to think I'd beaten the odds but early in the evening an abrupt cough emerged, just the once, but a precursor of what surely lay ahead. A sudden sneeze before nightfall seemed to confirm the diagnosis, but nothing else materialised, so that was good.

Yesterday, however, the coughs and sneezes increased in frequency. I also got that queasy feeling you get in your stomach which suggests you're permanently hungry when you know you're not really. My embryonic cold was nowhere near as bad as Kieran had been suffering, but it is slowly ratcheting up in intensity, and this morning I've reached the stage where I'm wondering if what's next is runny sinuses and handkerchief-filling or simply more coughing.

I have no plans to sit opposite someone on public transport and let fly, nor to mix indiscriminately with the general public during what may be my infectious phase. Indeed my cold is nothing terrible, nor have I been slayed by a malevolent strain of manflu, so I don't want you to think I'm moaning about the inconvenience.

All that seems unusual in this case is that I believe I can pin down precisely who passed on the infection and when, rather than it emerging as a surprise cough of unknown origin, as is usually the case. My cold is Kieran's cold, and Kieran's fault, because Kieran boarded a train he might not have boarded and couldn't keep his viruses inside. Thank you Kieran, thanks for everything.

* All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned. But I know who you are, Kieran, OK?

 Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Chocolate Week, the nation’s favourite themed week, returns from 9th to 15th October celebrating the world of fine chocolate. Chocolate Week aims to promote the finest British chocolate, independent artisan chocolatiers and the Fairtrade chocolate companies who work in direct partnership with cocoa farmers.

Hundreds of events are taking place this week around the UK, with the country’s top shops, hotels, bars and restaurants celebrating by hosting talks, tastings, demonstrations and sampling, as well as creating exclusive products, new launches, offers, chocolate meals, cocktails and recipes using some of the best chocolate brands from around the world.

I've been out to celebrate the very best chocolate experiences across the E3 postcode, and can confirm that Bow's chocolatiers remain at the very top of their game.

Step In Local, 9 Burdett Road, E3 4PH

To celebrate Chocolate Week, this independent minimarket on Burdett Road has devised a special cocoa-centric selection which places taste and beauty at the heart of the customer experience. Think tropical beans infused with Caribbean sugar, encased in plastic wrapping and optimally arrayed on sloping shelf units. It'd be toughness personified to have to choose between the many speciality bars on offer in this bespoke establishment. One of the many delights is the coconut-inspired Bounty, richly coated with thin dark chocolate. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with hazelnut is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. A Double Decker will cost you 69p. Heaven.

Londis, 27 Burdett Road, E3 4TN

Choose wisely in this temple of wicked pleasure and you too can take home an eclectic basket of incredible chocolates. Select bottles of wine to match and you'll be able to host your own expert tasting soirée, including Aero Mint with a cheeky Riesling or four-finger Kit Kat with Cabernet Sauvignon. Spend a perfect evening on the sofa identifying the flavours and subtle differences in both the wines and the chocolates as you become the ultimate choco-connoisseur, proving the age-old adage that chocolate with wine is always fine. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with Oreo is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. A Double Decker will cost you 70p. Bliss.

Tesco Superstore, Hancock Road, E3 3DA

E3's premier hypermarket is surely the ultimate destination to top off a week of chocolate indulgence. Tesco's lunch deal selection brings together all the world’s best chocolate brands under one roof, from Freddos to Kinder Bueno, not forgetting ever-present stalwart Yorkie Original. Make tracks to the multi-pack collection for some absolute tip-top bargains, with Wispa and Snickers priced at less than half what they cost individually elsewhere. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with chopped nuts is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. A Double Decker will cost you 60p. Bargain!

Nisa Local, 161A Bow Rd, London E3 2SG

Nisa is celebrating National Chocolate Week with a smorgasbord of offerings across all its London venues. An entire aisle has been devoted to all things cocoa, the perfect way to tame chocolate cravings as those chill autumn evenings draw in. Up for grabs are some of the best chocolate brands around, including the ever-traditional Mars bar and a wistful Curly Wurly. Naturally there are quality vegan options on offer too. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with caramel is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. A Double Decker will cost you 75p, but it's a Duo bar so that's excellent value. Excellent!

Cornucopia Market, 246 Tredegar Rd, E3 2GP

Any round up of Chocolate Week events has to include this chic convenience store tucked beneath the flats at Bevin Court. Eschew the aisles of vegetables and frozen goods and make haste to the display beneath the beady eyes of the cashier. Here you'll discover brightly-coloured samples of chocolate bars of different percentages and different origins to kick off your chocolate education. The best kind of education, we say. We have it on good authority that pure Dairy Milk untainted with extras is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. A Double Decker will cost you 69p. We're sold!

London Food Centre, 407 Roman Rd, E3 5QS

If you’re looking for a quirky experience, try a tour of this fantastic Roman Road emporium. Follow the intimate guided trail to experience London in a different way and spoil yourself with truffles, pralines, caramels and creams, finishing with a stand-up mini-chocolate tasting. Don't forget to follow the LFC on Instagram for inspirational and ultra-shareable promotional images showcasing the cacao collection to perfection. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with wholenut is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. Inexplicably Double Deckers are not available, but a Snickers will cost you 70p. Chapeau!

Ozzy's News & Shop, 52 St Paul's Way, E3 4AL

All your favourite E3 gourmet hotspots are getting in the spirit of things, and Ozzy's is no exception, with special recipe chocolate bars laid out in all the colours of the rainbow. By embracing your inner foodie not only are you indulging in a delicious treat, you’re also helping cocoa farmers get a better deal for their beans and additional income to invest in their community. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with fruit and nut is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. A Double Decker will cost you 55p, which is less than the proprietor would like to charge, but alas it's printed on the packaging. Awesome!

Food Sale Express, 564 Mile End Rd, E3 4PH

It's not too late to indulge in National Chocolate Week, and Food Sale Express delivers the ultimate finale to seven days of creamy excess. Sink your teeth into the hand-picked chocolates at this fragrant and colourful bazaar conveniently located for Mile End's most discerning commuters. Why not kickstart your morning with an extravagant surprise? We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with Turkish delight is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. It's unclear how much a Double Decker costs because all the chocolate stock is unpriced, so it could be extortionate, but surely all the better for reinforcing that feeling of sheer luxury as you bite down. Yum yum!

The News Kiosk, 50A Bow Rd, E3 4DH

Scientifically proven to make you live longer, it would be rude not to ditch the diet and embrace Bow Road's #NationalChocolateWeek celebrations! At this bijou chocolate market the artisan confections are spread across a pair of racked units, beneath the unsold newspapers and beside the milk. Discover the award-winning delights of a Picnic or Toffee Crisp, individually wrapped, as part of the five-star service that's de rigeur in this premier kiosk. We have it on good authority that Dairy Milk with toffee is one of the exclusive Cadbury offerings. Again all the chocolates are unpriced, so purchasing a Double Decker will initiate a mystery dip on your financial resources. See you there!

Why head to the West End and empty your bank account for some posh themed meal or cocktail when all the chocolate you could ever need is liberally spread across E3 for a fraction of the price? Embrace Chocolate Week. Snack local!

 Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Whistlestop Manchester: New Islington
Where? immediately east of central Manchester
Population Around 1700 homes (whatever that equates to)
How to get there? one tramstop from Piccadilly
Why? that's a very good question

When Manchester was Cottonopolis, the mills of Ancoats powered the economy. A network of canals bled off to the south, in an area since cleared to create Manchester's most innovative neighbourhood. Conceived for the Millennium, and named after somewhere old and local rather than a London suburb, New Islington is an architects' playground run rampant. Most striking is Will Alsop's apartment block 'Chips', designed to resemble three fat chips stacked awkwardly on top of each other, then boldly coloured, then labelled with the names of geographical features from the surrounding area. It's nuts, and looks better from afar than right close up, but a lot more interesting than most of the generic stuff that tends to go up elsewhere.

New Islington doesn't believe in generic, tweaking mills into apartments and throwing up luxury stacks. It's by no means complete, hence large areas remain fenced off awaiting development, but the park is done, and sadly so is the Free School. One terrace of super-modern modular homes, called 'House', stands ready to march south and replicate beside the marina. A desolate boulevard with half its decorative metalwork incomplete marks the dividing line between two building sites, frequented by distant residents carrying groceries home, and sweatshirted men with staffies. The path to the tramstop across the lockgates doen't look like somewhere I'd be too keen to linger after dark. One day this millennial district may be buzzing, but it's not there yet.

Ancoats proper, to the north of the Rochdale Canal, is in a more serious state of flux. A densely packed grid of streets contains proper heritage mill buildings from the 1800s in various states of repair, one proudly carved to commemorate the King and Queen's visit in 1942. Juxtaposed with these are blocks of recent residential infill, with whole chunks barriered off for the erection of more. Ancoats is Manchester's hippest district, if the hype is to be believed, and the yoof wandering through in search of Neapolitan pizza, craft beer or a beetroot latte suggest some truth to that proposition. It reminded me of parts of Docklands, or perhaps Hackney Wick, and is being culturally destabilised at much the same rate.
Set foot outside, and you’ll find all the must-have lifestyle choices of a most modern city. Major transports links are on the doorstep, and yet the refreshed areas of Ancoats and New Islington have a definite cosy feel. With no late night licensed premises, the neighbourhood balances dynamism with seclusion. And this mix makes it the ideal home for anyone looking for all the conveniences and panache of a European city, with a warm, inviting sense of home.
All the usual psychobabble, even up north.

Whistlestop Manchester: Rochdale
Where? 10 miles northeast of central Manchester (formerly Lancashire)
Population 216,000 (approximately the same as Luton or Portsmouth)
How to get there? rail (fast), tram (slow), M62
Why? Gracie Fields, cheap food and the Co-Op

Gracie Fields: Not a park, but a Rochdale lass who became one of the world's most famous actresses in the 1930s. A trail of eight purple plaques leads round the town centre, including the sites of her demolished childhood homes, but I didn't spot any. What I did find is her statue, unveiled last autumn in Town Hall Square, showing Our Gracie at the mike, dress-in-hand. The broodingly gothic Town Hall loomed behind, ringing out the hour with the Westminster Chimes, at one end of a recently cleared stripe of waterfront alongside the river Roch. A historic medieval bridge has been revealed, but Rochdale's centrally-cleansed zone felt achingly empty in the pouring rain.

Cheap food: All the usual eateries fill Rochdale's central lanes and shopping mall, at least by northern standards. Starbucks get no closer than a BP garage on the outskirts. At Crawshaws in Yorkshire Street, now the shopping precinct, I was impressed to see the butchers were offering a sausage roll or bacon roll and a hot drink for £1.50. Blimey I said, they know their target audience well, and that puts into perspective the prices we Londoners are prepared to pay for a brioche burger. Thankfully I resisted, because it seems Crawshaws entered into a "transformational partnership with 2 Sisters Food Group" earlier in the year, and a trip to Greggs felt pathogenically safer.

Rochdale Pioneers Museum: Rochdale is the original home of the Co-Operative movement, founded a few days before Christmas in the winter of 1844. The first store opened at 31 Toad Lane, now a museum, and has been recreated in all its simplicity in the very same downstairs room. Even though it's not obvious, remember to enter the museum through the old shop's entrance, not the fire door in the extension alongside, otherwise the nice ladies on the desk will rush outside and look at you with pity. Once within you'll find the story of the Pioneers, whose principled economics eventually grew to become a global enterprise with a over a billion members. Above the permanent gallery is a temporary exhibition, currently focusing on (99) tea and biscuits - an inspired choice. And above that, in a loft space often used by school groups, you can push a button and watch an old Co-Op-inspired film. I chose It's All Yours, a ten minute documentary from 1955 aimed at encouraging housewives to sign-up for the divi, and a reminder that the Co-Op was once Britain's biggest business. Things aren't quite so rosy these days, but the fairtrade-friendly retailer is a fine reminder that commerce doesn't have to be exploitative.

» Visit Rochdale

 Monday, October 09, 2017

Location: Styal, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 4HP [map]
Open: 10.30am-5pm
Admission: £20.00 (free for NT members)
3-hashtag summary: #cottonmill #industrial #heritage
Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/quarry-bank
Time to set aside: at least half a day

To learn the history of the Industrial Revolution at first hand, head north. The cotton industry helped bring our nation to global prominence, with much of the production based in the valleys around Manchester. One of the best preserved sites is at Quarry Bank near Wilmslow, opened in 1784 - a year in which cotton made up 40% of British exports. The great technological advance was centralising production, from cottages to mills, enabling efficiencies of scale and increased mechanisation. Cotton became the foundation of our international trade for over a century, until WW1 broke the export chain and other countries realised they could make cotton far more cheaply than importing it from us.

The Greg family established Quarry Bank Mill in a quiet rural valley rather than a town, getting their power from a large waterwheel in the River Bollin. They took a paternalistic attitude to their employees, providing accommodation and education but expecting long hours in return. A typical working day started at 5.30am, with a 10 minute break for breakfast and half an hour for lunch, and the day ended at 8pm unless overtime was required. Initially half of the workers were children, because their wages cost less. Loom machinery was often dangerous and could lead to loss of limbs, or in the worst cases death. The supposed miseries of your working day are mere #firstworldproblems in comparison.

Under the National Trust's stewardship, an increasing area of the estate has been opened up to the public. But the centrepiece remains the Georgian mill itself, a long brick building with very regular windows, and a single lofty chimney (which, at one memorable point on the tour, you can clamber underneath and look up to the sky). It takes about an hour to follow the warren of rooms and passageways across three floors, discovering how cotton used to be made and experiencing much of the equipment at first hand. There's quite a bit to read along the way, for example if you've ever wondered what the job of a Scutcher, Throstle Spinner, Doffer, Rover or Bobbin Winder actually entailed.

The best rooms are the long galleries full of clattering machinery - not all of which is switched on in one go. Cotton required a lot of sequential phases of spinning, hence was ideal for mechanisation, with the full-length Condenser Mule at Quarry Bank still capable of pulling out 560 separate threads onto 560 separate bobbins. Upstairs I enjoyed being the only visitor in the Weaving Shed, where an earplugged volunteer gave me a personal demonstration on one of the turn-of-the-century looms (resultant teatowel available for purchase in gift shop).

Eventually the tour makes its way down to the waterwheel (not the original but a massive metal 50 tonner rescued from Scotland), which rotates in damp gloom like some dystopian hamster wheel. There's quite a bit of science to learn, if you're so minded, and a room where Men Who Like Engines can revel over greasy machines with primal pistons. Beyond all that is the cafe (a particularly popular room for Cheshire NT members to frequent on a very damp day), and above that a suite where weddings can take place (it surely can't have been a coincidence that the couple getting spliced on Saturday were Jen and Tom Weavers).

There's plenty more to see, which is just as well given the high price of admission. Upriver is an impressive horseshoe weir installed at the top of the millrace, whose hydro-electricity powers a lot of what currently takes place on site. Downstream are some splendid gardens, with rockery slopes rising steeply to an upper lawn and glasshouses - plus another cafe to hide in from the weather. The house in which the mill owners lived is also open for timed tours, or will be again later this month after significant renovation within. A lot of Quarry Bank is undergoing maintenance and renewal at the moment, so be warned that the mill building will be closing temporarily from November - best check before visiting.

Across the fields is Styal village, specifically the cottages that the Gregs built for their employees. Two rigid terraced rows face the green, one of whose cottages opened for NT guided tours just this week, but you'll need to arrive early to sign up for one of the very limited places. A small new 'visitor hub' allows unlucky souls to experience the cottage interior via a film and/or a model. All the other cottages are privately owned, and wholly desirable judging by the cars outside, although much too small to entice the nearby community of footballers' wives. Manchester Airport's runway now lies barely a mile away, so the occasional roar of jet engines must surely deter several potential buyers. [8 photos]

Getting to Quarry Bank is an interesting challenge if you don't have a car. The nearest station is Styal, which has a miserably low number of trains a day, and nothing northbound between 07:59 and 15:59. I managed to time my visit between two southbound trains instead, there being five of these a day, slightly better spaced. Alternatively there's the number 200 bus, which cash-strapped Cheshire council are consulting on scrapping, or simply bite the bullet and walk - Wilmslow, Handforth and Heald Green stations (and Shadowmoss tramstop) are each about half an hour away.

 Sunday, October 08, 2017

On Wednesday a reader called Alan Platt left this heartfelt comment.
In General I love your Posts,I read daily But I live in Fulham and am really not interested about constant Updates about Bow Road´s Bus stop not having timetables, Or for that matter the Platform schedule on your local Tube Station,FFS there are many Londoners that would Love to have a Tube Station in there area... Stop Bitching and be thankful for what you have.
Hi Alan. Today's post is especially for you.

Bus Stop M has been missing most of its timetables since May. It should have seven, but it only has three. The timetables for routes 25, 276, 425 and 488 are missing.

But it's not alone. I noticed that several other bus stops in my local area have timetables missing.

So I went out and checked all the bus stops on route 25 between Mile End and Stratford, all 17 of them.

Here's a summary to show which bus stops are missing which timetables.

bus stopmissingpresentmissingpresent
Mile End Station-4/425 N2052/4
Coborn Road-4/425 4252/4
Bow Road Station-4/425 N2052/4
Bow Church Station25 205 4252/5-5/5
Bow Church25 276 425 4883/7-9/9
Bow Flyover 256/7
Marshgate Lane-7/7 
Abbey Lane 25 108 276 425 D8 N2051/7
Warton Road25 108 276 N2053/7-6/6
Stratford High St Stn25 276 425 D81/525 276 425 D8 N80/5

10 of these 17 bus stops have timetables missing. That's a bit rubbish.

Across these 17 bus stops, 31 timetables are missing. That's about one-third of the total that should be on view.

The problem isn't that entire panels have been vandalised, just that some of the timetables which used to be inside the panels have disappeared. That's odd.

It's very hit and miss. There seems to be no obvious pattern to it.

The bus route with the biggest problem appears to be route 25. The timetable for route 25 is missing at 10 of these 17 bus stops.

I wondered what was up with the timetables on route 25. So I checked all the eastbound bus stops on route 25 between Oxford Circus and Mile End. There are 29 of them.

Nine of these 29 bus stops have some timetables missing. The timetable for route 25 is missing at six of them.

Specifically the timetable for route 25 is missing at these stops: Tottenham Court Road Station, Procter Street, King Edward Street, Bank Station/Cornhill, Bishopsgate, Aldgate East Station

Here's a lady at King Edward Street wondering where the timetables are.

Here are some possible reasons why so many route 25 timetables might be missing.

» The timetable for route 25 has changed (except, no, it hasn't)
» The timetable for route 25 is about to change so it's not efficient to print old versions
» The timetables fell out and nobody can be bothered to replace them
» The contractors who put up timetables aren't very efficient
» TfL aren't printing timetables any more
» Some other reason

Interestingly, there's no such problem with spider maps. The spider map in the bus shelter at King Edward Street is only one week old. Someone's clearly updating those. But nobody's updating the timetables, or checking on them, or giving a damn basically.

Sometimes it's not just Bus Stop M that has a problem.

 Saturday, October 07, 2017

It's been several months since I shared some spam from the diamond geezer marketing inbox. Let's put that right.
I wanted to see if you might fancy coming along to our <Ingredients Company> breakfast session next Thursday? Nutritionist and TV presenter Sally Bee will be sharing some lazy tips on healthy breakfasting and we’ll cook along making dishes including spicy eggs and beautiful little smoothie bowls using <Ingredients Company>’s pre-chopped and prepared chilli, garlic, lemongrass and ginger.
I did not share Lucy's misguided idea that healthy breakfasting includes spicy eggs. Also, she called her event an "inspo", which made me feel quite queasy.
World Emoji Day marks the first time that <World Class Cultural Venue> has teamed up with a digital platform like Twitter to tell the stories of some of the world’s best-loved operas and ballets, engaging new audiences at giant scale for the first time as part of a strategy to pivot into dialogue-platforms.
I'd hope it's also the last time, Harry. Rarely have I read such world class <poo emoji>.
Hope all is well.
I am just sending on a reminder for our press preview performance for <Amateur Play>, which will be taking place tomorrow (please see invite below).
Your email might have been less peeving, Natalie, if you'd sent an invite before you sent your "reminder".
Hi Diamond,
Hope you’re having a good week. We have a brand new, free-to-download Q&A available with <70s drummer> in advance of his new album <Album> and an ambitious world tour. We are not offering exclusivity on this content but it can be published free-of-charge, with a collection of fully licensed images.
"Hi Diamond" is never a good start. Of course you can't offer exclusivity, Morven, you're in marketing.
Hi there,
Hope you are well.
We work with <Shopping Centre in Outer East London> who are working on exciting new plans to make the shopping centre more of a local destination. I wanted to send you this invitation to see if you were free to join us next Wednesday for a coffee and a cupcake to celebrate the opening of our new Soft Play.
Feven's invite also included an exhortation to "Bring the little ones!" Being little-one-less, I advised her this was not something I am interested in. She replied.
Apologies, I thought you may have wanted to come along. It would be good to know what types of events and launches you would be interested in so I can get in touch with the right invite.
You have to admire the misguided tenacity of these people.
We recently reached out to you hoping to be featured on your website. Unfortunately, we haven't heard back from you which we are super sad about. It's our first time doing this, reaching out to people about our content hoping to grab their attention. I'm just wondering if it was something we said, or perhaps you just didn't think it was a good idea.
It's a shame Beth didn't interpret my silence as Absolutely Not. I fear she may still be super sad.
Hello there,
I hope you are well? For a Monday morning at least.
My name's Hannah and I'm the marketing manager at <Small Publishers>. I just thought I'd let you know about a new guidebook we are publishing next month which I think your readers may be interested in.
Some of you may have wondered how I reply to PR emails. Here's the polite response I sent to Hannah.
Hi Hannah
I never blog about anything sent to me in a marketing email.
All the best with the book.
Alas Hannah was too obsessed with her own product to read what I'd said.
Oh what a shame, it seems to be a great fit for your blog.
Let me know if you change your mind.
Best wishes, Hannah
You might think it'd be a great fit, Hannah. My readers would think differently.
Hi Diamond Geezer
I hope all is well, I have something which may be of interest to your excellent blog.
No Merlin, no. Nothing commercial is ever of interest, including the <£12 walking tour> you were so keen to offer me for free, which I would never have written about.

And that's my message to all the PR people out there with goods or services or festivals or pop-up cocktail speakeasies to promote. I will not attend your event. I will not blog about your product. Best not waste your time trying to enthuse me.

 Friday, October 06, 2017

9 Romford
The Municipal Borough of Romford, long part of Essex, was gobbled up by Greater London in 1965. The original intention had been to go it alone, but instead it coupled up with Hornchurch to form the London Borough of Havering, the outereasternmost part of the capital. To best explore Romford's suburban hinterland I decided to follow not-quite-the-highest-numbered bus route in London, the 499. For good measure I rode it in one direction and then, because I'm mad, I walked all 10 miles back again. Do not try either of these things.

Route 499

Some buses go direct, and other go all round the houses linking roads which otherwise would have no bus service. The 499 is definitely the latter, like someone highlighted all the gaps in the local bus network and drew a meandering line to link them together. It kicks off round the back of the big Tesco at Gallows Corner, weaves its way through the Harold Hill estate, nips through open country to Chase Cross, veers south through the heart of Romford, ticks off a hospital, then finishes with a one-way loop round Becontree Heath. Time Out rarely comments on anything hereabouts.

I remember when the shiny new KFC at Gallows Corner was a pub, not so many years ago. The 499 circles the roundabout past a banner wishing Shane a Happy 30th, then follows Straight Road - the only lane up the hill before the LCC arrived in 1948. Now 7000 homes sprawl ahead, mostly of a decent size with gardens, but never the most desirable places to live. The 499 makes a special diversion up Heaton Avenue, climbing past typical postwar semis and some bungalows to a pair of isolated tower blocks named Kipling and Dryden. Highrise living was never popular in Havering. Every so often a short parade of shops intrudes, their newsagents always sponsored by The Sun, and just one offering Flowers By Tracy. A small girl in a pink coat makes a special point to say thankyou to the driver as she alights with Mum.

Hilldene Avenue is named after the farm whose arable land this once was. It's best known now as the name of the shopping parade at the heart of the development, two stark L-shapes with flats on top, and everything the community needs stashed below. Hilldene's retail offering includes actual butchers (English Offal £1.79 a lb), proper bakers (Filled Rolls a speciality) and family-run non-chain coffee. The prime corner slot is taken by a pound shop, its window proudly introducing "non-£1 products at great discount prices!!!", as inflation bites. Outside Nat West two lads in top-to-toe grey share a fag, while an old lady inches past with stick and basket carrying tonight's ingredients home. Most of the serious shoppers arrive by car, queueing patiently for the next available space, while the 499 offers an economically dangerous direct link to Tesco.

North Hill Drive winds up to the top of the estate, past pavements liberally scattered with smashed conker cases. Only one of the houses along the way has a St George's flag drooping in the front garden, and only one of the white vans has last year's plastic poppy on the bonnet. At Noak Hill Road the green belt abruptly kicks in, and we turn left along its rim. A blond teenager attempts to board the bus cardless, and our driver sends him packing. At the next stop another young lad, resplendent in pristine white hoodie, makes a special point to say thankyou to the driver as he alights, successfully disproving any stereotype you might have formed during the previous sentence. He's off to the £3.5m sports hub with the multi-coloured walls, not yet a year old, but boasting only one car in the car park on a Saturday afternoon.

It's time for the 499's proper rural section, a mile-long ratrun lane alongside a park which was formerly a Georgian manor estate. Bedfords Park is quite the hidden treasure, a large green expanse with grazing cattle and enclosed deer, although somewhat unwelcoming from the road. It's on my list to come back to and explore properly. On the other side of the road is a scrappy tumble of land with an extensive view, which feels like it ought to be either housing or another park, but is neither thanks to a large reservoir concealed beneath its surface. Eventually a few scattered residences intrude, one large enough to have a quad bike and a woodpile, another no more than a dishevelled static caravan at the centre of a grim padlocked corral. The bus doesn't stop in these old school Essex borderlands.

At Chase Cross, at the foot of the hill down from Havering-atte-Bower, we rejoin suburbia proper. This whopping housing estate was built just before World War 2 so has a more aspirational feel than Harold Hill, indeed many Londoners might be tempted to to live in Rise Park if only they weren't put off by its location. Broad avenues with tree-lined verges and decent-sized gardens - tick. Chain pub offering pints of IPA and glasses of rosé for £2.29 - tick. Shopping parade featuring Deb's Launderette and Alan's Fish Bar - tick. One of the things I've been most struck by on this bus route is discovering (at regular intervals) that 'traditional' shopping parades still exist, mostly fried-chicken- and spice-free, unlike almost any other corner of the capital.

A downside to living out here is the multi-lane A12 carving through. Notionally this trunk road's great news if you own a car, but the queues to access it can be extreme, and the traffic lights change so infrequently that I managed to cross the lofty footbridge faster than the bus crept over. Pettits Lane is another residential road which skipped having a bus service until 2002 when the 499 turned up. The quality of the housing is improving as we approach Romford, even if several front porches have been decorated with a nameplate seemingly sourced from a Sunday supplement. At one end of the lane is a large redbrick school, and at the other is Victoria Hospital, which clearly started out as a tiny clinic and has had motley annexes and extensions bolted on since. Deep breath, town centre ahead.

"The driver has been instructed to wait at this bus stop for a short time to even out the service." Yeah, no thanks for that, given that we're only one stop from the shopping malls where the majority of passengers want to alight. A wholesale turnover of clientele eventually occurs, the older ladies making a special point to say thankyou to the driver as they alight. The new crowd includes gossipy girls with fur hoods, two white-haired women sharing a bouquet of sunflowers and a lady who gives a lampstand a seat of its own. It's very busy around here now, with Romford's retail Saturday in full flow. Vaping teens dangling carrier bags mix with bellied blokes in West Ham tops, the occasional mobility scooter whirrs by, and the nightclubs on South Street are in full afternoon refreshment mode.

We've now reached the section of the route the 499 served when it was first introduced, a runty loop west from the shops and the station, anti-clockwise only. Destination 1 is Queen's Hospital, a modern PFI affair, and the terminus of two other four hundred and ninety-something buses. It was built to replace Oldchurch Hospital across the road, whose site is now a glaringly modern housing estate with an eerily empty central playground. All the other buses turn off at the roundabout, so only the 499 continues past Romford Sorting Office and a nest of squat orange gasholders. Across the road is Romford Cemetery, where a few graves are smothered in affection, while others mark the resting place of a family member long forgotten.

The next mile follows Crow Lane, one of the original roads hereabouts, in a part of town known as Rush Green. It's a peculiar thoroughfare, hemmed in between the railway and a golf course, hence feels somewhat cut off. Several businesses have made their home here, of the kind that beat metal or tweak cars, and who buy their jacket potatoes from a trailer called Sylvia's Lunch Box. But mixed within are gated newbuild detached homes in modern Essex style, tiny empires with pert topiary in buckets either side of the porch, and a personalised numberplate on the crazy paving. Beyond Tipples Off Licence the housing gets a bit more ordinary, with only the occasional stone eagle on the gatepost, until finally the road becomes one-way only to prevent this becoming a serious ratrun.

The 499 goes further, but that's where I'm stopping, at what's still the boundary between Havering and Barking and Dagenham. The bus'll follow a lengthy loop round the Heath Park Estate and pass the Civic Centre before eventually reaching the hospital and the shops, which I'd guess is why very few residents of Crow Lane ever flag it down to climb aboard. I'll say again that you need never ride it either, but I'm glad I did, and walked its lengthy sinuous route. To understand the corner of London that often wishes it wasn't in London, and votes differently, and is different, nothing beats a direct first-hand experience.

» route 499 - route
» route 499 - timetable
» route 499 - live bus map
» route 499 - route history
» route 499 - The Ladies Who Bus

 Thursday, October 05, 2017

Yesterday the Mayor of London published a particularly scary press release.
Revealed: Every Londoner is exposed to dangerous toxic air particles
The Mayor reveals shocking research revealing all Londoners live in areas exceeding WHO levels for the most toxic air.
Can living in London really be that dangerous? Sadiq seems to think so.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has today released shocking new research which reveals that every Londoner in the capital lives in an area exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for the most dangerous toxic particles known as PM2.5.
PM2.5 is one of a basket of pollutants we breathe in every day. Sadiq's "shocking new research" explains more.
PM2.5, also known as fine particulate matter, is the blanket term used to refer to solid particles and liquid droplets with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres across (that’s one 400th of a millimetre). Some PM2.5 is naturally occurring, such as dust and sea salt, and some is manmade, such as particulates formed in combustion processes.
How frightening that every single Londoner is at risk. Sadiq's research appears to have uncovered something big. [the report] [the data]
The research, based on the latest updated London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, also shows that 7.9 million Londoners – nearly 95 per cent of the capital’s population – live in areas of London that exceed the guidelines by 50 per cent or more.
That sounds bad. There's even a map.

The World Health Organisation limit for PM2.5 is 10µg/m³. The map confirms that everywhere in London exceeds 10µg/m³, and almost everywhere exceeds 15µg/m³. Only rural extremities in boroughs like Enfield, Havering and Bromley duck under the 15µg/m³ threshold. The average reading is 16µg/m³. As for central London, and certain main roads, they top 18µg/m³, which sounds appalling.
New data, based on updated 2013 exposure estimates, shows that in central London the average annual levels of PM2.5 are almost double the WHO guideline limits of 10 µg/m³.
Ghastly. Except hang on, these figures aren't exactly new. They're estimates for 2013, first released in 2016, and updated six months ago "due to revised road transport emission factors". To prove how not new the figures are, here's the same data in a Mayoral consultation document from October last year, but coloured differently.

What's intriguing is that one year ago officials weren't anywhere near as worried by the same data.
London is now broadly compliant with legal limits for PM2.5. Annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 are well within the legal limit of 25 µg/m³.
It seems there's been a switch in which PM2.5 threshold is politically expedient. Last October the key measure was the legal limit of 25 µg/m³, and every part of London was comfortably under that. This October the key measure is the WHO target of 10 µg/m³, and every part of London is suddenly toxic.

There was recognition last year that PM2.5 concentrations need to come down.
Further reductions are needed (especially to PM2.5) to protect human health. Although compliance has officially been achieved, by reducing PM2.5 concentrations even more, the health benefits will be even greater.
But blimey, now the goalposts have been changed, how different the message twelve months later.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: "This research is another damning indictment of the toxic air that all Londoners are forced to breathe every day. It’s sickening to know that not a single area of London meets World Health Organisation health standards, but even worse than that, nearly 95 per cent of the capital is exceeding these guidelines by at least 50 per cent."
As an example of how you can prove anything you like using statistics, this is cracking.

In addition, Sadiq appears to be making a big fuss about something he has very little control over.
"I urge the government to devolve powers to me so I can get on with tackling the dangerous toxic air particles – known as PM2.5 – that we know come from construction sites and wood burning stoves. It's measures like these that we need to get on with now to protect our children and our children’s children."
The Mayor of London has relatively few powers, and curtailing the use of wood-burning stoves isn't one of them. Wood-burning isn't even the real problem anyway, not compared to vehicles.
Of the local London PM2.5 sources the biggest contributor by far is road transport, accounting for over half of local contributions.
What's more these aren't the usual issues with exhaust fumes. Instead it's wear and tear from braking and tyres that's most significant, and such particles will emerge whether your car is petrol, diesel or electric. Don't expect the new T-Charge or Low Emission Zone to save us here, they tackle other particulates, not the toxic PM2.5.

The fact that PM2.5 exceeds 10µg/m³ isn't even new, it's been the case for years. Boris could have put out a press release saying "all Londoners live in areas exceeding WHO levels for the most toxic air" several years ago, had he been so minded. This research paper Sadiq is crowing about hasn't discovered anything new, it's simply picked a different threshold.

Meanwhile there's one sentence in the press release which turns out to be more important than all the others, and understates the issue.
Around half of PM2.5 in London is from external sources outside the city.
That's right - the majority of PM2.5 particles in the capital haven't come from London at all, they've drifted in from elsewhere. The press release says "around half", but the associated research paper says something different, and the true proportion is much higher.
A big component of PM2.5 in London comes from regional, and often transboundary (non-UK) sources. In 2013 the background concentration for PM2.5 was 12µg/m³, meaning in 2013 the external contribution to London’s PM2.5 levels alone were above the WHO standard of 10µg/m³.
Let me restate that. What the research paper confirms is that London breaks the WHO 10µg/m³ limit solely thanks to PM2.5 generated elsewhere (12µg/m³), with mainland Europe a major contributor. The extra amount generated by vehicles, construction and wood-burners within the capital averages only around 4µg/m³. Even if Sadiq could cut this to zero, which he can't, PM2.5 levels would still exceed the WHO threshold.
Much of the background emissions come from areas outside of the Mayor’s jurisdiction. This highlights one of the key messages of this report, that London needs national and international support to tackle this issue.
In the research paper's conclusion, the need for broader action well beyond London is apparent.
The Mayor expects PM2.5 emissions to reduce by approximately 41% by 2030 compared to 2013. A key finding of our research is national and international co-operation will be essential in meeting this target.
Without external assistance London's basically at the mercy of whatever PM2.5 drifts in from outside. Those of us living beside main roads may be getting it worse than the rest of the capital, but not hugely worse, because background levels are more significant.

Sadiq can do no more than tinker with the PM2.5 problem without concerted efforts from the UK government and the EU. But it's only become a pressing problem because he's adopted the 10µg/m³ WHO aspiration rather than the 25µg/m³ legal limit.

Sadiq is absolutely right to want PM2.5 levels in London to be as low as they can be. But getting righteously angry about this, in the face of a pollutant he can do little about, is somewhat disingenuous.

Average PM2.5 by borough
18µg/m³: City of London
17µg/m³: Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Camden
16µg/m³: Islington, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Hammersmith & Fulham, Hackney, Lambeth, Wandsworth, Newham, Lewisham, Brent, Haringey
15µg/m³: Ealing, Greenwich, Waltham Forest, Merton, Hounslow, Barnet, Richmond, Redbridge, Barking & Dagenham, Croydon, Kingston, Sutton, Enfield, Bexley, Bromley, Harrow, Hillingdon
14µg/m³: Havering

Average (urban) PM2.5 by country
Finland 6µg/m³, Sweden 7µg/m³, Spain 10µg/m³, Ireland 11µg/m³, UK 13µg/m³, Germany 15µg/m³, France 16µg/m³, Greece 17µg/m³, Romania 18µg/m³, Italy 21µg/m³, Slovakia 22µg/m³, Poland 27µg/m³, Bulgaria 30µg/m³.

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