How do you feel?

1 07 2008

Another link rather than a proper blog post, but an interesting new site to recommend places in London dependent on your mood.  See what you think and join in….


London Recycled/Reborn

9 06 2008

With Laura Barton, Guardian journo and interviewer extraordinaire, as she takes a walk through the city of London and finds some thrown-away papers and magazines which she recycled into a poem.

Last orders

1 06 2008

I haven’t talked about Boris yet, but I will.

One of his first and most public changes has been to ban drinking or carrying open containers of alcohol on the tubes, buses, trams and DLR.  Finally, some civility being brought to our public transport; it’s just a shame this sort of thing has to be dictated and enforced.  Left to our own devices we’ve an antisocial, disrespectful and drunken lot.  While this won’t stop people being drunk on the tubes (anyone else travel on the Stockwell-Brixton section of the Northern Line on a Friday or Saturday night?), maybe removing the open can of Stella will remove some of the psychological licence to act like a prat?

On the continent you don’t, generally, drink out in public, let alone on the trains or buses and while this alone won’t fix the British disposition to abuse of alcohol, it does help to establish the principle that self-control is compatible with (public) civilised society; that the ‘freedom’ to deliberately become paralytic and defer responsibility to alcohol impinges on other peoples’ liberty to not be harrassed and intimidated.

Last night there was a final ‘bash’ on the tubes to mourn the passing of the ‘free’ country and whipped up by blogs such as Going Underground, which isn’t exactly a fan of Boris.  Perhaps those revellers should spend less time drunk on tiny claustrophobic overcrowded underground trains complaining about the banning of something that should be an intelligent person’s considered behaviour anyway and more time worrying about the ID card-demanding surveillance society we’re sleep-staggering into.

Sunday shuttle diplomacy

2 03 2008

It’s always hit and miss on a Sunday.  The opportunity for the train and tube companies to rip up and lay down tracks without annoying all the commuters… until Monday morning of course when it turns out they haven’t finished in time.  I generally don’t bother straying too far on Sunday when one of my lines from SW19 is subject to diversion, cancellation or replacement bus service.

Today was different though and an appointment the other side of town meant I would just have to grin, bear and negotiate the changes.  I knew things would be challenging: the line around Wimbledon was out completely and my Friday email from TfL showed a long list of tube lines, including a key part of the District, would be suspended.

I swear that list gets longer every week.  I realise it’s cheaper and more efficient to take a whole block out than to do piecemeal, even more so given the financial mess they’ve got themselves into after the failure of PPP.  Nonetheless, I trust City Hall is keeping them in check, that’s they’re not pushing the bounds of acceptability and setting future precedent?  Hmmm.

From Bexley into Cannon Street and then a strange shuttle service from Cannon Street into Waterloo East/Charing Cross.  Obviously not everyone had got the message, confused looks at Waterloo East abound with people waiting on abandoned platforms and ignoring any advice from fellow passengers.  They’ll get a train there, just not until tomorrow.

The Wimbledon stretch was subject to the lesser spotted rail replacement bus service, usually using the dregs of 1970s traction, almost quaint.  One thing you notice on these (less so with regular bus services where the path is better trodden) is how ill-equipped London roads are for any sort of ‘express’ road transport.  Between speed bumps, perilously low bridges and suspect driving you start to yearn for the worst, overcrowded, noisy of South West Trains’ services.

Boris Johnson raised an interesting prospect the other day, to augment London’s over stretched rail network – express buses, linking Greater London ‘town’ to Greater London ‘town’ rather than the slavish hub and spoke approach of the trains.  Ken has his own (very long term) plans for an orbital rail system but that’s never going to help me get from Wimbledon to Bexley any easier.  Much as I admire the suggestion from Boris, I’m not sure a ‘Suburban Express’ is going to revolutionise London’s transport: getting in and out of these ‘Greater’ towns is a pig on the best of times, the quietest of Sundays, the flattest un-speed-bumped of roads.

High Speed 1 (and only)

26 11 2007

I’m in the second carriage from the front with my designated escalator taking me halfway down the Eurostar trainset at the edge of the original trainset. Incredible: where my old train to Sheffield, this thing just keeps going and going.

New Midland Mainline platforms now spill out on the left hand side beyond the confines of the original building and separated from international tracks with a lattice work of electrified deterrence. To keep the continentals out or the Northerners in I wonder?

Eurostar may be cool, fast, long and all that but it’s not without its faults. Carriages have wide pillars between the windows leaving every 2 or 3 sets of (standard class) seats with only slithers of a view. Typically, seat 53 was one of them.

Today it was far from a problem and I shifted to ensure a good survey of the Olympic site, Stratford International etc. I needn’t have bothered: 2 minutes glide out of St Pancras and we’re underground… and that’s pretty much where you stay. Stratford International is admittedly over a year from being opened (and I’m sceptical Eurostar are serious about running services from there any more than they were about that overnight sleeper regional service) but it’s just a high concrete wall at each side for now.

This line is fast, very fast, an impressive feat of engineering: of the sort the Japanese, French and Germans have been building for decades. Almost all of it is underground or in cuttings though: presumably good for the aerodynamics and the locals but a disappointment for the traveller through the slit of a window. On the odd occasion the train does pop its head above the banks, this part of south Essex and Kent ain’t half bleak and dull, even worse than northern France.

Cast your mind back to crusty old Waterloo International and the asthmatic way you approached it through Orpington and Brixton. It may very well have crawled alongside suburban stoppers but you did get the sense and character of the UK and drew into Waterloo alongside the Thames, catching glimpses of Westminster and the London Eye.

Now you just emerge from a tunnel (having thankfully rocketed along the new line) and straight into the terminus. It’s a great bit of technical achievement and logistical progress but I can’t help thinking we’ve lost something too.

I can’t quite get over the idea of arriving into London from France from the North. I can’t quite fall in love with the experience of arriving back into London or the ‘destination’ station that awaits. But I’d take it over the plane any day.

Grand Central?

22 11 2007

I’ve always admired the gothic architecture of St Pancras and there was something endearingly majestic about Intercity 125s filling the air with black acrid diesel exhaust: you could almost pretend it was steam from a Nigel Gresley creation.


But that’s all changed: where HSTs to Sheffield once stood, Eurostar TGVs await to whisk you to Paris in less time. The roof, once blackened by smoke and steam is gleaming and flooding every corner with light. The station has sunk, the old undercroft below is the station, holding platforms on iron-pillared shoulders. It’s clean, it’s crisp: re-faced brick work, combining with light blue painted metalwork and flawless concrete platforms hosting the best of 21st century locomotion. This is our Grand Central, a destination in its own right: those were the headlines, that was the hype.

It is a revelation, hugley impressive and yet it’s not won me over, not yet. The old Midland Hotel demands grandeur, extravagance, a little quirkiness but clock and train shed shell apart, it’s all a little too clinical. The often-cited champagne bar lacks magnificence and feels like an exercise in making a very long table than delivering a memorable experience; maybe it would be different after the cold light of day. Maybe that is part of the problem: no clever use of light to draw out the potential of the most amazing railway building in London with the most compelling transport connections in the country.


Grand Central in New York is different: multiple levels, hidden alcoves, grand staircases along with the carefully regulated use of sun and artificial light all conspire to give a sense of opulence, romance, adventure and occasion. I found it frustratingly difficult to photograph last year but I’d rather publish blurred pictures of domed frescos and chandeliers than gleaming trains at gleaming platforms.

End of the line

24 06 2007

When I first moved to London I used to spend a day every other weekend or so on an ‘explore’; London’s got such a variety of neighbourhoods, architecture and cultures and too many people spend their time with Zone 1 blinkers on, corralled by the Circle line. And so, I added a few more zones than otherwise necessary to my travelcard and went to find out what was at the end of the wires of the tube map circuit diagram, stopping off at a few places along the way.

Often tube lines stop because there’s really nowhere else to go; the metroland population thins out too much to make further track worthwhile. However, at each end point there’s a very different feel, often a more suburban version of the towns along that particular stretch of line but only of that particular stretch of line. A stop 10 miles on the Northern line northbound is very different from a stop 10 miles on the Bakerloo line northbound.

Occasionally things get changed around; take the Central line for example. That red jugular bisecting the city; it stretches out into Essex; from Theydon Bois to Epping, the terminus, you’re travelling through wide open fields; 10 minutes ago you were in London’s biggest building site, Stratford.


But Epping wasn’t always the end of the line. Up until 1994 there was, what had become, a shuttle service between Epping & Ongar. That must have been a long journey and maybe the lure of the M11 on the doorstep was what finally killed off this little single track branch line. In 2004 however, enthusiasts re-opened the Epping & Ongar railway (EOR), putting to one side the fact that they had to stop pretty short of Epping itself, of which more later. And, given I was due to grab a beer with a mate in East London, that’s where I disappeared off to today; to finish those earlier explorations and tick off the end of the spiritual Central line.

The day hasn’t exactly been plain sailing though. The shiny Jubilee line whisks you to Stratford and the Central line is reliably efficient to Epping. But due to ownership issues, access rights or simply a lack of track, the EOR runs from North Weald to Ongar (with a little spur that gets closer to Epping at Coopersale but which has no platform and the train simply reverses back). The website proclaimed a bus service, the ‘201’ would pick me up from the front of Epping station to the front of North Weald. Sadly, there is no 201. And even more sadly, its successor, the 501, is every two hours. Yes, two hours. I guess I’ve been in London too long: that kind of frequency, even on a Sunday, does… not…. compute. I get impatient if I have to wait 5 minutes for a tube. I don’t think every two hours qualifies as a ‘service’, especially when I have 90 minutes to wait ’til the next one.

A sane person would have done one of two things: gone home or got a taxi. I’m not only bloody/single minded but a bit tight fisted too and so I decided to walk it. I’m guessing it was 3-4 miles; 3-4 miles of trying to re-programme the ‘I feel a letter coming on’ urge. That said, this part of Essex is very pretty; Epping is a beautiful market town despite the occasional rain that cooled my furrowed brow. Most of the walk was along the edge of the forest and I beat the bus easily.

This is obviously a preservation effort in its infancy; little signage, no official recognition of it being a tourist attraction in the slightest. A single diesel unit does the to-ing and fro-ing with slam doors that brought back memories of the first couple of years commuting out of Waterloo. Rickety, bumpy, the sense the track is a little belt & braces. Still, it was quaint and you get the feeling from the raft of special events that it relies on the passionate, regular support of a hard core – complete with pints of real ale served from the guard’s van at appropriate times.

Ongar, like Epping, is a single road, village-y town; today’s leaden skies weighed heavy over 11th Century churches and the spit-and-sawdust pub where I chose to grab a bit to eat. It was when my fish & sunburnt, oil-drenched chips arrived that spit and sawdust started to seem appetising. A little late for lunch perhaps, given the condition of the food; 2 or 3 weeks perhaps.

Back at Ongar station for the return trip I looked around the meek displays and the considerably less meek Swedish steam locomotives sitting in disrepair. One was apparently the train from the film Anna Karenina if that means anything to anyone reading. I did wonder what they were doing here. On a large heritage railway, sure, a great big hulking steam engine, from Sweden why not? But here, on a tiny little commuter branch line I wasn’t sure it would fit, even less sure that the hilly, nervous track would cope with the weight. A Thomas or Edward at the most; a Percy, definitely, but not a Gordon.


I have to admit the return trip was one of the most surreal experiences, well, this week at least. Someone, a regular it seemed, was playing his guitar in the carriage; it sounded, hmmm, ‘Bluegrass’ sprang to mind but I’m not sure if that’s right. I certainly felt like I should have been in the old West perhaps, not heading to North Weald. In a London Lines first, see and hear for yourself.

This time I knew I was closer to the bus for the return leg and had spotted the North Weald Airfield Museum just down the road; enough for half an hour’s aeronautical diversion. Following the rather more official-looking signs I arrived at what appeared to be a house. The signs insisted it was a museum. My brain vehemently declared ‘house’. I rang the doorbell, still within the apparent opening times but there was no answer. Slightly relieved, I skulked back towards the bus stop. 30 minutes to go and the dominant part of my brain kicked in again. Yes, reader, I walked again.

It’s these little quirks, these frustrating inconveniences, this lack of polish that make these days so memorable. Sure, I could do my well-rehearsed South Bank tour to the latest visitor, knowing we’ll be there just in time for a tube with the flexibility that if that gallery is shut, there’s a great little market around the corner. But that’s only part of London; there’s the individual, suburban, public-transport taunting part, on the frontier between metropolis and countryside, which either is too many peoples’ home (and that’s their limit) or simply not on the radar of cosmopolitan Zone 1-ers. And that’s precisely why I love the ends of the lines.