Category Archives: buildings and cities

London was like this every day before the Congestion Charge

Getting to work. There is a Tube strike. I foolishly didn’t realise that the buses would be messed up. I rarely use the Tube to get to work, and when I went home last night I had had an easy bus journey. But of course that was because all the Tube-travelling wusses left work early so by the time I hit the streets the rush had died down.

Twelve hours later on my way back things were quite different. Waterloo was packed with people who didn’t know where to go. Some seemed sad, some angry. I was sitting next to a young woman – maybe girl really, she looked a lot like my daughter did about five or six years ago and gave every impression of trying to look older than she is, lots of makeup, very high heels – who looked very sad. Well maybe looking sad was the point because the clothes were distinctly Goth – black al over, frilly round the edges, long skirt, rather chunky shiny black shoes.

An odd style for 10am. Its too early to be going out, and the clothes looked too clean and new and dressed-up to be her regular clothes (or the ones she was coming back from the night before in), and the style is too self-consciously Goth to be dressing up for work. Unless she works in one of the handful of deliberately self-styled Goth pubs I suppose. I rather patronisingly wondered to myself if she was going for an interview for some supposedly arty job, or at college or university, and wanted to look “different”. Which if it was the case she was failing to do because you could see people dressed like that when I was in Brighton in the 1970s. Except that they were wearing second-hand stuff or clothes they nicked from their grandmothers rather than a style bought off the shelf at Claire’s Accessories. No, not Claire’s Accessories, that’s cruel. But I hope it was the Goth pub. You always want to think the best of people. I smiled at her and she smiled back. Which is always heartening. Though she looked sad again later.

A woman on a wheelchair tried to get on the 188 bus in the rain and another woman, one of the other passengers, complained. She said it that motorised wheelchairs are against the rules. I hope she’s late for work every day this week. And the driver agreed and didn’t let the wheelchair user on. I felt very angry – but said nothing. There were a lot of other people who said nothing. Its not as if it was one of those refurbished golf buggies with steering wheels and five-speed gears that large Americans use to get round convention centres and airports and silly Brits drive down the wrong side of the road at ten miles an hour in. It was just a perfectly ordinary wheelchair with handles and everything and a little whiny motor controlled by a switch in the arm. The sort that nearly all wheelchair users actually use. She didn’t get on the bus, but a couple of policemen helped her to the one behind. I hope she wasn’t refused there. I didn’t see what happened.

There were more idiot drivers on the road than I’ve seen for ages. More drivers of any kind. One fool tried to pass the bus I was on on the inside by moving into a side street and back out again and ended up with the nose of the car jammed between roadworks and the kerb. A wobbly wet cyclist also tried to come up the inside between a parked van and the bus, just as the bus was moving left to a stop, and his handlebars came within an inch of us. And he nearly fell off. Whey didn’t he just stop? Why didn’t he go on the outside of the bus the way you ought to?

It took me twenty-seven minutes to get from home to the platform at Waterloo Station, another twenty-seven from the platform at Waterloo Station to the south side of Waterloo Bridge (for non-Londoners that is about four hundred metres) and it would be poetic to say it took twenty-seven minutes from the south side of Waterloo Bridge to work, but actually it was twenty-four. Yes, I could have walked it, but I stupidly didn’t come dressed for walking in the rain. Wearing sandals – I thought about putting on shoes and socks but didn’t because I was late for work and wanted to catch a bus in a hurry. Sandals save a minute.

The 188 driver kicked us off the bus at the south side of Russell Square, as they usually do when they are grumpy (and black drivers do less often than white drivers – I wonder why that is?) But it didn’t matter as the Square was so blocked with traffic we got there before the bus. And my feet hardly got wet at all.

This is what London was like every day before the Congestion Charge. Thank God for Ken Livingstone.

And expect worse. As we move towards a government that is likely to be even more unreasonable on worker’s rights than “New Labour” has been, the chances are we will see a lot more of this.

London skies

I love the light on rainy London days like this. Overcast summer days with the sun high in the sky and soft white light everywhere.

Its actually quite bright, not dull at all but the light is diffused, coming from the whole sky at once, so there are few shadows or dark corners. And no dazzling directions you can’t look into. You can see everything more clearly than you can on a sunny day. It is visually liberating. You can look at things more easily. The view as the bus went (slowly) over ridge was exhilarating. I didn’t realise I had a headache until the light from the sky smoothed it away. Its come back a bit now I am indoors.

The sky is beautiful, mottled shades of grey, infinitesimally variable in colour and brightness, smoothly shading from off-white to duck-egg-blue to battleship-grey, sometimes with a faint yellowish-brown tinge, even greenish in places. Not that boring samey blue you get in cloudless sky.

Cesar Pelli was on the radio the other last night talking about the big Canary Wharf saying that he had chosen to reflect the typical London skies and that he thought it looked better in rain than in sunshine. And he was right. There are some days the pyramid roof on top of the tower disappears against he background of the clouds, and the rain trickling down the walls matches the grey water in the docks.

And you can see better. It is easier to see on days like this than in any other light.

The 09:59 to Waterloo

(A slightly updated version of the list at the bottom of this rant appears at The Rules of Moving Around London)

The 0959 from Lewisham to Waterloo and Charing Cross seems to attract more weird people than other trains

I don’t mean the usual assortment of nutters and loonies you’d see on the Circle Line, these folk are superficially normal. Staid and conservative even.

I got to Waterloo East as normal , and lots of people got off the train, very much as they would have if this had been the 0955 that I had just missed by a few minutes or the 1002.

Maybe I should say that the 0959 is a sort of protected train, as there is another one closely on each side of it. So I rarely catch it. I had got to the station a few minutes earlier I’d have been on the 0955. If I’d got there a few minutes later – or even if I hadn’t but my knees had been feeling bad – I’d have got the 1002 which goes from the more convenient Platform 3 instead of the inaccessible Platform 1.

Anyway the people got off and suddenly it was difficult to walk in the crowd. Everyone was getting in each others way. I realised that these people DON’T KNOW HOW TO MOVE IN LONDON.

Maybe its because the train doesn’t stop at London Bridge and so most of the real commuters miss it and its full of grannies and mothers with kids and luggage on a stick. Maybe it comes from somewhere particularly yokelish out in Sheppey. But whatever the reason, they bumbled around getting in my way and in each others way. They walked two or even three abreast along the narrow corridors and ramps.
When they passed the gang of ticket inspectors who hang around on the corner where the ramps from the Waterloo East platforms reach the bridge to the main part of the station they STOPPED WALKING as they showed them their tickets! Can you believe it? And worst of all Some of them even stood on the left on the escalator!!!!

Let me tall you the truth about commuting. You have a a DUTY to your fellow human beings when you are walking in a big commuter crowd in a place where acts of public transport are committed. It is to get out of the way of the people behind you as quickly as possible . And that usually involves getting to wherever you are going as quickly as possible. So the right thing to so is to move as fast as is compatible with health and safety. To move opportunistically, to fill gaps, to pass slower people,, and to keep on going past the bloke in the expensive coat bellowing at his staff down the phone, and to keep on going past the busker even if the music is good, and to keep on going past the clinic advertising well-person herbal stress check-up massages before work, and to keep on going past the clump of trainspotters on the end of Platform Four, and to keep on going past the drunk Scotswoman yelling incoherently at her rough-sleeping boyfriend who is paying attention to his little frog-mouthed dog and pretending not to notice, and to keep on going past the film crew making a particularly violent episode of The Bill (unless of course they are real police making home videos of themselves stalking Brazilians), and to keep on going past the grumpy women in high heels going on and on into their mobiles about how they hate London and hate public transport , and to keep on going past the idiot pretending to play a broken saxophone, and to keep on going past the idiot who just threatened you for walking on the wrong side of the corridor, and to keep on going past the information desk with the bored but very attractive young woman sitting at it trying to trick you into talking to her with some inane question, and to keep on going past the lift that doesn’t actually go anywhere interesting so there is no point in waiting for it, and to keep on going past the lost grannies, and to keep on going past the loudmouthed football fans, and to keep on going past the miniskirted French fifteen-year-olds on their first visit to London smoking cigarettes and trying to look very grown-up, and to keep on going past the piles of free Antipodean newspapers, and to keep on going past the rats gambolling in the suicide pit, and to keep on going past the staff, and to keep on going past the strangely fey young people trying to sell you plastic tubs of pink yoghurt with porridge, and to keep on going past the ticket collectors in their mock-police uniforms, and to keep on going past the vaguely familiar model or filmstar or minor TV actress that the other blokes are pretending not to stare at, and to keep on going past the vicious old Yorkshiremen in cloth caps who like in wait for unsuspecting travellers they can pounce on you from the shadows and drag you down to the nethermost slaughter-pits of Basildon, and generally to keep on going, and heaving kept on going, to go.

This is not selfishness, that is being public spirited. It gets you out of the way. It gets you out of MY way for a start.

There are RULES about this. Let me share a few with you. And we don’t wan to hear any more of this “nobody told me the rules before I came to London…” Big Boy’s games – Big Boy’s Rules. (*) These are the rules. You HAVE been warned!

  • Be nice to bus and train drivers. It gets you where you are going quicker. And the driver DOES have a direct radio link to the police. And these days they come armed. You have been warned.
  • Buy your ticket or pass before you get on the bus or train. Don’t offer the driver money. That’s so twentieth century.
  • Do not argue with the driver. Even if you are in the right. You really do not want the karmic burden that is being laid upon you by the eight-seven angry commuters who want to get a move on.
  • Do not bang on the door of a bus trying to get in. The driver will think you are a looney.
  • Do not stand in the folding doorway of a bus pathetically groping around inside your clothing in the hope that you have mysteriously grown a season ticket. Get off, let the bus go. There will be another one. You might even find your ticket once you don’t have the stress of fending off delay-maddened passengers
  • Don’t try to talk. Everyone will think you are mad.
  • Drop your newspaper on the seat when you get off the train. This is NOT littering.
  • Drop not your paper cup on the seat when you get off the train. That IS littering.
  • Hold very tight please! And I mean the handrail, not the woman in front of you.
  • If you ask people which train to get from Embankment to Charing Cross you deserve to get laughed at.
  • It is always open season for hunters of luggage on a stick
  • Let passengers off the bus or train before you try to get on. If you don’t we probably won’t kill you – but I have seen a busdriver refuse to move until someone who pushed on got off the bus.
  • Mind the Gap!
  • Move to the back of the train
  • No eye-contact
  • Read your *own* book
  • Stand clear of the doors please!
  • Stand on the Right, Walk in the Left
  • The back seats on the ground floor of a double-decker bus are to hot for human beings
  • The sign that says “walk on the left” does NOT mean that you don’t go on your right if it is quicker or safer to go on the right. Its a corridor, not the bloody motorway. You have a duty to get where you are going for the sake of the other two million people using the system and if walking on the right makes it quicker, do it
  • The sign that says “walk on the left” does NOT mean that you religiously stick to the left if someone is running the other way on their right, playing a sort of commuter chicken. Get out of their way.
  • The sign that says babies must be carried and not left in their pushchair does NOT mean that you stop the buggy right at the top of the escalator and spend a minute and a half trying to persuade the little one to get out and walk (**)
  • There are nice maps on every bus stop and station that show you exactly how to get where you are going. Use them.
  • When the machine at the barrier rejects your ticket or pass you do NOT stand there like a drunken Dover sole in a warm puddle wondering what to do. You do NOT try it again and again. You get out of the way as quickly as possible and sort it out with the nice person at the big gate where they let the luggage through.
  • When you get off the bus look both ways as if you were stepping of a kerb into a road. Because that is what you are doing. And yes, much as I love cyclists, and much as I know that most cyclists are far safer road-users than most car-drivers, I have seen one or two suicidal idiots try to ride between a bus and the kerb. Just. Don’t. Do. That.
  • Yes, you do get up off your seat for someone who is pregnant, aged, carrying small children, or visibly more crippled than you are. Even in London. Even on a delayed Northern Line train creakingly approaching Bank from London Bridge at 0850 on a wet Monday in a recession. Yes, this means YOU!
  • On the other hand the sign telling you to stand on the right walk on the left of the escalator DOES mean stand on the right, Not on the left. Like everyone else does. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the pie and if you stand on the left – or even sort of lean a little over to the left – then YOU ARE THAT BAD APPLE. There is a special place in the FOURTH CIRCLE OF HELL being prepared for those who stand on the left on the escalator and I can tell you that those escalators go a LONG WAY DOWN

(*) That works better in a Gene Hunt accent.

(**) And frankly, I think having a kid strapped in to a pushchair on the escalator is a damn sight safer than trying to go on it with child in one arm, folded buggy in another hand, and all your luggage in your third hand while holding on the rail with a fourth hand. That needs two more hands than most passengers have. I have yet to see Kali dragging her sprogs through the tube system. Of course there are some parts of the lower levels of Victoria that she would do best to avoid.

Cardiff, City of Twittens!

To Cardiff, where I have never been before – for recording a TV program not that that’s relevant to this blog other than that the BBC paid for me to go to Cardiff and stay in a hotel overnight.

Well, the hotel isn’t actually in Cardiff but the Copthorne which is by a motorway junction in some bypass shedlands about ten miles west of the city. In the 1990s these places looked like the future – which is to say they looked like America in the 1970s – and we used to go on about “Edge Cities” and all that but now they already look as dated as a Nissen hut – and petrol prices drag us all back to the town centres and the railway station.

Anyway for a bit of only-just-post-industrial wasteland surrounded by motorways the Copthorne is actually quite nice outside (if not inside where it look just like almost every other medium-price chain hotel – and why are hotel bars almost universally so badly run? and why do they never have decent beer? ) but they have a little artificial lake or pond and a wooden terrace overlooking it where people go out to smoke but the wooden seats are in fact more comfortable than the ones in the bar (there must be a vast factory in Poland somewhere where they mass-produce those squeaky upholstered chairs that look comfy but in fact aren’t) and it was much cooler (why are hotels always so unpleasantly hot?) and despite the roar of the HGVs there are ducks and coots and swifts and house martins (which seem to be nesting in the eaves of the hotel) and at least one swallow and crows and thrushes and a heron and it was all rather nice.

And so actually to Cardiff itself the next day for a walkabout…

Cardiff_Central_Station_6327 Cardiff_St_Marys_St_6334
Taff_and_Stadium_6441 city_arms_6360

Driving in in a taxi I’ve never seen so many stadiums in one small city.

Cardiff will be nice when they’ve finished it. I’ve hardly ever seen such an amount of building going on in one city centre.

Actually that’s a little unfair – central Cardiff keeps a lot of its old industrial street plan. Its a sort of anti-Brum, the exact opposite of Birmingham. Over in Brum they demolished most of the old centre (supposedly the best preserved early centre of any large British town) and replaced it with a new one in Victorian red brick. Which probably looked modern and progressive at the time but we’d think was wonderfully ornate and Olde-Worlde if it still existed but it doesn’t because they tore it down in the 1950s and 1960s and replaced it with a new city centre on a new street plan based on the twin principles that if you don’t drive you don’t count and that the greatest architecture of the twentieth century was the Todt organisation’s bunkers on the Atlantic Wall. And now they have torn that down and they are replacing it with the kind of buildings that are funny shapes and clad in high-tech alloys that change colour depending on the mood of the occupants.

Millennium Stadium Millennium Stadium
taff_6438 Millennium Stadium

But Cardiff is mostly NOT like that. The old centre still makes sense. Not that its that old because Cardiff is mainly a late 19th century town and a lot of the apparently old buildings are largely Victorian fakes anyway – but well faked Victorian fakes . There is a High Street with the Castle at one end, the station at the other and the parish church and the market next to each other in the middle. There are side-streets and alleyways and arcades off it – lots of them. And lots of smaller passages as well – Cardiff is a city of twittens. You can usually get behind things or past things or walk through the middle of things. Its a pedestrian-friendly city centre, its “penetrable” in the jargon

And the main concourse of the Central Station looks lovely in the bright sun. It seems more like a bit of Trieste or Slovenia than Wales. Pity there isn’t a decent bar.

Walking south from Central Station towards the Bay area an odd mixture of new office buildings, rather grotty 1960s council flats and a little bit of industry. A huge Anglican church visible from miles away, a Greek Orthodox church, and a couple of mosques. But not a lot in the way of pubs or shops. Vaguely reminiscent of walking south from Oxford Road station in Manchester towards Moss Side though on a smaller scale and without the University.

Cardiff_St_Marys_6372 Cardiff Bus
Cardiff_Salvation_Army_6370 Cardiff_St_Marys_6373

This, apparently, was once the famous Tiger Bay. No longer lively as far as I can see, but still very black. Something I don’t ever remember seeing in England – a Job Centre with thirty or more men hanging around outside it smoking or drinking coffee from plastic cups and they are all black. Every single one. In any part of London there would be a mixture. I’d be surprised if I’m walking down a street where every single person is black (though I’ve seen no white people on this estate and few Asians) but I might well be walking down one where every unemployed man is black. That’s odd.

Cardiff, Christina St mural Roman Soldiers from Christina St mural Cardiff_Christina_St_6374

Down by the Bay and to Plas Roald Dahl. Which turns out to be not as silly a name as I thought because apparently he was baptised in the little church overlooking the Bay.

All this Assembly and Millennium (and Dr Who) redevelopment works. Its much better than I thought it would be. Well, I guess it works for Cardiff as a whole. Whether it works for the rest of Wales is a different problem. And it doesn’t seem to be working for the residents of Christina Street and Maria Street and Loudon Square, who are now just those grotty houses you see on the half-mile between the centre of the city and the new Bay. Butetown behind the front looks like a place to go through, not a place to go to.

I never realised how much Cardiff looked like the south of France. Well, it does when its 28 degrees in the shade and if you hold your camera just so…

Norwegian church, Cardiff Bay Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay, Dockhouse (IIRC) Cardiff Bay
Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay Cardiff_Bay_6387

Its hot. Too hot. I want a drink. Its bloody hot. And there are no real pubs on the posh bit of the bay – none that are open anyway. Just some Wetherspoon-alikes and some Eclectic International Brasseries. And Harry Ramsden’s. But I want a cheap pint of Brains and a glass of tap-water with ice in it, not an expensive cooking lager and fish and chips for eight quid a shout.

Back to the little streets between Mount Stuart Square and the bottom end of Bute Street and come across the Bute Dock Hotel. Which looks like a real pub. Its dark and cool inside. I’m the only customer until an elderly gentleman with a Muslim-sounding name and what may have once been an RAF blazer comes in and orders a pint of Guinness. I think I’m starting to like Cardiff.

Cardiff, lower Bute St Cardiff_Lwr_Bute_St_6378
Bute Dock Hotel Cardiff lower Bute St

Too hot to walk all the way back to town and when I come out of the pub there are about half a dozen beautiful women walking in the same direction so that’s obviously the way to go. It turns out they are going to Cardiff Dock station, so I get in the train. My fantasies of getting a ride from the Bay up to the Valleys is dashed when I find out that its just a single-track shuttle to Queen Street. (Or is it Queen’s Road) But its only £1.20 and the train does seem to be full of beautiful women so that’s not too bad.

Why are stations names “Queen’s” anything always in slightly the wrong place?

The beer in the Queen’s Vaults (whixh is a pub, not a railway station) is 40p a pint cheaper than in the City Arms but its at least 60p a pint less good. The QV seems to be the pub (there are one or two in most town centres) where rather dodgy-looking scrffy middle-aged or elderly blokes sit around nursing pints, drinking very slowly, smoking roll-ups, and making remarks about the women passing by.

Gross overgeneralisation: north of the main-line railway most black people in Cardiff have dark skin and African or West Indian accents. South of the railway they have medium-brown skin and Welsh accents.

Even grosser overgeneralisation: young women in Cardiff don’t dress up as much as they do in the industrial north of England. Compared with Manchester and especially Leeds (& slightly less to Newcastle) Cardiff runs more to jeans and T-shirts and less to heels and hairdos. Maybe that is why so many of them look so lovely. That or the hot sun and the Brains.

Us poor benighted straights have no natural sense of dar. But a pub called “King’s Cross” near a chip shop called “Dorothy’s” and “Colin’s Adult Bookshop” and clubs with the circle-arrow biologist’s male symbol instead of Os in their signs give me the impression that these days even Cardiff has a pink light district.

Cardiff_6413 Queens' Vaults
Cardiff_Castle_6415 Cardiff_Castle_6417

I have a bad habit of comparing cities. The centre is not on the scale of Manchester or Glasgow or even Newcastle (never mind London), more on the scale of Brighton or Sunderland though clearly more substantial than either. Something of the feeling of Leeds in the way there is (or was recently) industry close in to the centre and things become low-density and suburban very fast if you go in some directions. In the University area and civic centre north of the Castle, something of the feeling of Cambridge or parts of Brighton (parts of Birkenhead too, though we don’t talk about those) in the way some of the streets are laid out (though not in the architecture – Cardiff doesn’t have much of the Georgian about it – though much of the Georgian in Brighton is in fact fake Victorian Georgian because we hung on to the neoclassical stucco style of facade on brick houses for a generation after it had gone out of fashion everywhere else).

But its more of a Place than, say, Birmingham or Leeds (most places are more of a Place than Leeds). The civic furniture is on a different scale. Its a capital city now and they want you to know it. So there is the National Museum of This and the Welsh Centre for That and the town feels just a little self-important. Which is OK. Cities ought to boast a little, to show off, to make themselves out to be more significant than they are. Its part of what they are for. Its one of the reasons Glasgow is more fun than Edinburgh, Brighton than Southampton, Preston than Blackburn. They are show-off cities that think they are special, take themselves just a touch too seriously, that get a bit brash and in-your-face and sometimes fall over and make fools of themselves on a Friday night.

I think I like Cardiff.

Brains_Taff_Stadium_6444 Brains_Taff_6439
Brains_6445 Brains_6447

Overheard in a pub in Cardiff:

Landlord: “I had that Simon Weston in here the other day…”
Young Visitor from London: “Oh is he from Cardiff then?”
Landlord: “Now, he lives in Cardiff now, but he’s not from round here. He’s a Taff”.

(Landlord to media types up from London to make some sort of advertising video)

Overheard in another pub in Cardiff:

“None of her children are mine. I put all my eggs in one basket.”

(Two men talking about “Rachel from Splott”)

Rochester

To sunny Rochester to see our curate get vicared in Borstal.

For a small suburb surrounded on three sides by a saltmarsh, a motorwpay, and a prison, Rochester is a surprisingly nice place!

And Michael Nazir-Ali doing just about his last formal Anglican thing before not going to Lambeth – which in fact isn;t at Lambeth but just down the coast in Kent in a place he could get to with a bus-pass.

Really badly put-together new developments by the river though. Unimaginative buildings wrongly positioned. If I had time I would rant on them…

rochester_cathedral_6304 rochester_cathedral_6306
rochester_cathedral_6307 borstal_6314
medway_6311 borstal_6323

rochester_cathedral_6302 St Matthew's, Borstal St Matthew's, Borstal

I was going to post links to my photos of Cardiff but it has just taken 2 hours to sort them out and if I don’t leave the office in the next ten minutes I’ll not get home till after 11pm. And then I will be late for work again tomorrow and stay late again and… 🙁

A picture may be worth a thousand words but even with digital cameras its easier and quicker to do a thousand words rthan one decent picture!

Uberhauses (pardon my lack of umlaut)

Three or four of my microprojects coalesce in one photo!

Click on this photo to see a bigger version and read the words on the sign:

Uberhauses

Not only a grotesque or silly signboard (the list is rapidly growing), not only an insight into the rebuilding of the bits of London tourist guides don’t go to, but also an absurd new word. Result!

What on earth is an “Uberhaus”? And why? Well, I know what it is, its a largish flat with an upstairs garden, (which might be on the roof, or on a big balcony, or on the roof of a next-door building such as a car-park). But why? But why do the estate agents think that peopel willing to part with half a million or more squids in order to live on a reclaimed gasworks with a view of the A13 flyover will be attracted by fake German?

At least I got in first. Google has 8 hits for the word – six of them are estate agents, one is an article in the Daily Telegraph and first on the list is my photo linked above, which was only posted on Flicker last night.

Playing by Faversham rules

There are certain rules by which English small towns are ordered. Some shared between them, others unique to particular towns – such as Faversham in Kent. Thanks to my stupendous powers of observation I can now share these with you, so you will never again be dazed and confused in Faversham. Over the weekend I spent all of twenty hours in in the town. During most of them I was either drinking or asleep or both. But so strong are my natural abilities in this line I can assure you I have got the placed pinned down already! The Rules are arranged in suras of decreasing order of length.

Faversham station

  • The prosperity of a small town can be judged by the ratio of shops selling silly toys or expensive antiques or second-hand books or organic food (on the top of the fraction) to charity shops, junks shops and cheap antique shops (on the bottom of it). By that rule Corbridge is better-off than Faversham which is better-off than Lewes which is better-off than Woodbridge which is better-off than Chichester which is better-off than Huntingdon. (Note the failure of the North-South Divide in Small Town Land – this is partly because southern small towns have a quota of poor people who can’t afford to live in the city, and northern small towns have rich people who can afford not to)
  • No-one of European appearance is allowed to work in a shop that sells food after 6pm. Walking down into Faversham on Saturday evening I passed maybe six takeaways and three restaurants, all staffed by Asians, but only one Asian-looking person in the street (a little boy riding a chopper bike down a twitten) But all the pubs, which are many, seemed to be run entirely by white people.
  • Every small town has at least one pub with bare wooden floorboards populated by women in their twenties or thirties with piercings in uncomfortable looking places who drink cider and snakebite and put rock music recorded before they were born onto the juke box. In Faversham it seems to be called the Swan.

    The Swan, Faversham

  • Most locals never walk anywhere except to the pub. They all drive. So if you ask directions to anywhere and they tell you it is a long way away don’t believe them. They only ever go by car and have no idea how long it really takes to walk. London is the last stronghold of human-powered mobility in the country.
  • All women are beautiful. Even the fat fourteen-year-olds sitting in the street between the Hole in the Wall and Wetherspoon’s, too pissed to get up, drooling into their bottles of cheap vodka and giggling at their slighly older mates pathetic attempts to chat up the bouncers.
  • No-one can do simple artithmetic. The otherwise very wonderful
    Shepherd Neame shop webpage is advertising a case of 24 cans of Spitfire for £22 – and four cases for £110. That’s about 14p a can more expensive.
  • All women aged between 16 and 60 are married with children. But that doesn’t stop them cuddling random blokes they just met. Even when their husbands are in the next room.
  • If you go to the pub over the road from the station for one last pint before you return to London, you will miss your train. (Also known as the “Lansdowne Arms Rule”)
  • Somewhere there is a pub full of people who look like they used to drink in bars in Brighton twenty-five years ago. If you talk to them it usually turns out that they did.
  • There is a creek or a river. It usually doesn’t have enough water in it to float more than a rubber duck. This is why the small town is still a small town and not a big city.

    Faversham Creek

  • The older and narrower the roads, the nice the town. If there is anywhere called a “by-pass” you can be sure it is deadly.
  • Sleeping outside on a bare wooden floor is often more comfortable than inside on a mattress. Until it rains.
    Wooden thing

  • Middle-aged men who have been in the pub since lunchtime do not need to drink Margaritas after midnight.

    Oddly brutalist Health Centre

  • Ten-year old girls who play pool in pubs and know the words to Iron Maiden songs actually exist.
  • Lax enforcement of the smoking ban is not confined to South London.
  • Spitfire actually does taste better than Master Brew.
  • It was a really great party, thanks Mark and Stella!

    Elephant, Faversham

  • Fish and chips is usually nicer outside London
    Ossie's Fish Bar
  • Breweries are larger behind than in front.
    Shepherd Neame brewery from in front

    Shepherd Neame brewery from behind

  • Acts of Morris Dancing are perpetrated
  • They no longer have cattle markets
  • They still have Co-ops.
    Co-op

Smoking’s last day at the pub.

To Battersea briefly.

A. went to the Pride march, and I went to the Vicarage Tea Party. OK, it was the sort of Vicarage party with Rioja and Cotes du Rhone, and it wasn’t our vicarage, but it was over soon after eight and I missed the last episode of Dr Who – the things we suffer for the Faith.

St Michael's  Battersea

Has Battersea changed or have I? When I first started visiting London back in the 19-ahem-0s I used to go to Battersea to see friends from Brighton. Some living in a squat, some in one of those slab blocks by the railway. It was one of the grottier bits of London as far as I could tell. Not so different from next-door Stockwell or Vauxhall.

But nowadays I read Battersea as posh.

Maybe it because I’ve been living in Lewisham or nearby for twenty-odd years and compared to South East London Battersea always was a bit upmarket. Maybe its because I’m remembering the area towards the river and this church is up almost on Wandsworth Common. Though even the shops by Clapham Junction (which never was in Clapham, its always been Battersea) are rather trendier and flashier than anywhere in the South East. (Maybe they always were – Battersea, unlike Lewisham, kept its department store, even if it is now only a Debenham’s) Or maybe its creeping Claphamisation. There were certainly plenty of bars with plate glass windows or cafes opening onto the street and rather unfeasibly cute 30-something mothers eating organic food with young kids and with skinny white-haired blokes who in Lewisham I would assume were the children;s grandfathers but here I suspect their fathers.

Round the back of the church a small high-density estate (“…nicely in scale, with pedestrian ways replacing some of the roads” according to Pevsner) that looks a lot like the one I saw in Jarrow the other week.

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Behind Cobham Close

Then walking in the pouring rain through some medium-sized streets towards Clapham Common, (“Between the Commons” to estate agents) and a Blast from the Past at the sight of a house. Not because it was unusual but because it isn’t unusual any more. An ordinary house in an ordinary terrace, large bay windows with no net curtains or blinds, almost inviting passers-by to look in. You can see straight through what must have been two rooms knocked into one, with some sort of French doors or large window at the back, so you can see right through to the garden. The floor is polished bare floorboards, with maybe a round, shaggy, dark green rug towards one end. There are tasteful prints on the walls – these vaguely early 20th-century black-and-white drawings of dancers or tramps or something. There is a musical instrument of some sort. Two or three bookshelves, maybe one or two hundred books in them – more than most people will have but still nothing like as many as a vicar or sf fan might.

A young couple, maybe late twenties or early thirties. He is tall and thin and sitting on a chair, dressed all in black, clean-shaven with slightly spiky short hair. She is actually sitting on the floor, with her arm resting on the arm of the chair, smiling up at him in a Sergeant-where’s-mine-evoking sort of way. She’s wearing a chunky knitted jumper. Which she (or rather her mother at the same age) could have been wearing thirty years ago, except she probably wouldn’t have been wearing it on the first of July, such are the strange effects of global warming.

Back in 1967 or 1968 when we were kids helping our Dad campaign for the Labour Party for Brighton Council there were probably five hundred houses like that in Brighton (for all I know they might have been half of the whole number that there were in England) and it sometimes seemed as if we we knew all the inhabitants. These were the sort of Labour supporters who did not (as we had been) live on council estates or in little flats, but had just discovered that you could University lecturers (they were well-off in those pre-Thatcher days), advertising copywriters, architects, people you who didn’t quite seem to do anything for a living but mysteriously ended up working for the government next time Labour got in (and one or two, then in their twenties not in their fifties or sixties, who have been on the outer fringes of the Cabinet these last ten years)

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Knocking through was all the rage, and white-washed minimalism and Chinese paper lanterns were big, though on the way out, moving through stripped pine towards “restoring” the “original features”. A fashion that still seems to have the artier half of the middle-middle-aged middle-middle class in its grip. It had just become possible to make a living by stripping out old Victorian and Edwardian decorations from poor people’s houses and selling them to the richer people moving in next door, as the middle classes started to move back into the city centres and inner suburbs. Though it took the government and councils twenty years to notice – so by the end of the 1970s you had councils still wanting to demolish terraces that were by now full of prosperous lawyers and well-informed accountants and replace them by slab blocks and dual carriageways in the name of redevelopment and regeneration, and by the middle of the 1980s millions of people all over the country had knocked through and pulled up carpets – though in a slightly jollier version of the style with walls brightly painted in solid colours, and shiny ethnic ornaments.

The thing that stopped me about this house was the way it was so very, very, exactly like my memories of houses years ago when all this was rare. Though of course it is probably all different really.

Webbs Road Battersea

And of course no photos – as I’m not really given to taking pictures of people I don’t know just as they start a canoodle in their own living room. You can get arrested for that.

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Later that same night, waiting in the rain on the north side of Clapham Common for a bus back to urban civilisation, a genuine bus-stop conversation. You don’t get many of those in the South of England. She perhaps 60, years old, from Glasgow. He (or she?) maybe in his thirties, very camp possibly Scouse accent. He being English wants to move on, she is up for a chat.

Had I heard about the idjits in Glasgow who drive a car into the airport? No, I hadn’t – I’d been at a party then walking for a couple of hours.

She reckons its a good thing, as they’ll all take notice in Glasgow now and do something about all the wee Paki shops. Apparently the trouble up there is that these Muslims and Pakis are all integrated. Not like Leeds where she lives now where they all keep themselves to themselves. The thing about the Scots – and especially about Rangers supporters – is that they take no shite. Or so I was told.

On the other hand she (like me) says she has both Protestants and Catholics in the family, so there cause of integration is perhps not yet lost.

Clapham Common North Side

They go indoors. I wait for a 37 bus to Peckham. When it gets to Clapham South a whole load of posh white people get off the bus, and lots of rather less posh black people get on. Battersea is behind me, and the last night of legal smoking in the pub ahead. Once in the pub I win 20 quid at Texas Hold’em which can’t be bad. Though between the beer and fags I must be down on the deal somehow.

The street my Dad was born in

So to Jarrow in the rain with a metro ticket, my camera, and a mobile phone which I use to phone my Mum, who still has my Dad’s birth certificate somewhere and can tell me what house he was born in eighty years ago, give or take a few weeks.

The first thing you see when you get off the Metro at Jarrow is the flyover of a dual carriageway that splits the town, or what’s left of it, in three. (*)

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The second thing you see in Jarrow – though you can’t get to it easily because the road is in the way – is an uncovered shopping mall with intrusive metal security gates and calling itself the Viking Centre. Who on earth thought that up? In a thousand years time will Hamburg have an RAF Centre? Will New York boast an Al Qaida Tower? (**) Some shops boarded up, plenty of charity and discount shops. There’s no getting over it, Jarrow is still a poor town, even compared with Sunderland or Shields, never mind the centre of Newcastle. (***)

Anyway, I bought some batteries for my camera and set off round in circles to try to find these little streets, Monkton Road (or Street), Tyne Street, Albert Street (or Road) ad St Bede’s church, where my grandparents were married and all their children baptised. The church was easy enough. I suppose if it had been open I’d have gone in. Behind it streets named after Victorian statesmen with some rows of small houses with good back yards and alleys.

St Bede's RC, Jarrow

St Bede's RC, Jarrow

Loop back to the station rond the other side of the Viking Centre and over the railway. There’s an Albert Street behind the station.

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The houses are a couple of grades above the smaller terraces round the Catholic Church, perhaps my great-grandparents weren’t quite as poor as some of their descendents made out. (****) Not too many photos, partly because the camera memory was filling up, partly because I was mostly walking though inhabited streets with people in them and it always feels a bit odd to take random photos of other people’s houses, partly becuse it was raining so heavily it was hard to take a good picture. Maybe I’ll go back some time when its slightly drier and colours show up better. It would be unfair, as well as a cliche, to take nothing but dull photos in the rain. Maybe I could finish them all in monochrome for the real stereotype.

Albert Road Jarrow

At the end of Albert Road (Which is a street! Not a road!) there is a small and high-density low-rise modern estate, 1970s I’d guess, maybe newer. Quite attractive-looking as these things go. I think I’ve seen vaguely similar looking housing in a few places in South London (in Lewisham and perhaps Merton) and also up somewhere near Archway.

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At the end of that, a bridge over the railway, with a few small new blocks of houses called Monkton Terrace just off it. Maybe that is where my Dad was born. Or maybe this road, which leads back towards St Bede’s and is now mostly a houseless roundabout, is Monkton Street (and or Road).

Well, here it is:

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Not a lot of that was there in 1927 I guess.

There’s a St Bede’s School as well, that looks old enough to have been used by my older uncle Joe, and my aunt Vera. No phots there because odd men who stand at school gates at chucking-out-time and take photos of children they aren’t related to tend to end up explaining themselves to the police (or to irate parents and neighbours which could be worse) My Dad (Bob) and his younger brother Frank went to school in Brighton (and I think the older ones might have finished school there). The family moved around because my grandfather (who I never met) was in the army, but Dad was born in his grandparents house in Jarrow. When my grandfather died sometime in the 1930s I think, the family relocated in the Brighton area. Almost part of a mass migration, we had aunts and cousins and great-aunts and second-cousins all the way from Portsmouth to Hastings. The women went into domestic service or became nurses, (yes, just like Catherine Cookson) the men got jobs in the military or on the railway or in the post-office.

Which is why I associate a South Tyneside accent with old people. On the train from Pelaw to Jarrow there was a woman behind me who sounded just like some of my old aunts, now dead. I glanced round half expecting to see an old lady and saw a rather attractive blonde woman maybe in her early twenties, scolding a rather snotty-nosed little boy.

And how come the South Tyneside accent is different anyway? (*****) Where did it come from? Its not quite the same as Sunderland, even more like Newcastle, but it is different. I’ve met people who say they can tell Jarrow from Shields or Hebburn. (but then I’ve met people who say they can tell which colliery someone used to work in in County Durham by their voice) I don’t think I could. But I’m pretty sure I can hear the difference between them and Newcastle or Sunderland (which is not quite the same as telling which is which). Its not a very different kind of voice and there is a huge over lap but there is a difference. More sand and gravel in it somehow. Deeper and flatter.

And how is the accent sustained by such a small community? People are leaving all the time (though not so many coming any more). These places are within walking distance of each other (if you like walking round towns all day). Industrial Lancashire is even more diverse for accent and dialect (though I don’t think the Leeds area is (I’m open to correction), and the huge variety of Glasgow and Clydeside accents aren’t so geographically sorted as far as I can tell – I bet there is some real research on it somewhere) but they are based on a pre-existing network of market towns that had been industrialising slowly for a couple of centuries by the time the Depression hit and recording technology existed to preserve the voices.

South Tyneside and the industrial coast of Durham grew very fast in the late 19th century. Jarrow was a village without a railway station in 1850, probably larger than it is now by 1890. My own great grandparents were amongst the first generation of industrial workers there. Workers came from all over. Many, perhaps most, from the surrounding countryside of course, or from rural Yorkshire, or the older mining areas of Durham and Tyneside. Many from the south-west of England or from Wales, bringing skills in metal work and mining. Also skilled workers from Scotland, and small numbers from farther, Germany, Scandinavia, eastern Europe, (there is still a prominent Jewish community near South Shields). But the largest visible minority were from Ireland, both Protestants and Catholics, but more of the latter.

So the accent grew up in a generation. The oldest people I met who spoke it were born before the Great War. Their parents might not have spoken it – their grandparents certainly didn’t. The working-class South Tyneside culture that sent its men to London to crusade for jobs was only two generations deep. The Jarrow marcher’s grandfathers (maybe even some of their fathers) could have been iron miners in Wales, sheep-farmers in Northumberland or tailors in Galway.

Where did the accent come from? Is it the underlying local rural accent straightforwardly adopted by incomers? Did it spread downriver from Gateshead (and if so why is Sunderland so different, five miles away on the next river?) Is it simply a Tyneside accent modified by a large dose of Irish and Welsh? Is that what the Geordie accent itself is, a sort of Northumbrian Scouse? If so, why doesn’t it sound remotely Irish to me (maybe my ear just isn’t good enough)

And why does it seem (and this is purely anecdotal) that dialect is holding out on Wearside but not Tyneside. Just eavesdropping in the streets and on the trains, most voices I heard in Newcastle sounded clearly Northern, clearly North Eastern, but people were speaking standard English with a northern accent. If you wrote down what they said it would be pretty much the same as a southerner would have said. But over in Sunderland people really do say “aye” rather than “yes” and “gan” rather than “go” Or maybe that’s because the Metro floods with office workers at 5pm on a Friday, but the centre of Sunderland doesn’t.

As for Corbridge, where I’m staying, I couldn’t tell you how they speak. Everything from RP to Canadian it seems. This is a posh place. Though the handful of bored teenagers sitting in the bus shelter on Thursday night sounded like they could have come from anywhere between Whitely bay and Carlisle. Which I suppose they probably did. Durham’s just that little bit different again. Its a cliche to say its “softer” and has a “lilt” to it, and I couldn’t describe what I mean by those words, but it is and it does. Sort of sexy to be honest. And changing only slowly as you go up into the hills and over the top of England through to the West Coast and down to bump into Lancashire accents just outside Barrow.

So back to Newcastle on my way to the mythical beer festival, and a pint or two in the Percy Arms for old time’s sake.

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Yes, they still have a rock disco there. Not that I went. Or have been for twenty-five years.

(*)Putting little loops of highway around or through town centres is almost always a social disaster and I expect it was here, though I’ve no memory of what it looked like before. All those “Inner ring roads” and “Civic Drives” and “Ring Ways” and so on rip gaps through the network of streets, block lines of sight, segregate people on each side of them and generally tear the fabric of the city apart. Roads unit people in the country and the outer suburbs but in the city and town centres and inner suburbs or high-density suburbs streets unite but roads divide. Even where the shops in the centre are prospering (like Preston or Croydon or that vomit-washed exhaust-wreathed suburban wasteland that used to be a town called Romford) inappropriately wide or fast roads cause social problems. Where its not, like Jarrow still isn’t, they just rub in the relative powerlessness of the locals compared with the more prosperous drive-pasts.

(**)The whole point of the early history of Jarrow, the only memorable point, the reason that it was well-known at all before they started building ships, was that St Paul’s monastery was there, which along with its sister St Peter’s down the coast at Sunderland (OK, OK, Monkwearmouth) are the real mother churches of Christianity in England. (Don’t believe what they tell you about those Kentish types). And the monks were forced out by the Vikings who were (as the story goes) doing their rape and pillage bit and went to Lindisfarne and then Durham. And thus was the Empire forged. OK, OK, we know that the Vikings were no-where near as bloody as painted, impoverished Nordic economic migrants, and they mostly settled down quite quickly and got on rather well with the English. But they did do a little bit of rape and pillage. And they did some of it right here, well, about five hundred yards down the road by Jarrow Slake and the little hill. Does any crime become an opportunity for commercial branding after enough time? I suppose it does. The Ten Bells in the East End called itself Jack the Ripper for a while but it was too much for most people to take. Maybe there will be a Myra Hindley Tea Shoppe at Ilkley.

(***)Obligatory nod to say yes, I realise that nowhere in Britain, maybe even nowhere in Europe, is now as poor as Jarrow was in the 1930s – there is relative poverty and there is absolute poverty and then they were absolutely poor. Any poorer and they would have died. Its really not like that now.

(****)But then neither was Jarrow or the industrial north-east as a whole in the 1890s or 1900s when these houses were perhaps built, it was the decline in shipbuilding after 1918 (and steel and coal and chemicals) that made it England’s most desperate town. Whatever JB Priestley said, these streets aren’t and weren’t all quite the same and there were gradations in poverty.

(*****) OK, OK, its shorthand. There is no “The South Tyneside Accent” There are very many idiolects which share more or fewer features with each other. And people move, both consciously and unconsciously, through a range of levels and usages. I know all that. Its a crude shorthand.

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Poking about

I was at Sainsbury’s at New Cross, One of my least favourite buildings. Separated from the street by a huge and useless car-park.

There are men who hang around the car-park begging. I was waiting for the bus at about 10pm, as the shop was closing, and this man came up and asked for money. Black bloke, forty-ish, maybe a Jamaican accent, looked really unhealthy, dirty clothes, smelled very bad. “70p for a bus-fare to Tottenham” Which is nonsense of course. I assume (on no evidence) that he really intends to buy some alcohol or cocaine, or maybe heroine, or pay back some dodgy debt. Which I can hardly criticise him for seeing as I have a three-litre wine box n my bag. I gave him some of the coin in my pocket. So he upped his demands. One pound, two pounds, Just out of prison he said. Needed to go back to Tottenham. I said he was being dishonest. If you wanted four pounds why didn’t you say four pounds in the first place? If I give you four pounds are you going to ask for five? No of course not. And I give him the small change in my pocket, which is about four pounds.

And he does ask for five pounds, and he’s coming very close and poking me with his finger, and there is no way I’m going to give him any of the folding money in my other pocket or take my wallet out while he’s around so I say (truthfully) that I’ve emptied my pocket and that’s all that there is. And unusually I feel nervous. He is being really weird.

He went off and met a friend of his further along the car-park. Someone I’ve often seen hanging around there. Much younger white man, unshaved, very thin, wearing a dirty torn brown anorak. They do the South London aggressive slapping each other and cuddling sort of macho greeting thing. Wander off. A bit later white bloke comes up to the door of the shop and starts punching a signboard, jumping up and down until he’s broken it and the poster has fallen on the ground. (Speed or coke seems more likely than heroine or alcohol at this point).

And I want the bus to come, The shop is closing, no-one else is around, and I don’t want to be near these people. Which itself makes me feel bad, because they haven;t actually threatened me or anything. And when he does come back and ask for more money and I tell him no he just shrugs his shoulders and goes off. And the bus does come, and I get on it. And I dislike the New Cross Sainsbury’s even more than I did before. If they had just turned the site round so the door was facing straight on to the street instead of being in a hole a quarter of a mile away it would feel much safer. Brief internal rant along the lines of “no-one who owns a car should be allowed to design buildings in cities”

Overheard in a pub on that very day:

“… and then it started again and there were bottles coming though the window and I thought it would be petrol bombs next so I came back to London the city I was born in, my home. I’ve been here for eighteen months now but I haven’t signed on or registered to vote because there are people out there who will come to get me if they find out where I live now…”

Part of a conversation I was in myself:

“My good friend Sandie Shaw hates “Puppet on a String” so much… she’s being trying to live it down for years”

The Quest for Upper Penwortham

Well, I found Higher Penwortham.

Quite different from Lower Penwortham. Large parts of it are very like a sort of northern version of Woodingdean. Other parts could be in Worthing, or some of the more downmarket bits of Hendon.

Lower Penwortham is basically a southward extension of Preston. Houses get newer as you get further from the bridge. One main street, with solid brick buildings that the builders probably called “substantial villas” when they were flogging them, a few side-streets from about 1890 to 1914, an few slightly sider streets with 1920s and 30s houses, and some (rather more upmarket) infill from the 1960s to now. It looks as if the builders of Broadgate in Preston got to the river, moved over and carried on.

The newest houses of all, being built in between Upper and Lower Penwortham, on the hill facing the bypass, seem the poshest of all. Some of them look as if they might be worth millions. But most are largish traditional-looking houses, made from apparently local brick, semis or even terraced, with quite small gardens, The gospel of redensification seems to have finally got even to these newly Tory suburbs. About time too, because the “bypass” is a huge gash in the landscape replacing the old railway, leading up to Preston, splitting what might once have almost been a town into two, and isolating the old church, St. Mary’s, at the end of a long and not-very-winding avenue. This is car territory now.

St Mary's Penwortham from Church Avenue

The church looks like a thoughtful 19th century restoration from outside but I only looked at it for a minute or two.

St Mary's, Penwortham

I spent more time in the graveyard with Victorian families that lost four children in as many years, followed by their father, but whose mother survived another thirty. Or one where the mother died aged 22, not long after her brother and her father, and only weeks before her son and then the father of her son. But her mother lived to see the 1930s, and her sister was “killed by enemy action” in 1941. And the memorials of men who made it to the second half of 1918 but still never came home are always poignant.

Wild garlic in churchyard at Penwortham

Beautiful wild garlic in flower all over the churchyard. All over the banks of the Ribble. It smells like Durham in the rain. If you are willing to go through some holes in fences you can get down from the churchyard to the banks of the river without having to go all the way back along Church Avenue and walk along the river for a while.

Penwortham churchyard

Then back up to the centre of Penwortham, for what its worth. Upper Penwortham is larger, more traditionally suburban than Lower. There is a rather sadly nostalgic shopping street, and quite a few more shops ribboned out in a big loop from Upper to Lower. 1910ish mostly at the street front, most converted to shops, some older Victorian buildings scattered around (& maybe a few much older). There are a few streets of 1920s and 30s housing and what looks like a small council estate, and some very swish new crescents and closes with Mercedes and Jags. It also seems to be getting posher as the houses get newer.

At the centre (such as it is) where Cop Lane meets Liverpool Road there is a watertower turned Estate Agents, some otherwise anonymous “Government Offices” (looks like 1950s or 1960s low-rise redbrick and prefab sheds with tarmac rooves that look like my old primary school), and a large attractive old pub, the Fleece. Slightly disappointing inside, a bit ersatz and chainlike (the staff wear uniforms, never a good sign in a pub) and the building is grossly overheated.

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St Leonard's, Penwortham

Penwortham (Catholic church?)

And yes, if you walk along Cop Lane to Pope Lane and carry on, it does turn into Leyland Road as it arrives back in Lower Penwortham, just after another small group of shops, a co-op and a health centre, and some rather more attractive pubs than the one on Liverpool Road. Well, they look nice enough outside, especially the Black Bull.

Penwortham (Black Bull)

Next time, maybe.

Overheard in that pub in Upper Penwortham:

“I’ve got no time for all this software stuff. I just use my computer for what I want it for. I’m not interested in fiddling about with software.”

Then back to London by train. The wonderful London transport system isn’t so wonderful when you are arriving from outside and you’ve forgotten that your travelcard has expired. It must be even worse if you don’t know your way around. The wonderfully transparent and flexible London transport system becomes very opaque and intransigent when you have no weekly or monthly pass.

I found the bus stop at Euston and was going to get a 68 or 59 down to Waterloo and than another bus to Old Kent Road, but forgot that I didn’t have a ticket. They don’t sell tickets on central London buses any more, you have to get one from the machine by the side of the road. And it costs two pounds for a single or three pounds fifty for a one-day pass (the idea behind the outrageous prices being that you are supposed to have a pass, ideally an Oyster card). But the machine gives no change and accepts no small coins, so even though I had £3.50 in change I had to buy a £2 ticket.

So I got on a 59 or 68 (I for get which) and down to Aldwych, where the bus collided with a taxi. No-one was hurt, but the drivers got into an argument so the passengers disembarked and on to a 171, whose driver didn’t bother to make us pay again, which was actually better for me because it extended my two-quid ticket to Brockley, almost home. But knackered and carrying bags after midnight I didn’t fancy walking the last mile so I got off at New Cross and was then faced with having to get change for another two pound ticket. Where can you get change in New Cross? Well there are a couple of bars I could have gone in to, but I’d already had enough beer and was carrying too many bags for comfort and needed to get home, So to one of the grottier of the grotty kebab shops of New Cross to buy some chips.

They looked as if they were closing but fried some more for me. I felt almost guilty about making them do it. I didn’t really want to eat – I’d had dinner and also some sandwiches on the train, and chips seemed the most harmless purchase. A fizzy drink would have been cheaper but viler. An apparenlty pissed African bloke came in and asked for a chicken kebab, was told that there was only lamb left (though I could see two doner machines and one of them didn;t look like lamb to me. It didn;t look like chicken eitherm but I wasn’t about to investigate closely), he walked out, came back a few minutes later after talking to someone invisible outside in the street, asked for the lamb anyway and got into some complicated negotiating about the difference between a large doner for four pounds and a small for three, much to the frustration of the sellers. I think he actually only wanted a small one, but it seemed to be an matter of honour for him to not be seen to be caring about the price – the kebab shop people were, he said, from A-broad where all they are interested in is money, just like the government who put VAT on everything even ESOL lessons. (He’s not the only person I’ve heard moan about that – I wonder if the government has the slightest idea how many votes they lost over ESOL charges). But then an east-Asian couple came in, Chinese, or maybe Koreans. They didn’t order any food but asked the people serving if they knew any hotels nearby – there was a sort of just-off-the-boat feel to he conversation, not that very many boats call at Deptford any more – and then after somethinelse I didn’t catch, they asked if the women could use the toilet. She could, and they were told where it was, but her English wasn’t up to it (or maybe the perhaps Kurdish English she was listening to wasn’t up to it, even though it was little more than down the steps walk to the end and its on the left) so the man with her translated directions for her and the pissed small-kebab-eating man started parodying his language loudly. Sort of “Ah DONG wa PING-pang-ting” Sticky moment, for a moment. But everyone smiled it off and nothing happened. One of the things about people who work in kebab shops is that they use what are in effect floppy swords or large flensing knives to slice the meat of the giant doner sausage. I don’t know if this makes me feel safer or not.

The chips were nice.

Euston

In my previous post I praised the train system in London for the excellent way it got me to Euston even though half of it was being dug up by blokes in shiny yellow suits. That’s all very well, but it was Euston it got me to.

There are many reasons why I’ve always preferred to go up north on the East Coast line rather than West Coast whenever I’ve had the choice. Its not just the the view, or the trains, or the comfort, or the timekeeping, or my idiotic preference fro anticlockwise loops. A large part of it is that King’s Cross is so much a nicer place to catch a train than Euston is.

Euston is the nastiest of all London’s mainline stations. Forget the appearance of the architecture (cheapo mid-60s international style airport lounge faced in dirty shiny fake stone) forget the supposed desecration of what went before (I’m to young to remember it), Euston just isn’t practical. It is inconvenient to use. It puts unnecessary difficulties in the way of passengers.

The trains themselves are set back very far from the street. If you approach from the main road you have to walk across a barren Euston Square – basically a dog toilet with one gay bar in the ruins of the gatehouse of the previous incarnation of the station, then through then up some concrete steps and under a sub-Corb office buildings raised above you on pilotes, across a rough concrete platform exposed to the open air and frequented by drunks and stray dogs, into the huge main concourse (in winter as unpleasantly hot as the outside is cold and windswept) right across it to the entrances to the train shed which lead to long ramps passing down to the staggered platforms. It can easily take a 300 meter walk to get to your train.

Navigating through the succession of spaces can be a nightmare if you aren’t used to it. And not just for pedestrians. The bus station is an overcomplex figure-of-eight loop of tarmac which has buses going in different directions along the same route crossing each other’s path – you can get gridlock inside the bus ranks at Euston.

The concrete forecourt is raised up above street level and accessed by anything from three to twenty steps, unless you know to approach it from the Drummond Street side or the south-west corner, under the old Inmarsat building, or you find the one kinky dog-legged path leading up by the door to the toilets of the bar. Start anywhere else – such as the middle bus station, or the road crossing to Friend’s House or New St Pancras Church, or anywhere on the east side of the station – and you need to make your way up steps. Of course people carrying heavy luggage, or with young children, or who have mobility problems, never use a mainline railway station. Only healthy young car-drivers with small handbags get on trains.

Once inside the concourse your route to the platforms is obstructed by the entrance to the tube station – it probably seemed a good idea at the time to put it slap inside the main doors but in practice it means that only about a third of the doors are much used, and in the rush hour when there are queues to get down the escalators – or at any time of the escalators are out of order – the middle third of the concourse is blocked by a crowd trying to go underground. Things aren’t improved by the astonishingly stupid siting of the information office which can easily have queues of thirty or so people waiting for it, sticking out into the concourse at right angles to the queue for the tube, making an L-shaped block of humanity breaking the concourse into separate zones. You will probably be in the wrong one.

It is as if the building wants the public to come in from underground or by taxi or car – there is no clear pedestrian route in and out from the busses or the street to trains. As if only inferior and unimportant people came by bus or on foot. The whole structure turns its back, or more accurately its side, against the people and looks in on itself, presenting barrier after barrier to anyone trying to access the inner sanctum where there are actually trains. It is unfriendly and intimidating especially to people with mobility problems, or who have a lot of luggage. The message is that passengers don’t count, you are merely on one of the many things a modern train needs to be provisioned with. Wait your turn.

And things are worse if you do have to wait. Passengers are herded into the rectangular concourse to wait for their trains. There is nowhere to sit. The area is too large to feel safe or comfortable in, too obstructed by the entrance to the underground, by tat shops and concessions to move around easily in, too far from the ticket office or the toilets or the bars.

And they make you wait. Like at Victoria or Liverpool Street (though unlike King’s Cross and perhaps Paddington) they are in the habit of not announcing the platform your train is to leave from until about five to ten minutes before hand. Sometimes not even that. Then there is a huge long walk down the ramp and along to the trains (your seat reservation is always at the far end unless you pay extra) Anyone with the slightest mobility problem has the greatest trouble getting there in the time allowed – you have to guess the end of the station you will be directed to (it has to be a guess as you can’t see the trains, they are hidden at the bottom of the ramps), and move towards the platform in time, obscuring your view of the big board which is deliberately placed to encourage you to stand as far as possible from the trains. And there is nowhere to sit If you have difficulty standing or walking Euston is not a welcoming place.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Victoria copes with perhaps four or five times the throughput of passengers in a similar-sized space, yet feels much less demeaning. When there are crowds gathered, at rush hour or if there are serious delays, there is a buzz about Victoria station, while Euston merely feels oppressive. Kings Cross is tiny by comparison, has about the same number of passengers as Euston (maybe even more) yet fits us into what is actually a rather pleasant space – or at least an interesting one. You can sit in a bar or cafe and see your train and the announcement boards. Charing Cross is even smaller, and has a similar number of passengers to Euston, though as an almost entirely commuter station it has less luggage an and averagely more sussed passenger.

Euston numbers platforms from left to right as passengers look at them.

Why?

Short of complete demolition and rebuilding its probably too late to do anything much about the layout now. But it could be improved. Strip out the kiosks and concessions, move them all outside, open up the concourse space, put in chairs or benches. Redirect the queues for info and taxis. Put some ticket machines in the concourse. Announce platform numbers BEFORE boarding starts. Maybe there is even room for a mezzanine floor at the front, or some retail in the airspace above the trainshed (as at Victoria or Liverpool Street).

Improve the outside. Remove the existing blocky little slab rooves cantilevered out of the front and put in much larger and higher and lighter ones – curved to avoid shading the very nice Robinia trees – to keep rain and a little sun off anyone waiting there. Move more of the sales outlets outside, replace crappy concrete tables with nice round wooden ones and a lot more seating, refocus the shops on the east side to to face more out into square. Simplify and re-route the buses.

But the best thing would be to tear it all down and start again. Ideally do something imaginative. But even if there is no imagination to be found, a retro copy of a typical 1860s terminus would be better than what is there now.

London is good

Easter over, lets get back to learning about London.

Today showed me just how much easier life is in urban environments than out of them. Just how much the well-connectedness and mutual interependence of things can make life simpler. I didn’t go to work today and stayed in bed all morning. At 3pm (2pm in God’s time) I was lying on my bed reading the Ship of Fools. (I have a posting from 15:09 to prove it – Isn’t wireless Internet access wonderful?) I then washed, got dressed, walked to the station (phoning my daughter on the way – she’s somewhere in the Midlands looking after puking persons), bought a week’s travel pass with my credit card, got on a train, went to Greenwich, bought a ticket to the film, went to the toilet again, and was in the cinema well in time for the 15.45 showing of Amazing grace. (Which is worth seeing apart from the last scene). Not that there was any point in being on time, there were ten minutes of trailer to sit through before the actual film. And they have decent air-conditioning (it was actually hot in London today), reclining seats, and a bar right next to the (very small) auditorium with a panoramic view of Greenwich and you can take your drinks into the show. (I has an espresso – it was only 4pm). Then sit in the bar afterwards for a decent pint of Staropromen and a great view and back home by train, taking me all of 15 minutes. Try doing that in the country. Sometimes cities just work.

Today I like London.

Tomorrow I have to go back to work.

Spring comes to Camberwell

So pictures as promised of Peckham.

I’m just getting the hang of this flickr thing. So I’ll try just pasting the links in the way they set them up to see how it works.

If it doesn’t really I’ll edit it in to a table like I usually do. Maybe tomorrow. This all takes longer than I thought.

Select the little pictures to see some bigger ones.


Camberwell skies


Camberwell, sky, stuff


Burgess_Park Daffodils


Addington Square, February


Burgess Park blossom, February 2007


Camberwell chimney


Burgess Park blossom


Camberwell looking at gherkin


Camberwell demolition


Camberwell - big round flats


Camberwell_2745


Camberwell_2752

Some older pictures of the same area, just for fun.


peckham_has_landed0396


North Peckham Civic Centre (by night)


peckham1291

npeckham1269

Spring is here, spppring is here…

… and I walked from Peckham through Camberwell up to Walworth after church today, ending up in one of the exvaginations of the Protean Burgess Park. Planted crocuses and daffodils are in bloom, as are the first of the rose-family street trees (some kind of cherry I think – I was too nice to pick any of them and look closely enough to i.d. them)

Photos tomorrow if I remember. Despite the so-called Broadband, uploading pictures is still a lot easier from work than from home.

Burgess Park is a really odd place because it isn’t a park at all. Or wasn’t. It is a collection of parcels of land – some genuine parks, old playgrounds, a couple of rather elegant squares, some never-rebuilt bombsites, reclaimed industrial brownfield, and 1960s and 70s slum clearance, all vaguely linked together by the course of the western arm of the old Surrey Canal, and joined into a virtual park two or three decades ago by some lines on a Southwark Council plan.

Its a legacy of the days when “Inner City” meant blight and decline and local government thought it was their job to demolish houses, get the population density down, and move the people out to shiny new estates in the middle of nowhere. By the 1980s that idea was obvious nonsense in south London, land was in demand again, people were clamouring to move back in, and slums were being sold to the sons of stockbrokers for more money than their previous inhabitants had earned in their lives. But the officials managing the council planning departments had been trained in the 40s and 50s, and still thought that private rented housing was the enemy. They had also seen what had happened to the high rise blocks in the 60s and 70s and realised that that wasn’t the answer. So in Southwark they

At the time I thought it was a crap idea. If I’d been the Dictator of South London I’d have laid 90% of Burgess Park out for streets and built three-story terraced houses. (Still the highest-density livable family housing we can tolerate in our culture – I have seen the future and it looks like Haringey) When we lived in Nunhead it made a convenient route for cycling around without having to play with the traffic – up the old canal from where Peckham Library is now then left to Walworth road, or right to Old Kent Road, or try to get over Albany Way to get lost in the Aylesbury Estate. But most of “Burgess Park” was pretty much wasteland – but not pretty wasteland. These days its a lot better. Trees have grown, some leisure facilities built, people are using the park. It still might have been better if they had rebuilt some or all of the demolished streets, but it seems to be working. Sort-of.

And there are pretty flowers. As well as lots of pigeons.