diamond geezer

 Wednesday, December 13, 2017

It's been a year since I discovered that the Metropolitan line extension had been cancelled/stalled/sidelined/scrapped.

It's been two years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2019. It's been four years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2016. It's been six years since the Government gave the go-ahead for the scheme. It's been more than 20 years since trains last ran down the line. It's been over 40 years since the extension was originally proposed.

But with the project in limbo, what's been happening on the ground? I walked the length of the extension last December, and I've walked it again this December, so I can reveal all.

Spoiler: Nothing's happened, so there's no need to read the rest of this report.

At the foot of Baldwins Lane, where a new viaduct is planned to launch off from the existing Metropolitan line, nothing's happened. The Croxley Car Centre is still trading in second hand vehicles. Traffic still flows down to the Two Bridges roundabout unencumbered. At Cinnamond HQ (Demolition & Site Clearance; Windows, Doors & Conservatories) one side of the yard has been completely cleared, ready for the new bridge to stalk across, but as yet no stalking has occurred. Vegetation on the embankment, last year mostly cut back, has begun to grow again. There is no indication that anyone was ever planning to build anything here, other than on a map.

Facing the curve of the roundabout, the former Croxley Green station remains sealed off. The same metal barriers lean up against the gap between two billboards, but this year with a slight gap, potentially making it easier to push through, ascend the steps and trespass on the ex-platform beyond. The children's playground by the Sea Scouts hut is still in action, rather than being buried under concrete feet. Narrowboats remain permanently moored up at Cassio Wharf beneath the crumbling lattice bridge, rather than facing eviction. Of the viaduct which ought to be the centrepiece of the new extension, there is absolutely no sign.

Cassiobridge station is scheduled to be built where the old railway bridge crosses part of Ascot Road. You wouldn't know. It's not even obvious where the steps might go, let alone any lifts. A couple of twiggy trees can be seen growing on the trackbed above the lane, just past where the new viaduct might connect. Walk up the alleyway, round the back of what used to be Sun Printers, and you can peer through the metal fence and see where two new platforms might go. Last year labourers levelled the vegetation along this stretch to a few stumps and some grass, but after an unrestrained summer much of it is back, some of the grass head high, with saplings reappearing in its midst.

Watford West station will not be served by the new extension, but most of its infrastructure remains, plain as day. Under the old archway, one of the laminated safety notices attached to the gate has half-blown away since last year, but the other three are still firmly in place. Lampposts painted Network-South-East-red still lead down the steps and along the platform, where weeds are now sprouting up between the tiles. The former British Rail tracks can still be clearly seen, but not as clearly as last December, having been encroached upon by burgeoning undergrowth nobody's been back to extinguish since. It's much better than six years ago, when the entire cutting was a forest with trees far above road height, but a second abandonment phase is decidedly underway.

The humpbacked bridge on Vicarage Road still looks like an odd place to build a tube station. The land around this future interchange is taken up, clockwise, by a primary school, a large electricity substation, Holywell allotments and Harwoods Recreation Ground. The bridge across the former railway is so narrow traffic can only cross it in single file. Time it right and you can step across to look down at the remains of the previous station built here - Watford Stadium - a halt added to deliver travelling Hornets to the football. Orange netting draped around the former platform has been partially breached. If anyone was truly serious about building the new line they'd have dismantled the lampposts and removed the platform, because a second track won't fit otherwise. Nothing is looking serious.

At the end of Stripling Way, the cycle path underneath the dilapidated railway bridge should still be fenced off. Instead some ne'erdowells have broken one of the panels and opened up a portal to the former industrial park beyond, now demolished, now mostly mud. They might even be the hoodies I saw lurking underneath in the shadows, who convinced me it would be unwise to investigate further. One day the path will be reinstated, Metropolitan line extension or no, connecting to a 253-unit residential community for Watford's over-55s, complete with health club, swimming pool and multi-purpose village hall. In the meantime a lengthy, inconvenient diversion is required.

Last year I was amazed by the emergence of Watford Health Campus, a razed development zone sprawled across brownfield land to either side of the former railway. This year I was surprised how little had changed since last year. A lone road swoops impotently down from the hospital, all traffic other than ambulances banned, linking to the back end of a public car park. Over the parapet large tracts of levelled mud await rebirth as 408 residential dwellings, notionally a short walk from a non-existent tube station. The twelve warehouse sheds which were supposed to form Trade City are now complete, but only one is occupied, the remainder still screamingly to let. Had the Metropolitan Line extension been built already it'd have no new passengers to serve... not here, not yet.

The final quarter mile of former railway exits the development zone to follow the back of a Victorian terrace, track removed, vegetation slowly retaking hold. But here as everywhere else along the route all the evidence suggests that TfL walked away many months ago, the land silently mothballed, hands washed, eyes elsewhere. Physically it wouldn't take much to restart the project, just some heavy strimming, but with every extra summer all the work done to remediate the line could start to slip away.

The real problem is of course financial, as TfL refuses to pay anything over and above the £284m Boris signed them up to last year. Growth Fund documentation released this month suggests the estimated final cost is now £355m, which is three times what the extension was supposed to cost in 2011, and even higher than the last figure the Mayor gave out in September. Meanwhile the Department of Transport says the extension will be built or else, and Watford's Mayor looks on wondering how her beloved development zone can thrive without the tube station everyone else promised. While financial stalemate continues, it looks ever more likely that the old line will be reclaimed by nature long before it sees another train.

» 50 photos from 2011/2014
» 25 photos from 2016 (which is also pretty much what 2017 looks like)

 Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crossrail, which launches in a year's time, is "a marvel of engineering and state-of-the-art design which will fundamentally transform the lives of Londoners, businesses and visitors". It's also about to become the most valuable advertising canvas in town, as TfL revealed yesterday.
"We are seeking six exclusive partners who will work with us to launch the line, transforming how we work with leading brands to engage one of the most valuable and diverse audiences in the world."
TfL are looking to go into partnership with six commercial partners for a year-long Crossrail deal, each of whom will get one-sixth of the advertising estate, and the opportunity to focus their messages on millions of affluent passengers.
"In December 2018, the world will be watching as we embark on the launch year of Crossrail. Our vision is to begin this journey in the company of six sector-exclusive brand partners. With official designation status, one-sixth of an unbeatable advertising estate and your brand integrated with TfL’s Crossrail campaign, you will be embedded within this moment in history."
These lucky brands will get to place their logos alongside the line's roundel in campaign collateral and claim to be Launch Partners, "enjoying association and exclusivity for the transformational 12-month period". They'll be six brands with bugger all to do with Crossrail, other than they share certain key behaviours, or mutual vision, or some other weary brandspeak. But they'll be everywhere - up the escalators, on the platform doors, even on the trains - and given prominence within TfL's media spin operation for a full year. Top multinationals are already salivating at the opportunity.

When the Jubilee line extension was designed, the focus was cutting-edge architecture. With Crossrail, however, a different priority has been envisaged. We're told that these are "new stations designed with advertising in mind". Your journey through the station is being micro-managed to ensure "an integrated, clean, trusted environment, giving consumers time to absorb brand messages." Your attention is being hijacked by "premium infrastructure and full-motion capability delivering unequalled levels of engagement". Even if your head's in your phone, these are adverts it won't be possible not to look at.

To some it's marketing nirvana, "a unique opportunity that will align with this historic moment for London." To others it's visual prostitution and the depressing outcome of a permanent budget squeeze.
Catch the eye of the world by showcasing your brand to:
• A global audience who are commuting, shopping, socialising, studying and enjoying all of London’s vibrancy
• International visitors who will spend £15bn in London each year
• Influential business leaders and decision makers
• A London audience, who are otherwise light consumers of media
Obviously I'm interested. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch the diamond geezer brand in front of the world's elite, and I want in.

It's not especially expensive either. All I have to do is crowdfund £6.5m, which is less than £1 from every Londoner, which is easily achievable. The £40m TfL hopes to raise from this rights auction is less than 1% of what they collect in fares in a year, peanuts in the grand scheme of things, so I'm sure we can all muck in.

I'm excited by the cross-fertilisation synergies between my blog and the Crossrail brand. The slate grey of my blog's background is a clear match to the modal colour of the new line's roundel palette. I have already communicated the line and the transformation story to new and wider audiences, so I'm well ahead of the game there.

I embrace the opportunity to plaster my latest blogpost all over the panelled doors on Crossrail platforms. I look forward to hiring minions in fancy dress to hand out branded packs of playing cards in Crossrail ticket halls. I can't wait to see my latest Dangleway review rippling up Crossrail escalators on digital ribbons. I'm excited by the possibility of renaming Farringdon 'Diamond Junction' as part of a tie-in deal with a nearby Hatton Garden jeweller.
"This is a moment not to be missed. As an official partner you will be granted rights to state-of-the-art advertising infrastructure in newly designed, premium, trusted environments. Your partnership goes way beyond advertising, with your brand becoming fully integrated into all aspects of the new line, including PR, marketing, VIP events and digital."
As an Official Launch Partner my blog will be given regular prominence within official TfL editorial. I'm thrilled that my online portfolio will be showcased at VIP events during initial project rollout. I'll laugh at the misfortune of my sector competitors, whose promotional messages will be excluded from the entire line during the twelve month launch period. Crossrail's customer experience will be enhanced by my needy marketing strategies, and you'll have no choice but to absorb what I have written.

TfL's Commercial Development Sales Presentation includes essential audience profiles to help me select the optimum stations for my ongoing campaign. Should I target the Penthouse chic of Bond Street, the Rural vogue of Liverpool Street or the Alpha families of Canary Wharf? Is my target market the mature married couples of Paddington, the pet owners of Farringdon or the large extended families of Whitechapel? If you thought Crossrail was only a transport project, think again.

My crowdfunding initiative will launch early next year, aligned to the unveiling of TfL's virtual reality showcase for potential partners. In March I'll be taking up the offer of site tours for interested parties, keen to visit the subterranean portfolio with the Director for Commercial Development to scrutinise locational opportunities first hand. I'll submit my tender in April, as required, and expect to be announced as a successful partner in October. Please give generously.

You'll be seeing a lot more of the six winning Official Launch Partners when Crossrail launches, as trains and real estate are liberally scattered with targeted advertising collateral. Imagine facing adverts for Audi, BUPA, NatWest, Shell, Sky and Smirnoff, or whoever, on every commuter journey for an entire year. A railway triumph we thought had been hijacked by the Queen will instead be dominated by half a dozen highest bidders, unavoidably embedded in the customer experience, as the new line finally reveals its true colours.

 Monday, December 11, 2017

Here are half a dozen photos of a snowy Olympic Park.

Feel free to ignore them, and revel in your own snow experiences instead.

It's time to update my list of snowy days, specifically days this century when it's snowed in London.

You can do this thing when you're the sort of person who keeps a daily diary, and who adds a special symbol every time it snows. This is therefore a wholly unscientific list, unverified by meteorological professionals, and sometimes dependent on whether I happened to be looking out of the window or not at the crucial moment. Indeed the whole thing's woefully subjective, sorry, but it's better than nothing, OK?

It snowed on every date listed in the tables below. Most snow events were just a few flakes or a light sprinkling. If it snowed enough to properly settle, the date's in bold. If it snowed a lot, and settled a lot, the date's underlined.

Snowy days in London (2001-2017)
2001Jan 18, Mar 2 
2003Jan 8 30 
2004Jan 28 
2005Feb 21 22, Mar 4Dec 27
2006Feb 23 
2007Mar 19 
2008Mar 22 23Nov 23
2009Jan 5, Feb 1 2, Apr 6Dec 16 17 18 21
2010Jan 5 6 8 9 12 13, Feb 8 10  Nov 30, Dec 1 2 3 6 16 17 18 20
2011 Dec 16
2012Jan 31, Feb 4 9 
2013Jan 14 18 19 20 21 23, Feb 11 22 23 24, Mar 11 13 23 24 30, Apr 4 
2015Jan 31, Feb 3, Mar 3Nov 21
2016Jan 17 
2017Jan 12 13, Feb 10 11Nov 30, Dec 10 11

Some thoughts...
* 2017 is one of only four years with as many as six snowy days.
* Yesterday was one of London's very few snowman-making days this century.
* My word, the winter of 2013 stands out (but then it didn't snow again for almost two years).
* January is the snowiest month, followed by December and February, then March.
* It snows a lot more at the start of the year than the end of the year.
* There have only been two snow-free years this century - 2002 and 2014.
* If it snows, it only settles about one-third of the time.
* If you live outside London, yes I know, "bold/underlined" is nothing compared to what you get.
* Whatever global warming may be up to, it does still sometimes snow in London.
* For a rather more precise set of data, check out the nw3weather website.

 Sunday, December 10, 2017

K Twickenham
The London borough of Richmond is unique in that it spans the Thames, its north-of-the-river portion being the former Municipal Borough of Twickenham. Within its boundaries were Hampton Court Palace, Teddington Studios, the National Physical Laboratory and of course the home of English rugby union at Twickenham Stadium. But I've chosen to visit a much less well known tourist attraction, barely a dropkick from the rugby, in the leafy suburb of Whitton. Kneller Hall's collection is only available for viewing for two hours a week, and you need security clearance to get inside, but my word it's worth the effort.

The Museum of Army Music

Location: Kneller Hall, Whitton TW2 7DU [map]
Open: Wednesdays, 2pm-4pm (or by arrangement)
Website: army.mod.uk/music/23294.aspx
Twitter: @armymusicmuseum
Facebook: Museum-of-Army-Music

Whitton's a mixed bag of a suburb, with winding residential avenues and an arterial road slicing through. Its high street is probably the best preserved 1930s high street in the capital, neither over-posh nor unduly chained, almost as if Middlesex were still a thriving entity. But head slightly north and you'll discover a large enclave surrounded by razor wire under the ownership of the British Army. And within the security perimeter, somewhat unexpectedly, is a large neo-Jacobethan mansion with a grand facade, all redbrick bays and pointy towers.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, the finest portrait painter of his age, built his Hall in 1709 on the site of a former manor house, allegedly from a design by Sir Christopher Wren. After his death the house was sold on to a lawyer, then an MP, before being mostly demolished and rebuilt in even grander style. The first new tenant was a teacher training college, then in 1857 Kneller Hall was taken over by the War Office as their first ever school for army bandsmen. Previously it hadn't really mattered that every regiment played music their own way, but the advent of collective military ceremonial, watched by Her Majesty the Queen, forced a rethink. The music school's been here 160 years.

Getting inside is... memorable. I turned up on spec on a Wednesday afternoon, and spent a few minutes looking for a public way in. No such entrance exists. Instead all visitors have to use the main gate, which is padlocked shut, by gaining the attention of the soldier on the far side. I asked whether the museum was open, and he seemed uncertain for a moment, then unlocked the gate and allowed me inside. This felt slightly surreal. Ten minutes earlier I'd been looking at novelty t-shirts in The Rugby Store, and now I was a civilian lurking inside an army base.

Next stop the Guardroom, which is a bit like a concierge's desk but with focused military intent. Most of the hut's business can be conducted through a window at the front, but I had to step inside to open up a chain of communication, and again to have my mugshot taken. I also wasn't going to get any further without showing photo ID - a driving licence sufficed - and then I had to stand around and wait while my details were being checked against some unknown database of national security ne'erdowells. Thankfully I appear to have passed, and a black and white badge was printed out for me to dangle during the rest of my visit.

The Museum of Army Music occupies three of the main rooms on the ground floor of the main building. During the rest of the week they're part of the music school, so rehearsals or drill or study might happen within, but on Wednesday afternoons the squaddies have to get out and the rooms revert to being a collection of display cases. Don't expect to look round unsupervised, I was shepherded by a curator throughout my visit, but that was excellent because she truly brought the place to life.

Over the course of 160 years the museum's accumulated a unique collection, and all from within its own ranks. A wide array of drums is on show, each bearing the painted names of the major campaigns that regiment was involved in. The gorgeous music stand banners have a rather sadder backstory - each ends up here only after its regiment has been dissolved or merged with another, which in these days of Army cuts is all too frequently. A large section is given over to Trooping the Colour, or the Queen's Birthday Parade as it's more properly known, the major annual event at which the armed forces' musicians get to showcase their talents.

The museum's particularly good at showing the evolution of instruments over time, for example how the serpent became the ophicleide became the tuba. They have all the saxophones, despite this not being an instrument you'd normally associate with a military band. They have a pair of super-duper cornets with additional tubing to allow the user to mimic other brass instruments whilst only carrying one. And they also have the pair of busted-looking bugles pictured below, one of which was sounded at the Charge of the Light Brigade and the other on the battlefield of Waterloo. The manuscript book comes from the latter, according to the inscription "picked up by the side of the dead body of a poor drummer boy."

I hadn't previously considered that brass instruments used on battlefields needed to be dull rather than shiny because a telltale glint might get you shot. I learned that army musicians no longer have front line roles because modern warfare requires more specialised training, although they do still spend a fair bit of time on location charged with keeping up morale. And I also got lucky with a slightly broader tour of the house than I think most visitors get, including a nose into the Officers Mess (all armchairs and portraits) and a trip upstairs to see the historic chapel where services double up as additional practice for spiritual ceremonial.

But Kneller Hall's days may finally be numbered, as budget cuts force the downsizing of the MoD estate. The Defence Minister announced last year that the site was to be 'released', with permanent closure currently scheduled for 2020. There just aren't enough trainees left - current numbers are nearer 25 than the original 250 - and the upkeep of a historic building for general admin duties isn't an efficient use of limited funds. Some lucky developer could surely make a fortune by knocking down the barracks and building on the sports ground, although the main house isn't in the best of nick after years of underfunded maintenance so any renovation for luxury apartments might be a costly gamble.

It's OK, the museum has accredited status so its future is secure, and the Royal Military School of Music will be relocated to an as yet undecided location. But its new home will undoubtedly be a long way from London, so if you want to see the collection and poke around inside a historic military building, you probably only have a couple of years left. In the meantime regular chances to enter Kneller Hall exist in the summer when a series of evening concerts take place in the grounds at a specially constructed mega-bandstand. But the museum is off-limits on music nights, so Wednesday afternoons remain your best chance to infiltrate a working army base and meet the top brass.

 Saturday, December 09, 2017

One year from today, on Sunday 9th December 2018, Crossrail begins.

One year from today, finally, blimey.

But perhaps not quite in the format you were expecting.

Those of us who've been paying attention have long known we won't get be getting the full Crossrail service until the end of 2019, and that the Abbey Wood branch will be opening first.

But only yesterday did I see written confirmation, tucked away at the bottom of a TfL press release, that Crossrail will be...
...operating initially as three separate services:
Paddington to Abbey Wood
Paddington to Heathrow
Liverpool Street to Shenfield
Paddington to Abbey Wood includes Crossrail's 'proper' central section, and all the big inner London stations that billions have been spent on building. Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon all open on Day 1, along with Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Custom House and Woolwich. Bet you can't wait to get down there. Trains will initially be running every 4 minutes, which may not be quite as frequent as you were hoping for, but it'll do for starters.

Paddington to Heathrow currently exists as Heathrow Connect, but will be rebranded TfL Rail from May 2018. Trains will run twice as often - that's four times an hour, stepping up to six at the end of 2019. It's not yet been confirmed how fares to Heathrow will be set, but expect to pay more than if you trundle in on the Piccadilly line. Heathrow Express services are not affected, for people who think saving 10 minutes is worth an extra £12, and tourists who don't know any better than buying the first ticket they see.

Liverpool Street to Shenfield has been running as TfL Rail since last year, with new Crossrail trains being brought sequentially into service. Nothing will change in December 2018, other than an onslaught of rebranding. Only in May 2019 will these trains start slipping down the new tunnels between Stratford and Whitechapel, increasing the number of trains on the central section from 15 an hour to 24.

To summarise, there's currently one TfL Rail service on the tube map, from Liverpool Street to Shenfield. Next May a second disjoint TfL Rail service will appear, from Paddington to Heathrow. In one year's time the TfL Rail brand disappears as Crossrail's central section opens with trains out to Abbey Wood... but each of these three sections will initially operate as a separate service.

Until December 2019, if you want to get from Bond Street to Heathrow, you'll have to change at Paddington. This will involve alighting from your Crossrail train at Paddington, ascending from the underground platforms to ground level, and boarding a separate Crossrail train at the mainline station. This diagram I've found on a hoarding at Whitechapel station sort-of shows what'll be going on. It's not exactly interchange nirvana, and will add several minutes to your journey, but it is only for a year.

Meanwhile at Liverpool Street there'll be another disconnect.

Until May 2019, if you want to get from Tottenham Court Road to Stratford, you'll have to change at Liverpool Street. This will involve alighting from your Crossrail train at Liverpool Street, ascending from the underground platforms to ground level, and boarding a separate Crossrail train at the mainline station. It's not interchange nirvana, and will add several minutes to your journey, but it is only for a few months.... and there's always the Central line, which might even turn out to be a less annoying way of doing it.

But whereas the Paddington disconnect will eventually disappear, the Liverpool Street disconnect is scheduled to continue as a special case. In the morning peak some westbound trains on the Shenfield branch will be terminating at Liverpool Street, above ground, rather than descending into the tunnel and running all the way through to Paddington. This means some trains will be going from Stratford to Liverpool Street via Whitechapel, underground, and others will be going from Stratford to Liverpool Street via no intermediate stations, overground. That's going to take a bit of explaining.

This complexity will be mirrored in the evening peak because some eastbound trains will be starting at Liverpool Street main line station, above ground, while others will be running through via the subterranean platforms. Liverpool Street will continue to have two Crossrail stations, one High Level, one Low Level, and it will sometimes be crucial to know which is which. Will they end up with two different names? Might only the occasionally-used high level platforms get called something else? Whatever happens on the Shenfield branch, expect route diagrams in carriages to be a bit complicated, and onboard announcements to be potentially complex.

Anyway, that's all for the future. What's important is that the first proper Crossrail service launches one year from today, and travelling through central London will never be the same again. To begin with it won't be quite as fantastic as you're expecting, and a journey from Heathrow to Shenfield will involve two split-level changes of train. But all of Crossrail's bits will eventually be connected up, and one day we'll forget about the year-long intermediate stage, indeed we'll wonder how London ever got by without it. 365 days, and counting.

 Friday, December 08, 2017

A sharp line of stormy rain is advancing rapidly across southeast England, heralding the arrival of winter chill.

If I time it right, I think, I can get to the chemists in Stroudley Walk before it arrives. I time it wrong.
"Stroudley Walk Market lies in the heart of Bow, an area which was immortalised by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Situated within the East End, people often believe that to be a true Cockney you need to be born within earshot of the sound of the Bow Bells."

I laugh sometimes at the twaddle written about my local shops. Chaucer wrote about a nunnery later destroyed by Henry VIII, not the scabby ruins of a churchyard half buried beneath a dual carriageway. The Bow Bells beloved of Cockneys are in Cheapside, three miles hence, a fact which regularly escapes the marketing muppets hired to upsell Tower Hamlets.
I see the squall advancing up Rainhill Way, a swirling curtain of water whipped up by the wind. In a split second it's upon me, damper by multiple factors than the previous rain, a whole new meaning to the word wet. Fortunately I'm only a couple of steps from the shelter of the arches outside the old post office so duck under, shiver imperceptibly and stop to watch the onslaught.
"Serving the local community as a small local market providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Stroudley Walk Market supplements the other local provisions in the square, such as the post office, dry cleaner and health centre."

Whoever wrote this blurb has mastered the art of overstatement. What they've called "Stroudley Walk Market" is in fact the ultimate in a micro-economics, a single market stall plonked in the middle of a gaping concrete void. Postwar planners had high hopes for the viability of this rebuilt high street, leaving space for at least fifty market stalls along a pedestrianised piazza. Instead just one trader sets up his fruit and veg stall daily, a few boxes of fruit and veg unpriced beneath an awning, and local mothers look in occasionally for okra and onions.
A barrage of water flushes down onto the single stall, its striped sheeting flapping in the gale. The group hiding inside is hit sideways by an icy blast and swiftly recognises that staying put is not an option. The trader runs first, dashing across the square to the closest end of the brick arcade. His partner follows a few steps behind, and then the two ladies who were either shopping or talking, it's no longer possible to tell. Both are briefly but emphatically soaked, their headscarves no match for the December monsoon.

Next to flee is an empty wooden box, tipped off its crate and toppling onto the pavement at an awkward angle. A young Chinese couple, glasses steamed, run in from the High Street. They were much further from shelter when the rain strengthened, all of fifteen seconds ago, so have had to make a fast dash to our colonnade to avoid getting sodden. We wait together, the seven of us a microcosm of the new East End, outside a shuttered window and a locked door.
"Serving the local community as a small local market providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Stroudley Walk Market supplements the other local provisions in the square, such as the post office, dry cleaner and health centre."

The Post Office in Stroudley Walk closed in 2014, and reopened at the back of a supermarket on Bow Road. Nobody mourned. Its miserable interior has been shut off ever since, no other commercial interest interested, nor ever likely to be so. The fish and chip shop nextdoor metamorphosed this summer into a halal grill specialising in chicken in a variety of moulded forms. Its menu does include something called 'Cod Meal', but more likely microwaved than fried, and you're no doubt better off with a biryani.
The rain eases fractionally then whips back with a stormy squall which makes the market stall almost disappear. We hunker down as the precipitation comes in sheets. The pool of water accumulating on top of the awning inexorably approaches critical mass, then suddenly gushes over the lip in a heavy wave. A box of fruit or vegetables underneath proves perfectly positioned for a consummate soaking. I think tomatoes, but maybe onions, and now is not the time to go over and check.

A young man in crocheted cap and tunic splashes by, running from midday prayers to the DLR, because needs must. On the far side of a growing puddle, the electronic screen on what used to be a phone box beams out a video advert for Hugo Boss fragrance, in flagrant disregard for the local demographic. Ladbrokes must surely be missing its most persistent betting clientele this lunchtime, because nobody'll be keen to slouch outside with copious cans of lager in this weather.
"Serving the local community as a small local market providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Stroudley Walk Market supplements the other local provisions in the square, such as the post office, dry cleaner and health centre."

The dry cleaners finally closed a few weeks ago, or rather was relocated to an alternative unit near the hairdressers, entirely lacking the grimy ambience of the original. Its flight leaves the entire parade shuttered and empty, ready for redevelopment plans that have been on the drawing board for years but never yet materialised. All the units at the far end of Stroudley Walk are due to be demolished and replaced by flats. The entire windswept expanse where a bustling market never materialised is due to become more flats. The tallest block of flats is due to become a taller block of flats. The former Rose and Crown is listed so can't be knocked down, so will likely remain a peri-peri coffee shop.

The Chinese couple are the first to make a break for it, ill-advisedly as it turns out, the rain conspiring to strengthen as they flee. I hang on another minute, because I've seen the radar image so know the storm front is only brief, and my hair might just dry out a bit while I wait. When I'm satisfied the worst is past I duck out from my shelter and continue past the corner shop to Bow Pharmacy, where it turns out they don't have my tablets in stock anyway so I need never have come.

The rain is less ferocious on my return. The fruit and veg stall is being reassembled, ready for occasional ladies to drop by and gather ingredients for tonight's dinner. The remainder of the piazza is quiet, as it generally is these days, in sharp contrast to 100 years ago when this was a positively thriving high street. If post-Olympic plans get their way a fresh retail district will be constructed on the other side of the A12 where Tesco is now, and what commercial life there is in this economic backwater will be mostly flushed away. Stroudley Walk feels utterly washed out, and not just because of the weather.

 Thursday, December 07, 2017

I have no idea if this will work but let's give it a try...

I'm attempting to compile a map of free toilets in inner/central London.

• free - no entrance charge to the toilets, or the building
• both Ladies and Gentlemen
• Zone 1 or Zone 2 only
• in public places - not in pubs/hotels/restaurants/supermarkets
• not "Community Toilets"
• not on the far side of a security check or a ticket barrier



Several libraries, including Willesden, Church Street and Maida Vale

St Pancras International station
British Library
Wellcome Centre
Camden High Street
The O2 Centre
South End Green
Hampstead Heath

Several libraries, including Pancras Square, Camden Town and Holborn

Angel Centre
Chapel Market
Old Street Roundabout
Nags Head shopping centre

Several libraries, including Finsbury and Central

Hoxton Market
London Fields
Narrow Way
Ridley Road
Dalston Passage
Clissold Park
Hackney Marshes

Several libraries, including Hackney Central, Dalston and Shoreditch

Westfield London
Kings Mall shopping centre

Several libraries, including Hammersmith, Fulham and Shepherd's Bush

Several large department stores, including Selfridges, John Lewis, Heals, Hamleys, Harrods, Waterstones Piccadilly

St Martin in the Fields
Lincolns Inn Fields
Paddington Street Gardens
Victoria station
Charing Cross station
National Gallery & NPG
British Museum
Royal Academy
Somerset House
Hyde Park - bandstand and Lido cafe
Tachbrook Street market
Tate Britain

Several libraries, including Leicester Square, Charing Cross Road and Mayfair

Cannon Street station
Fenchurch Street station
Barbican Centre
One New Change
St Paul's Cathedral crypt
Bishopsgate Library

Five City libraries

Spitalfields Market
Museum of Childhood
Whitechapel Gallery
Royal London Hospital
Victoria Park
Canary Wharf: tube station, shopping centres, Crossrail
Museum of London Docklands

All the Idea Stores

'The Museums', notably the V&A
Bevington Road
Kensington Town Hall
Talbot Road
Westbourne Grove
Design Museum
Peter Jones
Saatchi Gallery

Three libraries

Royal Festival Hall
BFI & National Theatre
Gabriels Wharf
Oxo Tower
Tate Modern
London Bridge station

Westfield Stratford City
Stratford International station
Canning Town bus station
QEOP: cafe by Orbit, View Tube, Aquatics Centre, Timber Lodge

Southside shopping centre
Circus West, Battersea Power Station
Battersea Park
Debenhams, Clapham Jn
Wandsworth Cemetery
Putney Exchange

Several libraries, including Wandsworth Town and Battersea Park

Vauxhall bus station
St Thomas' Hospital
Myatt’s Fields Park
Brockwell Park
Clapham Common

Several libraries, including Waterloo, Brixton and Clapham

Southwark Cathedral
Surrey Quays Shopping Centre
Canada Water bus station
Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park
Burgess Park
Maltby Street Market
East Street Market

Several libraries, including Nunhead, Peckham and Canada Water


National Maritime Museum (at all sites)
Old Royal Naval College Visitor Centre
King William Walk
North Greenwich station
The O2
Lewisham Shopping Centre
Hilly Fields

Several libraries, including Deptford and Greenwich

I haven't managed to think of many.
I'm sure there are several more.
But not a huge number when you need one...
...which is the point of the map.

If you have any suggestions, please add them to the appropriate comments box, and I'll add them to the map. Free toilets only, remember. It'd help if you could confirm that they are free (or, if I've added any that aren't free, tell me that).

5pm update: Thanks everyone! The map now has about 60 more free toilets than it had at 7am, courtesy of your contributions. Some aspects of the list are a bit subjective, so sorry if you don't like how I've done it, or if your choice hasn't been added. Further suggestions (or additional information about toilets I haven't included) still very welcome.

» The TfL webpage Public toilets in London lists toilets at stations and, brilliantly, links to the relevant webpage on dozens of London borough websites. Special mentions to Camden, Greenwich, Kensington and Chelsea and Islington for crystal clear lists. No prizes for Lambeth. Boo to Southwark, for having a great list on the old version of their website they're about to switch off.
» This TfL toilet map of loos at tube stations is good, but doesn't tell you if the toilet is free or not.
» There's also The Great British Toilet Map, an online scrollable map which is nationally comprehensive, and very detailed, but not always easy to scrutinise.

 Wednesday, December 06, 2017

I'll miss [X].

I've always enjoyed [X], and I feel sad about its loss.

[X] has been an integral part of our lives, and mine in particular, for more years than I care to imagine. It's hard to believe we might be facing a world without [X]. But as times change, this process seems to be very much underway. Why are we so keen to allow [X] to disappear?

Sometimes I get all nostalgic for the golden days of [X]. I confess I never thought [X] would fade away, but reality suggests that this is precisely what's happening. Indeed, some would argue we're already past the point of no return, and others that it's already essentially dead. In an increasingly changing world, perhaps [X]'s card was always marked.

I always used to look forward to [X] as a simple pleasure in an uncluttered life. Things were slower then, so it was always possible to relax and enjoy [X] in its most basic form. We never had any worries about wifi connections or battery usage, nor delivery windows, nor health and safety, nor a million and one other modern dilemmas, not when [X] was king.

Things seemed oh so simple then. We all took [X] for granted. I know I did. Back then [X] was just an ordinary part of daily routine, quite literally "the way things were done", the default option. All of us accepted that [X] was only available where you could get it, quite unlike today. Truly those were different times.

If you talk to today's young people about [X], they just look at you. Indeed young people often find it inconceivable that things were ever done that way, given how widespread the alternatives have become. And whilst it's not entirely fair to blame millennials for [X]'s loss, it is the general shift towards modern ways which has created this irreversible change.

Is it time to go back to the good old days, and let [X] live again? We were certainly happy then, indeed who wouldn't have been happy with [X] so simply delivered. Or have modern expectations now advanced beyond the stage that [X] could ever be successfully resurrected? I like to hope it's the former, but my heart fears it's the latter.

I sometimes worry that [X] is being taken away without any sensible alternative in its place. I certainly wasn't hurting anybody by embracing [X], none of us were. But some international committee somewhere appears to have decided that [X] must be withdrawn all the same, with minimal consultation, and now all of us must face the consequences.

I shall miss [X] when it's gone. You may not still use [X], but I still enjoy it, and partake. [X] lives on in my world, as far as is feasible, although I have to say it's getting harder to engage. Not only are fewer services offering [X] but fewer people are involved too, which makes me worry that full extinction can't be too far off.

Economically I guess the loss of [X] was always inevitable. It's no longer feasible to support a full service, not given the associated costs, and definitely not now cheaper, more efficient alternatives are available. These interventions can be seen today affecting so many aspects of life formerly deemed essential. Nothing is safe from the advance of technology, it seems, not even [X].

I'd argue that the loss of [X] has been sequential. Initially only the early adopters moved away, but the relentless introduction of new features and opportunities has meant that all the former advantages of [X] have been whittled away. No outdated medium can ever stand in the way of progress, for right or for wrong, so modal shift has been irresistible.

Of course these new approaches can't do all the things the old [X] used to offer. No digital technology will ever replace the pleasing human element the old [X] had, nor the feeling of collective endeavour. Our modern future may offer convenience, personalisation and global accessibility, but at what cost?

I see the slow disappearance of [X] as a metaphor for our changing society, the canary in a technological coalmine. Did we embrace [X] for so long only because there was nothing better? Or is there genuinely something smarter about doing things the old way? Might we all be better off going forward by stepping back?

Our daily lives are now so bombarded by stimuli that it's often impossible to switch off altogether. That's part of what we're losing by abandoning [X], the ability to kick back and immerse ourselves in one single dimension. But would it really be so terrible to maintain at least some semblance of [X] in the years ahead, rather than so brutally snuffing it out?

I don't want you to think I'm a Luddite or anything. I enjoy the choice and freedom that upgrades in methodology can bring. But I do wonder sometimes whether eliminating [X] is a step too far, an unnecessary sacrifice, the killing of a concept merely because we can.

I feel strongly about [X], as you've no doubt realised. I could tell you many tales about [X] in the old days, and how integral it's been to my existence. My anecdotes are legion. Yes, life moves on, but why must that involve [X], why can't [X] stay the same?

I value [X] and I object to its unstoppable incremental withdrawal.

I'll miss [X]. Will you?

 Tuesday, December 05, 2017

10 Hornchurch
Hornchurch Urban District was formed in 1926, stretching from Harold Wood down to the Thames, and east to Upminster and far beyond. It currently forms the majority of the London borough of Havering, including some of the capital's most remote rural corners. You can gauge how remote a part of London is by its PTAL, or public transport accessibility level, on a scale which ranges from 6b down to 0. Central Upminster is the only part of Hornchurch which reaches 5, while (unusually) four large swathes earn a big fat zero, thanks to total lack of access to trains and buses. For today's post I've made a visit to the gaping public transport limbo south of Upminster and east of Rainham... on foot, of course. I suspect this makes me one of the tiny fraction of Londoners who've ever been to Hacton.

Across the Hacton Void

It's not hard to find the Hacton Lane estate. This grid of 1930s semis is only a short stroll from Hornchurch station, laid out across gently sloping former farmland, spreading down to a chippie and a dry cleaners. The 193 bus'll drop you off outside the convenience store, but that's as far as public transport nudges hereabouts. One former country lane survives, wiggling south past the community hall to the ancient crossing at Hacton Bridge. The river here is the Ingrebourne, the dividing line between suburbia and the back of beyond, and a constant companion during the penultimate section of the London Loop. A last wedge of housing rubs up alongside, fed and watered by the oddly-named Optimist Tavern and its capacious car park. And while all of that could be described as modern-day Hacton, the original hamlet remains some distance off, surrounded by fields.

The country lane which veers off opposite the pub is not pedestrian-friendly. What counts as the pavement first becomes overgrown, is then blocked by bollards, and then fades away. I had to face the traffic and hope for the best, hoping for a narrow verge to step up onto rather than a tight hedge when an approaching vehicle came my way. The double bend didn't help. The entire lane was once lined by cottages, but in the 19th century most villagers moved away and now only a short row of replacements hugs the final bend. One has a palm tree outside, one has scaffolding, one has coachlamps, and the last house (painted pastel pink) used to be The White Hart pub until the taps dried up circa 2011. You couldn't live in this corner of London without a car, which is fine, because these five families don't.

Faced with a choice of two further country lanes I took the wider one, east, past ploughed fields and a large livery stables. A few less than pristine vehicles were parked up outside the big sheds of Lodge Farm. McDonalds cups and KFC cartons appeared intermittently in the hedgerow. Pylons drooped their wires overhead. A footpath led off through the Parklands Open Space to the last street in Corbets Tey, where the bus to Lakeside might drop you off. A team from Havering council, with Stop Go boards, were out in their truck repainting the rumble strips. A tributary of the Ingrebourne, essentially a ditch, crossed the lane on a wooded bend. And it was here that I saw my first Forestry Commission welcome sign, and so stepped through.

I was enticed into Bonnetts Wood by a fresh-looking map, and rapidly found myself in a fledgling woodland. The first trees were planted on this former farmland in 2003, along with a surfaced path weaving through to a footbridge over an occasional stream. Originally the only other exit was opposite the Gerpins Lane Recycling Centre, aka the Havering tip, but in 2012 an adjacent landfill site was opened up and the path now winds on. It's a very peculiar landscape, an expanse of filled-in brownfield topped by builders rubble (allegedly including spoil from the Shard), then grassed over. It's also slightly higher than its surroundings, so there's a half-decent view from the bench at the top, even if (I'm willing to bet) almost nobody ever comes up here.

A lot of outer Havering has been embraced by the Thames Chase Community Forest, a significant chain of woodland spaces, of which this is part. The landfill site across the road is in the process of being reclaimed to create another patch, which'll connect to Berwick Glades, which'll connect to Berwick Woods, but alas any sensible way of walking in from Rainham remains some years off. Little Gerpins Lane, along the southern edge, is so far-flung that miscreants regularly use it for fly-tipping. Some massive piles have been left here over the years, and a council truck was busy trying to scrape away another as I passed... that or attempting to block the lane off, it was hard to tell.

Retracing my steps through the 'wood' returned me to Aveley Road, the busiest road through this public transport desert. A decade ago the 373 bus ran this way every half hour, connecting Romford to Grays, but having walked the length of the road I can see why they scrapped it. A nursery to drive your toddler to. A farm shop fluttering a battered Union Jack, keen to specify it sells English Onions. A row of bungalows, called The Bungalows. Sporadic litter-strewn verges. The Upminster Paintball Centre. Stan's Gym, allegedly offering "more experience than any other gym", although it's located on a caravan park so I have my doubts. This is how the folk of almost-Essex make a living, along a back lane of unrefined opportunity.

Next up, blimey, an airfield! It's long been erased from the Ordnance Survey map, leaving contours hanging, but is more than obvious from the roadside thanks to big signs emphasising the cafe (visitors welcome). Damyns Hall Aerodrome has been around since 1969 and its two grass runways form Greater London's only privately owned airfield. Light aircraft and helicopters are based here, plus opportunities for flying lessons, biplane rides and wing-walking if you've ever fancied having a try. BestMate has long been tempted by the former, but the sheer faff of getting out here without a car has always put him off. I made do with spotting a couple of planes behind a hedge, with the towers of Canary Wharf sticking up far beyond, before being startled when a retired couple in a pony and trap clopped by.

Where four country lanes meet is where Havering starts to peter out. Because the boundary is doing peculiar things at this point, Thurrock lies to the west of the lane and London to the east, which is wholly counter-intuitive. A brief row of cottages intrudes on the London side, and a lorry park, then a cluster of small retail businesses keen to lure passing traffic inside. Plant Perfection caters for all your garden and pet needs, Karen's Wedding Studio additionally offers prom dresses, The Coffee Shop will throw in a cake with your caffeine for £3, and the shed out front has been temporarily tarted up as Santa's Grotto (weekends only). I got some odd looks from two blokes filling vans in the car park - I guess they hardly ever see anyone walking past, plus it had only just finished snowing.

My final target was Belhus Woods Country Park, another jewel of the Thames Chase Community Forest. Its extensive acres were once part of an 18th century country estate, landscaped by Capability Brown, but also contain several reclaimed gravel pits and chunks of ancient woodland. I was charmed, even in winter. There are lakes to promenade around (or fish in), open lawns for canine exercise and dense wooded quarters still harvested for thatching. Be sure to pop into the Visitor Centre for a map, else you might not find the Long Pond (sadly severed by the M25), or the outdoor track used by the Model Railway Club (next Open Day, probably Easter), or the path across the road to a vast additional area of virgin forest.

I was impressed that the Visitor Centre was open even on a weekday in winter, and serving up seasonal drinks to an audience of one. And I was surprised to see the name of Essex County Council proudly emblazoned across its gable, despite the building (and its associated vast car park) being incontrovertibly in Havering. The Greater London boundary runs 200m to the south, through the thickest part of the woods, following the line of the Running Water Brook. I stood on the footbridge over a static stream, littered with leaves, saddened that the only bus to these parts was scrapped ten years ago and that it would be hard to get back. But that's what a PTAL of zero looks like, in the uncompromising rural extremities of London, unexpectedly ripe for adventure.

 Monday, December 04, 2017

How many tube stations are there?

TfL have an official answer, which we'll get to shortly.

But tube stations are a surprisingly difficult thing to count, and the precise total depends on the 'correct' answers to the following questions.

Click to make your choice, and you can come back later and see if you were right.

Are King's Cross and St Pancras one station, or two?
1  2

Are Bank and Monument one station, or two?
1  2

Are Edgware Road (Bakerloo) and Edgware Road (Circle, District & H&C) one station, or two?
1  2

Are Charing Cross (Bakerloo) and Charing Cross (Northern) one station, or two?
1  2

Are Hammersmith (District and Piccadilly) and Hammersmith (Circle & H&C) one station, or two?
1  2

Are Paddington (Bakerloo, Circle and District) and Paddington (Circle & H&C) one station, or two?
1  2

Made your choices? OK, now some answers...

Above ground King's Cross and St Pancras are two very separate mainline termini, built by different rail companies on either side of a road. Before 1933 there were two separate Underground stations - one called King's Cross & St Pancras (on the Metropolitan and Circle) and one called King's Cross for St Pancras (on the Piccadilly and Northern) - at which point a proper connecting subway was built and the combination became King's Cross St Pancras. There have been several subterranean shufflings since, and the resulting complex can feel like separate stations when you're traipsing around. But for tube purposes, absolutely, King's Cross St Pancras is one station.

Bank and Monument are an interesting pair. They were two separate stations until September 1933 when the famous escalator link was opened, joining one end of the Northern line at Bank to the sub-surface lines at Monument. From this point onwards they've been staffed collectively, and when TfL count passenger statistics they're always treated as one and the same. But for station-counting purposes they remain separate, Bank and Monument are two stations. I'll prove this later.

Having twin stations on the tube map called Edgware Road isn't ideal. One's been around since the Underground opened in 1863, and the other arrived on the Bakerloo line in 1907, run by a company keen to call it exactly the same thing. Neither station has ever changed its name to avoid undue ambiguity, despite several suggestions over the years that this might be a good idea. They remain unconnected, 150 metres apart, and now on either side of the Marylebone Flyover. And that's why Edgware Road and Edgware Road are incontrovertibly two stations.

The current Charing Cross station has a very chequered history, and until 1979 was two separate stations. Previously there was a Bakerloo line station in Trafalgar Square called Trafalgar Square, and a Northern line station outside Charing Cross called Strand. When the Jubilee line was opened its new terminus connected the two, creating a portmanteau station called Charing Cross. Even though the Jubilee platforms closed 20 years later, and the other two lines remain just as far apart as they ever were, no uncoupling has taken place. Charing Cross remains one station.

The tube map appears to show just one station at Hammersmith, but the reality is very different - a Circle/H&C terminus on one side of Hammersmith Broadway, and a District/Piccadilly station through a shopping centre on the other. The two stations have the same name but separate gatelines, so when TfL are totting up their passenger statistics they always count the two separately. And so, in the first potentially controversial outcome, I can confirm that Hammersmith is officially designated as two stations.

Finally to Paddington. From the earliest days of the underground there were two stations here - Paddington (Bishop's Road) opened 1863 and Paddington (Praed Street) opened 1864. They're at opposite ends of the mainline station, and not connected underground, so were long considered two completely different stations. Only in 1947 did both end up being called the same - plain old Paddington - and the interchange symbol on the tube map has evolved several times since. What the map shows today is misleadingly connected (the Bakerloo's attached to the wrong bit), and suggests that the whole complex is one single station. But this isn't the case, nothing's changed since the 1860s, and Paddington is still deemed to be two stations.

Which brings us back to the question of how many tube stations there are altogether...

If you have a lot of patience and count up all the tube stations on the tube map, it looks very much like there are 268. But Hammersmith is actually two stations, and Paddington is actually two stations, which is why the official total is 270.

I know it's 270 stations because TfL say so on their website.

And I can confirm this using Labyrinth, the excellent Art on the Underground project which placed a maze on the wall of every tube station on the network. There are 270 Labyrinths, numbered from 1 to 270 in the same order as a Tube Challenge which took place in 2009. Labyrinth number 1 is at Chesham, and Labyrinth number 270 is at Heathrow Terminal 5. Bank has Labyrinth number 142 while Monument has 96, confirming that they are indeed different stations. Key for our purposes is that there are two Labyrinths at Hammersmith (248 and 249) and two Labyrinths at Paddington (55 and 240), should you ever go looking. And if there are 270 Labyrinths altogether, then there must be 270 Underground stations, QED.

What's also interesting is wondering how that total might change over the next few years. New tube stations are due at Nine Elms and Battersea in 2020, which'll bump the total up to 272. New tube stations probably won't be opened on the Metropolitan line extension, but if they ever are that'd increase the number to 275. And what of Crossrail? It's not going to be part of the Underground, it's going to be its own separate entity, so it won't suddenly be adding another 29 tube stations. But Crossrail's platforms will be connecting Farringdon to Barbican, and Moorgate to Liverpool Street, so will these suddenly become one station rather than two? More intriguingly Crossrail might also be linking both ends of Paddington, forming one interconnected beast, so will that finally become one station, or stay as two? All that's certain is that the official number of tube stations will remain somewhat subjective, rather than in any way obvious.

 Sunday, December 03, 2017

London's Christmas Fairs

If Christmas shopping is getting you down, why not spend your money at a holly-bedecked plywood chalet instead? London has several festive market clusters, so I've been to six, ensuring that my Scroogier readers don't have to.

Christmas by the River

When: 30 November 2017 - 3 January 2018
Where: Along the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.
Scale: Elongated, like a long string of tinsel.
Official description: "a wintery dreamland in an unparalleled London location"
Reality: Several dozen chalets (in seven zoned clusters) selling food, drink and gifts, in approximately equal measure. Not especially Teutonic.
Access: Loads of space at the City Hall end, but rather more squashed at the other.
Clientele: Crowds of couples and families sweeping through like a swarm of Yuletide locusts. Quite touristy.
What to buy: A woolly hat, assuming you're one of the minority of visitors not wearing one already. A small illustrated tin some unfortunate relative will be getting for Christmas. Award-winning cheese. Crystals and rotating wooden things.
What to eat: A wide range of culinary options, from chocolate marshmallows to ostrich burgers, plus a Fudge Emporium and something to do with Yorkshire puddings.
Cost of a mulled wine: £6 at one end of the market, £4.95 at the other (and no sign of alcohol inbetween)
Cost of a bratwurst: £7.50 (they saw you coming)
Bonus features: Several stalls and barrows under cover at Hays Galleria. An Eis Bar, so you can drink alcohol in colder temperatures than it is outside. An Elpless Elves Adventure Trail, for kids. Later in the month a free 'How To Propose at Christmas Workshop' with Daisy Amodio.
Verdict: Plenty to explore. Not too tacky. Enough refreshment variety to satisfy the most disparate party.

Southbank Centre Winter Market

When: 2 - 30 December 2017
Where: The South Bank between Waterloo Bridge and the Royal Festival Hall.
Scale: Smaller than anticipated, like an over-wrapped present.
Official description: "Nordic-inspired wooden chalets filled with festive food, drinks, gifts and treats for all"
Reality: A set of decorated sheds selling mostly food, apart from under Hungerford Bridge where it's giftier.
Access: Straightforward, although a bit squashed if approaching past the human statues near the London Eye.
Clientele: All the usual people who'd normally be mulling around the South Bank, and then some.
What to buy: A suspiciously high proportion of lighting-related objects, including lots of candles, those flimsy star-shaped lampshades, and a hipster stall selling artisan lightbulbs.
What to eat: More a typical street-food selection than anything especially festive, from pad thai to raclette.
Cost of a mulled wine: £4.95 (or rather more for a mulled cider inside the sponsored Cider Lodge).
Cost of a bratwurst: £8 (that's for a Wild Boar & Apple hot dog inside Jimmy Garcia's two-storey pop-up, allegedly "the ultimate alpine foodie retreat", but I think Trades Descriptions would have a lot to say about that).
Bonus features: Igloos! Assuming, that is, you're willing to believe that four geodesic frames covered in plastic are igloos, and fancy paying a minimum of £600 so that passers-by can watch your party snacking on gravlax and fondue.
Verdict: Disappointingly ordinary. Over-popular.

Christmas in Leicester Square

When: 10 November 2017 - 7 January 2018
Where: Leicester Square, obvs.
Scale: Squished and compact, like a pig in a blanket.
Official description: "transforms the centre of bustling London into a wonderland"
Reality: A couple of dozen festive-ish stalls swirled round an invisible fountain, plus a couple of entertainment venues, all rather obviously sponsored by Hilton hotels.
Access: There are two entrances. Security will go through your bags.
Clientele: Those emerging from the M&Ms store, and everyone else who's in the area.
What to buy: Exactly the same star-shaped lampshades as on the South Bank, as if some kind of franchising is going on.
What to eat: Exactly the same Mini Pancakes stall as on the South Bank, as if some kind of franchising is going on.
Cost of a mulled wine: £4.50 (the cheapest I found anywhere)
Cost of a bratwurst: £5 (ditto - who'd have guessed?)
Bonus features: A Santa's Grotto which, from the outside, looks like a drab prefab. An alleged "tradtional 1920s spiegeltent", where you can pay £20 to watch burlesque and cabaret. A branded photo opportunity with skis and mufflers.
Verdict: A brief West End diversion, but nothing to go out of your way for.

The Winter Forest, Broadgate

When: 13 November 2017 - 31 January 2018
Where: Round the back of Liverpool Street station. Quite a long way back.
Scale: More a coppice than a forest.
Official description: "A fairytale adventure of film food and drinks"
Reality: A mini-experience inside a corral of fir trees covered in fake snow made from shredded paper.
Access: Expect to have been observed by several security personnel before you reach the entrance.
Clientele: Financial folk (and at weekends, their families).
What to buy: It's not really a stocking filler kind of venue.
What to eat: It's much more a food and drink venue, with log tables scattered outside a tented Bar & Grill, and private booths for bankers with a £250 minimum spend. The Yorkshire Pudding Wrap is allegedly "everyone's favourite festive dumpling".
Cost of a mulled wine: £5.50 outside the fir tree perimeter, and £6 inside.
Cost of a bratwurst: £6 (no frills)
Bonus features: A Tipi Cinema (which yesterday was screening Frozen, somewhat on the loud side). A short tunnel of pine fronds and fairy lights, specifically for selfie and family-group-shot purposes.
Verdict: More an after-work Narnia than a winter destination.


When: 23 November 2017 - 1 January 2018
Where: Not Victoria Park this year, but Clapham Common.
Scale: Bulging within a protective belt, like Santa's waistline.
Official description: "London's alternative festive experience"
Reality: A sprawl of decking, half for intermittent food and entertainment, the other half a fairground.
Access: One entrance, near the pond. Bags will be searched. Free (unless it's after 6pm on Friday or Saturday, in which case £3).
Clientele: Immaculate families from Nappy Valley, and smart couples from Cla'ham. The contrast to last year in E3 is striking.
What to buy: Not a lot, giftwise, but the Wasted Chic Pop-up Designer Market has a Shoreditch vibe. All cash machines charge £2.50.
What to eat: Upmarket streetfood, flogged from professional-looking stalls and winnebagos. Crispy Squid. Shin Nuggets. White Men Can't Jerk. Pillowy soft Chinese buns. A free sample Pringle, dispensed by two ladies from a pretend rocket booster.
Cost of a mulled wine: They call it "Warm Wine" here, and it's a fiver.
Cost of a bratwurst: £6 from Winterville's most downmarket grill tent.
Bonus features: Lots. A fully fledged fairground with big wheel, Wild Mouse, spinny things and little rides for littl'uns. Another spiegeltent with a variety of wacky events. Ice rink. Crazy golf. Roller disco. It's all about the upselling.
Verdict: A fully-fledged social activity hub for the south London set. A touch impersonal.

Winter Wonderland
Been there: Done that.

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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