31 July 2013

Foxed by the foxes

From the Holloway Road to my house is approx a 3 minute walk. I was coming home at 11.30pm the other night and counted six foxes; two trotting together, 3 others as loners seemingly out on foraging or fighting missions, and another one just sat there in the middle of the road looking at me. Six is a lot in that short timeframe, even for my area.
I once read that in the wild foxes tend to be just one to each half mile square territory. But the urban foxes here in London have had to adapt. These beautiful scavengers just watch us until we get too close and they skulk off to take cover in a front garden or under a car. Often, after dark, I hear them playing or fighting in my back garden or screeching in the street.

Two years ago a vixen raised her cubs under the decking at the end of my back garden and until the little cubs had the strength to jump the garden wall they chased each other around my garden like it was a racetrack, flattening all the low-growing plants the process. I didn't mind too much. It was like I had my own private Naturewatch – they were so much fun to watch. The vixen often stood there staring directly at me looking jaded and tired, almost sighing as the cubs suckled, though they always calmed down immediately when she started grooming them.
There are decimated zones out there again this year where the foxes have selected areas as comfy beds or dining areas. I am forever clearing up their discarded chicken bones and ripped plastic bags. My once lush and colourful crocosmia is now a flattened mat of dead grass. Ah well. I often find one asleep on the roof of my garden shed roof when I get up in the morning. he/she just looks at me and dozes off again.
But here's odd... earlier this week my friend found something very strange involving dead foxes near his home in Notting Hill.
We are perplexed. Can anyone explain this?

29 July 2013

That pointy thing called the Shard

Those of you who have read some of my previous posts will be aware that I am not a fan of that monstrous glass building at London Bridge. I think it's bullying "look at me; I'm really big!" architecture with no flair or design.
With all the empty office space available in Central London I am concerned about all the new build. The Dubaiification of London. And I am fed up with all the unnecessary competition between cities around the world to have the tallest "iconic" building. In most cases the measured height is, to me rather daft as it includes the aerials on the top. If I wear a stovepipe hat does that mean I am 6ft 2?!
A couple of weeks ago there was an article in The Times (Saturday July 6th) reporting that the Shard is failing in its attempt to sell the space within it. The Times reports that the 25 floors of office space are as empty as they were 12 months ago with only 10% being leased. The location is being cited as a reason; London Bridge is not The City, where other big buildings with silly names situtaed in the Square Mile are managing to sell their space.
The article goes on to quote Irvine Sellar, the Shard's developer, who seems to be cherry-picking his tenants. He cites this as a reason for the empty floors and rationalises, "...we are taking our time... we don't want to fill the Shard up with accountants or lawyers". He goes on, "...we are going to have asset managers, energy companies, lawyers and many more. We want a broad mix".
I very much doubt that is the reason at all. Location probably does play a part, but I think the lack of uptake is mostly down to the fantastically high maintenance charges; the window cleaning alone is estimated at £150,000 a year, plus rates on the empty offices need to be paid for before they are leased, and electricity has to be block-purchased in advance. Cleaning and security for the building could cost as much as £9million a year once it is fully let.
So, they must have thought long and hard about how to bring in big dosh for  little outlay.... hmmm... let's think... Yes! viewing platforms. Incidentally, I don't like the word "platforms" in this instance. Bad word. Why not galleries, floors or levels?
They call it "The View" and on Saturday 13th July I went to see it for myself. My very generous friend paid £24.99 each for four of us. TWENTY FIVE QUID!!! That's the pre-booking price. If you buy your ticket on the day it goes up to £29.99.
OK here goes... hold on to your hat... this is what you get for £25...
  • On arriving we were informed that there are no toilets on the viewing levels and were directed to the ones adjacent to the booking hall; an area that is awash with CGI on large screens and colourful technology. Opening the door to the Ladies we entered a service corridor with whitewashed breeze block walls. There were loose wires and duct-taped pipes. Inside it was obvious that this was usually used by staff or gym users as we saw lockers in there. A temporary sign on A4 copy paper apologised, explaining that new toilets are currently being built for Guest use. This building has been open to the public for almost a year now and they haven't made the toilets? Is £25 a reduced rate due to this? Or, will the price go up when the toilets are finally open? 
  • So, why are there no toilets on or near the viewing levels? What happens if someone is taken short or feels dizzy/sick? Are people expected to get in the lift again, go all the way through the gift shop, past the booking desks and relieve themselves only to find that they (probably) aren't allowed back up again? I am sure there must be toilet facilities on the restaurant floors but viewing-only plebs aren't allowed to mix with high-paying foodies. 
  • There is nowhere to sit on the viewing platforms. Not everyone is happy standing, or sitting on the floor. Many people, especially those who are tired, dizzy, disabled, old or infirm would benefit from some simple benches where they can rest for 5 minutes as in art galleries. There is ample space all around the inner wood-panelled wall where these could be added. I believe there are two reasons for their non-existence: 1) it stops people staying up there too long, and, 2) the Shard was never designed to have viewing platforms in the first instance or they would have designed it better. 
  • So it ought to go without saying that there are no refreshment opportunities up there either.
  • Why no glass floors? A huge opportunity has been missed here. Especially as the building is clad in glass. There are perfect places in recessed areas where glass-floored panels could have been included (such as in Auckland's Sky Tower in and many others). But, again, I think this is for the same reasons as the lack of seating.
  • Don't look up because the ceilings of the viewing platforms are an ugly mess. There are hanging wires and pipes clad in silver foil with stickers on them, plus metal fixings and plates that I think ought not to be seen. It looks so out of place with the simplicity of the wooden floors and walls. 
  • When we were there we commented how daft it was that the only way to identify the buildings in the distance was to use one of the computerised viewing machines. We wondered why they hadn't put information about the major landmarks onto the windows or on a rail in front of us. It wasn't until I got home and looked at my photos that I noticed that there is a legend there, but it is situated above everyone's heads!! How utterly daft. You have to step back from the glass to see it. Another afterthought?
  • On the ground floor, on the way in between security checks and the lift you can have your photo taken against a simulated image of the Shard. As per The London DUNG-eon and all other rip-off tourist attractions of this kind, the prints are an extra charge. Did I mention the tickets for The View at Shard are £25?
  • The lifts are rather disappointing. Considering they are being touted for their high speed you don't get a visual sense of this at all. You stand there in a dark blue box looking up at some computer generated whizzy lines on the ceiling. Couldn't they have filmed the journey to the top of the Shard from the roof of the lift and put that up on the ceiling so we had the feeling of heading skyward? This seems too obvious a trick to have missed.
To conclude, I believe due to their lack of facilities, the viewing platforms are an afterthought to the conceived design of the building. I think the developers really thought companies would have been snapping up the office space off-plan before the building was completed.
The exorbitant minimum ticket price of £24.99 for what is just a trip in two lifts with a view at the top and not a lot else, is to help with those cleaning bills.
Mind you, I suppose comparing time:money it does work out cheaper than a trip on the London Eye (£17.28 for half an hour) because you can stay up in the Shard as long as you want. I am not sure if you can take your own food and drink up there, but don't take too much because the toilets are 69/72 floors away (they include the landings on the stairs as two floors!)
Oh, one more thing that nags at me; the location is called London Bridge Quarter. A quarter of what? Does the Shard take up 25% of the whole of the whole London Bridge area? What are the other three quarters called? Answers here please.

"This article has been written to recognise the author's contribution to travel and tourism by Avis Car Hire on the A-List Awards 2013".

26 July 2013

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park open this weekend

It's one year since the Olympic Games 2102 started and it only seems, to me, like months ago.
The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has been renovated and many of the sports facilities and gardens are now ready for public use.
The first of many events, at this rejuvenated area of London, is this weekend's Open East Festival in the north of the park. It includes theatre, live music, art and of, course, food and drink. I will be there myself in The Eco Design Fair section.
From Monday the park will be open free of charge.
Some images taken in London featuring tenuous links to various Olympic sports – archery, fencing, weightlifting, sailing, diving, boxing etc.

Top: N7, W14, WC2, WC1
Middle: WC1, W1, EC2, EC1
Bottom: N1, NW1, W1, N7

25 July 2013

A tour of the Southbank

Earlier this week I was one of a group of people invited onto a promo tour of the wonderfully various and mostly free events, exhibitions and attractions along the Southbank.
I will cover these in more detail in later posts, but here's a whistle-stop tour...
Top row
1. A tour of The National Theatre including a peek backstage to learn all about the new renovations taking place this year – the entrance door will be re-sited, a glass area will be added at the back near the Haywood Gallery and a walkway will be installed so that visitors can look down into the props department.
2+3.  A spin on the London Eye hearing about all the optional extras available (mostly in conjunction with champagne and other alcoholic drinks!). But what a view – the rotation just doesn't last long enough for me.
4. Then for a guided tour of the free events and attractions in and around the Southbank complex.
Middle Row
5. A colourful exhibition underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall celebrating 75 years of the Beano
6. Up into the fabulous gardens on the roof of the same building. I had no idea the gardens were so extensive and so damn good – there's a bar up there too!
7. The 'Festival of Neighbourhood', encompasses all the events, bringing together our gardens, our homes and various London boroughs and explains all those disjointed words and phrases that are on flags and banners in the vicinity.
(It's worth mentioning here that there is a great exhibition on at the Haywood at the moment – Nek Chand's wonderful mosaic people made from broken crockery and other found items are on show until August 26th – this is not free)
8. Along the river's edge are a series of free-standing allotments each managed by a different group/borough.
Bottom row
9. Large 'topiary' sculpture of the lady who started clearing up after the riots on 2011. Look out also for a similar one of neighbours chatting over a fence.
10. Once a hired feature, the popular fountains are now secured as a permanent feature.
11. The tour finished with lunchtime drinks and nibbles in the Park Plaza Hotel at the end of Westminster Bridge. The glass building is not to my to my taste... 12, ...but the view is wonderful.
What a great morning... thanks guys!  

23 July 2013

The BT Tower – Home Hub 4 and the view from above

Exactly two weeks ago today I was on a viewing floor of the BT Tower.
I'd gone to hear about the BT Home Hub 4, the latest in broadband technology. Listening to the info about this product's great features which include super fast connection across dual bands (is that right?), simple design, multi-wotsits, technological doobreys and the fact it gets delivered in a box that will fit through most letterboxes, I was impressed. Pay attention Virgin – with your despatch services that keep you trapped in the house when they don't deliver for days on end... I will leaving you soon!!!!
Had this presentation been in a normal boardroom or seminar environment I probably would have given it a miss, but was a rare chance to go up inside the BT Tower, usually only open to BT staff and those people lucky enough to secure a ticket on Open House Weekend.
So I RSVP'd 'yes' in a flash!
It was a gorgeous morning with clear views to the horizon in every direction. Such a shame the restaurant, that used to be on the floor above when it was called the Post Office Tower, is not there any more. See this old promo video from 1966 about the restaurant, the viewing platforms, and tower's mechanisms including some brave window cleaners – no stringent health and safety guidelines back then!
As you can see by these pics Ally Pally, Crystal Palace, Wembley and the wind turbines out on the Thames estuary were all visible. And I loved looking down on London Zoo, The British Museum and Broadcasting House. It took me a while to work out that the ugly glass slug (bottom right) is the roof of a shopping mall in Oxford Street. Ugh.
I could have stayed up there for hours as I kept spotting more and more fascinating things such as roof gardens and strange atriums; everything looks so different when viewed from above.
Back on the ground I took a few snaps to show where I'd been. I didn't notice until I got home and looked at some old photos but the satellite dishes aren't there anymore (see pic on the right, taken February 2009). It's all wifi now, see.
Thanks to BT for a very informative and pleasurable couple of hours... on many levels.
To see more of my pics of the BT Tower then click here or here.

19 July 2013

The Lost Valley of London – Trinity Buoy Wharf & Lighthouse

I have just found a fantastic video made by a fellow London explorer about a part of London I have yet to visit.
This fun fact-laden documentary is part history sleuth in a pith helmet, part Indiana Jones camp adventure. It's beautifully scripted and very cleverly put together.
I can't wait for the next episode.
See for yourself ...

17 July 2013

Summer Tumblr event at The Garden Museum this Sunday

Next to Lambeth Palace, where Lambeth Bridge meets the Albert Embankment  you will find the horticultural gem that is The Garden Museum.
This Sunday 21st July the museum is hosting a one day creative event where you can learn new skills, take part in workshops, purchase gardening or craft items direct from designer-makers and enjoy refreshments all in the fantastic surroundings of the Old St Mary's church with its gorgeous gardens and related history.
Entry £2.50 (children under 12 free) which includes entry to the Knot Garden and exhibitions.
I hope to see you there.
Top row: The Garden Museum
2nd and 3rd rows: some of my London observations

15 July 2013

Whitecross Street Party

Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st July.
Two days of creative stuff – art, music, stalls, entertainment, plus lots of lovely food and drink. I will be trading there on the Saturday.
It'll be like the last three years, but a bit different. See these pics from last year' and more info here (check out some corking spelling mistakes in the 'About' paragraph, including two within a four-word sentence: "Now in it's forth year". Also "creative's" and "en mass". All very non-conformist!)

Whitecross Street has been a market street for centuries, though in the past few years the regular street market had been fading/diminishing, much in the same way as other similar markets in Leather Lane, Strutton Ground, The Cut, Chalton Street and even Hoxton and Chapel Street Markets. There has been a big drive all of these areas to get shoppers back onto the streets by introducing Farmers' or craft market days. Whitecross Street has been doing reasonably well of late with its variety of food stalls. My only problem when buying yummy hot street food from there is where am I supposed to sit and eat it if I don't have a desk to scuttle back to? There is no park or street furniture in the vicinity.
The top row of the set of images below is how Whitecross Street looked a year ago, including a shot of a whitewashed building where some lettering can be seen seeping through the paint. This includes a pre-war telephone number, Clerkenwell 4716. I expect that by now this whole terrace has been demolished.
The other two rows show a few interesting details on the nearby streets.

11 July 2013

Camden Lock Live – a free event

Tomorrow see the first of Camden Lock's boutique urban festivals.
There will be a lot of what you'd expect from Camden Lock plus plenty more – special bars (inc a cocktail bar on a boat), The Pongathon's ping pong tables (not on the boat!), live music and spoken word courtesy of Roundhouse Presents, street performances and many different kinds of food. Plus, of course, plenty of shopping opportunities which will include extra craft stalls. Come on down... see you there.
From 10am until 10pm... More info here.
Here's some pics of ducks on the Regent's Canal...

9 July 2013

The Black Cat Cabaret at Café De Paris

From the ridiculous to the sublime... 
After the torture that was The London Dungeon (see previous post!), I needed a lift, so hurrah for this fabulous show in a fabulous location.
Inspired by Montmatre's cabaret underworld, The Black Cat Cabaret is on every Friday at the Café De Paris. It's an engaging few hours of singing, dancing, feats of agility and strength, fire breathing and more. Proper cabaret entertainment. I loved it.
The gorgeous venue with its sweeping staircase and pillared gallery is modelled on the ballroom of the Titanic. It gives the feel of much older than it is but was actually opened in 1924. It reminds me of those supper clubs you see on old movies when people used to really dress up to go out and be entertained by crooners and showgirls. Enjoy the show whilst enjoying a meal on the ground (dance) floor or sipping drinks from the upper level.
And then, after the show has finished, the dining tables are cleared, the dance floor exposed and the place is totally transformed into a nightclub.
A really cool venue.
(My good reviews are always so much shorter than the bad ones!)

8 July 2013

The London DUNG-eon

Last Thursday I went to the new London Dungeon tourist attraction at County Hall. Those of you who know me will already be thinking, "You went WHERE?! You? Why?"
Well, see, I had a free ticket to a promo evening when the place wouldn't be crammed full of people so I thought it might possibly be OK. Fun even.
Hmmm. I should have known better. The clue, after all, is in the name.
Photos taken in the vicinity of this "attraction"

We were warned that we would get wet. One of the early parts of the tour involves sitting in a boat in semi-darkness on a trip to Traitor's Gate. We went past a projection of Brian Blessed as Henry VIII (by the way, he's barely recognisable and a lot of effort has been put into 5 seconds of footage that I doubt many people even pay attention to). With most people carrying cameras and mobile phones these days we didn't think this 'wet' thing would be more that a few jets or some spray. But no, the lights went out and a whole bucket of water was chucked at close range in my direction resulting in the left side of my body getting very wet indeed. Actually, completely sodden. A staff member took my jacket and said it would be dry and ready for me at the end of the tour (it wasn't – it was given back to me still horribly damp). Throughout the rest of the tour, indeed for the next few hours I had to suffer the uncomfortable sensation that I had pissed myself because a lot of that water had also gone into my lap and worked its way down. Yeurch. It was a good job I had put my phone into a plastic bag that I happened to be carrying with me or the whole mess would have been even worse and expensive (for them).
I gritted my teeth and waddled around the rest of the tour with the others. We followed the trail through nondescript corridors with dripping ceilings, bad smells and beer barrels into various rooms where an actor performed a short skit – a jailer, a hangman, a barmaid, a prostitute etc. Lots of lights on and off and 'scary' stuff designed to make the punters scream. I didn't scream though, as I can never fathom why people get so agitated or frightened in an environment that's designed to make you jump. And I felt quite sorry for these actors having to do perform the same thing over and over every day. Did they do all that training for this?
Many of the actors spoke in Laahndun accents and as a Londoner myself I found a few of them hard to follow because they gabbled or spoke too fast. They are probably briefed to do this to keep the conveyor belt moving. But how non-english-speaking visitors manage to understand them is beyond me, especially the innuendo and jokes. And, call me old-fashioned, ("you're old fashioned Jane!") but I felt the historical facts were lost when mixed up with comedy asides. And what's Sweeney Todd doing in there? He's fictional! We'll have tourists believing he was fact. All I learned was something about torture implements, and condemned men showboating at the gallows.
Oh, and the attention to detail of a lot of the props and costumes is a bit suspect; in particular, the shoes worn by the mortuary attendant which must have come from the future – rubber soled walking boots during The Plague?
The best bits for me were something to do with leeches (I won't explain) and the short Alton Towers style ride at the end. There was no mention that this was the end of the tour. We got off the ride and the next stop was a desk selling photo merchandise where, for a rip-off price* you could buy a photo of you on that ride. Then... no, that was it – exit through a big gift shop into the blandness that is the ground floor of County Hall. No "thank you for coming", no no amusing "take care". If that's how they treat the people they have invited to promo the thing then that's how they treat the paying customers.
The London Dungeon blurb says "just follow the smell". As previously mentioned, there are recreated pongs as you wander through the show. But I didn't really expect discover a similar stench in the modern toilets within County Hall where an attendant sat doing nothing next to one aisle of closed stalls while a queue formed by the other aisle for the few toilets that were flushable or contained paper.
They say this new London Dungeon show is in response to the feedback from people who said the original one in Tooley Street was too scary; too gory. Well, this new show is torture. One and half hours of torture.
I suggest if you really want some horrible history then watch the brilliant cbbc programmes.
*The ticket price for an adult is £22. Oh, but if you book Madame Tussaud's, Sealife and The London Eye at the same time you can get the lot for £56. OUCH!

4 July 2013

Mobile phone etiquette

There was an item on the news this morning about cashiers in supermarkets refusing to serve customers who are talking on their mobile phones. They say it's rude. The item went on to discuss other forms of mobile phone (mis-)use and whether answering a call or text when we are in the middle of a conversation is also impolite.
Well, yes, I agree with the second part. Why do some people think it's perfectly OK to take a phone call when the conversation they are having with a person in front of them with is in full flow? It's even worse when they answer a text. The butter-in is given more attention than the person who was already being supposedly listened to.
If a human being came up in person and butted in like that, then at least there would be a chance to introduce that person into the conversation. So it follows that doing the same when a phone call comes is even more rude because the invisible person on the other end of the phone, who didn't even buy the beers(!) is being perceived to be more important.
More often than not the person taking the call then proceeds to talk on the phone in front of the friend, or worse, wanders off and leaves them sitting there. If these calls were emergencies then OK, but they rarely are. This is what voicemail is for.
As regards the supermarket situation, I don't agree. Talking on the phone when is no different to talking to a real life friend. I think the cashiers are being very hypocritical here, as many times when being served in some large supermarkets the cashier who is supposed to be serving me has not even made eye contact, even when asking for the money or giving the change. I have on many occasions had to listen to cashiers talking to each other across the tills about how the day is dragging and asking each other what time their shift ends and where they are going out that evening. They behave like the customers are not even there. Now that's really rude!
And in some small shops and mini-markets a man at the till (I have only ever experienced men doing this) is on the phone when he starts serving me and continues to chat throughout the transaction and gives me my change without even looking at me, let alone a smile or a thank you.
Enough of this.
Here are some pics that show telephones in London.

Dulwich Picture Library – arty gem of the south

There is a part of South London where time seems to have stood still. One imagines that Jane Austen might walk past any minute, or Charles Dickens might doff his hat, or Beau Brummel might alight from a carriage.
That place is Dulwich Village. It's like a clash between Hampstead, Windsor and The Cotswolds, but with a London postcode.
In the midst of all this sits the lovely Dulwich Picture Library, designed with skylights by Sir John Soanes so as to achieve the maximum level of natural light indoors – check out his own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields to see the same idea applied in more colourful ways.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery, England's first purpose-built public art gallery, has recently had a re-hang (er... has recently re-hung its paintings in a different configuration.... has recently had moved about the art what's inside).
Rooms have been redecorated and rearranged to further enhance the pieces contained within them. Less is more. A lot of thought has been put into comparative pieces, and larger canvases have been moved down to eye level so that the visitor can best see the artistry.
Of special note is a watercolour by James Stephanoff (c.1788-74) showing the gallery as it was in that era. This new acquisition has been placed in a position where you can best see and compare the difference in the gallery then and now.
When you visit be sure to sit and absorb the simple yet beautiful mausoleum at the back of the building. This is where the gallery's founders are buried.
Until 22nd September.... "Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908–1922".
This fascinating exhibition compares and contrasts the work created by a group of art school friends who all attended Slade School of Art. They were not a 'group' in the sense of 'the Cubists', 'the Pre-Raphaelites' etc; just a group of talented contemporaries.
It is set out in chronological order and I was especially intrigued how WW1 affected each of the artists differently.
There are also various education and creative workshops to get involved with, including painting and poetry – see the gallery's website for more.

1 July 2013

Seeing red – save our post offices!!

My local post office near the Nags Head junction of Holloway Road is always busy. Especially so in the run up to Christmas.
A queue of about 20 people usually snakes up and down the central area of the shop and there is always another queue at the secondary counter for parcels, stamps, lottery tickets etc. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I have walked in there in the past 25 years and been able to go straight to a counter.
So, how come this branch is threatened with closure? And why is this happening to other branches all over London, indeed the UK? In this area alone we have lost three sub Post offices in as many years.
Perhaps Post Office's are not handling so much mail these days? Royal Mail's recent price hikes may have something to do with it as a lot of customers, like me, are sending parcels via other (cheaper) independent couriers. 
Or perhaps the RM bosses think that TV licensing, tax discs, utility bills etc can all be done over the internet? But this is not fair on all those people who do not like to pay their bills etc on line. Many things are still better achieved in person.
There is a plan to locate the Post Office facilities within a "retail partner". This effectively means a small supermarket with a post office within it.
Er... two things...
1. How will there be room for shelves of food etc when the shop will be full of people queueing for postal service?
2. Holloway does not need another supermarket or grocers – the immediate area already boasts Waitrose, Morrisons, Iceland, M&S, a couple of large pound stores and lots of mini markets, with small Tesco, Budgen and Sainsbury stores close by.
This news is, quite frankly (frankly!!) appalling.
Specifically, save Holloway Crown Post Office – sign the petition – do something!!
Three of the images here feature hexagonal shaped Victorian "Penfold' pillar boxes with acanthus leaves on the top. Dating from a brief period (1866–1879) there are only a few of these left jotted around London. I have so far seen and photographed nine, although I do know of others.