888,246

The Tower, surrounded

96 years ago, at 11am, the guns fell silent on one of  the bloodiest wars in history. Countries across the world were left counting their dead and facing up to a reality that four years of conflict had achieved comparatively little. In Britain and the Commonwealth, that number was 888,246 – excluding the 306 British soldiers shot for cowardice and the thousands of weakened men killed subsequently by the Spanish Flu epidemic.

It’s a difficult number to visualise, especially as now, nearly a century on, no soldier who fought in that conflict remains alive. But that is why Tom Piper’s installation of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red has had the impact it has. As of today, 888,246 poppies stand in the moat of the Tower of London, and its impact has been incredible.

Poppies

I’ve paid three separate visits to the Tower since the poppies first appeared, and I’ve been surprised at the way in which the different visits have affected me. The first was really just to see what was going on – it was mid September so the moat hadn’t begun to fill up yet. I was on my own and it was a flying visit while I happened to be in the vicinity. The second, nearly a month later, was in the company of American friends on a busy Sunday afternoon.

When Robin burst into tears at her first glimpse of the wave of poppies over the moat, my British nature cringed. She sobbed that it was a waste, a brutal destruction of young men. And do you know what? Even though it’s complete against my character to cry in public, I entirely agreed with her. What this phenomenal installation demonstrates more than anything is the sheer scale of the sacrifice made by a generation of young men. Like anyone who has studied the war in some depth, I know that there is little that can be credited to it – it wasn’t ideological, it was territorial power struggle between imperial powers in their twilight years; its peace process set the stage for an even bigger conflict barely two decades later; and it brought grief to millions upon millions of people across the globe.

On that afternoon, the sun shone brightly and everything looked beautiful. You might say it was perfect conditions for poppy observation. We spent some time jostling with the crowd, paying our respects and watching even more flowers being added.

Adding poppies

Poppies Oct 2014

Poppies Oct 2014

But this past weekend I returned and discovered I was wrong, they hadn’t been the perfect conditions. Perfection, for this installation, is a state that brings home to you some of the reality of the nightmare the fallen soldiers, and their comrades who survived, faced on a day to day basis. We visited late in the evening, after dark and after several torrential downpours. The massive crowds of preceding days had dissipated, but large puddles had taken up their places in front of the fences. Rain still fell, and damp (from an hour in the rain waiting/watching fireworks) continued to pervade our shoes and coats.

As I stood, taking in the sight of an almost complete installation, I realised that much of life in the trenches involved damp, rain, discomfort and noises not dissimilar to (but much more threatening than) the fireworks we could hear in the distance. But our dampness would only last as long as it took us to get home and into dry clothes. For the people represented by the poppies, the conditions of the trenches lasted for days and weeks – on repeat. It was a humbling realisation for a group of people who had been bemoaning their wet shoes only a couple of hours earlier.

It may have been dark, but it was still easy to see how the poppies had spread since my previous visits. On the river side of the Tower, I spotted the point at which I’d taken a photo of a small run of poppies back in late September. The difference was staggering.

Moat, September 2014

Moat Nov 2014

But the biggest difference to my previous visit in early October was the response of the public. I don’t mean the crowds of visitors, or the fact that virtually everyone within reach of London has posted photos of it on Facebook, I mean the memorials. On the fence surrounding the Tower, personal memorials have appeared – laminated sheets containing dates, a century old photo of a young man in uniform and a few pieces of information; or a small wooden cross. All of a sudden, the poppies had names.

I don’t know of anyone in my immediate family who fought in WW1 – I don’t have any names or dates that I could share at the Tower. The names I can ascribe to the poppies are those I know from history, literature and other people’s family stories. Like the elderly woman I met when I was 7 or 8, who had a photo of a man in uniform on the wall of her room in the old peoples’ home where my parents were chaplains. She explained that he had been her fiancé, but was killed in the war, and she had never married anyone else. [For the impact of the loss of a generation of men upon women, read Singled Out – I can’t recommend it highly enough.] As we stood by the fence, Anne (mother of dear friends Jenni & Gill) told me about her grandmother, who lost her fiancé in the war – but who did marry subsequently. Here were names. Name, after name. Nowhere near 888,246 of them, just a splash in the ocean of red.

In MemoriumThe poppies will start to disappear after today, although the wave and the cascade from the window will stay until the end of November. These sections will then tour the country, before eventually making their home at the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.

The joy of detective work

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it again: it pays to be public about your tube geekery. Only weeks ago it resulted in the delights of the Embankment map, this week it’s gifted me an old map discovered while clearing out a father’s belongings. With no date on it, it was ripe for a bit of detective work…

As I mentioned with the Embankment map, there are plenty of clues to the age of a tube map – you just need to find them and start sorting through them in order to come with a date window. So, for this one (which is a corker) I’m going to give you the map first and let you play. If you want to try and work out the date yourself, go ahead! The process of deduction I went through will be shown below the photo, so feel free to maximise the photo and get busy with all your accumulated tube knowledge and the aid of Wikipedia. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun!

Here’s the map:

Antique MapOk, it’s not brilliant quality – I blame the unfortunate combination of iPhone & artificial light.

When I first opened this up, my first observation (mainly just because of how I unfolded it) was that we were looking at the network before the creation of the separate East London and Hammersmith & City Lines – both were still in the beautiful purple of the Metropolitan Line. But, as I looked, I saw plenty of other matters of interest that could help me with the date.

  • Missing lines are a MASSIVE indicator of age. What’s missing from this map? The Jubilee and the Victoria Lines – immediately (once you’ve checked the date of the Victoria’s opening) you’ve gone back decades.
  • Are any lines longer or shorter than they are now? The Piccadilly Line is pre-Heathrow; the Central carries on up to Ongar; the Metropolitan goes all the way to Aylesbury; and the Bakerloo includes Watford.
  • Is there anything else completely random that takes you by surprise? In this instance, I was taken aback by the inclusion of Finsbury Park as a branch on the Northern Line.
  • Are any lines different colours compared to modern maps? See above for the ELL and H&C, but on this map the Waterloo & City is white, not teal.

Once you’ve got your list, it’s time for the vortex that is the Wikipedia London Transport portal. Simply looking up the name of a line or a station will answer most questions about dates – its reliable thanks to the hoards of geeks who update the articles. And thus, I was able to establish these key facts:

  • The Victoria Line opened in 1968.
  • Hatton Cross (the precursor to the Heathrow stations) opened in 1975.
  • The Epping-Ongar extension closed in 1994.
  • The Metropolitan extension to Aylesbury closed in 1961.
  • Finsbury Park left the Northern Line in 1964 (ready for the Victoria Line).

Thus, I was able to arrive at an latest possible date of 1961. Could I get any more specific? Well, while Googling the colour of the W&C Line, I discovered a rather fabulous website that chronicles the changes of the tube map, complete with as many examples as possible. There wasn’t a map published in 1961, so it was a choice between the 19561958, 1959 and 1960 versions. My deductions continued…

  • 1958 and 1960 had ‘River Thames’ written on the river, mine did not.
  • 1956 was labelled ‘Railways’; 1960 ‘Underground’ – mine was the latter.

It therefore seemed clear that what I held in my hands dated back to 1959. A map that was over half a century old!

1959 Tube Map

It’s a special thing – not least because it’s one of the last to have actually been designed by Beck (1960 was his last – apparently London Underground disagreed with his proposal for how to insert the Victoria Line). It’s also special because it’s been annotated. My friend Sally’s Dad clearly used it well, noting down times and prices on its cover and obliterating Shoreditch station. (For good reason, apparently it was ‘often closed’ – Wikipedia doesn’t get more specific about why, unfortunately.) It’s a real map, used for actual travelling, and for that reason I utterly love it!

The treasure behind the chicken wire

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a friend entitled: “Embankment Station – Eastbound Platform” – an intriguing subject for an email, I think you’ll agree.* Upon opening it, I was greeted with the following:

‘Get yourself there. A panel has come off, revealing this awesome old map behind it. It features delights such as Aldwych and Holborn Viaduct Stations and describes the Heathrow Terminal 4 station as “under construction”.
It encourages you to “Get to know London”. I missed two trains looking at it and might spend my entire lunch break tomorrow revelling in it once more.’

This photo was attached:

Embankment map Thank you Ollie E for being a fellow TfL Geek.

My brain immediately got to work. Firstly, when was I going to manage a trip to Embankment to see this for myself?? Secondly, how old was the map?

The first question was difficult to answer, given that it’s not a station I often find myself at – but this was definitely worth a separate journey. The second one could be answered, but only with a bit of detective work and logical deduction. Ollie had provided me with some initial clues:
– Heathrow T4 was ‘under construction’.
– Aldwych station was still in use.
– Holborn Viaduct station existed.

Now, anyone who’s been on the Aldwych station tour can tell you that the station ceased to operate in 1994, so it certainly wasn’t older than that. A quick Google revealed that Holborn Viaduct shut in 1990, so we were probably looking at a map from the 1980’s. Wikipedia informed me that Heathrow T4 station opened in 1986, and thus we had a few years in the 1980’s to choose from…

It’s taken two weeks, but today I finally got chance to visit the map myself. The eastbound platform of Embankment station is theoretically on my way home from college, but I’d not taken that route on the first Mondays of term. However, after a meeting there this afternoon, I made a plan to make a brief stop at Embankment before continuing home. In the end, I missed four trains while I pondered the map and my goodness, it was worth it!

Now ‘protected’ by chicken wire (not glamorous!), it was utterly entrancing. No wonder Ollie had missed a couple of trains and been tempted by a return trip. Amongst the features that fascinated me were:

Monument escalator The escalator graphic between Monument & Bank. (Also, the East London Line used to be purple! Presumably that’s from the days when it and the H&C were part of the Met line?)

East LondonThe wonder of East London and Docklands (below) without the DLR. Plus, station names when the docks were still ‘docks’ and not ‘quays’. Oh, and Stepney East? That would now be Limehouse.

Docklands

HeathrowThe aforementioned Heathrow Terminal 4 and also, look how far out west the map goes!

Of course, while this is indeed very interesting, it still didn’t answer the question of the map’s date. [Although, now that I’m thinking about it, most TfL maps have a date on them somewhere. Why did I not choose to look for it??] Another clue lay not in the map, but in the last panel of the platform’s artwork:

Embankment Art

The panels which covered up the map are dated 1985. [Can I just take a moment and decry the artwork at Embankment? I mean honestly! It’s reminiscent of a 1980’s duvet cover! When you think of the amazing designs featured across the network, I feel this station has been let down rather badly. Incidentally, the tiles around the map suggest that the original platform had the classic District Line style, which has unfortunately been obliterated.] And thus, one may conclude that the map was current immediately prior to their installation – somewhere around 1984.

Of course, Ollie and I are not the only ones to have been fascinated by the map (indeed, someone joined me to peer through the wire – but perhaps they were just curious as to what was captivating my attention). This blogpost reveals that the map dates from the introduction of the ‘Capitalcard’ – the Travelcard’s forerunner – an event that took place in 1983. It would appear that my deductions were pretty much spot on.

Here’s hoping that the treasure behind the chicken wire remains visible for a good while longer!

*Non-Londoners may not be aware that currently (and until the end of the year) the only functioning eastbound platform is on the District/Circle Line. Neither the Bakerloo nor Northern stop at the station at the moment.

From Bloomsbury to Newham

It’s been three weeks since I moved out of my flat on the award winning Lambs Conduit Street. [Genuinely, my former street won a ‘Great Street’ award last year.] I’m now starting to feel at home in Forest Gate – I’ve worked out various transport options; located a large Sainsbury’s; begun identifying walking routes to places of interest and my landlords have finally returned from holiday and made me feel extremely welcome.

Conduit House

Leaving the wonders of Bloomsbury and Zone 1 life was always going to be a wrench. I’m not sure I have ever lived anywhere that I’ve loved more, that suited me and my interests so well and that was a genuinely lovely community to be part of. (My parents and friends repeatedly tell me that I’ll never live anywhere like it again. That doesn’t help!)

From my flat I could walk in any direction and end up somewhere useful/interesting – Gloucester Road for college in 90 minutes; Wapping for Matryoshka Haus fun in 75; Liverpool Street in 35; Covent Garden in 15; and the South Bank in just under half an hour. Do you know how good it is to be able to walk home from an evening out? To not be frustrated by the eccentricities of public transport and other travellers? [Apparently my ‘J-ness’, in the MBTI sense, is particularly evident in my belief that walking is always better because the time it takes never varies!] Everyone should live in Zone 1 at least once in their life!

LCS 4 seasons Lambs Conduit Street through the seasons – spied from my bedroom window.

Despite its awards, LCS had its disadvantages. There was the noise – from the wine bar and restaurants late at night, chatter bounced off the high buildings lining a narrow-ish street; from the wine bottle collection every morning (which a year ago moved to 8.45am on weekdays, which was nice and 6.55am on Sundays, which was not); and the accordion player who had recently taken to playing on a regular basis below my window. There was the 6 flights of wonky stairs up to my front door and the insane detail of our rubbish and recycling collections. But honestly, it was a small price to pay for an almost idyllic location. (Idyllic for an urbanite, obviously.)

But, I do genuinely enjoy the experience of getting to know a new (to me) bit of the capital. When I first moved to King’s Cross, I described it as fitting together the patches of a quilt, colouring in sections as I got to know them, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve been busy colouring in a patch just beyond the Bow roundabout. Until a coach journey back from Stansted last month, I’d no idea that Stratford was just beyond that roundabout (I’d only ever visited by tube – yet again the benefits of travelling around London by bus are evident). Now I’m working out routes to the Olympic Park and beyond, establishing where I can get my long distance walking in and piecing together the far end of bus routes I’d used in the city.

Life in Zone 3 is different, but good different. There’s a garden, albeit currently a building site (but I like building sites), which produces amazing produce one would spend a fortune to acquire in one of the city’s many ‘Farmers’ markets. The other night I did battle with my 2 year old housemate over the small number of raspberries ripe for picking in the front garden. We’re currently, as a household, trying to think of a variety of uses for the glut of pears that’s imminent. (Ideas appreciated.)

Garden BountyThis particular bit of Zone 3 also does parks rather well. A long absence from running has been ended thanks to a large flat piece of grassland just 7 minutes walk away (the appropriately named Wanstead Flats) and that’s just the beginning of an epic stretch of park that goes on for miles. No pesky pedestrians will now hinder my runs! I could even try to find a route that takes me into the Olympic Park, which would be good because then I can claim to have run at the Olympics.

Wanstead Flats Finally, while life is generally calm and collected in the new abode, every so often I begin to feel like I’m living in a soap opera…

Albert Square

Tour d’Angleterre

Given that I rarely attend live sporting events, it’s somewhat unlikely that I would be present at two internationally renowned fixtures within a week of each other – but, such are the joys of living in London in July 2014!

You know about my Wimbledon obsession, but despite several visits to London over the years, I’ve never bothered to go and watch le Tour en route through the capital. (In fact, on one of these occasions, I instead babysat a restless 6 year old who would not have enjoyed the spectating process at all.) Given that I had little better to do last Monday afternoon than stand by the side of a road and watch bikes – plus, a new Matryoshka Haus intern was very keen on spectating – I figured this year was a good year to start.

Unless you’ve been living under a stone (or outside the UK) you’ll be aware that the country went Tour mad last week. Especially in Yorkshire. Choosing to hold the Grand Depart in that particular county was a stroke of genius, Yorkshire – and anyone who could get there over the weekend – rejoiced in all things cycling for 48 hours. This included my father, who not only has a passion for cycling (as I noted during a recent visit of his to London, where our urban perambulations were frequented with pauses to examine bikes locked up along the road) but also has parents who own a mobile home on Ilkley Moor. For the first time in the history of this holiday property, it had a real use as it provided Dad with easy access to key points along the route.

TDF Yorkshire

Dad likes to keep the family updated while he’s away and his emails to us are always amusing – the weekend of le Tour was no disappointment and whetted my appetite for what would await me on Monday. Here are some extracts:

A Sad Finish:
“We were all cheering Mark Cavendish till he crashed. Looks like he’ll be out of the tour. 
Off to look for fish and chips soon.
The day has been so sunny I had to get a new sun hat.” [This was the entire email. I love the way Dad’s mind works.]

Le Tour Day Two:
“The tour seems to be the biggest thing to hit Yorkshire since the wars of the Roses.
This morning walked through a series of lanes and footpaths to Silsden. Little knots of pilgrims were converging along the lanes with their yellow T shirts and folding chairs. It was a bit reminiscent of the closing scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I stood on the upper high st where people had simply taken their dining chairs out of the house onto the pavement. Still thousands on the streets. Silsden has obviously never seen the like and everywhere – homes and businesses – was decorated. Personally, I thought the yellow wreath hanging on the door of the funeral director was a bit tasteless!

I listened to Radio Leeds to find out how near the race was and heard a wonderful interview with a spectator: ‘I’ve been in t’ Champs Elysee for the end of the Tour, but it were nowt compared wi t’ Keighley bypass today’. Yorkshire pride doesn’t get prouder than that! Afterwards I had soup at the Methodist Church where they were doing a roaring trade in light lunches. Paused to admire their knitted bike and watch a bit of the race on their screen.”

TDF Yorkshire 2

Surely it would be just as exciting in London? London, the most successful Olympic host city in the history of the games? Well, perhaps if I’d gone to one of the Spectator Hubs. But even if I’d done that, I think I’d still have been a little disappointed. Yes, there was a great atmosphere – despite the torrential rain that arrived just as it was clear that the cyclists weren’t going to arrive on schedule – but we were definitely lacking in yellow decorations!

Cameron and I waited for nearly two hours just below Monument. We had a pretty good view and were right on the roadside, and it did give Cameron time to share his knowledge of the tour, cycling and other professional tours – ensuring that I wasn’t quite the cycling imbecile I might have been. 3G signal was minimal, preventing any attempts at keeping track of where the peloton was. Instead, we had to rely upon the positioning of stewards, the sound of helicopters approaching and the noise of clapping further up the route.

A damp view Our excellent, but damp, view. 

In typically brilliant timing, my phone spontaneously ran out of battery (despite being on 35%, grrrr – entirely the fault of my external battery charging cable giving up its ghost that same afternoon). As a result, I only have the above photo and this one. This is not a competitor in le Tour, it’s some joker who pedalled down the route 15 minutes before the professionals. He caused a lot of excitement.

Fake cyclist

Fortunately, Cameron made the most of the 30 seconds it took the riders to pass us:

Le Tour en LondresSee, so close!

In honesty, it was a bit of an anti-climax! Especially when photos of friends’ experiences in Cambridge began appearing on Facebook – they’d managed to photograph more than one cyclist. One friend, who had been singing in front of a college to celebrate the tour (how very Cambridge!) had a marvellous view of the pack as they set off – largely thanks to an enforced speed limit at the start. Those of us towards the end of the course caught them in their final sprint. Quite the contrast.

Still, please Tour de France, don’t hesitate to return to our shores very soon!