Day 56: Achievement 96. Go to Eel Pie Island

It was a fine Saturday morning in dull, suburban, west London.  Having been up for a while, with no sniff of a hangover, cycling down the Thames to Eel Pie Island seemed like an excellent plan.  Eel Pie Island is in the River Thames, accessed, in lieu of having a boat, by a footbridge from Twickenham Embankment.  Stern signs warn that the land and footbridge are private property; cycling isn’t permitted, nor is deviating from the footpath, nor is anything else much.  Reading the residents’ noticeboard was allowed, though.  Not that there was anything noteworthy.


Some bloke in neoprene crouches on private land

Comprising entirely of boat clubs and private dwellings, save the top-and-tail nature reserves, it seems a far cry from the days of the eponymous Eel Pie Island Hotel — an establishment that played home to jazz, R&B and rock musicians through the middle half of the 20th century.  It all ended with a hefty repair bill and, in 1971, a mysterious fire.  Read more on the BBC News website.

Vintage signage

Vintage signage

There was another incident in 2005 when, middle-class young-professionals’ pin-up of choice, Danny Wallace was rather taken by the idea of starting his own country.  Invading Eel Pie Island seemed to be a reasonable way to go about things quickly.  Alas, the residents disagreed and called in the fuzz.

If you happen to be in Twickenham, it’s probably worth having a stroll over to Eel Pie Island.  If you’re not, don’t go out of your way; you can spend, at most, five minutes on it.  And that includes two minutes to get a self-timed photograph to come out as you’d want.

More pics on Flickr.

Day 55: Achievement 38. Visit a disused Tube station.

Thanks to steady employment, Things sometimes cannot be done. This past couple of weeks, visits and write-ups have been thin on the ground. I apologise. And it was only a few weekends ago that I had to pass up a Sunday morning jolly on a 1938 Tube train (Thing 39). That was down to an unfortunately scheduled series of night shifts, just in case you’re wondering. Little did I know (until Martin told me) that the same 1938 train was sitting, on Friday, at a disused Tube station under Aldwych.

Strand Station

Aldwych was originally called Strand

Fortunately, especially as it’s a Thing in itself, I’d ordered a couple of tickets for the London Transport Museum’s Blitz Experience tour of Aldwych Station. It closed in 1994, offering nothing more than a peak-hours shuttle service with Holborn. The lifts were a bit too knackered and would have cost a bit too much to replace. And so the station, the maintained track and powered rails that run through it, and its stabled 1972 Northern line train, generally remain the preserve of television and film crews, save the odd anorak tour. Until this weekend.

Däs Gäng

The crew: Nicky, Martin, sign, Lynne

Seventy years ago, thousands of Londoners took to deep level Tube stations to shelter from falling German bombs.  We entered the ticket hall to be addressed by an ARP Warden.  He seemed to be considerably put out that we had all neglected to bring our gas masks, buckets and blankets.  After a short while, the warning sirens sounded.  We were directed down the 160-step spiral staircase (that’d be quite good phrase to use if you’re find yourself: a. testing an audio system for sibilance, b. wondering if you’re drunk yet) in single-file.  Plenty of time, though, because the bombers were still five minutes away.


Air Raid Precautions Warden

In the lift lobby, we were met by a well-to-do lady of the WVS.  After being chastised once more for neglecting our masks, buckets and blankets, some fortunate members of the group were praised for wearing scarves and hats.  The smog is bad, apparently, and it’s just nice to see a man in a hat.  We were shown to the platform and boarded the Museum’s fabulous 1938 train.


WVS Posho

One chap who wasn’t wearing a hat was the spiv.  Holding court in the front carriage, he wore quite an elaborate tie and bore promises of black market goods.  Oranges, ham, ladies’ tights.  He had steak on offer, too, strongly denying any equine origins.  No bananas, though.

War Spiv

The Spiv

Moving down the train, we met Elsie.  A well-meaning and well-presented wartime housewife, she sat knitting in a corner.  She spoke of the impacts of the war on working class Londoners; evacuation, rationing, sheltering.  She wasn’t without time for a good bit of punnery, though.  On cooking a pig’s head, she suggested it was best to leave the eyes in.  That way, it’d see you through the week.  Boom boom.

Wartime woman

Elsie on 1938 Stock

A subsequent on-train address from the WVS posho was abruptly interrupted by falling bombs.  We were ordered off the train and whipped into singing the popular classic about visiting Tipperary.  Being neither Irish nor a toff, I had no idea what the words were.  I must’ve looked like Redwood.  As the WVS posho attempted to keep order, Elisie began to lose her mind.  As the all-clear sounded, it took the combined efforts of Spiv and WVS to bring her out from under a blanket.

After the opportunity to take another snap or two, it was time to head back up those 160 step.  To the exit through the station’s wooden lifts, outside to see a splendidly restored wartime bus.  Then to the pub.


Loitering miscreant. Thanks to Heather.

More photos, as per usual, on the flickr.

Day 48: Thing 69. See a comedian at the Hammersmith Apollo

It was Dara’s 110th performance on this tour, the second date of a nine night run at the Hammersmith Apollo.  He was very, very, funny.  If you can’t make it to one of the remaining performances in London, or one of the provincial gigs, the last Apollo show will be recorded for DVD.  Details over on Dara’s website.

I’ve been to The Apollo once before.  It was, and I’m equally ashamed and amused to be writing this, a The Feeling gig.  The venue hasn’t changed much since.  Aside from the addition of stalls seating for the comedy crowd, it’s pretty much the same. The auditorium is still tatty, the toilets remain rank, the beer continues to command a ludicrous £4.10 a pint, the bars maintain a state of woeful incapacity.  But that can all be forgiven, simply for this: the seats are comfortable and even a lanky streak of piss (like me) gets enough leg-room.  And, as I said above, the man’s funny.

One of the highlights of the evening came courtesy of a lady sitting behind us:

A funny moment

A splendid night out.

Day 43: Achievement 30 (part 7). The Brunel Museum, Thames Tunnel shaft tour

The Brunel Museum manages to be both small and in Rotherhithe.  In terms of square footage, I’m pretty confident the living area of my flat is bigger.  There’s a television in the lower corner, running a film on Marc Brunel and his tunnel.  There’s a mezzanine level with a gift shop and tea bar.  And there’s an upstairs bit with some diagrams about how the tunnel was built.  Out the back, there’s some benches.  One of them has a model of a train in the middle of it:

Railway model

Perhaps more interestingly, the original south-side shaft of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel is right next to the museum.  I was fortunate enough to climb through a hatch, down some scaffolding, and arrive at a newly installed concrete floor about twenty feet down.  The shafts were built above ground and the ground below them was removed, allowing them to sink.  The north-side shaft now forms a part of Wapping station on the London Overground network.  If you’re stood at the foot of the stairs, by the lifts, just look up.

The Thames Tunnel, now allowing trains traveling between Rotherhithe and Wapping to traverse the river without getting wet, has something of a chequered past.  It flooded twice during construction, killing six and delaying the project for seven years.  The original intention was to allow goods to cross the river with speed and ease.  Alas, Marc Brunel wasn’t as much of an accountant as he was civil engineer.  That’d be how he got himself into the situation of running out of money before building approach ramps.  Whoops.

Plan B: put spiral staircases in the shafts, lease pitches in the tunnel to merchants, cash in on the novelty of it all.  The path of the original spiral staircase can still be seen in the south shaft:


But that didn’t really work out, either.  Ne’er-do-wells and purveyors of the original profession made the tunnel a place to do business.  Many of the stall-holders didn’t renew their leases and, once more, Brunel was stuck.

So he sold it to the East London Railway, completing a series of firsts.  It was now the first tunnel to pass under a navigable river.  It housed the first shopping arcade in a tunnel.  And now it was the first under-river tunnel on the railway, before becoming the first under-river tunnel on the world’s first underground railway.  It was also the first, and last, project Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked on with his father.

More photos over on flickr.

Day 41: Achievement 18. Tower Bridge Exhibition

I have an unfortunate trait of leaving things to the last minute.  Friends, family and colleagues and all suffer from my habitual, and quite possibly chronic, fear doing things in good time.  There’s always time to enjoy another ten minutes in bed, to listen to one more song on the radio, to make that final killer move in Facebook Scrabble.  It probably all started in spring 1999 when, instead of revising, I decided playing endless games of Solitare would be an appropriate method of exam preparation.

You might remember me going on about ascending The Monument last Friday.  The ticket I bought, for a tidy £8, allowed access to both The Monument and the Tower Bridge Exhibition (a saving of £2 on buying them separately; we’re living in austere times).  The caveat being, of course, that both attractions needed to be visited within the week.  I waited, naturally, until seven days had passed — despite having had a couple free earlier in the week.  The procrastinator’s holy trinity of a warm bed, Ken Bruce’s Pop Master and the BlackBerry’s BrickBreaker could cause even the most determined man to fail in his important tasks.

So, I’d put myself into an awkward position.  I had to make a decision: go see Kevin Pietersen play for Surrey at The Oval or make use of my ticket for Tower Bridge.  Seeing an out-of-form batsman play for an out-of-sorts county cricket team certainly has its appeal, but the lion of fiscal common sense is an intimidating beast, and one I am generally unable to ignore.  To the District line, batman — there’s a bridge to explore!

My fellow apathists, and those of a lethargic disposition, will be pleased to learn the walkways — 44 metres above the Thames — are accessed by an attended lift.  After clearing the airport-style security check, and avoiding the chroma-key photographer by way of a firm stare and sullen shake of the head, the lift takes a matter of moments to whisk you, and a couple of young European families, to the top.  It’s not so swift that the lift attendant can’t tell you where to buy the souvenier photographs, but I suppose that’s the price of living in a market-driven economy.  That and the £850bn to bail out the banks.

Each of the walkways has its own exhibition.  The east’s is about bridges;  famous examples from all parts of the world flank the inner wall.  The view through the east-facing windows is occasionally interrupted for a bit more detail on Tower Bridge itself.  The west walkway is all about the Thames, tracing the river from its origins in Gloucestershire to its ultimate demise in the Thames Estuary.  The images of picturesque, quintessentially English, places on the walls can’t help but make a chap wonder why on earth he, of all people, would choose to live elsewhere.

The photographic fraternity is well catered for.  Both walkways have small sliding windows to enable decent shots to be taken up or down the river:

City Hall

City Hall

View to the north west (from west walkway)

The City

Both the towers show looping videos on large screens.  The north film explains the story behind the bridge, the south details how the bridge was built.  While you’re up there, see if you can spot these lads:


The second phase of the experience happens at ground level.  After another attended lift journey, visitors are invited to follow a blue line down the pavement towards the Engine Room.  The old boilers, mechanisms and hydraulic systems have been preserved and restored for the visiting public.  There’s also an opportunity to see a video of Robbie Maddison jump a semi-open Tower Bridge.  While watching, you can stand next to the actual bike on which he performed.  There’s also an interactive demonstration of hydraulics.  Essentially, you put your fat mate in a chair and turn a small handle, then watch as, almost effortlessly, you elevate them to dizzy new heights (of about two feet).

Harding's Improved Counter

Harding’s Improved Counter

On reflection, I'm brassed off

Brassed off
(That’s me, my Canon 350D and its nifty fifty)

The bridge’s bascules  are raised on around 1,000 occasions each year.  Times and dates are given on their website.  Coincidence was kind and, just as I was leaving, the bridge was raised to allow a tall boat to pass downstream:

An open Tower Bridge
An open Tower Bridge

There’s some nice photographic opportunities, and the bridge’s policy seems to be very liberal.  The guide in the first lift had taken the time to explain that taking photos of anything and everything was fine.  I thought the sliding windows in the walkways were a nice touch, too.

A quick note of caution for anyone who doesn’t like the smell of tin-fresh paint: the lads are up on the walkways at the moment, completing an extensive programme of refurbishment.  The fumes are rather pungent, but presumably non-toxic, so it might be one to avoid on a hangover…

Oh, almost forgot: Pietersen managed a single run, giving him an average of 0.5 runs per first class innings this year.  Good work, KP.

Day 39: Achievement 78. Tour the Clock Tower.

Looking at the pamphlet, you could be forgiven for thinking it is the only one of its kind.  This, the pamphlet decrees, is The Clock Tower.  Up at the top, there’s The Great Clock and The Great Bell (and four lesser bells).

This is, of course, The Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminstser.  The Great Clock is a magnificently accurate beast, to within a second a day.  The Great Bell is known, to the proles and peasants, as Big Ben.  The origins of its nickname are shrouded in mystery.  Most with an interest suggest it’s named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Commissioner of Works at the time of installation.  Those with a more left-field opinion claim a heavyweight, bare-knuckle boxer, Benjamin Caunt, known as ‘Big Ben’, was the inspiration.  Anyway, considering they’re both dead, it doesn’t really matter.

Somewhat incongruously, the meeting point for tour is in Portcullis House — at the other side of Bridge Street from the Palace of Westminster.  It’s a reasonably new building, in service for less than a decade, but manages to rate ‘G’ for energy efficiency.  That’s on a scale of A to G, by the way.  With ‘A’ being the best.  What it loses in heat, however, it more than makes up for with its ruthlessly efficient security team.  Luton Airport could learn a thing or two from those lads and lasses, I tell you.

Two members of staff escort groups up the Tower.  We had Tim, a besuited, lanyard-sporting tour guide, working alongside Sarah.  She sported a Houses of Parliament cravat and carried a walkie-talkie. Clearly, this was not someone to cause trouble in front of.

Once all the paperwork was in order, we were taken down an escalator, under the road, and arrived at the base of the Clock Tower.  Look out for the door of the ‘Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting’ around here.  It’s a magnificent job title and even better place to have an office.  Just between you and me, dear reader, it left me teetering on jealousy.

The initial ascent is of around one hundred stairs, in a windowless turret, running up one side of the tower.  Fans of natural light and open space will appreciate the rest stop in the ‘Prison Room’.  It’s in this malevolently-named place Tim chose to besiege with information and bequeath disposable earplugs (37dB NR!) with admirable aplomb.  It’s also the first opportunity we had to hear (and feel) the huge weights of the tower’s various mechanisms drop down the central core.  Boom!

Bags safely stowed in the Prison Room, time to move onwards and upwards.  The next part of the ascent is very similar to the last, just with the added advantage of windows.  Even if you can’t really stop to admire the view, the windows provide pleasing reassurance that you’ve not entered some sort of Escherian voodoo lounge.

Another short break followed by a further eighty or so steps takes you to the clock faces. A narrow corridor runs around the inside perimeter of the tower, passing directly behind each of the four.  Since 1859, each face has been lit by at least three different sources.  The capped off gas pipes and cold cathode warning signs hint at sources past, while 28-strong arrays of modern, long-life, energy-efficient, bulbs take on the mantle today.

The corridor behind the faces cocoons the clock room.  The clock itself is a magnificent object, manufactured by Edward Dent and tended to by three staff horologists.  The brass plaques shine.  Its mechanisms move with grace. The majesty and elegance of the engineering captivate.  The hypnotic rhythm of the pendulum entrance and calm.  The transmission chains of cogs, wheels and axles which unfailingly move the clock hands each and every two seconds are a marvel in themselves.  The whole room oozes with glory; this is some of the finest mechanical engineering in the world.

From the clock room, it’s another few steps to the belfry.  It’s here that Bells 1 to 5 hang.  Big Ben’s hammer is always poised, ready to drop its 200kg load on to the 14 tonne gong at precisely the right time.  The surrounding, lesser, bells are a little more lackadaisical about such matters.  They’re happy to appear within a few seconds of when they should, which is why there’s sometimes a gap between PM and the Six O’Clock News on BBC Radio 4.  On a related note, the four microphones used for the live feed to the BBC are visible just above the door to the belfry.  The sound in real life is very different to the sound of the radio; FM doesn’t convey the palpable rumble of the falling weights, nor the spine-juddering ratcheting of the brakes, nor the twenty-second-long, teeth-tingling, skull-rattling, reverberations.

I was standing three feet from Ben at precisely three o’clock on the 8th September, 2010.  And I’ve got a certificate (and some used earplugs) to prove it.

UK citizens can (and really, really, should) obtain tickets by writing to their MP, specifying some suitable dates.  Thanks to my local MP, Mary MacLeod, and her office for arranging the visit.

Day 34: Achievement 17. Clamber up Monument.

Standby, prole. As an experiment, there now follows an INTERNETFACTBURST about The Monument:

  • Location: Monument Street, off Fish Street Hill
  • Built: Between 1671 and 1677
  • Designed by: Sir Christopher Wren and Dr. Robert Hooke
  • Style: Colossal Doric column in the antique tradition
  • Made out of: Stone
  • Number of steps: 311
  • Height of viewing platform: 160 feet/48.7 metres
  • Height of The Monument: 202 feet (61 metres)
  • Cost of recent restoration: £4.5m
  • Cost of entry: £3, or £8 joint ticket with Tower Bridge Exhibition

It was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London and to celebrate the rebuilding of the City.  The height of The Monument precisely matches the distance between its base and the site the Fire first started.  If someone (and I don’t suggest it’s you) were to attach The Monument to a zip-wire, landing at that troublesome bakery in Pudding Lane, it’d travel a distance of 86.3 metres.  (Whoever said geometry was a waste of school curriculum time? It’s taken a decade, but I’ve just used it in the Real World. Ha.)

Anyway. From the ground, here’s what you’re dealing with:

The Monument

Once you’re inside, there’s precious little to see or do. Just climb up the 311 steps of the spiral staircase.  Do try to mind any Germans who might be on their way back down.  You know what they can be like.

Once on the observation platform, views so far as the nearest tall buildings are available. Here’s a photo of Tower Bridge, The Monument’s sister attraction, as seen from the south-east corner:

Tower Bridge

And here’s the view to the north, featuring both acceptable and unacceptable modern architecture:

Lloyds, Gherkin, etc.

A little bit of HDR on that last picture.  Don’t say you’ve not been treated.  As always, you can click images to go through to Flickr for bigger versions which you can print out and ceremoniously burn.  There’s also a half-arsed panorama of The Monument on there.

A certificate is given to everybody who leaves the monument, complete with a blank space in which a witty and amusing (and possibly offensive) name can be written. Any suggestions?