Monday, 31 March 2008

Derek the Decoy

For many visitors, London and pigeons are synonymous, especially where Trafalgar Square is concerned. (I blame it on Mary Poppins). But for us locals, they can be a real problem, with pigeons and their droppings being a real nuisance (not to mention that they can carry a dizzying array of unpleasant diseases).

Even more of a nuisance is if pigeons decide to take over your balcony for a nesting site, as they did to us a few years ago. They decided that a spot behind the seat would make an ideal home, and they built a very neat (although rather narrow) nest. Under the Wildlife Act, it is an offence to disturb nesting birds (even pigeons), which effectively put the balcony off limits while they were laying eggs and raising their young.

So, we watched from the lounge window as they went to and fro and, having laid two eggs, they duly hatched, producing two grey, featherless chicks - looking like rather under-sized oven-ready birds. I must confess that we even got rather fond of them - a bit like having our very own Spring-watch. But this avian domestic bliss was not to last long: we are not quite sure if the culprits were seagulls or crows, but one day we returned to find a small scene of carnage: bits of the nest were strewn everywhere, as were bits of feathers, bits of chick and rather a lot of blood. Such is the cruel ebb and flow of nature, but it looked like a miniature version of the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". To no-one's surprise, the parents were nowhere to be seen. And that was that.

Or so we thought: Despite the previous year's disaster, twelve months later, they started to visit the balcony again. We moved the furniture to discourage them actually nesting, but they still found a rather exposed spot on one edge. This time, it was the weather that did for the nest: after only a few weeks, it blew off in a gale, complete with unhatched eggs, landing in the garden below.

After that, you'd have thought they really would give up. But no, in early March, they came looking around again. But this year, not wanting another episode in this avian soap-opera (to say nothing of getting our balcony back), I decided to take some pre-emptive action and persuade them to look elsewhere for a nesting site. Enter 'Derek the Decoy Crow'.

My other half was - inevitably - suitably unimpressed by the suggestion. "You? Make a home-made Crow? Ha haa!". (Actually, it was more like gales of laughter).

Now, as you may surmise, I have some form here: previous attempts at craft projects have always ended in disaster, largely because I get fed up of the mirth engendered by my attempts at creativity. Famously, a papier-mache bowl, months in creation, ended up in the cardboard recycling after one-too-many sarcastic comments from my oh-so-supportive other half. (We artists are fragile souls...)

So, ignoring yet more comments, and courtesy of a newspaper, a few yards of sticky tape and some black paint, Derek the Decoy Crow came into the world. OK, he doesn't look much like a crow (even less so after the rain washed some of the paint off), and after getting wet is not quite the shape he was supposed to be. But he doesn't have to impress you or me, or even my other half. He just has to convince the pigeons sufficiently for them to go elsewhere.

And mock ye not. Derek has proved his worth. Since his installation, we have been completely pigeon-free. Even my other half is now impressed. Derek, for his part, is looking a little weather-worn, but so long as he lasts a few more weeks, the pigeons should have found another home in one of the many trees around here.

If that happens, I think Derek is going to become a regular Spring visitor to our balcony...

Friday, 28 March 2008

All change for Olympia!

Nowadays, most people think of Kensington Olympia as simply the tube station for the adjacent Olympia Exhibition Centre, and indeed it is very convenient for that. But it has a fascinating and complex history of its own, and was once one of the largest and grandest stations in London. So here's a little historical blog for you, with just a hint of transport geekiness.

The first line in the area was the West London line, opened in May 1844, running from the Euston-Birmingham Line at Kensal Green and terminating just south of the present station, at Kensington Canal Basin. In those days, a half-hourly passenger service was provided, but it was not a success and was discontinued later the same year. The line became busy with goods, however, with coal being delivered to Shepherd's Bush and Kensington.

In 1863, the West London Line was extended to Clapham Junction, and a circuitous service operated by the Great Western Railway from Southall to Victoria station via Battersea. In 1864, the station on the present site was opened, called simply ‘Kensington’, (it was renamed ‘Kensington Addison Road’ in 1868 when High Street Kensington opened). This coincided with the opening of another branch line, from Latimer Road on the Hammersmith & City line. In 1869, yet another branch opened, from Hammersmith Grove Road station (adjacent to to-day’s H&C station) up to Shepherd’s Bush Green and then curving back down again to Kensington Olympia. This enabled Richmond trains to run via Olympia, West Brompton and Battersea to Waterloo. Finally, in 1872, the District Railway built a short line from Earl’s Court.

Thus Kensington Addison Road became a major station, with trains running in literally all directions. In 1886, the opening of the Olympia Exhibition Hall provided yet another source of traffic. The station was rebuilt on a grand scale, with two long through platforms and bays at both ends. Gradually, however, the development of other underground lines ebbed traffic away. The Richmond service and the line to Hammersmith closed in 1916. Although an electric service to Willesden Junction was inaugurated in 1916, this service, together with the branch to Latimer Road closed in 1940, due to bomb damage, and never restarted. In 1947, the station was renamed Kensington Olympia, but by then it had reduced solely an ad-hoc Underground service to Earl’s Court, run in conjunction with exhibitions at Olympia.

By the 1960s, the magnificent buildings had been demolished and the station was a quiet backwater. In 1966, however, it received a new lease of life with the opening of the Motorail terminal, with car-transport services to wide range of destinations in Scotland, Wales and the West Country. These ceased in 1988, and the Motorail terminal closed down. It is now used as a car-park, and the former reception area is the booking hall and ticket office.

But, the story has a relatively happy ending: a renaissance began in 1986 when the District Line recommenced a full service, joined in 1994 by a rejuvenated service on the West London Line, from Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction, and from Watford Junction to Brighton. These have both flourished, and over a million passengers a year now use the station.

There are now effectively four sets of services:

- Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction service every half hour, augmented in frequency and extended to Stratford via the North London line in the peaks.

- from Watford Junction to Clapham Junction, Gatwick Airport and Brighton (operated by Southern; runs hourly, cut back to Clapham Junction in the evening, and on Sundays)

- District Line to High Street Kensington via Earls Court: about every 15 minutes, with extra trains for major exhibitions;

- five Cross-country trains a day, to/from Birmingham, Manchester, Gatwick Airport and Brighton. These are due to be withdrawn in 2009.

Some practicalities:

District line trains have their own bay platform on the west side of the station, next to the ticket office. There are passenger toilets available when the ticket office is open, but they are not suitable for wheelchair users. Other services include cycle storage racks, a first-aid post, public telephones and a small coffee kiosk on platforms 1 and 2.

The station has step-free access throughout, although there is no lift to the footbridge, so passengers wanting platform 3 to Clapham Junction must use the Addison Road entrance. (It’s a good 5 minute walk from the ticket office and the other platforms.)

Thursday, 27 March 2008

A trip to the Palace...

We're very well off for Palaces in this neck of the woods. There's Kensington Palace just down the road, and half an hour further towards the M25 is Hampton Court Palace. Both are worth visiting in their own right, but at the moment there are some special events which may tickle your fancy.

Daily until the end of the month (OK, basically just this forthcoming week-end) there's an audio-visual exhibition about the life of Princess Diana at Kensington Palace, as a "Princess, Mother, Fashion Icon and Humanitarian". If that's not enough, there's a display of Diana's dresses for die-hard fashionistas, with additional costumes arriving in mid-April. Both are very appropriate, of course, as Diana lived for several years at the Palace (and, incidentally, it was where I met her - not that I'm name dropping, or anything, and I was just one among hundreds at one of their Christmas receptions).

For those who can't get their fix of Tudor life now that the TV series 'The Tudors' has finished, Hampton Court Palace has a 'costumed re-enactment' of the life of Henry VIII at the Palace, on 5-13 April, 3-5 and 24-26 May. The aim is to show what daily life would be like at the Tudor Court for real, although in this enactment, Henry looks more like the character from my history books than Jonathan Rhys Meyers looked like in the TV series. Still, it should be fun for those who like their history laced with political intrigue.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

100 Years of the Ideal Home Show

This year celebrates 100 years of the Ideal Home Show - which makes this British icon one of the longest-running consumer exhibitions on the planet.

It's an odd obsession, this British fascination with homes. There's a huge element of keeping up with the Joneses, as well as something about an Englishman's home being his (or her) castle. There's also the fascination for what we think the house of the future might look like - inspired, according to social commentators, by TV in the 1950s which showed us for the first time what modern houses were like in the USA. It's interesting to note that to-day's houses look nothing like the space-age predictions of the 1950s. Who would have thought then that we'd still be hankering after mock Tudor and lawns, or that table lamps would still be big business? And no-one predicted wooden decking, which seems to have spread like a rash across the gardens of Britain.

This year's exhibition, at Earl's Court, has all the favourites - whole houses for people to wander around (well, queue slowly around), including an eco-house with all sorts of environmentally conscious features. Indeed, the green theme is running through this year's event, with an amnesty for old-fashioned high-energy tungsten light bulbs. (Though surely it would be better if we just replaced them when the bulbs blew, given the energy needed to make the things?)

As ever, though, it's not the layouts or the futuristic furniture or the rooms with electronic controls that actually grab the attention - most good stores these days already do show-rooms very well. Instead, everyone is drawn to the latest new gadgets, such as flexible 'brick' furniture that you can model into your own design (in effect, like big adult 'Lego'), or the latest super-mop or squeegee. Every year, the departing punters seem to be carrying at least one red plastic or yellow sponge cleaning product, and this year is no different, although I gather a 'one-touch jar opener' is also very popular.

I remember when we last went as a family (around 1972) we bought a packet of deep-fried snack chips (you dunked them in the fryer to get something resembling a crisp, only more expensive, and with washing up) and a toasted sandwich maker - like a large pair of tongs with a flying saucer in the middle - that you placed over a gas ring. This latter did actually work rather well, and predated the electric kind by several years. My mother always studiously avoided anything to do with knives or gadgets to chop vegetables, on the basis that an ordinary knife and chopping board was easier and involved less washing up than something with innumerable fiddly plastic parts.

The other major attractions are the demonstrations, and this year more than ever that means cooking, drawing on our obsession with celebrity chefs. The line up includes Rustie Lee (remember her?), Lesley Waters, Sophie Grigson and Aldo Zilli, to name but a few of the 25-strong line-up. (OK, I don't actually know any of the rest, but then I don't watch cookery programmes on TV...) Of course, there's an entire industry there selling recipes in one way or another, if you haven't already got shelves, like mine, groaning with recipe books that you rarely consult.

But enough of my cheerful cynicism. I can't get the top off the bloody jar. What I need is that gadget...

Monday, 17 March 2008

Rescuing teddy

Many of us have a childhood toy that has, almost literally, been ‘loved to death’, and then spends the rest of his/her years hidden away in a cupboard. But have you every thought they they could be restored to ‘life’ - or at least, to something like their original condition?

That’s where teddy-bear hospitals come in. My other half has a cuddly toy, Sam, who had certainly been loved tnearly o death and, despite some repairs by his Mum, was in a very sorry state. So I decided to get Sam restored as a birthday gift. But finding the right teddy-bear restorer was a hard job: the local one in Brighton (where Sam 'lives') had closed down, which was not a good omen.

After some painstaking research on the internet, I eventually found Oldenbears. They have a comprehensive website, and promise to try and keep the toy’s character, rather than restoring them to ‘as new’ condition. As far as possible, they use the original style stuffing and replica replacement eyes, paw pads, etc. The owner could not have been more helpful when I contacted her, and reassured me as to what could be achieved. I sent Sam in a shoe-box (Recorded Delivery, of course - or my life would not have been worth living) and received him back two weeks later, in time for Sam’s owner’s birthday.

The restoration was masterful, and went down perfectly as a present. Repairs to such a badly damaged (and fragile) toy do not come cheap, of course, so expect to pay a minimum of £60 (an exact quote can only be provided on receipt of the toy, when a full assessment has been undertaken on its true condition).

The photos show Sam before and afterwards. It’s almost unbelievable what the were able to do.
All together now: aaah!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Spring is in the air...

Now that the March storms seem to have passed - with the one big, final flourish earlier this week - the weather seems to be tentatively heading (at last) towards Spring.

Actually, it's all been a little confusing because Easter is so early this year - I mean, it's Palm Sunday in two days. However, the spring flowers seem to have woken up to the fact, because there are now daffodils everywhere, some trees are coming into blossom and forsythia bushes are decked out in yellow.

So, assuming the weather holds up over the week-end, it's a great time for a Spring walk. Close to home, Holland Park and Kensington Gardens are obvious choices and, although not open this week-end, the early Easter means that the delightful Chelsea Physic Garden will be opening Wednesdays to Fridays and on Sundays from 19th March.

But the best place of all in West London has to be Kew Gardens, where the display is unbeatable. 5 million spring bulbs provide an unrivalled show of colour, with crocuses and tulips alongside long walks of daffodils. The Kew web-site features a helpful 'bulb-map' so you can concentrate on the areas of most colour (fortunately, alongside the main paths), and the map has an interactive feature which indicates which plants are in flower at the moment. Of course, Kew provides somewhere to dash into the warm and dry if it does rain, but it also provides a lot of children's activities.

Special events for children over Easter (from Good Friday, 21st March) include "Giant Bunnies", featuring real rabbits brought along by the Giant Rabbit Rescue Centre, (the display is located near the Brentford Gate). The Giant Rabbits are very friendly but (as the name suggests) huge, weighing in at 18 lbs! Between March 21st and 20th April, there's a spring bulb trail for children, with prizes available, and on Easter Sunday an Easter Egg hunt. Children collect tokens from 'chicks' (OK, it's a person in a costume...) and receive a chocolate egg from the Easter Bunny. The Easter egg hunt starts at 10am and finishes 2pm. Participation in the Easter Egg Hunt is free once in the Gardens.

So, why not hop along...?

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

London's most popular...

One of my internet activities is posting reviews on Qype, the German-owned review community, which now has members in the UK, France and (of course) Germany, with reviews covering places across Europe.

Unsurprisingly, within the UK, London is the most reviewed city, and one of the most interesting developments recently has been the establishment of a list of the 'Most reviewed places in London'. OK, I know the Qype community may not be representative of anything other than itself, but I find it interesting to see where others are going and what they are moved to comment on, and it's fun to speculate why!

Top of the list - a bit of a surprise this - is Borough Market, with 47 reviews - including 4 in German and 3 in French. On average it gets 4 stars out of 5 and, interestingly, the French are equally generous - potentially a surprise, given the generally high quality of food in France. Or perhaps they know a thing or two we don't? In contrast, the Brits are a bit more critical, with some feeling the market has gone downhill a bit in recent times - comments on the lines of 'having too much trendy hype for its own good'.

The next entries are less surprising and include some firm tourist favourites. Second in the list, with 33 reviews, is the London Eye. This is actually London's fifth most visited attraction, and the most popular for which you have to pay. It's visitor numbers are, of course, limited by its physical capacity, compared with the various museums. But in the view of Qypers, the views and overall experience make it a tourist must.

Third in the list is Tate Modern, the iconic and vibrant modern institution on the South Bank, attracting 28 reviews. With a shade under 5 million visitors a year, this is London's most visited attraction, bar none. Just behind on the list, with 27 reviews (and the only one in West London...), is Harrods. Interestingly, this a favourite with the Germans and French, who contributed 11 of the reviews. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the overall score (4 out of 5) hides more variability, with not everyone enamoured with the crush of tourists and generally high prices, although the French seem to like it more than the Germans - some cultural issues there about luxury shopping, perhaps?

Next on the list is the British Museum, the most popular attraction until the arrival of Tate Modern, and still a strong number two, with 4.83 million visitors in 2006-07, and 25 Qype reviews. Unsurprisingly, this scores a firm 5 stars out of 5, befitting one of the world's great museums, and an iconic building. Another shop comes next, with Hamleys claiming 23 reviews, and that great green lung, Hyde Park, with 22 reviews.

What about other places? The list so far only includes those places with over 20 reviews. Coming close - and a good West London contender - is the Natural History Museum, with 20 reviews. This is probably the best child-friendly option in the list, (none of the London Eye's queues, plenty of toilets, and less vertigo...) and again one in an astonishing building. It's the fourth most popular attraction according to Visit London, with 3.75 visitors a year.

The other major attractions have a little way to go yet: the National Gallery (London's third most popular attraction) has 13 reviews, on a par with Shakespeare's Globe theatre. Perhaps Qypers are less turned on by traditional art? Both the Victoria and Albert Museum and St Paul's Cathedral have ten reviews apiece - languishing behind Tower Bridge and Kew Gardens (14 reviews each), the Royal Albert Hall (13 reviews) and Selfridges (17 reviews).

Even revamped St Pancras station has 12 reviews - all in English so far. Clearly none of our French cousins has yet felt so moved as to comment...

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Transports of delight in Acton - in minature!

This week-end sees one of the occasional Open Weekends at the Museum Depot of the London Transport Museum at Acton, West London. Perfect for a family afternoon out (or a whole day, if you are really keen), the theme for this week-end is "London's transport in miniature", with collections of working model layouts and rides on the Museum's miniature railway.

The Depot itself houses a substantial part of the museum's collections, which are not on display in the main Museum in Covent Garden. Among the 370,000 items kept here are the original works of art used for the poster collections, vehicles, signs, models, photographs, engineering drawings and uniforms. Although the Depot's main purpose is to act as a working museum store, it opens to the public for special events, such as this week-end.

The miniature theme will include working model layouts of twentieth century London transport, put together by both amateur and professional modellers. Varying in size and scale, scenes are depicted right down to the finest detail and cover all modes of London travel from Underground trains and trams to cycling and walking. Other attractions include unique vehicles, station models, posters and artworks, ticket machines and stalls selling transport related merchandise.

The week-end will include a special visit by Sarah Siddons, the last operational Metropolitan Railway electric locomotive. Built in 1921, No. 12 'Sarah Siddons' is the only surviving member of the twenty locomotives built by Metropolitan Vickers and named after real or fictitious people associated with the area served by the Metropolitan Railway. 'Sarah' survived by being retained for shunting, brake block testing, and latterly for special passenger trains, when most of the other locomotives were retired.

One of the favourites with children is the London Transport Museum's outdoor miniature railway, which is over 100 metres long and provides rides for children. The trains include models of the Sarah Siddons and a scale model of the 1938 Tube stock called 'the Little Red Train'.

The Museum depot is located opposite Acton Town Station at 118 - 120 Gunnersbury Lane, London W3 8BQ. The Depot is open on both Saturday and Sunday (8 and 9 March) from 11.00 to 17.00 (with last admission at 16.00). Admission prices are £8 for adults, £6.50 for senior citizens and concessions, and £5 for students and London Transport Museum Friends. Best of all for families, entry is free for accompanied children under16.

Tickets are valid both days, and can be bought in advance by phoning 020 7565 7298.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Discovering the West London Line

When my partner and I were deciding where to live, one of the attractions of this part of West London was the aptly named West London Line. It's one of those bits of infrastructure that hardly anyone outside the area seems to know about, and yet it provides a brilliantly useful service: it means I can get from Earl's Court to Clapham in about 8 minutes, or Willesden in less than ten.

Running from Willesden Junction to Clapham Junction, there are stations at Kensington Olympia and West Brompton, both of which connect with the London Underground. Trains runs half-hourly as part of the new 'London Overground' service from Clapham Junction to Willesden Junction, and hourly from Watford Junction to Clapham Junction and - depending on the time of day, either terminate here or continue to East Croydon, Gatwick Airport and Brighton. It's incredibly helpful - if the connections are timed right - to change at Watford when coming south from, say, Liverpool, and not have to go via Euston and the Underground.

There's an active West London Line users' group which campaigns for improvements in services, and indeed some are planned: a new station is being built at Shepherd's Bush, and another one (Imperial Wharf) is planned to serve the new developments at Chelsea Harbour. New trains and more frequent services are also planned, but some downsides may also be in the offing: the service south of Clapham may be terminated either there, or run via the slow lines to East Croydon, which will be a lot less good for those travelling further south. (Clapham Junction is one of the worst places to change trains at the best of times, especially if you are infirm or disabled, but the platforms the West London trains use - 2 and 17 - have particularly bad access via narrow stair-ways.)

A recent improvement is the ability to use the London Transport Oyster card on London Overground journeys, which speeds up things a lot. But they still haven't addressed the problems of purchasing tickets at West Brompton, where the machines only sell a limited range of tickets to destinations outside London, and don't have the facility to offer railcard discounts. If the ticket office is shut - which it often seems to be when I'm travelling - your choice is to re-book at Clapham Junction or hope you can find a guard to sell you a ticket on the train.

Still, it is a big improvement on having to travel via Victoria all the time, and I always suggest that friends visiting us consider using it for the same reason. In my book, the more that it is used, the better the service may yet become!