Archive for February 2010
Greenwich’s most pointless set of traffic lights could be finally coming down, 10 years after they started to disrupt journeys to and from North Greenwich. The maddening set of lights outside the Pilot Inn, which stop buses on the peninsula’s dedicated busway, was raised in Wednesday night’s meeting of Greenwich Council.
Kidbrooke with Hornfair councillor Graeme Coombes asked if the lights “serve any useful purpose”. “Bearing in mind the minimal amount of traffic turning into the Pilot Inn, especially during the morning rush hour, would it not be better to find an alternative traffic measure at this junction, so that buses travelling to North Greenwich aren’t left sitting at a red light, when there is, more often than not, no traffic turning into or out of the Pilot Inn,” the Conservative member added.
Replying for the council, deputy leader Peter Brooks said officials from the council and those from TfL were “reviewing the junctions within Greenwich Millennium Village as part of a safety investigation”. “This will include the Pilot Inn junction,” he continued in a written reply.
In later exchanges, Cllr Coombes called the lights “the worst example of some dodgy and ill-thought out street furniture” in the area. “I think we’re at harmony on these lights,” Labour’s Cllr Brooks said.
The lights are a legacy of the cock-up which is what used to be called the Millennium Busway and is now called the Pilot Busway – it was built for guided buses to serve the Millennium Dome (the single-deckers that used to work the 486 and its much-missed M1 predecessor). Unfortunately, the guided buses kept crashing, so the delicately-paved busway was tarmaced over and regular buses sent up and down it instead. What’s really needed is a full review of how buses go into and out of North Greenwich – they’re badly disrupted by gig traffic at the Dome, and a year doesn’t seem to go by without a temporary closure of the bus station.
(Thanks to Rob at greenwich.co.uk for letting me use his photo above.)
It was half an hour into the tour when I realised this wasn’t going to be any normal jaunt around well-known locations, when my guide disclosed that he’d served time in prison for the death of a British soldier. When he pulled plastic and rubber bullets out of his pocket for me to handle – and they’re great big things – I knew for sure that this was going to be different.
Welcome to 21st century tourism in Northern Ireland. News of Monday night’s car bomb in Newry was a jolt. I passed through the border town three days earlier by train, and was struck by the beautiful, rolling countryside and once again struggled to comprehend how such a peaceful-looking part of the world could be blighted by such a terrible recent history. I went to Ireland to get away for a few days and catch up with some friends, but I’d also been curious about visiting Derry for some time. I first visited Belfast five years ago, and wanted to see how it’d changed since then. What I came away with on my second visit was a sense of just how people are trying to use the awful legacy of violence – and people’s curiosity about it – as a force which will hopefully do some good.
There’s two sides to visiting the north of Ireland – the first is the wonderful countryside and scenery, twinned with generous hospitality. The rail journey between Derry and Coleraine is stunning, a road trip along the Antrim coast (which you’ll do if you ever travel from Belfast to the Giants Causeway) is inspiring, and the hills over Belfast remind you this is a wild country. And, of course, I wish I’d seen more of Donegal than I could witness from a coach window. The border slips by, hardly noticeable but for a sign on a petrol station.
The other side is the Troubles. On my first visit, I took a trip to the Bushmills distillery and was amazed to see the village covered in loyalist regalia. I took a minibus tour around the Shankill and the Falls Road, and a local journalist took me around some of the bleaker spots. We passed Ian Paisley’s home at a time when the big man seemed to be on his last legs – when he was still more of a demagogue than a Chuckle Brother. This was while the assembly was suspended, with police still roaming the streets in armoured Land Rovers. It seemed a pivotal moment for the future.
Upon our return, a pair of Italian tourists stopped to ask us “when the next bus to the murals” would be. It was late on a summer’s evening, they were due to leave for Dublin later that evening, and my host decided to give them a quick tour herself – driving cautiously in case she was spotted in a strange area. It was a decision she came to regret when we pulled up at traffic lights outside the home of a leading loyalist figure, only for the Italians to try to get out of the car to take photos. “NO!,” she yelled, pulling away at speed. It took her some time to recover from that, although the Italians did get their photo in the end.
This time around, the Belfast police still use Land Rovers, their stations are still fortified – but this was more because the of cost of taking down the defences, said our man on a packed open-top bus. The tour took us around historic Belfast, out to Stormont; by Glentoran FC, the club which rejected George Best; past the Harland and Wolff works; the dock where the Titanic was built; the amazing regeneration work on the waterfront… but somehow the passengers only really started to pay attention as we made our way to the Falls Road – the Bobby Sands mural at Sinn Fein’s HQ prompting a “see the sort of dentist he had!” quip from the guide. Close by, the oddity of this tour became apparent when our bus got stuck in a side street behind a beer lorry making deliveries to a pub, which still had grilles on its windows to defend it from attack.
Once the lorry had shifted, it was through the peace line, and some kids shouted out at the bus “up the Shankill!” And just as in the Falls, every memorial, every mural noted. In the dark days of the 1980s, it must have been inconcievable that open-top buses would one day be surveying the city’s still-raw scars, but human curiosity and a desire to make sense of the past have combined to make a journey which is troubling as much as it is fascinating.
Of course, tourists come to see battlegrounds from 1470 all the time – so it’s hard to see why battlegrounds from 1970, 1980 and 1990 shouldn’t be any different. Especially as the story as told in Great Britain was often wildly different from the stories which those on the ground will readily tell you.
The Museum of Free Derry tells the story of the Catholic population of the city’s Bogside with an array of first-hand testimonies, ornaments, and a determination to set the record straight. Among the exhibits is a 1969 receipt for petrol. That fuel was used for making bombs in the Battle of the Bogside. Locals conduct twice-daily tours explaining the events leading up to Bloody Sunday from their perspective – one of police intimidation and discrimination from a Unionist authorities which sought to deny Catholics a voice by denying them proper homes and – under the laws of the times – votes. “See that man over there? He was the first person shot on Bloody Sunday.”
It is very hard to reconcile the Bogside view of the IRA as community defender and enforcer with the IRA I grew up with here, the one which bombed Woolwich twice and tried to blow up the East Greenwich gas works (one of my earliest memories is of the “wanted” posters from the 1979 incident) and for whom the lives of Londoners seemed expendable, as shown in South Quay in 1996. Making peace, though, has meant recognising all sides of the story. It is a multi-layered tale, too – one of the little-known aspects of Derry’s recent history was that until the Troubles, a job in the British Army was a secure way for young Catholics to learn a wage and learn a trade.
The sense of injustice after Bloody Sunday still burns now, with no sign of the Saville inquiry reporting soon. In truth, with all that has happened in the intervening decades, it is unlikely the people of the Bogside will be ever fully happy with whatever it reports back with. Inquests from 1972 are still being opened, and adjourned. There is still tension with the tiny Protestant enclave the other side of Derry’s walled city, with tales of taxi drivers getting beaten up. My guide was convinced passing a policeman was giving him a strange look.
He told me of the British soldiers he’d taken around the Bogside. One was now a close friend, he explained. “We went walking in Donegal the other week,” he added. When they first met, they realised they’d a lot in common. Remember I said my guide had served time for his part in the death of a soldier? His new friend was on patrol with that soldier at the time. A mutual friend of theirs interrupted us by calling him on his mobile. While there was still a long way to go, a lot of water had clearly passed under the bridge since the peace process started. It was hard to see my guide picking up arms again – but what of his generation’s sons and daughters?
Of course, there’s a lot more to Derry than its recent past. It’s a really friendly place, and it seemed half the city was packed into Peadar O’Donnell’s music bar last Tuesday night. But division is written deep in its history, and the impressive city walls are filled with a significance that will live on for centuries, whatever happens to this part of the world. The Tower Museum is worth a visit for this side of the city’s story. These days, campaigners in the Bogside are using tourism to push their cause – from the museum and a community gallery to guided walks by the men behind the murals which adorn the gable walls. The Free Derry Tours team will even help put together your stag or hen weekend if you ask them to. From Molotov cocktails to organised booze-ups? The path to peace remains an intriguing one.
A curious little story erupted while I was away, with a proposal to rename Maze Hill station “East Greenwich”. Commenters on the greenwich.co.uk website generally didn’t seem too keen on the idea. While I can see why local traders might not be too happy with a slightly cryptic name for their railway station, I also think it should stay as it is.
I’d imagine, to be honest, that people who are confused by a train station not having a place name in its title would still get lost anyway, purely because it’s not on the Tube network. (I say this after trying to guide some pals to The Pilot Inn on Saturday night, who had to travel there by 108 bus from north of the river and duly, and inexplicably, ended up at the Holiday Inn roundabout in an awful tizz.)
Maze Hill’s also the local station for a great chunk of Blackheath, it’s referred to in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and a large part of east Greenwich is also served by Westcombe Park station down the line. Another suggestion, to call it “Greenwich Park”, could also risk confusion – for much of the park is closer to Greenwich station. (A long-buried branch line to a station called Greenwich Park lies underneath the Hotel Ibis and behind Royal Hill.)
Maybe the only way around it would be to rename Greenwich as “West Greenwich” and then Maze Hill as “East Greenwich”, but then that’s getting complicated. Station renamings tend to leave a funny taste in the mouth anyway – older south Londoners still greet mention of “Surrey Quays” with a long, withering stare. Perhaps one way to boost things could be to shift the zone 2/3 boundary from Greenwich to Maze Hill to encourage onward travel and align it with North Greenwich Tube station. That’s a whole new can of worms, although that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be investigated.
What does intrigue me, though, is how the east side of Greenwich is starting to get an identity of its own. I grew up there, and “east Greenwich” was only ever used to emphasise its (then) ungentrified nature, compared with posher west Greenwich, or in reference to the old gas works. Otherwise, it was all just “Greenwich”, whether you were nearer Farmdale Road or Langdale Road.
Now with a traders’ association representing local businesses, and plans for a “cultural corridor” for 2012, together with continuing redevelopment along the Peninsula, there’s plenty of laudable efforts to make the east side sing as loudly as the west side, together with efforts by groups like Stream Arts to commemorate the history and communities of the area. If these efforts continue, then slowly, but surely, the east will carry on rising. And then everyone will know where Maze Hill station leads to.
I’ve been a lucky boy this past week or so – lucky to have been able to drop everything and take a short-notice week away, lucky to have spent much of that week in great company, lucky to have had the best of a wild week of Irish weather, and you’ve been lucky because I’ve had so little wi-fi access that this blog’s been silent for a few days. Hooray!
The sail-rail ticket is one of the few genuine bargains left from the wreck of the train network – no more than £30.50 single, even on the morning of travel, from anywhere to Dublin by train and ship, with a ticket which can be picked up from local station ticket machines. I didn’t finalise my plans until three days before I set off. The only fly in the ointment was caused by my deciding to return from Belfast – computer said no to coming home via Stranraer and Glasgow (sold out), yes to a ticket via Dublin and Holyhead to Euston, but no to Charlton, and I had to have it sent special delivery since I couldn’t pick it up at a station.
As for the journey – the Irish Mail leaves Euston at 0910, the boat leaves Holyhead at 1410, and you’re in Dublin for teatime. The ferry Ulysses is a motorway service station on water – full of Scouse stereotypes and dozing travellers. It wasn’t much different from a Ryanair flight, to be honest, but with wonderful views and without the hassle of flying. I left Charlton at 8.05am, and arrived in Kells, County Meath, at 8.05pm.
Getting around Ireland’s pretty easy – Bus Eireann isn’t particularly cheap, but it does the job; trains north and south of the border can be very cheap, but don’t expect to them to get you anywhere in a hurry. That said, I had one of my very, very rare moments of car driving envy while on the coach going through Donegal – not for the speed, but the option to explore further. Maybe another time.
Coming home was a bit more stressful – fine travelling from Belfast to Dublin on the Enterprise train, near-seamless connection onto a bus to Dublin port, but the port itself is a bit grim (tip: stock up on food beforehand) and the fast boat Jonathan Swift was packed and not as comfortable as the Ulyssees. There was no direct connection to London at Holyhead, instead there was a scrum to get on a poxy little two-car Arriva Trains Wales stopping service to Chester, which was standing room only as soon as it departed on a two-hour journey. It was as if Holyhead being a major port was some kind of inconvenience for the train operator. The rest of the ride (on Virgin) was smooth and swift, though.
So what did I do? I spent a night on the Meath/Cavan border with an old pal from college and her family, visiting pubs in their nearby village and getting muddy playing with their kids and dog; I was taken to a brilliant Dublin bar which had bras and knickers behind the counter (I didn’t ask), watched some Gaelic football and went on a literary pub crawl (highly recommended); got the train to Sligo and watched Charlton get beat on TV in a cosy pub and learned more about WB Yeats than I’m ever likely to remember; took a jaw-droppingly beautiful coach ride to Derry through the snowy Donegal mountains, after which I took a tour of the Bogside which left my head spinning and watched Australians mosh to traditional fiddly-dee; and saw bands in Belfast and found a bar which reignited my fantasies of pub ownership.
It was a fascinating trip, and despite the nasty journey home (must remember to take direct trains next time), I’d love to do it again some time. So, did I miss anything exciting while I was away?
Thanks to The Guardian for listing me as one of its Top London Bloggers – it’s part of an initiative sparked by its capital writer Dave Hill to help the paper get under the skin of the capital’s politics and communities in the run-up to this spring’s general and council elections. Of course, when I found out, I was on a train gawping at the scenery in County Down, so I hope he’ll forgive me for waxing lyrical about Ireland for a little on the next post.
It’s an admirable project and I wish the Guardian well with it- simultaneously, it’s launched a news blog for Leeds to test the waters of local journalism in a sightly different fashion. Having been both journalist and blogger myself, it’s good to see it actively engaging with people on the ground. I think this approach looks really promising – much better than other big publishers’ attempts at local websites – although the catch will be in making it pay for itself, of course.
As for this blog, a week away’s left me refreshed and revived – the whole candidacy mularkey, twinned with the dismal “well, you would say that anyway” instincts of some around these parts left me a tad uncertain as to how to proceed; the risk of genuine questions and feelings being misinterpreted as tedious mudslinging has made me err on the side of caution lately.
Some fresh air and several pints of Guinness later, I think I’m ready to proceed once again. I bet you can’t wait, can you?
It’s amazing what you can get from your local station, isn’t it? Hopefully I won’t be posting tales of delays and seasickness in the next few days. Fingers crossed….
The test trains are rumbling up and down the line, the bubblewrap on the signs is being popped. Ladies and gentlemen, the East London line is on its way…
Never mind going to Hoxton and Dalston – there’s also these throbbing palaces of fun to go to…
Brockley Central has a countdown and full coverage from an SE4 perspective, while London Reconnections has more photos of New Cross Gate, and details of how the line is due to open – from 4 April on the old Tube line and the new section up to Dalston Junction, with the connection to West Croydon and Crystal Palace following on 23 May. A further northern extension to Highbury & Islington is due next year.
It’ll certainly transform travelling around certain bits of south-east London, and it’ll have an effect on the Greenwich area too – direct trains into east and north London will be a short hop away by bus, although it’s unfortunate that most Southeastern trains to/from Woolwich and Charlton don’t call at New Cross any more. It’ll probably take some pressure off the Docklands Light Railway, and when gigs are chucking out at the O2, or in rush hour’s worst moments, I’ll probably find myself travelling home via New Cross rather than North Greenwich once again. The only downside to the new railway line will be the inclusion of Shoreditch High Street and Hoxton in zone 1, and its uncomfortable trains which make the newer Southeastern trains (upon which they are based) feel luxurious.
One thing did strike me, though. Another fresh public transport link north of the Thames is undoubtedly a good thing – not so long ago, it was only the East London Line, the foot tunnels, the Woolwich Ferry and the doughty 108 which linked us if you weren’t driving. Now politicans’ thoughts are turning – for better or for worse – to building more links, either road or new rail connections. Increasingly, the divide between here and there is becoming less of a barrier.
So, I wonder – is south-east London going to lose some of its distinctive identity in this? There’s no more guaranteed way to get me yelling abuse at the TV when areas south of the river get branded as “east London” (apparently it happened in Sky’s coverage of darts from the Dome last night, with Sid Waddell claiming its nearest football club was West Ham – whoops). And what makes south-east London so different from east London anyway? After all, head further out and the Kent suburbs aren’t much different from their Essex counterparts. Is it our pockets of affluence and generous helpings of green space? Is it their (percieved) proximity to the City? Our (relative) isolation from the rest of London? The different patterns of immigration over the years? West Ham v Millwall (or Charlton)?
There aren’t many examples in this country of communities so near, but so separate. When I took the photo of the old Charing Cross Pier at Millennium Mills last week, I couldn’t help gawping at the view of my home territory from the north bank of the river – particularly how Charlton was dominated by The Valley, which looks enormous from Thames Barrier Park. (It reminded me of being able to see the glow of West Ham’s floodlights from the Charlton riverside when I was a teenager, a glimpse of another world.) The stroppiness of south London always feels like the natural attitude for this area. I couldn’t ever imagine saying I’m from “east London” – trips through the Blackwall Tunnel or across the Woolwich Ferry still feel like crossing international frontiers – yet occasionally it does slip into politician-speak.
The thought struck me when I first heard of the admirable East London Lines journalism project at Goldsmiths, following news up and down the new railway. Yet will Deptford ever really feel a deep kinship with Dalston? These things can’t be forced. But habits change as transport changes. Getting shopping or even going for a night out at Canary Wharf wasn’t much of an option for south-east Londoners until the Jubilee Line and DLR extensions a decade ago. (Indeed, those connections have helped Canary Wharf grow hugely since then.) The East London Line will bring a lot of practical changes for many thousands of people. But the deeper changes may be a few years off yet.