Archive for June 2011
On Friday, the first occupants will be filling these stables ahead of Monday’s Greenwich Park Eventing Invitational, the test events for next year’s Olympic equestrian contests. Friday will also see the closure of the footways through most of the east side of the park as preparations step up a gear.
I joined a media tour on Wednesday morning to get a look behind the scenes of what’s been going on behind the fences in the park over the past six weeks or so. Here’s some photos – firstly of the stadium. It sits on 2,100 legs – which have also helped to prop up a Tesco store as well as athletics competitions.
The white structure beneath the observatory is where the judges will be based. During our visit, the stadium was being fitted out with the technology needed for the judges, including the scoreboard.
You can see a better view of the legs above. The arena itself is only slightly smaller than the one which will be used next year – the main difference will be in the seating. Just 2,000 people can be accommodated in the current temporary grandstand – there’ll be more than 10 times that next year.
One of the challenges the team will face next week will be in converting the equestrian arena into one suitable for the modern pentathlon event, the UPIM World Cup Final, which will take place on 9/10 July, featuring 36 men and 36 women from 20 countries. The action will be split between Greenwich (riding, running and shooting) and Crystal Palace (fencing and swimming), as the facilities at the Olympic aquatic centre are not yet ready.
As well as the challenge of getting athletes from Crystal Palace to Greenwich on time, organisers have to find 55 horses for the event – unlike equestrian disciplines, pentathletes get a random horse to ride on, and just 15 minutes to get to know their steeds. Also, for the first time in a major event, the pentathlon athletes will be shooting with lasers.
This is where spectators will enter the temporary arena – between the stadium and the Queen’s House. Greenwich Council gave away 1,000 tickets to residents. “We had 12,000 applicants before we stopped counting,” council leader Chris Roberts told reporters.
The grass on the sections which have been closed since mid-May looks as good as you’d expect from an area that’s had few visitors and huge amounts of rain. But the course itself – which is being looked after by the Sports Turf Research Institute – is especially soft and bouncy.
The boating pond has become a water jump, and has gained a fish and a turtle. Organisers hope to get this back in public use within days. There’s no word on whether the fish stays for 2012.
The bedding’s already waiting for the horses, and when the bins are full, they will be taken away and composted off-site. For the equestrian events, all athletes will bring their own feed for the horses, who will be younger animals than the ones expected to be the stars next year. Jeremy Edwards, the venue general manager for Greenwich Park, explained that the stables on an easy-to-drain deck to prevent the soil from being polluted. He said organisers would be learning how best to keep the horses cool.
“In the 2008 Olympics I worked for the Hong Kong Jockey Club and we built a a magnificent set of stables, but unfortunately they were built by racehorse people and not equestrian people – and we had multiple countries in the barns. So one of the problems we had there – and it’s not widely spoken about much – is that different countries had different ideas of what temperature they wanted it to be set at. Here, what we’re looking at is whether we’ll need some circulation of air – that could simply be some ceiling fans in the roof.”
Behind the stables are vet and anti-doping facilities, where organisers hope to test how long it takes to get samples to labs for testing.
Some 70-80 staff have been employed since 16 May on turning the park into a sporting venue, with construction work only completed on 20 June. A meerkat mascot is looking after one of the hard hats for now…
The first 10 horses arrive on Friday, with the other 30 coming on Saturday, with an inspection planned for 2.45pm on Sunday.
The dressage kicks off on Monday morning, while cross-country will take place on Tuesday. Showjumping will round off the event on Wednesday. Over the next two days, the arena will be converted for the pentathletes, with men competing on Saturday 9 July and women in action the following day.
If you’re lucky enough to get into either test event, you’ll be amazed – and I think, reassured – at what’s been done with the park in such a short space of time. (You also may be in royal company.) But many more will be shut out of the events, and remain shut out of much of the park, and I think LOCOG’s challenge is to show as many people as it can just what’s happening behind the fences to demonstrate that it’s all worth the hassle. Not an easy job around here with an emasculated local media – and the demonstrators will be sure to get some national publicity on a slow Monday morning.
Will next summer be a time of fun, a time to make money renting your home out, or a time of hassle? By next week, many people will get an idea of what it’ll be like for them – if they haven’t made their minds up already.
Greenwich Council’s controversial weekly newspaper, Greenwich Time, has begun to break even, it was suggested at last night’s full council meeting.
The news comes as government minister Eric Pickles threatened councils who are continuing to publish regular newspapers with a judicial review of their activities.
Pickles attempted to ban papers like Greenwich Time by introducing a new code on publicity for local councils, restricting publication to just four times a year.
But Greenwich has defied the code, claiming Greenwich Time saves it £1m a year in advertising costs.
In a written response to a question from Conservative councillor Matt Clare, deputy leader Peter Brooks said that in the first three months of this financial year, Greenwich Time had an income of £39,071.63 from external advertising, against a net cost of £38,729.74.
This would indicate the council had made a small profit of £341.89 on the newspaper.
Last year, the paper cost the council £189,992 – 3.6p per copy, Cllr Brooks added.
The paper’s future is currently under review and a report will be presented to the council’s cabinet in July. A preliminary report indicated the council saw the code as “guidance” without the force of law.
Responding to a further question from Cllr Clare, Peter Brooks said the council was “in the process of looking at all options for Greenwich Time”.
“All options are being put in front of us and [council communications chief] Katrina Delaney and her team are still working on working out the costs [of those options] versus how much it costs to do Greenwich Time, and just what the legislation really means.”
However, it is clear to sharp-eyed readers that the paper has undergone some subtle changes in response to Pickles’ code. It was relaunched as a weekly in 2008 with the slogan “the newspaper campaigning for an even greater Greenwich”.
It now carries a council logo and the slogan “produced by Greenwich Council for the community for over 25 years”.
Editorial and photography has also been cut back to save money, while the TV guide has also been dropped – despite the paper carrying a letter last year from a reader claiming “I rely on my council to provide such a small service in their paper”.
Cllr Brooks also indicated that Greenwich Time should not have led with a story extolling the virtues of a BMX track in the week its planning board was due to discuss its siting in Hornfair Park, Charlton – as highlighted by this website earlier this month.
In a written response to a question from Conservative councillor Geoff Brighty, he said: “I agree great concern must be taken on the timing of publicity.”
So, there I was walking through Greenwich at dusk on Monday, admiring the view (above). It was a gorgeous, warm evening, so I resolved to repair to a beer garden to pretend I was in Barcelona until last orders. As I strolled past the Cutty Sark hoardings, I heard some familiar bells.
Yes – Boris bikes. I’d heard tales of them being ridden down here, but this was the first time I’d seen them, as a couple headed rode around the half-rebuilt ship. I grabbed a photo, and strolled on. Then I heard those bells again…
More Boris bikes! Three tourists were using them to navigate the tiny riverside path by the naval college (even at the height of summer, the Old Royal Naval College shuts its gates to cyclists at 6pm). As the final one tried to navigate the cobbles and bollards, I said hello and added I hoped they weren’t hoping to return them to a dock anywhere nearby.
“Oh, we’re going to find somewhere across the river,” she said.
But they wouldn’t be able to cross anywhere beyond Greenwich – the Woolwich Ferry had stopped, while the Woolwich Foot Tunnel remains closed. Worse still, only a fool would try to lug a heavy hire bike down the narrow Greenwich Foot Tunnel stairs. They would have to return their bikes to the nearest docking station, just over four miles back the way they’d came (via the Thames Path) at Shad Thames, near Tower Bridge.
I felt a spoilsport as her mates returned, and they thanked me for my help as they turned back and headed back into down again. I’m not sure how far they’d have made without turning back anyway – it’s not much fun riding past the Blackwall Tunnel entrance by day, let alone at night; while the gravelly, unfenced bit south of Delta Wharf after dark would probably have convinced them they’d reached the edge of the civilised world.
But hopefully I saved them a shedload of hassle and a few quid in inflated bills – while tourists are able to use the hire bikes, the charging scale is ostensibly set to encourage them to use private operators.
From next year, though, we might be seeing a lot more lost souls on Boris bikes (or by then, maybe Kenny farthings) in Greenwich. I discussed earlier this year how the eastwards extension of the cycle hire scheme is solely restricted to the borough of Tower Hamlets – there’s no extension south of the river, even though cycling along the Thames is now being encouraged with the “new” Jubilee Greenway (in reality just a series of paving slabs on existing routes).
A cluster of bike hire stations is planned for the area around the northern entrance to Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Ferry Street, to the west of Island Gardens, will see a 20-cycle station put in, while two docks on Saunders Ness Road will be able to take 106 bikes between them. By the time they’re up and running, the foot tunnel will be up and running again (hopefully) with a lift working all day and all night, so the blue bikes will be a common sight in Greenwich – even though there’ll be nowhere to dock them south of the river.
This could be bad news for organisations like Greenwich Cycle Hire, which charges a flat £4 per hour and is much better value for tourists seeking an afternoon’s bimbling around. In Barcelona, where the ubiquitous Bicing scheme is only available to Catalonia residents with a two-hour limit on hire times, the hire stations carry advertising for private companies to encourage tourists to use them. In London, it’s tempting to conclude that TfL is hoping tourists paying a fortune to hire bikes for hours will unwittingly offset the scheme’s huge losses.
It also makes not extending the scheme south of the river look that little bit more silly – if people are riding four or more miles out of the cycle hire zone to visit Greenwich, they’ll definitely make the short river crossing. Green mayoral candidate Jenny Jones has made a big thing out of giving London a cycle hire scheme the size of Paris’s – but that’s a hopelessly modest ambition if people are taking them to the Cutty Sark, since that would only see the scheme run as far as the Rotherhithe Tunnel.
(A quick aside – I used the Paris Velib’ scheme earlier this month and found the same problems as in London, if not worse. I got charged four euros extra because my bike did not dock properly, the docking station systems were unreliable, and when I fancied a drink down near the Bastille, all the stations were full up and I had to turn back. If anything, it’s Paris’s infrastructure we should be taking a lead from, not the Velib’.)
Granted, I’ve the cycle hire scheme to thank for persuading me to cycle around London. But it’s clear that its implementation wasn’t thought through properly. When lost tourists are cycling around Greenwich or Deptford next year trying to find a place to dock their bikes before the hire fee rockets past £15, it’s just going to prompt more puzzlement. A lack of docking stations won’t be a brilliant advert for Greenwich, either – if I was a tourist, I’d be baffled why I couldn’t use the scheme south of the Thames.
It was a beautiful view across the Thames that night – but the river still remains a formidable barrier.
I had a bit of a lucky escape on a stiflingly hot Monday evening. About to walk to west Greenwich, I felt a few drops of rain ahead of a forecast thunderstorm, so I decided to get a bus. Then I realised the usually rock-solid 380 would be affected by roadworks in Blackheath, so wandered down to Charlton station instead to hop on the three stops to Greenwich instead.
At Charlton, at 5.25pm, I saw what looked like a developing situation of disruption on Southeastern – the first train (via Lewisham) a little late, the next showing just “delayed”, the one after that running 40 minutes late. It didn’t look healthy, so I decided to get a bus from near there instead.
Just in front of me, a man reached to touch in his Oyster card. I almost leaped to shout “NO!”, like a man in a public information film – it’s not worth touching in on Southeastern until you can actually see the train coming, in case they try to rip the maximum fare out of you.
But I let him touch instead. I wish I’d told him not to now.
A short while later, checking the internet from the bus, it was clear what had happened – a major failure on the network through Dartford had thrown the whole system to a standstill. There was no warning at Charlton that something was seriously wrong – and it turned out, no warnings in central London either.
The pal I met in Greenwich reported chaotic scenes at Cannon Street; no announcements, and fights breaking out at London Bridge among frustrated passengers. A quick leaf through the #southeastern hashtag on Twitter revealed mayhem breaking out – tales of police horses blocking access to Cannon Street station, others of people stuck on trains.
It turns out that while stranded in a separate delay near Bexleyheath, passengers decided to escape a stifling hot train by walking along the tracks.
People don’t walk along railway lines unless they feel they have no other alternative. But Southeastern, naturally, leapt to blame its passengers. “We urge customers not to walk alongside railway lines as this is very dangerous, it inevitably prolongs disruption and makes a difficult situation worse.”
The BBC News website dutifully lapped this up…
But where was the passengers’ side of the story?
In nine paragraphs, there’s no attempt to find out quite what happened. It’s not the first time the BBC News website has happily run one-sided stories on Southeastern’s behalf without bothering to see what passengers think.
Strangely, when a similar incident happened to trains heading out to Surrey earlier this month, passengers’ woes were at the forefront of its coverage. In south-east London, it’s the passengers’ fault – with no attempt to find out the other side of the story.
But a simple look through Twitter shows Southeastern’s communication systems had failed – yet again – and there was a bigger story to tell. There was a fresh moan once or twice per minute during the evening – yet precious little from the hapless rail company itself.
So, with delays lasting all evening, why didn’t the BBC follow it up?
I’m aware BBC London’s TV bulletin was making efforts – and it covered the story in its evening bulletin (5 minutes in, live until 7pm tonight, as did South East Today (3mins 20secs in) (links added to this post 1.25pm Tuesday).
But why was its website left to be a PR arm of a rail company which had let tens of thousands of passengers down?
Indeed, the story only ranks as the 12th most important in London as I type, beneath amazing news of sunshine at the Wimbledon tennis and Margaret Thatcher’s handbag being sold at auction. Somehow, if this happened on the Northern Line, and not on the unfashionable SE London rail network, I expect it’d rank a little higher in BBC London’s priorities.
I was lucky, and I hope the guy at Charlton station got to his destination okay. But if you have a tale of woe from your journey back to south-east London, please feel free to vent here…
UPDATE 1:40pm: BBC London’s transport correspondent Tom Edwards, who covered the story in its evening bulletin yesterday (links added above) followed the story up on this afternoon’s lunchtime bulletin by talking about passengers’ reactions and line upgrades. It’s a shame that good journalism wasn’t reflected on the website, which is still running yesterday’s PR puff story.
Committee chair Caroline Pidgeon said: “While we don’t condone passengers putting themselves at risk by leaving the train and walking on the tracks, you can hardly blame them for being desperate to get out after nearly two hours in a baking hot train carriage.
“Others were left stranded at stations with little or no information about what was happening and when they could expect their train to arrive.
“We want to know whether Southeastern responded as quickly and effectively as it should, and how it will improve its response if something like this happens again.
“We also want to see the passengers involved, who went through such an ordeal, properly compensated.”
Meanwhile, it’s telling to see the casual contempt from rail industry staff for passengers in this thread on the Rail UK forum.
I spent Sunday afternoon following up my outbreak of midsummer madness by taking up the Bike the Borough challenge. Not Greenwich – although I did get myself a natty Greenwich Council waterbottle on Woolwich Common on Saturday – and not Lewisham, but Lambeth.
One of those schemes to encourage people to cycle, Bike the Borough involved following an 18-mile course around the perimeter of Lambeth borough, picking up stamps in a passport (if you started early enough) to prove you’d done it so you could be entered in a prize draw.
It was a great idea, although its fundamental flaw is that cycling around the back streets of Streatham is arse-achingly dull. Especially in a heatwave. I’ve nothing against the citizens of SW16 or the place itself, but I almost cried with joy when the postcode switched to SE27 and I reached Tulse Hill. But before then you get to ride through the South Bank, around the Oval, and to peek at posh bits of Clapham.
I didn’t actually finish the course – I’d already ridden nine miles to Waterloo along the river, but as the temperature rose away from the Thames I started to feel a bit woozy by Clapham Common, and decided to abandon the circuit at Brockwell Park. It was the best idea I’d had for ages – by the time I’d got home I’d done 30 miles and was suffering from dehydration. Not even that Greenwich Council water bottle could save me from that, sadly. So there’s no pretty photos from my trip – I was too exhausted.
But it was an imaginative and well-executed idea. The route was largely easy to follow, especially in the north of the borough, although in the south, I’m not sure how having to navigate through a smelly alley underneath Streatham Common station will encourage more cycling. But full marks to Lambeth for giving it a go.
All of which set me thinking – could it be done in Greenwich? There’s a geographic disadvantage here in that we have some punishing hills – many cyclists love them, but the valleys of south-east London deterred me from riding a bike for years. I suspect those hills would rule out a similar scheme in Lewisham (climbing Telegraph Hill isn’t exactly an attractive prospect, no matter how nice it is there). Local authority boundaries aren’t exactly logical, either, but Lambeth’s ride happily sailed through parts of Wandsworth too.
I sketched out a route from Twinkle Park in Deptford and back – climbing the hill at Hyde Vale, Greenwich, leaving the borough briefly to cross Blackheath via Long Pond Road, via the Cator Estate to Sutcliffe Park, past the back of Eltham Palace, through Fairy Hill Park in Mottingham and up to Avery Hill Park, past Eltham Park, across Woolwich Common to Herbert Road and Plumstead Common, down to White Hart Road and along Abbey Wood Road, but then having to leave the borough to navigate Thamesmead (but with the bonus of passing Lesnes Abbey) before returning via the river. That was a whopping 29 miles, mind – not much fun during a heatwave either, although 11 miles of riverfront would mitigate some of that.
So – could you think of a route that would show off the delights of Greenwich borough (or Lewisham, if you can skip the hills; or even both) and encourage people to get on their bikes? It could be a good thing to do – and might also remind planners that dowdy suburban streets need to be made as good for cyclists as wide riverside paths.
Even if, like me, you’re generally supportive of the Olympics in Greenwich Park, seeing great chunks of it fenced off is still a profound shock. There’s memories in those trees, you know (especially that one over there), but now they’re behind big steel fences until 11 July. What was a beautiful open space is now criss-crossed with steel, laminated signs replacing painted-out fingerposts, routes through the park shut off.
Wandering around last night, I was struck by the number of dogs peering through the fence, missing the fields they’d normally run through. I wasn’t the only person taking photos either – the preparations becoming more of a tourist attraction than those sorry-looking Roman remains that are currently out of bounds.
At least it’s easy to see what it’s all for. White posts are marking out the route for the Greenwich Park Eventing International. The June rain has replenished the soil, but it’s still possible to see the work that’s been put in to make sure the grass is in tip-top condition. I’ve seen people in there jogging around the course.
The jumps are in place, too, while at the bottom of the hill work is progressing well on the temporary stadium and the horse boxes are awaiting their occupants. The park is starting to look like a sporting arena. Next summer’s TV viewers will be in for a treat.
But there’s going to be mistakes along the way. The unnecessary closure of one exit to the flower gardens was thankfully reversed as soon as greenwich.co.uk pointed it out. But did LOCOG really mean to fence off the view from the Wolfe memorial? I hope not. That fence wasn’t there on Wednesday night, but by Thursday it was making the place look like a building site.
Which is it is, but in the park, you like to pretend otherwise.
For next summer, Royal Parks need to put decent signs up at all entrances to the park explaining what’s happening – not just the bits used by tourists. While there’s got to be a more elegant way to direct people around than nasty laminated “TO THE OBSERVATORY” signs, hasn’t there?
Nobody with any sense ever pretended the road to a successful Olympics in Greenwich Park would be smooth. But nobody of sound mind predicts disaster, either. In a way, we’re getting an early rehearsal of the upheaval that’ll hit London next summer. This map outlines the next steps.
I’m looking forward to one closure – the banning of through traffic between 1-11 July, which will make the park a lot safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Perhaps a traffic-free park could be a legacy to demand.
But if you see something that baffles you – shout. It’s in everyone’s interests that this thing works – and that’s going to need honesty and patience on both sides.
(For what’s behind the fences, head here.)