18 November 2017

Urbo bike road test

It took a while to get my hands on one of the new Urbo hire bikes, even after I downloaded the app and signed up. That’s because there are only 250 of them in the whole of Waltham Forest, so the chances of finding a bike when you want one are low. The app seems quite erratic too. I came out of Blackhorse Road tube looking at the map and it told me there were no bikes in my area. But across the road there were two of them, highly visible with their signature bright green wheels. Getting the bike to unlock was the first hurdle. The bikes just have a European style demobilisation lock on the back wheel. I messed up somehow and lost 50p, but the second attempt was successful. On the app, you click on ‘unlock’ then scan the QR code on the lock, and after a bit of a wait the lock pings open and you’re ready to go.

I had a good look at the bike first. Like a Boris bike, it is very heavy, has three gears and a kickstand, mudguards and lights. It doesn’t look as vandal-proof as the Boris bikes, with quite a few accessible bolts. It has a handy front basket with a sheet of brown plastic which turns out to be a photovoltaic panel to charge the electronics. I found the kickstand was half unbolted, and more seriously the saddle does adjust but although I’m not that tall, just six foot, the highest setting is not quite high enough. A Boris bike saddle will extend a good 10cm higher. Getting on the bike, I was immediately worried because it felt unstable, like riding with a flat tyre. Perhaps I should go to a petrol station and pump them up to a decent pressure? But there are no valves - the bikes have solid tyres, puncture-proof because they are filled with some kind of foam rather than air. You get used to it but there is a sideways wobble whenever you go over anything uneven in the road. Plus I’m riding with my knees slightly bent because the saddle is too low.

I rode my Urbo to the high street, left it unlocked outside a shop (but keeping it in view) while I bought a few things, and rode back with my purchases in the basket. Locked the bike and left it in the street outside my house. Two hours later it was still there so I made another short shopping trip, about 15 minutes for 50p. You are supposed to leave them in a designated spot which is all very well, but cycling is not like driving a car and then walking from a parking space, your journey is likely only short and adding a ten minute walk is not the way you want to use a bike. This time I left the bike on the corner by the main road where a lot of people could see it, and a short walk from the tube, but it was still there 24 hours later.

To summarise, these are not bikes that proper cyclists will like much, but they get you from A to B if you can find one available. The scheme is currently just £1 to join and you get £2.50 credit to start with, which is up to two and a half hours of riding, so you can join without any long-term commitment, on the chance that it will come in useful. It’s interesting that Urbo chose Waltham Forest out of the many areas that don’t have a bike sharing scheme, presumably becasue of Mini Holland. But the joining fee will go up to £30 eventually, which will not be worthwhile unless you can use it on a regular basis. At the moment this is an unreliable service, and it will not be much practical use unless they bring in a lot more bikes. Even then you will be restricted to the borough and any other areas Urbo might decide to colonise in future. It would be a lot more useful to have the London-wide Santander docking stations extend out to Waltham Forest and other outer boroughs, and I wonder if all the privatised bike sharing schemes make that more or less likely?

11 November 2017

A bit of a shock

Now the reservoirs are officially open as Walthamstow Wetlands, there is nobody guarding the gates and you can just walk or cycle right in. It seems to have made a big difference. I've visited the reservoirs a few times over the years, and got used to being often the only person there, or the only person not fishing or having a job to do. So it's a bit of a shock to find the place suddenly full of people. The last few weekends have been spectacularly busy, the influx of urban hipsters, families with toddlers and even the odd bird watcher drawn by the opening publicity, and perhaps the sense that the site was a bit of a secret until now. In reality there was nothing to stop people visiting before, just a £1 admission fee to pay (except the ban on under-eights obviously put off the young family contingent). I think very few people either knew they could get in or thought it worthwhile visiting. Now with two additional entrances, it's easier to get in and I have to admit, it's also more tempting. I was expecting something much more regimented, like the smart new walkway where you enter the site from Forest Road. But that is the only place where visitors are confined to a walkway, and the rest of the site still has the character of a working reservoir with very little in the way of intrusive barriers and notices.

Passing the untidy billboards on Forest Road near the entrance.

The site is unfinished and today there are many signs that things are still being worked on, things being put in place and maybe strategies being developed. The engine house is finished but the Coppermill is still a construction site. There are photocopied signs taped up asking people not to run or cycle except on the designated concrete track. The old rusty bridge is still rusty but it has a nicely-designed new handrail bolted to it. Bits of old machinery, unrestored, are dumped anyhow on the grass next to the engine house. Big concrete blocks sit among the trackside weeds here and there, awaiting their proper place. Next to the cafe, temporary rope barriers and cones block off a big expanse of bare soil to give new grass a chance to grow. Bedraggled wildlife illustrations in plastic sleeves are flapping in the breeze along the cycle track. There are no bins except the big ones at the entrances - will that work? I rather like all this, and for this visit I want to focus on photographing that rather than the birds and empty expanses of grass and water.

The new walkway...

...with holes in the metal deck for trees to grow through.

The old brick railway viaduct was replaced with this concrete structure a few years ago.

The engine house, the showpiece of the new visitor infrastructure.

Unnecessarily bright bollards...

...and various temporary barriers.

Smart new railings by the new cafe contrast with old steel barriers.

Work on the Copper Mill is still being finished but you can just make out the new lift that will give access to the open viewing deck.

There are two electricity pylons on the site. This one in particular is known as a perch for peregrine falcons.

18 October 2017

May Morris:Art and Life at the William Morris gallery

This small exhibition brings together a collection of work and artefacts by May Morris, who lived in the shadow of her father, William Morris, but successfully made her own way developing embroidery as an artform, living an artistic lifestyle and consolidating her father's reputation by way of the 24-volume Collected Works. The exhibition room is dominated by her large-scale embroideries, and the first impression is that tackling embroidery on such a large scale must be daunting. There is some very fine accurate stitching in some of the pieces, but often she sensibly used thick threads and large stitches to achieve large-scale effects, as you can see when you look closely, and she would have helpers to complete the large designs, some of them six feet high. Some of the hangings are protected by a rope barrier to stop you getting too close, but not all of them, so you can get a good idea of the amount of work involved in making an embroidery of that size. One double panel is stitched onto a fabric that already has a pattern woven into it, increasing the sense of richness. Another is based on a silk mesh so fine it's almost invisible. There is the original artwork for her best-selling honeysuckle wallpaper - I think my mother had that in her kitchen at one time, and it's still available at £70 a roll from John Lewis. Nothing ground-breaking though, nothing too far removed from the established Arts and Crafts pattern of interwoven foliage and decorative birds. And her birds are really not that well drawn, nothing to compare with the birds-with-attitude of the Strawberry Thief. Worth a visit, but not worth trekking half way across London.

20 September 2017

Open House

At Open House weekend, once a year, all sorts of interesting places open their doors to the public. This year, Walthamstow's offerings included a hipster popup bar and a trendy house extension. It has to be said, there were not many venues locally apart from places that you can just walk into anyway, like the William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum, but a little can go a long way. Nothing to compete with getting to visit the revolving restaurant at the top of the BT Tower (you have to apply on a lottery basis and I finally got lucky this time) but interesting enough.

We visited Sideshow first, the temporary bar space on one of the demolition sites next to Blackhorse Road station, a spin-off from Blackhorse Workshop that is only there until the end of the year. Although it is open for coffee in the mornings and as a bar a couple of nights a week, I hadn't seen it before, and the architects were there to explain about the place. It's colourful, a series of plywood walls painted in bright primary colours, with zigzag tops to remind us of the factories that have been demolished all over the area. The bar has a roof but most of the space is open to the sky. There are tables and benches, various bits of art to look at, a metal fence to lock your bike to. The colour is uplifting, as is the indoor-outdoor feeling on a fairly cold morning. The star turn though, is the Heath Robinson-ish ball race contraption. Turn a huge rubber tyre and steel balls slowly rise way above your head, propelled by a very long archimedes screw (like a wood screw but much bigger) until they reach the tipping point. From there they race round a complicated array of tubes overhead, making a lot of noise but, since the tubes are mostly opaque metal, it's impossible to work out where they are - you can only guess from the sound, and look out for them hurtling through the clear plastic bits. When the balls get down to the lower levels, there are levers you can pull to let them go a bit further, until they get back to the beginning. Worth a look on a normal opening day, probably a nice place to drop in when they open in the evening. Catch it before it closes and the excavators move in.

The other venue was quite different, a private house that has had a drastic overhaul of the sort you expect to see in Islington, not in Walthamstow. Or did until recently. Originally a quirky Warner house with tiny rooms, the back of the house has been extended to make a spacious kitchen / living room with big glass doors opening out to the garden. Upstairs, a new bedroom extension juts out from the back of the house, a tall bright space internally, on the outside clad in trendy charred timber. Charred timber is literally burnt black on the outside instead of being painted. It's burnt somewhere else, before being nailed on to the outside of the building. I was sorry to see the downstairs part of the extension - although it's also black - is not charred but painted, perhaps because all that burnt wood will blacken anything that touches it. The combination of old and new does work, up to a point. You have a sense that the original rooms are very much secondary, and there is inevitably something a bit jarring about the juxtaposition of old and new. One of the original front rooms is an office, the other is really just a way through to the back. But it helps having some old furniture in the new part. A bit of inconsistency makes for a more interesting place to live, and it's certainly a cut above the standard kitchen extensions and loft extensions you see all over Walthamstow.

15 July 2017

Designing the town centre

On Friday I joined a group touring the High Street with members of the council's design and development team, an event that was designed to show off the many development sites in the area. The most interesting discovery was that the council have an office on the top floor of the Scene, a corner flat with great views across London. We met there for coffee and introductions before setting off to look at the quiet private courtyard for residents of the Scene. It's a car-free development. Is it true that (as rumoured) after three years tenants can get a parking permit? Nobody knew the answer but they thought probably not.

I spent two hours with an assorted bunch of architects and a contractor or two without really discovering what the purpose of the tour was or who it was aimed at. But as a resident it was at least a chance to make a point or two about the Mall proposals. We got to discuss (briefly) the loss of public space, 150 year old trees likely to be cut down, and the lack of joined-up strategy for the overall space including the bus station and Natwest. Vague plans for an overall strategy were mentioned but it certainly isn't at the stage of hiring designers to work out an acceptable solution, an alternative to the Mall's commercially driven proposals.

Isn't the value of the current square and garden their scale, large spaces flexible enough for all sorts of activities? No, the response was that a smaller space could be better designed and would provide somewhere to arrive at rather than just passing through. No, the trees are suffering from being too close together. The Scene is obviously a nice place to live and enhances the end of the High Street, tall but not too tall. But surely tall towers without their own public space are not going to enhance anything? I missed my chance to mention Grenfell Tower, but in any case we didn't get any response on that as far as I could tell. But it was pretty noisy, maybe I missed something when a refuse truck pulled up alongside our little group.

We looked at the shopfront improvements at the St James end of the market. Nothing to criticise there (except that whoever designed the new shopfronts ought to know that window sills need to slope so the rain runs off, otherwise they will go rotten). It's paid for by the council and lottery money about 50-50, about £3 million overall. Looks like money well spent (except for the window sills).

Lastly we walked over towards the South Grove site. Interestingly, there was talk about developing the dire bus park area behind the High Street, bringing that to life with new uses. Then the tunnel under the railway brought us into the old industrial area. The garages were all busy, and demolition of one large block is well under way. Nothing decided yet about the long-derelict pub. This site between the railway and South Grove is earmarked for tall blocks, which will be perhaps a bit like Tottenham Hale. What about the loss of business premises? Yes, they have to move further and further out. Could the small garage inits be turned around so they don't face the new residential area? NO, they are part of the land designated for development. Aren't there any plans to provide affordable business units elsewhere in the borough, perhaps where industrial areas could become denser? Well yes.. sort of, nothing definite though.

I would have liked to know more about the new requirement for significant planning applications to go to a design panel, but discovered nothing useful except that it happens. It was a frustrating morning. The team have obviously considered all the issues before, but the event (which to be fair wasn't designed for that purpose) provided only a hint about the reasoning behind the current official policies. Walking around provides immediacy but it's not really the best situation to discuss and understand the pros and cons of complex issues.

11 June 2017

On the Art Trail

With so much to see on the Art Trail this year, it's not easy to plan a tour of sure-fire interesting spots. Two things quickly became apparent though: firstly, it's much more interesting to visit someone's space and talk to them about what inspired them and how they achieved what is on show, than it is to look at a shop window or an exhibition in a public space. The other discovery was that what looks uninteresting from the short entry in the trail guide can turn out to be absolutely unmissable. Here are some of the highs and lows from the places we managed to cover so far.

St Mary's church has a huge scrawly painting by Hassan Vawda, an unframed canvas suspended above the pews, featuring a rough bearded character who might be biblical but is most likely a self portrait. The high point though, is getting to squeeze up the narrow stone spiral stair to the roof, where you can see across London to the City and Canary Wharf (see first picture). The tour also included a demonstration of bell ringing in the belfry.

At Today Bread there's a board inviting comments on the question "What's the point of art?" A relevant question that deserves a decent-sized space for responses, not the baby-size Rymans notice board they have given it, but then it is a bakery not an art centre. There is some nice photogenic lettering on the window too, but no clues to what "Growing Culture" means - later in the day I googled "today bread growing culture" and got a lot of stuff about beards. "Why CEOs are growing beards" and "Why does God like hairy chins?". Google must think I can't spell.

Invisible Numbers at Winns Gallery in the park is a mixed show of interesting if apparently unrelated artworks, although the common thread is explained in their informative handout. Hannah Ford's circus banners stand out, both for size and colourfulness and for their political viewpoint - an image of Theresa May comes at an especially appropriate time, in fact very possibly just in time. Andrew Baker and Kirsten Sibley's work on early computers (with a Walthamstow link) comes closest to the Invisible Numbers theme. At one end of the gallery are Denise Ford's calm paintings of Suffolk rope-making, contrasting with Rebecca Ward's alien Face Invader, which pumps out techno music and looks too scary to try on. Although a succession young visitors are not so easily put off.

Hewing Wittare Project Space turns out to be an upstairs Warner flat with distressed plaster, work in progress awaiting architectural perfection. It's a show of work by three artists under the title "Shapeshifting Рtactics to combat drowning" and the artworks all relate to the theme of survival, hence the floor of gold rescue blankets. Pictured is one of several papier mach̩ objects by Rebecca Glover, designed to be worn as a mask or perhaps a helmet.

Back in the town centre, Paul Tucker's photographs of trees taken over the seasons are let down by the way the Mall shows them, cordoned off in a desolate spot by the lifts. They deserve to be seen much bigger and without the clutter. We liked the idea of The Mathematics of Plants, shown in the window of XL Hair Design, but we were a little disappointed. The description talks about the whirling spiral patterns found in a surprising number of plants, but the photographs rather conspicuously didn't show that. Danny Coope's Contraptions was also a bit of a disappointment, not because we didn't like his collages but because they are just photographs displayed at the front of his amazing front garden. We definitely wanted to see the originals.

In the next street along, Gomacg - Curious Characters is an open house showing colourful multi-layered paintings on pop art themes. It's well worth a visit.

I would automatically avoid anything that includes knitting in the description, but someone told me the Howard Road House is good, and so perhaps undeservingly discovered the amazing knitted garden up there. Isaac Newton with an apple suspended over his head is a specially nice touch, along with the Smurfs, Dr Who and Einstein.

And finally, I read the description of Danny Neon Open House / Creative Vandalism and decided not to put it on my list, I don't know why because we had an entertaining time looking at the website. Fortunately we went to have a look anyway. The venue is a spacious flat above a High Street shop. Steep narrow stairs lead up to eight rooms including the kitchen and bathroom, all packed with amazing creative clutter and thoughtful and/or provocative artworks. No neon to be seen, but plenty to look at, easily the most fascinating show we saw all day.

Get the E17 Art Trail guide online here

13 May 2017

Veg without plastic

Fresh vegetables in a recycled cardboard box, with no plastic packaging. That is so obviously the right way to buy vegetables, but it is difficult to achieve in practice. It's all too easy to get vegetables along with everything else from the supermarket, but the quantity of plastic involved is becoming distinctly worrying, and the supermarkets don't care about the effect on the environment, only shelf life and marketing targets.

Last Saturday I set out to see if I could buy the week's vegetables without any plastic. I looked at the market stalls but got put off by the pound-a-bowl business, and decided to shop at the International Supermarket on the High Street. They are probably even less interested in being 'green' than Sainsbury's are, but (for different reasons) hardly anything is packaged. Most of their fruit and veg is displayed in the boxes it came in, inside and outside the shop. There are stacks of plastic bags but you don't have to use them. I cycled there (green transport!) and my shopping bike has a large box attached to the handlebars, plenty big enough to carry everything.

The selection of vegetables and salad ingredients in the Turkish-run shop is impressive, with many varieties that you wouldn't get in the big supermarkets: yellow courgettes, purple-and-white streaked aubergines and also white ones, long thin peppers in various colours, and lots more. Mostly the quality is good, although it's not consistent the way Sainsbury's is, but that just means choosing what is good and maybe trying something new, rather than deciding what to buy beforehand.

You collect purchases in a basket and most things can just go straight in, but it was impossible to avoid plastic altogether. Some things came with plastic packaging: celery is in a polythene bag, fresh chives come in cellophane and cooked beetroot is (unavoidably) shrink-wrapped. It didn't seem practical to get loose French beans so I took a polythene bag for those. I brought a used carrier bag with me for potatoes, so as not to push my luck at the checkout, also a big Sainsburys 'bag for life' to carry everything home.

I didn't entirely succeed in my plastic-free shopping mission. I underestimated how much would fit on the bike, so we needed to buy a few things from our local shops during the week. The comparative cost? About the same as Sainsbury's. And the actual saving on plastic bags? Sainsbury's often offer a choice between packaged and loose vegetables, and most of the things I bought could have been loose - so probably less than I expected.