Travels: London: Friday 11th Feb. 2000

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British Library, South Bank, Albert Embankment, Buses

Main purpose: work trip for the JISC workshop on the Data Protection Act 1998.

The 08:20 from Cambridge to Kings Cross was a few minutes late (ticket: 29).
After a 10 minute walk along Euston Road I arrived at the 1996 British Library and found the Conference Centre was the first part I reached.
[My notes from the workshop contain observations on the Centre.]

At lunchtime I went into the Library proper and did a 45-minute tour of the Treasures of the BL permanent exhibition, seeing about 70% of it. The collection is awesome: many version of the Magna Carta, papers from most of the key points in English history, from science, literature, music ...

In the courtyard outside there were many people (40-50?) sitting having a lunch break and about a third were using a mobile phone - a sign of the times. The courtyard surface is covered with hatches for fire/smoke ventilation - below are the vast storage areas of the Library.

[Blake's illustration is in Tate Britain - details. See also BL's page about it. See also the general view of the BL from January 1996, taken from the south-west corner, with the Conference Centre to the right and the statue under cover.]
Towards Euston Road there's a statue by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a remarkably good modern interpretation of Blake's illustration Newton.

Nearby there's a circular sunken area with benches. Off to the east side a plaque refers to an Anne Frank memorial tree but there was no tree in sight.

Having agreed the previous evening to meet up with my brother and his partner, I phoned them at lunchtime to check arrangements and again at 16:00 as I left.
[This was one of my first active, meaningful uses of my mobile phone, purchased the previous August mainly for passive use - to receive urgent messages.]

I went to Euston Station looking for a highly-recommended pub, the Head of Steam. After failing to find it this time, I set off via the Northern Line for the Embankment. The lifts at Euston were broken - much muttering from other travellers. Apparently it's a fairly recent change that all Zone 1 tickets are 1.50 (see below). Mind you, it's a return of the idea Ken Livingstone had in the early 1980s as leader of the GLC.

Arriving at the Embankment for my first time on foot, I emerged to see a major river travel centre (which I used 2 months later) and Cleopatra's Needle to the left.
[One of those little coincidences - the previous evening I read about the move of Cleopatra's Needle from Egypt in Secret Chamber by Robert Bauval.]

To the right is Hungerford Bridge, with works in progress to replace the ugly pedestrian part of the mainly-railway bridge with two new elegant paths of each side of the railway. Walking across the bridge, I went past a Muslim woman with a baby in her lap, sitting on the pavement and presumably begging. Another sign of the times.

On the far side the South Bank complex is a major development area. There was a display board outlining all the projects. In subsequent trips I saw these in detail.

I was due to meet my brother in a pub further along, opposite Tate Britain and this seemed to be the simplest route compromising between multiple Tube journeys (& payments) and seeing interesting sights. I was particularly keen to see the next major feature.

I set off upriver along Riverside Walk and was diverted southwards due to a renewal project on that section. I passed a classic item of Sixties architecture: a cement walkway (about 3m wide) emerged from a standard office block (I later discovered this was the Shell Centre) at first floor level heading for the river and then stopped suddenly at the road. This seemed to be some aborted grand scheme, so typical of those times.

[BBC News: the Eye from space - I love this pic of the Eye shortly after it was erected.]
The road led to Belvedere Road and then to a temporary diagonal path across Jubilee Gardens to the London Eye. At this time it was only open to ticket holders, the public opening having been put off till 1st March, yet there was a queue of around 80-100 people even at 16:30. About a third of the capsules were empty. Apparently the visitors would have been complimentary ticket holders plus those who booked prior to the change of opening date from the 1st February.

I was (and still am) longing to go on it on a clear day (e.g. after rainfall) and on a clear night but don't fancy queuing for hours. I think the Eye is a triumph, all the more so as it was a private venture, and I thought it was sure to be a success. I'm delighted it's proved to be THE "Millennium" attraction in London, without needing any hype, advertising or Lottery cash like the pointless & deservedly unpopular Millennium Dome.
[A flight on the Eye]

The nearest corner of County Hall has a ticket office for the Eye, apparently operated by Madame Tussauds on behalf of British Airways. Further along is the London Aquarium, mainly in the basement, a Macdonalds "restaurant" with very subdued signage, presumably as it's a Listed building - a single, small external logo. The building overall is apparently Japanese owned and London Assembly is welcome to bring back into use the former GLC debating chamber, which has been preserved. Another of the major tenants is a Whitbread Marriott hotel.

Carrying on along the riverside walk (past St Thomas' Hospital) I noticed two launches tied up, labelled Naval Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich - seemingly a sign of the growing interest in using the river (more of this in later travels). Also there was a very scruffy boat which seemed to be an early 20th century working one with a superstructure of a rough wooden hut. It displayed a sign saying it offered a Q8 fuel & oil supply service. This was quite out of character for the Q8 (Kuwati) chain of petrol stations, making me wonder if they'd taken over a small firm to boost distribution.

I noticed I was passing what I took to be Millbank Tower (Labour Party HQ, BBC Westminster studio...) on the other bank and duly reached the Old Father Thames pub (a Hogshead, i.e. Whitbread) by the Albert Embankment (near Salamanca Street). Typically, as I was to find generally in London, they only had one real beer on, Greene King Triumph - very boring for anyone from GK's home territory. My brother was there already, having just finished work for the day nearby. His partner joined us about 10 minutes later. The place filled up rapidly with office workers.

After drinks we drove back to their house in Denmark Hill and then to the local J.D. Wetherspoon, the Fox on the Hill, a large 1920s/1930s estate pub and still with original features such as a fireplace. The guest beer list had tasty beers such as Oakham Old Tosspot and B&T SOD but only GK Abbot was actually available. As expected the menu was identical to the Regal in Cambridge and I had Scandinavian Meatballs: rice, balls the size of small marbles, tomato sauce plus a sprinkling of a herb such as thyme - not much to it.

Then we returned to their home till it was time to catch the half-hourly bus at 21:35 from Denmark Hill straight to Liverpool Street station (route 42). The ticket was 1.70. I later discovered there are now two standard rates (see Bus Fares), based on two zones, 70p and 1.00, so according to that it should have cost 1.00 - a puzzle. The bus was about 40-70% full for the journey but I was the only one who paid cash - all others had passes. Everyone else seemed to travel just three of four stops, some with small children in tow (odd for that time of night). Nearly all were from "ethnic minorities" - an interesting insight into the demographics of bus v. Tube travel, for instance.
[A comment on a useful Web page describing Tube travel for U.S. tourists explains that most Londoners feel comfortable using the Tube. Also the Tube's most famous regular user is the Mayor, Ken Livingston. I'm delighted but unsurprised he's going to chair Transport for London personally, rather than appoint someone.]

Most passengers had gone by the time the bus entered the City and few got on from that point. The service terminated at a large modern bus stop-off area west of the railway station. This was my first chance to see the new station properly, having seen glimpses during construction in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had time to explore it on a later trip.

The return train stopped at many stations and noisy teenagers rode in mid-journey around Harlow. This reminded me of an earlier realisation that since electrification of the Royson-Cambridge section c1990, the Kings Cross line is much faster than the Liverpool Street one in general, unlike in the 1980s.

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