Monday, 28 April 2008

Putting the fun back into run

Brockley had its first organised fun run yesterday, and what a great morning it was.

The weather, predicted to rain, ended up being mild and bright. Perfect conditions for the 300 or so runners, pram-pushers, kids and dog-walkers to race, amble or jog around the park.

But though the run was very accommodating for beginners, with a pre-race warm up and lots of friendly faces, the course was not so easy.

A figure of eight followed by a loop, up and down repeatedly over the spine of the park, its name – Hilly Fields – proved exhaustingly appropriate.

For those that regularly race, this meant it was not a course to set a personal best.

And given the hills, just getting round was something of an achievement for those that run less regularly.

This was particularly the case for all the children taking part, and their presence gave the event a proper community feel, as well as showing us how fast some of our local kids can run!

This is something I experienced first hand, as I was overtaken by someone half my age after the first kilometre, after which I spent the rest of the race trying to catch him, but to no avail.

I don't know if the results will be published, but I hope so and it would match the level of professionalism around the race – an unusual surprise given the small scale of the event. And well done to those that organised it – Erin at the Broca with the help of the BXAG group.

Those taking part also received a 'I love Brockley' T-shirt, so expect to see these in our streets in the future. As well as, hopefully, another equally successful event next year.

Friday, 25 April 2008

It was all fields in my day

It doesn’t take an archaeologist to recognise that London is a city of layers.

In the centre of the city, two thousand years of history stacks up, mixed together, a live interaction of old and new. This makes the City a fascinating place, full of historical clues and curiosities.

But the old city (with a small c) of London is very small, only a mile or so wide. Smithfield, which now seems so central, was until recent centuries outside the north boundary of the city (and was where cattle were drove ahead of market, hence the meat-market there).

Looking at historical maps of the city one sees a sudden expansion only in the late nineteenth century, a pattern replicated across many cities in the country. Trains, industrialisation and urbanisation swelled the nation's cities at an incredible pace.

The maps say it all. And what amazing places they show!

A look outside today, one looks at the terraces of London, the roads and cars, the high rises and the bleak urban spots.

But maps show that just over a hundred years ago much of what we call London was a place of small villages, market gardens, fields, quarries and canals.

Finding new maps on the internet is always exciting. Thanks to Transpontine I came across a map of London from 1862-1871. It is well worth a look, there are historical tales everywhere.

The town that I live in, Brockley, is at a really interesting stage during this time.

Most of the town is fields and market gardens. But in the north, bordering Deptford, builders are starting to put up big houses. The main road on which these houses were built – Wickham Road - ends in a field!

The main roads that we know now, around Brockley Cross, do not exist. Instead, there is Brockley Lane that meanders around, and a couple of footpaths.

Though villages, fields and footpaths sound a lot more pleasant than congested roads, and high-rise concrete blocks, a look at other parts of the city show that the Victorian era was also a place of dark industry. Chemical plants and gas works, tanners and foundries. These would have been dangerous and polluting places.

Now compare the map above with that of the map of the area in 1833. Very little of London has crept into the area. In those days it really was all fields. Note that the railway was once a canal, with many, many locks (which made it uneconomic).

And then look at a later map, from 1890, and much of what we know as Brockley today - particularly the northern end (Brockley Cross) has been laid out. We would recognise these streets, as this picture of Upper Brockley Road from 1905 demonstrates.

These maps – and there are others – help give us a real sense of history, of life as it was.

The past is a foreign country they say. However, a glance at these maps show both how near and far the past is.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Dinner table talk

As avid readers of this blog will be aware, there is a rather fine Brockley blog, just over there, over the way.

It’s one of the most successful local blogs I have seen, in that it attracts lots of comment and readers, and almost all of it is constructive and interesting.

There is, however, one part of the conversation that I find rather alienating – the parts about house prices. This is not the blog’s fault – Nick, who runs the site, barely talks about house prices – but that of the people on the site, who use Nick’s articles as a launch point to discuss what they wish.

And a number of them wish to discuss the price of houses. This is Рas the clich̩ goes Рa favourite middle-class pastime, and for Brockley Central, with its substantial middle-class readership, it is almost inevitable that such discussions will be commonplace.

But not only does such talk remind me of my biggest personal investment mistake – thinking that house price peaks of early 2004 were as high as prices would go – these conversations are full of basic (and soon to be painful) errors.

I won’t go into detail on all of these, but I will mention one: things can change. Just because house prices have been at a level does not mean they always will. As I found out in 2004, prices can rise when they ‘shouldn’t’; they can also fall further than they ‘should’. This is because the intellectual structures backing pricing decisions can change very suddenly.

House prices rose beyond their 2004 peaks mainly because of easier credit conditions – housing finance was offered in huge quantities. That easier credit is no longer available, and so is likely to mean we will see a fairly large drop in house prices.

However, unlike market professionals, normal people take a long time to change their minds, and adjust to new market realities. This means that house prices may not recover for some years to come.

Corbusier wanted to build homes that were machines for living. The home owners of this country wanted homes that were machines for profit. It would be nice, though naive, if homes could simply be places to live.

Thursday, 10 April 2008


A short break to Barcelona reminds me of the similarities and differences between cities, and also how much I have come to embrace London.

Barcelona is busy, quiet, scruffy and upmarket all at the same time. This was my first time there and my experience of it was largely of the scruffy, historic side of the city.

Given that, it made for an interesting contrast with London, which is often accused of being unkempt and lawless, but I found Barcelona much more so.

Behaviour that would not be tolerated in London – such as football fans drunkenly shouting and singing at 6am in the morning, drug-selling in the open and low-grade thieves roaming the streets at will – seemed to be quite normal in Barcelona.

It reminded me of Brighton back in the day!

It is not such a bad place, however. We just happened to be staying in quite a rough part. However, it did bring into contrast how much of a media panic London has experienced over crime.

I've lived in London for almost 30 years and have been a victim of a mugging or attempted mugging twice. (And I ain't never lived in a posh bit!) I went to Barcelona and someone tried it on within three days!

On returning to London, Britain's capital seemed slightly more drab, but certainly richer as well as more quirky. The centuries of accumulated wealth are easy to see, and the calmness and assuredness of a booming city is writ into people's faces.

Yes London has its problems, but it was a great thing to come back to town, sit in a pub and down a pint.

BTW One very (geeky) thing that I really liked about Barcelona: the subway train indicator boards give you a countdown, in seconds, of when the next train will arrive. Can we have this in London please?

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Four wheels bad

My first visit to a big supermarket in three months was something of a rude shock. It was bad timing for such a visit – Easter Saturday, in the afternoon – and not all supermarkets are as bad as the Tesco's in Lewisham, but I'm more determined than ever to stick to going to local shops as much as I can.

Sometimes I'm going to a Tesco Express around the corner from me. It's pretty basic, but it's quite cheap and I can get meat I can trust from there on a Sunday evening, which I can't do any other way.

This is what I was doing last Sunday, driving home from a long day out. We stopped off at the Express, and found that there is very little car parking provision for the store. Two places directly outside, and that's all.

This might be laudable if it were part of a plan to encourage other forms of transport, but as Richard George noted in the Guardian last week, most bigger supermarkets are designed almost entirely around car drivers. This means that pedestrian shoppers usually have to walk through a car park to get to the store.

As for cyclists ... this is the provision at my local Sainsbury's!

Back in Brockley, I woudn't be surprised if people living close to the store are becoming a little miffed by the constant flow of cars stopping off outside their homes.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Within walking distance

Is New Cross the new Camden? The Evening Standard asked the (rather lame) question at the end of last year when New Cross's Amersham Arms was relaunched by the same people as run Camden's The Lock Tavern.

I went there on Saturday night to see whether such claims might have a whiff of truth. The last time I went along it was to see the band Man Like Me literally bring the roof down on the old place as part of a rather shambolic but fun festival.

Anyway, the front bit of the Amersham Arms is now indeed rather like a pub you would find in Camden. Full of quite cool semi-scenesters winding themselves up for the night ahead.

Good place. Works well for a Saturday night. I'll check the back room one day soon, when I see a good gig to go to.

We stayed for a few in the Amersham Arms then moved on to another local pub, the Royal Albert, which has also been on the receiving end of a recent refurb.

It used to be known as the Paradise Bar for those with a longer memory. And the Six String Bar for those with an even longer one.

Now it is a nice place. A little bland but not in a bad way. It had a good range of beers, stayed open until after 12 and it is a 10 minute walk to my home.

The Amersham was more fun and did make me realise how New Cross does maintain a good number of quirky and interesting venues.

There are those that shudder at the memory of the Paradise Bar, while others remember it with fondness for its unusual and experimental nights.

Meanwhile, the Goldsmiths Tavern of old was a fairly crazy place if my addled memory serves me right. (It is the only place where I have seen a man thrown horizontally through a door onto the street, and by a much-pierced barman wearing a suit!)

There's a history to this: a glance at the culture section of the New Cross's Wikipedia entry shows how many alternative scenes have connections to the town, including some of the first house nights, Britpop and new rave. It was also where Vic Reeves first did a show with Bob Mortimer, which almost in itself makes it my spiritual home!

Getting people from outside the area to come for the evening remains a chore but maybe that is part of New Cross's charm. An evening there remains one for either the brave or the local, and that doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

Edited to add:

Coincidentally, fellow (and much more established) blogger Transpontine has written up a similar piece on New Cross on the back of a NME article, "New Cross is Reborn".

Hats off to the chap. And am particularly liking his Walking New Cross series.

Monday, 17 March 2008

I love Brockley

I have a T-shirt that was made for me that reads 'I love Penge', and it is one of the finest articles of clothing I have ever owned.

When wearing it I have been stopped in the street, talked to by random strangers, hugged and photographed.

The truth of the matter, however, is that I have barely stepped foot in Penge. The T-shirt was made for me because I had a plan to take advantage of people's aversion to the name Penge, buy a house there and then lead a campaign to change people's minds about the name. Hence profit.

But if I did ever love a place in London, it would have to be the town where I now live, Brockley.

I'm not so sure that it is really my heart's true desire, but it certainly is getting under my skin.

Some people that do love Brockley are the folk that run the local coffee shop, the Broca. They are organising a I Love Brockley Fun Run on 27 April.

Entry details are here. I'll be running. For Brockley!