Gerrards Cross Tesco tunnel collapse, 10 years on

Collapse! Tesco tunnel after the disaster

Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster

Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.

The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.

I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.

The scene three days later

The scene three days later

The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.

Witnessing the aftermath

Witnessing the aftermath

Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

My fastest century bike ride

Climbing to a century: Marsworth, Bucks

Climbing to a century: Marsworth, Bucks

On the last day of 2014, I blogged that 2015 would see me riding 100 miles in a day: a cycling century. Yesterday was the day. I repeated my 2005 century route through Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, stopping at Buckingham for lunch.

The cycling guides give helpful and sensible advice on how to prepare for a century. They tell you to build up your stamina with regular long rides. I certainly did a lot of cycling in the three weeks before the big ride, making the most of the long June evenings to get on the bike. But none was more than ten miles…

That lack of long distance experience no doubt contributed to the fatigue I felt as I finished. It also explained my usual failure to eat before feeling hungry, the curse of the ill-prepared long distance cyclist. But I finished strongly, powering at 17mph or more along the A413 from Wendover to Amersham and beyond. (I love quiet roads, but after 85 miles I like to avoid unnecessary hills…)

When I got home, I was delighted to find that I’d completed the century at an average speed of 13.7mph. For me, that’s a miracle: my fastest century. On my first century in 1995, I was pleased to maintain 13mph for the first 75 miles. (I finished at around 12.75mph.) True, this time I had the benefit of a wonderful road bike, my eight month old Specialized Roubaix. In 2005, I was riding my trusty Dawes Super Galaxy with a pannier full of maps and an SLR camera. But I had just got back from a 315 mile cycle tour of the hilly west country.

Here are my reflections of my fourth century. Continue reading

The joy of June: summer evening cycling

A breather before Clay Street hill to Beaconsfield

A breather before Clay Street hill to Beaconsfield

It’s one of my favourite times of year. It’s light till late, and it’s getting warmer. June is one of my favourite months. It’s perfect for a bike ride after work.

I’ve shaken off the sofa and regained my love of cycling this week. I’ve jumped on the bike on five of the last seven days. True, I’ve set no distance or speed records but I’ve felt better for the fresh air and exercise. My hill climbing is getting better (admittedly from a very low base) and the downhills have been as much fun as ever. I’m starting to dream about bigger cycling challenges – including the promised first century ride since 2005.

Over the hills to Beaconsfield

Over the hills to Beaconsfield

Technology has changed cycling. Strava is the runaway success, mapping your rides and performance and allowing you to compete against others on the same stretch, or segment, of road. It has changed the behaviour of many cyclists, as the Independent reported in 2013. I still like Garmin Connect, Garmin’s answer to Strava, although I wish Garmin would make it easier to upload ride information from my Garmin Edge 800. At present, I have to plug the device into my computer, then manually open Garmin’s separate Garmin Express app to upload data. (Newer devices can, I’m told, upload directly.) You can also share your Garmin data with Strava.

The map above shows one of my favourite rides, a switchback route to Beaconsfield and back. Living in the Chilterns, I’m lucky to have lots of scenic and hilly rides. This is a lovely 10 miler, with a few good but short hills. I couldn’t resist stopping last Wednesday evening to take a photo before tackling Clay Street hill towards Beaconsfield, followed by a delicious swoop down to Beaconsfield new town.

Today, Owen and I rode our new Thorn Raven Twin childback tandem to his cricket class in Gerrards Cross. We recorded our fastest ever ride on the way out: an average of 13.7mph. The tandem is so fast on the flat and downhill. Owen’s friend seven year old friend Freddie was delighted to get a test ride on the tandem. This is a lovely bike: Robin Thorn and Andy Blance have created something special.

Where will I go on my 2015 century? I’m tempted to repeat the lovely 2005 rides to Buckingham and back. But then I also like the idea of reading towards Oxford, with lovely places like Watlington and Chalgrove en route. Perhaps I’ll do both…

In praise of Sytner MINI High Wycombe

Almost as good as new

Almost as good as new

I took my MINI Cooper for a service today. It was a terrific experience – thank you Sytner High Wycombe MINI.

It started after I decided to extend the TLC car service package for an extra two years when I dropped the car off. Shortly after, service person Neil raced after me to say he had looked into it and concluded I’d lose money compared with paying for each service, given the car’s mileage. It’s always impressive when a company tells you not to spend money.

Later, Sytner emailed me a video showing the car on the hoist, and the work that needed doing.

When I collected the car, Neil said that they’d managed to do several of the jobs for less, as they’d done the work quickly. So the bill was less than I expected.

Finally, my MINI looked stunning after its wash and vacuum.

Very impressive!

Two weeks with Apple Watch

Time for Apple Watch

Time for Apple Watch

I didn’t have the happiest starts with Apple Watch. As I blogged 10 days ago, setting up Apple Watch was painful. But this post explains that we’ve got on better since – even if Apple Watch is a work in progress, by contrast with the original iPad in 2010.

The watch itself is a delight. It’s beautifully made, as you’d expect from Apple. Battery life is better than expected: after heavy use today, it’s still showing 47% battery remaining. I’m beginning to think I needn’t have splashed out of that spare charger.

For me, iPod in 2004, iPhone in 2008 and iPad in 2010 were a revelation. They both made an instant impact. Apple Watch has had nothing like the same affect, which makes me think sales will be slower after the initial rush from early adopters. I had no hesitation recommending those earlier devices to family and friends. I won’t be doing the same for the watch – simply because I’ve not yet seen a similar benefit. I knew that the iPhone was dramatically better than my old Sony Ericsson and BlackBerry phones. I can’t yet say that the Apple Watch meets a compelling need not fulfilled by your smartphone and traditional watch.

Here are my reflections on two weeks with Apple’s watch.

Apple’s apps for the Apple Watch need more work You’d have thought that Apple would have the best apps for its own watch. In my experience, Apple hasn’t applied its usual attention to detail to its Watch apps. And it hasn’t thought enough about what people might want on the watch.

Activity doesn't add up...

Activity doesn’t add up…

The Activity app on the watch is a mess. After two weeks I still don’t understand it – or trust its findings. On Monday, for example, it said we walked 9.47 miles in London (we were doing the wonderful Shaun the Sheep in the City trail) and burned 729 calories – yet claimed we only exercised for 34 minutes. Tuesday was similar, with the app discounting an eight mile bike ride. This is not uncommon.

Siri – so unreliable Siri, Apple’s voice recognition tool, should be a vital part of the Apple Watch ecosystem. Apple rightly recognises that no one will want to type on the tiny watch screen. What could be better than to say what you want the watch to do? Well, anyone who has found Siri wanting on a larger screen may need convincing. Sure enough, Siri is even more unreliable  on your wrist. Oddly, it is more reliable in some Apple Watch apps than others. It seems to understand me well when I’m dictating a text message. It does slightly worse when I ask it to play a music track. And it does really badly when I try to navigate. That probably reflects the ongoing failures of Apple Maps – as bad as ever almost three years on. Here’s an example. I asked Siri for directions to the local household waste depot. The nearest it located was over an hour’s drive away. By contrast, Google Maps spotted the nearest was seven minutes away.

Anyone worked out Maps for Apple Watch yet?

On my first morning with the watch, I was amazed that the watch’s map app told me I was 10 minutes from work. How did it know I was going to work? (I hadn’t set up any directions.) The same thing happened going home. But the wonder was tarnished by the fact that the timings failed to take account of the (very usual) traffic. And for some reason it stopped telling me the time to destination with half a mile left to run.

Most apps need work

I tried the Strava Apple Watch app today. I was impressed by the way that my ride was transferred to Strava on my computer. Syncing that info was certainly a lot easier than on my Garmin. But I was left crying out for more. At one point, the Strava watch app showed a nice map of my ride. I opened the app later to show this to a friend. But I couldn’t see an option to do anything more than start a new ride. Similarly, The National Rail watch app gives departures times from stations – but nothing else. Pointless: I want to know journey times and where the train stops. Last rant: I started the activity app before launching Strava for this afternoon’s bike ride, but the app didn’t seem to capture anything.

Summary: an intriguing novelty that needs serious work

If you’re not an early adopter, don’t rush to buy an Apple Watch. I don’t regret my purchase, as I know Apple and others will do amazing work on Watch apps in the coming months. The likes of Garmin and Fitbit can rest easy knowing that Apple hasn’t (so far) done anything to threaten the position of dedicated health, fitness and navigation devices. But, knowing Apple, they can’t assume this will continue. Cupertino will throw money at making Apple Watch the must-have smartwatch before it moves on to its next big thing.

PS: it’s hard to illustrate Apple Watch without its natural habitat. Sorry for the hairy wrist…

On the trail of Shaun the Sheep in London

A Capital View: Shaun the Sheep by St Paul's

A Capital View: Shaun the Sheep by St Paul’s

We had a terrific day in London yesterday on the trail of Shaun the Sheep. Shaun in the City has created 120 sheep sculptures celebrating the Aardman Animations character and raising money for children in hospitals.

There’s a great app for Android and iPhone that helps you follow the four trails and tells you about each sculpture. They’re spread around the City, South Bank and West End, so you get a great tour of London as you tick off each sheep.

We started at Barbican (should that be Baaaah-bican?) before trailing through the City, over the Millennium Bridge and on to the South Bank. (We needed a break – and highly recommend the PizzaExpress opposite the Royal Festival Hall.) We then headed via the BFI and Waterloo Bridge to Covent Garden and Leicester Square. A favourite was Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom inside Hamley’s toy shop. We wondered if Gaston the ladybird would feature – and he did! Continue reading

Apple Watch is smart but set up painful

IMG_1021

Apple Watch in the flesh

Apple’s first wearable device is here. It’s lovely, but set up was incredibly frustrating, unlike every other Apple device I have owned. Perhaps I was just unlucky. The glitch was in language selection. It started well: choosing and confirming UK English.

Apple Watch: choose your language

Apple Watch: choose your language

Apple Watch: confirm language

Apple Watch: confirm language

But when I tapped the tick to accept, I was given a stark choice to rest the phone or cancel. And the whole doom loop started again. Repeatedly.

Then, breakthrough. I was out the other side. I was asked to choose which wrist the Apple Watch would grace, and to add my iTunes account. At which point the whole thing ground to a halt again:

Apple Watch: two factor frustration

Apple Watch: two factor frustration

As I have two factor authentication set up on my Apple identity, I got the two step screen. But as I was pairing the iPhone to the Apple Watch, the iPhone didn’t appear on the list of devices. At this point I gave up and had dinner. But when I got back, I was right back at the very beginning – that language glitch.

After multiple attempts, I got beyond the language doom loop again, and finally got the thing working. A very unApple experience.

I’ll do another post about Apple Watch when I have used it for a few days. If you have problems setting up yours, keep trying.

General election 2015: a personal verdict

Change at the top

Change at the top

The polls were horribly wrong. The closest election for years proved nothing of the kind. David Cameron is back in Downing Street with a 15 seat parliamentary majority. Three of the seven party leaders who took part in the leaders TV debate resigned on Friday. Cameron and the Tories appear utterly in command. Yet that command may prove less enduring as the years unfold. Here are my thoughts three days after the most unpredictable election since 1992.

David Cameron’s majority has shrunk, not increased

The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition had a majority of 76 in the House of Commons. It ensured a relatively smooth ride over its five year term. True, the two parties had their fractious moments, especially over the voting reform referendum, which the Tories torpedoed. But the coalition proved far more stable than anyone expected in 2010.

Continue reading

Quintinshill: Britain’s worst railway disaster 100 years on

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill, Gretna Green

The 498 soldiers of the 7th battalion of the Scots Guards must have had mixed feelings as they boarded their troop train at Larbert in Scotland in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. They were off to war as part of the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition. No doubt they pondered their chances of surviving in battle. Yet within three hours, over 200 were dead and a similar number injured in Britain’s most deadly railway disaster at Quintinshill near Gretna Green.

Quintinshill: the inferno

Quintinshill: the inferno

They were victims of a shocking act of neglect by two signalmen and other railwaymen, who failed to notice that signals had been cleared for their troop train even though a local train was standing in its path. The driver of the soldiers’ train had driven Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, but there was nothing he could do to avoid catastrophe as his train swept downhill at high speed into the local train. The 213 yard long troop train was compressed to a mere 67 yards. A third train ran into the wreckage, killing many survivors. Worse still, the coals of the engines set fire to the gas used to light the ancient wooden coaches causing an inferno that consumed the dead and the living.

A local reporter noted the incongruity of the mixing of human cries for help with the ‘sweet trills of the mavis and blackbird’.

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Quintinshill: the verdict

Quintinshill: the verdict

The accident report laid the blame firmly at the door of the signalmen who had forgotten the presence of the local train under their noses in broad daylight, and the fireman of the local who was in the box to remind the signalmen of the presence of the train. The inspector also strongly urged the abolition of deadly gas lighting on trains. (A danger similar to that posed by hydrogen-filled airships.)

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

The Royal Scots victims were buried in Rosebank cemetery in Edinburgh two days later.

Despite its poignant status as Britain’s most deadly rail crash, the Quintinshill tragedy is less well-known than the Tay bridge disaster or the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone crash. No doubt the fact it happened in wartime and involved a troop train ensured its anonymity.

PS: there’s an excellent Facebook page about the century commemoration of the disaster at Rosebank cemetery on 23 May 2015.

General election 2015: the humble act of voting

Voting generations

Poll position: voting generations

Britain elected a new parliament today. I always feel humble and emotional when I vote. Men and women have died for democracy – and I recall those long ago battles when I place a cross on a ballot paper.

Queuing to vote, 2015

Queuing to vote, 2015

As I write this, the BBC’s exit poll suggests the Tories have done better than expected. We shall see.

As we took Owen with us to the polling station in Chalfont St Giles, I explained that his paternal great grandmothers both waited a long time to vote – because women were deprived of equal votes with men until 1928. I think my dad’s mother was 38 before she voted in 1929.  Her last vote would have been in the 1992 election.

If you didn’t vote, don’t complain if you don’t like the government that results from today’s election.

PS: I turned the car radio on for the 8am news headlines as we went to vote. The main story on BBC Radio 5 Live was tomorrow’s 70th anniversary of VE Day. An important day from his grandparents’ early days.