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

London remembers Britain’s latest Afghan war

It was a shock to see armed police at Marylebone station yesterday. It was so out of the ordinary. But then I saw this:

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

This Austin 1973 police car was parked on Horse Guards Road, opposite HM Treasury. It was one of a series of police vehicles along the road, with soldiers also present. Shortly afterward a police lorry went by. What on earth was going on?

Police in force in Horse Guards

Police in force in Horse Guards

Later, I found out that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and political leaders were taking part in a commemoration at St Paul’s marking the end of Britain’s participation in the Afghanistan war. I saw the end of the flypast marking the event:

Flypast marking end of Britain's latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Flypast marking end of Britain’s latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Britain’s latest entanglement in Afghanistan was an extraordinary development. In 1978, I learned about our disastrous 19th century Afghan wars during O level history. A year later, the Soviet Union invaded that country, with equally ill-fated results. I never imagined I’d see Britain repeating these disasters. George W Bush and Tony Blair were mad to embark on another Afghan adventure. How sad that 453 British troops (not to mention countless Afghans and Americans) lost their lives as a result.

Richmond’s high water mark, 1928

High water mark Richmond January 1927

When Richmond flooded, 1928

Anyone working or living in Richmond, Surrey, is used to the river Thames lapping over the riverside roads and paths. The White Cross pub even has a sign showing the high tide entrance. Yet few high tides have ever come close to January 1928.

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John Snow, Soho and the battle to defeat cholera

The replica of the Broad Street, Soho cholera pump

The (replica) Soho water pump that killed hundreds from cholera

Thousands of tourists pass through London’s Soho every day. Few glance at this Broadwick Street water pump. Yet it tells the amazing story of how Dr John Snow solved the mystery of why thousands of Londoners were dying of cholera in Victorian London.

Snow rejected the accepted view that cholera was spread by polluted air. That view was disastrously influencing government policy. In the 1848/49 cholera epidemic, poor law commissioner Edwin Chadwick ordered that sewers be flushed into the Thames to clean the air in poor areas. Yet large areas of London took drinking water from the river – so Chadwick’s policy condemned thousands to death by cholera.

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In praise of the new Routemaster bus

TfL's new Routemaster London bus

Ticket to ride: London’s new Routemaster

I thought I’d missed my bus in London today. But I was in luck. It was a new Routemaster, the new version of the classic London bus. So I was able to jump onboard while it was halted in traffic.

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Burnham Beeches: London in Buckinghamshire

Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire, owned by City of London

Woodland wonderland: Burnham Beeches

Burnham Beeches is a lovely part of the City of London. Actually, it’s a corner of Buckinghamshire that the City of London bought to save it for the nation in 1880.

Curiously, this woodland wonderland is almost the same size as London’s square mile. But that’s where the similarities end. This is a precious corner of south east England, with ancient woodland and nature habitats thriving under the benign stewardship of the City of London Corporation.

We visited on the May Day bank holiday, yet the place seemed wonderfully quiet, despite a busy car park. We saw Exmoor ponies running joyfully through the wooded tracks. We loved the wood sculptures (below). We’ll return with our bikes to explore the Burnham Beeches trails.

Burnham Beeches trail sculpture

Burnham Beeches wood sculpture

To add to the geographical oddities, there’s a sign here pointing to Egypt! (Egypt Bucks: barely a hamlet, never mind a country.)

Egypt, Bucks

Egypt in Buckinghamshire

Finally, here’s the City of London’s rather nice video about Burnham Beeches.

No more queues: choose and order takeaway with PayPal

I’ve never had lunch in three restaurants on the same day before. But a ‘safari’ lunch was a great way to show journalists PayPal’s in-app services: order ahead, pay at your restaurant table and picture payment – all on your mobile phone.

Rik Henderson from Pocket-lint has posted a great account of how PayPal is saving time through the order ahead and pay at table services. Rik concluded, “We’ve never really experienced such an intuitive and speedy system of ordering and paying for lunch before.”

Pay at table at Prezzo Here’s how it worked. We started at Prezzo in Glasshouse Street, London, for a starter. We ‘checked in’ to the restaurant through the PayPal app, giving the waitress a code (above). We split the bill between us – all from within the PayPal app. I had the bruschetta, which was delicious. No waiting for a paper bill or for the waitress to bring a card machine.

Picture perfect at GBKThe pizzas looked tempting, but it was time to move on. A brisk walk through Soho took us to Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) in Frith Street.  Once again, we checked in through PayPal’s app, this time paying with our profile pictures, which appeared on GBK’s till. Being a creature of habit, I chose GBK’s Smokin’ Joe burger, with coleslaw and salad instead of a bun. 

Ordering ahead from wagamama

It was now time to show the journalists how easy it is to choose and order a takeaway on your phone. As we were finishing our GBK burgers, we opened the PayPal app again to check in to wagamama‘s Lexington Street, Soho restaurant (above). The wagamama take out menu appeared and we ordered for collection 15 minutes later. It was obvious who was still hungry – I went for peppermint tea, but others went for teriyaki, ramen and cheese cake! Next time, I’ll go for a bento box.

Everyone went away with an insight into how the mobile phone can make save us time when we use it to order and pay. At PayPal, we’re intrigued by the possibilities. And when I accidentally left my wallet at home today, I didn’t go hungry: I paid with PayPal at the excellent Cook & Garcia cafe in Richmond.

You can download the PayPal app here.

Disclosure: I am PR director for PayPal UK and Ireland.

Early morning, Richmond Green

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I love those early spring days. The hope that sunshine and warmth brings after a hard – or just wet – winter. The colour of daffodils relieving the winter monotones.

Today was a beautiful day. But it started with a thick fog in the Thames valley. I stopped the car to take this photo of a foggy Richmond Green minutes before getting to my riverside office.

The photo below is of Black Park, a lovely Buckinghamshire country park near Slough, on a beautiful sunny Sunday last weekend.

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Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Going Underground

Going Underground

The London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday. On 9 January 1863, a Metropolitan Railway steam train made its way from Paddington to Farringdon to launch the world’s first underground railway.

The tube has played a vital part in London life: commuter network, bomb shelter and icon. It remains a precious symbol of life in the capital, even for those of us who don’t live in London.

It’s hard to imagine sulphurous steam trains operating in the claustrophobic stations and tunnels – amazingly, some Victorians thought the smoke health-giving, like going to a spa. In time, electricity made the Underground smoke-free. (And the first true ‘tube’, the City & South London Railway running from the City to Stockwell, was electric from the start in 1890.)

The Underground’s iconic status owes a lot to its long-lived corporate identity. The roundel is over a century old, and the typeface (although later modified) dates from the dark days of the Great War. Frank Beck created his famous map in 1933 as the Underground began life as a publicly owned institution: the London Passenger Transport Board, better known as London Transport.

The 1930s were in many ways the tube’s golden era with constant expansion, stunning architecture and new trains that served two generations and survived a world war. (I started working in London in 1987 as London Transport brought back 1938 trains to cope with demand.) Under Frank Pick, London Transport led the world as an integrated system of underground trains, buses and trams, as well as a patron of industrial art and design.

That public ownership has long outlived the nationalised British Railways – whose celebrated 1960s corporate identity has given way to an explosion of liveries and typefaces, destroying the very idea of a common network. In today’s Guardian, Andrew Martin rightly describes the tube as the people’s railway. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’ll usually find the tube the fastest, most convenient way to get around the city.

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Despite its name, most of the Underground is actually overground. Amersham (above, with then one year old Owen with a 1962 train – built the year of the first Beatles single) is at the country end of the Met Line. Trains from Amersham only head into the tunnel at Finchley Road, a handful of miles from the 1863 line at Baker Street. That 1962 unit was one of the trains that replaced the last passenger steam services on the Underground after almost a century. Curiously, London Transport was still using steam for engineering trains as late as 1971 with former Great Western pannier tanks.

Finally, as Britain (apparently) faces a cold snap, here’s one of those 1960s Met line trains arriving at Farringdon on 17 December 2010.

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

The wonderful London Transport Museum

Going Underground: London Transport Museum

The railways created modern London: first the mainline and suburban lines, followed by the Underground.

London was the birthplace of the underground railway in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to Farringdon. Three decades later the city created the first deep level ‘tube’, the City and South London Railway, which is now part of the Northern Line.

The wonderful London Transport Museum in Covent Garden tells this fascinating story. It’s extraordinary how many relics of the earliest days survive, including a City and South London carriage. The museum is very hands-on: today, Owen, four, drove a Jubilee Line train. (Last year he drove a bus and Met Line train.)

Tube trains have very long lives. This autumn saw the end of the Met Line A stock trains, which replaced steam on the Met LIne in 1961. When I first worked in London in 1987, London Transport had just reintroduced 1938 tube trains to cope with surging demand. They’re still in use on Network Rail on the Isle of Wight.

Highly recommended.

Here’s my video of our visit in October 2011.