Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Coral in New Cross Gate - place your bets...

Coral have applied to open a new betting shop in the former Barclay's bank building on the corner of New Cross Road (number 197), opposite the White Hart.

The building has been empty since September 2013 when the bank closed, and has been occupied by squatters at least twice. The dental surgery on the first floor - who own the freehold and would be leasing the ground floor to Coral - will continue to operate.

At a public meeting held at New Cross Learning last night, representatives from Coral explained that they planned to close the current branch slightly further down New Cross Road and open this new branch in order to provide a more modern and comfortable environment for their customers, and one that was more suited to modern betting techniques (such as fixed odds betting terminals - FOBTs).

The issue of betting shops in the area has been a hot topic, with claims that Deptford High Street's 10+ stores were starting to suffocate the community feel of the street and was leading to increased crime, antisocial behaviour and a desire for local people to avoid the area. As well as the current Coral branch in New Cross, there is a William Hill branch around two minutes' walk away.

The council and planning representatives present reported that they had received no letters of support but over 600 objections to the plans, and were aware of the level of local opposition to a large new gambling facility opening in a landmark site in a relatively poor area.

Discussions at the meeting consisted of:

- remarks that the council had failed to notify very many locals, even those within sight-line of the new shop, and that planning notices had been displayed late and for a very short time period: the planning officer confirmed that the timescale to object was extended, but it was generally felt that few people were aware of the proposal and would be shocked to see Coral taking over the building,

- whether it was appropriate to add blue plastic fascias and large format window posters to the front of a Victorian heritage (albeit not listed) building in a conservation district, and in particular one that many people driving into London from two directions would see,

- whether it was an appropriate use of such a key building on the high street and whether the council could have provided support to find a more suitable tenant to serve the local community; Coral and the council suggested that no other parties had shown interest in the property, and suggested it was not their responsibility to seek out occupants for vacant properties but simply to deal with received applications,

- whether the antisocial activity that had apparently plagued the area around the current branch - such as loitering, street drinking and public urination - would simply transfer to the vicinity of the new branch, in particular the large open space in front of the Post Office - and whether the branch would be suitably staffed to monitor and intervene in such activity,

- whether opening a large, visible and more 'attractive' store would simply encourage more people, particularly from local vulnerable groups - some of which are houses nearer the proposed new branch - to partake in gambling, which is known to be a highly addictive and expensive habit. The building is also close to several schools.

The Coral representatives continually asserted that anyone causing anti-social issues 'would not be their customer' and that their staff are properly trained to identify signs of gambling addiction and intervene as appropriate.

They suggested that the current store, which has been run by the company since 1984, was now inappropriate for modern gambling requirements and that this new location was the first to become available 'in 15 years' that was appropriate for their new store format.

They denied that moving to a larger, more visible location was purely about increasing footfall and therefore profit, but simply to provide better facilities for their existing clientele and the local community.

The store due to close still has an 11-year lease held by Coral and a standing gambling license; although Coral confirmed that the branch would close if the new one was approved, it was not clear if they would be interested in leasing the store to another organisation who could make use of the gambling license, or if the Coral branch would close in the event that permission for the new one was not granted because it was deemed unsuitable.

The Coral representatives suggested they could not be precise about the fate of the current store in that scenario because they had no idea what developments would take place in the coming three years in the gambling world. Surprising for a company that makes its money by predicting the most likely outcome.

The issue will now be voted upon at a planning meeting.

A petition has been launched objecting to the proposal.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Three days in Ljubljana

Ljubljana is the beautiful capital of Slovenia. We flew from London Luton with Wizz Air, which takes just under two hours. It's the perfect location for a long-weekend break to a city that's the perfect size to explore.

Day 1
We checked into our very central AirBnB apartment in the centre of town, right next to the Butcher's Bridge, just minutes from the daily outdoor food market.

We grabbed lunch at Pop's, where I experienced what I think may be the greatest burger I've ever had, complete with parmesan-sprinkled fries and a great view of the river and the famous Triple Bridge.

At 2pm we joined the Ljubljana Free Tour - a 2 hour 45 minute guide around the city, which was a great way of getting our bearings and learning about the history and context of the beautiful buildings in the compact city centre. It was a hot day so we started to flag after a couple of hours, but I'm glad we saw everything the tour had to offer.

After a brief break back at the apartment we headed out for a meal and drinks at Gostilna As - the food was decent but the atmosphere a little strange as a loud promotional event for a London gin company was taking place outside!

We ended the day with some drinks in two or three bars along the riverside. The drink of the season is Aperol Spritz, but we also sampled some great local beers.

Day 2
An early start and a short walk to the bus station (just outside the train station) to head off to Lake Bled. The buses leave roughly every hour but be warned that they fill up quickly - we had to book tickets for the following bus and wait for a while in a coffee shop.

The bus journey itself lasted around 1 hour 20 minutes and passed through some beautiful scenery. We eventually arrived in the small resort town of Bled and walked the short distance down to the stunning lake. Grabbing an ice cream, we hired a small rowing boat to row out to Bled Island. The boat owner suggested this would take about 15 minutes, but a combination of the heat and our general ineptitude meant it took closer to 45. On the island you have the chance to go into a small church, but we had a quick explore and a glass of crisp, white Slovenian wine before rowing back.

We ended our trip to Bled with a delicious, generous meal at Grajska Plaza, a restaurant and bar overlooking the lake. We managed to catch the 5.30pm express bus back to Ljubljana which only took around half an hour.

After a brief pit stop, we headed out into the medieval area of town via the weekly Open Kitchen food and drink market (different to the daily market, which is more about every day groceries), at which restaurants and bars from the region set up stall and sell delicious fare throughout the day and the evening. Definitely worth a visit. We sampled some delicious wine before heading to a restaurant called Robba, definitely my food highlight of the trip. The chicken pate starter was delicious and my main course of veal was even better - but the highlight was the nutella cheesecake with a cooling raspberry ice cream. So good, we returned for more cheesecake the next day. They have ever-changing daily specials so remember to ask what's available on top of the regular menu.

We rounded off the second day with more riverside drinks and people watching before a slow wander back to our apartment and a final Aperol Spritz at the bar just outside our building.

Day 3
We started the final day with a trip to the food market to pick up picnic supplies - delicious cheese, bread and ham - and then headed to Tivoli Park, a vast, green oasis in the middle of the city full of statues, play parks and cafes. We enjoyed our picnic lunch and a walk around the park, then headed back to the city centre via a few shops and a final walk around the streets and alley ways.

In the evening, we headed up in the funicular - a speedy glass cube that whisks visitors up the mountain to the imposing castle that looks over the town. After a look around, including a sweeping view of the city, we enjoyed a couple of drinks in the courtyard before a delicious meal in the Gostilna na gradu restaurant, which serves all kinds of traditional Slovenian food.

Heading back down in the funicular, we enjoyed a final slice of that delicious Robba cheesecake, a couple more local wines, then an early-ish night before our early flight back to London.

Ljubljana is a beautiful, compact city that can be easily explored in a weekend, but it's also worth the trip further afield to Lake Bled or other beautiful towns and attractions. The city is still relatively quiet and yet to be discovered by too many tourists, so it's easy to get around and to grab a table in the many up and coming riverside bars and restaurants. The town centre is pedestrianised and easy to navigate, and there are plenty of modern shops as well as traditional outlets to grab a souvenir.

I whole-heartedly recommend a trip!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Kidzania, the kid's theme park, for grown ups.

For reasons lost to time I recently went to an adults-only night at Kidzania, a new educational theme park for kids housed in a very high up part of Westfield Shepherd's Bust that not even Westfield knew existed until recently.

To start with - I'm writing this from the perspective of a 32-year old visiting a kid's attraction where the point is to pretend to be a grown-up. 7-year old me would have given this at least five stars. As an actual grown-up, it's a fun albeit slightly sinister experience, although the novelty of wandering the plastic cobbles of a miniaturised city does wear off rather sharply.

The idea of Kidzania is that the younguns can try out various 'jobs' and tasks to earn cash (Kidzos, of which I now have a bag-load) which they can either bank for future visits (so sensible) or spend on other activities or merchandise like face-painting or pencil sharpeners (importantly at adults' night, not wine). You wander the brightly-coloured streets of Kidzania popping in to various shops and facilities to try your hand at whatever career tickles your fancy, from dentistry to journalism. At sporadic intervals the staff jump out of their designated areas for a coordinated dance routine, like some kind of bizarre mind control drug has kicked in.

On Grown Ups' Night quite a few of the activities were closed (I wanted to make a burger!) and it wasn't possible to swap the currency for gifts, so we essentially became Kidzania millionaires, making it rain with handfuls of Kidzos. Confusingly, the fun jobs (fire brigade, chocolate making etc) charge you to take part while the rest pay you for your time. Slightly jarring lesson there, kids. Nobody was interested in attending the Kidzana University to increase our salaries, probably because there was nothing to buy, so that corner remained steadfastly empty throughout the evening.

Throughout, there is the slight sense of being perpetually brainwashed, as each job is sponsored by a corporation. Come and try on the H&M clothes! Come and be a Capital FM presenter! Come and fly a BA plane! Come and hack into the Talk Talk website!

Highlights for me included being a journalist (permission to hassle the people with proper jobs), being a courier (permission to barge in to the other attractions to pick up parcels) and being a tour guide (making up historical facts). It was also great to have the run of the place and not queue for anything - workers told horrified tales of hour-long queues to make a fake Mini Milk lolly.

Unhighlights included being told off for squeezing too many of us into the fire engine because 'it's supposed to be for kids' (no! really? You let us in!) and a few fairly grumpy staff members who had clearly been forced to work late to supervise the wine-fuelled behaviour of a load of hipsters keen for an 'ironic' and 'immersive' experience. I can imagine the fist-pumping summer-camp trained crew in the American Kidzania branches really bringing this to life - in West London the enthusiasm is not quite yet at full par.

Mysteriously absent on 'grown up' night were the opportunities to waste your life in a banal office job for decades, the chance to experience the sweaty delights of a two-hour round-trip commute, and the thrill of handing over all your cash to the Bank of Kidzania at the end of every month. Perhaps the intricate set should be altered for the next adult edition to include a newly-opened cereal cafe (with the opportunity to hurl bricks through the windows at terrified customers), Haribo dealers lurking in the doorways, abandoned vermin-infested sofas by the side of the road or a derelict pub full of squatters.

Oh! I'm being mean! Take your kids, they'll bloody love it. You get to give someone a filling, for god's sake!

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

White Hart in New Cross Gate set to reopen

I was excited to find out that the White Hart hotel and pub in New Cross Gate (previously the subject of my photo history post) is set to reopen under new management in the coming weeks.

The pub (which always seemed to only have a couple of people inside, propping up the bar) closed last month, and refurbishment work has been taking place since. The pub was once at the centre of a heated debate when the previous owner announced that he wanted to reopen the place as a strip club, which wasn't exactly well received by the local community.

A new Twitter account (@thewhitehartse) is promising 'top quality beer, beautiful food and all round entertainment. Late License, Craft Beer & Roof Terrace' - hopefully a nice addition to the neighbourhood.

Personally, I'm pleased that the pub won't be lying empty (unlike the former Barclays across the road) or - for now - being turned into another block of luxury apartments or a Tesco Metro.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Unexpected London futuristic sightings of the day

The rather good film 'Children of Men' was filmed in 2006, but is set in London in 2027 as civilisation sits on the brink of collapse.

And because it's the future, you can see The Shard (built 2011):

and the main character wears a worn-out London 2012 sweatshirt:


Friday, 21 August 2015

On the street where I live

I love looking at old photos of where I live and thinking about how my street came to be what it now is.

I live in South East London near the junction of two major roads - Queens Road, which runs through Peckham and Camberwell and eventually gets you to the West End, and New Cross Road, which quickly becomes Old Kent Road and will whisk you to glamorous Elephant & Castle and the City. Old Kent Road is on the lines of one of the old Roman roads out of town.

They are pretty busy routes and are, for many coach visitors from Europe who drive along this route, the first glimpse of 'proper' London. All life is here!

The 'gate' in New Cross Gate comes from the toll gate which established in 1819 to take the fees for those travelling into Central London at this junction. The area was previously known as Hatcham until two rail companies opened identically-named stations - New Cross - nearby, one of which eventually became New Cross Gate, a name which was adopted by the wider area.

So here's the junction in 1840 - I live roughly where those trees are:

Keep your eyes on that white building to the right.

By 1850, the White Hart Inn had opened:

A photo from 1865, five years later:

My house was built in the early 1890s (it's on this map from 1894) and the toll gate was removed sometime in the early 1900s.

By 1900, the area looks much more populated - buildings have popped up in both directions and tram lines have been added, but the toll gate is still visible between the trams. The ad on the side of the bus is for the New Cross Empire, a grand theatre further up New Cross Road which is now gone.


The tram stop island in 1911 - behind it is the other side of New Cross Road, roughly where Londi's is now:


1923, looking round the corner towards Old Kent Road. There's now a tram shelter in the middle of the junction:

1950 ish - the shelter seems to be gone:

A couple of views of The White Hart pub in 1973:


After 2010 the road layout was changed slightly, and the 'island' in the road removed. The gas lamp that appeared sometime in the 20s was moved and preserved just outside the pub.

Here's the same view today - slightly less grand-looking and a lot busier. but the White Hart and surrounding buildings are still going strong.

Recognise the white building from the 1840 photo? It's the longest-surviving building in the area that I know about, and now houses a solicitor's firm. It's in most of the photos above.

So that's the street where I live!

I'd love to see more photos and maps of the area if any other local history geeks have them.

PS - I was sent a link to this post from 2010 about the changes to the road layout, the history of the gas lamp and some other photos. Thanks

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The mystery of the Corner House...

My grandfather, John Kitchener Adams, served in the RAF between August 1940 and May 1946, including an overseas stint from 1944 in Belgium, France and Germany. Here's the chap himself:

I have a stack of small, unlabelled photos of a coastal town from his belongings. One particularly intriguing photo caught my eye - a corner house, curtains tattered and blowing in the wind, with a man on a first floor balcony. A large piece of fabric - a flag, maybe - looks like it's being thrown down to the street.

There are some markings on the building. The scrolled text below the window reads 't Hoekje', which means 'The Corner' or 'The Little Corner' - a popular name for homes (as well as bars, restaurants - anything on a corner) at the time.

There is also a banner across the railings in front of the building which reads 'Houses and Grounds/Land For Sale' in Dutch and French (a standard linguistic convention in Belgium).

I always found this photo intriguing. Something has happened to the building - it's in a bad way and whatever its fate was, it clearly interesting enough to be snapped by my grandfather or one of his companions.

I decided to ask the internet for help, specifically that depository of wisdom, knowledge and animated puppy gifs, Reddit.

Redditors quickly confirmed that this was indeed taken in Belgium, and soon the location was confirmed as the town of Blankenberge, a small seaside town just north of Bruges. Sure enough, pretty quickly, a Reddit user had trawled the main coastal area of the town using Google Street View and discovered that not only did the building still exist, it still had that original wrought iron 't Hoekje' sign!

Amazing! The sign, the tiles, the balcony - all still there. Here's a Google Maps link.

And here's an aerial shot, with the corner house circled in red, showing how close it is to the seaside.

I was awestruck how quickly this little mystery was solved and how far people went to find out extra bits of interesting info - someone who actually lives opposite the house joined the discussion, telling me that the residence was taken over after the War by a family who have used it as a holiday home ever since.

I decided to email the local archivist in Blankenberge. He confirmed that the photo shows retaliation by locals against the wartime inhabitants of the house, who were committed members of the Flemish Nationalist Alliance (VNV), the right-wing Flemish nationalist movement during the War. Their aim was to separate the Flanders region from Belgium, and they collaborated with the Nazi parties and the persecution of Jews in Belgium.

By August 1945 the house had new owners - which suggests the photo was taken between liberation of Blankenberge on 9 September 1944 and the time the new owners moved in.

I'm trying to find out how common this kind of collaboration was in Belgium at the time - were the owners of this house unusual in their support of the party? Were many more people implicated - and so was the whole town ransacked like 'the corner' house? In the 1939 election, they garnered 15% of the Flemish vote and quickly worked alongside the Nazis after the invasion in 1940. The former fishing port is close to larger centres such as Bruges and Ostend, and not far from the French border - a key battle zone in the latter part of the War.

So how did my Grandad end up in Belgium, possibly even taking a photo of this house being emptied?

The (very helpful) town archivist sent me a scan of a town record book with correspondence between the town Officials and a Wing Commander Stewart Mackenzie of the RAF. I'd love to work out if my Grandad served under him.

In the correspondence, the Council profusely thank the Wing Commander and his team for their assistance in restoring the seaside town to its former glory:

'When on October 5th 1944 you came for the first time to Blankenberge we little knew or thought what a blessing this visit would mean for our town.
We had just passed through the glorious days of the liberation and were enjoying fully our beloved freedom for which we had been longing for many years.
Yet there was a shadow to this happy picture. What was our future to be? Our beach promenade, streets and buildings were blocked with mines, and bristling with booby traps, obstructions, barbed wire and so on - even the sea was perilous for fishing and bathing.
Would it be possible to remove all these dangers, repair the ruins, make the town safe and give us hopes of a summer season in 1945?
And if it were possible, who was the Magician to do it?
Those were the questions we were asking ourselves before your arrival. Then YOU came, and that was the answer.'

This shot from 1944 shows the state of the seafront - looking substantially more bombed out - presumably just after the liberation. By 1945, it looked like this - the prominence of the NAAFI building suggests the high density of troops stationed in the town. Here's a sign saying that, though the beach has been swept for mines, there's still a possibility of some being around. It seems clear that by the summer of 1945, the town was well on the way to recovery after German occupation, with a great deal of help from the Allied airmen.

It seems the RAF did sterling work in helping the town restore itself in time for the summer season of 1945:
'One of your first decisions was to provide us with the necessary transport to carry provisions and coal for the population, a gesture which won you the sympathy of us all. Then you began the demining of the promenade, squares and streets, harbour and beach, and whole blocks of houses, which enabled the evacuees to return to their homes.'
Not to mention cheering up the town after a hellish few years under Occupation:
'Not only have you taken care of our material interests, but you haveshown the deep kindness you feel for the little ones in organising for them numerous festivities, Christmas trees, children's paties and so on, which filled their little hearts with delight and gratitude for their 'English father'.'
The Wing Commander was awarded the Freedom of the City. In his reply to the Councillors, it's clear how close the airmen had grown to their temporary home (perhaps a little too close!)...
'Little did I realise on October 5th 1944, when I first arrived in your town that so much should have been accomplished. War was being fought at your doorstep and conditions in the town were bad..
From that day a friendship between the Town Officials and the Members of my Unit has been on a solid foundation. Your townspeople have been more than kind to Members of the Royal Air Force - even to the extent that you have in some instances allowed some of your fair ladies to be taken from you in matrimony.
I have another regret and that is we cannot stay with you for always. The day when we must leave Blankenberge is not far away and when that does come, we shall all be sorry. You may, however; rest assured that when we do leave, we shall carry away in our hearts, warm regard for all your great kindnesses.
Memories will be long and cherished and promises to return and see you again will be honourably fulfilled.'
It seems like this little Flemish town made quite an impression on the British men who went there to help restore it after a very difficult time - if my Grandad's work was appreciated quite as much as that of Wing Commander Mackenzie clearly was, I'm very proud. And it's incredible that, 70 years later, I can still find clues about my own family's history with a bit of online digging.

I have quite a few other photos from my Grandad's collection, including the one below, which the archivist confirmed wasn't Blankenberge. It's possible my Grandad traveled around a bit so this could be a different town, which, by now, probably looks very different. Maybe somebody out there can recognise it...