Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Osprey.


As I scooped back in March, Bexley College have now signed up to a "merger" with Bromley College, which should put the Erith based Bexley College in a better financial position. This will happen on the 1st of August. Several heads have rolled in the process, most notably that of Bexley College Principal Danny Ridgeway. I predicted he would be sacrificed when I first wrote about the situation back on the 20th March. I copped quite a lot of flak back then for what I wrote. I had been contacted by two Bexley College insiders with the "smoking gun" regarding the effective takeover of the institution by Bromley College, and I then carried out due dilligence by referring the story to someone with impeccable insight who shall remain anonymous. Suffice to say everything I wrote back then is about to, or has already come to pass. It is a sad situation for Bexley College to find itself in, only a scarce two years from opening its shiny new campus on Walnut Tree Road. I just hope that the college can come out of this stronger than before. On Wednesday the Bexley Times published details of the "merger" and announced that Danny Ridgeway would be retiring as Principal of Bexley College. Make of this what you will. Comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

News broke this week that the Peabody Trust is set to spend £1.5 billion in renovating and expanding the housing in and around Thamesmead. They intend extensively refurbishing many of the existing tower blocks, as well as building  a total of twenty five thousand new homes. This will make Thamesmead the same size as the city of Winchester. By the year 2024 more than £20 billion will have been invested in the area. The existing brutalist concrete tower blocks will be maintained, although they will be extensively refurbished inside and out, as well as being re – clad with a modern finish. The existing low level housing will be demolished and replaced with new housing. All of this investment and redevelopment is down to the imminent arrival of Crossrail at Abbey Wood. The travel times into central London will be drastically cut when the service opens – Abbey Wood to Canary Wharf will take eleven minutes, and to Tottenham Court Road will take around twenty minutes. The Peabody Trust owns eighty percent of the land in Thamesmead, and is understood to be lobbying Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London to extend the Docklands Light Railway to Thamesmead, and to get a river crossing between Thamesmead and Dagenham. It will be a tough task to rebuild and re – image Thamesmead – whilst it was conceived and constructed as a modern “city in the air”, due to poor design the town soon gained a reputation for crime and anti – social behaviour. The high level walkways were designed to avoid flooding, and the underground car parks which were designed to optimise the use of space actually acted as dark and unseen areas where drug dealing and vandalism could take place. As the town went downhill, it became a dumping ground for problem families from around Greater London, and the situation became a vicious circle.  In an interview with the Times on Monday this week, spokesperson for Peabody, Pauline Ford said “This is a great opportunity to release the potential of this sleeping beauty; the perceptions formed by A Clockwork Orange are just wrong, but we know that we need to spend a great deal of money on good design. This is a place on the cusp of something special”. In the same article, long time Thamesmead resident Douglas Rove said “We were promised the earth to move here; I hate living here now, all of the people have come in are riff – raff”. He also worries that Peabody will “gentrify” Thamesmead by building bistros and wine bars “Plans like that are not for people who live here now are they? They are hoping that the locals will move out, and the yuppies will move in”. The good news is that in addition to the refurbishment of the existing tower blocks, and the construction of new low level housing, there will be a new library, cinema, shops and public squares. The Times reports that between five and eight thousand new local jobs will be created to serve the new development, though the increase in property prices may well prevent locals from affording the new houses and apartments. Peabody admit that they are part funding the development by counting on the new property prices rising, and that they will be selling off some of the development in order to finance the rest. This may become a self – fulfilling prophesy if recent events can be taken into consideration; house prices in Abbey Wood have shot up by thirty five percent in the last year, and Thamesmead will surely follow suit. What do you think? Are you affected by the forthcoming redevelopment work? Leave a comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

Online shopping is hitting a major problem. The keen prices many online retailers can offer when compared to a high street shop may soon be at an end. The reason is straightforward – the huge number of items ordered on the web which are subsequently returned to the vendor – usually at the vendor’s expense. A quarter of handbags and a fifth of shoes are returned as unsuitable. There is a discernible pattern of returns; women are far more likely to return an item bought online compared with men, who seem to only return items when they are actually faulty. A study by Barclaycard found that one in four women admitted to ordering more goods online than they intended to keep. In comparison only one man in ten did the same thing. The practice is driving up the cost of internet shopping as websites struggle the sheer volume of items  coming back. The study also discovered that one in six items of clothing bought online is returned, with twenty percent of women admitting to ordering the same garment in several sizes to see one fits best. Man apparently are far less likely to do this. “The speed and convenience of online shopping, and the speed and convenience of returning has led to the emergence of the serial returner, and women are far more likely to fall into this category. Shoppers are deliberately over purchasing safe in the knowledge that they can choose from the ever growing number of ways to quickly and easily send items back, such as hourly courier services and local drop – off points. With six in ten consumers saying that a website’s returns policy impacts their purchasing decision, online retailers are caught between trying to attract customers and remaining competitive whilst also ensuring that they protect their bottom line”. The study pointed out that online businesses did not always lose out, as more than a quarter of shoppers saying that they had intended to return an unwanted or faulty item bought online, but they had never go round to it.


The photo above was taken by me last Sunday, as I returned home from the “Our Erith” art exhibition held at Christ Church, Erith. I was walking over the railway bridge at Bexley Road when I noticed some workers on the railway line. I surmised that as the line was shut for further engineering work on the Crossrail development between Abbey Wood and Plumstead, it would appear that the local maintenance teams are taking the opportunity of the closed line to carry out some repairs. The photo shows the workers a couple of hundred metres outside of Erith station, on the Slade Green and Dartford bound line. The freight trains one sees on a fairly regular basis travelling on the North Kent line almost exclusively transport sand and gravel to various sites in the region. They load up at Angerstein Wharf, which is located on the banks of the River Thames between Charlton and Greenwich. There is a branch line which connects to the main line just outside of Charlton station on the London bound side. This branch line is believed to be the oldest privately owned standard gauge siding in the world. Angerstein Wharf was built and opened by Russian born Charlton landowner John Angerstein in 1852 in order to get rail access to the to Angerstein Wharf on the River Thames; it also ran deep into the old East Greenwich gas works. Nowadays it is purely used for freight. Many of the ballast and gravel trains one sees passing along the North Kent line divert onto the Angerstein Wharf branch line. Gravel and sand that has been dredged from the sea is collected by the freight trains for use in the construction industry. No passenger trains run on the branch line, with the notable exception of the very rare special trains run by railway enthusiasts, which as far as I can tell, last travelled along the Angerstein Wharf branch line back on the 8th of November 2014. You can see a video of this unusual journey by clicking here




One of the problems associated with increased density of housing in any area is the requirement for improved infrastructure to cope – better water, electricity gas and drainage are needed whenever new properties are built. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Once again the residents of Sandcliff Road have got raw sewage flowing down their road. They are intensely annoyed - and with good reason. They are blighted by the incompetence of Thames Water. Ever since 1998 the road has had drainage problems – a giant chemical effluent leak caused several thousand gallons of industrial liquid waste to seep up through the drains and flood a number of houses in the road; I recall at the time that several houses were evacuated for months on end – and one was condemned as unfit for human habitation. Thames Water were subsequently fined £250,000 by the Department of the Environment for the spillage, and their apparent inability to properly organise the subsequent clean up. There have been a number of sewage floods in the road since, to the point where locals re – named the road “Poo Mews”. It strikes me that the local residents are blighted not just by the actual floods, but by the damage to the reputation of the road. I would be surprised if house prices are badly affected by the situation – after all, who would want to live in an area where you had a strong chance of ending up knee deep in other people’s number twos when you ventured outside your front door? From Thames Water’s perspective, it is a PR disaster; I think the main reason that they don’t take a more proactive approach to the problem is that Sandcliff Road is a little travelled side lane, with a predominantly working class population. If a flood of dung was to happen in somewhere rather more affluent (rather than effluent) like Bexley Village, I reckon that the “sharp elbowed middle classes” would have got a rather better reaction from the powers that be. I have walked down Sandcliff Road several times recently, and I can confirm the aroma of multiple bowel movements is hard to ignore; it is just as well I am a non-smoker, as the volume of methane in the air could well be close to a combustible level. I feel sorry for the residents, and hope that the problem can eventually be resolved. The existing drains are not up to the job(by), and really need to be completely replaced. The problem will only get worse when the nearby Erith Quarry site becomes operational.

Commercially viable (rather than just experimental) magnetic tape recording had its seventieth birthday last week - an event which has not been covered in the press.  Thanks to the good fortune of suffering from insomnia, a curious observation by John T. "Jack" Mullin led to the introduction of tape recording and, by extension, the entire home media business. Mullin, a slight and surprisingly humble man, considering his future status in the recording business, graduated from the University of Santa Clara with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1937, then worked for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph in San Francisco until the war started. By 1944, he had attained the rank of major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and was attached to the RAF's radar research labs in Farnborough, England. While working late that spring night, Mullin was happy to find something pleasing playing on the radio — the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Radio Berlin. But Mullin was mystified: The performance's fidelity was far too fine to be a 16-inch wax disc recording, the prevailing radio recording technology at the time. And since there were no breaks every 15 minutes to change discs, Mullin figured it had to be a live broadcast. But it couldn't be — if it was 2 am in London, it was 3 am in Berlin. Mullin was right — the orchestra wasn’t up late, and it was a recording. Just not the usual kind, which is why Mullin was confused. After the war, Mullin was assigned to the Technical Liaison Division of the Signal Corp in Paris. "Our task, amongst other things, was to discover what the Germans had been working on in communications stuff — radio, radar, wireless, telegraph, teletype," explained Mullin. Mullin ended up in Frankfurt on one such expedition. There he encountered a British officer, who told him a rumour about a new type of recorder at a Radio Frankfurt station in Bad Nauheim. Mullin didn't exactly believe the report — he had encountered dozens of low-fi magnetic recorders all over Germany. He pondered his decision of pursuing the rumour, literally, at a fork in the road. To his right lay Paris, to the left, Radio Frankfurt. Fortuitously for the future of the home media business, Mullin turned left. He found four hi-fi Magnetophons and some 50 reels of red oxide BASF tape. He tinkered with them a bit back in Paris and made a report to the Army. "We now had a number of these lying around. I packed up two of them and sent them home (to San Francisco). Souvenirs of war. "(You could take) almost anything you could find that was not of great value. (And) anything Germany had done was public domain — it was not patentable." He also sent himself the 50 reels of the red-oxide coated tape. When Mullin returned home, he started tinkering to improve the Magnetophons. On May 16, 1946, exactly 70 years ago last week, Mullin stunned attendees at the annual Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) conference in San Francisco by switching between a live jazz combo and a recording, literally asking the question "Is it live or...?" None of the golden ears in the audience could tell. It was the world's first public demonstration of audio tape recording. Bing Crosby hated doing live radio. And he hated recording his shows on wax records because the fidelity sounded terrible to the noted aural perfectionist performer. When Crosby's engineers heard about Mullin and his Magnetophons, they quickly hired him and his machine. In August 1947, Crosby became the first performer to record a radio programme on tape; the show was broadcast on October 1st. Bing Crosby wasn't the only one interested in Mullin's Magnetophons. Up in Redwood City, California, a small company called Ampex was looking for something to replace the radar gear they'd been producing for the government. Ampex hooked up with Mullin and, in April 1948, perfected and started selling the first commercially available audio tape recorder, the Ampex Model 200. Crosby, Mullin, Ampex and American electronics giant RCA all sort of formulated the same follow-up thought at around the same time: If you could record audio on tape, why not video? Crosby and Mullin teamed up. Ampex formed a team that included a high school student named Ray Dolby. And David Sarnoff gave his engineers their marching orders. A highly-public race began to see who could invent the video tape recorder. Ampex had a leg up on its more well-heeled competition. It had a deal with a Chicago research consortium called Armour Research Institute, now the Illinois Institute of Technology. Working for Armour was none other than wire recording maven Marvin Camras, who solved the most vexing problem facing all the video tape inventor wannabees: Tape speed. Audio recording is accomplished by pulling tape past a stationary recording head. Video, however, is a far fatter signal, which meant tape had to be pulled past the recording heads at ridiculous speeds. A two-foot wide reel of tape could hold, tops, 15 minutes of video — not exactly practical. So instead of spinning the tape, Camras, who got the idea from watching vacuum cleaner brushes, he calculated that he would spin the recording heads instead. Once Ampex got ahold of this key, its engineers shot past Crosby/Mullin and RCA. Even with the spinning head secret, it took five years for Ampex's sometimes part-time six-member team to get things right. On April 14, 1956 — 60 years ago last month — Ampex introduced the desk-sized Mark IV, the first commercial video tape recorder, to a stunned group of TV execs and engineers at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference in Chicago. To say that this machine changed the world is an obvious understatement. It would take almost another 10 years before Philips reduced audio tape to a cassette and ignited the home audio recording craze, and another nearly 10 years before Sony introduced the Betamax and won a U.S Supreme Court case to allow users to legally record TV shows at home and create the home video business. The U.K had few such concerns - one of the reasons why Britain had the largest number of video recorders per head of population back in the 80's / 90's. Ultimately it was the introduction of Jack Mullin's rebuilt Magnetophons that were the first shots fired in the home media revolution, 70 years ago last week - and nothing got mentioned in the popular press, more is the pity.


If you were around the Northumberland Heath / Erith / Slade Green area on Wednesday afternoon, you might well have seen something extremely unusual flying overhead at around 4.45pm. A rather strange machine called a Bell – Boeing V-22 Osprey. The Osprey is  an American multi-mission, tiltrotor military aircraft with both vertical take - off and landing (VTOL), and short take - off and landing (STOL) capabilities. It is designed to combine the functionality of a conventional helicopter with the long-range, high-speed cruise performance of a turboprop aircraft. I have found out that several of these unusual aircraft are being leased by the Ministry of Defence from the Americans, and British pilots are currently undergoing training from U.S Marine and Army flying instructors here in the U.K. The Ospreys are going to be used to transport special forces troops in the event of a Paris – type terrorist attack in the U.K. The Osprey is almost twice as fast as the SAS’s current fleet of transport helicopters and can carry at least 24 fully equipped personnel. With a top speed of 360 mph it can deploy soldiers from Hereford to London in 30 minutes to bolster the SAS’s anti-terror squad which is permanently based in the capital, and to Manchester in about the same time. The Osprey has machine guns installed in the nose and on the rear ramp. Its range is also much greater than transport helicopters currently in service. It can fly for up to 1,000 miles or eight hours without refuelling, meaning that if terrorists launch strikes across the UK, the same aircraft could fly troops to several locations. I am guessing that the Osprey seen over Erith on Wednesday afternoon was travelling from London down to Chatham, where The Royal Engineers have a large base. The Chinook helicopters currently used for anti – terrorist operations also travel down to Chatham for weekly maintenance and repair sessions. I would expect that we will see more of the Ospreys flying over the local area from now on. At least now you know why.


One of Britain's oldest people died this week - and he lived in Erith. 105 year old Frederick ‘Fred’ Salter died in the Queen Elizabeth hospital on Sunday, May 8. In 2010 he was presented with his Pride of Britain award by Strictly Come Dancing host Bruce Forsyth, with Prince Charles and prime minister David Cameron present at the ceremony. The reason for this was that he took up competitive ballroom dancing at the age of 90, after his family encouraged him to get out of the house more often. Although he suffered a minor stroke in 2010, which caused him to lose the power of speech for about a month, he recovered and returned to the dancefloor. He was also a keen football fan; he was made a patron of Charlton Athletic - he had a great love of the club. Mr Salter is survived by four of his five children and more than 35 great grandchildren.


The end video this week is a piece of local history; it shows Abbey Wood and Thamesmead back in 1968, just as the first phases of Thamesmead opened to residents. I have to say that the amateur footage does make the newly completed apartment towers look very fresh and inviting. Much of the brutalist architecture has now already been demolished, or shortly will be as part of the Peabody funded regeneration, as discussed earlier. If you have any memories of Thamesmead's early days that you would like to share, then drop me a line to hugh.neal@gmail.com.