Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Broken Drum.


Micro Pubs in Bexley seem like buses – nothing for ages, then two turn up almost at the same time. One of my regular anonymous informers tells me that an application has been submitted for a new micro pub to be set up in a former nail salon shop in Woodman Parade, Blackfen. The micro pub is to be called The Broken Drum – the prospective landlord / landlady is obviously a fan of Terry Pratchett’sDiscworld” novels, as this is the name of the pub in the city of Ankh Morpork which features in many of the books. The proposed location of the micro pub is quite interesting; it is only a hundred metres or so  along Westwood Road from The George Staples pub (what used to be known as the Woodman).  I last visited The George Staples about three years ago, and it was not inspiring. It is basically a chain pub run by a pub company called The King’s Feast pub co. (where size matters) which I think tells you a lot before you go any further – never mind the quality, feel the width. The George Staples seems to concentrate on attracting families with small children and serving cheap food in vast quantities – it scrapes by with a three out of five star “Scores on the Doors” food hygiene rating. The News Shopper Pub Spy liked the pub overall, as it was child friendly (I cringe whenever I hear  that phrase in relation to a pub or restaurant) but the verdict on the food was a lot less favourable – limp and soggy scampi, served with bullet hard microwaved peas was not to the reviewers liking. The Broken Drum will no doubt cater for a somewhat different demographic, and I can see the two establishments co-existing without issue. The new micro pub will serve real ales, wines  and cider, along with snacks such as locally sourced pork pies and scotch eggs. As is the norm with micro pubs, there will be no TV, no music and no lager or alcopops. I would hope that the Broken Drum would serve at least one local ale such as the excellent BOB (Bexley’s Own Beer) by The Bexley Brewery, which will be in full production by the time the Broken Drum is ready to open shop. By Christmas, the borough will have three operating micro pubs – The Door Hinge in Welling (so good that it won Bexley CAMRA pub of the year in its first year of opening). There will also be the Penny Farthing in Crayford, which is currently still in the planning stage, as mentioned a couple of weeks ago. I suppose that it would be too much to ask for a micro pub in Erith; it is not as if the town is lacking in empty ground floor shop units ready for conversion. There are three units in the block opposite the Health centre in the High Street that have not been occupied since they were constructed around seven years ago - see the photo above, and click on it for a larger view; I am sure the owners would love a tenant in at least one of the shop spaces. Alternatively there are units available in Cross Street; the former law centre is unoccupied, after changes to the legal aid system  forced it to close earlier this year. The larger unit that for many years was home to Owens the DIY and engineering supplier is also free, though I wonder if it would be too large for a typical micro pub. Obviously the former White Hart / Potion building is empty, but that would require a large amount of investment and refurbishment to make it a viable proposition – all of which is counter to the basic Micro Pub philosophy of opening in cheap accommodation with only basic changes to the unit to turn it into a hostelry. Keeping the costs down, and keeping it simple are the most basic tenets of running a micro pub. This is to keep the bar as low as possible for others thinking of doing the same. Quite often people running micro pubs have never owned a pub, or even worked in one before. Ray Hurley, the landlord of The Door Hinge in Welling is a former black cab driver who has turned his love for real ale and convivial company into a thriving small business. It would seem that other local people aim to replicate this, which can only be a good thing.

A local information source who wishes to remain anonymous has forwarded me the following story:- "A company called Partizan was filming a commercial in Erith last week for the Royal British Legion. The venues were the Leisure Centre in Erith recreation ground, outside the Erith Yacht Club, outside Christchurch, inside a house in Avenue Road and inside the Royal Standard pub in Nuxley Road, Upper Belvedere. I think the film is to be called "Who Will You Remember?"  So far as I know it will be shown during a few commercial breaks, possibly as early as 20th August, but I do not have all the details at present". Fascinating stuff; I will be looking out for the commercial being broadcast.

The News Shopper website has been getting some rather vexed feedback from readers in response to a story that they are currently running on complaints made by a local cyclist who commutes by bicycle from his home in Hartley on the outskirts of Dartford to the Darent Industrial Estate on the Slade Green Marshes. He is somewhat put out at the state of the cycle paths, especially in and around the marshes. I think that cycling provides a viable alternative to other methods of travel in certain circumstances, and is something to generally be encouraged. The trouble is, in the News Shopper story, the cyclist, a Mr. Neil Jobbins does himself few favours and does come across perhaps unintentionally as somewhat of an archetypal “cyclo – Nazi”. He cycles the ten mile route from Hartley to Slade Green and comments “Everyone should be cycling to work, whether they live in Dartford and work in Woolwich. They should be able to do that and this is the cycle route for it”. Quite. How the average person is meant to negotiate a pushbike up Bostall Hill from Woolwich after a hard day at work quite evades me – the buses have a difficult enough time, and they have stonking great turbo diesel engines. The main thrust of Neil Jobbins complaint is that the cycle paths on the Slade Green Marshes are uneven, potholed and overgrown with brambles and other vegetation.  I have some sympathy with this; I know that the cycle paths on the marshes get a lot of abuse, due principally to the illegal actions of off road bikers who tear up the pathways and generally cause a nuisance. The police periodically chase and arrest the offending bikers, and every so often one of their untaxed and uninsured motorbikes gets confiscated and crushed, which tends to discourage the others for a while; generally once the weather improves and the sun comes out, so do the illegal motor bikes. The counter argument to the situation with the cycle paths that seems to have annoyed many News Shopper readers runs along the lines of “what does he expect – it is wilderness marshland” and also “cyclists don’t pay any road tax and are uninsured, why should they have any rights at all?” Whatever your personal view on the situation, the fact remains that the cycle paths on Slade Green Marshes are nothing to do with either Bexley or Dartford Council and are instead  maintained by a charity called Sustrans, which maintains cycle paths all over the UK. Sustrans have little money, and cannot afford to restore or improve the paths on the marshes – which to be honest, don’t get very much use anyway. I think a better and more rounded solution would be for a concerted anti illegal motorbike campaign by the local police. When any offenders were subsequently prosecuted, any terms of community service that the crooks got sentenced to should be spent clearing up the cycle paths for the legitimate users. It would seem to be a logical course of action as far as I can see. The marshes are a wonderful place to visit on a sunny day. Fifteen minutes walk from Erith Town Centre and you are in an area of outstanding natural beauty that feels like it is hundreds of miles away from urbanisation. It is one of the best places to see the Erith “big sky” – where you can clearly see an unhindered view from horizon to horizon – something almost impossible in large parts of Greater London.

One of my occasional sources informs me that surveyors and environmental scientists have spent the last week carefully examining the site of Erith Quarry. On top of this, work is being carried out to identify and carefully remove the Japanese Knotweed that infests the site. Japanese Knotweed is a non – indigenous, invasive plant that grows prodigiously and can damage the foundations of buildings; it is very difficult to eradicate – the roots can go as far as ten feet deep, and if even a small portion of root is left in the ground, the entire plant will re – grow in short order. It is illegal in the UK to plant or spread Japanese Knotweed, and when it is pulled up it is legally classified as controlled waste that has to be disposed of by licensed landfill sites. Young shoots of Japanese knotweed are cooked and eaten in some countries – apparently it tastes like super sour rhubarb, but it contains a lot of Oxalic Acid, which is really not very good for you. When the weed is completely removed, work will commence to dig some trial pits to analyse the geology of the site – I suspect it may well also be to identify any chemicals that may have been dumped on the site in the past. Personally I suspect that when the Atlas chemical works that used to be in Fraser Road was closed down in the early 1980’s, many of the remaining drums of chemicals  on the site disappeared in very quick order. I would not be at all surprised if they were dumped on the quarry site. If the surveyors find evidence of this, a cleanup operation could prove costly. No actual building work will be undertaken for a while yet; the reason for this is that the Erith Quarry development has not yet been granted planning permission. The development is to my mind long overdue; the quarry site has been closed and abandoned for as long as I can remember – I recall as a child being warned not to play on the site as it was dangerous – something many local kids studiously ignored of course. With Erith Quarry soon to be joining Erith Park as a major local residential development, the population of Erith is set to increase still further. Overall this should be a good thing, but I do have concerns that the infrastructure may suffer as a consequence. Will there be enough water and electricity to go round? I know the developers of Erith Quarry intend to build a new primary school on the site, and Trinity secondary school is just around the corner, but other resources may be thin on the ground. I would imagine the owners of the mini market and the couple of takeaways at the Pom Pom must be rubbing their hands in anticipation of an increase in trade once the construction is complete and the new housing estate becomes occupied.

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bexley Council Environmental Health Team seem to have really upped their game in respect of hygiene inspections on local food outlets, and overall the results have been impressive. Many more places are getting acceptable or better ratings (anything 3 out of 5 stars or higher) and the overall situation in respect of woeful graded places is getting better. There are still a number of fast food outlets in West Street that are definitely letting the side down in regards to cleanliness; indeed one place that was checked on the 16th of July was Masala Reef – an Indian takeaway that actually managed to go from a woeful one star rating on its last inspection to a zero star this time. Bearing in mind the inspectors give constructive advice to the owners of food outlets during the inspection process, one would have expected that the rating would have reflected a greater understanding of food hygiene and an awareness of what is required to obtain a good star rating. It would appear that Masala Reef have gone the other way. The inspection rated their food hygiene and safety as bad, their structural compliance as very bad, and confidence in management as none. Just why the Environmental Health inspection team did not close the place down immediately is beyond me. I would strongly recommend that you avoid Masala Reef at all costs.


You may recall that two weeks ago I featured a screen capture from an old cine film taken in Erith in 1967; it showed a very distinctive orange lorry, photographed coming along Erith High Street. Well, a few days ago I received an email from a chap who is very much in the know about the story behind the lorry - here is his account in his own words:- "My name is Allan Bedford a former 'Erithian' but living in Devon since 2005. I am a bit of a transport historian and have been taking photos of road transport for over 50 years. I previously lived in Brook Street opposite the 'Duchess' I sometimes look at your postings and was 'gobsmacked' to see that frame from Mr Stevens cine film of Erith High Street in 1967 you posted on 03/08/14. The 'orange lorry' is none other than the last ex Erith Corporation Dustcart in their lovely 'Burnt Orange' delivered in August 1964, just nine months before the new London Borough of Bexley came into being. It was a most unusual purchase being a Ford Trader K series, the 'K' refers to the cab pressing as it was originally used by Ford of Cologne (Koln), although this was built in Dagenham. It carries the very obsolete, even in 1964, 'Chelsea Pattern ' sliding shutter style body. As it so happens I took a photo of this very vehicle outside the old Brook Street Primary School one evening in May 1970, due to it's unique status. It was then used to collect food waste from the school canteen,the two man crew were happy to let me snap this while I stood in the middle of the road, I doubt you could do this today. I used to belong to the 'Erith and Belvedere history group, and I know Ken and Benitta who of course worked at the school and taught both my kids back in the eighties. Until I found that 'still' I thought this was the only record of this 'one off' so it's great that another image survives. Feel free to use this image, a little bit of 'OLDE ERITH'!!" Brilliant stuff Allan - extremely interesting and many thanks for sending it through. It all adds to the sum of knowledge of the area. If anyone has old photos, memories or stories about the local area that they would like to see published, please send them through to me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.

Microsoft are currently losing money hand over fist in respect of their Surface Pro range of not quite laptops, not quite tablet PC’s. The Surface is now in its’ third incarnation, and Microsoft are still heavily subsidising the devices, selling each one at a loss in order to try and buy market share. Historically Microsoft have been patient when launching new products; they got hit very hard for a long time when they launched the original X-Box games console – they subsidised it and gave great financial incentives to developers in order for them to create games for the console. This paid off in spades, and nowadays the Xbox One is a very credible platform, with many fans amongst gamers.  Whether the same can be said of the Surface range is doubtful – the whole tablet market is slowing down at present – and even market leaders Apple are struggling to shift significant numbers of new units. Since Steve Ballmer left Microsoft, it would appear that their business strategy is starting to evolve; the company has made 18,000 people redundant, and is streamlining itself to try and stay competitive in a changing market. I feel that under their new management, Microsoft may be less willing to support a “lame duck” product line – I would not be surprised if the Surface Pro range quietly disappears quite soon.


Proof if it was ever needed that Erith is indeed a maritime town can be seen in the photo above; it shows roll on – roll off HGV ferry the M.V Cymbaline passing Erith on Saturday afternoon. In the foreground you can see the MV Shetland Trader  moored on Erith Pier. It is used to transport earth and spoil from the Crossrail tunnelling works down river to the Essex coast to be used in land reclamation work.  It was not clear at the time, and it is not clear even now what exactly the tug in the photo was up to; it was travelling, apparently at full speed astern, right behind the Cymbaline. If any reader has a clue please enlighten me using the usual contact details. I have found the Port of London authority ship movement website  to be a very good source of information relating to shipping moves on the River Thames and beyond. As I have said on occasions before, we don’t make nearly enough use of the river. I understand that plans to try and get the Thames Clipper ferries to extend their coverage to Erith are pretty much dead in the water, due to a number of problems, not least of them being that the authorities don’t consider that the number of passengers heading to and from Erith would be sufficient to justify the cost and effort of extending the service. On top of this, Morrison’s were not keen on their car park being used by commuters – a parking space used by a commuter is one less space to be available for a shopper. On top of this, once again any project to improve public transportation in the North of the borough would be inevitably blocked by Bexley Council planning committee. Most of the members live in the more prosperous South of the borough, and don't want the unwashed oiks in the North to have anything that they can’t .

Following on from my announcement last week of the reasons for the building and restoration work being carried out on the former Cross Keys pub in Erith High Street, I have been asked to go into a little more detail. The building is owned and operated by Anglo – American management consultancy, the Aleff Group. When they purchased the pub a couple of years ago, they were looking for a place that was close to the M25 and A2 and had good overland rail links into central London. Many of their consultants spend much of their time on client sites, or travelling, and they felt that the Cross Keys could provide a good place to convert into offices, hot desking areas and touchdown space for their mostly mobile workforce. The Aleff Group already have offices in Canary Wharf and in Florida, USA, and were initially only thinking of using the Cross Keys for their private business. Once the restoration and conversion work began, they were pleasantly surprised by the level of local interest in what they were doing. They soon realised that there was far more space in the building than they would ever actually need for their own company, and the idea was formed to open up the building for locals to use in a variety of ways.  At this point they contacted a number of local individuals, including myself, in order to form a local steering committee. For commercial confidentiality reasons I was asked to remain tight – lipped as to what was going on, and I have stuck to this for quite some time now. The work to the building has now progressed to the point where the upper floors will be “soft launched” in the next few weeks, prior to an official launch sometime in October. The upper floors have been beautifully restored and updated with air conditioning, fibre optic lights, full Cat 6 wired networking and WiFi coverage. The original cast iron fireplaces have been professionally restored and the floor and ceiling voids fitted with sound deadening material. New windows and doors have been fitted – all custom made to the original drawing specifications. There are a number of meeting rooms and areas to hot desk, along with an informal lounge, small kitchen and really high class designer bathrooms / wet rooms lined with polished marble. The first floor function room has been converted into a climate controlled presentation suite with a digital projector and surround sound audio system which is suitable for meetings, training courses and lectures, and even suitable for use as a small cinema or concert venue. The ground floor bar and kitchen areas are the only parts of the building that have so far not been restored; depending on the results of the questionnaire that will be distributed to local people during the Erith Fun Day on Saturday the 30th August, the ground floor will be converted into a coffee / tea shop and restaurant with a rear terrace for people to be able to sit outside and watch the river view on nice days. It is hoped that the bar area can be restored to its Edwardian splendour so that diners can experience what the Cross Keys was like a hundred years ago. Local small businesses will be able to use the meeting rooms and hot desking areas of the building to carry out client meetings; it is anticipated that local councillors and our local MP will also use the Cross Keys to hold constituency surgeries - at present there is very little choice of public enclosed space in Erith and community events can be difficult to organise for this reason. Organisations like the Rotary Club and Bexley Business Forum will be able to hold meetings in the large and sound proofed meeting rooms on the second floor. The Cross Keys is a very tall building with lots of steep stairs; this has been thought of as a problem for both people with mobility disabilities and parents with children in buggies. For this reason a glass lift is being installed on the rear of the building, adjacent to the patio garden. The lift will look very similar to those used on the Lloyd’s building in the City of London, and will allow disabled access. The rear of the building is plain brick, and not the reason the structure is listed – it is the frontage that legally has to be preserved. Even the employment of local staff has been given a priority. All of the contractors employed on the Cross Keys project come from less than twelve miles from Erith, unless nobody with the specific skills could be found nearby. All the conservation work has been undertaken with close reference to period photographs supplied from several sources, including local historian Ken Chamberlain and myself. I cannot emphasise what a stunning transformation has taken place inside the former pub. All of the work has been done to an incredibly high standard with very high quality materials. Unfortunately as building work is still taking place, the Aleff Group will not be able to offer guided tours on the 30th August during Erith Fun Day – their insurers would not permit it. I would imagine the public will be able to take a look around in October, when the building officially opens. Take it from me, you are in for a real treat!

This week the end video is an excellent and very funny "Simon's Cat" cartoon - enjoy.