Sunday, July 27, 2014

The South East London Crater.


The graphic above (click on it to see a larger version) shows the proposed general layout of the housing estate that is to be built on the old Erith Quarry site. The quarry was worked out over forty years ago, and has since been abandoned, only to be used as a dumping ground and prime fly - tipping area. The difficulty for the developers is that the areas has very few natural entrance / exit locations - the only obvious one is the former petrol station site in Fraser Road. I suspect that the reason the old station was demolished and abandoned was that the owners realised that the site would be worth far more as the connection between any housing development and the outside world than it would have as a block of flats. Possibly some very clever long term thinking, and a prime case of "land banking". You can find much more about the proposed new development by clicking here

My recent observations regarding the driver of the silver builder’s van which a vigilant Manor Road resident photographed driving along the pavement to avoid the road closure during the recent resurfacing works have turned out to be far closer to the mark than I ever envisaged. The same van and driver reappeared in Manor Road last Sunday evening, and a series of events unfolded that I am unfortunately unable to describe at present, as the whole situation is under investigation by the North End Safer Neighbourhood Police team, and the Security team at the construction company who own the van and employ the driver. Suffice to say activities that could be construed as far more serious than driving on the pavement were observed by members of Erith Watch, who subsequently reported them to the relevant authorities. Hopefully I will be in a position to report in more explicit detail in the future, but for now, in the interests of a fair and impartial investigation that is all I am able to say on the matter.

I have been giving some thought to the matter of Erith Morrison’s, and the reduced number of customers it is currently attracting. I think that there is no one single reason behind the fact that for the last couple of years it has been haemorrhaging customers, but there are a number of complementary factors. Firstly the well documented rise of the very low cost German supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi, and the middle class realisation that low price does not mean low quality when purchasing from these stores, along with the opening of the Asda in Lower Belvedere, on the former site of Erith and Belvedere football ground. There was a great deal of very vociferous opposition to the Asda, as many locals were concerned about the impact of the additional traffic the store might attract to an area already beset by traffic jams, especially on Picardy Road, where the circuitous and winding road uphill has caused problems for drivers for years. Once the Asda opened, the silence from the former critics was deafening. It seems that everyone loves the new store; it has certainly hoovered up a portion of former Morrison’s customers. The biggest problem facing Morrison’s in Erith is Morrison’s themselves. The company have become so complacent about their position as the “go to” supermarket for the area that it is alienating their formerly loyal customers.  For example, the Erith store stays open to 10pm on Monday to Saturday, but if you go in the shop much after 7.30pm, both the fishmonger and the self service salad bar are closed. In my opinion these should be open until the dot of closing time, and not as seems to be the case at present, open to suit the needs of the staff. On top of this, whilst many of the staff are efficient and friendly, there are a significant minority who are surly, unhelpful and stand around chatting rather than serving customers. This is not the kind of behaviour I would expect to see in a big name organisation of this type. Unless Morrison’s can pull their metaphorical socks up, they will continue to have customers voting with their feet and taking their custom elsewhere.


The two photographs above were taken as screen captures from a silent, 8mm colour cine film (thanks to Bob Hewitt for alerting me to this) taken of the old Erith Town Centre, just before the demolition engineers moved in to flatten the Victorian structures to make way for the hideous concrete monstrosity that locals had to endure between 1973 and less than a decade ago. The demolition of the old Erith was an act of cultural vandalism that the town is only now starting to recover from.  The photos above show the last day of trade for L.B Stevens - Master Butcher, filmed on Saturday the 27th May 1967, just before the shop was shut for good and demolished. By the look of things, the immaculate shop, with Len Stevens in his bow tie, spotless apron and straw hat was a real credit to the area. If the vandals had not come in and demolished things, I do wonder if Stevens the Butcher would still be running today? With the increase in popularity of traditional suppliers, with new high end butchers Carnivore opening in Sidcup, Erith could have become a haven for foodies. I am also completely certain that Mr. Stevens would not have shut up shop early just because he could not be bothered to wait until closing time. A lesson that Erith Morrison's could do well to learn! You are more than welcome to contact me by Email at hugh.neal@gmail.com or by leaving a comment at the foot of the page.

This week I am glad to welcome a guest writer – Dana Whiffen, the local transportation history expert. He's produced the following piece on the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Routemaster double decker bus:- It is 60 years since the first 3 prototype London Routemasters (RM) were introduced in 1954, from that date and three years of testing before full production started in 1957 and  then gradually they were introduced across The London Transport  Bus Fleet, this bus became iconic as the London Red Bus and is loved by Londoners, Commuters, Enthusiasts and Tourists alike.


Running in and around Erith they will be remembered fondly. They were withdrawn from full service in 2005 although two heritage/tourist routes continued to have had reconditioned Routemaster’s running on routes 9 and 15 to The Tower of London, although sadly these are now being withdrawn in July in favour of the Boris-Routemaster. They came in several different formats the normal open platform rear entrance hop on hop off buses that ran London wide and on London Country (Green Routes) a  longer version was later introduced known as the RML. There was also a rear entrance version with doors that ran on Greenline Routes, these were known as RMC and later the longer versions were called RCL’s. Finally there was also a front entrance version that also had fitted doors, apart from one experimental red bus, this version was ordered by British European Airways as airport buses although LT staff actually manned them for BEA.  Also some have had their roof removed to convert to open top touring buses, these are still popular in London. In all 2,876 were built and remarkably there are still 1,280 preserved as the demand for this popular bus does not seem to wane with many being hired out for weddings, as tour buses, a few have even been converted into mobile bars and a couple have even been reduced to single decker versions. Some that even went abroad to America after 2005 has since been brought back to the UK to meet the private hire demand. It is sure that had not the move to One Man Operated (OMO) buses been introduced so quick when legislation was changed and of course EEC regulations about the safety of open platform buses also perhaps forcing an earlier retirement to the RM fleet from full public service. One thing is for sure after the massive turn out at Finsbury Park to mark the 60th Anniversary Celebrations over the weekend of 12th +13th July 2014, which saw many Routemasters side by side including the first 3- RM 1, 2 and; 3{RML}.   The Routemaster Bus will still be seen in and around London for a long time to come. Thanks to Dana for that fascinating and timely article.


Recently I wrote about the late Bexleyheath resident and former top Soviet spy Melita Norwood. I said that much of the evidence in respect of her giving the Russians details of the British atom bomb project were contradictory and unclear. Subsequent research I have carried out now lends a stronger argument that she did indeed betray British atomic secrets, and this was the reason that she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner – the Soviet approximate equivalent to the British George Medal. Norwood worked as a secretary at the Tube Alloys project; ostensibly this was a group of Anglo – Canadian scientists, engineers and metallurgists carrying on research into materials which could better resist heat and corrosion for use in both defence and civilian  industry. Actually most of this was a cover for what the project was actually dedicated to, which was the creation of Britain’s first atomic bomb, and a few years later with the creation of a British Hydrogen bomb. Contrary to much of received opinion, Britain was not privy to much of the nuclear research the Americans carried out after the end of World War II.  The Tube Alloys project actually began in 1942, before the Americans began the much more widely known Manhattan Project. Many Tube Alloys staff did join their American counterparts at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge during the war, and contributed much to the creation of Fat Man and Little Boy – the weapons used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. Once the war had been won, politics took over and the non – US teams were repatriated, and the sharing of atomic information all but ceased under the terms of the McMahon Act of August 1946. (Ironically the Soviet Union got more British nuclear bomb design and construction information from Tube Alloys via the spying of Melita Norwood, than the Americans did by conventional means. The specific project to create a British nuclear weapon began in 1947 and was code named “HER” – which stood for High Explosive Research. After then Prime Minister Clement Attlee's government decided that Britain required the atomic bomb to maintain its position in world politics. In the words of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, "That won't do at all ... we've got to have this ... I don't mind for myself, but I don't want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked to or at by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes. We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs ... We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it." Initially the British atom bomb project was housed as Fort Halstead, near Sevenoaks in Kent, and also at the Royal Arsenal site in Woolwich (just imagine if there had been a serious accident – we might be calling Woolwich the South East London crater now). Later the entire production facility was relocated to Aldermaston, where it continues to this day. Britain’s early nuclear weapons were more than a little crude and shambolic; they lacked basic safety and security features, and potentially could go off on their own if the conditions were right. The main early post war bomb was called the Violet Club; it was a large implosion type un-boosted fission weapon that used a very large amount of Uranium 235 (which was less expensive and hard to enrich than the more efficient and powerful Plutonium 239 that the Americans and Russians used). Because of the very large weight – over 70 kilos of fissile material were used, the bomb was actually greater than critical mass (the amount of weapons grade fissile material needed to create a nuclear explosion) and could theoretically go off with very little provocation. The safety features on the weapon would have been laughable had the subject not been so serious. The arming switch of the bomb was secured with a bicycle padlock and an Allen key. The hollow sphere of Uranium that made up the warhead was filled up with 133,000 steel ball bearings, so that if the weapon did have its’ conventional explosive trigger accidentally go off, the sphere could not be crushed and go supercritical, causing a massive nuclear explosion The ball bearings had to be removed before the weapon was ready to use. The trouble was, during routine maintenance, the bombs needed to be rotated to access various panels (including those that contained the bombs’ internal power supplies – a couple of six volt lead / acid motorbike batteries – I told you these bombs were built on the cheap). There are several documented occasions when the rubber bung holding the ball bearings in place fell out when the bomb was turned upside down, and all the ball bearings fell out over the floor. This left a very live and unpredictable weapon that could have gone off spontaneously. Now you see why I only half jokingly referred to the South East London crater. The graphic above (click on it for a larger version) was generated via the NukeMap nuclear explosion modelling website; it shows what would have happened had a Violet Club bomb been accidentally detonated whilst being serviced at Woolwich Arsenal - the results would have been horrific. Melita Norwood was not exactly secretive about her communist beliefs either to her employers or her friends and neighbours. The fact that she spied so extensively and so long for the KGB might lead one to wonder if other people knew her secret, and sympathised with her cause. Several books have been written on the subject of Melita Norwood and her long career as Russia’s top female spy; the best account is in my opinion “The Spy That Came In From The Co-Op” by Andrew Pierce. He conducted a series of interviews with Norwood in her house in Nursery Avenue, Bexleyheath from the day the spying story publicly broke in the spring of 1999 (he had been travelling to interview her on another subject, but the news story meant that he had a whole more important book to write than that he had intended).  Over the course of a few months and many cups of weak and milky Co-Op 99 brand tea – purchased from the Long Lane branch, she told him her complete story, whilst sipping from her Che Guevara mug. Like many traitors, Melita Norwood had a very selective memory, and her politics remained those of the extreme left until her death in 2005. The fact that MI5 and Special Branch used the excuse that she was too old to prosecute is surprising – although the real reason is that she would have probably spilled the beans on other spies that the authorities had also failed to detect for decades. Intelligence historian and writer Nigel West (the pen name of Rupert Allason) has given the opinion that Melita Norwood did more damage to British interests than the far more well – known Cambridge five group of KGB spies. Perhaps to protect their own already shaky reputations, the security services thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Bexley College have just received a good report from Ofsted; It will be interesting to see if this improves further in the next year or two. The current report covers the last year when the college was battling with a worn out and creaky building on the old Tower Road campus, but in a couple of months their new, state of the art Walnut Tree Road campus will be opening  - which I will be covering. The new facilities should enable students and staff to learn in a far more conducive and comfortable environment. The new building has full climate control, which will certainly make learning much more pleasant. I can recall baking in the summer in the old building, and shivering in the winter unless I could get within a couple of feet of an old and leaky radiator when I was studying for my Amateur Radio licence back in 1997. Bearing in mind the Tower Road buildings were bad back then, I shudder to think what they have been like in the last few years, however good the maintenance has been. Still, now the old buildings are awaiting the wrecking ball, and the new campus is being completed (I understand that it will open on time, and on budget) ready for the new academic year in September.

I have been in contact with Barry Owen, the manager of Erith Riverside Shopping Centre over the hijacking of the centre’s website. Sometime in the last week, the legitimate website detailing the shops and services the centre is home to was hacked by persons yet unknown. It was replaced by a site purporting to sell fake high end watches. The hackers had also managed to hijack the Google entry for the centre, redirecting people to the fake watch site. Fortunately now the hackers have been thwarted, and the legitimate website restored to function. Anyone who parts with money to such illegal sites really needs their head examined. The chances of a customer receiving anything from a fake watch website are vanishingly small – any credit card details will be captured by the hackers and sold on to other crooks for use in identity fraud. You can tell that such websites are basically honey traps for the unwitting by inputting made up credit card details on the purchase page. For a start the page will not be HTTPS encrypted (there will be no mini locked padlock icon displaying on your web browser) and whatever rubbish you type into the card details will be accepted as long as the correct number of digits are entered into each field on the screen. There are no goods to buy – it is purely a way for the crooks to get your details and empty your bank account. On top of this, fake watches are tacky and generally pretty obvious, as well as being illegal in many countries. Even if you did end up getting sent something through the post, you would still be stung by credit / debit card fraud on your account, and would only have a piece of cheap tat to remind you of your folly.  As the old saying goes, “if it looks too good to be true, it generally will be”.

News reaches me via an anonymous source that an application has been made to Bexley Council licensing department to open a micro pub / ale house in Crayford. The proposal is to open the at present unnamed establishment in the currently empty shop unit at number three, Empire Buildings. This has a lovely view of the River Cray and the small area of park land, and is bang next door to the Crayford Tandoori restaurant. This sounds ideal, and indeed it would be heaven on earth to have a micro pub next to a curry house. The only problem is that the most recent “Scores on the Doors” rating for the Crayford Tandoori only rates it as having one out of a possible five stars for food hygiene. This is awful; I can only hope that since the last inspection of the restaurant was in August 2013, it will have improved in the meantime, and by the time the micro pub opens, it will be worthy of a far higher star rating. If you have not been reading the Maggot Sandwich for very long, you may not be aware of what a micro pub is. In essence a micro pub is a licensed premises that harks back to the days of the traditional ale house. It has no television or piped music, no fruit machines, spirits, alco pops and most definitely NO LAGER. There is real ale, cider, a couple of wines and soft drinks. Mobile phones are usually banned, or have to be put on mute (hooray!) and the idea is that people actually talk together and socialise. Micro pubs are usually set up in former retail units; the first one in the London Borough of Bexley was the Door Hinge in Welling, which in its’ first year of opening won the Camra best pub in Bexley award - and you can see the Tripadvisor reviews here. What is interesting is that there are currently seventy micro pubs operating around the country, but to date there has not been a single Police call out to any one of them. As I have previously mentioned, real ale and thuggery do not go together. I am convinced the cold, tasteless and gassy nature of lager, along with the numerous additives that many contain are the root cause of much alcohol related violence. The world would be a better place if it drunk real ale. Hopefully I am going to get in contact with the licence applicants to make a few constructive suggestions. Firstly (supposing the Crayford Tandoori can get its’ act together hygiene – wise) I would recommend that the micro pub come to some arrangement to supply real ale to the curry house diners. One major drawback to most high street Indian restaurants is that they almost uniformly have dreadful drinks. It could be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Secondly, it is an excellent time to be opening a real ale outlet in the area, as Bexley Brewery is shortly to be opening for business (their first brew is due in September – and I will be running a feature on the new brewery very soon now) – again a mutually beneficial relationship could be established with the micro pub offering an outlet for the local brew house. It would suit the micro pub ethos to stock a truly local beer, and would most definitely keep the carbon footprint down, as well as creating something with real local provenance.

The video this week is a short trailer for forthcoming British movie "The Imitation Game" which is about national hero Alan Turing and his code breaking activities in Bletchley Park during World War II. As you may know, Turing is a hero of mine, and to see him portrayed by the excellent actor Benedict Cumberbatch - who bears little physical resemblance to Turing, but captures his speech and mannerisms perfectly. Turing and the code breakers at Bletchley Park shortened the war by an estimated two years, and also with Tommy Flowers invented the digital computer in the process. My personal link with a member of the team behind Colossus is still unproven, and I doubt that I will ever know for certain, as the documents for the period were mostly destroyed at the end of the war. Whatever, the trailer looks excellent, and I look forward to seeing the film when it is released in November. Please feel free to leave a comment below, as always.