Sunday, November 10, 2013

Erith Park.


The photo above shows one of the giant "Nibbler" machines that are currently tearing down the old tower blocks on what used to be the old and not lamented Larner Road housing estate, adjacent to North End Road in Erith. On Friday afternoon I spent a couple of hours as a guest of Orbit Homes and Wates Living Space on the site of the Erith Park development. I was given a guided tour of the site by Caroline Field of Orbit. I must admit that I have been a bit sniffy about the development in the past – especially in the choice of the name. Erith Park sounded unimaginative and unambitious.  I can now understand why the name was chosen – Orbit are very keen to kill off the “bad brand” that was the Larner Road Estate, which had strong local connotations with anti social behaviour, drug dealing and problem families. They want a clean break and fresh start, which I can totally appreciate. The new development is huge – far larger than I realised; once completed, it will comprise a mixture of property for rental, shared ownership  and outright purchase. I was originally quite cynical as to whether they property developers would have difficulties selling the retail housing and flats, but I don’t think that will actually be an issue. What Wates and Orbit are doing is not rebuilding a new version of Larner Road – that would not work, and you would be back at the state that Larner Road ended up in. Instead the new Erith Park is a far more varied mix of two and three bedroomed low rise apartments and houses. There has been a conscious decision to limit the number of one bedroomed apartments on the site, as Bexley Council feel that there are enough one bed places in the area already. I would concur with this – the new build shortly to get under way on the site of the old Erith Trades and Social Club, between the KFC drive through, and Morrison’s petrol station will mostly be for single bed apartments, and much of the other recent construction in the area has also been single bed apartments – the reason for this is that they are relatively cheap to  build, and enable the developer to see a return on their investment relatively quickly. What was most interesting on my visit to Erith Park was how much in it for the long term Orbit are; whilst it is a massive engineering challenge, what was clear was that it is as much of a social project as it is a construction one. Quite a number of Larner Road residents who have been relocated during the building work wish to live at Erith Park, and they will be given priority should they qualify under a number of criteria. “Problem” individuals will not qualify to return once Erith Park is completed. What also struck me was that the quality of materials used in construction, and the degree of attention to detail in the new development smacks far more of a private gated development than a mixed use social / private housing park. There is a real sense of “wanting to do it right, rather than doing it on the cheap”, which is refreshing for the area where the opposite is usually the rule. The size and complexity of the site is impressive – the old Larner Road Estate had a number of steep hills and deep valleys; these have been removed and graded, meaning that no material was needed to be brought on or off site; a huge construction was under way during my site visit, which I will describe in more detail in the weeks to come. A small town has essentially opened up on the edge of Erith, yet very few other than those working there are aware of the fact.  The Erith Park site offices, canteen, changing facilities and meeting rooms are unlike anything I have seen on a construction site before – the offices are more like that which I am used to at work, with nice carpets and glass walled breakout areas – nothing like the usual dusty portakabin you find on most sites. I was very impressed with what Wates and Orbit are doing – they are definitely aiming the for the whole site setup to be judged as “best of breed”. It will be a couple of years before Erith Park is fully open; I plan on keeping an eye on things as they get built, and will be covering the development progress again every few months in the future.
It seems that the events around the tender for the management of the refurbished Howbury Centre are somewhat more murky and nefarious than I had previously realised. Malcolm Knight of the Bexley is Bonkers website has done a very thorough job of dissecting the claims made by Eco Communities Ltd, and it would appear that they have cooked their own books to quite some extent to make their bid to manage the centre much more attractive to Bexley Council. Malcolm has carried out some basic due diligence investigations (something that the Council should also have done) and it is clear that Eco Communities are on shakier financial ground than they would like to admit. You can read all of the details on Bexley is Bonkers here. It would appear that at the very least, the council has not investigated the backgrounds of the competing organisations to the extent one would wish; I am not a contract lawyer, but I would not be surprised if Eco Communities’ bid was invalid due to the way it was presented. No doubt time (and Bexley is Bonkers) will tell.

I noticed that the amount of fireworks used over this years’ Guy Fawkes Night and the surrounding evenings were far less than previously heard; In previous years the noise has at times been almost unbearable, but this year all I heard were a few sporadic whooshes and bangs – very desultory and not at all disturbing. The nasty weather, recession and the close proximity of both Halloween and Diwali seem to be diluting Guy Fawkes Night from the premier mid autumn event to very much an “also ran”. This is a bit of a pity, as there are links between Robert Catesby (the main conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot) and Erith. Long term Maggot Sandwich readers may recall that I wrote at some length about this potential connection last year. It seems that the long held bonfire night traditions may well be on the way out, with Halloween taking over as the main festival. Halloween was originally created in pretty much its’ current form by 18th century Irish people, the word is a corruption of All Hallow’s Eve. Irish immigrants to America took the tradition there, and it was exported back across the Atlantic in the early 1980’s. Although Halloween was celebrated before this time, it was a far lower key and less involved affair. I am convinced that the increase in popularity of the Americanised version of the festival can at least partly be laid at the feet of Stephen Spielberg and his movie “ET – The Extra Terrestrial”. The film carries strong Halloween themes such as dressing up and “Trick or Treating” which had been relatively uncommon in the UK. The massive popularity of the film exposed may children of the time to take on the American aspects of the Halloween festival; many of those children now have children of their own, and the festival thus now has an amplified resonance not previously seen. Personally I am not struck with the whole thing, which basically encourages small children to demand goods with menaces, but I am probably in a minority.
Take a good look at the photo above; it shows Potion Bar in Erith High Street, as it looked not very long ago. I have some excellent and long awaited good news about the place. Potion has closed for good! I walked past the place with a couple of friends last night, and the windows were whitewashed. A sign was affixed to the door saying that the place had closed down. When looking through small gaps in the whitewash, one could see that the place has been trashed, with anything of value having been ripped out and removed. The place is just a shell now, and not a moment too soon. Potion was a hive of scum and villainy; it was Erith's drug supermarket and home to every criminal low life and lager drinker in the area. Both the Police and the Council have had serious objections to the place almost from the day it opened - not just from the activities of the knuckle dragging, pond life clientele, but from the way the owners of the bar criminally disfigured the grade II listed building, when they ripped out the original salt glazed tile and acid etched glass frontage and replaced it with the plate glass that you see in the photo above, contrary to the explicit instructions of the Council. I don't think that Potion Bar has ever turned a profit, despite the owners saving money by employing an unqualified and un - Police registered manager. I just wish the debtors prison still existed - I would love to see the owners languishing inside. Still, the place is closed, and looks extremely unlikely to re - open in a similar guise. The best news I have had for ages.

Do you find a certain kind of story on the web fascinating or irritating? I refer to the links you find at the bottom of certain websites, most notably the News Shopper, with titles like: “A 55 year old woman has the skin of a 30 year old”, “18 tattoos that are the worst of the worst” and “10 celebrity Instagrams that you may have missed this week”.  These kind of story titles are designed to pique the curiosity of the reader, and encourage them to click on the link to find out more about the subject in question. They are referred to in the trade as “Click Baits”. The websites that the stories are posted on do not have revenue from subscribers, they make money from advertisers who have banner ads plastered all over the site – and who pay the site owner by the number of visits the adverts get; thus it is in the interest of the click baiters to generate as much traffic onto their site as is possible, as this is what generates them cash. One of the worst click baiting offenders is the website Buzzfeed, which is basically a very low end supermarket magazine that has been created on the web. It is primarily aimed at women, as can be surmised by the majority of the content, which bears a lot of commonality with publications like “Take a Break” and “Hello”.  Many of the beguiling or intriguing links you find on websites that ask questions such as “ten things you would not guess about milk” are feeding directly to Buzzfeed and its’ affiliate websites. Their only interest in their content is how they can get you to click through to it – once you have done so, they really don’t care, as you have generated income for them, and they have no further use for the surfer. If you quite enjoy the little bits of online fluff that Buzzfeed and other click baiters publish, then fine, but be aware that you are just being farmed as a commodity for their advertising stream. Personally I find them intensely irritating, and have only clicked through on a few as part of my research into this story. I did it so that you don’t have to .

Something that may surprise you is that Tesco – never exactly the most popular of retailers –are shortly to roll out a technology that seems likely to cause a big furore and probable user backlash. They plan on installing cameras to scan the faces of all shoppers using Tesco petrol garages. The cameras, linked to a computer system will identify the customers’ gender and age group. Once this has been carried out , the system will target adverts on nearby display screens, the content of the adverts will be dictated by the demographic group of the customer. This was all sci fi back in 2002 when the film “Minority Report” was released. That movie showed the character played by Tom Cruise walking down a future street, where the content of advertising hoardings scanned his eyes, identified him, and bombarded him with personalised adverts. This is now science fact – and Tesco are rolling it out to all 450 of their petrol stations nationwide. On top of this, having identified the consumer, the system will also monitor their purchases and record the results to further refine the personalised adverts. It will also identify any social networking sites you use, in order to see what products you “like”. Tesco have already stated that they intend expanding this still further, and they hope to roll out the technology into as many Tesco supermarkets as possible. The system, known as “OptimEyes” has been developed by a technology company Amscreen – which is run by Lord  Alan Sugars’ son, Simon Sugar, who recently was quoted in the Times, saying “This could change the face of British retail, and our plans are to expand the screens into as many supermarkets as possible”.  This level of surveillance is simply unacceptable – would you feel comfortable if the government or police had access to this kind of detailed personal information? What about a commercial company such as Tesco, whose only interest is relieving their customers of as much of their money as quickly as they can? I don’t trust any of them; I stay as low on the radar as possible – no Facebook account, no Twitter, no passport, no mobile phone, no credit card – the list goes on. I do exist digitally apart from this blog, but I keep my profile as low as humanly possible.  It seems that so many people will readily sacrifice their privacy for a little bit of temporary convenience. What do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email hugh.neal@gmail.com.

Further to my occasional series featuring radio stations that you may not have heard of, but that merit a listen for those interested in trying out a different experience in broadcasting; this week I thought I would cover Radio Seagull – a station based in Harlingen in Northern Holland, but that can be heard on the East Coast of the UK on 1602 kHz medium wave. Seagull also broadcast online in stereo to the world. Recently the Daily Telegraph newspaper reviewed the station, awarding them radio station of the month;  it said of them “As if to prove that the spirit of Sixties-style pirate broadcasting never really died, this charming music station broadcasts from a ship moored in Harlingen Harbour in the Netherlands. Prog rock is the predominant flavour, with plenty of Genesis, Pink Floyd and the like; but genres as diverse as UK blues, world music and jazz also get a look in.” Radio Seagull broadcast from a converted light ship – the M.V Jenni Baynton – formerly named Trinity House Lightship number eight. The staff are volunteers much like Radio Caroline, and the appeal to a similar demographic – indeed, there are a number of crew who work for both stations as required.  Radio Seagull has a warm and laid back sound, and they play a far wider variety of album music than any commercial radio station I can think of. You can see their website and listen live by clicking here.
The photo above shows the closed and gated doorway to the gents public toilets at the rear of Erith Health Centre. Contrary to the label on the door, the toilets were not closed due to vandalism at all - they were closed as the Council did not want to pay for them to be cleaned and maintained, even though they had only been open for a couple of years. Instead they sold off the provision of toilets to a private company; more of this later. The News Shopper are reporting that two Bexley pubs – the Furze Wren in Bexleyheath, and the Tailor’s Chalk in Sidcup have both won Platinum stars in the Loo of the Year awards. The awards rate toilets in publicly accessible buildings from unrated, through Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum for the most exceptionally good establishments. I must admit that I have never been to the Tailor’s Chalk, as I seldom have reason to visit Sidcup nowadays. The Furze Wren on the other hand I have visited twice. I recall that the loos were good, but it was not what really dominated my memories – it was how incredibly poorly lit, and downright dark the pub was – I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. Nevertheless, it was not a bad place overall, but when you have the excellent Robin Hood and Little John a few minutes’ walk away, why would you want to go to a poorly lit Wetherspoon’s boring and generic chain pub when you could be sitting comfortably in the multiple CAMRA award winning best pub in Bexley? What strikes me about the good loo awards (which I think are an excellent idea) is that they will not be able to cover one class of convenience in the London Borough of Bexley, that is public toilets, as there are no council run public toilets anywhere in the borough. The last two such facilities were the loos at the rear of the Health Centre in Erith High Street, and the toilets that were next to Bexleyheath Library in Townley road. The Townley Road kharzis are now the home of W. Uden and Sons funeral parlour, and the Erith public toilets, which had only been open for a couple of years before they were closed, are still there, but the doors are closed and covered by galvanised steel shutters. The reason for this? Bexley Council sold off the toilet rights to a private company who have installed “pay to pee” automated superloos in a small number of locations. There is one outside the main entrance of the Erith Health Centre, just around the corner from the original, hardly run – in before closure public loos (see - I do plan these things). I have seen many people resent paying 20p to use the facility (also known locally as “The Turdis”) instead they go and wee in the bushes around the side of the health centre, in the cut through to the car park at the rear. This is unsightly, unhygienic and results in a strong and noxious smell of urine, especially when the weather is warm.

The story that the body of a man that was washed up on the banks of the Thames at Erith has been one of the most read on the News Shopper website this week; it is a pity that the town seems to be linked with death and violence whenever the river is mentioned in a story. Similarly, I have been walking on Erith Pier on a couple of recent occasions when a small group of teenagers have been playing on the railings – one of the group had climber over the railings and was dangling himself over the water below. It is always difficult to know what to do for the best in such circumstances – if you tell them off, they are likely to undertake even more dangerous stunts, purely to annoy you. If you don’t say anything, then you would have it on your conscience should something untoward happen to them. The chances of survival if you fall in to the Thames from Erith Pier are not high. The whole of the Anchor Bay stretch of the river (where the pier is located) is notorious for very strong currents and an undertow at pretty much all of the time except at slack tide. Any child that did miss their footing and fall in would have a strong chance of not coming up for air at all. There are life rings on the pier, and on the shoreline as well, and I have to say that the notices requesting that vandals don’t throw them into the water seem to be pretty well observed. The excellent RNLI can get from their base in Gravesend to Erith in about twenty five minutes, but this is still way too long for a person who may have been sucked under by the strong current. The best option is for them not to be in the position in the first place. I don’t know what local schools say to their pupils about the danger posed by bodies of open water – which look and act very differently to any life saving drill carried out in a swimming pool. I would also hope that parents teach their offspring the dangers of mucking about on the river – as at that age, kids tend to think of themselves as indestructible – a potent mixture when showing off to their friends. We have had a number of deliberate suicides over the last few years, the most notable one being the 21 year old who threw himself off the end of the pier back in February 2011. There is a metal plaque to mark his passing on the site today.

The end video this week is a bit of a wake - up call to the authorities; you may recall that a few months ago some American chaps came up with a handgun that had been created using a 3D printer. The gun was very crude, could only fire one round before reloading, and had the unfortunate habit of blowing up, as the working parts were made out of plastic. The initial worries about territories where private ownership of such firearms is prohibited by law (such as in the United Kingdom) being able to download the plans for such weapons to enable criminals to 3D print their own guns were then show to be an overreaction - the plastic printed guns were as dangerous to their operator as to any target. All this has recently changed. A federally licenced firearms manufacturer in Texas has used a far more advanced form of 3D printing, called Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) to produce a Colt 1911 model .45ACP pistol, that not only works exactly the same as an original, but is actually made to more precise tolerances than a standard one, and is thus considerably more accurate. The technology used in DMLS 3D printing is way too complex and expensive for amateur use at present, but as has happened with many new technologies, the price drops considerably over time. The video below shows an overview of the construction of the 3D DMLS printed weapon, and the testing phase of the project contrasts with the high tech manufacturing - nothing like sticking the finished weapon in a vice on the range, and firing it with a long piece of string attached to the trigger. Have a look and please feel free to comment accordingly.

3 comments:

  1. Wrong on loos Hugh. There is a council provided loo in Lesnes Abbey Park. True it is primarily there for the convenience of the ground staff, but in 'office hours' it is generally open. For now at least! The building is to be demolished shortly. But there are grand plans for the park so maybe a resurrection is scheduled.

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  2. Erith Park sounds great but wheres me mitter going man now the blocks have gone?

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