Sunday, November 17, 2013

The big sky.

Over the last few weeks, the Maggot Sandwich has had a fairly consistent theme – that of the extent of new construction in and around Erith. It is certainly a royal pain in the backside in the short – term, but should prove a real bonus and an improvement to the whole area in time. We currently have the Erith Park redevelopment well under way – which incidentally is currently the largest mixed rental / shared ownership / retail sale housing development in Europe. On top of that we have the construction of the new Bexley College campus next to Erith Station (and more of this later), the refurbishment and internal conversion of the former Cross Keys pub into office and meeting room space for the international management consultancy the Aleff Group, and the refurbishment and partial re-engineering of the bridge over the railway in Bexley Road. On top of this, a new piece of civil engineering is currently under public consultation. Manor Road, one of the busiest main roads in Erith has had a severe problem with speeding and a high incidence of road accidents for many years, something that I have historically documented on various occasions. Bexley Council have sent out a consultation document to local residents to ask for their opinions and feedback regarding a number of proposals; these proposals include: 1) To raise the existing zebra crossing near the roundabout at James Watt Way with 2 metre wide new refuge island. 2) To raise the existing zebra crossing near Appold Street and move it slightly Eastwards. 3) To provide unrestricted parking bays between Springfield Road and Alexander Road. 4) To provide restricted parking bays between Aperfield Road and Springfield Road. 5) To provide 3 pairs of speed cushions just after Turpin Lane and Frobisher Road, and 6) To provide red road surfacing roundel of 20mph showing the road speed limit on Manor Road of 20mph. Local residents have been sent a letter with further details, along with a printed copy of the drawing that you can see above – click on it for a larger view. Overall the plans for traffic calming are sound, but there are issues; the huge Frobisher Road Estate on the South side of Manor Road is visited nightly by the emergency services – usually to deal with a drugs overdose, or a chip pan fire. So frequent are the visits that the vehicles only use their blue flashing lights after dark – otherwise Manor Road residents would have a nightly dose of sirens. The problem that any traffic calming measures have is twofold; firstly they can increase the response times of ambulances and fire engines; quite often the most powerful objections to speed ramps are actually the emergency services themselves. The other downside to ramps and speed cushions is the oft cited problem of increased noise and air pollution. The thinking is, a significant percentage of road users detest speed restrictions, and do everything in their power to circumvent them. This usually means dramatic slowing down at the last minute when approaching a speed bump, then hard acceleration as soon as the vehicle is over it “to make up for lost time”. To be honest this makes bugger all difference to an overall journey time, but it does make a lot of unnecessary noise and air pollution, as a vehicles’ engine emissions go through the roof under heavy acceleration. Manor Road has had a blanket speed restriction of twenty miles an hour for many years; as well as being an important transport thoroughfare for the various industrial estates in Manor Road itself, and Eastwards into Slade Green, but it is also an important residential area. Cars and motorbikes regularly speed along the road – I think they get encouraged by the relatively long straight stretches of the road. Some years ago a motorcyclist was killed heading Westward towards Erith; at the time there was a blind junction with Frobisher Road, and a van pulled out in front of the motorbike – the biker was killed instantly (his head came off, complete inside his helmet). Police later estimated he had been travelling in excess of eighty miles per hour when the impact happened. I felt sorry for the van driver, who was completely exonerated after the incident. The junction was rebuilt to try and give drivers pulling out of Frobisher Road a better chance of seeing oncoming traffic, but the fact remains that some cars and bikes travel far too fast along Manor Road, and in built up areas, excessive speed is one of the largest contributory factors in traffic accidents.
Talking of Manor Road, this photo was taken earlier in the week by Manor Road resident Norbert, who saw the air ambulance hovering over the yard of Vinton Metals. It is not one of the air ambulances one normally sees in this area; in fact it is normally based in rural Gloucestershire. You can see the details of the helicopter in question here. I think it may be standing in for our regular chopper, which may be in for servicing or repair. 

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece relating to the relative affordability of living in the local area, and how Erith and Slade Green were one of the cheapest places to live that are within easy commuting distance of central London; well once again a theme that I have espoused has been picked up by the London Evening Standard. A series of letters have been published over the course of the week on the subject of affordable places to live near to London – a couple of quotes should give you an idea of the content: “I was really surprised that Mike Hoff says that he can’t afford a flat in zone 4 for £200,000 (Letters, Monday), Abbey Wood is in zone 4 and is a decent place with lovely woods and parks. It’s 25 minutes to London Bridge. You can get both houses and flats for under £200,000, although the houses will need work.” A second letter has a differing viewpoint “Catherine Raheem (Letters, Monday) suggests that aspiring home owners priced out of London should look further afield in areas such as Slade Green. What self respecting thirty something with a shred of ambition would want to live in distant suburbia?” Ahem. One could counter by asking what self respecting thirty something would want to live in central London? It is all a matter of perspective. Personally, whilst I like London, I would not wish to live in the middle of it, even if I could afford to. It is simply too busy, crowded and noisy. Whatever else you say about Erith and Slade Green, you cannot deny we have one thing London sorely lacks – a very big sky. Go onto Erith Pier, or stroll through Slade Green Marshes and look around you; a view from horizon to horizon almost uncluttered by man made structures – it is about as close to a natural wilderness that you will get anywhere within the M25, and something that many people overlook to their loss.

One of my confidential local informants has come across some interesting, and possibly hopeful information; the “Fix My Transport” campaign to get Network Rail to install a lift at Erith Station is not as dead in the water as many had been led to believe. A source in Network Rail Emailed my contact to say that currently they had no funding for architectural changes to Belvedere, Erith or Abbey Wood stations (which is quite ironic when one considers that the current Abbey Wood railway station is shortly to be demolished, replaced with a temporary structure, which in turn will be replaced by the huge, two storey Crossrail terminus station – but of course that all comes out of someone elses’ budget, so to Network Rail, it does not count). Anyway, Network Rail are submitting requests for step free access to Erith Station to the Department of Transport for consideration in April 2014; any funding would come from them. Apparently Belvedere station is not regarded as a priority, as it already has a ramp accessible to buggies and wheelchairs, in addition to the normal footbridge. Erith has no such provision, and it is to be hoped that it will be given a higher priority. Bearing in mind that over and above the existing usage profile of Erith Station (principally people commuting in and out of London), the opening of Bexley College, literally right next to the station will mean that the throughput of users will likely increase, giving an even stronger reason for Network Rail to comply with the Disability Rights Act and give wheelchair and buggy access to the London bound platform, as should really already be the case.
I have in the past complained that Erith has no proper “sit down” restaurants, and to date this is still the case; we do have a large number of takeaways and cafes (I classify the Mambocino coffee shop / cafe under this heading, although it does server proper “knife and fork” meals, as does the very highly regarded T-Bone Cafe in Fraser Road. The difference is, that these places are the kind you visit when you are hungry, rather than somewhere you would take someone to impress them. Also, neither are open in the evening – the T-Bone Cafe closes at about 3pm, and The Mambocino closes when the Erith Riverside Shopping Centre locks its’ gates at 6pm. If you want an evening meal with a little more style, you need to travel elsewhere, the nearest places being Northumberland Heath and Upper Belvedere. One place in Upper Belvedere that I visited with friends last weekend was the Spice Master Indian restaurant in Nuxley Road, Upper Belvedere. The building that the restaurant is located in has a lot of history. It was originally constructed as a Victorian temperance cafe called the Belvedere Coffee Tavern and Refreshment Bar – see the period photograph above - click for a larger version. I can dimly recall it as a “greasy spoon” type cafe when I was a child, growing up in Upper Belvedere. I never went in it, but would go past regularly. In the mid to late eighties the cafe building was extensively extended and remodelled, to the extent that the owners got into some rather hot water with Bexley Council planning department, as the original structure was a grade II listed building, and they altered it so much that it lost its’ listing. At the same time it was extended, it changed from being a rather scruffy looking cafe into a rather upmarket Italian restaurant called La Dolce Vita, which seemed to be frequented by elderly Jaguar driving wide boys and their brassy wives. It was very popular at lunch times for people holding business meetings, and at weekends it was packed – especially for Sunday lunch when one would need to book in advance to stand a chance of getting a table. During the middle of this period, it was exposed by the News Shopper has having the worst kitchen hygiene recorded in Bexley to that date; the place was so bad that it was featured on at least one television consumer protection programme. This had the effect of killing trade off almost overnight. They cleaned the place up, and re-launched it the next year with a new name –“The Garden”, but people had long memories, and the trade did not return. One diner of the time told me ”It was nearly always empty and almost overly friendly with the service. We knew of its health and safety problems (but that was like a year before we'd started going there so it had cleaned up its act) and we had some lovely meals. We tended to use it as a "sod-it-we-can't-be-arsed-to-cook" night as it was local, quite reasonable and they had a tolerable/well priced wine list. It was nice enough but I'm not a fan of Italian Restaurants seeing as at home we eat a lot of Italian style dishes (pasta, lasagne, meatballs, Mediterranean salad etc) so I like to have stuff a bit different when I go out.  It was the height of mid-80's home decoration inside, if I remember rightly. Artex about 3ft thick and everything covered in fake Roman columns, plastic ivy and plaster statues with B and Q's finest wall-hangings and light fittings. Probably quite swish in the day but when we were there in the mid-90's it was a little tired and dated and not my type of thing at all”. Not long after this, it closed for good and lay empty and boarded up for quite a time.It was about at this time that I moved to Erith, and was less aware of the goings on in Nuxley Road than I used to be. The old restaurant building was again gutted and refurbished, this time as an Indian restaurant; the first competition for the venerable and long established Belvedere Tandoori, which was one of my introductions to high street curry eating back in the day. Nowadays the reviews suggest that the Belvedere Tandoori still produces tasty food, but the online review consensus is that the staff are terrible – slow and surly on a good day, and worse than that at other times.
I did not try the new restaurant, now called Spice Master for many years; I was working in the East End, and used to visit the legendary, and sadly now closed Sweet and Spicy a couple of times a week; I would also make regular lunch time trips to the Halal Restaurant in Mark Street E1 – which has been serving up genuine Bangladeshi food since shortly before WWII, and is one of the oldest continually in service curry houses in the UK. In many ways at this time I was spoiled for choice, and “ate what the locals ate”. Consequently I did become quite sniffy about ordinary high street curry houses and the food that they cooked. I felt that it was not “authentic” and was too engineered to suit a Western palate. In essence I had become a bit of a curry snob.  During this time, the Spice Master just curried on (oh the wit!) and our paths did not cross. Once I had moved on from the job based in the East End, the curry consumption drastically reduced, but I still had a degree of distain for ordinary high street restaurants. Over the last few years I have come to realise that your high street curry is a thing on its’ own. It may not bear much resemblance to food you would eat in Bangalore or Karachi, but it has now been around for long enough to have created its’ own unique identity – it is what it is, and it is rightfully unapologetic. Most high street curry, whilst being called “Indian” is actually far closer to Bangladeshi cuisine, as most of the original restaurant owners came from Bangladesh, rather than India, but were quick to realise that in 1950’s / 1960’s Britain, most English people had not heard of Bangladesh, so a bit of inspired re - branding labelled the new food outlets as “Indian” restaurants. The Spice Master hits pretty much all of the modern curry house clichés straight out of the box. No flock wallpaper, but a light and clean look. Usually in the evenings there is a doorman in a turban and sparkly tunic standing outside – which cannot be much fun at this time of year, though it does add a touch of unexpected glamour to the place. The restaurant is absolutely huge; it must have around 150 covers, and does get very busy at times, though I have found service to be pretty good. A couple of times a month they have themed nights with a singer – usually an Elvis impersonator, or songs from Bollywood. All very cheesy and fun if it is your thing. It is not mine, I have to say. You are best advised to check when the musical special nights are on, by checking the Spice Master website here.  All in all, it is what it is, and this is no bad thing. If you like a curry and don’t want to travel very far, you could do far worse. It gets a thee out of five star rating for food hygiene, which is acceptable, if not great. Overall a thumbs up, anyway.

Culture and Communications Minister Ed Vaizey is in some hot water with the broadcasting industry right now. Vaizey is supporting a scheme to remove all national and regional radio stations from the FM band, and make them only available via DAB digital radio. Nathan Rogers, owner of Brighton’s Juice 102.7 radio station said "As the government gets ever closer to announcing what it intends to do, it needs to stop this forced switchover nonsense and start making decisions based upon the interests of the listener and not half-baked ideas and fantasy timetables, It's a classic case of emperor’s new clothes. DAB was never going to be a viable replacement for FM. In radio’s multi-platform future, DAB is simply one extra way to listen”. Rogers has started a “No to DAB” campaign, mainly attracting the small, independent stations who cannot afford to purchase a DAB multiplex slot. They also say that for local radio listening, only 15% is done via DAB, a vast bulk is still done via analogue FM, where something in the region of 90% still listen at least some of the time via an analogue source. More listening tends to be done via Internet streaming than by DAB. The proponents of DAB cite better audio quality (after all, it is ”digital”, thus one would think, automatically better) actually this is almost always not the case. In order to squeeze as many stations into the available bandwidth, the bit rate at which they transmit their content is limited. Some stations have even had to reduce their output to mono in order to keep the audio available. Digital audio signals are an almost “all or nothing” affair – you hit a weak signal,  and is sounds like it is coming through bubbling water, then it dies completely. FM analogue signals do what they call in the trade “degrade gracefully” – as the signal strength drops, the noise – usually in the form of “hiss” increases – but you can still hear the station quite clearly. The signal loss has to be pretty catastrophic to lose the audio completely. The real reason for the attempt by the Government to close down as many FM radio stations as possible has absolutely bugger all to do with the technology of DAB, it is all to do with them wanting to free up the FM radio spectrum so that they can sell it off for other uses; this is exactly what happened to the analogue television network when it was switched off (except that there were much better reasons for moving to digital television which don’t apply for radio). The British DAB broadcasting network is now nineteen years old, but it has never really penetrated the market in the way it was intended. This can be attributed to a number of factors; the audio quality is generally sub – par, signal coverage is very patchy across the UK, and portable DAB receivers eat batteries like they are going out of fashion. Don’t get the impression I am being a Luddite about this; I do have a DAB radio which I use to listen to Planet Rock and BBC Radio 4 Extra on a daily basis – but that is despite those stations being on DAB, not because. Technology has moved on, and DAB has never really been updated. To get audio quality up to the standards of say BBC Radio 3 on FM with a good analogue signal, a DAB radio needs to receive a data stream of at least 256kb/sec; the trouble is, almost no DAB stations do this – most are a maximum of 128kb/sec or lower – when you can get a signal at all. A growing number of stations are switching to mono to save bandwidth and thus cost. DAB is basically the Betamax of radio transport formats; it was a good idea on paper, but due to poor implementation it never really took off as intended, and it has now been surpassed by the huge explosion of web based broadcasting. With the advent of 4G phone networks, and fast, fibre optic home networking, much more radio listening is being done via the Internet. DAB is dead, it has just not realised it yet.

The ending video this week is a bit of a treat; the BBC normally disable embedding videos they upload to YouTube; but this seems to be an exception to that rule. It is a short mini Doctor Who episode that explains how the Eighth Doctor regenerated into the previously unknown "War Doctor" played by John Hurt. Paul McGann was a great actor to play the Eighth Doctor, and it is a real pity he got so little screen time. His contribution to the Doctor Who audio adventures show his commitment to the character though; at least his version of the Doctor gets to choose his regeneration. Watch below, and click to make full screen. 


  1. I bought a DAB radio 10 years ago thinking it was the future. Plugged it on, turned it on and couldn't believe how poor radio sounded. As you say - music was only 128 kb/s. Couldn't believe it. This 'future technology' was actually far worse quality than existing FM. I sold it sharpish. How often does new technology actually regress from old existing standards?

    I looked it up and found that the UK govt had gone for quantity over quality. Also saw that the rest of Europe had gone for DAB 2 which offers high quality sound and a range of stations. The UK govt pushing DAB 1 is laughable. It offers nothing.

  2. I was always led to believe that the only reason that Manor Road hasn't had 'Traffic Calming Measures' in the past is because it would be impractical nigh on even impossible with the sheer amount of Commerical Traffic i.e Lorries, Juggernaughts, Articulateds using it on a daily basis to reach the trading estates/scrap yards etc further down towards Slade Green. These places are where most of the Emergency Vehicles head to on such a regular basis when yet another scrap yard/trading estate has gone up in flames, especially the ones on Erith/Crayford Marshes. So are Bexley Council going to ban such vehicles from Manor Road? I think not. So if they do implement such measures without tackling this problem first I can only see getting worse as traffic is brought to a crawl along the road. Either that or restrict parking on Manor Road to one side only. Another measure I suspect that Bexley Council would be unable to do. At times the road is almost one way traffic such are the limited clearences down it at peak hours.