Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Royal Alfred.

It is nice to be able to report some positive and encouraging news about Erith for once. As I have written in the past, I am opposed to companies and property developers selling off profitable, viable community pubs to be converted into housing, and I still strongly of this view. What I am not against is developers buying up "no hope" pubs that are laying semi derelict and converting them into new housing. I have found out in the last few days that the former Royal Alfred pub, which has stood empty and apparently unloved in Manor Road, since it closed its' doors back in 2008 is shortly about to get a much needed makeover and major refurbishment. The downstairs bar area will be converted into a class A1 shop, the the upper floors will be converted into accommodation in the form of five one bedroomed apartments and two double bedroomed apartments. As you can see both above and below, the transformation of the pub from what it is now, to what the architect intends is pretty dramatic and impressive. The building has been boarded up and unused since it closed, and I reckon with some large injection of money and construction skill, it could be turned into a landmark building for the East side of Erith. Click on the photo above, or the two drawings below for a larger version. 

Normally the Maggot Sandwich gets written over the course of the preceding week; little bits get done in my lunch break at work, or in the evenings when I am at home. Back when I started the blog in 2006, I used to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and write the whole thing in one sitting. In those days it was much shorter and far less elaborate. This week I am almost back to the old method of compiling the update, as Christmas week has been very busy, and I have struggled very hard to find the time to sit down and bash out some prose. My apologies if as a result this weeks' update is not up to the normal standard; it has been a bit of a "rush job".

I had a conversation on Friday afternoon with one of the assistant managers in Morrison's in Erith; I was very surprised to discover that their most popular food item sold in the period between Christmas and the New Year is sliced bread and bread rolls. It was explained to me that many people have leftover turkey, beef and gammon from their Christmas meal, and rather than eat anything very elaborate, they buy bread in order to turn the leftovers into sandwiches. I suppose that it makes sense, though it had never occurred to me before. I do know that the bakery in Northumberland Heath has been working overtime - it bakes bread under contract for a number of retailers, including Marks and Spencer, so maybe the Christmas / New Year sandwich tradition is something common to the wider country, and not just the local area.

I am trying to discover more about a very colourful and larger than life character who lived in Erith during Victorian times; his name was Robert Austen, but he was more popularly known as "Robert the Devil" - he was an exhibitionist and showman, and I understand he had a strong man act that sometimes toured around North Kent and beyond. He had a couple of party tricks. He often drank in the pubs on Erith river front, and was notorious for betting other drinkers a pint of ale if he could swim across the River Thames from Erith to Coldharbour Point in Havering, Essex and back - which he invariably did. As I have previously written, the currents and undertow in and around Anchor Bay make this one of the most lethal stretches of the Thames for swimmers, and why most people who enter the river end up getting fished out by the Police or RNLI as corpses. It would appear that Robert Austen was a very strong and confident swimmer who could repeatedly challenge this. On top of swimming the river, Austen would permit a man to break a granite kerbstone over his chest with a sledge hammer - for the price of a gallon of beer! More information if you have it please. 

Following my open question last week as to when the photograph of the trolley bus was taken outside of the Wheatley Hotel, on what is now the site of the hideous fish sculpture, I have had the following message from Richard Spink, who has strong memories of the 698 trolley bus service:- "The 698 trolley bus was withdrawn in 1959. It used to run from Woolwich along Plumstead High Street and down to Abbey Wood Village then on to Erith, North Heath and Bexleyheath. I remember catching it from the bus stop at the bottom of Wickham Lane when my parents were visiting Mum's Sister in Gravesend. We would get the train from Abbey Wood. I seem to remember it only going as far as Abbey Wood where it would turn round and come back to Woolwich again. Perhaps by then, the route to Bexleyheath had already been closed. The route was eventually replaced by the 229 bus service. We also had the 696 trolley bus which ran from Woolwich all the way to Dartford and was supposed to be the longest in the country. This was replaced by the No.96 bus. I believe your picture must date from the later half of the 1950's going by the clothes worn by the people at the crossing. Also, the tram lines have been removed which must have happened after the war. The ones in Woolwich Market Square were still there in the 1980's along with the original cobbled road surface. Shame it never had a preservation order. While looking for information on this, I came across this website. Looking at the pictures on the corner of Wickham Lane really brought back some memories as I lived in Wickham Lane as a child and remember the shops in the background of the pictures. I remember the trolley bus as well. The Off Licence on the corner of Camrose Street was where I used to go and try and buy bottles of cider aged about 16 and try and convince the shopkeeper I was older. The trouble was that he had known me from a small child (my Dad used to take me in there when he was buying his cigarettes) and knew exactly how old I was." Thanks Richard - I am sure many readers will find your recollections fascinating. Local historic transport links continue below.

Local resident Dana Whiffen wrote the following piece on the restoration of a number of classic GS buses from the early 1950's, which is being carried out at the Brooklands Motor Museum; the buses have a local link which will be come clear shortly. "In 1952 London Transport ordered 84 of these wonderful 26 seater single decker buses (see the photo above - click for a larger view) from GUY to be run on London Transport Country routes. The distinctive front with the 'Indian Head' motor buses started coming into service in October 1953 with the rest of the order being completed by January the following year. Remarkably today there are a total 30 of these buses preserved although only 12 of these are actually on the road, with three of these standing together at Brooklands for this anniversary celebration in October 2013. This bus ran in various rural counties around London including Kent where they ran on routes from Northfleet Garage between 1954-1969 covering routes towards Gravesend and Dartford, from 1953-1966 from Dunton Green Garage covering routes for Orpington, Westerham and Sevenoaks, from Swanley Garage between 1955-1959 covering Farningham, from Chelsham Garage between 1953-1962 covering routes for Edenbridge, Oxted and Tatsfield. The link to Erith was that GS50 was based at AbbeyWood Bus Garage  for severeral years after being removed from normal service in the late sixties; this bus was often seen around the area taking drivers to skid training at the Chiswick driver education centre, often picking up staff from Bexleyheath, Sidcup and Plumstead garages".

The weather over the last couple of weeks has been notoriously atrocious. Much has already been written about the subject, and I don't want to repeat what has already been said. One thing that it has highlighted is something I have mentioned in the past, but I feel that needs to be restated. People who put their feet on the seats on public transport is something that winds me up no end; not only is it antisocial, but it is extremely unhygienic. Even if the culprit has not directly stood in a dog turd, the harmful bacteria from excrement is washed all over every pavement when it rains and everybody gets fecal bacteria on their footwear, whether they know it or not. It is only after a period of bright sunshine that the Ultra Violet light from the sun kills the micro organisms, but for much of the time in winter the footpaths and streets of Britain are literally awash with harmful bacteria, mainly from dog droppings. When someone puts their feet onto a bus or train seat, they transfer some of this bacteria onto the fabric of the seat, where it can live quite happily for several days. In that time, multiple bottoms will have sat on the invisible bacteria colony, transferring some of them for another ride on an unwitting hosts' clothes. The person has only to touch the invisibly infected area to pass harmful bugs onto their hands, and from there, virtually anywhere. This is one of the main reasons that when you visit a hospital or nursing care home, you are strongly encouraged to use antibacterial hand gel, which is normally supplied in a dispenser by the entrance. A good wash with soap and hot water will do pretty much the same, if like me you are sensitive to the gel. I have been told by a couple of medical professionals that about a third of infections blamed on MRSA in hospitals and nursing homes are actually caused by canine fecal bacteria transferred from visitors' clothing. Think on this next time you see someone putting their feet on a seat. 

South Eastern Trains have run a shambolic service over the holiday period; some of it was their fault, some not. The terrible high winds and deluge of rain has certainly not helped matters. On Friday, a normal working day for many people, South Eastern initially said that no trains would be running until around midday. As lunchtime approached, this was changed to state that it would be unlikely that trains would be running at all, due to "Major disruption". The problems would appear to be directly related to the way that the Dartford to London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross via Greenwich railway line was originally created; for much of its' length it runs through a series of cuttings of varying depths. These cuttings are lined by trees and bushes, which just out of the steep earthen banks. As soon as any great storm happens, mud gets washed from the banks, weakening the tree and bush roots' hold in the ground. Combining this with the accompanying extremely high wind speeds, and the railway tracks get blocked by fallen trees and uprooted bushes. I know that there have been some half - hearted attempts to permanently remove the foliage alongside the track in the past, but this has not really worked. The trouble is that South Eastern Trains blame Railtrack, who run and operate the infrastructure. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything - they just point fingers at each other. This is one instance when an overall umbrella organisation that would be responsible for the railway from end to end would be preferable. It's not going to happen, as there are too many vested interests - and too many fingers in the pie. The commuter comes very much at the bottom of the list of priorities - as in South East London / North Kent there is no alternative to using the train to get into London on a daily basis.  Commuters cannot "vote with their feet" as is the case in some other parts of the country - and the railway companies know it. 
I came across the advert above in an old map of Erith that I have had for absolutely ages. It was old when I was given it. Hedley Mitchell was the largest and by far the most important shop in the old Victorian Erith town centre. It was the towns' department store, and as large and grand as Hides in Bexleyheath. Many older local residents recall Hedley Mitchell with great affection. The store had a very high reputation for formal service. It was the first building to be demolished when work began to create the new (and subsequently much hated) brutalist concrete shopping centre in 1966. In fact the first act of demolition was carried out by the then Deputy Mayor, Councillor Mrs M Barron, ceremoniously smashed the window of Hedley Mitchell's store to mark the commencement of the demolition of Erith Town Centre to make way for redevelopment. As a consequence, all the existing Victorian buildings were lost. With hindsight, this was a terrible mistake - the existing town centre should have been sympathetically restored. I gather that this was considered, but would have cost too much money; instead they built a relatively cheap but undeniably ugly replacement out of bare concrete. I don't know anyone who had a good word to say about it. Consequently a lot of businesses upped sticks and moved to Bexleyheath or Northumberland Heath, and it is only now, nearly fifty years later that much of the social and economic damage is being put right. The current Erith Riverside Shopping Centre is actually a very clever redesign of the much hated sixties structure, rather than a ground up new build, but it has been done with taste and sensitivity - something entirely missing in the original, which was a smelly and soulless concrete monstrosity, detested by all.

I feel that 2014 will see the end of BlackBerry; the phone handset maker has lost its' way and is now haemorrhaging cash in an unprecedented way. This week the company announced losses that in practical terms amount to $4.4 billion. There is no way that they can keep this up for very long. The basic problem is that RIM (Research In Motion) - the old name for BlackBerry came up with a very clever idea for a very secure, encrypted smart phone infrastructure, which was ideal for business. This was all well and good a few years ago, but the company has sat on its' laurels, and not really gone anywhere since. Nowadays modern smart phones are powerful enough to do in software what that BlackBerry does in dedicated hardware, and the whole BlackBerry advantage has now gone. They have nowhere technologically left to go, and have not brought in any innovation. They will either go under, or be bought out by a competitor.

2014 will mark the sad 100th anniversary if the start of the First World War. Erith had a major contribution to this pointless and wasteful conflict; much of the ammunition and small arms used by the allies were manufactured in Erith and Crayford at the factories of Vickers. It is unfortunate to say that the area profited greatly from the Great War; it is debated that the relatively short lived tram system would have shut down earlier, had it not been for the influx of trade due to the large number of workers using it to travel to and from the arms factories. This week, English Heritage announced that they had finally identified a German WW1 era submarine that has been laid up on the Kentish coast for almost a century. Marine archaeologists have conducted research into the wreck of the submarine, which is located on a small creek off the River Medway - a place called Humble Bee Creek, near to the Isle of Grain. It is visible at low tide, and it is possible to visit, though one would need to use caution, as well as a good pair of wellies! The boat (only submarines are referred to as boats, all other navy vessels are ships) was originally called UB-122, and was commanded by Oberleutnant zue see Alexander Magnus, and was formally surrendered at the end of WW1, where it was towed by the Royal Navy to Halling in Kent, where the submarines' diesel engines were removed and installed in a local cement works. The rest of the vessel was then towed further downriver, towards a yard where it was to be further broken up. During the towing process, the lines connecting the submarine to the tug parted, and the submarine went adrift, eventually coming to rest at the aforementioned Humble Bee Creek, where it remains to this day. The submarine was one of the most advanced of its' day - a type UBIII coastal patrol vessel which was launched in February 1918 from a shipyard in Bremen. It carried a crew of 34 sailors and a total of ten torpedoes, and had a cruising range of just under nine thousand miles. Nowadays it is just a rusting skeleton, but part of the regions' maritime heritage.

The ending video this week is something special; it is a web only mini episode of "Sherlock". It is a prequel to the start of series three, which begins on New Year's Day. It shows what Sherlock was up to in the two years between him faking his death and then re - appearing in London. When you watch it, please don't let the fact that Germany does not use the jury system for deciding court cases put you off - as the foreman says, the case was held under exceptional circumstances. It provides a fascinating preview for the new series, which promises to have huge viewing figures. See what you think below, and feel free to leave a comment, or Email me directly to

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