Sunday, February 09, 2014

Erith KFC 24/7?

On Thursday afternoon I was walking along Manor Road, past the KFC Drive Through (not "Thru" as it says on the sign - their branding team are imbeciles)  when I happened to see a notice in the window of the fast food outlet. I am always curious about such things, so I went down the steps to the entrance in order to more closely investigate. Quite a lot of the stories I publish come from carefully checking planning applications, either directly posted in the street, or submitted to Bexley Council's labyrinthine planning website. What I saw was a copy of a licencing application that the company that owns the KFC franchise has recently submitted to Bexley Council. What I saw horrified me. You can see a photograph of the application below. Apologies for the glare and reflections - the light was not the best.

In essence, the store wants to increase its opening hours to include the period between 11pm and 5am seven days a week. Apart from an hour or so closed in the evening, and another hour after 5am, presumably to allow cleaning, this would in effect mean that the drive through would be permanently open to customers. If they were to succeed in their application, there would be a constant stream of drunks, druggies, violent criminals and all sorts of anti social undesirables brought into what is a fundamentally residential area. You may think I am over - reacting, but if one looks at what has happened to the nearby existing 24/7 fast food drive through - the McDonald's at Plumstead, which is in a far more suitable location (opposite the Plumstead Bus Garage, next to the Post Office sorting office, and well away from any residential housing), they have had to employ around the clock security guards due to constant problems of alcohol and drug related violence, anti social behaviour and all sorts of other associated criminality. What makes the situation in Manor Road even worse is that the KFC is directly opposite a McDonald's Drive Through. If the KFC succeeds, the McDonald's will be forced to also open 24/7 in order to compete. The McDonald's backs directly onto the Compton Place housing estate - and I am sure that local residents will have a lot to say on the subject. The KFC itself is directly opposite the block of flats on what used to be the site of Erith Odeon (a grade II* listed Art Deco building that was illegally demolished by the developers of the current flats), and it backs onto what used to be Erith Trades and Social Club, which has just been demolished to make way for key worker apartments. There are also houses that form part of Compton Place opposite the front of the fast food outlet; basically it is hemmed in on three sides by residential accommodation. I have had a chat with my contact in the local Police - and they are not happy about the planning application. Apart from the concerns already mentioned, there is apparently a history of burglars parking vans in drive through restaurant car parks, before the occupants go off to burgle nearby houses. An unusual van parked in a street or cul de sac attracts attention, but a van parked in a drive through does not, thus enabling them to break into a number of houses, then bring their stolen booty back to the van before making another sortie, undisturbed. I am also led to understand that both the McDonald's and KFC car parks are used to conduct drug deals from time to time. If you have strong feelings about the matter, it is possible to log an online complaint by clicking on this link to the Bexley Council Licencing Complaints Website. Whatever your personal opinion of the large fast food chains like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King, for example, one can at least say that if you are in an unfamiliar town and find yourself in need of sustenance, visiting one of the large fast food chains will mean that you will know what you will get, and the standard of cooking and food hygiene will be consistently high. The food itself may well be bland and uninspiring, but reliability is often the key. I was therefore extremely surprised that the Erith drive through branch of McDonald’s currently has a “Scores on the Doors” food hygiene rating of only two out of five stars. For an organisation that prides itself on cleanliness and good ingredient handling practices, this is a real blow. In their defence, McDonald’s have issued the following public statement:- “The management team had recently changed resulting in a breakdown in the supervision of the cleanliness system.  The areas highlighted in the inspection have now been rectified and the cleaning system has been re-implemented”. I am certain that things will have markedly improved now, several months after the last inspection, but it does beg the question, how could a multinational mega brand allow one of its stores get into a position that it can only rate a two out of five star rating? It is immaterial whether the store is company owned or a franchise – the standards expected are identical. The damage to the McDonald’s brand should such information become widely known is difficult to calculate, but it certainly would not be good. It is ironic that a two star rating in Erith is actually at the upper end of the high ratings – pretty much anywhere else has one or no stars, with the notable exception of the Mambocino coffee shop / cafe, and the T-Bone Cafe in Fraser Road, both of which score a very creditable four stars out of five. I will have to take a look to see if McDonald’s have their pitiful rating sticker on display. Something tells me that would be very unlikely.

This Wednesday marked a very important date that remarkably few people are aware of. It was the seventieth anniversary of the switching on of Colossus – the World’s first programmable digital computer. On the 5th of February 1944, the MK1 Colossus attacked its first cipher challenge. Contrary to some erroneous accounts, Colossus was not used to break the German Enigma code – that work was done on a separate set of electromechanical analogue computers called Bombes. What Colossus did was crack the daily key settings of an even more fiendishly complicated code system called Lorenz, which was exclusively used by the Nazi High Command to communicate with each other. Colossus was designed and built by a team headed by an amazing electronic engineer called Tommy Flowers, who was born and raised the son of a bricklayer in Poplar, East London. Flowers was ferociously intelligent, and whilst an  apprentice electrician at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, he undertook  evening classes at the University of London, where he was awarded a BSc in Electrical Engineering. He later became the head of the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill, where prior to the war he was instrumental in the design of the first automatic telephone exchange. I have a personal connection with this piece of history; my late Great Uncle Horace worked in the Dollis Hill Research Station during the war. We know very little of his wartime experiences, but we do know that as well as being exempted from military service, he was also exempted from Home Guard or fire watching duties, which was extremely unusual at the time. He never said anything about what he had been doing, but it remains likely he was part of Tommy Flowers’ Colossus design and construction team, which was the most secret allied project of the war, classified even higher than the Manhattan Project to create the first nuclear weapons. Colossus was an amazing feat of engineering - It occupied the size of a living room (7 ft high by 17 ft wide and 11 ft deep), weighed five tonnes, and used 8kW of power. It incorporated 2,500 valves, 501 of which are thyraton switches, about 100 logic gates and 10,000 resistors connected by 7 km of wiring. Reading 5000 characters per second (faster than anything ever produced commercially), Colossus found the start wheel positions of Lorenz-encrypted messages to enable the decryption of 63 million characters. Typically, it took Colossus up to four hours to establish the start wheel positions of messages. It is often surmised that the Allies might have been reading some of the decrypted messages even before they reached Nazi High Command. By the end of the war, 63 million characters of high-grade German messages had been decrypted by the 550 people working on the ten functioning Colossi at Bletchley Park. After the war, some of the Colossi were destroyed, and the remaining ones moved to GCHQ, where it is said they were in operation until the mid 1970’s. By the early 1980’s the story of Bletchley Park and the Colossus computer was finally coming out, after over thirty years of total secrecy. Great Uncle Horace never said a word, and it is to my great regret that we only discovered after his death what may have been his involvement with the astonishing feat which has gone on to change the world. Up until very recently I would have recommended Bletchley Park as an ideal day out for anyone with an interest in history, computers, radio, or who just wants a day out somewhere with lovely formal gardens and a picturesque lake. Things have changed, however. It used to be that visitors could pay a one – off entrance fee, which would grant them access to all of the facilities in the grounds of Bletchley Park; there was a motor museum, a museum dedicated to Winston Churchill memorabilia, the National Radio Centre (run by the Radio Society of Great Britain, of which I am an inductee) an old fashioned post office and a model railway. On top of this, the two main attractions were the main Bletchley Park House and the surrounding huts, used by the wartime code breakers, and the National Museum of Computing, home to the rebuilt Colossus. Recently a new Chief Executive was appointed by Bletchley Park Trust (the charity which has overall responsibility for the place). The new chap, called Ian Standen has decided that he wants to turn the park into the “Disneyland of code breaking”. He’s closed down the Churchill Museum, and made every facility except the main house and the huts an extra entrance fee, and also fired a number of the volunteer curators for not being “on message” despite the fact that many of the volunteers worked at Bletchley Park, or later at GCHQ and have an intimate personal knowledge of the history of the place. Instead he wants to use actors to play "characters" loosely based on real life people to guide visitors around the museum. To add insult to injury, he has had the National Museum of Computing fenced off and excluded from guided tours, even though the huts they occupy were an integral part of the original organisational setup. Visitors now have to navigate a series of gates and pay an additional fee to enter the computing section, even if all they want to do is see the Tony Sale Colossus computer rebuild (as pictured above), which to be honest is the focal point for any visit to Bletchley Park. As you may appreciate, these changes, which are designed to create additional visitor revenue may well have done exactly the opposite. A campaign is now under way to get Ian Standen sacked, and the whole Bletchley Park setup returned to how it originally was established. The campaign are currently trying to recruit Stephen Fry as their figurehead, and from what I have read, they already have a huge amount of support, both from visitors and the IT industry. At present Bletchley Park is being torn apart by a small coterie of people who have no appreciation or understanding of the place, and merely want to turn a quick buck. The place is not an amusement park; it is a British technological and cultural institution that should be treated with suitable dignity. I suspect that the “re – organisation” will be cut short by those who really care about Bletchley Park. In the meantime I would urge readers to boycott the place in order to send a message to the likes of Ian Standen that he cannot play fast and loose with a national treasure, where the wartime code breakers shortened the war by an estimated two years, saved countless lives and in so doing created the computer revolution. You can see an online album of photos of Bletchley Park by clicking here.

The News Shopper are reporting that the Crossrail tunnel from just outside of Plumstead Station going Northwards under the River Thames to North Greenwich has now been completed. Around seventy percent of the Crossrail project has now been completed, and I understand not only that, but the work has been done on time and on budget. Although seventy percent of the tunnelling is completed, the full project is at the halfway point. There are many stations to be built, and infrastructure to be commissioned too. Crossrail are opening some of their building sites to the general public, who will be able to view the progress of work for themselves. You can visit their website here to book free tickets for a number of events.  The Crossrail project is a massive venture; it is costing £73 billion, and employing around 10,000 people, including 280 apprentices.

Following my musing on local bespoke tailors nowadays and in history, another skilled craft came to my attention recently. Whilst putting together each Maggot Sandwich weekly update, I sit in my dedicated home office in front of my iMac. I have a very comfortable orthopaedic chair which originally belonged to my late Dad. He gave it to me years before he got seriously ill; I must have had it for around fifteen years I guess. The chair was custom made for him by what used to be the orthopaedic department of the now long defunct New Cross Hospital when he had a hip replacement operation. Even though the chair was custom made for him, he never really took to it, and it remained only occasionally employed, until he gave it to me. I have used it daily ever since. Nowadays the chair is looking very shabby; the black vinyl seat covering is split, and the foam stuffing is visible; it would be very easy for me to go out and buy a new office chair for around £70 or so, but not only has my old chair got sentimental connections, apart from needing re – upholstering, the thing is in very good order. There are still a few professional furniture upholsterers around, and last Saturday morning I turned up at the door of Perry’s Upholsterers at Plumstead Corner. The shop has been there for as long as I can recall. The owner was very open and friendly, took a quick look at my chair, and immediately said that he would be happy to restore it, but there was a six month waiting list for his services! I was gobsmacked – I had (incorrectly) assumed that very few people would require the services of an upholsterer. I thought that most people would have rather gone out and purchased a new three – piece suite from DFS or Land of Leather, rather than having their existing one professionally rebuilt. How wrong I was. The proprietor informed me that he gets a lot of work, as there is still a demand for furniture refurbishment and recovering, there are really only two high class upholsterers in the borough, and demand for their services is very high. He went on to say that when he first started, as apprentice to his father some thirty odd years ago, there was a lot of competition and prices were low in order to win work; now the opposite is true – prices are high, competition low and waiting lists long. This seems to resonate with my story about the rarity of the bespoke tailor in UK society nowadays. Back in 1939, Burton’s had opened a bespoke tailors shop in Erith High Street, and you could get a custom made suit for 45 shillings (£2.50 equivalent).  Local Historian Ken Chamberlain has memories of the place being extremely impressive, and sent me the advert with the very dashing looking chap in the photo above - click on the image for a larger view. I notice that the sharp styling is heavily influenced by American fashions of the time – wide shoulders and a narrow waist – a look that featured in many period gangster movies which were very popular then. Regular Maggot Sandwich reader Lance has been doing some investigations into the comparative cost of pre – WW2 bespoke tailoring compared with now, and has come up with some interesting findings. Lance writes:-“ Did a couple of quick comparisons against 1938 cost of living.  Firstly multiples of a loaf of bread.  In 1938 that was 2p or 6 to the shilling, so 26 shillings gives us 156 loaves of bread or at today’s price of £1.50 it’s £234.00. Secondly fractions of the price of a house.  In 1938 the average house price was £600 and 26 shillings is 1.3 pounds so 600/1.3 is 462.  Today’s average house price is £240,000 divided by 462 is £519.00 . Gives us a range between £234 and £519, which would fit in with your hypothesis about bespoke tailoring being relatively more affordable”. Interesting stuff indeed, as a bespoke man’s suit from Sidcup based Mold and Russell with set you back something in the region of £950 today, depending on material and finish.

Regular readers may recall that back in August last year, I mourned the closure of my favourite restaurant, which had been serving authentic home – style curries in Brick Lane since 1969. Sweet and Spicy closed its doors for the final time due to a massive increase in both rent and business rates, levied by Tower Hamlets Council. Sweet and Spicy catered mainly to the Bangladeshi and Pakistani local residents, rather than the tourists that most of the other more mainstream establishments in Brick Lane attract. It would appear that Sweet and Spicy may have just been the first of many food outlets to close – as the rules created and enforced by the council have suddenly been changed. The Evening Standard are reporting that many of the curry houses in Brick Lane have licences that allow them to serve food and drink until one or two AM on weekdays. The council have a bye law that says that no “sit down” restaurant  in Tower Hamlets can admit customers after eleven PM, and that all restaurants must be closed by midnight, or the owners would be faced by a fine of £20,000. They say that this ruling overrides the terms of the food and drink licensing, though I understand that this has yet to be legally challenged. Understandably many local restaurant owners are up in arms over this issue – they regard it as a restraint of trade, as the Brick Lane Restaurant Association say that on average, restaurants get around a third of their total income from sales made after midnight, and a curfew would mean that many of the sixty restaurants in Brick Lane would be forced to close for good. Tower Hamlets Council say that the midnight curfew is to stop “anti social behaviour”. I suspect an ulterior motive on the part of the council – when I first started visiting Brick Lane in the mid nineties, it was still home to the rag trade, with many small “sweat shop” factories, and trade outlet shops selling cheap clothing to vendors such as market traders. There were quite a few restaurants, but overall it was a grimy and not very welcoming place if you were not a local. Very slowly, over the intervening years, the Lane has slowly got smarter, and has become a tourist attraction dedicated almost exclusively to Indian restaurants. The area in and around Brick Lane was rebranded as “Bangla Town”, and a campaign to re-name Whitechapel tube station to Brick Lane Tube station started. Whilst this was all happening, the former Truman brewery in the lane was converted into a retail space with offices for a number of start up technology companies, and the surrounding roads, still with original crumbling Huguenot terraced houses became fashionable – one by one they were bought up and restored, and they are now some of the most desirable properties in central London. In short, the area has become gentrified. I suspect that Tower Hamlets Council are enforcing the midnight customer curfew as they actually want to drastically reduce the number of curry houses in the road; after all, the amount of Council and Business Tax that can be generated from a small but busy restaurant is limited. By killing the restaurants off, the council would be able to get property developers to move in, and thus attract wealthy foreign investors. London is already the hottest property location in the World – millionaires from places like Russia and China are attracted to the UK, and specifically London for a number of reasons: The UK is politically stable, has a very well respected legal system, and property is a very good investment, especially when foreigners may lack confidence in their own countries. As we have seen in the news not that long ago, some Russian oligarchs have been both  imprisoned and had their assets seized because they fell foul  of President Putin. Much money is flooding into the UK from foreign sources, as it is regarded as a safe haven.  I reckon that Tower Hamlets Council have realised that with some cunning dealing, they can secure a slice of this potentially lucrative cake. Please feel to leave a comment below, or email me at

The ending video is somewhat appropriate; it is a short explanatory film about Bletchley Park and the code breaking work carried out by the Colossi during World War 2. There are interviews with a number of the original operators and engineers. If my Great Uncle Horace had still been alive, it is possible that he would have featured in the documentary. Do give it a watch and please feel free to leave a comment below.


  1. Crossrail's cost isn't £73 billion. It is £14.8 billion, and only a third of that comes from central government. That £5 billion is spread over quite few years too - so it's around £500 million per year to construct. When thinking how much the government spends annually on a whole range of things (total govt budget is around £700 billion), it is an absolute bargain.

    It will bring massive benefits to commuters and business, and improve journey times and quality of life for millions. It is what Britain should have been doing far more of for the past 30 years - investing infrastructure that will have benefits for decades ahead.

  2. I heartily agree that it is an investment worth making. The figures quoted though are very inaccurate. My day job involves working for one of the "Big Four" accountancy firms; we have been extensively involved in the cost / benefit analysis for TFL and the Government. Most of the results are client confidential, but it is clear that the cash involved is far greater than has been publicly stated. Unfortunately that's about all I can say on the matter.