Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Erith Odeon.


The two photos above were taken from exactly the same location, but separated by exactly thirty years of time. The upper photo was taken in May 1985, and shows the old Art Deco Erith Odeon cinema, which by that time had been converted into a Mecca Bingo hall. Built for the Oscar Deutsch chain of Odeon Theatres Ltd. The Odeon Cinema was opened on 26th February 1938 with Barbara Stanwyck in "Stella Dallas". Located on the corner of High Street and James Watt Way, the huge frontage was entirely covered in glazed tiles, broken only by long narrow window, just above the canopy. To the left of the facade was an impressive sweptback 65 feet high fin-tower, which became a landmark in the town centre. Inside the striking Art Deco style auditorium, seating was provided for 826 in the stalls and 420 in the circle. On each side of the proscenium were panels with horizontal bands, that were back-lit. There were a series of decorative plaster bands along the ceiling towards the proscenium, which were broken only by a daylight fitting in the centre of the ceiling. The Odeon was taken over by the Independent Classic Cinemas Ltd. chain on 10th December 1967, and was re-named Classic Cinema. The Classic Cinema was twinned from 16th September 1973, with a 1,000 seat Mecca Bingo Club operating in the former stalls area, and a 400 seat cinema in the former circle, which opened with Glenda Jackson in "A Touch of Class". Classic Cinemas leased the entire building to Mecca Ltd. from 3rd January 1974, and the cinema was re-named Mecca Cinema. The Mecca Cinema was closed on 25th September 1976 with Robin Askwith in "Confessions of a Driving Instructor" and Anthony Sharp in "House of Mortal Sin". The building was de-twinned and the Mecca Bingo Club took over the stalls and circle levels from November 1976. In 1995, it was taken over by the independent Jasmine Bingo Club chain, and was closed on 4th February 1996. The building was boarded-up and lay unused until late 2002, when it was demolished. A block of retail / office units and flats was built on the site in 2005, which you can see in the lower photograph. It was a great pity that the original cinema building could not have been retained; I know that at the time there was much talk of the building having a Grade II* listed status, due to the architectural importance of the design. I understand that matters came to a head when large quantities of blue asbestos were found in the structure. I have to say they the building that replaces it has some very pleasant apartments which overlook the River Thames. If you would like to see more photographs of the old Erith Odeon, both inside and out, then click here for an album of period pictures - the May 1985 image above is used with the permission of the copyright holder. The lower image was taken by me last week.

After a degree of uncertainty, I can now confirm that Erith Fun Day 2015 will be taking place in the Erith Riverside Gardens on Saturday the 18th of July. More details in the coming weeks; for now you can visit the Erith Fun Day Facebook page here.

I get annoyed when I see some of the talkbacks on websites such as the News Shopper. There seems to be a small coterie of individuals who comment on pretty much any and every story, usually with remarks that are overtly derogatory. There have recently been some particularly nasty comments about a couple of people I would rather not identify, and I am surprised that the News Shopper editorial team have not taken the remarks down. Quite often these trolls will become active whenever Erith is mentioned in a story – they seem to take some kind of cheap thrill in bad mouthing the town and those (like me ) who live there. The fact that Erith is an up and coming place that is undergoing dynamic regeneration seems to escape them – all they can see is what they erroneously consider to be a run-down dump full of thieves and chavs. Sure, Erith has a dark side – find a town in the UK that doesn’t? I can certainly vouch that in the years I have lived in Erith, the place has got better and better. What disappointed me earlier this week was a news story which fed directly into the prejudices of the News Shopper talkback trolls. Three men from Erith were jailed for theft and fraud after large scale raids by Met police.  Kevin Lang, 37, of Sun Court was sentenced to 12 months in prison for fraud, after trying to sell his own driving licence, passport and other ID documents including birth certificates.  George Evans, 30, of Bridge Road was sentenced to 8 months in prison for theft, after stealing iPads, sat navs and tools from vehicles. Michael Ozdal, 32, of Slade Green Road was sentenced to 10 months in prison for theft and fraud.  He was accused of stealing sat navs, an iPad, tools, an iPhone, and supplying bank cards and a passport intended to be used to commit fraud. The numpties deserve their custodial sentences.  All three men were arrested on March 24 when police raided 53 homes in Bexley, Lewisham, Greenwich and Bromley. They stole the electronic kit from parked cars and vans, and by breaking into private property, and they fully deserve jail.  It just galls me that these crooks play into the hands of those who would like to tarnish all Erith residents with the same brush. I predict that the town will experience a economic and social boost over the next five years or so that will force the naysayers to eat their words.



If you have taken a 99 bus recently, you may have noticed a subtle difference in the bus itself. Whilst they look very similar to the widely liked Alexander Dennis Enviro 400 models (photo above - click for a larger view) that have been used on the route since 2011, they seem to operate in a somewhat different manner. When the bus comes to a halt, the engine cuts out completely. When the bus subsequently pulls away from the bus stop, it travels for a few seconds in complete silence, before the diesel engine cuts back in. It is fairly obvious that the drivetrain of the bus uses some form of hybrid system. As a regular passenger on the 99 route, and as someone who has an interest in engineering, I did a bit of research. Here is what I found; the new buses are using an energy storage system they call Gyrodrive. I found the details on a bus engineering website “Working with Williams Hybrid Power and GKN on an £18m project to bring Formula 1 technology to buses, ADL has plans to introduce a Gyrodrive parallel hybrid system that uses an electro-mechanical composite flywheel as an energy store. For OEM or retrofit installation, the system has been trialled at Millbrook and in service with savings of 25% predicted from it. Unlike other flywheel systems, there is no direct mechanical link required between the flywheel and the rest of the system, which means it can be mounted wherever best suits, and there is also no complex continuously variable transmission (CVT) required. Costs are expected to be cheaper than a battery in whole life terms with the flywheel unit only requiring bearings every six years or so at a cost of around £1,000. On an Enviro400 the power electronics and flywheel energy store are located in the saloon under a pair of double seats, with the electric machine (a flywheel running at 36,000rpm) and its transfer box mounted on the prop shaft. Ken said that field trials on vehicles retrofitted with the device would be running in the fourth quarter of this year with OEM fit vehicles scheduled for 2015. He confirmed that other applications for Gyrodrive were being looked at. “ The document was dated early 2014, so the prediction of rolling Gyrodrive out in 2015 would appear to have been accurate. I can understand local bus operators opting for a fairly basic form of hybrid power. When you consider the capital outlay to replace part or whole of a bus fleet, the expense would run into many millions. I recall that well over a year ago I saw a prototype fuel cell powered bus, stopped in Bexley Road, at the junction with Cross Street in front of Erith Riverside Shopping Centre. The bus was immobile, and a couple of bus fitters were standing outside. I went across and asked then what the problem was, as the bus was blocking nearly all traffic from the bus halt in front of the shopping centre. One of the blokes looked a bit embarrassed when he told me that the Fuel Cell powered bus had broken down, and at that time they could not get it to move. He explained that the on board computer had crashed, which had locked the drive unit into park, and had locked on all of the brakes. The only thing still working were the emergency flashers. I left the pair as they tried to reboot the bus. This is the kind of scenario that the bus companies cannot afford to see happening in production buses – the incident I saw was very much just a test run. Fuel cell powered buses have been operated on routes in central London for several years  - usually out of the Waterloo garage. They have not been widely taken up, mainly due to the huge capital outlay that such technology costs, and also because very few places are licenced to store the liquid Hydrogen the fuel cells require. The upside of Hydrogen fuel cells is that the only exhaust they release is water vapour – steam. They are totally clean and don't require charging like conventional electric vehicles. I think that in the coming years, legislation will change making fuel – cell powered vehicles of all kinds much more financially attractive to own and operate – especially in the case of public service vehicles. In the meantime it would seem that the pragmatic bus operators are now taking the first steps towards that goal. Next time you go on a bus, listen as it stops – does the engine cut out, only to smoothly cut back in as it draws away? If it does, it almost certainly uses some type of hybrid system – quite possibly the Gyrodrive system described above. On another note, you may recall that I mentioned seeing a Tesla Model S electric car recently in Upper Belvedere; I have since discovered that the owner works in Canada Square, Canary Wharf, and makes good use of the free dedicated Tesla recharging point in the underground car park beneath Waitrose / John Lewis in Canada Square. I used to be deeply sceptical about zero emission vehicles – mainly because of the woeful G-Wiz that one used to see limping around central London for a few years. The G-Wiz may still be in production (from what I have been able to ascertain, they are built in a shed in India) but they are ugly, slow, badly built, short ranged death traps. The G-Wiz is exempt from most European road safety legislation, as it is not legally regarded as being a car – instead it is a “heavy quadricycle” rather than a car. Consequently there have been a number of horrendous accidents involving other vehicles and a G-Wiz, with the pitiful electric cart invariably coming off far worse. In 2010, a fatal accident in London occurred between a G-Wiz and a ┼ákoda Octavia, with the driver of the G-Wiz, a top British scientist named Judit Nadal, being killed. The coroner Andrew Walker was quoted as saying about the G-Wiz at the inquest: “What concerns me is that this vehicle was destroyed in this collision in a way that I have not seen a vehicle destroyed before.” The G-Wiz thankfully discontinued back in 2012, but you can still see the occasional model trundling around the City and West End, doing an impression of an asthmatic milk float with a body like a bad dodgem car. All this, along with Top Gear voting the G-Wiz one of the worst new cars of the last twenty years has not done much for the image and acceptability of vehicles powered by renewable energy. All this is now about to change. The Tesla S is stunning to look at, beautifully built, uses the latest cutting edge engineering technology, has a decent range and a luxurious interior – and on top of that it goes like stink. Once you have seen one in the flesh you will appreciate what I mean – in photos the Tesla S looks a little on the bland side, but when you stand next to one that all changes – it is beautiful, with a hint of Jaguar and BMW from certain angles; I had the opportunity to study one up close on Friday night, courtesy of local businessman Vik, who I bumped into in Morrison's car park with his brand new top of the range 700 horsepower 4 wheel drive Tesla-S P85D. It is manufactured in a dedicated facility in California, but it does not look overtly American – the quality of the interior materials feel more European – like an Audi. They are available in the UK with right hand drive. Check out the road test video below and see what you think. The Tesla S model is certainly not cheap – it is aimed at the same affluent professional who might otherwise buy a Mercedes E – Class or a BMW 5 – Series, but it is the first truly credible electric car that a driver or passenger has to make absolutely no concessions to own – see what you think.



The World Snooker Championship finals took place last weekend, and there was extensive coverage of it on both BBC 2 and Eurosport. I noticed that Steve Davis, former multiple snooker world champion was one of the commentators. Whilst he apparently lives in Brentwood in Essex nowadays, he lived for many years in Danson Road, opposite Danson Park in one of the big white Art Deco mansions. I can recall that at the height of his fame in the 1980’s he could often be seen on a Sunday morning outside of his home, washing and polishing his numerous and rather flashy 1950’s American cars. He had definitely moved up in the world, even if he'd only moved a couple of miles from where he was born and brought up, in Plumstead. I have heard tales (which I have been unable to verify the accuracy) that Steve Davis used to practice relatively anonymously at the Erith Snooker Centre in Pier Road. If anyone has any information about what does sound to me suspiciously like a bit of an urban myth, can they drop me a line to hugh.neal@gmail.com.

Veteran readers may recall that I first talked about the forthcoming Paramount Theme Park back in October 2012. Now the local press seem to finally be picking up on what quite possibly will be the biggest story to hit the region in a couple of decades. The Paramount Theme Park will, if planning permission is granted, be built on the site of the derelict quarry site at Swanscombe, which has got to be excellent news for the entire region, if not the country as a whole. The proposed site features Europe’s largest indoor water park, theatres, hotels, restaurants and all manner of themed rides, all in a site spread over approximately 110 acres in the core resort, with another 600 acres surrounding; allowing for typical British weather, over seventy percent of the attractions will be under cover. The bill (at least now, but it is bound to escalate) is estimated to be in the region of £2 billion, and the park will employ 27,000 people, many of them from the local area. If this plan gets the green light next week (and I seriously doubt it won’t) it will be a massive boost for the economy for the whole of North Kent and South East London. Much of this story is detailed on the News Shopper website here. What amazes me (quite apart from my usual misgivings about the quality of talkbacks and lack of moderation on their website) is the naysayers who are already moaning about the increase in traffic and likely disruption that the construction work will undoubtedly cause. These small minded people seem to completely miss the fact that the park will be a complete economic game changer for an area that will encompass a vast swathe of the South East of England. Once the park is built and running there will be all sorts of permanent jobs needed to keep the place ticking over – electricians, security, engineers, cleaners, administrators – the list is as long as your imagination. The concept is to produce an attraction so large and absorbing that it will take a visitor around three days to see everything. It seems that the planners have been very clever in their thinking; they realise that much of the new economic growth is coming from China and the Far East. They realise that tourists coming a long distance will think “we can go to Disneyland Paris and Paramount London in a one – week holiday”. The planners  chose Northfleet, as the area has excellent road and rail connections, is only forty minutes or so by rail from the coast, and is on the rail route to London. It also helps that the land in and around Northfleet is dirt cheap brown field stuff that would be excellent for a change of use as a theme park. It is also apparent that Paramount are very keen to capitalise on the franchises that they own; as well as American shows such as  Star Trek and Mission Impossible, they also have licenced very typically British franchises such as Sherlock, The Italian Job, Spooks, Dr Who, Wallace and Gromit, and Shaun the Sheep from the likes of Ardman Animations and the BBC. I note that the Top Gear franchise is not mentioned anywhere – as it has probably been excised from the planning documentation following the recent controversy. The feeling I get from reading the documentation is that Paramount want to present a very British feeling amusement park experience – they are not trying to emulate Disney, rather to make something with a unique and British identity. I would imagine the success of the Harry Potter Experience may well have stimulated this approach, though the Potter park will be miniscule in comparison with the Paramount London site. The Paramount planners conservatively estimate that the park would attract around ten million visitors in the first year, and around fifteen million a year by the fifth, when there are more rides on offer. By way of comparison, Thorpe Park pulls in about two and a half million visitors a year.  On top of the money visitors will bring into the region, there are the aforementioned new jobs that will result both directly and indirectly from the park. It is estimated the beneficial financial impact of the park will stretch from Greenwich to Dover, with thousands of permanent jobs being created both in the park itself, and in industries that service both the park, and the park workers themselves. I think in inconceivable that it will get denied planning permission – what do you think? Leave a comment below, or Email me at hugh.neal@gmail.com.


The Woolwich Ferry seems to be experiencing regular mechanical failures at present - this week all three vessels have been out of action for much of the time; In many ways this is not unexpected. The three vessels that make up the Woolwich Ferry fleet were all built in a shipyard in Dundee in 1963, and having been in almost continuously in service for over fifty years. They must be very close to wearing out by now, however carefully they are maintained. The ferry provides a vital transport link across the River Thames – it is less important for pedestrians nowadays, since the Docklands Light Railway extension to Woolwich Arsenal opened back in 2009, but for vehicles and especially oversized freight vehicles that cannot get through the Rotherhithe or Blackwall tunnels it is vital, unless they wish a detour via central London (with the associated congestion charge) or out to Dartford and the crossing there, with the toll.  The ferry service provides one of the few available crossings of the River Thames east of London. Although there are seventeen river crossings in the twenty miles west of Tower Bridge, there are only three river crossings  the same distance east. As long as there is a demand for a vehicle ferry it is unlikely to be discontinued, and it would require changing an 1885 Act of Parliament to do so. The spectre of the two proposed new tunnels under the Thames at Gallions Reach and Lower Belvedere loom large over the Woolwich Ferry. Whilst nothing concrete has yet been agreed in respect of new river crossings, the fact remains there is a massive imbalance in the number of crossings between the East and West sides of the city.  The need for additional cross – Thames transport links is nothing new; the issue has been at the forefront of both politicians and civil engineers since Roman times. The first tunnel to be built under the River Thames was actually the first tunnel to be built under a river anywhere. Back in 1843, a 396 metre long tunnel at Rotherhithe was constructed by Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the first to have been successfully built underneath a navigable river. It was the first tunnel to utilise the innovative tunnelling shield technique invented by Marc and Isambard that is still used to build tunnels today, although now huge tunnel boring machines do the hard work instead of hundreds of men. The tunnel was a marvel of engineering, and made underground transportation around the world a possibility, all because of the tunnel shielding method invented by Marc Isambard Brunel. Before his innovation, tunnels had been attempted twice before beneath the Thames, but had failed because of the soft clay, quicksand and flooding that collapsed the efforts, leading to loss of life, and bankruptcy for the tunnelling companies. The tunnelling shield was a sort of cage structure that was pushed to the front of the tunnel. In the original design, men in the cages would dig forward a little, while those behind were shoring up the tunnel by building its walls. The design was later improved by engineers working for the railway companies building the London Underground and still forms the basic idea behind modern tunnel boring machines. Despite the vast improvement in methodology, digging the Thames Tunnel was still a dangerous job; one in which Isambard himself, working as an engineer for his father, nearly died. He was the only survivor of the second major flood of the tunnel in 1828, when six men died. Half-drowned, he was sent to Bristol to convalesce and here he designed his first individual project, the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Back then, labourers would spent two hours at a time digging, often while also being gassed and showered with excrement (the Victorian Thames was an open sewer, and vastly more polluted than nowadays). As it was constructed, the tunnel was constantly waterlogged, leading to a build-up of effluent and methane gas. The result was that not only would miners pass out from inhaling the noxious gas – even if they didn’t, men who re-surfaced were left senseless after their two-hour shift – but there were also explosions as the gas was set alight by the miners’ candles. All in all it was an extremely hazardous place in which to work. The hard work paid off; once the tunnel was completed, it opened to some fanfare. Originally intended as a means of getting cargo across what was then a hugely trafficked river, the Thames Tunnel ran out of money before it was able to build the extended entrance necessary to get horses and carts underground. Instead, the tunnel was opened for pedestrian use in 1843. It quickly became a major tourist attraction, with two million people a year paying a penny to walk through. It sounds pretty successful, but Londoners were also paying a penny to use any of the other ways to cross the Thames and the tunnel – tolls were charged whichever way you wished to cross the river back then. The Brunel foot tunnel was new and daring, this was seen as pretty risky way – literally walking underneath the River Thames. To try to scare up some more payback for the massive investment, the tunnel opened up some of the very first tourist souvenir shops, selling Thames Tunnel memorabilia and souvenirs like cups and plates – so you could prove you were brave enough not only to walk through the tunnel, but to stop and browse along the way. As time went on, the seedier side of Victorian London started to reckon a dark, underground tunnel might be the perfect place to conduct some nefarious business, and the numbers of respectable tourists declined. Various projects to make more money out of it were tried, including turning it into what must have a been a fantastical underground fairground to attract even more visitors, before it was sold to the East London Railway Company in 1865. A part of the original tunnel is still visible today if you look  down the line from Wapping station towards Rotherhithe. A fascinating piece of historic construction – and worth remembering the next time you drive through the Dartford Tunnel, which along with nearly all modern tunnels around the world, was built using with engineering techniques developed by Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Rotherhithe in the early 1860’s.

After all of the press coverage and hoo - ha about the general election last week, I did some digging about on YouTube; I came across this silent footage of the 1965 Erith and Crayford by - election. What is remarkable in this fifty year old footage is although some places have changed, much of the area is remarkably recognisable today. The footage shows James Wellbeloved, who went on to be a long serving Labour, and later Social Democrat MP for the area. He was highly regarded by many local people - including a number who would class themselves as Conservative voters. Give this slice of local history a watch - it is fascinating stuff; and as mentioned, there is no sound on the clip.

1 comment:

  1. Re the 99 bus. The same system has been fitted to the 472 which runs from Thamesmead Town Centre to the O2 in Greenwich. I was a bit shocked the first time I encountered it when returning from Woolwich last year. After pulling up at the next bus stop, I was left wondering why the driver had switched of the engine.

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