Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Beeb.

Refurbishment and upgrade work to Pier Square and the area around the entrance to Erith Pier has finally got under way, after several delays due the various Covid-19 lockdowns. The photos above - click on either to see a larger version - show the start of the works last week. One local reader contacted me to complain about the way the contractors employed by Bexley Council to carry out the improvement works had been acting "like a bull in a china shop" - apparently my source saw the contractor rip out two mature trees that were on the site, destroying them in the process. The trees were at least 25 years old, and if no longer required at that location, they could have been sensitively removed and relocated elsewhere. Have you noticed anything untoward regarding the works by the Pier entrance? Email me at

A new report into the health of wildlife in the River Thames has revealed that London's river, thought to be biologically dead 64 years ago, is now teeming with a variety of sea creatures. The first 'health check' of the river since then has also revealed that seahorses, oysters and seals live in the Thames alongside the venomous Spurdog shark. Spurdogs swim in shoals and have two dorsal fins which release venom. This venom can cause extreme discomfort and swelling in humans. According to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) the River Thames is now teeming with life, and supports over 115 species of fish and 92 species of bird in its almost 600 hectares of saltmarsh. Tope, Starry Smoothhound and Spurdog sharks are using the river as a nursery as adults like breeding in shallow bays and estuaries, such as those around Erith and Slade Green. Young sharks are remaining in the local area for up to two years. Critically endangered eels also seem to be making a comeback. Alison Debney, of ZSL, said: "Estuaries are one of our neglected and threatened ecosystems. This report has enabled us to really look at how far the Thames has come on its journey to recovery since it was declared biologically dead, and in some cases, set baselines to build from in the future." The temperature of the capital's waterway has risen by 0.2C per year in recent times which, combined with sea level rises, is worrying for wildlife. Yet, water quality has improved with dissolved Oxygen (DO) concentrations showing a positive, long-term increase from 2007 to 2020. The report states that less than 45% dissolved Oxygen can kill fish and impact relationships between key species that live in the river. Overall, phosphorus concentrations have decreased since the 1990s thanks to improvements at sewage treatment works, but there has been a long-term increase in nitrate concentrations which can damage wildlife. ZSL used 17 different indicators to assess the health of the Thames’s natural environment. It highlighted the impact of dedicated conservation efforts, such as the Salt Fleet Flats reserve near the mouth of the Thames on its southern bank. The mudflats and saltmarsh habitat was created in 2016 and is home to a range of wading birds. The tidal Thames supports more than 115 species of fish, 92 species of bird and has almost 600 hectares of saltmarsh, which is a crucial habitat for a range of wildlife. Locally the Slade Green and Crayford marshes and shoreline are home to a large group of seals. The Environment Agency has identified industrial and sewage waste as the main source of nitrate in London's waters. In addition, there are many chemicals of concern that are not being regularly monitored which have potentially harmful impacts on wildlife. Liz Wood-Griffiths, head of consents at Tideway, said in a press release last Tuesday-: "This report comes at a critical time and highlights the urgent need for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, known as London's new super sewer. The new sewer, which is due to be complete in 2025, is designed to capture more than 95% of the sewage spills that enter the River from London's Victorian sewer system. It will have a significant impact on the water quality, making it a much healthier environment for wildlife to survive and flourish."

The first of December will mark an important anniversary for anyone who went to secondary school in the 1980's. The date marks the fortieth anniversary of the launch of the BBC Microcomputer - better known to many contemporary schoolkids as "The Beeb". This machine, built by computer manufacturer Acorn, was used by the British Broadcasting Corporation as 'their' computer, and ended up being a premier 8-bit machine in the education and home computing sector. With it being an excellent machine for teaching BASIC programming and robust enough to last for years in the classroom, the BBC micro is surely one of the most important machines of the 8-bit generation. The BBC decided to badge a microcomputer and drew up plans for what was (at the time), an ambitious specification. During the early 1980s, the BBC started what became known as the BBC Computer Literacy Project. The project was initiated partly in response to an ITV documentary series The Mighty Micro, in which Christopher Evans of the UK's National Physical Laboratory predicted the coming microcomputer revolution and its effect on the economy, industry, and lifestyle of the United Kingdom. The BBC wanted to base its project on a microcomputer capable of performing various tasks which they could then demonstrate in the TV series The Computer Programme. The list of topics included programming, graphics, sound and music, teletext, controlling external hardware, and artificial intelligence. The introduction of a specific microcomputer to a more general computer literacy initiative was a topic of controversy, however, with criticism aimed at the BBC for promoting a specific commercial product and for going beyond the "traditional BBC pattern" of promoting existing information networks of training and education providers. Accusations were even levelled at the Department of Industry for making the BBC "an arm of Government industrial policy" and using the Computer Literacy Project as a way of "funding industry through the back door". Despite this, the BBC decided to approach a number of hardware manufacturers and see what was on offer from each of them. Sir Clive Sinclair (of ZX80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum fame) held discussions with the BBC over the matter, and offered the NewBrain micro to them. Unfortunately, the lovable 'Uncle Clive' and his offer was not taken up by the corporation. The BBC also made appointments to see several other British computer manufacturers of the era such as Acorn and Dragon. It was Acorn who eventually won out. The Acorn team had already been busy working on a follow-up machine to supersede their existing Acorn Atom computer. Known as the Proton (they always seemed to go for scientific-sounding names), the new machine had better graphics and a faster CPU (the 2 MHz MOS Technology 6502) than its' predecessor. The machine was only in prototype form at the time, but the Acorn team which was mostly made up of students, worked around the clock to get a 'Proton' machine running to demo to the BBC. When the machine was eventually demonstrated to the BBC it actually exceeded their expectations and was snapped up with barely any hesitation. The machine became very popular in the educational sector, with many schools from the top to the bottom of the UK using them as teaching tools. Despite being the equal (and in many ways a superior machine) to the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, it never had the same level of cool as those two micro computers. Perhaps part due to the name, and part due to the fact that your school most likely had them, they almost had an image of 'serious computing'; a machine for learning, for programming, for word-processing. Gaming was not really associated with the BBC computer; although this would change as more and more titles became available on it. On top of all of this, they were expensive when compared to other home computers of the era; the average cost was a wallet-busting £399, which was a serious amount of money back in the early 1980's. The machine never was the gamer's first choice, and it did not have the sheer quantity of games available for it when compared to the C64 or ZX Spectrum. To be fair no machine ever came close to the amount of Spectrum Games that were available.It was an important 8-bit machine though, and sits alongside the Amstrad CPC 464 as one of the pioneering machines of the era. The BBC micro had a decent sound chip capable of three channels over seven octaves, which could be output through a built in speaker. The model A had 16KB of RAM, the Model B sported 32KB of RAM, and the Model B+ released in 1985 sported a whopping 64KB of RAM. In it's later life there were even B+ models with a massive 128k of RAM. The model B would probably have gained more popularity with home users and game developers if it had bee blessed with more than 32KB of RAM. 64KB may very well have made a huge difference. It did have a great built-in BASIC though and other features. For instance, it was possible to change text modes and graphics modes, and the machine also had 16 colours to play with; meaning on this front it was in line with most other computers of the era. In one aspect it was certainly ahead of its time; the built-in BASIC language was very impressive, and one of the reasons why many schools used the machine as a teaching and learning tool. The computer magazine BYTE called the BBC Micro Model B "a no-compromise computer that has many uses beyond self-instruction in computer technology". It called the Tube interface "the most innovative feature" of the computer, and concluded that "although some other British microcomputers offer more features for a given price, none of them surpass the BBC ... in terms of versatility and expansion capability". The cost of the BBC Models was high compared to competitors such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, and from 1983 on Acorn attempted to counter this by producing a simplified but largely compatible version intended for home use, complementing the use of the BBC Micro in schools: the 32K Acorn Electron. This cut down computer was very late to market, missing the important 1983 Christmas sales boom, and was largely regarded as a commercial flop. One little known hardware bug in the very early BBC Model A 16K computers, was that if you attached a piece of wire a couple of feet long to the token ring network connector on the back of the computer - you would get BBC Radio 2 coming out of the speaker. Happy 40th birthday BBC Microcomputer! Your thoughts and memories of the BBC Micro should be Emailed to me at

You may recall that back in October I wrote about the new(ish) trains coming into service on local lines. They are  they are 2017 built Class 707 "City Beam" trains.  These units are more power efficient, have a much smoother ride, improved internal digital signage, and much better disabled access. The only downside of the newer units is that they do not have onboard toilets. Having said that, the toilets on the old Class 466 Networker trainis are frequently locked and out of service. I have been sent some information by regular Maggot Sandwich reader and occasional contributor Dana, with his memories of a previous class of train which operated locally, and went out of service fifty years ago. The infamous double decker trains, which those of a certain age tend to have memories - and strong opinions of. Dana writes:- "October 1st 1971 was its last day in service. Working in the West End of London I caught this train regularly and was almost certainly on the last one in 1971. Ironically my mother working in London when she was 16 would often travel on this train in its early years of service from 1949. Today only 2 carriages remain they are at present in Hawkinge Kent under restoration". The use of double-decker carriages, where feasible, can resolve capacity problems on a railway, avoiding other options which have an associated infrastructure cost such as longer trains (which require longer station platforms), more trains per hour (which the signalling or safety requirements may not allow) or adding extra tracks besides the existing line. Double decker (sometimes referred to as bilevel) trains are claimed to be more energy efficient, and may have a lower operating cost per passenger. A bilevel car may carry about twice as many as a normal car, without requiring double the weight to pull or material to build. However, a bilevel train may take longer to exchange passengers at each station, since more people will enter and exit from each car, and they are accordingly most popular on long-distance routes which make few stops (and may be popular with passengers for offering a better view). It may surprise you to know that double decker trains actually ran locally for quite some time - between November 1949 and October 1971 on the Dartford via Bexleyheath to Cannon Street line. Each of the four coach units carried twenty two high level and twenty four low level seats, a total of 508, with additional tip up seats at the ends of the upper level. This was a total of 1,104 seats on the train, normal trains had 772 seats. Access to the upper deck was via a short staircase. Ventilation of the upper deck was by constantly running electric fans, as the windows couldn't be opened. The train was higher than other trains so care had to be taken which routes to use it on. The Dartford routes were ideal and no alteration had to be made to the  track and bridges. Bearing in mind many people smoked on trains back then, the fug on the upper deck must have been terrible, especially in summer. The other problems with the double decker train was that the seats were cramped, hard and uncomfortable, and the time taken to get on and off the double decker carriages was significantly longer than with a conventional train. The double decker train was finally taken out of service on the 1st October 1971, and was scrapped, with the exception of two carriages, as previously mentioned. 

The photo above (click on it for a larger view) was taken back in 1880 of a very grand property which was called Walnut Tree House. It was owned by the Parish family, who by the looks of it were not short of a bob or two – the place looks lovely. The patriarch, John Parish owned the ballast wharf in West Street, and the ballast pit in what is now the Europa Industrial Estate in Fraser Road. The very fine quality loam dug from the pit was taken to the wharf to be loaded onto freighter ships for transportation up to the great iron and steel forges on Tyneside, where it was used to make moulds for metal castings. Unfortunately Walnut Tree House does not exist today; it was demolished to make way for Erith Town Hall in 1931. I don't know what the Parish family would have made of the location nowadays, with 24 hour motor traffic using the De Luci fish sculpture roundabout, it would definitely be very different from when the house was occupied. Still, the needs of the council had to be satisfied then, and again today. It is distinctly possible that the site of both Walnut Tree House and Erith Council Offices may soon once again come up for some form of redevelopment. I have concerns about the fate of Erith Town Hall; it is located in a prime position for being sold off to be redeveloped, possibly as up - market apartments. If one thinks about it, the Town Hall site is located within two minutes walk of Erith Station, it is also very close to Erith Riverside Shopping Centre, and overlooks Erith Riverside Gardens. I get the feeling that developers may be already looking at the site with envious eyes. It is already known (and I have previously covered) that plans exist to redevelop Electricity House and the row of shops and car park on both sides of Pier Road. 

I do not normally comment on stories that have made the national news; after all, in most cases, what would be the point, when professional journalists have already covered the issue. This week one news item did jump out at me, due to the local angle. Sky News ran the following report:- "One of the UK's longest-suffering COVID patients has revealed he was confronted by a conspiracy theorist during his 10-month stay in hospital and heard bogus claims that the virus is a hoax. Cancer survivor Andy Watts, 40, told Sky News he feared he would die after falling seriously ill with coronavirus in December last year. The father-of-two spent eight months in intensive care, including five weeks in an induced coma, when doctors considered switching off his ventilator after his condition deteriorated. But after a remarkable recovery, he finally left the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, southeast London, in October - 300 days after being admitted for treatment". You can read the full story by clicking here. The whole issue of anti vaccination campaigners and rabid tin foil hatted conspiracy theorists is a thorny one. Whilst I support the whole right to free speech, I do find the warped attitude and self righteous indignation of the anti vax mob to be offensive. The fact that a member of that group could gain access to a seriously ill man in hospital strikes me as utterly contemptible. The White Rose anti vaxx group - misleadingly named after the heroic WWII German anti Nazi resistance group that I have written extensively about in the past, are thought to likely be behind the intimidation. Aside from the obvious concerns about lies and quackery, anti extremist watchdog Hope Not Hate has identified conspiracies theories as a gateway into right-wing extremist groups. This theory is evident in the Telegram group of The White Rose, where anti-Jewish hate is frequent and links to more extreme chats are posted. In their State of Hate report, Hope Not Hate identified the dwindling influence of far-right sticker plastering group The Hundred Handers. Established in 2018, and led by Nazi Sam Melia, their racist stickers have also used razor blade traps and imitated Extinction Rebellion in a smear campaign. Two men were arrested in Sheffield in April 2020 for racially aggravated public order offences after taking part in a sticker campaign. The group currently has over 4,000 followers on Telegram, but they have not updated their sticker archive since last November.

The end video this week features a cycle ride along the Thames path from Erith to Dartford Heath via the Slade Green and Crayford marshes; it is well worth a look. Feedback / comments and queries should be sent to me via Email to me at

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