Humping in Bishopstone

Bishopstone is a long, sleepy village to the west of Aylesbury and has been blighted to some extent by being a rat-run as the road through the middle of the place from Stoke Mandeville to Stone is the only north-south route that avoids going right into the middle of Aylesbury. There’s plenty of money to build a monstrously large HS2 rail link right through the area it seems but none for a proper ring round to relieve the through traffic in the area.

The residents of Bishopstone banded together to fund some traffic calming measures to stop these speeding rat-runners a couple of years ago and now the entrances to the village have chicanes with a speed hump. (btw I’m not a rat as I live close enough to justify it being the most sensible route if I go up towards Hartwell House direction.)

Bishopstone Hump
Bishopstone Hump

Some new signs appear to have been erected to warn of these obstructions — it’s quite a common symbol in the warning triangle but I’ve never seen it had to be explained with the word ‘hump’ underneath. Maybe I’m mistaken that it refers to the traffic at all but is some warning about the possible fecund activities to be possibly found in this part of Buckinghamshire.

It might be even more alarming if the symbol was in a red-bordered circle as anyone who knows the Highway Code knows that means the injunction is compulsory — often on the penalty of a fixed fine if caught — ‘YOU MUST HUMP AHEAD’.

Seems like Bishopstone might give Cerne Abbas a cheeky run for its money.

Minute Baguette

I wonder if the proprietors of this sandwich shop in Aylesbury realised that there were two ways that their business’s name could be pronounced. I’m sure that the sandwiches they serve are of a generous size or maybe they’re going for the slimmers’ market?

Minute Baguettes, Aylesbury Market Square

And that letter m looks like it’s suspiciously escaped from a 1980s space invaders machine.

Mysterious Purple Crop Unmasked

One attractive aspect of the Chilterns countryside is how the fields change colour — usually very imperceptibly from brown in the autumn, through to ever-deepening green in the winter (with autumn planted crops) through to spring and now they’re almost a bright straw-yellow, even the pastureland.

We’re also used to the sudden bright-yellow of the oilseed rape crop in mid-spring — after which the plants take on an untidy, wizzened green.

But in the last couple of years some fields have been turning a mysterious mauve colour. It’s very attractive but rather unsettling — what kind of crop is purple? While jogging along on the Wycombe Half Marathon yesterday I saw other people puzzling over a big field of the crop between Flackwell Heath and the M40.

The Mysterious Purple Crop Near Horsenden
The Mysterious Purple Crop Near Horsenden

I eventually found the answer after taking a walk through a field of these unknown plants between Horsenden and Bledlow. Seeing the plant close up it was apparent that colour comes from the plant’s bright blue flowers – the light catching the flower buds gives the purple appearance.

Bright Blue Borage Flowers
Bright Blue Borage Flowers

I knew it resembled something in my garden and I later managed to do a bit of researching on the web and happened to identify the crop as borage. This is a herb that can grown quite invasively in gardens and its leaves can be used in cooking. But what it’s grown for on a commercial scale is its oil. Borage seeds yield the highest concentration of Omega-6 oils of any plant – that’s the fatty acid that’s meant to be very healthy. Funny how the goodness of the Chiltern soil might be extracted and put into the little bottles that vitamin counter at Boots. There’s even a product that uses borage oil as an ingredient that is sold in Boots that is meant to increase female libido if it is smeared on the genital area — maybe a more interesting fate for a crop than being made into Weetabix?

Washed Down With Lashings of Young’s Ordinary

On a similar theme to the quite famous Brooke Bar at the Pink and Lily (which is at Parslow’s Hillock, which is basically in the middle of the woods on the hills above Princes Risborough) that is dedicated to the poet Rupert Brooke, another local pub has also dedicated a room to a local writer. Unlike Brooke, who probably sold very few books in his lifetime (he died young during the First World War), Blyton is no doubt the biggest selling author from the local area — writing 800 books which sold a staggering 600 million copies.

Most of Enid Blyton’s books were written at Green Hedges, her house in Beaconsfield, which is very near the Red Lion at Knotty Green, about a mile out of the town on the road to Penn. The snug in the pub, on the right as you walk in, is now the Enid Blyton room. There are various pictures on the wall, lots of her books around (apparently donated by the Enid Blyton society) and a fair selection of her characters sit in corners around the room.

Enid Blyton’s works are famous for their forthright depictions of the mores and prejudices of the English upper-middle of the wartime era and just afterwards — something unforgettably sent up by the Comic Strip Presents in ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset’ broadcast on the opening night of Channel 4 in 1982, featuring French and Saunders, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmonson. Apart from the second series of The Young Ones, none of them have probably worked on anything better since. The Famous Five, in particular, still seem to generate a lot of indignation from Guardian readers — and writers. Here’s an example from 2005 by Lucy Mangan.

Many modern editions of Blyton’s books seem to remove some of the more extreme racial, and even gender, references. Therefore, here is an attempt to rehabilitate Noddy and Big Ears as contemporary blokes — enjoying a pint of Young’s Ordinary.

Noddy Enjoying Young's Ordinary
Noddy Enjoying Young's Ordinary

Another huge-selling author, though not in Blyton’s league in terms of volume, was brought up around the corner from the Red Lion — Terry Pratchett (of Discword fame). He comes from Forty Green a village just outside Beaconsfield which is home to another pub — the Royal Standard of England. This claims to be the oldest hostelry in the country.

The Bizarre HS2 Route — How Was It Decided?

Last week the government published its preferred route for the proposed high speed railway line between Euston and Birmingham. It seemed to take almost everyone by surprise by avoiding the two existing high(ish) speed rail routes through the north-west home counties and ploughing a completely new route through the Chilterns, following roughly, in part the old Metropolitan Line to Aylesbury — now the Chiltern Railways commuter stopping service.

There are plenty of maps available on the DfT website. There’s an interesting one of the whole route and there are many detailed sub-maps which show the route in supposed detail. However, I get the feeling that these have been fairly hurriedly drawn up as no provision has been made to preserve public rights of way and only fairly obvious features like roads and flood plains are taken into account by the route (the latter probably being based on the Environment Agency website rather than actual surveying).

The route seems to have made concessions to the environment when it first sets out — even burying itself in a tunnel when near the tranquil M25. Yet when it emerges from the tunnel just west of Amersham then all thought of blending into the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural beauty seems to disappear — odd because these is some of the most scenic parts of the Chilterns. Incredibly, the route is planned to soar on a viaduct when it approaches south of Wendover and then it’s due to squeeze next to the A413 Wendover by-pass — which is less than a hundred yards or so from the start of Wendover high street and many houses.

A slight concession to noise is made by planning to have the railway be buried in a tunnel when it passes under the road towards Butler’s Cross but this will be a cheap ‘cut and cover’ construction so will require the demolition of a row of houses. These are pictured below.

Route of HS2 Next to A413 in Wendover
High Speed Line Will Plough Through Houses to the Right
Houses to be Demolished on Railway Route
Houses in Wendover to be Demolished on Railway Route

The line will then stretch from Wendover across the relatively flat ground of Aylesbury Vale — see below.

Route of HS2 at South Of Aylesbury Vale
The HS2 Line will be built just to the left of the road

From Wendover the line slices through the edge of Stoke Mandeville, just by the Goat Centre, and then passes very close to the Aylesbury outskirts of Hawkslade Farm, Southcourt, Walton Court and Fairford Leys before heading towards Waddesdon and Quainton — where it will cut across some maize fields that I found difficult to negotiate on the Aylesbury Ring last year. It’s about the only good thing about the route that instead of clearing a metre wide strip from his crops then the farmer will have a 75m wide railway run through them — no doubt farmers will be some of the few who will be reasonably compensated.

Maybe the government would like to have local residents believe that its highly paid consultants have been poring over various route options for the proposed High Speed 2 rail line in painstaking detail, carefully balancing environmental considerations against engineering requirements.

There is an alternative view. Consider that, as the route carves chunks out of the Chiltern chalk and then rises on high viaducts and embankments to dominate Aylesbury Vale, how close its alignment is to an existing disfiguration of the local landscape: the high-voltage electricity lines that stretch from the substation near Amersham, through Wendover, past Aylesbury and through Quainton. The routes align to within a couple of hundred yards for almost all their lengths.

Perhaps the planners took one look at the rows of hundred foot pylons and thought ‘if they can put up with those then maybe we can sneak in a 250mph railway line?’ Wrong. While visually obtrusive the electricity wires do not create the massive environmental disturbance, both permanently by despoiling the countryside and operationally by inflicting massive noise pollution.

Such is the scandalous lack of environmental consideration in the current plans that it’s easy to believe the planners have performed such a casual and perfunctory assessment of the route as to stand on Coombe Hill and play join up the pylons. Here’s a view of how the pylons march through the pass from Missenden into Wendover and perhaps encouraged the railway to follow.

Wendover Pass
The Pass Through the Chilterns at Wendover

Overall, high speed rail is a good idea and the route has to go somewhere but this seems like the cheapo option that avoids towns like High Wycombe and Watford that would require extensive tunneling to pass — and cheapo means it goes through unspoilt countryside and skirts a large population centre, neither of which currently has any existing mass transit corridor. The lack of consideration of deep tunnelling near Wendover and in the Chilterns and when the line is near Aylesbury is scandalous.

The Clerk’s Well

The Clerk's Well, Farringdon
The Clerk's Well, Farringdon

I’ve recently become quite fascinated by the hidden geography of London — one of the most interesting aspects of which is the concealment of various rivers that flow through the capital. The largest of these is the River Fleet (as in Fleet Street) which rises on Hampstead Heath and flows via Camden, King’s Cross, Clerkenwell and Farringdon to meet the Thames at Blackfriars. For almost all its length the Fleet is now culverted into a storm-relief sewer. Nevertheless, the shape of the valley is quite distinct from various vantage points. One is from near the British Library, looking down towards King’s Cross station. Another is from Farringdon Road, just north of Farringdon station where a wide river valley can easily be imagined — and apparently two or three hundred years ago this was an area that was still fairly rural on the edge of the City and was used as a place to water livestock that were driven to Smithfield Market.

This is now the very trendy area of Clerkenwell, which takes its name from access to the water found in the Fleet Valley. The name derives from a well, known as ‘the Clerk’s Well’ which dates back to 1140. The well can still be seen as it’s incorporated into a modern office building (14-16 Farringdon Lane) which has a very discreet display that can be seen through some plate glass windows. A pump was added to the well in 1800 and this is commemorated in a plaque which still can be seen on the wall above the well. I got a grainy photo of the plaque. It was a bit too dark to photograph the well but its stone rim can be clearly seen.

On Roads

Over Christmas and the New Year I read a really good book that I’d been saving for myself since the autumn as a Christmas present to myself.

It was ‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ by Joe Moran. (There are good reviews in the Guardian and Independent.) It’s a very good book — probably the sort of book the word ‘discursive’ was defined for. Moran takes roads, or more particularly, major roads built this century — from the Kingston Bypass in the 20s but mainly from the advent of motorways — and meanders around the subject, throwing in some fascinating facts and anecdotes.

Having watched the BBC4 series ‘Secret Life of the Motorway’ in 2008 (I think) I recognised some material on motorways that was a little familiar — but fascinating nonetheless. It includes the history of the signage used on motorway signs — and which spread to all road signs in the 60s. The debate on font choice (serif or sans serif) got incredibly ideological.

Part of the appeal of the book is its discussion of what is very familiar to most people who travel round the country on motorways but is rarely discussed — such as motorway services, design of signs and so on.

The author mentions parts of motorways, such as the M1 in Bedfordshire or the M62 over Windy Hill or the M40 (the last major motorway to be built — all of 19 years ago), as if recalling old friends, which to many readers they are. He also discusses the irrationality of much of the road system — mainly as the grand designs of the 50s and 60s were scaled back on a piecemeal basis due to lack of funding and, latterly, anti-road protests. The irony is that a half-finished road plan is probably worse for the environment than if it was properly finished — such as the infamous stretch of the A57 through Mottram where the M67 discharges 3 lanes of motorway traffic into what’s effectively the main street through the village — a place to be avoided during the day. There are also plenty of urban motorways that similarly funnel traffic into inappropriate areas or are hugely underused as they hardly go anywhere (like the old M41 that nowprincipally serves as a feeder road into the Westfield Shopping Centre). 

Moran gives the anti-road movement a lot of coverage. However, he points out many of their hypocrisies — such as how Winchester College was initially happy to sell the land through Twyford Down for the M3 extension but when the road came to be built the head (or however schools like that term the person in charge) was one of the prime protesters. He also mentions how the old A33, which the Twyford Down section replaced, has now been buried under much of the spoil taken from the M3 construction and has been very effectively reclaimed by nature. He argues that roads aren’t actually very permanent and neglected for a few years will start to be colonised by plants and trees — something that can well be believed seeing the way potholes emerged from under the melting snow recently.

He also argues that roads are no less destructive to the countryside than railways were and that many people are misled by the out-of-proportion markings of roads in an atlas (you need to get down to about 1:25,000 OS Explorer map scale before they’re anything like accurate). I’ve certainly noticed that, apart from big junctions, roads tend to be less visible from the air than railways. 

I’ve followed the impressive reconstruction of the M1 between junctions 6A and 10 with great interest since 2006 — I even went to a local consultation display at Slip End near Luton. I was therefore fascinated to read that Slip End and the nearby hamlet of Pepperstock have a legendary status in British motorway history as the first earth was moved for a British motorway at Slip End and the opening ceremony for the M1 was held at Pepperstock (junction 10 as it is now). (The M6 round Preston opened earlier but I think construction started later.) I’ve driven on or under that part of the M1 most days for the last four or five years.

At the end of the book he dwells on our generally hypocritical attitude to roads — popular imagination (as stoked by cliches perpetuated by the likes of the BBC) would suggest the British hate their roads but Moran suggests the relationship is far more benign and complex.

Boeing Has A Dream(liner) — Nightmare for BA

The infamously delayed Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ actually got off the ground today — two and a half years late. This is a pretty good achievement seeing as one of the latest delays was caused by a fairly important structural flaw — apparently the part of the plane where the wings join on wasn’t strong enough. It wouldn’t have been much of a dreamflight if the wings had fallen off. According to the BBC, the wings managed to stay on for the duration of the test flight, although it landed earlier than schedule.

BA has 24 of the 787s on order but the papers have been speculating whether BA will even exist when they’re ready to be delivered — not because of more interminable Boeing delays but due to the death-wish that the management seem to want to inflict on the company. Willie Walsh seems to have backed himself into a corner — trying time-wasting wheezes like trying to sue the company over technicalities. He should look at the majority in favour of industrial action instead — 9 to 1. That can’t be blamed on militant union bosses — it’s the result of catastrophically bad management. This is no surprise when the company can’t decide whether it’s a low-cost airline that abolishes free food or an upmarket brand for the business and more discerning end of the market.

The BBC’s reporting of the strike has been woeful. They ask people who’ve booked holidays on BA what they think of the strike — what sort of response do they think they’re going to get? Yet the next item on the news is about Copenhagen and climate change. While there are people travelling over Christmas for necessary reasons there are an awful lot of the BA customers who are just jetting off for a sunny second (or third or fourth) holiday — so we’re expected to emote when Samantha and Toby can’t easily take their brats to the Caribbean for Christmas but then wring our hands over climate change? It seems like the editors of certain broadsheets are peeved that their own getaways are possibly being jeapordised — the Independent bizarrely wants the union to play down its huge majority for action.

Another inconsistency and hypocrisy is that the management of BA has the customers’ interests solely at heart — those nice men. Think who installed an abrasive chancer like Walsh into his position — the back-scratching clique of institutional shareholders like pension funds, stock market gamblers, hedge fund managers and so on. Exactly the bunch of economic micro short-termists whose judgement (along with Brown’s complacency) landed us the credit crunch. BA’s management has no-one’s interests at heart but global capital.

It’s a hugely irresponsible management that has had this strike ballot pending since the summer and seems more intent on provoking a showdown than resolving the underlying issues. They are a bunch of chancers and the union has hugely called their bluff by planning a strike of a length that would cripple the company. (For one thing, if all BA’s planes were grounded they would have no room for them, certainly at Heathrow.) The Daily Telegraph is considering if BA will be completely destroyed. It seems that Walsh is about to hand Branson and O’Leary a nice Christmas present.

The Fleet

Walking between two interesting pubs in Clerkenwell/Farringdon in London, the Jerusalem Tavern and the Gunmakers (they have up to date information on their beers on their website which is sadly incredibly unusual for most pub websites), I was quite struck by the topography around Farringdon Road. It was quite unusual for London and more like a city like Paris or Amsterdam as there were two roads that were only built up on one side with a large void between them of about 50 yards or so. Moreover, the ground gently rose on each side of the gap. The void was spanned by bridges that spans the Metropolitan line and the Thameslink railway line beneath but the geography looked very like a river valley. 

Interestingly, a bit of research on the web shows that the tube and railway lines were actually built through the valley of the biggest of London’s hidden rivers — the Fleet. The river is contained in a storm drainage sewer that runs alongside the railway tracks. The Fleet itself is a fascinating subject — it rises in Hampstead and Highgate and passes into the Thames at Blackfriars via Kentish Town, Camden, St.Pancras, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, Holborn and (of course) Fleet Street. It is almost entirely covered over but water can be heard rushing down manhole covers at the time.

There’s a really excellent and comprehensive guide to the course of the hidden river on someone called London Geezer’s blog. It might make a good theme for a pub crawl?

BA’s Bum Year

In the old days before its management came up with wheezes like charging passengers for choosing seats and getting rid of food (see previous posting), British Airways used to make a profit in the period April to October while usually making a cyclical loss in the winter. The new management have taken the cyclicity out by ensuring the airline loses money in the summer too — to the tune of nearly £300m.

Perhaps the twin track strategy of destroying customer service and constantly antagonising its own workforce is a deliberate attempt to turn BA into a low-cost airline? There can’t be any other explanation for this wanton destruction.


I was just checking on Gary Numan’s birthplace — after Antony correctly challenged my Essex assertion (maybe it was his later association with Shakatak that confused me). I found that Gary Numan was yet another famous musician born in 1958. This year produced a pretty impressive collection of musical luminaries who came to prominence in the late 70s and dominated music well into the 90s between them. Most people will probably know that Michael Jackson was born in 1958 but so was Madonna — and, my favourite, Kate Bush. The rather nice Belinda Carlisle was also born then. A similarly disproportionate number of well known actors and rather nice actresses were also born in 1958: Annette Bening (American Beauty — the film with the best soundtrack ever?), Holly Hunter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon,  Michelle Pfieffer and Sharon Stone. There are bound to be a lot more but I can’t find anything better on the web that lists people by birth year than this. I suppose it was probably a big year demographically but that probably doesn’t fully explain the distibution. It’s a bit like the huge number of famous people that come from Rochdale — Cyril Smith, Gracie Fields, Anna Friel, Bill Oddie, Andy and Liz Kershaw, Steve Coogan (sort of — he comes from Middleton which is in the metropolitan borough), Don Estelle, Lisa Stansfield, Kieron Prendeville (of That’s Life), John Virgo — and plenty more. Bizarrely, I found on Wikipedia that there is a novelist called Nicholas Blincoe who apparently comes from Rochdale. This is a very unusual surname and so I think it must be someone whose family I knew of as a child — they lived about 200 yards from me next door to one of my friends. If it’s the same family then I didn’t know the children too well as they went to the private school. I may have to look his books up on Amazon.

Modern Times at Heathrow

I turned up at an unearthly hour at Heathrow Terminal One this morning to find the bizarre sight of the bmi Premium check in area (where they still actually have real people rather than machines) completely unattended. No, it wasn’t a sudden urge to automate and deprive the businessman of his opportunity to ‘interact’ with attractive airline operatives. No, they hadn’t a clue what they were doing as all the computers were ‘down’. The staff checking in the VIPs had run off to consult their manuals on how to do a manual check-in. This is basically impossible in the new airport world of self-service machines and bag drops when none of the technology can connect to the departure control system. Fortunately they had a few old-fashioned check-in desks available (mainly retained for their new long-haul services) and had to assign a flight to a physical desk so the staff could, literally, tick off the passengers on a piece of paper until they knew the plane was full (how they dealt with e-tickets, I’ve no idea, fortunately I had checked in online the night before but still had to check a bag). They also had to hand write the boarding cards and the bag tags and, of course, there was no allocated seating. Comically, I was travelling on the tiny Embraer 135 (capacity 38 people max) and because they couldn’t do load and balance they made everyone sit down at one end of the plane for trim purposes!

The cause seems to be Lufthansa’s systems (perhaps run by Amadeus) as the outage affected flights at airports across Europe (someone was late to my meeting from Brussels because of this) and, no doubt, the rest of the world.

I was amazed to find my bag turn up at the other end with its hand-written inscription and I’ll perhaps treasure this reminder of what happens when the old legacy system decides to pack up.

Skinflint Airways

Further evidence that current BA management is continuing to lose the plot comes thick and fast. Most recently was their ‘Enhanced Seating Policy’ — . This raises the prospect of people travelling together, like families, having to pay extortionate prices to sit together on one of BA’s flights. Charter airlines like Thomson have been making a tidy profit on this particular wheeze for a few years now (in practice it’s pretty unlikely that groups of passengers would be seated apart anyway unless this was done deliberately by the airline). BA are planning to charge £50 to book an exit row seat (a tax on tall people, perhaps?) and £10 per person per sector in Pig class — which would work out at £80 for a return for a family of 4. The irony is, of course, that if air travel was a remotely pleasurable experience then passengers wouldn’t be scrabbling around on the Internet to try and bag themselves the best seats of a bad lot.

And how much does it cost BA to bring in this technology? Hardly anything. The facility to prebook seats has been around since about 1985-6 on BA’s reservation system, having been bought from KLM in the mid-90s. What may have cost a little is adding a bit of code in to siphon money for the privelege out of customers’ credit card accounts.

What this shows is that BA’s bonkers management seems to be dominated by the sort of penny-pinching, marginal revenue obsessed idiots who have no clue about maintaining the brand value of a full-service airline. It’s only a few weeks since food was phased out on most Euro traveller flights. Now they’ve gone further down the low-cost airline route. This might make sense if BA had the remotest hope of competing with the likes of Ryanair and Easy Jet on costs but with a ‘mature’ workforce and operating out of high-cost hubs like Heathrow then this is pie-in-the-sky.

As with upmarket retailers like John Lewis, BA must compete by convincing customers that it represents value and, while it won’t be the cheapest, it will provide the best service.

Whenever companies introduce something like this that means poorer service and higher prices, it’s funny how they always say it’s in response to ‘customer demand’. I have a theory there is a special focus group for hire of masochistic individuals who make their living from telling market researchers ‘Sure I’d like to pay more to the company and get less for it.’  Probably the only company who wouldn’t make use of this resource would be Ryanair, whose strategy BA seems to be increasingly trying to ape.