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Europe 2017 ๐Ÿ‡ฌ๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿด๓ ง๓ ข๓ ท๓ ฌ๓ ณ๓ ฟ๐Ÿด๓ ง๓ ข๓ ฅ๓ ฎ๓ ง๓ ฟ๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ช๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฌ Toxic Custard newsletter walking

Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

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What I learnt about UK rail fares

My blog posts from our Britain and Belgium trip continue, but it wouldn’t be one of my holidays if I didn’t geek out on transport-related stuff.

So here’s a post on the vagaries of rail fares in Britain… or at least, what you need to know as a tourist.

Buying rail tickets at home in Victoria is easy. For most trips you don’t even buy a separate ticket, you just use a Myki card for any trip in Melbourne and as far out as the “commuter belt” cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Traralgon, and local buses and trams are included in the price.

Further afield you book a ticket with V/Line. There are some exceptions: a fare on the XPT has to be bought from NSW Trainlink, though V/Line can sell you a ticket on Great Southern Rail’s Overland for a trip within Victoria. For most of the longer trips, there’s peak and off-peak, that’s it. First Class applies on some trips, as a simple surcharge on top of the regular fare.

Britain: a bigger, more complex network

As we found during our holiday, the UK has a lot more rail operators, and a lot more ticket types.

But then, it is a much more complex and extensive network. The UK rail system is made up of dozens of operators right across the country, branded collectively as National Rail, and using the old British Rail logo, first devised in 1965.

(Urban rail systems such as London Underground and others are separate, though there is some fare integration, as some of the National Rail services double as commuter/local lines within London and other cities.)

Salisbury station - next train to...

Shared infrastructure

The many operators share tracks in many cases, as well as stations – each station has a single operator managing it on behalf of the various operators serving it.

They also share a common ticketing system (with distinctive orange tickets with magnetic stripes), and fare gates, which are installed at most stations of any significant size. (If the Brits were running V/Line, they’d have fare gates installed at all the busiest regional stations.)

The fares are a bit confusing at first.

I studied the options, as I’d shelled out for not-very-cheap airfares. (Australian school holidays + European summer = A$2500 each Melbourne to London and return, and this is unintentionally turning into a big-spending year. So I was feeling pretty budget-conscious.)

Fare pricing is set by the individual operators, and initially it seems a bit like airline pricing, though in fact it’s not quite as complicated.

On routes run by multiple operators, the main one (“the lead operator“) sets the prices, which then applies to all other trains on the same route.

Night Riviera train at Paddington Station

Britrail passes

Overseas tourists visiting Britain can get Britrail passes, covering various areas or the whole country.

There are also various other passes available to locals and visitors alike.

The passes are not cheap though, and I worked out that based on our plans, we wouldn’t save any money (and it might be more expensive) over buying individual tickets, provided most of our trips were off-peak.

Three types of tickets

The marvellous Seat61 website has a lot of detail, but it comes down to three basic types of fares:

Anytime – in other words, including peak times. Very expensive in some cases. Some commuter routes get so busy that they’ll charge through the nose to try and convince you to catch other services. (Regular commuters tend to buy season tickets covering these trips.)

Off-peak – pretty self-explanatory. Flexible in terms of which train you can catch, provided it’s outside peak times. (Some operators have another tier called Super Off-peak, which is any train at specific times. As we found out, on some routes, this doesn’t automatically mean the trains aren’t busy.)

Advance – bought before the day of travel. Discounted, but inflexible, as you’re tied to a specific train (which also means a specific operator), and you can’t get a refund or even change it after you’ve booked. Not necessarily available for all trains – unlike the other types of fare, it’s up to the individual operator to decide how many tickets to make available, and at what price.

Some routes offer first class seating, for which you’ll obviously pay a higher fare. We didn’t opt for this. Standard Class was pretty good. The only exception was a couple of trains that were very crowded, but they were shorter trains that didn’t have first class seats anyway.

Example pricing from Taunton to Penzance:

  • Anytime single ยฃ70.50
  • Off-peak single ยฃ47.30
  • Open (off-peak) return ยฃ59.10
  • Advance single ยฃ19.50 to ยฃ31.70, depending on the train
  • First Class anytime single ยฃ163.00

For most journeys during our holiday, it made no sense to buy Advance tickets. In most cases we knew where we’d want to be going, and which day, but I didn’t want us to be tied to a specific train. That’s a path to a no-fun holiday, especially remembering that most trains on the lines we were using are every half-hour, or even more frequent. “No, we can’t catch that one. We have to sit here for another 30 minutes until our train comes.”

Packed train at Bath

The only exception, where booking in advance and reserving a spot was useful for us, was the sleeper train from Penzance to London – because we knew which night we were catching it, and there was only one train to choose from, and it guaranteed a berth.

(We also booked in advance for Eurostar, but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely, more like booking airline tickets.)

So, did avoiding Advance tickets mean we missed out on the cheapest fares? Actually, mostly not. Because we were travelling always in a group of four, and almost all our trips were on Great Western Railway, we were able to make use of GWR’s GroupSave discount… not all operators have it, but on those that do, for groups of 3-9 people, it reduces prices by a third, bringing normal Off-Peak fares down to about the same price as Advance fares.

Train ticket from Cardiff to Bath, and a water bottle from home

Single vs Return

Return tickets (including “open return”, where you come back on a different day) are usually only a bit more expensive than a single fare. The return trip isn’t tied to a specific train, though it may exclude peak times.

For our trip it was almost all single fares, but it’s useful if you’re doing some backtracking.

Multi-operator trips

While all train operators sell tickets for all the other operators, and they share ticketing infrastructure so that for instance all tickets work in all fare gates, the fares themselves are often not integrated.

If your journey includes two “lead” operators, it appears you’ll pay the cost of the two individual legs, simply added together. This makes it more expensive than if both legs were on one operator. As with local buses, I would expect this is a disincentive to use the trains for some trips.

Speaking of buses, there is some fare integration, with a scheme called PlusBus which gets you a discounted local bus pass with your train ticket. For trips to London you can also get a discounted London Travelcard. Both of these only apply on the same day as your train trip.

Trains at Paddington Station

How to buy

Buying fares online is possible, and you can then collect the tickets at a vending machine – a good option for tourists. One limitation of this is won’t let you buy online less than an hour before the train is due.

All the train operator web sites will sell you a ticket, including for any other operator. There are other web sites that have extra smarts for looking for cheap deals, but some of them also add small surcharges.

You can also buy tickets at the vending machines of course. A downside of this is that most of the machines can’t handle the GroupSave deal.

So in most cases I ended up buying tickets just before travel, from the booking office – which is something you’d think they’d want to discourage, but for us it was the easiest way. (To be fair, they’re upgrading the vending machines to handle GroupSave.)

To their credit, the operators of the stations involved always seemed to have plenty of staff in the booking offices. I never waited more than a couple of minutes, and the people on duty were all very helpful – and knew about the GroupSave discount, even at Cardiff Station which is run by a different Train Operating Company (Arriva) than the one we were booking for (GWR), though Arriva have a similar deal with a different name (Small Group Day Ticket).

One side effect of GroupSave only being valid on certain operators: in some cases you can only catch a train run by that operator. We did a trip from Bath to Taunton (via Bristol Temple Meads). The discount was only valid on GWR trains, not other trains on that route run by CrossCountry.

Salisbury station

A to B, B to C

Still reading? Okay. Finally, here’s a neat moneysaver.

Seat61 notes that in some cases it’s cheaper to buy two tickets for a single trip. It’s a quirk of the pricing system.

In most cases I didn’t look into this option, but I did check for one trip from Taunton to Penzance, which involved changing trains along the way at either Par or Exeter St David’s. It turned out to be quite a bit cheaper to buy separate tickets for each leg of the trip.

This we did by exiting the station at Exeter, buying fresh tickets and then going back in again. But if you have bought the tickets in advance, there’s no need to even do that. In fact you don’t even need to hop off the train; you just need to be on a train that stops at the relevant station.

Apart from buying the second lot of tickets, we were also able to use the 20ish minutes at Exeter to buy some lunch, though we didn’t venture out of the station as it was pouring with rain at the time.

How much did we save?

  • Taunton to Penzance is ยฃ31.20 each, if you include the GroupSave discount (change at Par or Exeter St David’s. Some combinations of trains were up to ยฃ47.30 each)
  • Taunton to Exeter St David’s ยฃ7.75 each + Exeter St David’s to Penzance ยฃ13.85 each = total ยฃ21.60 (includes the GroupSave discount)

So in our case, booking the full trip for the four of us would have been ยฃ124.80 total including GroupSave. Buying it in two parts ended up costing us ยฃ86.40 total. A saving of ยฃ38.40, or about A$62, about 30% of the fare. And we got to step outside the station gates and buy sandwiches, which I believe we technically couldn’t have done if making the trip on one ticket.

Worth our while.

Cardiff station sign

Would we want this complexity here?

You can see some advantages to the British way of doing things. Cheap advance discount fares encourages patronage and gives the operators some certainty over who will turn up. GroupSave and other discount schemes make it more affordable for groups to use public transport.

But it is quite complicated for passengers to understand. And return tickets only being slightly more expensive than singles, well that’s a bit odd given it costs a rail company twice as much to carry you on two trips.

And UK pricing is completely illogical in some cases — in part thanks to the myriad of operators all applying their own commercial decisions to their pricing.

We’ve got our quirks too of course, but the key is keeping it simple for passengers, and ensuring that there’s a good return to operators (and government) as extra services are added, to encourage further investment.

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Crossing the street in Cardiff is an exercise in frustration

I wanted to reflect on something from our recent visit to Cardiff.

Some of central Cardiff is pedestrianised, which is great. Many other areas have nice wide footpaths.

It would be near-perfect for walking… if at most intersections the traffic lights weren’t designed to be so pedestrian hostile.

It’s as if the traffic engineers either hate pedestrians, or have done everything they can to theoretically prevent car and pedestrian accidents.

But in the process they’ve created an environment where people have to wait for so long to cross the street that jaywalking is widespread.

Cardiff staggered pedestrian crossing

Beg button x 2

What’s the only thing worse than waiting for a traffic light to cross the street? Waiting for two traffic lights to cross the street!

In Cardiff, many intersections have traffic islands, and the pedestrian crossings have all been designed to be staggered, with the lights programmed to give a green man at different times.

Rule 28 of the UK Highway Code says:

When the crossings on each side of the central refuge are not in line they are two separate crossings. On reaching the central island, press the button again and wait for a steady green figure.

The proliferation of this design in Cardiff means that at most spots as you cross the street, provided you obey the green/red man, you have to wait twice, and the way these are implemented, the wait is often for an extended period of time — even when there’s no traffic coming.

I suspect it’s used to minimise accidents caused by inattentive drivers:

  • For instance at a three-way (T) junction, you might have a three part cycle with each road having equal green time.
  • Then you fit the pedestrian cycles around it: on any one of the three roads, two-thirds of the time, people can cross in front of the stopped cars.
  • Only when those cars get a green can you cross the rest of that road. So you’ll never make it across the entire road in one go.

They’ve set up similar programming at many four way intersections.

Yes, it theoretically cuts vehicle conflicts with other vehicles and pedestrians, and probably maximises vehicle throughput where there are a lot of turning vehicles.

But should that be the top priority in a dense city centre?


Pic from Google Streetview — On the main road from Cardiff city centre to Cardiff Bay. The pedestrian light nearest the camera is red; the other one is green.

This setup is beyond irritating when you’re trying to walk around. Often there will be a long wait for two separate green men despite there being little or no traffic.

It’s a very poor experience for pedestrians, and does nothing to encourage walking.

Thankfully such a design is rare in Australia. The only time you’re unlikely to get all the way across a divided road is if you’re not a fast walker, and you’re at a very wide road, perhaps 4+ lanes each way plus a wide median.

Traffic light design

Apart from how they’re programmed, some of the traffic lights have their green man display not on the opposite side where it’s easily seen, but on a display next to the button.

This is quite low down and can be difficult to view when other people are waiting.

Cardiff pedestrian signal mounted on pole

It’s also completely counter-intuitive to watch for a light that’s off to your side, rather than in the direction you’re wanting to go.

Combined with many traffic lights not having audible prompts (near-universal in Australia), this leads to people not even noticing when the traffic light eventually allows them to go.

Not all the crossings in Cardiff had this design. It’s not clear to me whether this is the new standard, or one of several standards, depending on context. We saw them elsewhere in Britain, though I don’t recall seeing any in London.

(See an example, with an additional indicator further up the pole, outside Cardiff Castle.)

Outcomes?

In this kind of walking environment, it quickly became apparent that many of the locals jaywalk regularly – and I can’t say I blame them. It was positively painful walking around and obeying all the traffic lights.

Widespread jaywalking means that the safety benefit (if indeed that was the motivation for these designs) is completely undermined.

I saw similar issues elsewhere in the UK, but to nowhere near the degree they’ve done this in Cardiff.

I don’t know the history of this, and whether there have been objections from the locals – I searched online a bit, didn’t find anything.

It’s unlikely it would ever happen, but if I ever end up living and working in Cardiff, I think I’ve found my first advocacy campaign.

Cardiff is a lovely city. But it treats its pedestrians with contempt.

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I’m back!

Just back (yesterday) from a three week trip to the UK and Belgium.

Apart from seeing family, we visited Cardiff, Bath, Penzance, Brussels and London.

In summary? Had a great time!

As you can see, I’m really delighted to be back:

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

Expect lots of overly-detailed blog posts in the next few weeks…

Use this link to see them all in chronological order*, or start here:

*When reading the posts in chronological (that is, forwards) order, you counter-intuitively click the “Older Posts” link for the next page, which in fact is newer posts.

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A few hours in Singapore

Backdated. Posted 7/11/2017

We’d booked with Singapore Airlines, so unsurprisingly our stop-off back from Europe was in Singapore, where we landed at 6pm local time.

Our connecting flight wouldn’t leave until 2am, so I decided to see if we could leave the airport for a few hours and have a quick look around the city.

It was no issue to exit; the hardest bit was knowing what to say on the “How many days are you staying?” question on the immigration form. Turns out, if it’s only a few hours, but it spans two calendar days, the answer is two.

Singapore MRT train

It was actually easier to enter the country than to buy a ticket for the MRT (metro). We had two smartcard tickets from my previous visit, but needed a third. The ticket machines wouldn’t sell me a ticket. The counter staff could, but not by paying using a credit card.

I went back up to the ATM, which decided to refuse me a cash withdrawal. Eventually I had to do a cash advance off my credit card. Only after all that mucking around, I could finally buy the third ticket.

We headed for Gardens By The Bay, which I’d thought would be an interesting introduction for I+J to Singapore – that and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel are quite unlike anything they’d have seen before – though now I think about it, perhaps the latter is no big deal given they’ve been to Vegas.

As if to prove that even someone familiar with a city, who can read a map, can also misread a map, I led us on a trip that involved more changes of train than necessary.

Singapore: Gardens By The Bay

But we managed to arrive just as the 8:45pm “Garden Rhapsody” light and music performance was starting. It was warm and muggy outside, and there were big crowds. It’s very kitsch, but fun.

After the show we headed back into the MRT station, but diverted to a 7-11 to buy some cold drinks – as did much of the rest of the crowd, meaning we had to wait a while in a queue.

From there we caught a train to the city centre, close to last year’s accommodation, and exited the station for a few minutes to look around on the streets.

It was fairly quiet outside, but despite it getting late, it was still pretty warm.

We were all feeling a bit fatigued, so despite having scads of time before our plane, rather than keep roam aimlessly exploring, we headed back to the airport.

Singapore Changi Airport

Changi Airport is huge, very modern, and is an international-only airport. (I wonder if Singapore even has domestic flights?) I also found it interesting that each gate has its own security screening. Perhaps that’s handy with so many transiting passengers.

It was cooler back inside the airport. We found some snacks, rode the inter-terminal monorail, found powerpoints to charge phones, and generally killed time until our 2am departure.

It was an uneventful flight home, getting back into Melbourne Tullamarine on Monday just before lunchtime. Skybus to the City, train home, and we were back. Back from European summer to Melbourne winter.

Flying over Melbourne, approaching Tullamarine Airport

You get home from these great holidays, and for a few hours everything seems a bit other-worldly. Or maybe it’s the jetlag.

But actually the jetlag wasn’t too bad – we managed to stay up until the evening, then slept it off.

It was a great holiday. Not everything went exactly to plan. And we had a few too many late starts, even once the jetlag had worn off. But it was still great.

It drained the finances a bit. Occasionally in the past I’ve tried to catalogue all the costs in detail. I won’t this time, but for the four of us, all the accommodation, travel, meals and attractions added up to about $9000 plus airfares of about $2500 per person. Though I did get a refund on the train fare from Exeter to Penzance!

Holidays always cost money, of course. It was a great escape from the Melbourne winter, a visit with numerous relatives, and terrific sightseeing along the way.

I can’t wait to go back.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far through!

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Overground, Underground, wombling free

Backdated. Posted 29/10/2017.

Before we headed back to Australia, one more day in London to explore… at least for most of us. Three of us were catching an evening flight, but M had to head back 12 hours earlier, departing on a morning flight. I walked her to the station and helped her (and her luggage) get on the right train to the airport.

For the rest of us, we packed up all our stuff from the Air BNB flat. Just our cases were left, by arrangement with our host to pick them up later.

So, how to spend the last day?

I had in mind to head south of the river to Croydon. The District Line wasn’t running for the weekend, due to works. Note in this photo in the top-left you can see me on the CCTV, taking the photo…

London Underground service information

So instead, using Google Maps as a guide (again!) we caught a bus east to Shepherd’s Bush.

Notably, the bus lanes were plentiful (and enforced by cameras), and automated signs inside the bus advised passengers of the District Line disruption. Ever seen that on a bus or tram in Melbourne?

London bus alert for Underground

London bus lane and service station

Also note the price of petrol: ยฃ1.17, which is about A$2 per litre.

From Shepherd’s Bush we changed to a train – one of the London Overground routes. The Overground is set of suburban lines gradually transitioning into a metro-like service — in a similar way to Melbourne’s suburban train lines transitioning to a metro. In fact, the Overground operator from 2007 to 2016 was a joint venture with Hong Kong’s MTR, the operator of Melbourne’s suburban trains.

Overground has branding similar to the Underground, and is moving to more frequent trains, mostly now every 15 minutes. The lines form a set of mostly orbital services around much of London – a couple of the services go into the central city terminus stations, but they’re not the main emphasis of the network.

Note the adjacent Westfield shopping centre.
London Overground: Shepherd's Bush station

London Overground: Shepherd's Bush station

The pace of the Overground train seemed slower than the Underground – this was part of what prompted my blog post about the disadvantages of sticking strictly to a timetable.

That train took us to Clapham Junction, memorable to me for being in an old Guinness Book of Records for being the busiest station in Britain — in fact it’s now said to be the busiest station in Europe by number of trains passing through it; up to 180 per hour.

From there we caught an express train to East Croydon.

Many suburban trips in London are actually served by long distance trains; this one was heading to the south coast somewhere, and had first class accommodation (within the carriages, not in separate carriages) and toilets aboard.

The conductor came through and checked tickets – some passengers were travelling on those orange National Rail tickets you see everywhere around Britain, some like us on Oyster and credit cards – for which he had a reader.

Southern Rail UK, First class section of carriage

Also notable on that train was emergency information above the doorways, including the advice to stay on the train unless advised… but if you needed to evacuate, detailed instructions for doing so. I wonder how often it happens.

Southern Rail: Safety information

Southern Rail: How to evacuate a train

It was pouring down with rain when we got to East Croydon station. We exited the station and hopped on a Tramlink ummm… tram — it was so quick I didn’t even snap a photo of the outside of the tram, but here’s one of the interior: note the step; the design is mostly low-floor, but not 100% low-floor. I suspect this has cost and other benefits, at the expense of not being entirely accessible.

London Tramlink

We caught the tram just one stop to North End, where the main shopping area is located.

My goal was a place called Heart Of Gaming in the Whitgift Centre. I+J weren’t that interested, so they looked around while I paid ยฃ10 to play some video games for a while. It was good fun, though I’d really been hoping for 80s games – these were mostly 90s. (Memo for next UK visit: Visit Manchester)

We found some lunch nearby in some coffee/sandwich shop, which was cheap and quick, though a bit crappy.

No matter, we decided to head back into Central London. West Croydon station was slightly closer, even if the trains were less frequent and slower, and at least it had stopped raining.

The suburban train took us back through Clapham Junction, past the remains of Battersea Power Station – I remember when it was a huge and imposing monolith; now they seem to be only leaving the facade as they redevelop the area.

Battersea Power Station, London

We arrived into Victoria Station, and had planned to catch a Tube up towards Oxford Street, one of central London’s main shopping streets.

No go. As you sometimes see on those Tube documentaries I’m so fond of, they’d closed the entrance to Victoria Underground Station. It wasn’t obvious why – but the queues to get in made the impact obvious. When it eventually re-opened, there’d be severe crowding while the backlog of people cleared.

London Victoria Underground station disruption

Bus seemed like a better option in the circumstances, and might well get us closer to where we wanted to be, as we had a couple of specific shops in mind. As I’d learnt the day before, to the outsider, the central London bus network is confusing mess of spaghetti.

Google Maps saved the day yet again, telling us which route to catch, and the frequent service meant only a couple of minutes’ waiting. In fact, for all our roaming around on this day, we didn’t wait more than five minutes at any one point. As they say in public transport advocacy circles, Frequency Is Freedom.

London in the rain

The rain was really coming down now. It was the first really bad weather on the entire holiday – must be a sign that you should go home.

We hopped off the bus in Oxford Street – J wanted to look in the Doc Martens store.

After that we continued exploring and walking, but at one point took shelter in a John Lewis department store, which allowed us to re-fuel with a cup of tea and a muffin, and use the facilities.

London Crossrail under construction

The rain had slowed to a drizzle, so we continued on, passing one of the Crossrail construction sites. It’s a huge project, and the new stations are expected to start opening in 2018.

And so to our ultimate goal: the Forbidden Planet London Megastore.

Forbidden Planet, London

It’s like Minotaur books in Melbourne, but more tidily organised, better stocked, and not as dark. We spent quite some time browsing its shelves, particularly the books and CDs, where we found numerous titles I hadn’t seen available in Australia. (In contrast, most of the other merchandise looked fairly familiar.)

I bought myself this: Space Helmet For A Cow: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who (1963-1989). A very amusingly-written history of the TV show, which I started reading on the way home. Highly recommended for fans of the show; I’ve subsequently been given volume 2 for my birthday, and am enjoying that too.

From there, we headed to Covent Garden, where we’d visited on our first (proper) day in London. J found another Doc Martens store (he was looking for a specific design) while I ducked back into the London Transport Museum to buy that District Line cushion I’d been coveting.

It was expensive (ยฃ45), but it was unlikely I’d be back anytime soon to be able to buy it. FOMO. It appears to be genuine moquette, so it’ll probably outlast the couch and everything else in the house.

Unpacking the London Underground District line cushion at home

There was also a book in the Museum shop that I’d noticed, but it was bulky and heavy and also expensive, so I’d ended up ordering that online. It arrived back at home a couple of weeks later: British Rail Designed 1948-1997. I’m so far finding it a good read if you’re interested in design and railways.

But there were lots of other goodies. Honestly, if I didn’t have my head together, I could do an awful lot of damage to my credit card in there.

London Transport Museum

It was 5pm, so we hopped back on the Piccadilly Line to head back to Chiswick/Turnham Green.

(Most of the time, only District Line trains serve Turnham Green, but due to works, those weren’t running, and some Piccadilly services were stopping there instead. As it happens, the District Line works ran overtime, and ended up causing huge disruptions on Monday morning.)

Back to the flat, and we picked up our bags and headed to the airport, which was quick and easy on the Tube — despite the warning notice at the station of delays, which I only noticed later was dated a month before. Hmmm… maybe it was relevant but they just hadn’t fully updated it.

London Undeground: Service information

Many of the Underground trains into Heathrow do a loop; terminal 4 first, then terminal 2/3, then back to Central London. We needed T3, and after checking in our bags, we found some food for dinner, and checked emails.

London Piccadilly line map

Among the emails, I found one just in from a contact at London Underground. Alas, I hadn’t thought to email him about being in town until after I’d arrived. He’d replied that he’d love to arrange to meet up and organise a look around behind the scenes. Too late! Damn. When can I come back???

Oh well. We still had a bit of time to kill before the flight. J looked for a place to charge his phone; I took my remaining UK currency to buy some chocolates to eat on the plane.

The plane took off on time, and we headed towards Singapore.

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See London by bus

(Backdated. Posted 21/10/2017)

Our second last day on London. While the others had breakfast, I ducked out of the flat to try and find a post office, as I’d neglected to give one of my relatives a souvineer from Australia, and thought it best to mail it while we were still in England.

The nearest post office was embedded in a kind of supermarket/newsagent, a not unfamiliar scenario that occurs in Australia, but it did throw me somewhat that I had to buy the envelope first, then buy the stamps separately. Okay, whatever.

By finding the post office, down the high street in the direction we hadn’t explored, I also discovered the reason we’d seen so many police vehicles screaming through the streets wasn’t that Chiswick is a deadly crime-infested suburb, it’s just that down there was where the police station was.

We wouldn’t be making it to Birmingham to visit old friends Ian and Louise, so they had come to London to stay for a couple of days – a stone’s throw from where we were staying in Chiswick.

Unbelievably, I’ve known Ian for almost 20 years, having met him via blogging (or to be precise, posting to Usenet) my 1998 trip to England, Scotland, Belgium and Holland.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

So after breakfast, we met up with them at Turnham Green tube station and we all hopped on a train towards central London, alighting at Victoria and walking up towards Buckingham Palace. The flag was up. They were home.

Crowds were gathering for the Changing of the Guard, a grand spectacle indeed, even if it’s just a glorified shift change.

There were plenty of police around, and I noticed them eyeing off one bloke in the crowd who had brought a large suitcase with him. Without being aggressive, they told him he couldn’t stay here with it, and moved him on. Given the security situation, it’s hardly surprising they wouldn’t want him hanging about in a big crowd.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

A community support policeman (I don’t quite understand why they have the role, but they seem to have limited duties, in a similar way to Victorian Protective Service Officers) was doing both crowd control and running commentary, which was handy, as he knew exactly when and where and in which direction the next soldiers would be marching at each stage of the ceremony.

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace

The sun was beating down, but watching it was proof that nobody does ceremony like the Brits.

One minor hiccup – a mounted policewoman had to get off her horse at one point, and couldn’t get back up on it. She brought the horse over to us in the crowd and climbed up the fence to get back on, giving us a close equine encounter.

Police horse at Buckingham Palace

Cleaning up after the Changing Of The Guards, Buckingham Palace, London

When it was finished, the Queen’s Own Royal Poo Cleaning Truck rolled through, and the crowds dispersed.

New Zealand War Memorial, London

We headed up towards Hyde Park Corner, and up towards the war memorials, including those for NZ and Australia. The latter is made up of granite slabs inscribed with thousands of names of towns where Australian soldiers were born, with larger letters forming the names of battles.

Australian War Memorial, London

In the hustle of bustle of busy London, it was good to stop and pause and reflect.

We found a nearby bus stop. Ian, being a tour guide and transport nerd, would give us a quick tour of central London by bus. It’s much larger than somewhere like Melbourne’s central business district, which you can walk across in about 20 minutes.

One thing that’s notable is that London buses are still using canvas destination rolls, not digital LEDs as seen in many parts of the world (including Melbourne). Ian tells me that’s a deliberate decision from Transport For London, who believe they are more readable. They’re right of course, though it comes at a cost. More flexible LEDs are catching up; the resolution has improved a lot in recent years.

London bus near Trafalgar Square

Piccadilly, London

The bus network, especially in central London, is a myriad of routes, and with a lack of a grid street pattern as in central Melbourne, it’s quite confusing. The development of Google Maps and other smartphone journey planners has made it a lot easier to navigate — though Ian knew precisely where he was going without having to resort to an app.

We caught a number 9 bus along busy Piccadilly, past St James Palace and Trafalgar Square.

These blokes spotted along the way seemed to be doing a remake of The Plank. With more high-vis.

The Plank remake? London

We hopped off to look for some lunch, which we found at a burger place. Next we headed back to the bus stop to catch a… wait. Ian had left his camera behind.

Cue mad panic back to the restaurant. He came back, triumphant – it had been recovered.

We thought we’d catch a number 15 bus. Why route 15? It’s the only remaining “heritage” route running the classic London Routemaster buses — not on all of its services, but some.

Unlike Melbourne’s City Circle, which is free, this is a paid route, with a conductor… of sorts. The difference is, this conductor just makes sure you’ve paid – they can’t sell you a ticket.

There’s a catch. While most of us had been happily wandering the London transport system using our credit cards, the heritage 15s only accept an actual Oyster card for fare payment.

We only discovered this when we tried to board. The conductor, spotting our credit cards in hand, looked rather pleased with himself to be able to tell us they weren’t valid for payment. We hopped off again and the bus rumbled away, almost empty. Good customer service? No.

Routemaster bus, London

And so we downgraded to a regular bus, towards St Paul’s Cathedral.

From there we walked down towards the river, pausing at the spot where the Cybermen famously walked with the Cathedral in the background, in the classic Doctor Who story The Invasion.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

Not far away, Ian reckoned, was the manhole from the same story, that a Cyberman had come out of the drains. Alas, on this day, it was underneath a parked coach.

London Bridge

We walked down to the Millennium Bridge, which is adjacent to the Tate Modern, where we’d been the day before.

A lovely view of the river, then we headed east along the north bank, passing underneath London Bridge, and in view of Tower Bridge, doing its thing again.

Tower Bridge, London

Monument Underground station, London

The Monument to the Fire Of London

We found the Monument – the Monument to the Great Fire of London, that is.

It’s possible to climb up the stairs inside it, but we decided to keep moving, Ian leading us on an exploration of some of London’s more obscure streets and laneways, with a stop along the way at Leadenhall Market for a snack.

Leadenhall Market, London

Beside Mansion House, we found a Police Post – a kind of budget-cut version of a Police Box. If it is used for time travel, hopefully it’s bigger on the inside.

Police Post at Mansion House, London

Then we headed for St Paul’s Cathedral, where the evensong was due.

As it turned out, the choir was on holiday (!) so no evensong for us, but the inside of the building is rather stunning.

The sun was still up and shining, and there were major delays on the District Line, so rather than head back towards Chiswick, we decided to head back for a proper look at Trafalgar Square – passing by Australia House along the way.

Australia House, London

Note these traffic signal designs near Trafalgar Square.

Traffic lights at Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Eventually it seemed like the Tube had returned to normal, and we headed back.

Sam Schwartz’s book has a reference to tuxedos on the subway being a sign that public transport is used by the broad population, not just those who can’t afford to drive. I’ve seen the occasional person in a tuxedo on Melbourne PT, but on this occasion in London, managed to snap a photo.

Embankment station, London

In Chiswick we found an Italian restaurant to have a great dinner and a very good chat.

We had to head back home the next day, but at least our last full day was a good one.

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Sent to the Tower

(Backdated. Posted 1/10/2017)

Our mission today was to get locked up in the Tower Of London. Oh, sorry, I mean to see the Tower Of London.

We headed on the Tube to the Tower. Tickets booked in advance the night before meant we could bypass at least one of the queues, but it was still pretty busy, and the weather was grey and drizzly from time to time.

The Gherkin and Tower Of London

Inside the grounds there are plenty of things to see, covering various topics and periods of history. Much of it is on a kind of trail around the perimeter walls, through various individual towers.

Tower of London, and Tower Bridge

Tower of London

Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Warning sign at Tower of London

Tower of London: The White Tower

The main White Tower dates from 1078, and the others have developed around it over time. To my surprise, the complex was used as a prison as late as 1952.

The legend is that if ravens ever leave the Tower Of London, then the realm will fall. So, it was a relief to see a few.

Raven at the Tower of London

Jewel House, Tower of London

And then there’s the sparkly stuff, the Crown Jewels. They’re obviously in heavy demand, because there are railings outside the Jewel House showing where you queue (so at least you can try and time it when the queue is shorter, which we did), but much of the route inside the Jewel House is in fact more queuing, but just more elaborate, showing you various displays along the way.

By the time you get to the Jewels themselves, you’re actually on a travelator so you can’t linger looking at them for too long and hold up the crowd behind you (though you can swap back and have another pass if you want). They are spectacular – but photos are banned, so you’ll have to go and see them for yourself.

After the jewels it was drizzling a bit, so we went to the restaurant and found some lunch.

Tower Bridge during a bridge lift, London

I’d checked the times for Tower Bridge lifting to let tall boats through. They happen about 5-10 times a day, and one was imminent, so we found a good vantage point to watch it.

Apparently shipping has absolute priority, so if a vessel is on time, and has booked the bridge lift, it will happen no matter what – this once managed to disrupt President Bill Clinton’s motorcade during a state visit.

Likewise, the Tower Bridge web page “politely asks” that no lifts be requested during specific times due to public events, but it seems that’s all they can do – ask.

Tower Bridge, London

After we were Tower Of Londoned out, we exited and walked across Tower Bridge for a better look. It’s in pretty good nick for an 1890s bridge, though it had a renovation that was completed just five years ago.

Tower Bridge is a bascule bridge, meaning the drawbridges are hinged, with a counterweight. Wikipedia has this amazing page of animations of the different types of moveable bridges. Some of them, like the Curling Bridge, look slightly ridiculous.

Tower Bridge, London

Tower Bridge, London

Shad Thames, London

From here the plan was to walk along the south side of the river. Shad Thames is adjacent to the bridge, and is a historic riverside area, once neglected but now re-developed and thriving. I&J were particularly interested to see if they could spot any Doctor Who: Resurrection of the Daleks sights.

Looking across the Thames, London

Borough Market, London

We headed west, and underneath a railway bridge found a busy marketplace: this was the Borough Market, one of the sites the previous month of a terrorist attack that killed eight people.

For all the horror just weeks before, the market seemed to be thriving, which was good to see. I was wishing we hadn’t already had lunch, as some of the food stalls looked terrific.

(The day before I posted this, a Good Weekend article had Englishman Geoff Ho’s account of the attack, and the efforts of his friend Isabelle Oderberg to locate him in the confusion afterwards. It’s a great read.)

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

We passed Shakespeare’s Globe, which opened in 1997, a re-creation of the original Globe (1599-1644), then we got to the Tate Modern and had a look around inside. It’s a massive gallery built in an old power station, and holds modern art from around the world.

Tate Modern, London

Picasso's Weeping Woman, Tate Modern, London

Babel 2001, by Cildo Meireles, Tate Modern, London

After a good look around, and a stop in the Tate cafe for a drink, we headed further along the river to the London Eye. Pre-booked tickets can let you bypass one queue, but you’ll still end up in an epic queue that takes quite some time from the ticket pickup to the point where you can actually enter the Eye.

London Eye tickets aren’t cheap at ยฃ23.45. If you’re willing to shell out even more money, you can get priority entry for ยฃ40.00 a pop. Yeah I thought thanks but no thanks… though all told, we ended up being in the various queues for almost an hour, so I can understand why some people would pay the extra.

Queues at the London Eye

But when you eventually get aboard, are the views worth it? Just about. It’s pretty spectacular up there, with a great view over central London, including many iconic buildings including the Houses Of Parliament and Big Ben, the Shard, and yes, trust me to notice the numerous railway stations.

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament, viewed from the London Eye

The Shard, viewed from the London Eye

London Eye

On the London Eye

Charing Cross Station, seen from the London Eye

After a full 30 minute circuit, they let us out, tried to sell us photos for even more money (yeah no thanks), and we headed up to nearby Westminster Bridge to catch a bus. I’d arranged to meet friends R+V in nearby Peckham.

Peak hour, so the bus was busy but not overcrowded. I noticed a jogger on the footpath alongside us. As the bus drove along, we’d overtake him, then at bus stops, he’d overtake us again. So it might have been just as quick to run… if we’d had the energy.

On the bus to Peckham, London

Carrie Fisher / Princess Leia mural, Peckham, London

Our directions included watching out for a Princess Leia mural, which despite accidentally getting off one bus stop early, we found okay.

R&V got married last year. R is from Britain, V from Australia. Both being blokes, they couldn’t get married in Australia, but did so in Britain. We went out for dinner and had a great evening of good food and conversation – topics ranged from the ridiculous to the deadly serious, such as the ongoing and tragic case of Charlie Gard.

After a great night, we headed back to Chiswick via bus/tube/tube. Quick and easy. It had been a good day.

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East meets west

(Backdated. Posted 29/9/2017)

Good morning! It was garbage day in our street in Chiswick.

As usual, you notice the little things that are different from home. In the London Borough of Hounslow, the garbos (what’s the local term? Not sure) don’t have an arm on the truck that grabs the bins; they have to manually put the wheelie bins into place.

On this occasion, we could hear raised voices – one of the neighbours was arguing with the garbos about what they should take.

Garbage day in Chiswick

With three and a bit days left of the holiday, we were feverishly trying to work out what to see, and when to meet up with friends.

For today, it’d be Greenwich.

On the walk to the station, we did spot Jeremy Corbyn, creepily standing in an upstairs window.

Jeremy Corbyn in Chiswick

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but one of the joys of a network of frequent public transport services is that you can get from anywhere to anywhere without the hassle of long waits when you change. The various routes mean the whole city is easily accessible. This is something London does really well.

So we caught three trains: walk to Turnham Green station / District Line to Westminster / Jubilee Line to Canary Wharf / Docklands Light Railway to Greenwich… with barely a wait between them.

Westminster Underground Station, London

Docklands Light Rail, London

Turns out the connection at Canary Wharf to the Docklands Light Railway is a few minutes’ walk; something that is in fact indicated on the Tube map.

One thing that did nearly catch us out is that the DLR stations don’t have fare gates, and we didn’t notice the Oyster readers on poles when we initially entered the station. It probably fits in with their automated trains that they wouldn’t have gates and staff at most stations. A train was just coming, and we dashed back down to touch-on.

An alternative route would have taken us via Tower Hill to connect directly from the District Line to the DLR, though Google Maps suggests another route entirely, via Cannon Street and a suburban train. But I was interested to check out the newer part of the Jubilee Line, as well as the Canary Wharf underground station used in Star Wars Rogue One.

Canary Wharf Underground Station, London

We walked through Greenwich up the hill to the Royal Observatory, admiring the view back down the hill along the way.

View from Greenwich over London Docklands

View from London looking east along the Thames

The Observatory museum is very interesting, with some good stuff on the history of fields such as navigation and astronomy, and clocks, watches and timekeeping.

It also of course has the Prime Meridian going right through the courtyard, so you can stand in the eastern and western hemispheres at the same time.

Greenwich Observatory, London, and the Prime Meridian

With an English mother and an Australian Born Chinese father, I guess I am an East Meets West kind of person.

Selfie at the Prime Meridian

Display at Greenwich Observatory

GPS information at Greenwich Observatory

A note in the courtyard mentions that the “satellite meridian” is 100 metres east of the Prime Meridian, so phone GPS might report a slightly different location. Hmm okay.

By 1pm we were ready to move on, but decided to wait for the Time Ball. At 12:55 it rises, then at 1pm it drops again, to mark the hour, visible to ships on the Thames in a similar way to the Flagstaff in Melbourne.

The Time Ball has been in use since 1833. Today, it rose all right, but then failed to drop back down. By a few minutes after 1pm, we were wondering what had happened. I heard a staff member quietly mention to somebody that clearly it was broken. Oh dear.

At present, it’s still not working: the web site says: Please note: unfortunately the the Time Ball is currently not in operation, awaiting repairs due to damage from recent weather conditions.

Greenwich Observatory time ball

We headed down the hill to the Maritime Museum, and had lunch there, though we opted not to look in the museum itself.

Instead we walked back past the Cutty Sark (kind of London’s Polly Woodside, and a similar vintage) to the mighty River Thames and queued for the Thames Clipper river boat.

The boats run roughly every 20 minutes, and accept use Oyster for payment just like the buses and Tube. The fares are more expensive than other modes, but there’s a big discount if using Oyster (or contactless credit cards): for Greenwich to central London it’s ยฃ6.50 instead of ยฃ8.70 paying cash.

Police wharf, London

The Shard, London

Tower Bridge, London

The boat headed west along the river, stopping at various wharves along the way, then under Tower Bridge. We hopped off an Embankment and caught a Tube to South Kensington.

Here’s a line map from the train, showing the eastern end of the District Line. An memorable line in the old sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey had Henry referring to someone as being “completely Dagenham East!” That’s four stops past Barking.

Line map on District Line, London Underground

Museums pedestrian tunnel, South Kensington, London

South Kensington is stop for the museums – the station is connected via pedestrian subway to the Natural History Museum, Victoria & Albert, and the Science Museum, as well as the Royal Albert Hall. Each of the museums has quite a few free exhibits to see. (The NHM and the SM got into an amusing Twitter spat recently – worth a read)

We started off in the V&A – it’s a delicious mix of design and art – and had a good look around there.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fine French spittoon, V&A Museum, London

A close encounter with Michaelangelo's David (replica), V&A Museum, London

Circus poster that inspired John Lennon to write the Beatles song For The Benefit Of Mr Kite

I&J decided to head off to the other museums, while M went off to look at the V&A’s Balenciaga exhibit.

I decided to look around elsewhere around the V&A, then I diverted out to have a quick look at the Royal Albert Hall – we’d tried but failed to secure tickets to a concert of John Williams music at the Proms, which were on that week.

Royal Albert Hall, London

Detail, Royal Albert Hall, London

The streets were busy, and I noticed ugly, sometimes poorly-placed bollards around the place. Hey, it’s not just a Melbourne thing!

Safety bollards outside Royal Albert Hall, London

Safety bollards in South Kensington, London

Outside the South Kensington Museums, London

On the bright side, there was some interesting street design, blended with the pedestrian area I guess as a form of traffic calming.

I ducked into the Science Museum for a nose around there. I hadn’t been in there before, and there was some good stuff for geeks people into technology and engineering.

Here’s Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine Number 2, built 1989-1991 to an 1820s design:

Babbage's Difference Engine Number 2, Science Museum, London

…whereas this is more my vintage, a Commodore PET 8032 (that’s a display with 80 characters across, and a mighty 32 Kb of memory) from 1980:

Commodore PET 8032, part of Shizuo Ishiguro's Electronic ocean model, Science Museum, London

We all met up again at South Kensington station, where peak hour was in full swing.

South Kensington Underground Station, London

Packed train — as the screens told us, there were plenty just a minute or two behind, so we could wait for the next one… but we needed to catch the correct branch anyway — we needed Richmond or Ealing Broadway.

Peak hour at South Kensington Underground Station, London

Back to the flat for a pause.

I decided to peek out of the top roof windows to see what I could see. With the telephoto lens, I could easily spot the Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower; no giant kittens in sight), the Shard, and planes heading into Heathrow Airport.

BT Tower (Post Office Tower) London

Plane over west London heading towards Heathrow Airport

Taking the advice of our host, we walked south to the river and then east along it, admiring the expensive houses, to eventually find the Black Lion pub for dinner.

Homes in Chiswick, West London

The Black Lion pub, Chiswick, London

We walked back a different way, passing another pub, where we noted in the front garden was ex-Top Gear host James May, cheerfully chatting to another patron.

Back along the high street (generic term in Britain for the main street through a suburb, though in this case actually called Chiswick High Road).

You’d trust me to get a photo of Stamford Brook bus garage, which we passed along the way. (Interesting that in Australia, we’re more likely to use the term adopted from French, depot.)

Stamford Brook bus garage, London

It was just getting dark, but it was still warm.

Given that, we stopped off at a place called Oddono’s for an ice-cream before heading back and planning tomorrow’s exploration.

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The border incident, and London sightseeing

Backdated. Posted 21/9/2017

Time to head back to London for the last few days of our holiday. We packed up our stuff and left the Air BNB flat.

A word about the flat. It had been chosen for its location (walking distance to Brussels Midi/Zuid station), which along with the price, which were its best features.

The layout was curious (one bedroom on the ground floor, stairs up to a small living area/kitchen, more stairs up to a second bedroom and bathroom). Outside the living area was a courtyard, and across from there was another flat, where our host lived.

The facilities themselves were basic, and while I shouldn’t have to, I had ended up spending a few Euros to buy an extra mug and some toilet paper, as it didn’t seem our host had thought to provide enough of either. That’s okay – he was friendly enough, and like I say, it was pretty cheap.

The flat, Brussels

The cat in the flat, Brussels - quite nice actually

And did I mention the cat? I didn’t catch the name or the gender, but he or she would regularly drop past for pats, and was mostly friendly (friendlier than this photo would suggest!), though didn’t like being told to get off the table.

The flat may have been low budget, but it had been a great stay in Brussels. The weather had been mostly kind. We’d overcome enough of the language barrier to manage fine, and personally I found it a bit humbling having to adapt to make myself understood. It was a learning experience. And we’d got to meet my new cousin!

Eurostar leaving Brussels

Brussels to London

Rather than walk, we used up some of the spare rides on the Mobib ticket to catch the Metro back to Brussels Zuid/Midi/South station.

At the station, we joined the queues for admittance into the Eurostar terminal. Through bag security… through the Belgian (exit) checkpoint…

At the UK checkpoint, over on the other queue, one family group from Thailand was getting quizzed by a UK Border Force official. No such problems for us, and we got through quickly.

Then I realised.

I’d left my bag behind. Across the border. In Belgium. Back at the security screening point.

For a split second, I actually considered simply leaving it behind. But no, that would be silly, and could cause all sorts of problems later.

Putting on my most polite, humble voice, I backtracked and told the UK official about it. He thought about it for a second, and said OK, to go back and ask his Belgian colleague. He in turn said sure go and get the bag.

It was right where I left it, thank goodness, and I grabbed it, and they waved me back across the border.

Yikes. At that point I think I’d almost had a heart attack.

After calming down, I ducked into a shop in the departure lounge to spend the last of my Euros on some snacks to eat on the train, while M did the same with her money and bought us some coffees/hot chocolates.

The train was a few minutes late leaving – there had been some disruptions on Eurostar earlier in the day, and looking at the real-time updates, I saw one of the services head of us had been altered to not stop at Lille, in order to make up time. Yes, station skipping.

Eurostar service disruptions

Old Eurostar carriage interior

Our carriage this time was older – gunzels may be able to age it based on the fact that the interior was decorated in brown, and there was no Wi-Fi.

At least the toilet was classy.

Eurostar toilet

View from Eurostar of wind turbines in Belgium

View from Eurostar approaching Calais

When you get near to Calais, the wind turbines in fields, and rickety fences separating the farms from the rail line give way to serious looking security, obviously designed to keep unauthorised people from getting into the tunnel and/or onto the trains.

Apparently the lineside flag in the picture above is part of the in-cab signalling system.

High Speed 1 commemorative stone at St Pancras International Station, London

Back in London

The train zipped along, and arrived in London just a few minutes late.

We’d booked another AirBNB, in west London, and headed there on the Tube – the tiny trains of the “deep tube” Piccadilly Line, with a change to the District Line along the way.

The flat was in Chiswick, near Turnham Green station, chosen for being the right side of town for a quick getaway to Heathrow later in the week, as M needed to head there earlier than the rest of us (a long story involving separate flight bookings).

This flat was less central, more expensive, but in much better condition, with much better facilities. And it was spotless.

View from our flat in London

Escalator warning, London Underground

After dropping off the bags, we got some lunch in a local sandwich place in Chiswick, then caught the Tube back towards central London to explore for a bit.

First stop, Earls Court, where I+J finally got to check out the Police Box just outside the station. According to Google Maps, it’s bigger on the inside.

Personally, I was equally fascinated by the facade of the station entrance, with its beautiful signage.

Earls Court Station, London

Piccadilly Line, London

Next stop, Covent Garden, and the London Transport Museum.

The LT Museum is expensive, but for someone like me who is generally fascinated by public transport, it’s very interesting. (Tickets are actually valid for a year, so if I make it back before July 18th 2018, I can get back in.)

M wisely opted out of the museum, choosing to go for a walk instead, but the rest of us explored the museum for a bit, before we all met up again in the gift shop.

London Transport Museum

London Transport Museum: Why you should travel Metro (Metropolitan Line)

Early London Underground map, London Transport Museum

From Covent Garden we walked down towards the Thames to see what we could spot: the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses or Parliament – all the sights.

London bus on the Strand

Waterloo Bridge, London

London Eye

Cycle superhighway, London

We walked west along the river. There’s one of the cycle superhighways along there, and it was rush hour by now, and incredibly busy with cyclists zooming along en masse – very impressive to see.

We spotted Cleopatra’s needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk that is one of a set of three (the others in Paris and New York) stands out. Interestingly, despite the name, it was about 1000 years old in Cleopatra’s lifetime.

Cleopatra's Needle, Embankment, London

We listened out for Big Ben’s chimes – a few weeks later they would stop for some years for refurbishment of the bells.

Big Ben, London

Entrance to Houses of Parliament, London

At Westminster, numerous armed police were on duty – understandable given recent events.

Near Houses of Parliament, London

Westminster Abbey

We went past Westminster Abbey, then walked through St James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace, London

Near Buckingham Palace, London

Replenishing the Bike Share, London

From there we walked to Victoria Station and hopped back on the Tube to Turnham Green (we were very quickly starting to learn about the various branches of the District Line). We decided to grab fish and chips along the way for dinner.

Taking out cash in London: which currency?

To pay for dinner, I needed to grab some cash from a nearby ATM cashpoint. Something I saw at a few of them in the UK: they offered to convert my UK pounds withdrawal to Australian dollars, rather than let my home bank do it. I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, so I declined.

Anyway, we went back to the flat to eat our fast food and watch some telly before bed.