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 £6.50 instead of £8.70 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.

Battling the buses

(Backdated. Posted 4/8/2017.)

We’d be leaving Cardiff the next day, so before heading out we decided to get some laundry done. This is one of the benefits of Air B’n’B over hotels – at least if you’ve booked somewhere with a washing machine.

Then, what excursion today? We’d considered trying to get to Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, which as many would know has the longest place name in the world, though it’s known as the far snappier Llanfairpwllgwyngyll for short. (Disappointingly the long version was made up for promotional purposes in the 1860s.)

Unfortunately, this is right across the other side of Wales, it was almost 5 hours by train to get there. Even driving takes over 4 hours.

Instead we decided on St Fagans museum, just outside Cardiff, which is a kind of multi-timezone Sovereign Hill (but without the gold). On a huge property they have 40-odd buildings from lots of different periods of history, from the Iron Age to the 20th century.

The bus to Pengham Green via Splott

We didn’t catch the bus. I blame Margaret Thatcher.

St Fagans is about 7km from the centre of Cardiff, and the only public transport mode serving the site is local buses.

Most bus services in Britain were privatised in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher — with London being a notable exception — they have private operators but planned and controlled centrally.

In most of the bigger cities, the network is split into multiple bus operators, and they all do their own thing. In most cases they do not have common fares or ticketing, and in some cities they’ve had disputes to try and compete for customers. As recently as last decade, some bus company managers were jailed due to related unsafe practices as part of their battles with other operators.

Consistent with this model of deregulation, Cardiff has numerous bus operators, and they all have different tickets and fares.

This works against public transport patronage. Can you imagine if every highway and freeway was run by a different toll company, with different incompatible payment options? Or if you could only send SMS messages to people on the same phone network as you? (Actually this was the case before April 2000)

Planning and operating a common network makes it easier for users to use the service, encourages more patronage, and more income for all the operators.

In this case, we wanted to get from Cardiff Bay to St Fagans. Frequent bus route 6 (“Baycar”) run by Cardiff Bus goes to the station (fare £1.80), and connects (in the spatial sense only) with buses to St Fagans run by Easyway. But they are run by different operators, so you pay two fares.

Depending on which bus you catch back, you could be using a third operator (New Adventure Travel), with another separate fare.

Timetable information is easy to find online via Google Maps and the official site Traveline Crymru. But for two of those three operators, fare and ticket information isn’t available (though Traveline are apparently working on it). I had no idea what I’d need to pay. Perhaps about £2, but was it cash only? Did they accept cards? Probably not. Did they give change? Did they accept large notes? What cash did I have on me, anyway?

So the prospect was trying to pay multiple fares with cash (awkward) and times four people (expensive) on a two-bus trip (time-consuming)…

(Later on I found there is a £8.30 Network Rider Ticket that’s valid on multiple operators… but not all of them. It covers all the operators I mentioned above, but not all their routes… confusing much? And if the plan was for three trips at about £2 each, then that’s not actually a very good deal. And where do I buy this ticket? On the buses, or elsewhere? Oh and by the way, at least one bus operator lists this at the old £8.00 price.)

And the clincher was we were late getting out of the house… so I gave up and called an Uber. It came a couple of minutes after we called it, took about 20 minutes, and cost £16.30, direct off my credit card. For the four of us, not much more expensive than the, perhaps, £14 in bus fares, but also quicker and more convenient.

Iron Age round houses, St Fagans Museum, Cardiff

St Fagans Museum, Cardiff

St Fagans, to rhyme with Baggins

We saw various parts of suburban Cardiff on the way to the museum (including, up close, for the first time since our trip started, a British railway crossing – rare in urban areas, but there are a few on the less busy lines in regional areas).

On arrival at the museum, our Uber driver remarked that he’d lived there for 20 years, but “I’ve never heard of this place.”

It was pretty warm, and we did a lot of walking around the museum looking at the various buildings, as well as some amusing placement of (fake, presumably) dinosaur tails.

St Fagans Museum: Dinosaur tail

It was kind of interesting. But it’s very widely spaced out. Admittedly this does give each site a nice sense of isolation, but it also means you have to walk a long way to see anything.

I may be a total philistine, but I have to confess, even though the museum was free, and parts of it were interesting, I’m not sure I’d go back. (Which you could interpret as: if you’re in the area, don’t bother trekking out there unless you’re super-keen and there’s nothing else to do.)

Plymouth Arms pub, St Fagans, near Cardiff

On the recommendation of some neighbourly builders, lunch was at the Plymouth Arms, a rather lovely pub just outside the eastern gate of the museum. Tasty. Mushy peas is a UK tradition I think we should adopt in pub meals here.

I thought we’d catch a bus back to the city centre. The buses from St Fagans back to central Cardiff are theoretically every 20-30 minutes, but I discovered that during school terms, there’s no bus between about 2pm and 4:30. Evidently the buses go off and do school runs.

This is perhaps understandable from a purely economic point of view. But it’s poor service to museum patrons.

Another bus runs from nearby, but only about every 2 hours. It was due in an hour.

I tried to call an Uber. A driver accepted (12 minutes away) then cancelled on me. I tried for a few minutes, but no others responded. Hmmmm. Could it be that, 7km from Cardiff City Centre, we were just too remote for Uber?

I had no idea what the local phone number was for a cab… nor whether they’d take a credit card. This of course is the benefit of Uber in an unfamiliar city.

So we decided to look around the museum gardens and mansion house a bit more (it’s all very Downton Abbey), then catch the bus.

The bus – assuming I’d read the timetable correctly – rocked up 5 minutes early – thankfully we’d reached the stop early. The bus driver seemed surprised to be getting any passengers :-/ Oh well, at least the fare was an even £2 each.

On the bus from St Fagans to Cardiff

War memorial, Cardiff

It took us into central Cardiff pretty quickly and we had another look around the shops to find a cold drink.

Then we walked up to the National Museum. Somehow the day had got away from us, and we only had about half-an-hour before closing time – only had time for a quick look around.

Doctor Who fans might recognise the museum as one of those used for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, the final episode of Matt Smith’s first season.

National Museum, Cardiff

In fact, there are Doctor Who and Torchwood shooting sites all over Cardiff and the surrounding area. Turns out there’s a web site tracking them all: Doctor Who Locations.

As we continued to wander the streets, we spotted another location: the University of Cardiff, which doubled for Bristol University in the most recent Doctor Who season.

Walking past the Cardiff Police headquarters we noticed a film crew packing up their equipment, including uncovering the “Cardiff Police” sign, which had been disguised as “Bristol Police”.

I’m not sure what had been filmed, but a number of productions are based in Cardiff apart from Doctor Who, such as Sherlock and hospital drama Casualty.

Police station, Bristol. No, actually Cardiff.

A little more exploring of the city centre, and grabbing a takeaway dinner along the way, we headed back to our accommodation to relax for the evening and prepare to head for our next destination.