Rosehip Syrup

A few weeks ago I decided to indulge my frugal instincts and make Rosehip syrup. During WW2, with regular sources of vitamin C hard to come by, the Ministry of Health promoted the collection of rosehips in its wartime pamphlet ‘Hedgerow Harvest’. With oranges off the menu, the Ministry saw rosehip syrup as an ideal way to get vitamins into young children, as the hips contain up to 20 times more vitamin C than oranges, as well as a healthy dose of vitamin A and iron.

The process itself wasn’t that difficult, although harvesting them did involve tackling a very thorny rose, so gloves and long sleeves are recommended. Then it was just a question of getting them back to the kitchen, chopping off any remaining stems and giving them a good wash before blasting them in a food processor.

I loosely followed this River Cottage recipe, but halved the quantity of sugar as I like things quite tart, but I suggest tasting as you go to reach your preferred sweetness.

So after adding the now roughly chopped rosehips to water (just enough to cover) and simmering at a low temperature for around 15 mins, it was time to strain them. As you can see in the picture, rosehips contain a lot of seeds, as well as an array of potentially irritating little hairs, which obviously you don’t want to swallow. Straining is therefore crucial if you want to create something edible. I still haven’t got around to buying a muslin though, and if you’re just doing this as a one off then a jay cloth, thin tea towel or any other clean cotton material will do just fine. As you can see, I also added some pegs to keep everything in place.

I then left the contents, which at this point looked like a thick tomato sauce with maggots in it, to strain slowly for 30 minutes, before adding a dash more water and giving it a good squeeze to get out any remaining juices. I then repeated the process one more time, though for a more impatient 15 minutes, before returning the strained juice to a clean saucepan and adding spoonfuls of sugar, tasting as I went until I reached my preferred sweetness.

Next, let the syrup simmer for a few minutes until all the sugar has dissolved, before decanting it into a sterlised bottle. The end result was a warm orangey red in colour and really quite delicious, so if you’ve got a rose in your back garden or know of one on some public land nearby, then get picking soon.

And given that we’re not exactly short of vitamin C sources these days, I can recommend some more decadent uses for it, namely adding it to cocktails and prosecco or drizzling it over ice-cream. Not so frugal after all…

 

Abney Park

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Friday 13th, what better date for a walk in a Victorian cemetery?

It’s a typical mid-January day when we set out, all half-hearted sleety snow and lumbering grey clouds. For a graveyard walk though, this seems pretty fitting. Gotta love that pathetic fallacy.

Abney Park in Stoke Newington, North London, is another of the city’s Magnificent Seven, a group of suburban Victorian cemeteries originally designed to cope with the inevitable mortality of London’s rapidly increasing population. Like many of its counterparts, Abney Park eventually went to wrack and ruin in the 70’s, after the cemetery company that ran it went into administration. Their loss was natures gain though, and Abney Park – now managed by Hackney Council and Abney Park Trust – soon transformed itself into the crumbling, tumbling nature reserve it is today. However, unlike other cemeteries, Abney Park had a bit of a head start when it came to its natural instincts, as it was originally designed to be an arboretum as well as a place of burial, and some of the old trees from the initial planting in the 1840’s still survive to this day.

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We’re not here to learn about trees though, we’re here to meander between the tombstones, take photos, wonder about the dead and analyse the living. Whenever I do these cemetery walks, I always end up struggling with the question of sentimentality. On a personal level, I have very little time for sentiment, or at least, I like to think I don’t. But when it comes to graveyards, all these big ideals tend to go out the stained glass window. Because what is it we do in old cemeteries? We stare, we read, we attempt to look pensive and profound, and we sentimentalize the dead. We see a picture of a boy on a gravestone, and we put ourselves in the mother’s shoes. We see cheap, small graves lined up row-upon-row and we rant about the evils of poverty. Though we usually have little time for religion, we see relics, insignia and symbols and gaze on in quiet respect. We see the best in people too. I, for one, never look at tomb and think ‘yeah, nice marble lion, but I bet he was a right dickhead’. The phrase ‘beloved mother’ picked out in gold may hide all manner of dark deeds, but we choose not to look too deep. In a graveyard, everyone is forgiven; in a graveyard, we are all unknown innocents reduced to our finest hour.

See, sentiment, it’ll ruin your writing too if you’re not careful.lion

One of the most notable residents of Abney Park is Frank C Bostock, travelling menagerist and lion tamer extraordinaire. Buried with his wife, his tomb is guarded by a large, sleepy lion and by all accounts he was one of the best lion tamers of his day, touring throughout the UK and America with his menagerie of lions, tigers and boxing kangaroos. Although his animals attacked him on many occasions, sadly it was a much less dramatic case of flu that led to his death in 1912. If you’re into marble lions, you can also see the tomb of Frank’s Grandfather, George Wombwell, which is guarded by a similar one, in Highgate Cemetery West. Lion taming clearly ran in the family.

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After admiring their grave we wander onwards, chatting to a woman who’s out walking her dogs, a mother and daughter. We spot teenage graffiti spray-painted onto a tree, a chair hidden in the bushes, and get a bit lost in the undergrowth and have to turn back. Our conversation flits between work and relationships, men and women, good behaviour and bad. The sort of conversations people have probably been having in this cemetery since it was first built. Which is the magical thing about graveyards, they remind you that human nature, at its basic level probably hasn’t changed as much as we like to think it has. We’re still caught up in the same old emotional dramas, still trying to talk our way out of things, still trying to tame lions, or to resist being tamed ourselves. I leave thinking we should go somewhere modern next time, before sentiment destroys us completely. Time to move on. angel path

All photos © Emily CX Lines 2017. You can find more of Emily’s work here.

Double-Decker Dreams: Talking transport with Adham Fisher, the man who spent 24 hours riding London buses

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It’s not every day you meet a man who can say he’s spent 24 hours on London buses, and held the Guinness World Record for visiting every New York Subway station in the fastest time. But the man I’m here to interview has done just that, and plenty more besides.

Firstly, let me admit, I’ve got a thing for London buses. I’ve rubbed shoulders with bus timetable collectors at Acton Bus Depot, I’ve taken bus trips for funsies, and I have a giant cardboard double-decker bus costume sitting in the corner of my room. So when I read in The Guardian that a man named Adham Fisher was planning to ride on as many London buses as he could in 24 hours, I immediately tweeted my support. To my pleasant surprise, Adham then reached out to me, and we arranged to meet up to talk transit racing, public transport infrastructure, and the great big north/south divide…

So, tell me a little bit about you. 

I’m Adham Fisher and I like to ride public transport to extremes. I have held the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to visit every New York Subway station and more recently, about 3 months ago I spent 24 hours on London buses, trying to ride as many as possible.

And how many did you manage?

Strangely enough it was 200 exactly. I initially had a target of 270, as that’s the total amount of tube stations in London, but when I was interviewed by The Guardian about it, they put the target down to 200, and I ended up going on exactly that amount.

How far did you have to travel on each bus to make it count? Did you hop on and off of them, or did you travel a certain distance?

Well there were no rules for this as it’s not an official world record, so I just decided that I would ride reach bus for at least one stop to make it count, and I would try and photograph the bus as well, whether that be the sign outside, or the display inside.

When did you start taking transport riding to extremes?

At about 15 I think. In 2000 or 2001, I started riding as many buses as possible in a day in Leicester, my hometown. I used to ride buses from terminus to terminus during that time, and having been a regular visitor to London all my life, I started wondering about going to every tube station in one day. But then I discovered that there was a world record for it, and it was 2004 before I finally managed to attempt it.

And how many attempts have you made?

I’ve lost count slightly, but I believe it’s about 28 now.

Blimey, that’s quite a lot

My attempts at rail-based records were quite sporadic from 2004 to 2009, but after 2009 I started doing it more regularly. Of course, there are hardly any Guinness World Records for this sort of thing though, because there are so many public transport systems in the world, and Guinness can’t sanction a record for all of them. That hasn’t stopped me though, and because I’ve had so much failure in London and the tube is so expensive, and never works as it should, I actually prefer doing it anywhere other than London nowadays. But I’ve done alternative stuff in London too, like I’ve tried to go to every Overground station in the fastest time, and every DLR station, even every Tramlink station; I think I did that in 2 and a quarter hours

The most demanding attempt though was when I went to every South Eastern station in 2014. South Eastern were actually voted the worst performing national rail operator that year, so I contacted them and said ‘how about some positive spin? How about I try and go to all your stations as quickly as possible?’ and so they granted me special dispensation to do it. In the end it took 2 days; 34 hours in total, and surprisingly, on the first day, everything ran on time, absolutely everything. I think prior to last year, when Southern rail took the prize, South Eastern were the most complained about rail operator, so I was absolutely amazed that everything ran on time. On the second day though, things started to go wrong about 2 hours in, but even then that wasn’t South Eastern’s fault, it was because there was landslide.

Do you talk to members of the public while you’re travelling? What kind of reaction do you get?

Only if they talk to me first.

Which can be rare in London

Yes, but it can happen. In order to prove I’ve been there, I photograph all the stations I visit during an attempt, so of course it’s natural to see someone doing that and be curious about it, so occasionally I will strike up a conversation. Then, when you attempt the Tube Challenge, you have to talk to people because you need witness statements in order for Guinness to verify your attempt. So you need to get people to write a short statement and sign it, saying that they saw you at that time. But generally, I tend to keep myself to myself, because I’m concentrating on doing what I’m doing. On the other hand though, it’s a pity that people don’t talk to each other on public transport, but that’s just the way of the world. I don’t know whether I’m contributing to that or not. If someone asks me what I’m doing then I’ll happily talk to them, but I have to keep dashing off, so it’s not always convenient.

Do you literally run between each stop then, is it very energetic?

Yes, to go as quickly as possible one has to take the next possible train or bus. I always try to change modes of transport as quickly as I can.

AF Way Out stairs

Have you met other extreme transporters? Obviously you haven’t bumped into people doing it at the same time as you, or have you?

Yes, I have actually, I’ve bumped into people in London on the same journey, and there are mass participation events that are organised every year. I tend not to do those, but there is a social aspect, which is embraced by a few of the others who do it.

How many cities and countries have you attempted records in to date? Do you have a list?

I don’t have an actual list, but I can try and estimate it. Bearing in mind that there might be more than one network per city…(counts for a long time) well with rail-based things, I think it’s about 22. But it could be more.

We originally got in touch because I saw your article in the Guardian and tweeted about it, and then you sent me an email…

Yes, this proves how narcissistic I am, because I was searching for myself online, because a lot of the negative stuff I find goes into my comedy show.

What negative things do people say?

Oh they assume that I’m an unemployed, lazy benefits scrounger and still living with my parents, and I personally find that amusing. It’s really funny when people think that. So I was searching for mentions of my name and the online Guardian article, and stumbled across you.

Can you tell me a bit about your comedy? Have you been doing it for a long time, or did it come out of what you discovered while transit racing?

The latter, but it came about by accident really, in fact my whole life has been an accident, I’m convinced of that. I applied to work for Leicester Comedy Festival, and I met the director at an event and just walked right up to him and said ‘hello sir, I want to work for you’ and we swapped emails and over the course of the next few weeks he said ‘tell me a bit more about yourself’ so I did, and I mentioned the transport thing, and he said ‘that sounds like an interesting idea for a show, have you done a show about that?’ And I said no, and he said ‘do you want to do one?” and I said ‘okay’. And that’s how it came about. I talk about the weird stuff that’s happened to me on public transport and display some of the media reaction to it.

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What do you think of London as a city?

It’s great, but Leicester’s greater.

Why is Leicester greater? 

Just because it’s my city really. Actually, in one of the London Mayor candidacy hustings, Tessa Jowell, essentially said ‘I want to be Mayor of London because I think London’s the greatest city in the world’ and I was at that hustings, I just happened to be there, and I really wanted to yell out ‘No, it’s Leicester’ but then I just put it on Twitter instead, and had a rather bemused reaction from an American living in London. But that’s just by.

I like London very much, I would like to live here for a while actually, but I frankly doubt that will ever happen. Only for a few years though, because I prefer Leicester and Leicester’s within easy reach of everywhere. London can be a bit out of the way for much of the country unfortunately, though clearly it’s the most exciting place in the country, it has the most going on, which one would expect as it’s the capital. In recent years, I’ve noticed the very slight online movement against London-centricity though.

What’s your opinion on that? 

Well, I’ve been coming to London regularly all my life, but it is very strange that of all the brand new railways built in the country over the past 20 years, I think all but one or two have been in London and the South East. Of course Greater London and the general South East area has the highest population, so that’s fine, but there is certainly a feeling in much of the rest of the country, that the rest of the country has been neglected and I certainly think that’s true, I can more than understand what annoys people about it.

When Beeching decimated the railways, large chunks of the country were left without stations, and I think it would be very useful for lines to be considered for re-opening. There are many such lines in the North, and I understand that to build lines from scratch takes a lot of effort and money, but many of the station buildings are still there, the lines are still there. They’re completely overgrown of course, but the space is already clear, so all you’d need to do would be to clear the tracks and the buildings, and of course replace the tracks more than likely, but a large amount of the groundwork has already been done.

Perhaps there is not quite as much demand for rail travel elsewhere in the country, as there is in London, but I do know that there has been a lot of congestion in the North, I think Manchester in particular is notorious for it, especially the motorway that goes around Manchester, the main roads can be quite congested.

AF helmet bus

I agree that London gets too much money compared to the rest of the UK, I think it’s ridiculous. The wealth is obviously here, so that’s why it keeps getting more, but if the government wants to make the North more wealthy then they need to start investing in it in a big way, even if the jobs aren’t necessarily there at the moment.

The government does occasionally give lots of money to cities north of Watford, but it tends to be for buildings, houses etc, not really for transport infrastructure, though there have been a few roads built of course.

But while we’re on the subject of building new railways, I hope HS2 is never built. I mean, I know the West Coast Mainline is full, from what I’ve heard, at the moment no more trains can be timetabled onto the West Coast Mainline, but on the other hand, I don’t think that we necessarily need to start building railways without looking at what we already have first. Because the first phase would go from London to Birmingham, and there are already two rail routes between those cities, and I wonder if more London to Birmingham trains, the non-stopping ones, could be put on the Chiltern line. I think if the HS2 line were to go from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh, straight through the middle of the country, which would involved burrowing under the Peninnes I know, I think that would be much more sensible in the long run.

My main beef with transport in this country though, great as it is, is that it’s absolutely horrific when it comes to fares. It’s far too expensive, but I don’t necessarily think that re-nationalisation is the answer. The government has been acting very proud of itself in recent years, because they’ve said ‘we will put a cap on fare rises, so that fares cannot rise by more than 2%’ for example, and they pat themselves on the back. But I believe that the government has the power to say to rail companies, ‘there will be a 0% cap, you will not raise fares this year and if you do, we will fine you’. I’m sure that the government has the power to do that, but they’ve never done so and fares keep rising year on year and then operating costs increase all the time, or so we’re told. But it’s very rare that the service actually improves or changes. I mean, there have been two trains an hour between Leicester and Birmingham for as long as I’ve known about that service, and I believe fares have risen perhaps 30% or more within 10 years. And if there were 3 trains an hour, then I could see the point of that. The day single to Birmingham is about £13.50 or it could be more, that’s a journey of I believe 43 miles as the crow flies and it takes 48 minutes on the fastest train. For less than that, I think it’s about 12 Euros; I’ve been from Barcelona to the French/Spanish border, which is a journey of about 3 hours.

All public transport fares are ridiculous in this country, not only for rail but buses as well, and if the government and rail operators and everyone else want to encourage people to use the service more, then they have to make public transport more affordable, there has to be an incentive. I believe that if fares were halved in this country, then a lot of complaints would disappear, because people’s main grudge is the price. And I also call for the abolition of peak time fares, where it can cost up to half as much again, for the same journey. I’ve travelled on metros and national rail in several countries, and Britain is the only one that has peak time fares, it’s completely ridiculous. Even in Spain, whose economy was even more messed up than ours during the banking crisis, they’ve still managed to maintain a reasonable railway system.

What country would you say has got it right in terms of rail infrastructure then? 

I’d have to think about this, but definitely from recent memory, Spain has the best value for money rail system. Italy’s is very good as well; you could be talking about 2 Euros for a 40-minute journey, which I think is good. But pretty much every country has generally cheaper public transport than the UK.

London buses aren’t too expensive though, a day bus pass currently caps at £4.50

Yes, I was actually quite amazed by that when I went on buses for 24 hours. I had two lots of £4.50, because I did it during two 24-hour periods. So to ride 200 buses cost me £9, which is great value for money. But it would only be value for money for someone like me. But having said that, I think the one journey base fare on London buses is actually quite good.

You can now get on 2 within an hour and pay just £1.50 as well, but the problem with buses is that you’re literally paying with your time. Tube journeys are generally a lot quicker, whereas with buses you get stuck in traffic. So if you’re trying to get to work, it’s a lot harder than it is on the train. You could take two hours or more to get into central London if you live in the suburbs, so it’s a bit different in that sense.

It’s actually very rare I’ve found, that a metro system charges by distance. The tube is the only one that does it to a very great extent. I’d like to see a single fare on the tube that could take your anywhere, between any two stations. I remember when the Overground station Shoreditch High Street was opened, there was a slight uproar because it’s zone 1 and it’s the only one on that line that is. Basically, just because it’s such a popular area, TfL put it in zone 1. I think that’s very unfair, and I think if the transport fares were more reasonable, that would certainly encourage more people to take public transport. But having said that, of course during the last decade, a lot of people have moved away from London because they can’t afford it, but is that necessarily a bad thing?

You can follow Adham on Twitter @DirectionTravel 

All images © 2017 Adham Fisher

Peckham Rye Park

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That it takes me a while to get round to writing is the understatement of the (new) year. So while we’re most definitely in the depths of winter now – albeit currently a sunny one – I’m here to tell you about a walk I went on in the depths of autumn.

Peckham Rye Park is somewhere I’ve been meaning to visit for years, but never quite got round to. And as is usually the case, it turns out you have to move far away from something in order to see it properly. I used to live relatively locally in nearby Brockley, but having moved back to my home turf of north east London, the urge to venture south again became a bit stronger. Well, that and accommodating my walking partner, Adrian, who isn’t exactly keen to travel far beyond his endz if he can help it.

So, after meeting at Peckham Rye station on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at the start of November, we set off in the direction of the park. Having a notoriously bad sense of direction, I tend to leave map reading to other people if I can help it, a habit I really need to get out of – I’m sensing a resolution coming on – because when the person I’m with isn’t an expert map reader either, trouble usually ensues. After a few wrong turns though, we arrived at the edge of the park and it was my turn to cause problems and drop the strap clasp of my camera into the depths of the bread covered common. Several pointless minutes later, we gave up  looking and headed for the park proper.

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So what is Peckham Rye Park famous for? Well, literary associations mainly. It’s in this park that William Blake, then aged just 8 years old, looked up and saw an oak tree ‘filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. He’s a poet and he knows it. Though no one’s sure of the exact location of this oak, or whether it even still exists, back in 2011 the artist John Hartley decided it was time to commemorate the occasion by plant a young oak sapling on the Rye in Blake’s honour. There are some lovely pictures of the ceremonial planting here. Sadly, I didn’t do my research before heading out that morning, and wasn’t aware of the new angelic oak, so there’s no pics of its growing progress to share. I’m also sorry to say that no angelic visions appeared to me or Adrian during our walk, but then maybe it would’ve been more troubling if they had…

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Peckham Rye has also been immortalised in Muriel Spark’s novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Published in 1960, and full of wonderfully named characters – Dixie Morse and Humphrey Place to name just two – the novel charts the story of a group of locals whose lives are thrown into chaos by the arrival in their midst of Dougal Douglas, a Scottish migrant. Peckham is also of course hugely famous for another “literary” creation, Derek Trotter from Only Fools and Horses, though the series was actually filmed at a flat in Acton, South West London.

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But that’s enough literary (and not so literary) association; time for some nature. As you can see from the photos, the day was as good as autumn gets, featuring a dazzling lowly slung sun, burnt red and gold leaves, and shimmering, reflective water. One of those days where you want to soak up as much vitamin D as you can before the proper gloom of winter kicks in. In fact, even the squirrels were getting in on the act, and were stretched out in the kitchen garden doing a spot of acrobatic sunbathing. This is the first time either of us had seen sunbathing squirrels and it was nice to see what is usually a frantic, nervous animal actually having some chill time.

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Apart from the edible garden, there are a few other separate gardens within the park itself, including a Japanese Garden, and the Sexby Garden, named after Lt. Col. Sexby who was the Chief Officer of Parks until 1910, and which  was home to an impressive patch of spiny seed heads.

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We both took a fair few photos, given the brilliance of the light, and chatted away about mutual friends, future plans, and I gave my usual lecture about the perils of London pollution, which Adrian patiently endured. In no time at all, we found we’d explored all the gardens, and resisting the urge to go and play in the kids playground, we decided it was probably time to get going.

On the way back, we passed the bread-scattered grass where I’d lost my strap clasp and decided to take another look. While I’d love to report that we found it, as it’d be a great framing device, the odds were well and truly stacked against us. So giving it up for lost, we decided it was time to head for the pub, though sadly not The Nag’s Head…

And then Trigger made a face…

Thanks to Adrian Gibbs, who I stupidly forgot to take a photo of, for his charming company. 

 

Wild City Song #3: Depeche Mode – The Landscape is Changing

A wonderfully smooth and silky slice of synthpop, The Landscape is Changing from Depeche Mode’s third studio album Construction Time Again, was one of the first songs penned by Alan Wilder, and marked a new political edge to the band’s lyrics. While it’s hard to call David Gahan’s deadpan delivery ‘sincere’, the lyrics get straight to the point, and when paired with an industrial synthpop sound, the song’s chief refrain ‘I don’t care if you’re going nowhere, just take good care of the world’, is very infectious. I’m sure that somewhere in the world, some earnest teen eco-warriors took it to heart, and at the very least were inspired to make their own eco-anthems by those delicious, floaty synths.

Some thoughts on the Garden Bridge and the murky world of Public/Private Space

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Argggghhh, why won’t this project just roll over and die already?! That’s my first, if slightly unhelpful thought. With news from the National Audit Office today that £22 million of taxpayers’ money could disappear if the bridge is cancelled (which is looking increasingly likely), while much of the £60 million of public money that’s been invested has already been spent, this ill-thought-out, mucky proposal is getting worse by the day. Though I am full of respect for Joanna Lumley’s TV career, when it comes to her public planning career, I haven’t been so keen. Originally conceived as a ‘tribute to Princess Diana’ – a badly designed water feature obviously wasn’t enough – the garden bridge project has been controversial from the get-go. A murky mix of public and private investment, the garden bridge, if it ever gets built, will be another example of ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS for short) to add to London’s growing list. While Garden Bridge supporters have tried to assure the public that private ownership would have little impact on access to the bridge – though there’s been talk of tracking mobile phone signals – the bridge would occasionally be closed for private events during the evening, and would be closed from midnight to 6am every night, meaning it won’t be that useful as an actual bridge. Any form of protest or speech giving would also be prohibited, presumably to stop taxpayers demanding their money back. Nonetheless, the Department for Transport continues to back the project, despite repeated warnings of the financial risks involved, and  even though leading MPs continue to refer to it as ‘Boris’ vanity project’.

While in theory I’m for any scheme that helps bring more plants and trees into London, this really isn’t the way to do it. Given London’s escalating housing crisis, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the slow death of the city’s night life, there are much more urgent things to use public money for right now. While bringing beauty into city centres is vitally important, it has to be beauty that benefits everyone and doesn’t come with a string of sub-clauses attached. Projects like this also don’t help London’s standing in the rest of the country, especially when so many vital public services are being cut or closed up and down the country, services that £22.5 million could really benefit.

Projects built solely on the chumminess between celebrities and Tory politicians – with the name of a national treasure thrown in for good measure – clearly set a worrying precedent too. Especially when elsewhere in London, multi-billionaires like Christian Candy have been trying to turn areas of public road into private gardens in the name of ‘increasing green space’. Indeed, as the need for green space in urban settings gains increasing recognition in public discourse, as it rightly should, there is a danger that many privates companies will use this argument in order to take public land out of public hands. Ensuring that public money goes to projects that are fully public and fully transparent is therefore going to be vital if we want London’s green space to truly benefit everyone.

As for the Garden Bridge Project, Sadiq Khan’s inquiry needs to get to work quickly so that this project can either be forced into existence (despite the hefty price tag), or scrapped for good so that no more public money is wasted, neither of which is fantastic for Londoners.

So in the immortal words of Patsy Stone: Cheers, thanks a lot.

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What if…London was a National Park City?

What if…London was a National Park City?

This was the question posed at the Royal Festival Hall two weeks back, when a diverse group of public sector workers, environmentalists, scientists, and a few beekeeping school children met to exchange ideas. Billing itself as a community meeting, the night was a chance for campaigners to promote their causes, champion some blue-sky thinking and ultimately move the audience to action. While the campaign itself is still in its early stages (it launched in 2014), judging by the range of speakers on offer, it’s starting to gather pace. In fact, as his GP Tom Coffey (Tooting’s proudest resident) was there to inform us, Sadiq Khan has publicly backed the idea, and hopefully his current proposals for tackling air pollution will move things in the right direction, though whether they’ll be bold enough remains to be seen.

So what would declaring London a National Park City mean? Well, the main thrust of the argument is to make London a greener, healthier, and safer place to live and work, which in practice boils down to creating cleaner air, cleaner rivers, and helping to forge a stronger connection between people and nature.

In order to make their case, and inspire visions of what a National Park City could mean, each speaker was given 5/10 minutes to talk about their project or vision for a future, greener London, and in a night packed full of statistics, the following ones stuck out:

47% of London is green space

On average, London’s children spend less time outside than prison inmates

Close to 10,000 people in London die due to the effects of air pollution every year

1 in 7 children in London haven’t visited natural green space in the past year

Around 55m tonnes of sewage flows into the Thames every year

London’s trees remove 2,241 tonnes of pollution, a 1/6 of the pollution made by cars

2.2 million pieces of litter are dropped on UK streets every day

¼ of the countries carbon emissions come from homes

While most of these stats make for pretty grim reading (the litter one particularly irks me) there is room for hope too, especially as London already has so much green space to work with (though the project hopes to increase this to 50%). When it comes to the city’s sewage problem, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which is due to be completed in 2023, has been designed to support the city’s now antiquated sewerage system (which was designed to cope with a maximum of 4 million people) and should stop the almost daily overflow of sewage into the Thames for at least the next 100 years. If 2023 seems like a long way off though, the Thames Baths project should be an exciting prospect (it certainly is for me). The project aims to bring open-air swimming back to the River Thames, but don’t worry, until the sewage problem is sorted they’ll be filtering the Thames water to make it perfectly safe to swim in (and heating it in the winter too), and hopefully all within the next few years…here’s hoping.

Beyond questions about pollution though, many of the speakers were keen to highlight the consequences of being disconnected from nature, and the affect this can have on our mental health. The dramatic increase in childhood mental health issues has been trickling into the national consciousness recently, and Beth Collier, founder of Wild in the City! promoted the idea of time spent in nature when young, as an investment in future mental health.

When it came to the question of exactly how to reconnect London’s children with nature though, the speakers often had quite limited views, particularly regarding technology. Eyes were rolled at computer games and Pokemon on more than one occasion, and this inability to engage with young people via a medium that is a huge part of their lives seemed somewhat lacking in imagination for an event that was keen to be so forward facing. Especially as the recent Pokemon Go craze brought kids (and a lot of adults) out onto the streets and got them to explore areas of their neighbourhoods that they hadn’t stepped foot in before – including green spaces. The fact that kids can apparently name more Pokemon than actual animal species may sound depressing, but surely this new tech could be used to help get kids outside in the first place? Either way, technology certainly isn’t going anywhere, so engagement with it has to be the way forward if a scheme like this wants to succeed.

The way in which we perceive London as a city offered more thought-provoking insights though. Beth Collier stated the importance of making sure cities are liveable as opposed to places we just survive in, while Fiona Reynolds (former director of the National Trust) brought up the sadly rather old-fashioned idea of beauty. Her argument was that we have to fight against the idea of seeing London (and cities in general) purely as wealth creators, where beauty is only considered if its financially viable. Interestingly, given this train of thought, the controversial Garden Bridge project – which has brought up many questions regarding beauty, the line between private and public space, and a hell of a lot of raised eyebrows about funding – wasn’t mentioned by any of the speakers at all, though I am sure many of them had strong feelings about it! John Muir, the Scot responsible for setting up the first National Parks in America was brought up though, along with his apt quote ‘we need beauty as well as bread’.

All in all there were certainly many more questions than there were answers at this event, but every cause has to start somewhere, and change, especially on the scale proposed here, doesn’t happen over night. The thought of being able to swim in the Thames one day though, coupled with a desire not to drop down dead while walking down Oxford Street on a smoggy day, makes me think that a scheme like this, which encourages London and Londoners towards a greener future, can only be a good thing.

You can learn more and read the full proposal for making London a National Park City here.