Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

November 9, 2015
by Neil Turner

Crossness Pumping Station

Crossness Pumping Station

This is the sixth in a series of posts about what we did on our recent trip to London.

Visiting a sewage works probably doesn’t rank highly on most peoples’ lists of things to do in London. But Crossness Pumping Station is no ordinary sewage works – not at least because it’s now disused.

It was built in the 19th century, back when most sewage from central London got dumped straight into the River Thames, thus effectively making it a huge, smelly open sewer. To combat this, a series of underground sewer tunnels were built, along with two pumping stations – one north of the Thames at Abbey Mills, and one at Crossness, which is south of the Thames, near Abbey Wood. The sewage could then be treated before being deposited into the river in a cleaner state, and away from the centre of the city.

Crossness Pumping Station

Like many Victorian infrastructure projects, Crossness was somewhat over-designed and elaborate, with intricate painted cast-iron features. Inside the pumping station, four huge steam powered pumps would pump the sewage through the tunnels; later, two additional pumps were installed in an extension to the building. These two later pumps were then replaced with two small diesel-powered pumps, and the remaining steam pumps decommissioned, before the whole plant was closed and replaced by modern facilities in the 1950s.

The building has now been taken over by volunteers, intent on restoring as much as possible back to its original condition in its 19th century heyday. So far, one of the four remaining pumps has been fully restored and is operational; a second is in progress but the other two are a long way away from working again.

Crossness Pumping StationMuch has also been done to restore other features in the building, including the beautiful original iron work. Remember – this was a facility to pump human waste, and yet its interior feels almost like a palace.

Opportunities to visit Crossness are limited; we were lucky that our trip to London coincided with one of their open days. There are no more open days this year and the dates for 2016 are not yet up on the web site, but I would recommend going to visit. Public transport access to the site is available on open days, although the nearest station, Abbey Wood, is being rebuilt for Crossrail and is therefore frequently shut at weekends.

November 8, 2015
by Neil Turner

Remembrance Sunday

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Today is the second Sunday in November, and so it is Remembrance Sunday, a day to commemorate those who gave their lives in the two world wars, and subsequent conflicts.

Last weekend, we went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is just off the M1 near Wakefield. One of the temporary installations there at present is ‘Wave’, a wave of ceramic and resin poppies representing those that died in the first world war. The poppies were originally at the Tower of London last year; some of them are here now and others will appear elsewhere around the country.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It’s only there for a limited time and will be moving on in January, so naturally it was the busiest part of the park. It didn’t help that it was an unseasonably warm and sunny day; we ended up parking in one of the last few remaining car parking spaces. Ultimately we left viewing Wave until almost the end of our visit, when the crowds had dispersed somewhat.

If you want to visit, bear in mind that the park is only open to pre-booked visitors today and on Wednesday (Remembrance Day). I would recommend taking the time to have a look; it’s a powerful piece, and will only be on show for a few more weeks.

You can view more photos of our visit, including other sculptures, on Flickr.

November 7, 2015
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for November 7, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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November 3, 2015
by Neil Turner

Borough Market

Borough MarketThis is the fifth in a series of posts about what we did on our recent trip to London.

Borough Market was another place that has been on my London to-do list for a long time. And as it was just around the corner from Southwark Cathedral, and on the way home via London Bridge station, it was a good opportunity to tick it off that list.

It was pretty much five o’clock on the dot when we arrived, and so many stalls were starting to close, but it was still very busy. The market is partly indoors; well, strictly speaking, it’s ‘covered’ rather than properly inside, but with some outdoor bits. We didn’t buy much – it was the early evening and we weren’t going home until the day after. We managed to squeeze in some goat milk ice cream cones, which is great for someone like me who is lactose intolerant. Amusingly, the stall next door specialised in goat meat. I have no idea if the two were connected.

Borough Market is a very fashionable place to shop and is often featured in cookery programmes on TV, and in films such as the Bridget Jones series. Historically it was more of a wholesale market, but now almost all of the stalls are aimed at the general public. And there’s a very wide variety of stalls, most of which aim at a much wealthier clientele than the average city centre market.

Records suggest that Borough Market is as about as old as the cathedral next door, dating back to the 11th century, but the current buildings are from the 1850s. It sits partially under railway lines, which, controversially, have been expanded under the Thameslink Programme. This resulted in the partial demolition of some properties; a pub on the edge of the market is now shorter than it used to be, for example. However, despite being of new construction, significant effort has been made to make the new bridge over the market match in with the existing fabric of the building. It’s possible to see where the bridge is from below, but it’s not a horrendous eyesore. Trains will start using it in the next few months.

I’d like to go back to Borough Market, preferably on a day when we’re due to travel home so that we can take things for the fridge and freezer. As it was, we were staying the night in London with friends, although we did pop around the corner to Neal’s Yard Dairy for some very nice cheese. That’s another place to go to on a Saturday evening, just before closing, as you can buy some of their offcut cheese at a discount.

Later on in the week, I’ll write about what we did on our second day in London. As you can see, we packed a lot into one weekend.

November 2, 2015
by Neil Turner

The Belgrave Music Hall

Pies sign at the Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds

I’m taking a break from writing about London (should be more tomorrow) and so instead, here’s a blog post about the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen in Leeds. It’s a place that has been on my to-do list for a while, and on Saturday Christine and I, along with a couple of friends, happened to be in the area and so we paid a visit.

Downstairs is a large open space, with a bar and two food hatches; then, upstairs, there’s a gig venue and then a rooftop terrace. The views up top aren’t that great, thanks to other, taller buildings in its midst, but could be quite nice on a good day. We decided to stick with the ground floor, on some comfy sofas.

For drinks, the Belgrave offers up to six cask beers on at any one time, plus a variety of craft keg beer and many more in cans and bottles. There’s a well-stocked spirit selection and so presumably cocktails are available, but I stuck to beer during my visit.

As for the food, you have a choice of two pop-up food vendors, which supposedly rotate every month. Dough Boys do excellent pizza, and have seemingly been there since the venue opened. At the other end, Patty Smith’s Burgers do, well, burgers. We didn’t try the burgers, but their chips are excellent – seasoned with rosemary. Previously, this outlet has hosted Fish&, a food truck specialising in fish and chips that’s often seen elsewhere in Leeds (and occasionally Bradford), amongst others. Bar snacks are available, including Monster Munch and Pom Bears. Sadly, despite the sign pictured above, there were no pies on offer at the time.

The Belgrave’s decor is mostly reclaimed furniture, with a very worn, rustic look. It’s very hispter-ish and probably takes inspiration from Dalston and other recently-gentrified East London communities. I say ‘probably’ since I haven’t been to those parts of London yet, but that’s the vibe I get from the place. The toilets are modern, although they’re the stainless steel prison-style toilets with no seat, so expect to get a cold bottom if you need to sit down to do your business.

There are regular gigs taking place, although capacity limits mean that these tend to be less well-known bands. In other words, I’d never heard of them, but friends have been to gigs here before. Down in the bar, the background music is cool, if a little eclectic, and not too noisy during the day so you can have a reasonably conversation. A DJ takes over around 6ish on Saturdays, and so we left before then, because we’re old.

Price-wise, I found the Belgrave to be very cheap on the whole especially as it’s in Leeds city centre. The food is half price before 5pm on Saturdays, and we were really impressed with it. Some of the drinks were a little on the pricey side though.

I’m really glad we finally found the time to visit the Belgrave Music Hall and would happily go again. The rotating food outlets give a reason to go back regularly, as does the frequently-changing beer selection.

November 1, 2015
by Neil Turner

Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral

This is the fourth in a series of posts about what we did on our recent trip to London.

After alighting from a Thames Clipper at London Bridge Pier, we made a brief visit to Southwark Cathedral, which sits on the south bank of the River Thames, opposite the City of London.

Whilst much of the cathedral building dates from the 19th century, there has been a church on this site for over 1000 years and some parts are several hundred years old. Other parts are significantly more recent, with several extensions added around the time of the millennium.

Southwark CathedralIt’s an impressive church. Whilst it is significantly smaller than, say, York Minster, it’s in very good condition and open for worship, or a quiet wander as a tourist. Of note is a memorial to William Shakespeare; as well as a cast of him in the wall, the stained glass window above shows characters from many of his plays – Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and various of the kings plays. The organ is also quite impressive, dating from the late 19th century and recently restored to fully-working order.

As with most churches, entry is free but donations (preferably with Gift Aid) are encouraged. To be able to take photographs, you will also need to buy a permit, but this only costs a few pounds and contributes to the cost of upkeep of the cathedral. I was happy to pay it, even though I’m not religious myself. It’s certainly better than being told you can’t take photos at all.

We didn’t stay for long – it was approaching five o’clock by the time we got there – but it was long enough to take a few photos, and listen to an orchestra who were rehearsing there. I’ve uploaded a few pictures to Flickr if you want to have a look at the rest of the church.

October 31, 2015
by Neil Turner

Links from Pinboard for October 31, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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October 30, 2015
by Neil Turner

The trouble with relying on free things

Screenshot of the Sunrise blog

For some years now, I’ve been a user of Sunrise. It started off as a daily email with your events from Google Calendar and Facebook, but over time it evolved into a series of mobile and desktop apps, and a web site, where you could combine all of your various calendars together in one, intuitive interface. This meant that you could have events from Google, iCloud, and any Exchange server, all combined together with your Evernote reminders, gigs from Songkick, Eventbrite bookings, TripIt itineraries and more besides.

It was great, but at no point did Sunrise ever ask for money. Surely it must have cost money to run, and funding from venture capital only goes so far. So I wasn’t all that surprised when, earlier this year, Sunrise announced its acquisition by Microsoft. At the time, they promised to keep everything running, and for free.

At first, there were promising developments. Integration with Wunderlist, another recent Microsoft acquisition, a new keyboard for iOS and Android designed to help you plan meetings whilst in another app, and support for the Apple Watch are all additions made following Microsoft’s takeover. But then the Sunrise team dropped a bombshell this week: development of all of Sunrise’s apps has ceased.

Sunrise’s development team have joined the team working on Outlook for mobile devices. Mobile Outlook was also the result of an outside purchase by Microsoft, this time of Acompli. As you’d expect, the aim of the integration of the Sunrise developers is to improve Outlook’s calendaring capabilities, and, sure enough, a new version of Outlook for iOS was released this week. There’s a bit more background on the Microsoft Office blog, and an update for Android is due soon too.

As it stands, Outlook isn’t yet capable of doing all of the things that Sunrise can do, and so the Sunrise apps will still be available to download for a little while longer. But once Outlook has fully absorbed Sunrise’s features, I expect the apps will be withdrawn.

For me, this is a bit of a bummer. I used both Sunrise and Outlook on my iPhone and iPad; Sunrise to manage all of my calendars, and Outlook for my work email. I deliberately keep my work and personal email separate, and, crucially, don’t have notifications turned on for work messages. My job doesn’t require me to be reachable out of hours; therefore, whilst it’s useful to be able to use my phone to access work email whilst at work or in an emergency, I want to be able to completely ignore it away from work. But I do like to be able to see my work calendars outside of work, and get a holistic view of my diary across both personal and work calendars.

I won’t be able to do this once Sunrise has gone. If I make Outlook my primary calendar app, then it’ll have all of my work emails in there, whether I want to see them or not. Outlook on iOS, as it stands, is still an email client first and foremost; opening the app takes you to your email inbox by default.

So, reluctantly, I decided to take the nuclear option and delete Sunrise from my devices. Sure, it’ll carry on working for a while – probably. But it’ll disappear eventually and I don’t want to be hanging on to a product during its deathrattle.

For now, I’ve gone back to the built-in iOS calendar, which is okay, I guess. Part of the reason why I switched to Sunrise was its superior interface when compared to the stock iOS calendar in iOS 6 and below. More recent versions have been less ugly, but it’s still not got a great user experience even in iOS 9.1, in my opinion. I’m open to suggestions of alternatives – I may give Fantastical a shot, which is £3.99 on iPhone and £7.99 on iPad, both sold separately.

I suppose I shouldn’t have put so much faith in a free service which has no obvious income from users or advertisers. And I think that’s a good lesson in general – if you can’t work out the business model for something, it’s probably best not to rely on it.

October 29, 2015
by Neil Turner

Taking a Thames Clipper

Thames Clipper

This is the third in a series of posts about what we did on our recent trip to London.

After lunch, we decided to head back towards central London. We could have caught the DLR from Cutty Sark and gone back the way we came, but instead, we caught a Thames Clipper waterbus from Greenwich Pier. The Thames Clippers are a fleet of catamarans that run up and down the River Thames in central London, and are currently sponsored by MBNA. Recently, they have started accepting Oyster cards as payment, and so we thought we’d give them a try, seeing as none of us had been on one before.

Although they operate on water, as they are catamarans rather than regular boats, they’re actually very quick. Certainly quicker than catching a bus, and probably competitive with the Tube – worth knowing the next time there’s a strike or signalling problems. You can sit outside at the back, but there’s a large amount of indoor seating too, and the seats are very comfortable – far better than most other forms of public transport. There’s even on board bar serving coffee, snacks and alcohol. And whilst I’m not usually one for getting sea sick, the Thames Clippers are pretty smooth and so even if you normally get queasy on a ferry, you shouldn’t have issues with these.

Tower Bridge

As well as being quick, you can get a very different view of London’s landmarks. We travelled from Greenwich to London Bridge Pier, which took us under Tower Bridge and offered a square on view. It was worth it to take photos.

The two main downsides of the Thames Clippers are waiting times and cost. Although they are regular, we just missed one at Greenwich and it was around 15 minutes until the next one. Whilst that’s more frequent than many bus and rail services outside the capital, it doesn’t compare so favourably with buses or the Tube.

It’s also rather on the pricey side. I think we paid £8 for our journey on our Oyster cards, which is significantly more expensive than other forms of public transport. Whilst people can and do commute to work on the Thames Clippers services, they’re really aimed at tourists who are happier to pay a higher price. Still, you get a comfy seat, a fast journey, and get to see parts of London from new angles, so it’s worth the extra cost.