December 15th, 2011
|10:44 pm - Journey South|
Meg and I have enjoyed a recent trip to the South to stay with malachan for three nights, headlined by a very enjoyable and successful party (where I got to see people who I hadn't seen for far too long!) to warm his new house. The trip also featured a diversion even further still to stay overnight with frayer and radinden in Brighton. The standard of hospitality throughout was tremendous and we are very grateful to our friends for their kindness.
I am slightly disappointed, as a proud Northerner, to learn just how much I liked Brighton. It's definitely a bluff Northern sense of cultivated ignorance that led me to be completely unaware of the Royal Pavilion; while this is not a proper Pavilion, like that of Thornaby, it's a stately home well worth a visit.
Brighton may have the single most interesting town centre I have yet visited, with road after road of distinct, distinctive sole traders. Now many of the boutique stores were full of wares more of interest to my wife than to me, but nevertheless they made enjoyable window-shopping, well away from the chain stores, all present and correct at the other end of town. Sure, I bet (for instance) Manchester and Birmingham have at least as many, but they do not have a single cohesive town centre in quite the same way. Perhaps it's the difference between a focused town centre and the dispersion of a city centre; it's Whitby on a much bigger scale, Blackpool on a classier scale.
The town does give me the impression of being a somewhat impractical place to live, unless you have many other things going in your favour already, but I liked the atmosphere and look forward to returning, not least to see the many parts of it which I have not yet seen. Thumbs up, too, to the uninspiredly-named El Mexicano; not every starter for our party of five was a huge hit, but I really enjoyed both the Quesadillas and Tacos on the lunch set menu.
London was great fun, as ever, and a tremendous time sink. One particularly enjoyable day was filled with transport geekery that I had been looking forward to for a long, long time. A quick journey down to Lambeth saw me try some fusion Indian-Mexican street food - pretty good, but firmly at the Indian end of the spectrum, not so good as to obviate more straightforward Mexican and I have a strong suspicion that I was diddled of 50p in my confusion, which is why the cart gets neither an outright recommendation nor a link.
After that, I took a Boris Bike from Lambeth North, followed a few cycle routes, and decided that I had probably had close to my legs' tolerance, if maybe not my free half hour, by the time I reached somewhere between Blackfriars and Temple, so about a mile and a half away. I note firmly that credit for the scheme should go to previous mayor Ken Livingstone, if to any mayor at all, but Boris Bike is an inherently euphonious name and far better than the current official, corporate-sponsored name.
Boris Johnson himself suggested that the scheme would feature "the Rolls-Royce of bikes"; the comparison is apt, though only in an unflattering way, by virtue of the bikes' considerable mass. Additionally, my bike had a tendency to slip out of first gear, though it was remarkably good at unslipping in order to find second again. I'm not sure of the overall transport benefits of the scheme but the fun benefits are high and the stealth exercise benefits likewise. In conclusion: hurrah, and fingers crossed that the scheme may flourish in the years to come.
After that, I took the Tube down to Heathrow Terminal 5 to have a mosey around the new terminal. Oddly enough, it looks like an airport terminal, with little of particular interest to commend the landside. If it turns out that the relationship between uninteresting landside and interesting airside matches that of LHR's Terminal 4, it'll certainly do the trick. Lovely big, sweeping lifts, but otherwise the architecture didn't particularly catch the eye.
However, Heathrow Terminal 5 does have its own Personal Rapid Transit system. Driverless cabs, holding no more than 4-6 people, shuttle between the terminal and your choice of two remote stations at a business car park. If the saying runs "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", these are Hogwarts' Horseless Carriages powered by electricity, not Thestrals. (I assume.) The ride is smoother than that of a bus, but still a shade shaky; the constraints of the airport location force a surprisingly convoluted (curvy and gradient-y) route, which is dealt with very easily. The safety of the London system looks tremendous; you would have to work hard if you wanted to get hurt by it.
People have been talking about such personal systems for decades; a small system in West Virginia has been decades ahead of its time for longer than I have lived, and Heathrow's system is not even the first of the current generation with family-scale, rather than group-scale, vehicles. I have been following the progress of the business for about six years and am delighted to have got to try an application of the system for real.
Heathrow's system (effectively a long, thin isosceles triangle) so far attempts only a very small task at quite considerable expense but the infrastructure is in place for considerable expansion. Compare with plans for High Speed 2 in the UK; a system that cuts the Birmingham-to-London time by a third is of limited use, though a system that serves Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and maybe the East Midlands and/or Liverpool is a much more attractive proposition, even before we start expanding up this way or as far as Scotland.
Only time will tell whether the economics of the system really do work in practice and whether this has a a future outside the highest-end airports and cities. A good sign is that the system's manufacturers have convinced Amritsar, India to invest in a serious urban system; it may be that conurbations with the least well-developed ratios of population to effective transit, mass or otherwise, turn out to be the best fits. I recommend this old-school blog for following the industry.
At one level, this is as close as we get in fact to a roller-coaster with an interactive route. At another level, it is one of several parallel early steps towards putting the entirely respectable, though decades-old, career of driver out of business. The interactivity, personalisation and lack of direct human involvement feel really futuristic, but also feel really ordinary, which may be the most impressive trick of all. I gave the system a one-person standing ovation after I concluded my journeys. Well worth a visit; possibly better sooner rather than later before it becomes more branded than the IPL.
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