A Travellerspoint blog

June 2009

Fun Ways to Explore

I didn't win the diamond but learned about London

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I recently took place in a contest to win a diamond worth £5,000. I have no real love of diamonds, but do like money, so had I won I planned to sell the diamond and buy twenty pound notes, or if the pound keeps going the way it does, maybe some fifty euro notes. The nice thing about money is that you can exchange it for stuff, like beer, food and Dr. Scholl's odour eating insoles.

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Anyway, the diamond hunt was put on by the Leadenhall Market, which is a market that dates back to the 14th century. Today they still do the market thing Monday to Friday, but augment the income by holding events and being the host to a number of high end shops.

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The diamond hunt was a virtual one right up until the end when the actual diamond hunt went out into the streets. The winner found it at the Monument to the great fire in London. The virtual part of the hunt was set up as a crossword. Each day a London based clue was posted, and you had to decipher the clue to figure out what part of London they were talking about.

Some of them I knew, but mostly I had to hunt around on the internet to find the answer. For example, I learned that every May there is a car treasure hunt called the The Miglia Quadrato that ends in Finsbury Circus. One of the clues also had me looking up from London Bridge to notice the clock topped with a golden owl on the corner of King William Street. I've probably walked by that building dozen of times without noticing the golden hooter perched atop the clock.

In a lot of cases, after finding the virtual answer I went out to see the actual location. It was an interesting way to get to see places in London I might not have seen otherwise.

Treasure hunts of a less virtual type of very popular here in London. I've already mentioned the Miglia Quadrato, which is a car treasure hunt. Some other examples include a number of discovery walks and Shoot Experience which offers photo-based treasure hunts. Londonist, a local blog, has a whole category for treasure hunts coming up. Even more cutting edge is geocaching, which uses GPS enabled mobile phones to search around a location.

I must admit, until I did the Leadenhall Diamond hunt, I probably would have dismissed the treasure hunt idea as being a little childish and geeky. Now that I have done the Leadenhall Market diamond hunt, I'm starting to think that a flesh-and-blood treasure hunt would be both a good way to learn about a location, its history, get some good exercise and have a good time.

I'm heading off to Cardiff in a few weekends. Maybe I should download a hunt to see the learn more about the Welsh town. Doctor Who and Torchwood is filmed there. Maybe they have a geeky, sci-fi themed one!

Posted by GregW 10:55 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

The Train from Ugly to Uglier

A new project has been travelling between two of the ugliest train stations in all of England.

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London has a lot of a train stations. When the trains first started coming into London, the city decided to keep the terminuses at the periphery of the city, not allowing the trains to enter the medieval centre of London and Westminster. Those that governed the city didn’t want the city to become an industrial wasteland of train lines criss-crossing the capital.

A number of companies were set up to bring cargo and passengers into the city, and each company built their own terminal within London. The terminals today circle the city, each station like the shoulder joint of the tentacle of a large 11 to 14 armed monster. Victorian fronted buildings with large train sheds behind them, giant gaping mouths shooting trains from London and off in all directions into the English countryside.

Most famous to those outside London is probably Paddington, mostly because a small Peruvian (and fictional) bear was found there and named after the station. Paddington station was built in 1838 by the Great Western Railway to serve southwest England and Wales. Today, in addition to serving those destinations with trains, it also provides a vital link to Heathrow airport for those flying into and out of London.

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The two stations I’ve probably mentioned the most in my blog are King’s Cross and St. Pancras. The stations sit shoulder to shoulder. King’s Cross was built first, in 1852 by the Great Northern Railway serving the north of England and Scotland. St. Pancras was built by 1868 by the Midland Railway after the nearby Euston Station got overcrowded. King’s Cross has been in constant use since that time, but St. Pancras fell into underuse and disrepair, only to be brought back to life and revitalized thanks to the decision to terminate high-speed services from the continent into the station in the 1990s. The Eurostar first started running into St. Pancras in the fall of 2007.

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Other key stations in London include the southern facing stations of London Bridge, Blackfriars, Cannon Street and Victoria. Blackfriars, Cannon Street and London Bridge are all in the process of renovations to increase their capacity and make the stations easier to use, including the fact that Blackfriars will be the first station with entrances on both the North and South side of the Thames River.

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Looking north and east are Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street, which has become something of an internet phenom recently thanks to the T-mobile add which featured dancers in the lobby.

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I’ve used many of these stations when heading out on my trips around the UK or off towards the mainland, though I haven’t yet caught a train out of Cannon Street, Liverpool Street or Marylebone, a northward station not far from Paddington.

Recently, I’ve started working up in Birmingham on a new project. Birmingham is a city in the midlands, the middle of the country of England. Despite being smack dab in the middle of the nation and thus one of the furthest cities from the coast in all of England, Birmingham is home to the National Sea Life Centre.

Trains to Birmingham run from Euston Station. Euston station was the first inter-city train station in London, having opened in July of 1837 as the terminus for the London and Birmingham Railway. The station was fronted by a classical archway which became known as the Euston Arch. The station proved very popular, and in 1840 was expanded to include a giant Great Hall, with 70 foot high ceilings and classical statues representing the cities served by the station.

In the 1960s, the building was deemed inadequate for the future and was demolished to make way for a new Euston station built in the “international modern” style. There was much concern about losing the arch, but it along with the grand hall was torn down. The rubble from the arch wound up being used to fill a hole in the River Lea.

It opened in 1968, and has been loathed since. It is a low, flat and uninspired building. I have always loved train stations and airports explicitly for their sense of grandeur and pomp. Euston is nothing but ugly functional.

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Architectural Historian Gavin Stamp wrote that the station is entirely lacking any of “the sense of occasion, of adventure, that the great Victorian termini gave to the traveller,” which sums up my feelings pretty nicely on the station.

Euston may be ugly, but it is a beauty compared to the station at the other end of the line. Birmingham New Street station is appalling. I haven’t seen them all, but it has to be in the running for the ugliest and most unfriendly of all the stations in England.

The current station was built in the 1960s after the old station was damaged during the Second World War. Like Euston, the station is a low concrete slab, this one topped by an ugly shopping mall and a car park. The tracks are dark and dingy. Walking up from platform level, you are confronted with a confusing station, with multiple entrances poorly marked.

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The first three times I came to Birmingham, I walked out of the station by the wrong entrance and wound up incredibly lost. I blame this on the fact that the station, named New Street, doesn’t actually front onto New Street. Instead, the front of the station is out onto a street called Queen’s Drive. If you want to get to New Street, you have to exit through the rear of the station, which you need to access from track level. Once you have gone up to the main station level, you can’t get out to New Street. I’ve figured out how to get out of the station properly now, but it should be a lot more intuitive than it is.

Even the back entrance of Birmingham New Street Station doesn’t come out onto New Street, but one street South of New Street.

Imagine if you were in a city and were looking for Fifth Street Station. “Excuse me,” you ask a local, “where is Fifth Street Station?”

They smile and nod. “Oh, that’s easy. It’s on Third Street.”

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In case you think that it’s just me who is complaining, it’s not. A 2007 poll of passengers gave the station a 52% customer satisfaction rating, tied for the lowest satisfaction of all stations across Great Britain. The station is also well over capacity, handling more than 1250 trains a day in a station built for 650 trains a day.

As passenger numbers increase and train travel becomes an increasingly important mix of moving people around England (as it used to be before the car took over), stations like Euston and New Street are obvious targets for change.

Announced as part of a £35 billion programme to remake rail in the midlands, Birmingham New Street station is set to be redeveloped into a glass and steel swoop by 2014. Personally, I like the modern glass building. It’s light, airy and looks easy to move about in. (Though of course I am concerned that perhaps people said the same things about Euston and New Street when they were developed in the 1960s). Even if you don’t like the modern architecture, if you’d ever used Birmingham New Street, you’d probably be happy for any change.

Euston is also set to be redeveloped, though the timing on it has been pushed off due to the credit crunch. However, if it goes through, Euston may yet get back her arch as more than just a pub name that remembers the past.

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Posted by GregW 10:03 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

The REAL Battle for European Supremacy (aka Part III)

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Last Thursday night I took my voter registration card to my local polling station, and cast my vote for my Member of European Parliament (MEP).

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The European Union is a 27 state trans-national political and economic union, which includes a 736 member elected parliament representing close to 500 million residents. Every five years, the 340 million plus eligible voters get to pick representatives for the EU parliament. This is the second largest pool of voters picking a democratically elected body in the world, behind only Lok-Sabha, the democratically elected lower house in India.

The EU also says that the EU Parliament is the “largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world,” though I personally can’t think of any other trans-national democratic electorates, so it’s probably a bit like me saying I am the “most read blogger posting on gregwtravels.travellerspoint.com.”

Now, some of you may be wondering why I got to vote in the EU elections, given that I am a citizen of Canada and not a citizen of an EU country. A few of my European friends, especially the French ones, were wondering the same thing, especially seeing as citizens of an EU country other than the UK who are resident in the UK can’t vote in national elections, though they can vote in EU elections.

Here in the UK, Commonwealth citizens who are legally resident in the UK have the right to vote in any elections – local, national and international. I have never passed up an opportunity to vote before, so I wasn’t going to pass up my opportunity to elect an MEP for London, despite the consternation it caused among some of my European friends. It is quite a switch from the time I spent in the US, where over a 10 year period I got to watch from the sidelines as they ran through two presidential elections, a couple more mid-term elections, and the media circus that was the 2008 presidential primaries. Unlike the Americans, who never let me play in their election games, the Brits welcomed me right into their electorate pool.

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Election posters for EU election in San Remo, Italy

Each country within the EU decides on its own method of voting, as along as it meets some basic criteria. Namely, that it is democratic and uses a “proportional representation” system of voting.

Proportional representation is the name for a system that allocates seats in the parliament based on the percentage of the vote received. The UK uses a method called the De Hondt method to allocate the seats. So in London, as an example, we get a total of 8 MEPs. When you vote, you vote for a party, not a person (as you would in the first past the post system that the USA, Canada and UK use for local and national elections).

The party that gets the most votes is awarded the first seat. Their vote total is then mathematically reduced, and the next seat is allocated to the new highest party (using the mathematically reduced total for the party with one seat). If you are interested in understanding the De Hondt method, you can check out the explanation at the end of the blog.

What is somewhat strange about the system versus a first-past-the-post system is that you aren’t voting for a person. When you go to vote in national and local elections, you have people who you are voting for, and so some of your decision is based on the experience and personality of the person you are voting for. In the EU election, I was voting purely on the policy of the party. Some may say that’s preferable to the “cult of personality” that exists in national politics, but I found myself wary of the concept. After all, what if the party I like best has on their list candidates that are very ineffective at the job of MEP? In that case, would I be better off voting for another party whose policies I don’t agree with as strongly, but who have a better list of candidates?

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EU HQ in Brussels, Belgium

Some political commentators I’ve seen on TV recently have indicated that this lack of voting for an individual is one of the reasons for the low voter turnout for EU elections. The EU elections have pretty much consistently had lower turnout than local or national elections. The 2009 election had the lowest turnout of any EU election since they started voting for the EU Parliament in 1979, with a European Union wide turnout of around 43%. In London, only 34% of eligible Londoners voted.

The commentators argued that if people don’t know their MEPs, they don’t feel a connection with them and thus don’t bother voting. Prior to voting, I couldn’t name a single MEP for London. Now, I can name a couple if I have just looked at the results, but within a few minutes I have already forgotten the names. I’ve personally never met an MEP, and unlike the MPs, London Mayor or councillors, they don’t often show up in the local or national media. MPs and local councillors, on the other hand, are well known and people have a real, personal connection with these people.

Another issue that is blamed for low EU turnout is that most people don’t understand what the EU is responsible for and what impact it has on their lives. If your streets aren’t clean or the National Health Service (NHS) is in a mess, we know that our local or national government is to blame. The international, trans-border world of trade policies and international and regional development is a lot more nebulous and hard to see. As they say, all politics is local, and if you aren’t feeling, tasting or seeing the impacts of political decisions, you are less likely to care.

Finally, the EU Parliament, unlike a national parliamentary body, doesn’t have the power to initiate laws. Instead, it only debates, refines and votes on legislation submitted by the EU Executive branch. A lot of people don’t see the point in voting for EU representation when it’s the EU bureaucrats who are setting the agenda.

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I’m glad I voted though, and I’ll keep on voting in EU elections as long as they allow me. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it is cool knowing that my vote is getting mixed and mingled with someone’s vote from Slovenia. It makes me feel very international and worldly.

Secondly, it appears to piss off people I know from France, and upsetting the French is always fun.

Thirdly, I always vote, and don’t want to break the streak. I do feel like it is both my privilege and duty as a citizen (or, in this case, vote-eligible resident) of a democracy.

Finally, and most importantly though, one of the key reasons I chose to live in the UK is so I can get British citizenship, which in turn is so I can work in the EU without requiring visas. As such, it’s important to me to keep the Euro-cynics out of power so that if I get a UK passport, I’ll still be able to use it to snag a job in Berlin or Vienna.

Most Brits don’t vote because they don’t see how it impacts them. For me, given my goal of being able to work in the EU, I can clearly see the impact that the EU’s policies and the UK’s participation has in it, so it’s important to me.

As I’ve already said, all politics is local. In this case, the locality is my pocket, where I keep my passport.

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  • * *

Appendix A: De Hondt Method Explained

In London, the top parties received the following vote totals:

  • Conservatives 479,037
  • Labour 372,590
  • Liberal Democrats 240,156
  • Green Party 190,589
  • UK Independence Party 188,440

There are 8 seats to allocate. The first seat goes to the party with the highest total - the Conservatives. Their total is reduced by dividing the original number of votes they got by the number of seats they have plus one. So 479,037 / (1 + 1) = 239,519.

With the Conservatives adjusted total, the highest vote total is for the Labour with 372,590. They are given the second seat, and their total is reduced 372,590 / (1 + 1) = 186,295.

The table below shows the rounds.

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Note that after the fourth seat is allocated to the Conservatives, their vote total is reduced again. This time, you divide the initial total (479,037) by the number of seats (2) plus 1. So 479,037 / (2 + 1) = 159,679.

In the end, London ended up with 3 Conservative, 2 Labour, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Green and 1 UKIP MEP seats. To assign actual people to these seats, each party had submitted a list of 8 potential MEPs. From the Conservative list, the top 3 names are chosen, from the Labour list the top two, and the top name from the Lib-Dem, Green and UKIP lists are chosen.

That’s how the De Hondt method is used to elect MEPs in the UK.

Posted by GregW 09:37 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

A Year of Building A New Life

Looking back on the last 365 days of living abroad

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One year ago, at some time just after nine in the morning British Summer Time, an immigration officer at Heathrow airport brought his stamp down upon my UK Entry Clearance. He passed me back my passport and said, “Welcome to the United Kingdom.”

I walked out of Heathrow airport with an idea of where I wanted to get to, a blueprint for my new life in London. I also had an idea of how that was going to happen, a plan for the “when” and “what” and “how” I was going to get to that new life. A lot has happened in this past year, and not much of it has gone to that plan I had in my head. I’ve lived in 3 different houses, spent 5 weeks working “abroad” in Phoenix, spent 8 months job hunting, finally found full time employment, and got to know London.

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Finding a job is probably the biggest accomplishment of the last year. When I arrived here in the UK, North America was just entering a recession but the economy still looked pretty good here in the UK. Within just a few months time however, Lehman Brothers was bust, the phrase “credit crunch” had entered the nation’s vocabulary, and the phrase “hiring freeze” became one of the most frequent phrases I heard from potential employers. Finding a job in a sputtering economy is an accomplishment I take some pride in.

More than that, however, finding a job provides a stability and permanence to my move abroad. Prior to having a job, I never really felt like I was “living” in England. I always felt a little more like a tourist, albeit an extended tourist who spent the majority of his time on Monster.com looking for work. This feeling of impermanence led to a few of my more colourful and wild swings of mood, including the night I spent sitting at home watching Wilson from Cast Away floating on the ocean and my foul-mood on visiting Lullingstone Villa.

Now that I am employed, I feel a lot more like this is home and I am actually living here. I feel like a productive member of English society, like I am giving something to my newly adopted country, and of course getting something deeper than just a tourist’s experience in return.

After failing to visit Lullingstone Villa, I wandered around and eventually my mood improved, mostly because of a change of outlook. I wrote about how that day reminded me that moving here was a fresh start, a “greenfield development.” While I cited my knowledge of the term from IT development, the term greenfield comes from the construction industry originally, to indicate a development on a fresh plot of land never built on before.

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To stretch that greenfield metaphor a little more, I now feel like I am past the planning stage. I had a blueprint in my head walking out of Heathrow, one I have had to revise them a few more times than I would have liked, but now those plans feel a lot more complete. I’ve started to implement that blueprint, slower than I might have hoped, but things are starting to progress now. I’m no longer looking out over a greenfield. We’ve started building, and I’m looking a foundation taking shape.

My blueprint is now coming to life.

Posted by GregW 09:55 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (2)

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