The sound of someone tinkling the ivories has become commonplace at UK railway stations. But who plays them, what is their appeal and how did the trend take hold?
Every Monday and Friday, Denis Robinson, 92, makes the 30-minute trip from his home in Sutton, south London, to St Pancras International station, in the heart of the capital.
His final destination: an upright piano tucked beneath a staircase on the station concourse, opposite the arrivals door where holidaymakers from across the world depart the high-speed Eurostar train.
Denis is one of Britain’s amateur train station pianists. A minor celebrity, following a viral performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow with West End singer Ceili O’Connor in April, he has been delighting commuters with his own arrangements of nostalgic hits for seven years.
He aims to arrive at the piano stool either side of lunch. Breaking with tradition to meet BBC News mid-week, he takes his pew by 11:30am on a Wednesday.
Within moments of his opening chord, passing travellers pause to listen, smile and offer him praise.
“It’s an absolute joy,” says the retired auditor, who has been playing since he was a child. “I nearly always come home with a memory to tell my wife.
“I’m lucky because I’ve got an ever-changing appreciative audience.”
Denis suffered a stroke at the station in August, which affected his left hand, but it wasn’t long until he returned to the instrument in autumn for a rendition of As Long as He Needs Me, sung softly to himself.
“When I walked round to the piano again, there was just this feeling of ‘I’m back’,” he says.
There are two pianos at St Pancras, located at either end of the station’s main arcade of shops. Denis credits his wife of 34 years, Diane, for introducing him to the one he plays.
She was studying Greek at the nearby British Library when it was donated to St Pancras in 2012, following a three-week art project that placed so-called street pianos at public locations around London.
While Sheffield is often cited as the home of the first street piano, the idea for the St Pancras pianos was the brainchild of British artist Luke Jerram, whose Play Me, I’m Yours project has been touring cities around the world since 2008.
The scheme sees second-hand pianos installed in public locations, with an open invitation to play. Each piano is unique, often decorated by local artists or community groups.
“I realised within a city, there must be hundreds of invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence,” Luke explains.
“Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation.”
Several other pianos that were placed in London train stations in 2012 also ended up staying put after Luke’s project ended, including two at Canary Wharf and one at Herne Hill railway station.
And it’s not just talented amateurs that have taken to the keys. Global stars such as Sara Bareilles and Sir Elton John, who donated a Yamaha piano to St Pancras in 2016, have also given public performances.
Elton’s signed piano, still at the station, reads: “Enjoy this piano. It’s a gift. Love, Elton John.”
Inspired by the success of the St Pancras pianos, other groups have gone on to install their own at railway stations around the country.
There are now at least 34 pianos available to play on station concourses.
Labour MP for Hove Peter Kyle lobbied for a piano at Brighton station in 2014 in the hope that it would “reduce the misery” of time spent at the terminal.
Ten months later, with the go ahead from Southern Rail, the station’s first piano arrived from local dealer Brighton Piano Warehouse, painted in circus-style red and yellow with “Please Play Me” emblazoned above the lid.
While the instrument has been replaced twice due to wear and tear, a piano has been at the station ever since.
Brighton and Hove Council street cleaner Mikah Laiberg, 28, has made a regular appearance at the instrument from the outset – at one point rehearsing on it every day after work.
“It’s a compulsion,” he says. “I can’t understand how people who can play an instrument can walk past without playing it.”
Clips shared online show Mikah, in his employee high-vis jacket and boots, stunning passers-by with his classical improvisations influenced by composers such as Alexei Stanchinsky.
Such videos, of everyday people showcasing their talent, have arguably played a key role in the success of public pianos.
Street pianos emerged around the same time as the smartphone – the first iPhone was released in 2007 – making performances increasingly easy to document and share.
Now, videos of pianos being played prove particularly popular on YouTube.
In August, Alicia Palmer, 16, wowed the internet with her rendition of Adelweiss at Tottenham Court Road’s piano alongside public piano player Brendan Kavanagh – gaining more than 750,000 views on the site.
‘Life and colour’
Selhurst is one of several small stations in London with a public piano.
Hannah Sayers, 34, and her local community group arranged for a piano to be placed there in 2018.
Donated by Hannah’s neighbour and painted by a local resident, they hoped it would “help people feel positive about where they live”.
“We wanted to bring life and colour to our little ward in Croydon,” Hannah says.
Selhurst’s piano is conveniently located near to the BRIT school, for performing arts students to play, and has a large passing traffic of commuters and Crystal Palace football fans.
“The one thing we were really worried about was that it would get damaged or vandalised,” adds Hannah, “But it hasn’t been so far.”
Neighbouring Thornton Heath station recently installed its second piano after a water leak damaged its original instrument.
Local resident Linda Watson calls it a “community asset”. She adds: “Thornton Heath has many brilliant musicians. To have live music when you are travelling is a delightful surprise.”
Meanwhile for Malcolm Ingram, of Ingram’s Removals, placing a piano in Darlington Bank Top station was a way to save an unwanted instrument.
Pianos, once the entertainment hub of the family home, have long been in decline.
Some 5,000 are sold annually, the Financial Times reports, compared with 30,000 in the 1980s. Malcolm says customers are frequently looking to get rid of their old pianos.
In 2018, he had a brainwave and arranged for a client’s Hemingway piano to be relocated to the station concourse, where it is now loved by staff and passengers.
“A piano brightens up peoples’ day – if someone has the gift to play it, it provides that feel-good factor,” he says.
“The piano was just going to have to go to landfill otherwise, which seems criminal.”
Speaking at the end of his performance in St Pancras, Denis says his repertoire of old-time classics are a constant hit with audiences.
“The songs bring back memories for some people, so they come over and say thank you,” he says.
“The music I play, it’s simple really. It’s a blessing to see that I can provide happiness.”
Photography by Phil Coomes, Dave Charnley and Julia Horbaschk
Residents on two housing estates where blocks of flats burned down have been left at risk because of fire stopping measures in buildings being “missing or useless”, the BBC has been told.
A block built in Worcester Park in south-west London by the Berkley Group burned down in September.
The BBC has found apparent flaws in two more Berkley Group buildings it is said would allow fire to spread quickly.
The developer said all properties had been “independently signed off”.
Since September’s blaze, the housing association for The Hamptons estate has temporarily changed its “stay put” evacuation policy following advice from London Fire Brigade.
Former resident Stephen Nobrega told the BBC the way the fire spread “was more or less instant. It was like paper”.
Wood is combustible and so fire stopping in timber frame homes is important to prevent the spread of fire.
“You would expect that the materials would contain a fire for a considerable amount of time, but it just didn’t happen,” Mr Nobrega said.
Although there were no injuries, some residents believed they just about escaped in time.
‘Shoddily thrown together’
A number of families lost their homes in the fire while others on the estate said they were concerned their own homes were not safe.
The development has since been on high alert, with security guards patrolling 24 hours-a-day on the lookout for fire.
Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing (MTVH), the housing association that now manages properties in the Hamptons, said it had “fitted smoke alarms in the electrical cupboards of all our blocks”.
“We are worried about how our homes are built and if they could go up, we want to be evacuated,” a resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, said.
A large fire would be able to spread quickly at another building on The Hamptons site, two independent surveyors have claimed.
Independent chartered surveyor and fire safety inspector, Arnold Tarling, found a large gap between the fire stopping and the cladding on the outside of a building in the estate, which he said would act as a “chimney through which a fire will spread”.
“What we have here is a form of fire stopping which just won’t do its job,” he said.
Greig Adams, a fire safety expert, told the BBC these breaches had “consequences, including a considerable increased risk to life in the event of a fire”.
“The provision of effective fire barriers is a mandatory requirement, not an element that can be shoddily thrown together or to cut corners on,” Mr Adams said.
A former home owner at the Worcester Park estate has told the BBC she contacted the Berkeley Group nine years ago over safety concerns.
Sheila Majid said she had an independent inspection of her property in 2010 that revealed similar problems with fire stopping and meant “our home did not meet basic fire safety requirements”.
She managed to sell her property back to the Berkeley Group, but remained concerned other Berkeley properties had similar problems.
Two years ago a fire at another Berkeley Group-built property on the Holborough Lakes Estate in Kent destroyed a block of flats.
Mr Tarling inspected a loft space at a property in the estate and found similar fire safety problems to those at the Worcester Park estate.
“There needs to be a full investigation of these properties, not only by the contractor but by the authorities,” he said.
A spokesman for the Berkley Group said “all properties were independently signed off as building control compliant”.
Speaking about the Hamptons fire he said “the police and the fire brigade are still investigating the cause of the fire, which remains unknown” and the group was “making all necessary checks to reassure residents”.
A National House Building Council spokesperson said it was the approved inspector for the Worcester Park development and the organisation had “carried out periodic inspections at key stages of a development’s construction”.
However, they added that “the primary responsibility for achieving compliance with the regulations rests with the builder”.
Housing association MTVH said it had since commissioned surveys of all the buildings it owned and managed.
Geeta Nanda, chief executive of MTVH, said: “It’s our absolute priority to ensure we provide residents with the support and help they need at this difficult time, and making sure that the homes throughout The Hamptons are safe.”
London-based developer Berkley Group has built 19,500 homes in the past five years across the south of England and the Midlands.
The head teacher of an unregistered school, prosecuted for operating it illegally, has said it has a “unique” approach and will remain open.
Nadia Ali, of Ambassadors High, in Streatham – which an inspection found “wilfully neglected” safeguarding – was given community service last month.
She called the pupils “happy learners” and denied it was breaking the law, as it was now open 18 hours a week only.
Ofsted has urged improved legislation to deal with unregistered schools.
By law, any institution with more than five full-time pupils has to be officially registered and inspected. Government guidance defines full-time education as more than 18 hours a week.
The south London school, which describes itself as having an Islamic ethos, says it charges £2,500 a year per pupil and had 45 children on the roll at the time of its last inspection. But it has not yet met standards required to register.
Ms Ali told the BBC’s Today and Victoria Derbyshire programmes the school had remained open as its work with the children was “quite unique”.
“I’ve been teaching for 15 years and I’ve seen how children need a different approach and that what we’re trying to do at Ambassadors,” she said.
“This is why I believe in what we’re trying to do because we’ve seen a lot of results within our children. They’re happy learners.”
Inspectors twice issued warnings they believed the school was operating illegally, before it first applied to register in 2016.
And it failed its pre-registration inspection, in February 2019, with inspectors judging it would not meet the Independent School Standards.
However, the school remained open – leading to Ms Ali’s prosecution.
The inspection found she had, “wilfully neglected to meet some basic, crucial, safeguarding responsibilities”.
Inspectors found six out of 11 teachers had not had Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) or criminal-record checks.
But Ms Ali said all staff working at the time of the inspection had been thoroughly checked.
“At that time, we only had four members of staff at that school,” she said.
“So, the staff who had left were still on the central record… we did try to explain it to the inspector.”
Inspectors also said ”teachers do not have the skills” to help pupils progress and concluded there was ”no capacity for improvement” at the school.
And they found there was ”no plan in place to actively promote fundamental British values”.
In 2018, inspectors found texts in the staffroom that:
- encouraged parents to hit their children if they did not pray
- said a wife had no right to deny her husband
But they found no evidence children had access to these books.
Ms Ali said the books had been donated by a mosque and had been kept locked in the office. Accepting they were unsuitable, she denied they contributed to a perception she did not want the school to be part of modern British society.
She said: “I don’t believe that just by finding some books or a paragraph from a book like that makes us go against the fundamental British values… because our children and us, we’ve grown in British society.”
It is unclear how many hours the school currently operates, although Ms Ali insisted it was not longer than 18 hours. But we saw a timetable for pupils aged 11-14 that added up to 21 hours per week. Ms Ali denied it was accurate.
The pupils used to be taught the Koran in school – but this now happens at a nearby mosque. Ms Ali said the Koran lessons were run by parents – but the school website, no longer online, asked parents to pay £80 a month for the lessons.
Parents also say they run a home-tuition club in a separate setting close to the school.
Ms Ali said she was getting her paperwork in order to apply again to register the school in a few weeks’ time.
Despite Ofsted inspecting almost 260 suspected unregistered schools since January 2016, and issuing warning notices to 71 settings, this was only the second time a case was brought for prosecution.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said there needed to be a proper legal definition of “schools” and “full-time”, as the current legislation was too vague.
“It doesn’t matter if the school is operating for seven, 10, or 17 hours… children should be registered and getting an education,” she said.
“The law didn’t expect unregistered schools to exist – it wasn’t designed to prevent these places from happening.”
Education Minister Lord Agnew said unregistered schools were “illegal, unsafe and anyone found to be running one will be prosecuted”.
“Where settings are only operating part-time, there are a range of legal powers in place to make sure children are safe in their care
“And in the vast majority of cases those settings are doing an excellent job in enriching young peoples’ lives.”
“We have provided funding to a number of councils to boost their capacity to take action on settings causing concern.”
Police investigating what they say is the UK’s biggest ever drugs conspiracy have charged 13 men.
The charges of conspiracy to import drugs follow a National Crime Agency investigation into the alleged smuggling of billions of pounds of cocaine, heroin and cannabis.
The NCA said the men were suspected of being members of an international organised crime group.
The men, aged 34 to 59, will appear at Manchester Magistrates’ Court later.
It comes after they were arrested in dawn raids on Tuesday in London, Manchester, Stockport, St Helens, Warrington, Bolton, Dewsbury, and Leeds.
The NCA said seven men have now been charged with four counts of conspiracy to import class A drugs and four counts of conspiracy to import class B drugs.
They are Paul Green, 54, of Eccleston, St Helens; Sohail Quereshi, 59, of Wood Crescent, White City, London; Mohammed Ovais, 41, of Bournlee Avenue, Burnage, Manchester; Ghazanfar Mahmood, 48, of Green Lane, Bolton; Ifthikar Hussain, 46, of Upland Grove, Leeds, West Yorkshire; Vojtech Dano, 38, of Vulcan Gardens, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire and Ivan Turtak, 34, of Vulcan Gardens, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.
A further six men have all been charged with two counts of conspiracy to import class A drugs and two counts of conspiracy to import class B drugs.
They are Khaleed Vazeer, 56, of Westwood Avenue, Timperley, Manchester; Steven Martin, 48, of Chorley Old Road, Bolton; Andrew Reilly, 37, of Grange Park Road, St Helens; Mark Peers, 55, of Norbeck Close, Warrington; Paul Ruane, 58, of Bewsey Rd, Warrington and Oliver Penter, 37, of Gladstone Street, Stockport.
Four men and two women from the Netherlands – who were arrested in April by the Dutch National Police on European Arrest Warrants – are currently awaiting extradition to the UK.
A man in his 20s has died after being stabbed in a fight near Ealing Common, west London.
Officers from the Metropolitan Police were called to reports of a fight close shortly after 18:00 BST and discovered the man suffering from stab injuries.
Members of the London Ambulance Service and the air ambulance also attended, however the man was pronounced dead at the scene at 18:48.
His next of kin have been informed and a post-mortem will be held.
A man was arrested on suspicion of affray and was taken to a west London police station where he remains in custody.
Inquiries are ongoing.
Anyone with information is asked to call officers on 101.
A section 60 order is now in place for the Hillingdon and Ealing areas until 07:00 on Wednesday, allowing the police greater search powers for a limited period.
This order comes after a murder investigation was launched when a man was stabbed to death on a train at Hillingdon station shortly before 16:00 on Tuesday.
Commuters have been told not to travel from London Waterloo during the rush hour after a fire closed nine platforms.
The lineside blaze damaged cabling outside the station, meaning trains cannot use platforms 16-24.
Network Rail said “significant damage” had been caused to equipment, meaning trains will be delayed or cancelled.
Disruption is expected for the rest of the day while the Thursday morning rush hour may also be affected.
Network Rail said its engineers would be working through the night to fix the damage.
Waterloo is the busiest and largest railway station in the UK.
The platforms which are closed are normally used by trains serving Windsor, Reading, Hounslow, Richmond and Kingston.
However, services from other platforms are also being affected because trains have to be diverted or revised.
- Circular services via Hounslow, Richmond, Strawberry Hill and Kingston have been cancelled
- Trains between Waterloo and Windsor & Eton Riverside are diverted via Kingston
- Trains between Waterloo and Exeter/Salisbury are terminated and will restart from Basingstoke
Passengers were warned that services on other routes may also be subject to short-notice cancellations or delays.
In a joint statement, Network Rail and South Western Railway said commuters were “strongly advised to use alternative routes where possible and check their journeys before travelling at southwesternrailway.com for ticket acceptance and service details”.
Some passengers took to social media to express their frustration at the travel disruption.
One Twitter user described the situation as an “absolute shambles”, while others complained about being given the wrong or no information at all by train station staff.
|Specsavers County Championship Division Two, Sophia Gardens, Cardiff (day two):|
|Middlesex 384 Malan 166; Carey 4-54 & 189-5 Robson 73*, Simpson 56|
|Glamorgan 171 Lloyd 67; Helm 5-53, Roland-Jones 4-45|
|Middlesex (7 pts) lead Glamorgan (3 pts) by 402 runs|
Middlesex have a formidable lead of 402 over Glamorgan at 189-5 in their second innings, going into day three in Cardiff.
Sam Robson (73*) and John Simpson (56) have strengthened the visitors’ grip.
Toby Roland-Jones (4-45) made the most of a helpful pitch as Glamorgan were hustled out for an inadequate 171.
David Lloyd’s 67 was the top home score, while Tom Helm (5-53) wrapped up the innings with his fifth wicket after his first-evening purple patch.
Lloyd shared half-century stands with Billy Root and Chris Cooke before the visitors’ seamers re-established control, as Glamorgan’s last five wickets mustered just 28 runs.
A lead of 213 runs was not enough to persuade Dawid Malan to enforce the follow-on, wanting to avoid batting last on the most bowler-friendly Championship pitch of the season in Cardiff.
Although Middlesex slumped to 85-4, they were never under pressure thanks to their first-innings lead, and the Robson-Simpson century partnership blossomed in the evening sunshine to grind down Glamorgan hopes of avoiding a first defeat of the campaign.
Glamorgan vice-captain David Lloyd told BBC Sport Wales:
“A very difficult day, they hit their lengths more regularly than we did, then we started well with the ball in the second dig but it’s always tough when you’re chasing the game.
“It’s a wicket where you have to be positive and get forward because it’s starting to go more up and down- it’s about looking to score rather than sit there and wait for things to happen.
“We’ve showed in previous games that we can battle draws out so you never know, we’ll have to try to bat the rest of the game and we can do it if we get our mindsets right.”
Middlesex bowler Tom Helm told BBC Radio London:
“It took a bit longer to get the fifth one than I had in my head last night, but Toby had four and I’m very happy with it.
“If you get the ball in the right area, the odd one zips through and it changed a bit from day one.
“There’s so long left in this game, we can bat for as long as we want and it’ll be interesting to see how the morning goes, they’ll come out fired up but we’ll see how we go.”
A woman riding an electric scooter has been killed in a crash with a lorry in south-west London.
The 35-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene at the Queen Circus roundabout, Battersea following the crash at about 08:30 BST.
A Metropolitan Police spokeswoman said her next of kin had yet to be informed and no arrests had been made.
In July last year a cyclist was killed at the roundabout after being hit by a bin lorry.
A London Ambulance Service spokeswoman said: “We sent an advanced paramedic, two ambulance crews, an incident response officer and two medics in cars to the scene, with the first of our medics arriving in under four minutes.
“Sadly, despite the extensive efforts of medics, a woman died at the scene.”
Transport for London and Wandsworth Council redesigned the roundabout in 2015, which trialled the use of raised kerbs and separate traffic lights to keep cyclists and vehicles segregated at junctions.
Concerns had been raised that the new layout was too complicated.
While the cause of the crash is unknown, e-scooters are illegal to ride on public roads, including in cycle lanes or on the pavement.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “We extend our deepest sympathies to all those involved in this tragic incident, and fully support the police as they carry out their investigations.
“Safety is at the heart of all our road laws and it is important that retailers continue to remind people at the point of sale that it is illegal to ride e-scooters on public roads.”
An electric scooter, or e-scooter, is similar to a traditional children’s scooter but has a motorised engine attached.
An engineering train has derailed in south London causing the closure of the Gatwick Express service.
The train partly left the tracks at low speed outside Victoria station at about 03:00 BST.
No Gatwick Express trains are running, while Southern warned its services would be “severely reduced”.
The train has moved and the track will now be “assessed for damage” and repaired if necessary through the night, according to Southern.
Disruption is expected to last throughout Tuesday but Gatwick Express and Southern said a normal service was expected on Wednesday.
The train was stuck across a number of tracks meaning platforms nine to 13 at Victoria were blocked, while services were not able to use the “slow/stopping” lines to and from Clapham Junction.
Some trains were also unable to leave the Battersea depot – further reducing the number of services that could run.
Recovery teams cut the 50-tonne train from its two wagons and lifted it back on to the track using hydraulic jacks.
Trains running through Gatwick Airport were also disrupted by a separate signalling fault and a passenger who was injured as they left a carriage, which led to one platform becoming blocked.
Some commuters took to social media as they found their trains had been cancelled.
Other stations, including London Bridge, also became congested as people tried to find alternative routes.
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A Network Rail spokesperson said passengers should travel “via London Bridge or London Blackfriars as trains will be delayed, diverted or cancelled”.
Train tickets for Southern and Gatwick Express services have been accepted for reasonable routes on other services.
Train services affected:
- Gatwick Express services are completely suspended
- Services to Sutton, Epsom Downs and Epsom to and from London Victoria are reduced
- Some mainline services will be diverted to London Bridge instead of London Victoria
- Southern services between London Victoria and Reigate are cancelled and passengers are advised to use Thameslink to and from Redhill and then Great Western Railway between Reigate and Redhill
- Services between London Victoria and East Grinstead will call additionally at Selhurst and Streatham Common
- Services between Milton Keynes and East Croydon will call additionally at Wandsworth Common when not already booked to do so
- Services between London Victoria and Horsham via Sutton will call additionally at Ewell East
- Southern trains from Sutton to London Bridge via Wimbledon will be cancelled. Thameslink will be running as normal
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|Specsavers County Championship Division Two, Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood (day one):|
|Middlesex 172: Malan 28; Shaw 4-33, Higgins 3-52|
|Gloucestershire 59-2: Dent 27*; Roland-Jones 2-15|
|Middlesex 0 pts, Gloucestershire 3 pts|
Josh Shaw took three prize scalps as Gloucestershire triggered a Middlesex collapse which put Division Two’s bottom club in trouble at Northwood.
Shaw removed Sam Robson (23), Dawid Malan (28) and Nick Gubbins (26) in his 4-33, and Ryan Higgins took 3-52 as his old club slipped from 98-2 to 139-8.
They were eventually bowled out for 172 before two Toby Roland-Jones wickets in reply lifted their spirits.
But Gloucestershire steadied the ship to reach 59-2 and trail by just 113.
Seamer Shaw’s performance built on his six wickets against Glamorgan in their previous game, as he claimed three of Middlesex’s top four.
His victims included Malan, whose hopes of an Ashes call-up were boosted by a career-best 199 at Derby last week.
However, he top-edged a short of a length ball and Graeme van Buuren ran in to take a fine catch.