Sunday, 30 June 2019

Happy 125th birthday, Tower Bridge!

My favourite London bridge (as distinct from London Bridge) is 125 today. To celebrate, here are a few less-usual views. 

Here, we're looking down from one of the bridge's turrets to the walkways and the road below. Note the distinctive shadow!

This is the view from Cannon Street Roof Gardens, taken during Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Finally, views from the bridge control room. 

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Gold Corner: wartime engineering in Somerset

Gold Corner Pumping Station has a rather stylish 1930s look, so it's a bit of a surprise to notice that the date on a drain hopper is 1942 - right in the middle of the Second World War. In fact, this building on the Somerset Levels was important enough to the war effort that its construction was the direct result of a meeting between its engineer and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939. 

Louis Kelting was the engineer to the Somerset Rivers Catchment Board, and Chamberlain had asked him to ensure the water supply for a factory at the nearby village of Puriton. Royal Ordnance Factory Bridgwater was being built to produce the experimental high explosive RDX. That would require a generous supply of fresh water - 4.5 million gallons (over 20 million litres) per day. However, the area's agricultural land also required a water supply, and meeting the demand from both would be a challenge in summer.

Kelting's solution solved a further problem: managing flood relief on this low-lying land, which depends upon artificial drainage. He had already been looking into a new channel for the Brue Valley (an idea first proposed a century earlier), and it was now built as the Huntspill River. The rush to build it began - and only after construction had started did it become apparent that the surrounding soil wouldn't support a deep channel. A shallower one was therefore built, reliant upon pumps rather than gravity to lift water into the new 'river'.

The Huntspill River, over five miles long and with bridges and pumping station, was completed in 1942 at a cost of just over £400,000. It proved successful, and continues in service today. Three diesel pumps and one electric pump keep the Huntspill River full and help protect the area from flooding.

However, while it continues to act as drainage channel and reservoir, it no longer supplied water to ROF Bridgwater. Immediately after the War it had turned to building prefab houses, but it later returned to functioning as a munitions factory; it was privatised in 1985, becoming part of BAE, and closed in 2008.

Further reading: an Environment Agency booklet about the pumping station is available as a PDF.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Britain's first multiplex

The multiplex cinema is now common throughout Britain, but do you know when and where the first one opened?

Does the hint that it's a very old shape in a very new town help? 

You may very well still have no idea, but if you happen to live in Milton Keynes then you are probably aware of it for two reasons. First, it's an interesting bit of local history. Second, it's been in the news in recent years because the building which housed the multiplex - ziggurat-shaped entertainment complex The Point - is under threat of demolition

The first multiplex had been opened in the United States in the 1960s by AMC (American Multi Cinema), and soon spawned a number of imitators. This successful innovation took a while to cross the Atlantic to Britain, and it wasn't until the start of the 1980s that plans were made to build a multiplex here. The opportunity came when Milton Keynes' Development Corporation sought proposals for an entertainment complex, and AMC entered into a joint project with Bass Leisure. In 1984, construction began and the cinema opened on 25 November 1985. 

It was a brave move, because cinema attendances had fallen badly as televisions and video recorders encouraged people to stay home instead. A vicious circle was forming: major chains weren't investing in their cinemas because audiences were dropping; dated technology and surroundings put audiences off, so they fell further; and so on. The Point's cinemas, by contrast, exceeded their targets in the first year: the multiplex would be embraced as a solution to the industry's woes. 

Of course, it hasn't been the magic cure that it perhaps first appeared - in fact, ironically, the multiplex has become part of the problem. Home entertainment technology has evolved further: widescreen TVs and internet streaming make staying home ever more of a match for the smaller screens and auditoria of the multiplex. Some cinemas have returned to the traditional, large cinema hall to offer a distinct experience and sense of occasion, while modern multiplexes - including a Milton Keynes competitor - are bigger and more modern than this pioneer. Independents combine interesting films and comfortable surroundings with more tempting alternatives to the usual, overpriced snacks. That brave and distinctive pioneer The Point, meanwhile, has lost its cinema and the building's days seem to be numbered. Appeals to its historical significance have not been enough to save it. 

Friday, 19 April 2019

Walking Mail Rail


One of the most exciting new museums is the Postal Museum, which opened its doors - and its legendary railway - in 2017. The Mail Rail had transported letters and parcels below the city for three-quarters of a century before it finally closed in 2003, but was not for passengers or the public. A stretch of this celebrated, if hidden, network now forms the centrepiece of the museum: a fifteen-minute ride in a specially-created passenger train allows visitors both to experience this very special underground rail system and to learn its history.

Museum supporters have been given a very special opportunity to walk the railway lines. As a member of SubBrit, I was able to join one of those tours and get a closer look at some of the features of the Post Office Railway. 

A pneumatic railway ran for a while in the nineteenth century, but had long closed when underground mail transport was reconsidered at the start of the twentieth. The Post Office (London) Railway Act 1913 allowed construction to begin the following year and over six miles of tunneling was completed by 1917. However, World War One delayed the installation of operating equipment, and post-war reconstruction kept the cost of materials high for some years; the railway finally opened in 1927. 

Stations, corresponding to parcel offices and district offices above-ground, had wide platforms for loading and unloading the carriages quickly. Some of the equipment is still visible today.

The 'graveyard'

The 'graveyard'

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Painted Hall: revealing the ceiling

In the heart of historic Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College's Painted Hall has been filled with scaffolding for some time - but next weekend, it triumphantly reopens, fully restored. And it looks just amazing!

The Hall was originally intended as the dining room for inhabitants of Greenwich Hospital - elderly or injured Navy sailors. However, once Sir James Thornhill had finished painting his Baroque masterpiece on its walls and ceilings, it was deemed too grand for the residents and kept for formal occasions. The most famous of these was the lying-in-state of Nelson's body once it returned to London from the Battle of Trafalgar.

Time, sunlight, and problems caused by earlier restorations meant that conservation was needed. This exacting process was accompanied by consideration of how best to protect the paintings for the future. Blinds moderating the amount of sunlight through the Hall's large windows are one important answer visitors might spot.

A sneak preview revealed far more than Thornhill's masterpiece. A new entrance has been created in the undercroft. Not only does this better protect the paintings, since temperature and humidity can be better controlled; it has also opened up space for a cafe and shop. There are also ticket desks since, inevitably and not unreasonably, admission is now for a set price rather than a suggested donation. 

The restoration work had offered its own opportunities to get really close to the art, both on the west wall and the main ceiling. However, it's now time to appreciate the full scope of this incredible dining room once more.

You can get two-for-one tickets for the opening weekend (23-24 March 2019) using the code PAINTEDHALL241 


Friday, 18 January 2019

Sylvia Pankhurst in Ethiopia

Sylvia Pankhurst is strongly associated with the East End of London: she co-founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1914. However, London was only one part of her life: she had grown up in Manchester with her sisters and mother Emmeline, founder of the suffragette Women's Social and Political Union. Sylvia moved to London to attend the Royal College of Arts, after which she worked for the WSPU which had also moved to the capital. Political differences led her to leave and form a new group in the East End. She was a committed socialist and, during the First World War, a pacifist (her mother and sister Christabel, by contrast, gave their full support to the war). 

Yet Sylvia is not buried in East London but in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. How did an English suffragette and socialist come to be here? 

After the First World War, Sylvia continued to be active in left-wing politics and in the 1930s, focused on anti-fascism. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sylvia advocated for the country. She supported its emperor Haile Selassie and published the New Times and Ethiopia News. Her interest in Ethiopia continued after it was liberated during the Second World War, and she became a friend of Haile Selassie. She continued to publish and also worked tirelessly on the founding of a teaching hospital in Addis Ababa, the dream of Haile Selassie's daughter Princess Tsehai who had qualified as a nurse in London but died from childbirth complications in 1942. Sylvia's 1944 trip to select the site was her first visit to the country. 

In 1956, following the death of her partner of forty years, the 74-year-old Sylvia moved to Addis Ababa with her son Richard. She founded a monthly journal, the Ethiopia Observer, for which she travelled all over the country; she also worked actively for the hospital and other causes. When she died there in 1960, she received a state funeral. She was buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in the section for patriots who resisted the Italian invasion, the only foreigner to receive this honour. 

Sylvia's son Richard is now buried alongside her. He shared her deep interest in Ethiopia, and wrote extensively on the country and its history. He also campaigned for the return of the Obelisk of Axum, taken from Ethiopia to Rome by the Fascist occupiers. About 1700 years old and over 24 metres tall, this extraordinary stele is one of a number standing in the former capital of the Axumite Empire which extended over almost a quarter of a million square miles. (Although one is very definitely not standing: given too small a base, it probably collapsed almost immediately after erection.)mAlthough the Italians had agreed to its return in 1947, it was only restored to its original site in 2008.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Growing Underground in Clapham Common

Clapham Common Deep Level Shelter was one of eight air raid shelters built below London during the Second World War and completed in 1942. Its neighbour Clapham South now features on London Transport Museum's Hidden London programme, but Clapham Common has been more difficult to access. 

However, the current tenants Growing Underground are currently offering tours of their extraordinary farm. Yes, farm! The former shelter is now used to grow micro herbs using hydroponics. A visit involves the amazing experience of standing among thousands of tiny plants bathed in pink light while Northern Line trains rumble nearby. 

Growing Underground is the world's first underground farm, and focused on sustainability - the lights are low-energy LEDs, for example. They go on at night and off in the day, so that their warmth is emitted when the tunnels are coldest and electricity - from green suppliers - is cheapest. The matting on which the shoots are grown is recycled carpet. And food miles are obviously minimal!

In one tunnel, seeds are sprouted and the finished product is cut, weighed and packed. In another, the sprouted seeds are grown to harvesting size - still tiny, meaning that they have powerful flavours. 

Conditions are carefully controlled to ensure a hygienic, nut-free environment. Visitors wear hairnets, coats and wellies, with the 'clean' side of the changing room entrance carefully divided off. That cleanliness and the white-lined tunnels make this visit rather different than a walk around Clapham South.  

Another difference is that it has a lift - invaluable for getting produce out. It's also handy if you don't fancy walking up 180 stairs to the exit.

If you'd like to try the produce from London's strangest farm (do - it's delicious), it's on sale in Ocado, Marks and Spencer and Planet Organic. Alternatively, take one of their tours and get the freshest of punnets to take away!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Arrested decay: Ally Pally theatre

Alexandra Palace's East Court is newly reopened, with an exhibition, coffee bar ... and theatre. 

Through the huge glass atrium is a very special space, reopened for performances after eighty years - but not restored. Instead, it has been put in a state of 'arrested decay' and this fantastic decision means it retains a unique atmosphere. 

The theatre first opened in 1875, but it wasn't the best design - its architect John Johnson had more experience of concert halls, and basically sized one up to accommodate a theatre audience of 3,000. The auditorium may have been unsatisfactory, but the stage machinery was state-of-the-art. By the end of the century, films were also being shown here.

During the First World War, Ally Pally held interned foreign nationals and the theatre became a chapel, although films were also shown. Further work was carried out for its reopening in the 1920s. It enjoyed a golden period under the management of Archie Pitt, husband of Gracie Fields. She trialled many of her productions here before taking the on national tours or West End theatres. By the 1930s, it was out of use and the BBC took it over as a props store. The 1980s fire at Alexandra Palace was the last straw, and the theatre became derelict.

A great deal of care went into keeping the decaying splendour of the theatre intact while also making it a safe, usable space for its users. The lath and plaster ceiling with its decorative mouldings (added in the 1920s) was stabilised, so it won't be falling on the audience's heads - but no more than that was done. Holes and exposed areas have been left unchanged. 

The floorboards were carefully lifted so the crumbling supports could be replaced, then laid back in their original positions. During the work, detritus which had made its way under the floor was retrieved and the best finds - including some fantastic old lightbulbs - are now on display in the East Court. 

Paintwork has also been preserved in its distressed condition. Loose detritus was carefully brushed off, then the panels were sealed with a clear coating.

Retractable modern seating and flexible staging will allow the theatre to be used for all sorts of performances - and have addressed some of the original theatre's flaws, for example by improving sightlines. Forthcoming performances are already proving popular, and it's wonderful to know that this theatre has a new lease of life - without losing any of its older charms. 

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