Friday, 30 July 2010

Cast-iron council houses

This pair of 1920s council houses are far more unusual than they first appear. The semi-detached homes are built from cast iron.

After the First World War there was huge demand for housing. However, the war had led to a loss of skilled labour, so alternatives were sought. One thing the Black Country did have was plenty of capacity for iron founding, as it was a local industry short of work. Thus building houses in pre-formed cast iron which could be easily and quickly assembled on-site appeared a good solution. There was a big problem, though: despite all these advantages, each cast-iron house cost twice as much as a brick home and so only two pairs were built in Dudley and about 500 nationwide. (Nonetheless, they would catch the attention of Time Magazine.)

Four men would put together the 600 panels, line them inside with asbestos sheets and insulate the cavity with waste wool. The roof was more traditional, tiled in slate. Inside was pretty smart by contemporary standards, with an indoor bathroom and flush toilet, running hot water and a large living room instead of the traditional parlour. The rent was correspondingly higher, though, so it was out of the reach of most ordinary families.

The building didn't rust as long as it was repainted every few years. Pale-coloured paint not only protected the walls but also reflected heat to keep the house a little cooler in summer. Cared for in this way, the houses remained occupied until 1987 when their demolition was ordered by Health Inspectors. Happily, they were instead rescued and rebuilt in the Black Country Living Museum.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Who is it?

I've just added another cup to my lithophane collection. There's a problem, though: I don't know whom it depicts. The front of the cup has a monogram of JW and the dates 1870-1911, but I'm afraid that hasn't helped me much.

Does anyone have any idea who this might be?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Ghost signs (39): wrong way around

These two Wolverhampton ghost signs are a short walk apart, but in rather different states of repair and relevance.

James Baker & Sons, boot manufacturers, no longer occupy these fine premises. Indeed, the factory closed in the 1970s after making boots and shoes for over 120 years. However, their sign lives on in rather fine condition (albeit with added windows).

By contrast, Dixon's large sign may still loom over the tramlines but it's looking rather faded and timeworn. Yet it's technically not a ghost sign at all, since the business - ironically, 'paints, wallcoverings and papers' - is still going strong.

Finally, here's a bonus sign. The picture is pretty terrible because it was taken through the window of a moving coach, but the sign is rather nice. It's in Gornal, and advertises 'Five Ways Drug Stores. Oils & Colours.' A very close look shows that it has been repainted at least once.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The black church

St Bartholomew, Wednesbury is also known as 'the black church' for a reason which leaps to the eye: the sandstone exterior has become very dark. It is in a rather special location, a hilltop which probably held a temple to Woden. The town itself takes its name from this pagan god, while the church's prominent site makes it a Black Country landmark.

It may have supplanted an earlier religion, but the church has been here a very long time. The current building and some of the interior furnishings are mainly mediaeval. What makes the interior absolutely stunning, though, is the Victorian and Edwardian redecoration. It includes stencilled patterns, wall and altar painting by Bateman and Godfrey Gray and stained glass by Charles Eamer Kempe.

Further reading: Tim Bridges, Churches of the Black Country, Logaston Press 2008.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Ghost signs (38): the museum

There isn't actually a museum of ghost signs: the logistical problems are obvious! However, at the weekend I did visit a museum with ghost signs, the Black Country Living Museum.

This open air site has a number of buildings from all over the Black Country which have been carefully moved and reconstructed brick-by-brick. Among them are a couple which had painted adverts, and these have of course made the move with them.

Sidebotham's Trap Works comes from Wednesfield, a town specialising in animal trap manufacture. (Such local specialisation was common in the region.) They exported all over the world. However, in the second half of the twentieth century changes including new legislation on trapping and the introduction of myxomatosis saw a dramatic decline in the trade.

Nash's Ironmongery was originally in Oldbury. It sold all sorts of items to both domestic and trade customers, and even cut keys. The Museum have recreated it as it was in the 1930s. However, one thing the shop didn't stock was tobacco so the proprietor was presumably paid for hosting this advert for Wills's Gold Flake.

Since ghost-hunting can be thirsty work, the Bottle & Glass Inn is an essential stop. Tranpsorted from Brockmore, where it backed onto the canal, it really does serve beer. Do take a look at either side wall, though: here are signs for Plant's brewery. Although the pub is Victorian, Plant's was founded in 1901 and based in Dudley, at the heart of the Black Country.

Of course, should you be short of beer money then there is a final resort: the pawnbroker. Such establishments provided loans - secured on property ranging from jewellery to clothes - to those who would otherwise have difficulty obtaining credit. Indeed, they have undergone a revival in recent years and are once more playing that role. However, if the borrower is unable to redeem their pledge (repay the loan to get their pawned item back) then the property is sold. The broker therefore takes little risk, but borrowers might lose essential items or even the work tools they needed to earn a living.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

From the archives: underground steam

At the moment, London's Underground seems to be either hot and sticky or damp and sticky, depending on the weather. We won't even mention weekend engineering work. It used to be much, much worse though:

As a Victorian invention, London’s underground railway system pre-dates the internal combustion engine. The first trains therefore used steam engines, making travel on the Tube far more unpleasant than today’s hot and overcrowded commutes! This locomotive, Number 23, is the only survivor from that period and now lives in the London Transport Museum.

The first locomotives were run by the Great Western Railway, so it’s unsurprising that some features of the underground trains mirrored their open-air counterparts - not only carriages with compartments and luggage racks, but also the fare structure. Like normal railways, the underground initially offered first, second and third class travel; there were also special cheap ‘parliamentary’ fares for workmen on early morning services. Parliament had forced the operators to offer these, partly to compensate the people forced to move to make way for the building of the underground. In 1873 the fare from Paddington to Notting Hill Gate was 4d first class, 3d second class, 2d third class and 1d with a parliamentary fare.

Unsurprisingly, running steam trains in confined tunnels meant a hot, smoky atmosphere described by The Times as ‘a form of mild torture’. Attempts were made to minimise the unpleasantness. Rather than escaping into the tunnel, the exhaust steam was run through pipes into cold water where it condensed; coke was used instead of coal; and smoke vents allowed the fumes to belch out into the road above, startling passing horses. Despite these efforts, however, it must have been an enormous relief when electrification was introduced in 1905.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Random statue 9: the Earl of Pembroke

Given the backdrop, you can understand why the Earl of Pembroke looks a little smug. He's stood in the heart of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, wearing his very best outfit (complete with order of the garter).

William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke was Chancellor of the University in 1617-30, (not bad, since he had originally left Oxford in 1595 without a degree). His name was also given to Pembroke College, apparently in the hope he would make a large bequest to the institution; a hope which was dashed on his death. He sponsored the printing of Shakespeare's First Folio too, which alone probably earns him a library location for his statue. Not that he was necessarily a very nice person: having got Mary Fitton pregnant, he refused to marry her and the Queen had him sent to Fleet Prison as a result. He only returned to royal favour when she was succeeded by King James.

Herbert's statue, designed by Rubens, was originally in the family home. Presented to the Bodleian by the eighth Earl, it stayed inside the library for several hundred years before moving to its current location in 1950.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Man's Shop

Oxford is rich in old signs, and there's a lovely vintage feel to this one. The shop now offers contemporary as well as traditional menswear - but also gowns (academic of course, as well as guild and legal regalia) and uniforms. There's even a barber who'll give you a sharp new haircut to match that sharp new blazer.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


I'm always keen to find another reason for a picture of Saint Malo, and a post about clouds on Unmitigated England provided just the inspiration I was looking for! Here's my (less elegant, more Gallic) variation on the same theme: as I began my most recent ferry trip back to England, weeks of clear blue skies had finally given way to something more interesting.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A complete history of food, with ambergris

Bompas & Parr offered an entertaining take on the culinary past in their Complete History of Food. The involvement of Courvoisier probably did little to help the quality of my photos! The theme was more for fun than historical authenticity: representing the middle ages, a 'doctor' diagnosed our humours to prescribe one of four cocktails and canapes, served in a ship.

In 1853, the creators of Crystal Palace's prehistoric animals hosted a new year dinner inside the iguanadon; our main course was eaten in surroundings evoking that event. Up on the roof terrace, a contemporary 'flat and fizzy' champagne cocktail had still wine and effervescent grapes.

However, what most intrigued me was the Renaissance dessert of iris flower jelly with ambergris posset. Yes, ambergris, which I'd heard of as a perfume ingredient but not as a food. I also had only a vague idea of where it came from (fortunately for my appetite!).

In fact, ambergris is something that sperm whales excrete. Secreted into the intestine, much of it passes out of the whale's body in their faeces but larger lumps are possibly regurgitated. These pieces, up to 50kg each, can then be gathered up when they wash ashore. After aging, the substance develops a distinctive odour which accounts for its use both in perfume and as a food flavouring; Alexander Pope observed that
Praise is like ambergris; a little whiff of it, by snatches, is very agreeable; but when a man holds a whole lump of it to his nose, it is a stink and strikes you down.
King Charles II apparently ate it in his breakfast eggs and Richelieu liked ambergris pastilles, while Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick of its use in Turkish cooking. In fact, according to Larousse Gastronomique, the Chinese were the first to use it as a spice; in the middle ages it featured in ragouts and jams as well as desserts and, in the eighteenth century, hot chocolate. Historically, it was also believed to treat headaches, colds and epilepsy.

If you fancy adding some ambergris to your cooking, be warned that it's very expensive! However, if you feel both wealthy and adventurous, there's an 'interesting' recipe for ambergris pudding here.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

From the archives: Deptford power

As I write this, I take it for granted that my computer and desk lamp are running off mains electricity. I should feel a twinge of local pride, though: the first large-scale power station opened just down the road a little over 120 years ago.

Think of power stations in London, and you probably think of the iconic Battersea towers; the reborn Bankside, now Tate Modern; maybe Lots Road or, if you focus on south-east London, Greenwich. However, there's a glaring omission from this list, perhaps because few traces of it remain.

Deptford Power Station was the world's first large-scale electricity operation. Sebastian de Ferranti, pioneering chief engineer of the London Electric Supply Corporation and the man who established the principle of a national grid using alternating currents, designed and built it.

The station was located on a three-acre site which had previously contained East India Company storage sheds. It was designed to house four 10,000-horsepower engines and 500-ton alternators, enough to supply 2 million lamps. Unfortunately, the planned Deptford Power Station was going to be too effective: during its construction, the Board of Trade decided to limit its area of supply and allow competitors, while technical problems meant delays which lost the company many customers. The station's capacity was drastically scaled down when it opened in 1889; frustrated, Ferranti left the company in 1891.

However, the company went on to attract more customers and when the London Electricity Supply Corporation later merged with nine other companies to become the London Power Company, they built a new station on the Deptford site. Construction in 1926 proceeded quickly, despite tragedy when a shaft ring fractured, killing five men. Following nationalisation in 1948, a high-pressure extension was built and the power station became Britain’s second-largest. Throughout its operation, the station received coal supplies by river to its own jetty. However, the Ferranti building was taken out of use in 1957 and demolished in the 1960s. The other buildings were closed in 1983 and demolished in 1992 - click here and here for photos.

The power station and its creator are now commemorated locally by the Ferranti Park, opened opposite the Laban Centre on 19 June 2004. The power station's jetty also remains, rotting quietly in the River Thames.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

TGWU Belfast

Looking through old photographs, I found this one taken in Belfast: it's the TGWU building with its striking, five-story-high mural.

The Transport & General Workers' Union opened their new headquarters, Transport House, in 1959. At the time, Belfast's engineering industries were thriving and are represented here by an aeroplane, cranes, a ship, a factory and a line of Soviet-style workers.

Fifty years on, times have changed. Those industries have suffered decline, and the union has merged and changed name. Nonetheless, the building should live on to visibly mark this moment in Belfast's past, as it is now listed.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Deptford teachers update

I recently described the rather alarming recruitment procedure conducted in 1837 by Deptford Benevolent Institution when they wanted a new schoolmaster. Contemporary documents showed that it involved public interviews in public houses, printed testimonials and a preference for a candidate with his own schoolroom. All that was missing was the outcome...

Pigot's Directory of 1840 has provided the answer. It lists Absalom Davies - the candidate with the existing schoolroom - as master of the Benevolent Institution at Deptford Green. His colleague at the girls' school in Broomfield Place was Mary Ann Sturdee - a surname with longstanding Deptford connections. Mrs Sturdee was grandmother to local historian and press photographer Thankfull Sturdee.

But what of the unsuccessful candidates? Bill Ellson traced James Bailey Bassett (he of the printed flyers) to Australia: there's even a photograph of him. Interestingly, although he was described in Deptford as 'brought up in the Established Church', in Australia he was a Wesleyan Methodist. If the conversion had happened prior to his Deptford candidature - and the careful wording of the testimonial suggests it might have - then that may have been another factor in the recruitment process.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Deptford Fair

A newspaper report of 13 June 1835 states that
Deptford Fair commences on Monday. The three crack amusements of Greenwich Fair – Richardson’s theatre, Alger’s Crown and Anchor booth, and that curious and pleasing mechanical contrivance, the Voyage Volante, or the Flying Ships, belonging to Mr. Saville, will contribute to its gaieties.
Those two sentences suggest two questions. First, what was Deptford Fair? Second, what were those attractions?

Deptford Fair was very much tied into another piece of local history, Trinity House. After this body moved out of the town, it still made an annual visit to Deptford, complete with procession; entertainments for onlookers had expanded by 1825 into a full-sized fair. It was held on Trinity Monday, eight weeks and a day after Easter.

As for the attractions, we can get a pretty good idea of Alger's Crown & Anchor booth from William Hone's Every-Day Book. Published in 1826, it includes a visit to Greenwich Fair.
"The Crown and Anchor" booth was the great attraction, as indeed well it might. It was a tent, three hundred and twenty-three feet long, and sixty feet wide. Seventy feet of this, at the entrance, was occupied by seats for persons who chose to take refreshment, and by a large space from whence the viands were delivered. The remaining two hundred and fifty feet formed the "Assembly room" wherein were boarded floors for four rows of dancers throughout this extensive length; on each side were seats and tables. The price of admission to the assembly was one shilling. ... This room was thoroughly lighted up by depending branches from the roofs handsomely formed; and by stars and festoons, and the letters G. R. and other devices, bearing illumination lamps. It was more completely filled with dancers and spectators, than were convenient to either. ... There were at least 2,000 persons in this booth at one time. In the fair were about twenty other dancing booths; yet none of them comparable in extent to the "Crown and Anchor."
Richardson's theatre was absent on Hone's visit to Greenwich thanks to the magistrates' attempts to suppress the fair:
neither Richardson's nor any other itinerant company of performers, was there. There were gingerbread stalls, but no learned pig, no dwarf, no giant, no fire-eater, no exhibition of any kind.
Their absence was noteworthy because Richardson's was a fixture at London's fairs. A year after our newspaper report, Dickens gave a wonderful description of the show:
This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.... A change of performance takes place every day during the fair, but the story of the tragedy is always pretty much the same. There is a rightful heir, who loves a young lady, and is beloved by her; and a wrongful heir, who loves her too, and isn’t beloved by her; and the wrongful heir gets hold of the rightful heir, and throws him into a dungeon, just to kill him off when convenient, for which purpose he hires a couple of assassins—a good one and a bad one—who, the moment they are left alone, get up a little murder on their own account, the good one killing the bad one, and the bad one wounding the good one. Then the rightful heir is discovered in prison... and the young lady comes in to two bars of soft music, and embraces the rightful heir; and then the wrongful heir comes in to two bars of quick music (technically called ‘a hurry’), and goes on in the most shocking manner, throwing the young lady about as if she was nobody, and calling the rightful heir ‘Ar-recreant—ar-wretch!’ in a very loud voice, which answers the double purpose of displaying his passion, and preventing the sound being deadened by the sawdust. The interest becomes intense; the wrongful heir draws his sword, and rushes on the rightful heir; a blue smoke is seen, a gong is heard, and a tall white figure... slowly rises to the tune of ‘Oft in the stilly night.’ This is no other than the ghost of the rightful heir’s father, who was killed by the wrongful heir’s father, at sight of which the wrongful heir becomes apoplectic.... Then the rightful heir throws down his chain; and then two men, a sailor, and a young woman (the tenantry of the rightful heir) come in, and the ghost makes dumb motions to them, which they, by supernatural interference, understand—for no one else can; and the ghost (who can’t do anything without blue fire) blesses the rightful heir and the young lady, by half suffocating them with smoke: and then a muffin-bell rings, and the curtain drops.
Finally, the voyage volante was the very latest thing in fairground rides, having first appeared at Greenwich that very year. This rising and descending roundabout was, Clive Aslet tells us, operated by two men underneath the machine who turned its central mast. All the fun of the fair indeed!

Image: a contemporary fairground at Southend Adventureland.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Deptford teachers

Yesterday morning, the media were expressing their shock at a Deptford headteacher being paid 'more than the prime minister'. (Excluding the PM's perks such as free accommodation at Downing Street and Chequers, one presumes.) By yesterday afternoon, it turned out that his salary isn't nearly that high after all - as local bloggers had realised more quickly than the BBC.

However, Deptford has put its teaching staff through public ordeals in the past, too. In 1837, the Benevolent Institution wanted to appoint a new schoolteacher. Forget CV, covering letter and a quick interview: first, the Committee met the candidates in the Swan Inn on the High Street, and publicly published the details. They indicated that they preferred Mr Absalom Davies of Union Street because he 'already [had] a respectable School, and a School Room fit for the immediate reception of the Boys'.

The candidates still had to meet the subscribers to the charity, though, and some weren't going to give up without a fight. James Bailey Bassett of Lewisham launched a very public campaign for the job. He had flyers published, seeking support:
Being a Candidate for the Office of Schoolmaster to the Deptford Benevolent Institution for Education Youth, I most respectfully solicit your Vote and Interest; and shall feel particularly obliged if you would, in my behalf, fill up, and sign your name to the annexed Proxy. If it is agreeable to yourself, I beg to submit the name of Mr. Pyrke, being inserted as your Proxy – who is a Subscriber – and who is warmly interested in my behalf.
In case the appeal alone wasn't enough, he also had a testimonial printed in which Greenwich worthies including surgeons, a doctor, the High Constable, a churchwarden and a fellow schoolmaster endorsed him as 'a qualified, steady, and moral young man' brought up and educated in the Established Church.

The thought of such a public battle for a teaching position, complete with the expense and need to enlist others' support, makes modern job interviews seem a little less alarming. But did it work? Frustatingly, I don't know: the documents above were preserved in an album now in the British Library, but there is nothing to indicate the final outcome. A future research task...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

How Deptford got gaslight

Some time ago, I discussed the proposed Deptford and Greenwich Gas Light Company. There seemed to be lots of enthusiasm for it in 1834, but no actual company of that name was formed. The outcome wasn't entirely surprising as there were already two local gas companies, the Phoenix and the South Metropolitan, and the formation of a third would have required an Act of Parliament.

A cutting from August 1835 explains exactly why the Deptford & Greenwich was never launched:
The South Metropolitan Gas Company have been actually laying down their pipes, during the last fortnight, in both parishes of Deptford. It was the want of sufficient accommodation experienced by the inhabitants of the lower part of that town, and which was withheld by the Phoenix, which gave rise to the recently intended Deptford Gas Company, of which a prospectus was advertized in our columns last year. From the very satisfactory disposition evinced by the South Metropolitan direction to meet the exigency complained of by the town, the inhabitants were induced to suspend the project of establishing local gas works, and the result shews that their confidence has not been misplaced. The intended new approaches to the Deptford-pier will open an extensive field of operation for the South Metropolitan.
The Deptford & Greenwich had a rather unusual kind of success, then. It achieved its objectives without ever actually having to operate!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Yew're amazing!

This yew tree, in a churchyard in the Breton village of Saint Launeuc, is quite impressive in its own right: apparently it's as old as the church, dating back to the thirteenth century. Admittedly though, that makes it a relative youngster in yew terms as they can live for several thousand years. London's oldest is probably the Totteridge Yew, which predates its church by a good number of centuries.

However, what makes St Launeuc's really special - and earns it the designation of 'remarkable tree of France' - is that it shelters a wild cherry tree. The younger fruit tree actually grows inside the yew, their leaves and branches mixed together and the cherry's roots reaching inside the yew's huge trunk. This may not be the best place for fruit-picking, though: the yew's own red berries are the only non-poisonous part of the plant, but the pips inside are highly toxic.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

From the archives: Colin Blythe, Deptford cricketer

It's cricket season, and with England losing again it's easy to get nostalgic for a more golden age. Move back about a century, and Deptford local Colin Blythe was at the height of his career - but his fairytale story has a tragic end:

One of England's best Edwardian bowlers was born at 78 Evelyn Street, Deptford on 30 May 1879. He was the eldest of thirteen children, and on leaving school followed in his father's footsteps by becoming an apprentice fitter at Woolwich Arsenal. However, his summers were soon occupied very differently: Colin 'Charlie' Blythe would be one of the finest county cricket players of his era before dying in the First World War.

Blythe was discovered by chance, when he went to watch a Kent match at Blackheath. The team's coach Captain McCanlis saw him bowling on the ground before the game, and spotted his potential. The area was, he later explained, not one where he usually went talent-spotting: 'Blythe lived at Deptford, a place one would hardly go in search of cricketers. The lads of this town have only the roughest parts of Blackheath on which to play their occasional cricket.'

Blythe began his career well: playing his first match for Kent in 1899, he took a wicket with his first ball; in the following season, he took 114. He also went on to take 100 wickets as an England player, and was Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1904. He was one of the leading left-arm slow bowlers of his time, and according to Wisden 'Blythe had all the good gifts that pertain to the first-rate slow bowler, and a certain imaginative quality that was peculiarly his own.'

His international cricket career was held back by his epilepsy and nervous temperament. He was not, then, obvious military material. Nonetheless, when the First World War broke out, Blythe enlisted first in the Kent Fortress Volunteers before serving in the King's Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry). On 8 November 1917, he was killed by random shell-fire on the railway near Passchendaele. He was one of over 200 county cricketers to enlist; 34 of them were killed in action. Last month, the England cricket team paid tribute to them and placed a stone cricket ball on Blyth's grave.

Image: Vanity Fair print of Colin Blythe.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Ghost signs (37): Dubonnet and...

This palimpsest sign is right in the centre of Perros-Guirec, and clearly has several repaintings of the classic Dubonnet. However, there's also a red circle and after much peering and messing with Photoshop, I could make out the work Bazar a few lines above. I've no idea what it was advertising, though - although frustratingly, I can remember seeing another product (other than Martini) being advertised with a similar circular red logo.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Seven islands of seabirds

The Sept Iles archipelago off Perros Guirec in Brittany is now a nature reserve. In fact, the story of the French equivalent of the RSPB, the LPO, begins here. When seaside tourism became popular in the late nineteenth century, one railway company thought of a great idea to attract passengers: a Breton safari. Obviously, the area is pretty short of big game - but it wasn't short of puffins. Not, that is, until these visitors were encouraged to shoot as many as they could, leaving them to rot where they fell. People appalled at this avian massacre protested, formed the LPO in 1912, and managed to transform the islands from a hunting ground to a seabird reserve.

The population of puffins had fallen from thousands to just 400 couples. Although they are now spared from hunters, the population remains vulnerable to pollution: not only the more dramatic oil spills but also the regular emptying of oil and other pollutants from cargo ships directly into the sea. As a result, there are only about 200 couples today. They are easily identified by their distinctive beaks; another unusual feature is that they literally 'fly' with their wings when fishing underwater, rather than paddling with their feet like other birds. They are also smaller than you might expect, and not keen to come too close to the boat - hence the poor quality of my photographs!

Far more noticeable (and easier to photograph) were the gannets. There is a colony of nearly 20,000 of these seabirds on the ile Rouzic: one end of the island is literally white, even when seen from a distance - not with guano but the birds themselves. They flew over and around the boat as we sat there, beaks full of food which they carry back for their single chick. Much of it is caught by diving: the birds plummet at great speed into the water, sometimes from heights of 30 metres to depths of six or seven metres, and emerge with a beak full of fish or seaweed.

There are of course many other species of birds on the islands: we saw oystercatchers, cormorants, razorbills and all sorts of gulls. Even a grey seal popped its head up to say hello! It's wonderful that the LPO has been able to create this reserve; it would be even better if their campaign against marine pollution were to succeed.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Trollope, the post office and blue letterboxes

When Britain's penny post became popular, a new issue arose: taking letters to the post office was not always convenient. (The Channel Islands had an even worse problem: letters had to be taken not to a posting office but to the mail steamer, whose arrival time depended upon the tide.) How could it be made easier for people to post their letters?

Various European countries including France were already using letter boxes, so Anthony Trollope suggested that they might be tried here. (Yes, Trollope the novelist -at the time, he was a Surveyor's Clerk at the Post Office.)

The earliest pillar boxes appeared in the Channel Islands in 1852. Jersey got them first, but Guernsey wasn't far behind: three were erected there in early 1853. The experiment was successful enough for similar boxes to be introduced in England later that year.

One of those original boxes still survives in use on Union Street, St Peter Port. This hexagonal Guernsey postbox is the oldest still in use in the British Isles.

It is also unusual for its colour: other Guernsey postboxes are not red but blue.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

From the archives: autowheels and adult trailers

It's Tour de France time! Just the moment to forget football and take another look at cycling accessories from 1914.

A friend has given me a fascinating book: Yesterday's Shopping, a reprint of the 1914 catalogue for department store Gamage's. The shop was particularly renowned for cycles and toys; it later even had a motoring department. Resisting the temptation to blog the whole catalogue right now, I'll just share a few highlights from the cycle section.

My personal favourite is 'the "Gamage" passenger trailer', which looks like a well-padded armchair on wheels. Amazingly, it's designed to be pulled by a pushbike - the catalogue claims, rather improbably, that 'although the addition of a passenger in a Trailer may be so much dead weight, yet the act of trailing does not call for so much work on the part of the rider as would appear at the first blush'. Hmm, still quite a lot of work, though, especially if you have the top of the range model:
Adult Trailer, in artistic cane work, Sheffield steel carriage springs, plated rims, detachable mudguards, patent Universal joint clip, with safety lock and any pneumatic tyres, including lunch and umbrella baskets .. .. .. £9 19 6
With all that dead weight to pull (not least the basket full of lunch), I'd recommend fitting your cycle with 'a self-propelling Wall Auto-wheel' made by BSA. It's an extra wheel with a 1-horse-power motor, which attaches to the rear bicycle wheel and is apparently recommended by Prince George of Battenberg and Prince Henry of Prussia. Running on petrol, it will let you travel over 100 miles without pedalling, at speeds of up to 16 miles an hour.

And don't leave baby behind, when you can put her in a 'Progress' child carrier which fits in front of the handlebars and, terrifyingly, 'Opens and Closes like a Pair of Scissors'. Apparently it offers 'Absolute Safety of Child'.

Well, I'm not sure about the auto-wheel, but I might just order an Adult Trailer. Time to pack a lunch and find a volunteer to pedal...

Friday, 2 July 2010


Yesterday, we saw a rather elaborate well in the centre of Bieuzy-les-Eaux. It's just across from the equally elaborate church, built in 1560 with later additions.

However, the real religious heart of the area is surely the extraordinary chapel a little way outside the village, beside the River Blavet. On this spot, Saint Gildas (who had moved from Britain to found a monastery in Brittany) lived as a hermit. He preached from a stone near the river, and resided in a cave in the rock behind. That rock now forms the back wall and part of the roof of a chapel bearing his name. His follower Bieuzy, who lived in and preached from the same spot, is of course remembered in the village name and church.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Bieuzy les Eaux

The sleepy-looking village of Bieuzy-les-Eaux is one of those places which seem to have been left behind by time. It long enjoyed some religious importance and has one of Brittany's more extraordinary chapels (of which more tomorrow). St Nicholas des Eaux, just down the road, was a major trading centre in the nineteenth century, thanks to its navigable river. However, like so many similar places, it went from thriving port to backwater when the railways took over, and its neighbour seems to have suffered similar harder times.

Yet signs of former wealth are apparent in Bieuzy, notably this ornate well. With its shaped stonework and carved heads, it's rather fancier than the norm. I haven't been able to discover any further information about it, but the mitred head on the right suggests a religious reference. Very apt, as it's just across the road from the church.