Friday 22 December 2023

Myths in concrete

In Rainham Marshes, at the edge of the Thames, lie strange and abandoned craft. These odd survivors are concrete barges, stranded by the shore and surrounded by myth. 

All the photos in this post show decaying, lichen-covered concrete barges at the edge of a river. Across the river and past the barges, industrial works are visible.

Why were they built? It's not certain, but evidence suggests that they were constructed during World War II. Given the shortage of steel for wartime construction, concrete vessels were a tempting alternative. They had been developed in the nineteenth century for use on European rivers and canals. In the 1890s, engineer Carlo Gabellini was building small ships. By the end of the First World War, ocean-going boats were being built in Norway and the United States. In World War II, the United States built concrete ships and barges; the latter did not have their own engines but were towed by other ships. 

But what of British barges? Almost 300 open barges were constructed, as well as 201 petrol barges including the Rainham Marshes craft. 

It is said that many were used during D-Day, bringing fuel and supplies for - and even forming part of - the Mulberry harbours, and legend has it that the Rainham barges were among them. However, there is a lack of evidence to support either claim. The open barges were used on inland waterways and did not make the crossing to Normandy. Some had been used as pontoons in earlier tests in Scotland but an alternative was chosen. Indeed, those built in London were intended to replace metal Thames lighters now being used as landing craft. It is uncertain how many of them actually fulfilled that role. 

Petrol barges, like those at Rainham, were indeed originally intended to be used for D-Day. However, that did not happen. They did not perform well in sea tests, and alternatives were used - most famously the PLUTO pipeline.

Whatever their wartime role, another question remains: how did the barges end up here? They were moved here in 1953. The Thames estuary's flood defences had been damaged by storms, so the barges were sunk at Rainham to provide some extra protection. However, they did not return from their mythical trip to Normandy - they were being stored nearby on the Thames.

So we know that the Rainham concrete barges had no role in D-Day. They never left Britain, but they have served several and now serve another - providing a nesting site for birds. 


Friday 15 December 2023

Bains de Chateaudun


A building facade with ornate, blue-painted woodwork; tiling says 'Hydrotherapie' and 'Bains de Chateaudun'.

I'm very fond of this Paris facade, on the rue du Faubourg Montmartre. It advertises hydrotherapy at the Chateaudun Baths, now long gone. There doesn't seem to be much information about what services were offered here - hydrotherapy is a general term for a whole range of therapies, popular from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, involving water. Some form of bathing seems the most likely in these Paris premises, although therapies could also involve sea water, thermal mineral springs, and so on. 

If anyone has more information on this little Parisian mystery, do leave a comment!



Friday 8 December 2023

Seeds of success


A white-painted building with a cross-shaped, curved glass roof.

If you don't know this building in St Albans, you might not guess its original purpose. The best clue is perhaps not the stained glass, or the curved gables, but the glass roof. 

The building was designed in 1930 by Percival Blow for Samuel Ryder, owner of the Ryder seed company. It was an exhibition hall, used to display their seeds and plants. 


A red brick building with terracotta and light-brown stone details including reliefs around round first-florr windows, stone reliefs under leaded rectangular first-floor windows, and a semi-circular stone pediment above the front door.

The hall was next to the company's head office, built in 1911 on the site of a 16th-century coaching inn. While it had been designed by the same architect, and both are Grade II listed, the two have little in common. The hall has the simple curves and clean lines of its era while the offices draw upon a range of influences, with arts and crafts notes, classical accents and terracotta reliefs. The listing text describes it as a 'combination of Arts and Crafts and Wrenaissance styles.'

Stone relief of an agricultural scene and scantily draped goddess.

The stone reliefs, aptly, show agricultural scenes. (They also have a scantily clad god and goddess in the foreground.) 

Stone relief of an agricultural scene and a naked god.

Ryder was not a St Albans native: he was born and grew up in the North West of England and only moved to the town in his thirties. The son of a market gardener, he realised that gardening was too expensive for many people and had an inspired idea. He sold penny packets of seeds by post, which proved both affordable for his customers and successful as a business. It had started in his garden shed in 1895; by 1903 it had 90 employees and had moved to Holywell Hill. Ryder chose St Albans for its good transport links and made it his permanent home. He served on the council, was an alderman and magistrate, and even mayor. 

Vintage advertisment: a woman holds a shield marked 'Herbs', which the tagline says are 'a sure shield'.

In 1920, Ryder and his brother set up another business, Heath and Heather, which continues to provide herbal teas and infusions today. (It also developed a chain of shops, later sold and now known as Holland  Barrett.) The original seed business, meanwhile, would be taken over by Suttons Seeds. However, Ryder's name is best known today through his hobby. He took up golf at the age of 49, became passionaately interested in it and turned the Heath and Heather business over to his daughter. Soon, he was golf club captain and began to sponsor tournaments. In 1927, he went on to found the Ryder Cup.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Inside the chapel dome: Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich


Exterior view of ORNC Chapel, a tall neoclassical building topped by a dome.

The elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich are a familiar landmark beside the Thames, and the stunning interiors of the Painted Hall and chapel are a popular tourist desination. However, the dome above the chapel has been firmly closed to visitors ... until now. 

Section of the main spiral staircase (not the narrow one).
 The tour involves climbing 125 steps - some narrow and steep spirals, one even steeper flight of stairs.However, there are plenty of pauses and points of interest along the way. 

A stone column capital seen through a small-paned window.

 After all, the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul has had a fairly eventful history. Originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1779. The flames destroyed the upper part of the building, so the dome is part of the eighteenth-century rebuilding by James 'Athenian' Stuart, pioneering neoclassical architect.

View of the matching Painted Hall dome in evening light

The building requires plenty of maintenance, and sometimes more extensive restoration, so these areas have seen plenty of workers over the years. And quite a number of them have left graffiti on its walls and woodwork. Some glaziers have been even more creative, etching their names and dates into windowpanes.

Graffiti on wood saying 'Harvey 1895' and JK Paris, Plumber, 1971

Graffiti on wood including 'HR, JH, Painters 1824' in flowing script.

Graffiti etched on a window pane including names of glaziers and the years 1794, 1860, 1885.

The rooms above the chapel hold many discarded items. One has a row of organ pipes, which have buckled or broken over the years. 

A row of damaged organ pipes on a wooden floor, in front of an arched window with many small panes.

Another holds woodwork including parts of the former pulpit. 

Discarded woodwork including some pulpit steps, in a room lined with tall windows.

In the back of the room, a chair sits with a coat over it, both worn and aged. They are left from when fire watchers sat here during World War II, using its circle of high windows to observe the surrounding area.  

A battered chair, its cane seat unravelling, draped with a worn, pale brown coat.

Up even higher, we enter the 'drum'. The ceiling of this round room is lower, and an inconveniently low, long beam bisects the room. On closer examination, it is not a solid beam but trunking, linking the clockwork to the clock face on this side of the dome. 

A low room with extensive woodwork on the ceiling and a 'beam' running across at shoulder height.

Clockwork including large golden cogs and green metalwork.

A final, steep flight of steps takes us into the dome itself. This is as high as we go - although a pair of ladders lead to a hatch which opens onto the weathervane. 

Section of the dome interior, with much woodword, and circular windows low on the walls.

View looking up to top of dome, including many vertical beams and a ladder.

The views are fantastic - and best of all, we have arrived in time for sunset.

Painted Hall dome outlined against an orange sunset.

View across Old Royal Naval College to the Thames.

View of the Quee's House and Royal Observatory.

After the tour, there is time for a look inside the chapel itself (open to visitors daily). Its original design was relatively plain, but it was rebuilt more decoratively after the 1779 fire. It deserves a visit in its own right - but I'd definitely recommend booking a tour to the secret spaces above it as well. 

Richly decorated chapel interior.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Ghost signs (143): York found and - nearly - lost again

Piccadilly in York is less fancy than its London counterpart, but full of interest. If you look carefully, you can even spot the large and bright ghost sign for Foxton's Garage. The reason that care is needed is that the sign is now facing a hotel wall!

Photograph showing a recently built brick building on the left and a much older brick building on the right. There is a small gap between them, with a painted ghost sign visible on the older building's side wall.

Foxton's Garage was here from the 1930s until 1975. Old photographs show a different version of the sign, so it post-dates the 1930s: back then, 'Saloon Buses for Pleasure Parties' were being advertised. 

The current sign says 'Foxton's Garage Ltd. Morris cars sales and service'. Its light blue lettering and cream background have survived, looking relatively fresh, thanks to being covered by other buildings until 2019. It was exposed again when the nearest buildings were demolished, and immediately attracted attention and calls for it to be saved. Sure enough, it has survived - even if it does seem to be hiding shyly behind the hotel next door!

Saturday 21 May 2022

Bath Humane Society: a history and an ode

Alongside the Kennett and Avon Canal in Bath is Top Lock Cottage, a former canal lock-keeper's cottage. It also used to hold rescue equipment on behalf of the Bath Humane Society, as a sign on its wall still attests. 

Photograph showing a small stone building with a pitched roof and gothic-arched windows. On the side wall is a blue enamel notice with the words 'Bath Humane Society's Station for Lifebuoys and Drag-Poles' visible. In the foreground is a hedge.

This society made life-saving equipment available to the public to rescue people from water. A booklet from 1806 now in the Wellcome Library gives more information about how the Society operated. 

It aimed to provide assistance with all stages of the rescue process. Grappling poles allowed people to be rescued from the water and brought to dry land; rewards encouraged the public to make the effort to use them; and printed 'Directions'for performing rescues were distributed among the 'lower classes'. Receiving houses provided spaces to attempt resuscitation. A number of local doctors were willing to provide medical treatment. 

Photograph showing a closer view of the blue enamel sign in the previous image.


The pamphlet is not so much celebratory as reproachful in tone. It reproaches the city for not having established this system sooner; the canal builders for not making their sluices and locks safer; parents for letting their children play by the water; the working classes, who had formerly assumed assistance was futile; and reckless young ice-skaters. Those last are advised to 'make it a practice ... of holding a staff or a strong walking-stick, of a convenient length, in both hands in a horizontal direction' so that in case of accident, they would stay 'suspended' until help arrived. I suspect that this recommendation was rarely followed. 

The rescues of 1805 and 1806 - successful or not - are detailed. In its first year, the Bath Humane Society paid out rewards for those involved in recovering 'a young lad' who seems not to have survived; a six-year-old boy; a pregnant woman; two children (one of whom did not survive); and a woman who threw herself in the river. All these incidents occurred in August and September. The following June, premiums were paid for recovery of the body of a young woman; a chimney-sweep in 'a fit of desperation'; a boy working for masons who fell and could not be saved; a 6-year-old who recovered fully; and two young brothers, the younger of whom could not be revived. In July, a 7-year-old boy survived; an 8-year-old did not; a 5-year-old was retrieved with some difficulty; two unnamed boys were recovered lifeless by the same man, three days apart; another boy was successfully rescued the next day, as was a young man with his horse a day after that. 

After much discussion of drag and grappling-hook design, and a list of subscribers, the booklet ends with an ode:

RESUSCITATION HAIL! whose potent breath
Can wrest the Victim from impending Death; 
Type of the World's great Saviour! him whose hand
Could make the still, cold breast again expand; 
And, list'ning to the Widow's piercing cries, 
Command to life her bier-stretch'd Son to rise;
Oh! glorious attribute of pow'r divine!
To shield, to succour, and to save be thine!
The treach'rous stream, that stilly winds
Around old Badon's walls,
Lures to its bosom youthful minds, 
And by its smile enthrals.
One, fearless of its surface green, 
Adventures from the shore:-
Through eddies strong, or depths unseen, 
He sinks - to rise no more!
And scorning Heav'n's first law, ah! wretch accurs'd!
"His Maker braves, and dares him to the worst!"
Meet consolation, with reprovals kind, 
Cheer'd, sooth'd, and reconciled the chasten'd mind.
Whilst mild RELIGION ev'ry effort tries,
To crush DESPAIR, and point to happier skies.
Oh! then, ye Promoters of this hallow'd plan, 
Who the embers of life thus successfully fan; 
Proceed in your labours, so nobly begun,
And be to mischance, like the beams of the sun, 
Whose heat can invig'rate the senseless cold clod!
And bid the sunk spirit rejoice in its God!
Keep from obloquy's stain, what too long has been said
- In Avon once sunk - irretrievably dead; 
Be the slaying of thousands the boast of the Brave -
Your triumphs are greater - your boast is - TO SAVE!

 The author was William Meyler, a local bookseller and newspaper editor. Born in Anglesey, he had been apprenticed to a bookshop owner in Bath before opening his own shop and later becoming a publisher. He was also known as a poet, performing addresses and works at the theatre, and in 1792 launched the Bath Herald and General Advertiser. He was by 1806 a prominent citizen, member of many charitable and other societies, City Councillor, and Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Somerset in the Freemasons. A decade later, Mary Godwin and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley lodged at Meyler's shop while she completed Frankenstein.

Bath's smaller organisation had been inspired by the Royal Humane Society, whose original full title  was the 'Humane Society for the recovery of persons apparently dead by drowning'. It had been founded in London in 1774 and promoted resuscitation of the drowned. While it apparently impressed the Bath author with its success in restoring people in whom 'every spark of vitality appeared to have been extinguished', they had to concede that the local organisation's successes lay in rescuing people who still showed signs of life. A better result, but a less dramatic one!

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Elizabeth Line: behind the barriers at Tottenham Court Road

With the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail project due to open to passengers next week, here is a sneak preview of what's behind the barriers at the Tottenham Court Road Station! 


Photograph showing a yellow concertina barrier across the entrance to the Crossrail platforms inside the station

The new station is full of carefully-designed details, designed to reflect the area above ground. Look closely at the rather abstract pattern of dots on the wall panels and you can see it is in fact a stylised map: spot Soho Square and the roundels marking the station entrances.  

Photograph of a shiny red panel with white dots in a grid pattern. There is a square gap in the dots, with an outline of a house shape in the centre, representing Soho Square. Some of the dots are in fact Underground roundels.

The new tunnels and platforms are full of curves, light, and the distinctive 'totems' which will be a feature of all Elizabeth Line stations. They serve multiple functions including signage and lighting. 

The opening of the central section on 24 May 2022 will be a giant step towards completion of a project which began in 2009. When I visited the construction site at Woolwich Arsenal in 2014, it was apparently at its halfway point - but there have been a few delays since then, unsurprising in work of this magnitude. When the line is fully open, it will run from Reading to Shenfield and be over 100km long.

All that work has not only brought much-needed new transport infrastructure. It was accompanied by a huge archaeology programme which brought exciting discoveries. It also reminded us that Crosse and Blackwell originally had a factory a few steps away in Soho Square!

Inside the new Tottenham Court Road station, finding your way through its generous spaces is made easier through some clever colour-coding. The eastern side, with the St Giles Circus entrance, features red glass walls; at the western, Dean Street end they are black.Above our heads, the lights are modelled on stage lights - a reference to the many theatres above.

In fact, all that was missing on this visit were the passengers and trains ... but they will soon be here too!