Thursday 31 July 2008

History in everyday use: the Thames Tunnel

While the East London Line is closed, we’re missing out on the opportunity to sample an amazing piece of engineering history as we make our daily commute. Between Wapping and Rotherhithe, the line runs through the amazing Thames Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father Marc.

In the nineteenth century, the Port of London was at its height and ships had to queue for berths. As well as the problem of delays, there was another difficulty: if the ship moored south of the river and its cargo was destined for the north bank, or vice versa, it all had to be transported slowly overground along the riverside, across hectic London Bridge and back down the opposite bank. The solution proposed: a tunnel allowing horses and carts to quickly pass from one side of the river to the other.

Brunel’s tunnel was an engineering marvel, the first to be built under a navigable river. It required the invention of a new tunnelling technique: the tunnel shield, which provides support as each new section is built. (Previous tunnels tended to be ‘cut and cover’, where a big trench was dug and then roofed over – the unsuitability of this for tunnelling under a river is obvious!). Even with such revolutionary techniques, the tunnel took 18 years to build and was only completed in 1843.

However, as is often the way with such grandiose projects (think Millennium Dome), things went rather wrong. Money ran out, and although there were stairs down to the tunnel, the ramps for horses were never built. Instead the tunnel became a pedestrian attraction. There were under-river banquets, a shopping arcade, and even fairs. Souvenirs were sold, some of which can be seen at the fascinating Brunel Museum by the tunnel’s Rotherhithe entrance. However, over time it came to attract dodgy characters and declined in popularity.

Eventually, in 1869, the tunnel became part of the new East London Railway and was closed to pedestrians. The tunnel will continue to be an important part of London’s transport network when it reopens as part of the extended line (ironically named the Overground) next year: not bad for a pioneering tunnel well over 150 years old!

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Duchess Anne of Brittany, twice queen of France

Historically, Brittany was a duchy independent of the rest of France. Its last Duchess, Anne, devoted her life to safeguarding its independence - as a woman in a time of dynastic marriage, her only method of doing so was through marrying herself and her children strategically. Although she ultimately failed, she did twice become Queen of France along the way!

Born in 1477 at Nantes, Anne was only eleven when she became Duchess of Brittany in 1489 on her father’s death. She was soon betrothed to Maximilian of Austria, but France felt threatened by this alliance of territories to its east and west, and invaded Brittany. Facing military defeat, she instead married Charles VIII, King of France, in an attempt to safeguard Breton independence. Nine years later, her husband died after banging his head on a doorframe and Anne resumed her position as Duchess of Brittany.

In 1499, Anne married the new King, Louis XII. It was agreed that she would retain the Duchy of Brittany, and that on her death it would pass to her second son, thus maintaining its independence (in fact, she would never have a second son, only one son and one daughter). The Treaty of Blois was signed in 1504 and stipulated that her daughter Claude would marry Charles of Luxembourg, which she hoped would safeguard Brittany’s independence. However, following a serious illness, Louis made a new will which ordered a marriage between Louise and the future François I of France, thereby threatening Brittany once more. Anne’s last hope now was to marry off her son and give him Brittany as a dowry, but her final illness prevented this.

She died in 1514 and was buried in Paris, but her heart was returned to Nantes in a golden receptacle. Her daughter’s marriage to the next King of France subsequently went ahead, and François I reunited Brittany and France on 4 August 1532.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Rue de Jerzual, Dinan

One of the most beautiful towns in Brittany, Dinan rises over the river Rance. Since the city walls are high above the port which was the source of much of its wealth, a way of travelling between the two was essential. Today there are several roads, but in the past the main route was the steep, narrow rue de Jerzual. Many of Dinan’s hundred half-timbered buildings are concentrated here, between the river and the city gate.

This little street is the scene of a challenge on the third Saturday in September: the winner is the person who makes the fastest ascent. However, in the past it was more notorious as the dirtiest road in the town. Its steepness meant that all the filth from the settlement at the top flowed down when it rained. Today, happily, the rue de Jerzual is much more picturesque. It has been pedestrianised while wider, more gently-sloping roads take the traffic. You can break the steep ascent up its cobbles with visits to the little shops and art galleries which line it.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Little pieces of Oxford

The major sights of Oxford – the college buildings, the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre – are familiar to most visitors and feature in endless photographs. They are circled by small groups of camera-wielding tourists, while the open-topped buses give a higher vantage point, at least until a sudden rain shower:

However, step a little closer to the buildings and there are endless interesting details. These cherubic booklovers are perched on the Bodleian Library:

You should also look out for lurking grotesques,* some surprisingly modern.

While you’re looking up, keep an eye out for fancy doorways and even rooftop statues.

*They’re only gargoyles if they have a rain spout.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Pubs in Poole

As a maritime town, it's unsurprising that Poole has a lot of pubs. When I stopped overnight in the town on my way to Brittany, I did the Cockle Trail walk and saw many of them - even if I didn't drink in many (honest!) - and most have a story attached.

Probably the most distinctive building on the Quayside, the Poole Arms is also the oldest. It's covered in green tiles, made locally by Carter's of Poole which has since become the famous Poole Pottery. High on its front is the town coat of arms which features scallop shells, marking Poole's importance as a departure point for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella. They would sail to the Bay of Biscay, and return with scallop shells as souvenirs. The spiky fish is actually a dolphin.

A little further along the sea front is the Jolly Sailor. When Harry Davies was landlord here, he became famous for the number of times he jumped into the quay to rescue people. Perhaps some were over-enthusiastic customers?

Moving inland to the High Street, the Antelope is noticeable for its distinctive sign. Again, the inn has a very long history: it has been around for over 500 years. In the nineteenth century it was a coaching inn; you could depart from here to Bristol, Bath, Southampton or London.

These are just a small sample of Poole's pubs. You could also visit the King's Head which has smugglers' passageways, the Angel Inn where Poole's Reform Club met in the early nineteenth century, the reputedly haunted Crown Inn and King Charles pub, or the Lord Nelson where Augustus John used to drink, or many more...

Saturday 19 July 2008

From artichokes to caravans

I'm off to Brittany shortly, so for the next few weeks there'll be more emphasis on all things Breton - although London stuff will continue to appear too! Since I'm about to cross the Channel, it seems a good time to post about Brittany Ferries.
While we think of the ferries as existing to transport holidaymakers between Britain and Brittany, their original passengers were cauliflowers and artichokes. Breton vegetables had been making their way to England from Roscoff ever since 'onion johnnies' created the British stereotype of the bicycle-riding Frenchman with a string of onions around his neck. However, there were huge and important changes in Brittany's agriculture in the 1960s. The region was then amongst the poorest in France, a situation made worse by low prices which middlemen negotiated with each farmer individually. Frustrated, younger farmers led by Alex Gourvennec came together and took control into their own hands by forming co-operatives to negotiate more effectively. They also convinced the French government to build a deep-sea port at Roscoff, but ferry companies seemed reluctant to use it. Gourvennec suggested a bold solution: together with the North Finistère Chamber of Commerce, the co-ops formed Brittany Ferries in 1972 to get their produce to a major market. They quickly realised that there was also demand from British tourists wanting to visit the region, and added a passenger service.

Brittany Ferries continues to commission new ships and is one of the major cross-channel ferry companies, as well as providing a service to Santander in Spain. Unsurpringly for a French business, they also have the best on-board restaurants!

Friday 18 July 2008

London's first buses: the Lewisham connection

London's early buses have been mentioned here in passing, but did you know that two of the most significant figures in the city's bus history had Lewisham connections? They were George Shillibeer, who introduced the omnibus, and Thomas Tilling, who introduced bus timetables.

Shillibeer was a real innovator, if not a great businessman. He had seen omnibuses on the streets of Paris and felt that there was scope for a similar service in London. Unlike the existing stagecoaches, omnibuses were cheaper and did not have to be booked in advance. Launched on 4 July 1829, they were a success and spread throughout London - but so did competitors' services, followed by the railways. Shillibeer went out of business (and instead built combined hearses and mourning coaches - without much success), but is still remembered for his pivotal role in the city's public transport.

However, the original omnibus route was in central London, running from Paddington along Marylebone Road and down City Road into Bank. What, then, was the Lewisham connection? According to John Coulter's Lewisham & Deptford, it was a crucial one. Shillibeer built his omnibuses in a yard at 4 New Cross Road; the site is now Chesterfield Way.

Thomas Tilling bought his first bus in 1850; it came with the right to run 4 journeys a day from Peckham to Oxford Street. His particular innovation was to introduce a fixed timetable with set stops, making the service more predictable and reliable. Not only was his bus business a success; he also supplied horses to organisations including the Metropolitan Fire Service. By the time of his death, he was the largest supplier of horses and vehicles in London; his company survived into the mid-twentieth century. Tilling lived in Lewisham, at Perry Hill Farm, Sydenham.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Deptford: cradle of power generation

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. Its 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.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Herds of cows on Old Kent Road

Look above the Saigon Bar and Restaurant on Old Kent Road and you'll see a shabby but intriguing mural. Full of rural scenes and herds of cattle, it might suggest that the premises used to be a dairy - but continue round to the left and you'll see a pub name, 'The Kentish Drovers'. It's a reference to the people who herded cattle up this road on their way from Kent to Smithfield Market.

The pub seems to have lasted from the early nineteenth century to the 1980s. The National Archives hold an insurance record from 1838, and it was listed in the 1952 Black Eagle Journal. Unsurprisingly, its now-sorry state has got it onto English Heritage's At Risk register; nonetheless, the (rather battered) mural is still worth a look.

In 1912, the pub featured in an Old Bailey trial. Labourers Henry Hyde and William Dempsey were convicted of 'uttering counterfeit coin twice on the same day'. They tried to pay for two shandy ales with a fake half-crown, but were told by the barman that the coin was no good; they then tried the same trick at the newsagent next door, where they bought 'a pennyworth of Nosegay tobacco and 1/2 d. book of cigarette papers'. Both men were sentenced to twelve months' hard labour.

The court record says the men were in the pub's 'four-ale bar'. This was a bar which sold the cheapest beer, the 'public bar' (where beer originally cost 4p a quart)* as opposed to the posher 'saloon'. It's a reminder of the days when many pubs had several bars, each catering to a different kind of clientele.

* Quart = 2 pints

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Thank you to the excellent Transpontine blog for saying really nice things about me. In case you don't already know it, they not only cover history, music news and more for this corner of south-east London but also have an amazing history map which I love browsing - new places are added all the time. For example, did you know that Europe's first soul record shop was in Deptford High Street? Head over there to find out that and much more!

Zeppelin over Deptford!

Yesterday morning, I saw an airship flying past my kitchen window. Given the branding, I assumed that it was an advertising stunt - but according to the evening's London Paper it was actually carrying passengers. I've always fancied an airship ride, but perhaps not at £185 for half an hour!

Seeing them reduced to a (rather costly) novelty experience, it's hard to imagine that airships were once seen as the future of mass air travel. They have been around for far longer than aeroplanes: the first airship had a steam motor and flew 17 miles in 1852. The first Zeppelin was launched in 1900, and after use of dirigibles in World War I for bombing and reconnaissance, they enjoyed their golden period in the period between the wars as passenger craft. The Graf Zeppelin flew over one million miles, safely.

However, flying suspended under a vast bag of inflatable gas posed obvious dangers. The British rushed their own airship into flight in 1930, so that it could carry the Air Minister to India; it crashed in France, killing all but 6 of those on board. In 1933, the US Navy's USS Akron flew into the sea and almost all on board either drowned or died of hypothermia. One incident, though, would finish the era of passenger airships instantly. Famously, in 1937 the Hindenburg burst into flames over New Jersey, killing a third of those on board. The event was captured on film and photographs, seen all over the world.

Tragic as its ending was, the Hindenburg's early life had been rather unsavoury: it was initially used for Nazi propaganda, on Goebbels's orders. However, it quickly moved into commercial flights between Germany and the Americas. The passenger accommodation was luxurious, with dining room, writing room, lounges and cabins. There was even a smoking room, pressurised and with air-lock doors for safety! What a contrast with modern economy class flights...

Monday 14 July 2008

Advertising madness!

It's a common complaint that we're overwhelmed with advertising, and we tend to assume that it's getting worse. However, a hundred years ago advertising was at least as hard to avoid as it is today.

First, the streets were full of huge, colourful adverts painted onto the sides (and even fronts) of buildings. I've already posted on ghost ads, and you can see a much bigger selection of them here. When new, they would of course have been bright and eye-catching - and seem to have been on walls all over the place; more ephemeral posters and even magic lantern displays were also used.

Then there were mobile adverts. The pavements were filled with sandwich men, while on the roads buses served as travelling billboards to an even greater extent than today. This bus from 1911, now in the London Transport Museum, is not only crusted with advertisements but even has them liberally coating the windows.

Try to ignore all that colourful publicity by reading a book, and there were black-and-white versions on the front and back pages. This selection comes from Mrs Beeton's Every Day Cookery and Enquire Within Upon Everything:

And what better to use as a bookmark than an advertising trade card or flyer? Sneaky advertisers even disguised them as banknotes! Give in to the endless entreaties, step into a shop to buy one of these products, and you would have been assailed once more with enamel signs on the wall outside, displays on the wall and counter inside, and even the mirror doubling as an advert.

Enjoy a book or play? Great - now you could buy the accompanying perfume, sheet music, food, toothpaste, clothes, and in the case of the novel Trilby, hats. Its author might give celebrity endorsements: while novelist Sarah Grand promoted Sanatogen, Oscar Wilde was associated with a breast-enlarging cream, Madame Fontaine's Bosom Beautifier.

Junk mail was a problem too, but you might think that our ancestors were at least safe from spam. However, Matthew Sweet demonstrates that the Victorian equivalent made its appearance as early as 1864, when Harley Street dentists Messrs Gabriel sent out a large number of unsolicited telegrams. Expecting the messages to be important, recipients were so disgruntled to find that they were nothing but advertisements that some even wrote outraged letters to the Times.

So, as we hold our advert-free books, hit the delete button or mute the television, we're perhaps less oppressed by advertising than our ancestors after all.

Sunday 13 July 2008

Deptford Station: a London first

It seems a good time to post about Deptford Station since first, early signs of regeneration are at last appearing and second, I was reminded of its history on a recent visit to London Transport Museum.

What's special about Deptford Station? Simply, it was one end of the world's first suburban passenger railway: the London & Greenwich Railway. This initially ran on a viaduct from Spa Bridge Bermondsey to Deptford, London's first two stations, and opened in 1836. To give an idea of how early this was in the development of London's public transport, Shillibeer had only begun running his horse-drawn omnibus service from Greenwich to Woolwich in 1834.

By the end of the year, London Bridge station was operating and the railway was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of London. The opening was heralded by George Ponsford in the Mechanics' Magazine as the dawn of a new era when 'the ends of the earth will meet' bringing world peace and the transformation of 'spears into steam-carriages'. Mind you, he also suggested that the railway arches be converted into homes - the only problem he foresaw was that the smoke from their chimneys might annoy rail passengers! The railway made it across Deptford Creek to Greenwich in 1840.

The picture here is of a ticket to the opening event, now in the London Transport Museum. It was possibly the only time the railway issued tickets, however: travellers were given copper tokens - silver for directors - instead of paper tickets.

Another unusual feature of Deptford Station is that it has a carriage ramp. This creates a lovely mental image of first-class passengers being driven in their carriages to the very train doors, but the reality is a little more practical. Because the railway platforms are well above street level, the ramp was designed to allow railway carriages to be stored under cover and then lifted up to the station by pulleys. It still survives as a listed, but rather neglected, structure. You can now see it from the Deptford Project cafe, located aptly enough in a railway carriage (and have one of their gorgeous cakes while you're there)! The long-term plan is to have creative businesses in the ramp's arches.

The railway was a great success, carrying over two million passengers a year by the 1840s. Let's hope that the planned redevelopment (ominously, a 'modern glass building') makes it look worthy of its historical status once more!

Saturday 12 July 2008

Lithophanes: magic in a cup

Lurking on one of my shelves are a huddle of old china cups. None of them match each other, and I never actually drink from them. To be honest, some of them don't look very interesting. Yet they all share a secret...

In the bottom of each cup is a picture. In fact, the bottom of each cup is a picture. When you first look inside, it just appears to be a bumpy surface, but the moment you hold the cup to the light, an image appears. The different thicknesses of porcelain provide the light and shade. These porcelain pictures are known as lithophanes.

The picture would first be carved in a sheet of wax on plate glass, which was translucent enough for the artist to see the effect. Creating the picture was skilled work because the contours of the lithophane don't relate to the contours of the object being pictured, but rather to its light and shade: the thicker the porcelain, the deeper the shadow. It was then cast in plaster of paris; porcelain would be pressed into the plaster mould and left to dry. Removing the fragile porcelain from the mould without damage and firing it without warping or cracking were also skilled processes, and only about 40% of pieces survived the process.

Lithophanes were invented in Europe in 1827, by Baron Paul de Bourgignon, and were popular in the nineteenth century. They had already been used in China to decorate vases with flower images, but the creation of elaborate scenes and portraits was a European innovation. Many of the European pieces are French or German; although mine are all cups, you can also find beer tankards, lampshades, and decorative panels. Coronation mugs were produced for Edward VII and George V, before the manufacture of these pieces declined in Europe. Japanese pieces were made in the twentieth century, and became popular souvenirs for servicemen after World War II; they are usually teacups and often feature portraits of geishas. Today, several porcelain companies in Europe are again making lithophanes, usually as candle holders. However, my favourites continue to be those Edwardian cups-with-a secret.

This blog as wordle

Wordles are popping up on all sorts of blogs - here's mine turned into one.

So what is a wordle? It's 'a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide'; the more the word appears in the text, the bigger it is. See mine full-size and many more in the gallery.

Friday 11 July 2008

Mapping London's history - and its lighting

The Greenwich Phantom has highlighted this brilliant online resource: Greenwood's map of London from 1827 which, unusually for the time, was actually based on a survey and bore some relation to reality! Sadly it stops just north of my bit of Deptford, but I could still browse it for hours...

Drop in on any section at random and you're sure to find something unexpected or interesting. For example, just west of Blackfriars Bridge is the label 'City gas works', which seemed surprising for 1827. However, a quick search online reveals that London pioneered the use of gas street-lighting in Pall Mall, in 1807. The London & Westminster Gas Light & Coke Company got its charter from Parliament in 1812, and the following year Westminster Bridge was lit by gas. The City Gas Works company followed, carbonising three chaldrons of coal a day at their Blackfriars works (enough for 9,000 lamps). Its buildings were described in Black's Guide to London of 1863 as 'unsightly', built on the former Alsatia district which was 'the haunt of the worst class of people'.

Between 1822 and the year of this map, 1827, London's consumption of gas had nearly doubled and gas lighting had spread through Britain's towns. By the time of Greenwood's map, then, gas works were pretty old hat.

Thursday 10 July 2008

London buildings at risk

Heritage at Risk is now online. English Heritage's new project is a list of heritage sites in danger; they hope that identifying them may be the first step to preserving them. You can download a guide to your region, choose a theme such as 'shipwrecks at risk', or make a more detailed search. You'll find a lot more than buildings: there are battlefields, monuments, drinking fountains, and even bollards! Of course, I immediately searched for my local area, and even in that relatively small bit of London the register has a range of sites from the world-famous to the very humble.

The Cutty Sark is an obvious piece of heritage at risk, especially since the fire, but thankfully a major conservation project is underway. At the other end of the spectrum, although I'd often noticed the rather sad-looking building mouldering away at 227 Deptford High Street, it's hardly likely to be in anyone's tourist guide. Thanks to the register, I now know that it's a house, shop and bakehouse built in 1792 for baker Thomas Palmer. Just the sort of historic building that gets ignored, but is so crucial to the character of our high streets.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Observation wheels, a very brief history

Observation wheels have enjoyed huge popularity since the success of the London Eye. As well as the Greenwich Wheel, I've recently been on the Wheel of Belfast and the Roue de Paris:

However, the history of such wheels goes back much further than the millennium. The observation wheel was invented by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr - hence its other name, the Ferris Wheel. He created the first one for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Although it was a huge success, it nearly didn't get built: the exhibition committee originally rejected Ferris as a crackpot. Only when he came back with the support of other engineers and investors did the committee agree to the scheme. The wheel went on to carry about a million and a half people and make a considerable profit. Sadly, Ferris died in 1897, locked in legal battle with the fair organisers over his share of the profits.

Europe soon followed suit, with wheels constructed by engineer W B Bassett. London was first to get one, at Earl's Court in 1895. In 1896 it suffered a breakdown which left passengers stranded overnight; the Grenadier Guards band played and seamen climbed up to bring food and drink to the passengers, who were each given £5 compensation on their return to earth. However, the incident didn't dent the popularity of such giant wheels: Blackpool got one the same year, while Paris built one for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (rather overshadowed by the Eiffel Tower). Vienna's wheel, the Riesenrad, was built in 1897 and is still working today.

The London Eye inspired a similar flurry of imitators. The current world's tallest is the Singapore Flyer, 165m high. However, by next year it's likely to have been overtaken by three others in Dubai, Berlin and Beijing. It looks like the observation wheel will be with us for some time yet!

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Dolly Parton and the Millennium Dome

On Sunday night, I went to the Dolly Parton concert at the O2, and had a brilliant time.

Of course, most of us remember that the O2 is a successful reinvention of the disastrous Millennium Dome. It must have seemed a brilliant idea to somebody: build the largest dome in the world on the rundown Greenwich Peninsula, fill it with an exhibition celebrating the new millennium, add its own tube station and watch the crowds come rolling in. Cue the popular perception of it as a giant tent on polluted wasteland, filled with rubbish and failing to attract the expected crowds...

However, now that the big marquee on the Thames seems to be a success at last, let's celebrate 10 things about the Dome:
  1. It brought the extension of the Jubilee Line to Stratford (and via Canada Water, conveniently for me...)
  2. Lots of toxic sludge was removed from the whole Greenwich Peninsula.
  3. We got to laugh cynically at Tony Blair's claim that the bland, mediocre exhibition was "a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity".
  4. Comparisons to the wildly successful 1851 Great Exhibition reminded us all of its wonderful legacy, Albertopolis.
  5. You could have your photo taken with ET in the BT-sponsored Talk zone.
  6. It was the scene of a rather improbable diamond robbery attempt involving a speedboat and a bulldozer - and we thought these plots only happened in movies!
  7. It gave us the opportunity to buy a giant hamster (£3,000), enormous eye (£500) or a brain (£700 - surely a bargain).
  8. Believe it or not, it was actually the country's most popular paying attraction in 2000 - even if a lot of visitors didn't actually have to pay (and many of those who did only paid half price).
  9. At least it never became a supercasino.
  10. It does make a good landmark:

Monday 7 July 2008

Greenwich Wheel

After a late start, the Greenwich Wheel has now been up and running for a few days; I made it there on Saturday. It's 60 metres high and sited on the banks of the Thames in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. As a result, the views of that Wren building are particularly good:

You can also see West along the Thames, with views of the BT Tower and the larger London Eye:

It's not the first observation wheel connected to Greenwich. In 1895, a Great Wheel was built to accompany the Earl's Court Exhibition. 90m high, it held up to 1,600 passengers and remained in operation until 1907. Its axle and bearings were made in North Greenwich by Maudslay, Son & Field, an engineering firm which also built steamship engines and created the famous orange ball on the Royal Observatory which descends at 1pm each day.

Some practical info: This is a temporary visitor to Greenwich, leaving again on 28 September; in the meantime, it's open 10am-10pm daily. Less than half the height of the London Eye, it also travels faster - meaning we got 4 circuits, in a pod which holds about 6 people (although two of us got it to ourselves). It's also a little bit wobblier, which is slightly unnerving when you can hear the wind whistling at the top of the circuit...

Sunday 6 July 2008

The Edwardian picnic

Gamage's 1914 catalogue not only offered the superb Adult Trailer with lunch basket, but also provided a range of foods (or in its own words, 'High-class Table Delicacies') for the picnic. One could choose from real turtle, hare or kidney soup in tins or bottles, galantine of boar's head with pistachio kernels, a whole ox tongue in a large-size glass ('An ideal "piece-de-resistance" for Camp Storage'), or the mysterious Camp Pie (filling unspecified).

Condiments might include Noels' Parmesan Cheese (Grated) in a bottle, 'Specially recommended for Country Use', Royal Naval Chutney, or Salad Cream (Parisian). For the more adventurous palate, a range of foreign foods included 'Gastronomes Specialities ... much sought after, being greatly used in High-class restaurants ... at prices much below the ordinary foreign produce shops.' After all, what gastronome could resist 'Tunny Fish in oil, tomato, herbs or truffle' in a round glass? Alternatively, jars of 'Sardines des Aristocrates' came in 'Truffle, Lemon or Curry'. Yum.

Sadly, desserts were rather limited - but one could have 'Gordon & Dilworth's tart fruits in Vacuum Bottles' or jams prepared from 'rich ripe Fruits and maple Sugar'. And how else to end the meal but with coffee made from Cafe Liqueur, 'a pure rich Coffee with an irresistibly delicate flavour made in liquid form for the sake of convenience', with which 'any maid can make Coffee and Milk (Cafe au Lait) or Black Coffee (Cafe Noir) to perfection in two minutes.' Best make sure to take the 'Camp Kettle. Strong tin.' And the maid.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Autowheels and Adult Trailers: cycling 1914-style

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 4 July 2008

Eleanor Coade and the South Bank lion

This magnificent lion used to guard the entrance to the Red Lion Brewery; now that the brewery is gone, it watches over County Hall instead. Don't be fooled by appearances, though - it's not made of stone.

The lion is a wonderful example of 'Coade stone', an artificial stone invented by Eleanor Coade in the eighteenth century. She came from Lyme Regis, and improved on earlier artificial stones by including clay from the west country as well as 'grog' (ground, pre-fired material which prevented shrinking). Also critical was skillful firing of the material over several days. The resulting ceramic, which Coade marketed as 'lithodipyra', was especially suitable for sculptures and ornate features: other London examples include the fountain in front of Ham House and the Nelson Pediment of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. (It was also used around the country and even travelled as far as Rio de Janeiro). All demonstrate how resistant the material is to weathering, frost, and pollution - in fact, it outlasts real stone!

The lion was made after Eleanor's death, in 1837; three years later, the Artificial Stone Manufactory closed down and the secret formula was lost. However, in the 1970s the British Museum worked out its composition and a new piece of 'Coade stone' was made in 1987.

The Red Lion Brewery stood for over 100 years on the South Bank - although it took its water from wells, not the Thames. The main building was rather grand, 5 stories high with doric columns and a roof which acted as a shallow water tank, but in 1931 it was seriously damaged by fire. The building then stood empty until it was demolished to make way for the Royal Festival Hall. Its lion was moved to its current location, just down the riverbank at Westminster Bridge.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Tower Bridge: a quick guide

It's one of London's most famous landmarks and one of my favourite places. I still get excited every time I cross it in the 78 bus! (Thankfully we've never had to jump the gap). Here are five things everyone should know about Tower Bridge:
  1. It might look mediaeval, but the bridge was built in 1894.
  2. The bridge is steel; it's covered in stone cladding to blend in with the Tower of London.
  3. It is a bascule bridge (ie it lifts open to allow ships through). Call 020 7940 3984 to find out when it's due to be lifted.
  4. Even when it used steam engines, the bridge took only about a minute to open.
  5. You can walk across, either at road level or (if you go to the Tower Bridge Exhibition) via the high-level walkways.
And five less well-known facts:
  1. The high-level walkways were closed in 1910 because they were little-used by the general public but more popular with suicides and prostitutes.
  2. Contrary to popular myth, Robert McCulloch didn't think he was getting Tower Bridge when he bought the old London Bridge and shipped it to Arizona.
  3. Freemen of the City of London no longer have the right to herd sheep across the bridge, since there are no livestock markets left in the City. (Nonetheless, Freeman Jef Smith herded his sheep across in 1999).
  4. About 40,000 people cross the bridge every day.
  5. River traffic takes priority over road traffic, but boats have to book an opening 24 hours in advance.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Hawksmoor in Spitalfields: establishment or esoteric?

In 1711, Parliament passed an Act providing for the building of fifty new churches to serve London's growing population. They would be paid for by a tax on coal brought into the Port of London. In fact, only 12 churches got built - money proved to be a problem - and among the finest of these is Christ Church Spitalfields, completed in 1729. (The restoration which finished in 2004 took longer than the original construction).

Queen Anne was particularly concerned about the growth of non-conformism, and the new churches were to have spires so that they would tower above non-conformist chapels. Given Spitalfields' population of French Huguenot silk weavers, it was a prime target for such a church; Christ Church certainly fulfils its brief of dominating its surroundings. Ironically, among those to preach here was John Wesley, founder of Methodism.

The architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor, a former pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. He had already been involved in rebuilding Kensington Palace, had designed parts of Castle Howard with Sir John Vanbrugh and the King William Block at Greenwich Hospital, and worked for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Despite his distinguished career, an aura of mystery and darkness seems to surround him. Hawksmoor was a freemason and fond of using pagan symbols; he was fascinated by all religious architecture, not just that of Christian churches. Such strangeness inspired Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat which famously suggests that the Hawksmoor churches were built to enshrine some code or mystic plan:
We can mark out the total plan of churches on the map and sift the meanings. ... From what is known of Hawksmoor it is possible to imagine that he did work a code into the buildings, knowingly or unknowingly, templates of meaning, bands of continuing ritual. The building should be a Temple, an active place, a high metaphor. ... His motives remain opaque; his churches are the mediums, filled with the dust of wooden voices.
Sinclair in turn inspired Peter Ackroyd's novel, in which the architect is a visionary and a satanist. Contemporary opinion downplays such theories, but there is certainly something strange and arresting about Christ Church which sets it far apart from other city churches.

Drama on Tower Bridge

Today we're at Tower Bridge. Imagine: a London bus has just driven onto the bridge - so far, so routine. However, something strange happens: the road ahead seems to be dropping away. Then the driver realises that in fact, the bit of road he's on is rising. The bridge is opening, with his bus on it. It's probably too late to stop before going over the edge; if he carries on, he'll have to jump the gap. What should he do?

This really happened to one bus driver, Albert Gunter, on the evening of 28 December 1952. He was driving the number 78 to Dulwich, a busy double decker, when something went wrong and he found himself on a rapidly opening bridge. Amazingly, the driver had the nerve to accelerate and jump the gap between the two bascules. The bus made the leap - about 3 feet by that point - successfully, and nobody was seriously injured. Albert Gunter received a reward of £10 for his bravery.

Sadly, there is no photo of the event but here's a (non-) artist's impression!

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Qype: Musée de Montmartre in Paris

Something a bit different today: one of my reviews from the qype website.

Paris - Arts & Entertainment - Museums

A little way from Sacre Coeur, in a quiet, village-like street is the local museum. And what a local museum - when your neighbourhood was home to some of France's leading artists, musicians, singers and cabarets, not to mention Sacre Coeur itself, it would be difficult for the museum not to be interesting.

Even given that advantage, though, this museum has been wonderfully done. Its building is not only full of character, but is the former home of artists including Renoir, Raoul Dufy and Maurice Utrillo. It now explores the history of Montmartre from its earliest days to the present. See the hill's past as a site of quarries, vineyards and windmills; discover its political upheavals and the suffering of the 1870 siege; explore the controversies surrounding the building of Sacre Coeur; find out about Montmartre's flowering as a centre of art and cabaret. And don't forget to look out of the windows for views of Montmartre's last surviving vineyard!

The shop is full of interesting things, mostly chosen for their relevance to the museum and its surrounding area rather than general tourist appeal. Fun items include the tiny bottles of Montmartre wine. There is no museum cafe, but hundreds to choose from just outside! Alternatively, sit a moment in the museum's courtyard garden and enjoy the peace.

Check out my review of musée de montmartre - I am CarolineLD - on Qype