Saturday 31 December 2016

Review of the year

It's that time again: as a new year arrives, we take a look back at the most popular posts of 2016.  

Top five of the year

Archaeology certainly caught our attention: at five is a near-secret piece of Roman history, the undeservedly little-known Billingsgate Roman Baths. (If you haven't seen them yet, look out for tours in 2017.) By contrast, it was a little bit of speculation on the archaeology of the future that took fourth place. 

In third is a Paris urinal - the city's last Vespasienne. It's not glamorous, but it's an intriguing piece of social history complete with prison walls and urine taxes. 

Both the most popular posts visited hidden Tube locations. Second place goes to the ghost platforms of Charing Cross Underground station, closed when the Jubilee Line ceased calling here in 1999. 

And the most popular post of 2016 was a look at the extraordinary underground 'museum' of posters below Euston Station. Who could resist the appeal of this colourful snapshot of 1962, its films, fashion, and trains? 

All-time top five

In fifth place is the Middlesex Hospital Chapel, seen from the top of BT Tower when it was a lonely island in a sea of mud awaiting development. That post really needs to be read alongside the more recent update, showing the beautifully restored interior. (We won't mention the renaming of the chapel by the developers.)

A trip to Chichester gives us the fourth most popular post, on Shippams of sandwich paste fame. Their wishbone clock is a far more appealing piece of the past than the third-place entry, an example of facadism which is among London's ugliest

The Paris catacombs - whose popularity may come largely from image searches for skulls - have dropped into second place this year. First place now goes to a post for which I (or at least, my lungs) suffered: a walk through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. I wasn't breaking any rules, but the tunnel really isn't pedestrian-friendly, so I'm glad people are making a virtual visit instead!

Happy reading, and a happy new year to you all!

Wednesday 28 December 2016

London's smallest museum?

On Strand is one of London's very smallest museums - and its gift shop is larger than its exhibition! This is the Twining's shop, which has been here for three centuries, and celebrates its long history with a museum display at the back. 

In 1706, Thomas Twining bought a coffee house on Devereux Court, on the corner with the Strand. Competition between these fashionable social establishments was fierce; as they tried to distinguish themselves, some did rather better than others. Famously, Hogarth's father opened a coffee house in St John's Gate whose gimmick was that only Latin could be spoken: it failed. Twining's approach was almost as risky, but worked - he took on Tom's Coffee House and made it famous for tea. 

The drink had been introduced to Britain just 60 years before Twining set up in business on his own, and was still expensive and heavily taxed. Nonetheless, it was popular with aristocratic customers who could buy leaves to take away, as well as the beverage to drink on site, and soon the trade in dry tea made up most of his business. He expanded it, occupying three houses on the Strand by 1717, forming the shop that is still there today. Within a few decades, Twining's were selling tea to royalty and exporting it to America. By the end of the century, Thomas' son Richard had successfully lobbied the government to reduce tea taxes. 

This history is captured in several display cases, which feature documents, pictures and packaging as well as tea paraphernalia. Entry is free, and you can also enjoy the building including the famous Coade-stone figures on its facade. And there's an impressive selection of tea on sale if you want a flavorsome souvenir. 

Thursday 22 December 2016

Adieu, Banbury North

A few months ago, Banbury North Signal Box was a crucial part of the railway network as well as a landmark for train passengers. Now, it's boarded up and awaiting demolition. However, I was fortunate enough to visit on 2 October, the last day before its contents were removed and preparations for demolition began. 

A flight of steps led up to a large, window-lined room overlooking the tracks. The long row of levers were the heart of the operation, moving wires and rods via the frame relay below to reach semaphore signals and points up to 350 yards away. 

The red-handled ones moved the signals; the blue ones locked and unlocked the points, while the black levers moved the points. 

We can read a story of decline in the white handles: these indicated levers no longer in use. 

That limited physical range meant a significant number of boxes had to be scattered around the system: here, there was one the other side of the station at Banbury South. The two boxes could communicate by sending signals using bells. 

Despite the size of the box and number of levers - not to mention the complexity of the network - it was designed to be operated by one person. 

This was busy and demanding work; but in quieter moments, there was a stove, armchair and later even a kitchen area to provide some comfort. These amenities are as varied in age and style as the machinery alongside them.

The manual, lever-operated signal system has been replaced by an automated system controlled from a Regional Operating Centre. The semaphore signals are gone, with LED signals in their place. The century-old signal boxes (Banbury North was built in 1901) are obsolete.

The Banbury South box is already gone - it was demolished within hours of going out of service. The controversy this caused informed how Network Rail dealt with its sibling. Calls for preservation were unsuccessful, and there is little choice but to remove the old signal box: it is too close to the tracks for public access to be an option in future. 

However, equipment was removed for spares, for heritage sites, and for the local museum; timbers will be recycled and window frames saved. And for eight weeks, the signal box was opened for tours: a chance for the public (over 3,500 of us) to say a final farewell.

Sunday 18 December 2016

More Menier magic

The mill at Noisiel's former Menier chocolate factory may be exceptionally eye-catching, but its neighbours also deserve our attention. They were added to the site as the company expanded, and bear its imprint throughout - even now that the site has been converted into Nestle's French headquarters. 

Equally beautiful, although very different in style, is La Cathedrale. Like its older neighbour, this building used innovative construction techniques: it was one of the first reinforced concrete buildings, completed in 1908. Its architect, Stephen Sauvestre, had already worked on the Eiffel Tower - he was responsible for the decorative arches at its base. La Cathedrale's mixture of brick and stone is characteristic of his work, which included many houses in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. 

Engineer Armand Considere would later patent the construction method used here, in which the concrete was reinforced with steel hoops. He and Sauvestre were also responsible for the bridge joining this building to its neighbours across the Marne. It became known as the Pont Hardi (Daring Bridge) because it had the largest span of the era - 44.5 metres (146 feet). 

Given such innovation, La Cathedrale's interior was hardly going to be ordinary. It is notable for very distinctive pillars, between which the cocoa was mixed with sugar. 

Formerly, beans were sorted and roasted in the glass-roofed La Verriere which was built in 1866 and extended in 1923. Today it leads visitors from the reception area, past displays of Nestle products. However, traces of its past are still visible throughout.

Modern technology included cooling machinery, housed in the Halle Eiffel, which chilled the extensive cellars where the chocolate was released from its moulds and stored.  

The machinery is now gone, but this metal-framed building from 1884 remains. 

Its name comes from the story that this was formerly a pavilion from the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris, but any connection to Gustave Eiffel is unproven: its official entry in the register of historical monuments attributes it to Jules Logre. With its fanciful details, inside and out, it hardly needs such stories. It fits perfectly into this extraordinary kingdom of chocolate.

Friday 16 December 2016

Ghost signs (125): Alwyne Lane, N1

In Canonbury, this sign advertises the services of John C Mather, builder and decorator, plumber and gas and hot water fitter. Among all those skills, he offered one area of particular expertise: Sanitary work a speciality. 

At first glance, the sign is rather practical, emphasising clarity over artistry. Yet a closer look shows every letter has some rather nice shadowing in red. There's also a fun little loop in the initial letter of 'Mather'. When it was fresh, this must have looked pretty jaunty.  

And it has an excuse for being a little worn and tired: it's pretty old. As Sebastien of Painted Signs & Mosaics discovered, Mather was in business between 1906 and 1941. The sign was at the entrance to his yard; he also had offices in nearby Northampton Street.