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.