FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A hot summer’s day in London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on August 8, 2020

On a typical summer Saturday you would expect to see Trafalgar Square filled with plenty of tourists, a few living statues and maybe a street artist or two. It would be no surprise to anyone to say that this was not the case in this far from normal summer. Instead, just a few tourists scattered here and there. The trains into London were pretty empty, with passenger levels still well below usual – currently around a quarter of an equivalent day last year.

Our detour to Trafalgar Square gave us an opportunity to see the new fourth plinth installation, which had been unveiled on 30th July 2020. The latest artwork, The End by Heather Phillipson, presents us with ‘a giant swirl of whipped cream, a cherry, a fly and a drone that transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square’. It seemed an alluring sight in the midst of a heatwave, like a mirage on the horizon, but up close the combination is disquieting.

A quiet summer for Trafalgar Square

We probably wouldn’t have ventured into London were it not for the tickets we had pre-booked to see the exhibition of works by Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert at the Royal Academy. The Royal Academy has done a good job of adapting their space for the new normal – socially distanced outdoor queuing, one-way systems, hand sanitizer station, limited visitor numbers (obligatory pre-booking) and mandatory masks. It felt like a safe space to be wandering.

The exhibition of works by Spilliaert (1881–1946) was well worth seeing – disturbing self-portraits with extraordinary piercing stares, striking night-time scenes of Ostend inspired by his insomnia fueled nighttime walks and three of an intriguing series of paintings from a commission to capture the launch of an airship in 1910.

After leaving the exhibition we made our first visit to a restaurant in six months, which seems astonishing. It was quiet enough that there was no issue with spacing but the complete absence of any attempt to take the required record of customers made me wonder just how effective the current regulations can be if they aren’t even being adopted in a large chain.

The End by Heather Phillipson

The outing provided yet another reminder of how much I have been missing the vibrancy of life in London, whether that be catching up with folk; going to the theatre; visiting museums and art galleries; or just mooching about the streets. It’s nice to have a small taste of that again, even if it still feels a long way off normal.

Day trip to Düsseldorf

Posted in Düsseldorf, Germany by folkestonejack on July 26, 2020

On the last day of my short break I headed in to Düsseldorf for a relaxed day of sightseeing before making the 10 minute hop on the S-Bahn to get back to the airport for my evening flight home. I didn’t approach the day with any grand plans, just took a wander and stop wherever looked interesting. Sometimes I over-research my trips, going into full librarian overdrive, so this was a refreshing change.

A couple of the lifelike column saints in Düsseldorf

The first thing to catch my eye on arriving at Düsseldorf Hbf was a statue of a photographer facing directly at arriving passengers, camera in hand. This turned out to be one of 10 säulenheilige (column saints) located around the city centre. The lifelike statues are the creation of artist Christoph Pöggeler.

It is quite remarkable how Christoph Pöggeler has captured the people from everyday life, frozen mid-action, including a businessman mid-stride, a photographer, a bride, a father with his son on his shoulders and a young woman engrossed in a book. It was fun looking out for these on my wanders. The photographer was my favourite though for the chuckle it gave me as I set off around town, camera in hand.

I navigated my way from the station through the surprisingly long stretch of shops in Little Tokyo (some 300 Japanese companies are based in the city), towards the Rhein. My route took me past the red-brick Johanneskirche (1881, re-built 1951) and Bismarck statue on Martin-Luther Platz; the Triton Fountain; the impressive Jugendstil architecture of the Galeria Kaufhof on the Kö; the Lean Mathilde clock tower; and on an accidental diversion into the Hofgarten. Finally, I reached the Rhein. The view was spectacular.

Rheinuferpromenade

A walk along the Rhine presents a striking picture of Düsseldorf life, even in the midst of a pandemic. There were plenty of folk out for a Sunday stroll, enjoying a pint at one of the many riverside pubs or just enjoying the sun on the grassy banks (complete with white painted circles indicating the appropriate distance for groups to sit and socially distance). In the meantime, there are plenty of barges sailing up and down river, passing under the three cable-stayed bridges in the city centre.

The tanker Aubrig passing under the Rheinkniebrücke

There are plenty of monuments to spot along the way, but my favourite would have to be the early 20th century flood marker, which at first glance appears to be an ornate stone clocktower. It is only when you look closes at the four clock faces that you realise something isn’t right. Two of these show the time, but the other two show the water level in the Rhein (the small hand for metres and the large hand for centimetres) with measurements up to 10 metres.

Maritime museum

One of the most famous spots on the Düsseldorf waterfront is the cobblestone Burgplatz (castle square) beside the Rheintreppe (Rhein steps). It was the location of the City Palace for 600 years until it was burnt down in 1872. The only survivor of the fire was the Schlossturm (palace tower) which was in turn severely damaged by an air raid in 1943. Today, the restored tower houses the the Schifffahrtmuseum (Maritime museum).

Rhein engineering on display in the lower vault of the castle tower

The museum has a tricky space to navigate in the age of coronavirus, but a really effective one way system has been set-up. You go up in the lift and then work your way down via the stairs and exit through a different doorway. Masks are required throughout your visit. I thought it all worked rather well.

I’ve been in a few maritime museums in my time, but this one excelled with a small but excellent collection of fascinating displays focused on the way that the local inhabitants have been able to leverage the power of the Rhine. The basement levels present a series of wonderful models of nineteenth century ship mills, sounding ships and river excavators. These look quite different to anything I have seen anywhere else. The upper levels present other innovations, such as the flying bridges of the 17th century and curiously shaped medieval wooden freighters.

I have to confess that I didn’t go in to the museum with high expectations, but was absolutely blown away by the fascinating story that the museum had to tell. I highly recommend it.

St Lambertus

The church of St. Lambertus acquired a distinctive twisted spire in 1815, when carpenters used timber that was not properly seasoned in a phase of re-building. Alternatively, the folk tale would have you believe that it was the result of the devil twisting the spire in a fit of rage. Either way, that spire was lost during the destruction wrought by the Second World War but had become such a well known feature that its replacement was deliberately twisted.

If this wasn’t enough to tempt you closer, let me say that the modern stained glass windows inside are among the most beautiful that I have seen. A welcome surprise as I stepped inside.

Rheinturm

It takes a little longer to get up to the top of the Rheinturm at the moment, with social distancing measures in place and limitations on the numbers that can be carried up by lift at one time. However, the effort is completely worthwhile as you get a terrific of the rhine promenade; the bridges over the rhine; the media port; Frank Gehry’s dancing office buildings; the City Gate and the astonishing circular features of the Parliament for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In short, the views are spectacular and well worth any wait.

Observation deck at 168m

At the end of my day trip I returned to the central railway station and boarded the S-Bahn for the short ride to the airport. It seemed relatively quiet, with plenty of shops closed up and fewer airside eateries available than usual, but you could at least pick up something. The flight home was unremarkable apart from the complete lack of circling on the approach to Heathrow. I can’t recall the last time I experienced that!

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The Wuppertaler Schwebebahn

Posted in Germany, Wuppertal by folkestonejack on July 25, 2020

One of the most remarkable public transport systems in the world can be found in Wuppertal, a twenty minute train ride away from Dusseldorf. Wuppertal offers a fascinating glimpse at how urban transport systems might have developed if they had taken a different path.

The Wuppertaler Schwebebahn is a suspended railway system developed in the late 19th century at a time when cities across Europe were experimenting with innovative new solutions to traffic congestion. The construction of the first section of the Schwebebahn began in 1898 and received the official seal of approval when Kaiser Wilhelm II took a ride in October 1900, before public operation began in March 1901.

To put this into context, the first electric trains appeared on the City and South London Railway appeared in 1890; the first electric elevated railway opened in Liverpool in 1893; and the regular operation of electric trams began in Croydon in 1901.

A Schwebebahn train approaches the terminus at Vohwinkel

The ingenuity of the Schwebebahn was that it could connect the urban centres of Barmen and Elberfeld with the industrial developments along the Wupper Valley without requiring widespread demolition and re-construction. Instead, it largely followed the course of the Wupper river. The line reached its full extent in June 1903, stretching just over eight miles on a run between Vohwinkel and Oberbarmen, of which six miles are over water.

Today, a ride on the Schwebebahn from end to end takes 30 minutes. The journey takes in 20 stations and provides a fascinating view of the industrial complexes of the Wupper valley, including the Bayer plant where Aspirin was invented and first manufactured. There is a terrific audioguide produced by the city that provides a running commentary as you travel and you can pick up English language line guides from the Tourist information centre (which also sells a range of Schwebebahn themed items including masks, pencils, models and magnets).

This month marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most famous episodes in the history of the railway. A circus was in town with a particularly adventurous young elephant named Tuffi and someone had the bright idea of taking her for a ride on the Schwebebahn. It is thought that Tuffi was disturbed by the sound of the Schwebebahn or the flashes of the cameras from the press pack and lost control. The elephant broke through the windows and plunged into the river below. Amazingly, the elephant emerged with just a few scratches to show for her ordeal.

A Schwebebahn train crosses Bundesstraße 7 near Ohligsmühle station

I have been fascinated by the Schwebebahn ever since I first stumbled across a photo, so took great delight in the opportunity to ride the Schwebebahn and take some photographs along the route. I started my journey at Hauptbahnhof (Döppersberg) which is a few minutes walk from the main railway station. You can’t miss it – the overhead line runs straight over the pedestrianised walkway into the shopping centre.

At first it seems strange to be standing on a platform with no tracks below you, but soon you don’t think anything more of it. The train glided in to the station and I stepped aboard. There was a gentle swing to the carriage in the platform, a bit like stepping into a cable car. Travelling on the Schwebebahn feels perfectly normal, albeit with much better views than you usually get from ground level transport.

The seats at the end of the carriage offer a particularly impressive view looking back at the track you have just covered and the sight of trains passing in the opposite direction. It was no surprise to discover that these were a popular choice with locals and tourists. I was far from alone in making the trip to see the Schwebebahn, with plenty of other tourists around taking photographs. There is a bit of variety in the train liveries to capture, including one delivering a public message about a coronavirus with a mask around the driver’s cab!

A Schwebebahn train above the Wupper river on the approach to Oberbarmen

As a photographer there are many interesting locations. I liked the bridge over the road near Ohligsmühle (with a viewpoint on a pedestrian bridge running parallel to the line), the station at Kluse (especially with the station illuminated in the blue hour), the art nouveau styled Werther Brücke station (with listed bridge from 1902 underneath) and the line above the Wupper river on the approach to Oberbarmen.

One classic shot that I wasn’t able to reproduce can be tried at Sonnborner/Friedrich-Ebert Straße near Zoo/Stadion where the mainline railway runs over the top of the Schwebebahn. If you get lucky there is a shot to be had with trains of both types, though not the trams or zeppelins that appear in historic pictures!

A new class of Schwebebahn trains, Generation 15, were introduced in November 2015 with a pale blue livery and soon received the nickname of ‘blaues wunder’ (blue wonder). The 31 articulated trains were built by Vossloh Kiepe at a cost of around 120 million euros. Each train can hold up to 175 passengers (45 seated, 130 standing) and would usually run at intervals of between 3-15 minutes. However, usually does not apply right now…

A serious problem was discovered with the new trains in May 2020. The wheels are wearing out at a much faster rate than anyone would have anticipated (they looked to have the wear of 60,000 kilometres, despite only running 20,000 kilometres). The atypical wear is causing unprecedented damage to the track. In addition to this, there have been other problems with the doors and software systems. It will take time to identity and apply a fix for the wheel problems. In the meantime the local authorities are exploring legal action against the manufacturers.

A train pulls into the art nouveau styled Werther Brücke station

Ten trains have already been taken out of service and the peak frequency of trains reduced to every 6 minutes. On top of this, the Schwebebahn will only operate on weekends once the summer holidays are over (from August 12th) with a bus replacement service in its place. Testing of different wheel profiles and loads will take place while the line is out of public use, with the option of switching back to the old wheel system one of the solutions under consideration. It is expected that weekday services will not resume until Summer 2021.

I got to see the unreliability of the Schwebebahn for myself. On my first full day in Wuppertal the Schwebebahn came to a stop for an hour after a defect on one of the trains. The local press reported that they sent out another train to push it back to Oberbarmen. The next day I was trying a shot at Kluse in the blue hour but came a cropper when the service was suspended for a similar length of time. Finally, on the Sunday morning all seemed far quieter than I expected. The appearance of another double-train suggested yet another problem.

All of this is a particularly bitter pill for locals to swallow as they have already been without the Schwebebahn for nine months after a 350 metre long lengthy of power rail crashed to the ground in November 2018, narrowly missing a driver sitting at the traffic lights. A lengthy investigation and remedial works followed. Services were only been fully restored in August 2019.

A view of the Schwebebahn crossing the autobahn at Sonnborn, as seen from my train to Düsseldorf

Once the problems with the new trains are ironed out I am sure that the system will once again take up its rightful place as one of the more unusual attractions in Germany and allow a new wave of tourists to appreciate this extraordinary feat of engineering.

Practicalities

It was no surprise to learn that CNN Travel had named Wuppertal as one of the 20 best places to visit in 2020 on account of the ‘extraordinary ace up its sleeve – one of the world’s coolest rail systems’. I agree completely and thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the area.

In planning my trip I used the english language guide book ‘Wuppertal and the Suspension Railway‘ (ISBN: 978-3-89917-448-9) and the Falk Stadtplan for Wuppertal (ISBN: 978-3-82792-653-1) which covers the entirety of the line. I also used a laminated Kulturstadtplan Wuppertal (ISBN 978-3-89920-731-6) which was great for exploring the city centres in Barmen and Elberfeld, but didn’t cover the stretch of line between Westende and Vohwinkel.

It is worth getting out at the stations and seeing the wonderful variety of architecture and the local sights. The station garden at Vohwinkel also includes an example of one of the older wheelsets preserved on a plinth along with other relics from the Schwebebahn. The old gas holder in Oberbarmen (Gaskessel Wuppertal) also offers a terrific view over the area from their rooftop skywalk that includes the Schwebebahn as well as offering interesting projections inside the cylinder.

Plinthed wheelset in the station gardens at Vohwinkel

A day ticket for the system came to €7,20 at the time of my trip but I didn’t need to worry about this as my travel was included in the cost of my hotel stay. The FreeCityTicket offered by Fleming’s Express Hotel Wuppertal allowed me to use local public transport within the VRR operating area which stretches from Düsseldorf to Dortmund, as well as ride the Schwebebahn, for the duration of my stay. A similar arrangement is offered by the InterCity Hotel in Düsseldorf.

At the time of my visit the historic imperial carriage from 1900 was not in operation, but when it returns to the tracks in September 2021 you should be able to buy a ticket for one of their breakfast/coffee and cake rides You can even hire it out for weddings! Some time in the future one of the recently retired GTW72 trains may join it as the WSW has reportedly preserved one of these cars, with spare parts, as a potential museum vehicle.

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Weekend in Wuppertal

Posted in Germany, Wuppertal by folkestonejack on July 25, 2020

A weekend in Wuppertal might not seem the most obvious choice for a break, but gave me a chance to fulfill a long held desire to see their remarkable suspension railway in action (of which, more in the next post). I set out to see what the city had to offer in between my spells Schwebebahn spotting!

The grandeur of the neo-classical central railway station building at Wuppertal creates quite an impression on arrival. The station building is one of the oldest in Germany, dating to 1848. It had long been disfigured by the addition of an ugly modern concourse, reminiscent of that added to King’s Cross station in the 1970s. Thankfully, this was torn down in 2014 and a smart modern brick facade placed in front of the disfigured lower tier.

The neoclassical station building is one of the oldest in Germany, dating to 1848

The station certainly sets the bar high, but not far from here you find the railway administration buildings (1875) and a concert hall (1894) that is regarded as one of the best in Europe for its acoustics. A short stroll into town leads you to other impressive sights, such as the richly decorated gothic Elberfeld town hall (1895) and Jubilee fountain (1901). In addition, the old town hall is now the Von der Heydt-Museum which boasts an impressive art collection.

My first touristic stop was the Gaskessel Wuppertal in Oberbarmen which projects animations onto the walls and roof of a 1950s gas holder. It was interesting enough, but I wouldn’t say that the spectacle merits going too far out of your way. Admission also includes a small exhibition on the history of the site and a skywalk. The main chamber for the projections is massive, so no issues with social distancing there at all!

The next day I took in the Sculpture Park Waldfrieden which showcases some thrilling sculptures over 30 acres of woodland. Many of the pieces are by Tony Cragg, the British sculptor who created the park, but there are also pieces by artists such as Joan Miró, Henry Moore and Richard Deacon. The current exhibition shows off a selection of pieces by Sean Scully (until 3rd January 2021). It’s a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

The third and last of my covid-safe sights was a walk to the top of the Nützenberg, a forested park popular with hikers. At its peak is the Weyerbuschturm (1898), an observation tower which stands at an altitude of 259 metres above sea level. The tower is not open to the public, but looks great from the ground. I rather regretted the steep walk up from Westende station, but the descent of Sadowastraße was much easier with its 21% incline!

The sights of Wuppertal may not have been the primary draw, but they certainly kept me entertained in between my railway photography.

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Escape to Europe

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 23, 2020

After four months spent largely sleeping, working and relaxing in one room I was keen to get away when the rules were relaxed. Until a couple of weeks ago I had been no further than a few miles from my home, but the change of tone from the UK government and travel experts sounded encouraging enough to see what might be possible.

I drew up a short list of potential destinations in the UK and Europe, taking into account the epidemiological data and entry requirements, before deciding to make a short trip to Wuppertal (via Düsseldorf) which has long been on my wish-list.

Satellite Terminal 5B looked deserted in mid-afternoon (with 6 flights on the boards till the end of the day)

I was still hesitant, so everything was booked with the option of cancelling without charge or refunded as future travel vouchers right up to the last minute. In the build-up to the trip I kept an eye on the local press, monitoring the number of cases in North Rhine-Westphalia, before deciding to go ahead with the trip on the morning of the flight. All of this made me appreciate more than ever the relative simplicity of travel prior to 2020!

The plan was to spend three days visiting largely outdoor or very spacious sights, but first I had to get there. Things are still relatively quiet on public transport in London, leaving me with almost a carriage to myself on the Piccadilly line out to Heathrow. My mid-afternoon flight departed from the B gates, where just a handful of flights were scheduled for the rest of the day. All but one of the shops here were shuttered and the place looked deserted.

The flight boarded from the back of the plane to the front, five rows at a time, with everyone socially distancing on their way down the jet bridge and along the aisle. This is a new procedure to minimise the number of people you come into contact with, but also surprisingly efficient and much better than the normal scramble.

I reckoned the flight carried about 60 passengers, roughly a third of the capacity of an A320. That in itself tells you how bad things are. Normally, there are five flights a day to Düsseldorf, but they can’t even fill one at the moment.

Our airbus A320 (G-TTNL) at Heathrow for the short hop to Düsseldorf

To be honest, I was bargaining on such a lightly loaded flight in my risk assessment. Düsseldorf is primarily a business destination and it was hard to imagine it picking up much of the resurgent tourist traffic. I had a row to myself for the short (sub 1 hour) flight which was perfectly fine in a mask. Service was based on minimal contact for cabin crew and passengers. Understandable when you consider that cabin crew can meet 1000+ people in a working week.

There were hardly any aircraft movements, so no queuing on the taxiway today and no circling for incoming flights. Before we knew it we were up in the air, gawping at the sheer number of planes parked up at the gates of Heathrow Terminal 5. It was great to be back in the air again.

The rest of the journey proved smooth too. We landed 15 minutes early and I was soon on the S-Bahn making the easy 10 minute journey towards Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof. From there I caught the Wupper-express (RE4) to Wuppertal Hauptbahnhof, arriving at 7pm.

My hotel, Fleming’s Express Hotel Wuppertal, was not hard to spot. The hotel is superbly connected to the railway/bus station by a pedestrian footbridge and there is a Schwebebahn station (Kluse) behind the hotel. In a matter of minutes I was in the sanctuary of my room. Time to take off a mask that I had been wearing since starting my journey eight hours ago (with the exception of meals). That felt really good!

From my hotel room I have a view that stretches from the railway station to the Hauptbahnhof Schwebebahn station. However it is impossible to stop your eyes being drawn to a hideous Primark store slap bang in the centre of all this. It looks like it has been modeled on the sandcrawler from Star Wars. Quite odd!

The view from my hotel room

Fleming’s Express quickly proved to be a terrific place to stay, with every measure taken to protect guests and staff from the coronavirus. This included hand sanitizer stations throughout the public areas, reduced capacity in the lifts, extra cleaning, masks for everyone, protective screens at reception, automated key card delivery and a superbly arranged buffet breakfast that minimized risks (single use serving forks, glass jars with food options to bring back to the table etc).

Throughout the planning stage I was mindful of the possibilities of local lockdown and the re-imposition of quarantine. I hope that by sticking to the guidance I can minimise my risk, but accept that if I get unlucky I could end up in quarantine. I have brought my laptop and some of my work stuff in case I needed to ‘work from home’ in that scenario…

Farewell to the Queen of the skies

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 17, 2020

Today brings the news that British Airways is going to retire its fleet of Boeing 747s with immediate effect, bringing to an end 50 years of flying with the airline. The 31 strong fleet were already on borrowed time, with plans to retire them all by 2024, but the covid-19 travel shutdown has brought that day forward. It’s not exactly surprising with air travel unlikely to pick up to pre-crisis levels for a good few years, but a sad way to end one of aviation’s success stories nevertheless.

British Airways 747 G-CIVT pictured at Heathrow in November 2017

I got my first taste of long haul travel in a British Airways 747 in the late 1990s, flying to Auckland via Los Angeles. I was thrilled by the experience, despite the relative boredom of such travel in an IFE-less age. Strangely, I have never flown on a British Airways 747 since, but always enjoyed the sight of them whenever my travels brought me to London Heathrow. Somehow they have always looked more majestic than the other planes in operation.

I am glad I got the chance to see the retro-liveried 747-400 (G-BYGC) perform a flypast with the Red Arrows at the Royal International Air Tattoo last year and ever appreciative of the opportunity to see BA 747s lining up for takeoff from the vantage point of the viewing platform at Heathrow Terminal 4. Maybe a last viewing will be possible when the nine 747s currently at Heathrow make their final departures to their final resting place.

Wanders in the West Cemetery

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 12, 2020

It has been four months since I last made a trip into London, but the opportunity to make a relaxed wander around Highgate’s remarkable West Cemetery proved the perfect lure for a safe and socially distanced outing.

I donned a mask and set off on a journey across town that felt both familiar and strangely alien at the same time. It was unusually deserted on the tube, even for a Sunday morning. I was astonished to learn later that it was the busiest Sunday on the tube since 15th March with 24% of normal passenger levels! A walk up Highgate Hill from Archway tube station, then across Waterlow Park on foot, brought me to the impressive gothic gatehouse.

The rather grand gothic entrance to the West Cemetery on Swain’s Lane

Highgate Cemetery was established in 1838 on a 17 acre site in what was then a relatively open landscape north of the capital. It was a commercial enterprise from the outset, intended to capitalise on the overflowing cemeteries of the capital. Nor was it alone in this endeavour – seven other private cemeteries sprung up around London in the 1830s and 1840s to meet demand.

The astonishing design and beautifully maintained grounds at Highgate, described by Betjeman as a ‘Victorian Valhalla’ was all part of a plan to impress the Victorian population and persuade them to invest in a plot. Although nature has reclaimed much of the grounds, it is not hard to see the appeal as you make your way deeper into the cemetery.

To begin with, you climb uphill from an impressive fifteen arched colonnade, then along the main pathway to the ‘Egyptian avenue’. Extraordinary doesn’t even begin to cover the grandeur of this entrance to what would once have been a tunnel lined with vaults. The Egyptian styled gateway is decorated with lotus columns and obelisks, somehow rendered even more dramatic by an air of dereliction and tumbling ivy.

The chilling design of upturned torches on the cast iron doors of the vaults, signifying extinguished life, conjures up a gloomy air. It was no surprise to learn that they were not a popular choice and have never been completely filled.

The entrance to the Egyptian Avenue

On emerging from the avenue you find yourself at the circle of Lebanon, a remarkable circular set of catacombs that were originally arranged to spectacular effect around a cedar tree. The tree was found to have significant decay and was removed in August 2019, but a new tree has been planted in its place. From here, you can climb the stairs up to the Beer Mausoleum, one of the grandest monuments in the cemetery.

Under normal circumstances you can only visit this part of Highgate Cemetery with a tour guide but right now the Friends are running a trial for ‘free-range’ visits. This allows visitors to book a timed slot to explore the cemetery armed with a map and the occasional assistance of volunteers spread across the site. It seemed to work very well, with people giving each other plenty of space.

The free map provided helps to locate some of the more well known figures buried in the West Cemetery, but there are many more that you might recognise as you follow the paths. Those I spotted included Michael Faraday, Lucien Freud, Radclyffe Hall, Alexander Litvinenko, John Maple, the Rossetti family, Elizabeth Siddal and Jean Simmons.

Thank you to everyone involved in opening up the West Cemetery for visitors this weekend.

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A circular walk around Crystal Palace Park

Posted in Crystal Palace, England by folkestonejack on July 1, 2020

Our local lockdown wanders have brought us back to Crystal Palace Park, a gorgeous green space in South London and an endless source of wonder as a child. The extraordinary history of the long vanished glass palace and the surviving traces of the pleasure grounds never fail to fascinate on a visit, no matter how many times I have been before.

The Italian Terraces at Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was a Victorian marvel that must have astonished visitors in its 82 year lifespan (1854-1936). The first Crystal Palace was built in Hude Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and then re-constructed on a more permanent footing on Sydenham Hill in 1852. In reality the substantially enlarged second palace was much more than a re-build. It was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1854.

If you were taking the central staircase in the 1850s you would have seen six tiers of iron and glass towering over you, topped by a barrel-vaulted roof. To your left and right you have seen two 284 foot tall tall brick water towers flanking the palace, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to feed the water features in the grounds. All of that is now long gone.

The palace burned down in November 1936 and the water towers were demolished in 1941 to prevent their use as navigational wayfinders for enemy bombers. Instead, on climbing the terraces today you are greeted by a cluster of mature trees which don’t have quite the same impact. Yet, somehow the scale and ambition of the missing palace is still apparent.

Six of the original twelve sphinxes still stand watch, looking as splendid as ever. The last time I saw the sphinxes, in 2015, they were in a terrible state. Since then they have been beautifully restored and painted red following research into traces of paint that revealed the original colour scheme, matching the red granite of the Great Sphinx of Tanis in the Louvre from which they were cast.

One of the six sphinxes on the terraces in 2015

The restored sphinxes nearest the North tower

The pleasure grounds that the sphinxes looked out over were intended to be the match of the palace, with beautifully maintained landscape gardens, fountains that were supposed to rival Versailles and an army of statues.

The fountains featured 11,000 jets; 10 miles of iron pipes and a series of cascades. It was said that they surpassed anything to be seen elsewhere in the world. Little trace of that ambitious design remains, but we have to be thankful for what is left, such as the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (1854-1855) which clearly still delight children to this day (as they did me when I was much smaller).

On this visit I was reminded that the terraces and gardens were largely intact after the destruction wrought by the fire in 1936. There were 175 statues standing in the parks, but most were sold off by London County Council in 1957. In the heyday of the park there would have been 24 statues on the upper terrace representing cities and trading nations. Today, the most intact example still standing is the heavily worn robed figure of Turkey by Carlo Marochetti (1805-1867).

Among the tales that used to fascinate me as the child was the long vanished the Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway (1864) with the legend that a carriage was sealed in the tunnel when it was abandoned. The story was shattered by archaeological digs in the late 1980s which revealed that the tunnel was actually a cut and cover job, with half the tunnel above ground. Today, the route of the railway is echoed by a pathway which we followed on a circuit through the park.

A little further round on our circuit brought us to the maze, shut during the coronavirus crisis, and a lakeside concert venue. The Crystal Palace Bowl, a venue for concerts since 1961, looks in a sorry state with the floor in pieces and the guts ripped out of the speaker and amplifier towers. Bromley Council are looking at ways to re-activate the current structure, which dates to 1997.

The remains of the aquarium

Our circular walk brought us along the roads used for motor-sport events and back up towards the site of the North Tower. At its base are the remains of the aquarium built in 1870-71, a sight that I can’t remember noticing before. This was another ground breaking feature of the park – in its day it was the world’s largest inland sea water aquarium, featuring 60 tanks and 120,000 gallons of sea water.

The aquarium was not a commercial success, closing in the 1890s. The building itself was demolished in the aftermath of the 1936 fire but archaeological digs in the 1980s uncovered some of the remaining water tanks which can now be seen in a fenced enclosure. It looks intriguing but unfortunately there are no interpretation boards here so it is difficult to make sense of what is in front of you.

Our walk complete, we headed back to South Norwood on foot. It is always a pleasure to get re-acquainted with the park. It’s one of those places that I have kept returning to – including childhood visits in the 1970s, a guided walk with the Scouts circa 1986, watching the revival of motorsport at the Palace in the 1990s, the Olympic torch parade in 2012 and a visit to the Crystal Palace museum in 2015. I have a feeling I will be back before too long!

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Lakeside wanders in semi-lockdown

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on June 14, 2020

The lockdown is easing across the UK, but in practice my re-shaped life will hardly change at all. The majority of staff in my workplace will continue to work from home with no re-opening of our London offices on the cards in the foreseeable future. Since we were sent home from work in mid-March I have been no further than a couple of miles from home.

The re-focus on things local has reminded me of many places I had long forgotten about. Over the past couple of weeks our walks have taken us to South Norwood Lake, which I haven’t visited since childhood.

Boating on South Norwood Lake

South Norwood lake is an unusual feature amid the urban sprawl. It is a man-made structure, one of two reservoirs created to feed the Croydon Canal which ran from West Croydon to New Cross, where it connected up to the Grand Surrey Canal. It was a route that required barges transporting goods to navigate 28 locks and numerous swing bridges to make it along the 9 and a quarter mile route.

The Croydon Canal was a commercial failure, closing in 1836 after a life-span of just 27 years. However, the reservoir remained and eventually found use for a variety of leisure activities – swimming, boating, angling and ice skating. Until the mid 1950s you could take to the waters in a motor boat called the “Skylark” and the hoists for the ship remain in place.

The canal itself was drained and used by the London and Croydon Railway Company to establish a railway line between Croydon and London. Remnants of the old canal survive in a few places and the route of the old canal has been wonderfully traced in a Google map created by Will Greenwood). There’s still a pub in South Norwood called the Jolly Sailor (on the site of an earlier pub built with gardens running to the side of the canal) and the first railway station in the area was named after the Jolly Sailor.

Nest construction on South Norwood Lake

The rich local history was a feature of the teaching in local primary schools when I was growing up, including Croydon Canal, but it is a long time since I gave this place a moment’s thought. It was lovely to re-discover in semi-lockdown, including the sight of two coots building a nest on the lake twig by twig (passing twigs to each other in their beaks).

One other sight that caught my attention on my walk to the lake was a stink pipe (a tall and hollow pipe intended to vent gases from the sewers) from Ham Baker & Co at the junction of Lancaster Road and Warminster Road which I can’t remember ever paying any attention to. There are plenty of these Victorian engineering marvels to be seen across South London, but easily overlooked.

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Local lockdown

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on May 17, 2020

It is eight weeks now since the lockdown began in the UK and life changed in ways that would have seemed astonishing just a month before that. In my area we have just seen the introduction of low traffic and exercise streets, an interesting initiative to stop these residential streets becoming rat-runs and to make social distancing a little easier. It’s the first time I have seen any Covid-19 road signs in my local area.

Covid-19 street signs in South Norwood

The sweeping changes recall Lenin’s line about weeks where decades happen. One way systems and screens in supermarkets, masks, social distancing, contact-free deliveries, the return to a weekly shop, remote working, video-conferencing, online team chat, near empty buses, quiet high streets, one-in-one out lifts, accelerated digitisation programmes, magazines shutting down print production, the dreaded daily statistics and so on.

In time we will hopefully resume something close to our pre-lockdown normality and the memories will fade. Many archives and libraries, including my own, are working to capture the strangeness of this time. Much of this will be short-lived material and web-content that would otherwise be lost to the historians of the future looking to understand how we lived through the pandemic.

I really look forward to the day when we look back at this time and these emergency measures once again seem utterly alien to us.

Spring at the (ex) Sewage Farm

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on May 2, 2020

One of the unexpected aspects of the lockdown has been the way many of us have paid a little more attention to the overlooked wonders on our doorsteps. South Norwood Country Park, more or less at the end of my street, is my re-discovery. In its quietest moments it was easy to forget about the current crisis, aside from the notices at the entrances and the chalked notices on the pathways calling on us all to protect the NHS.

A carpet of cow parsley in the woods

I guess that I first came to the park in the mid 1980s when my Scout Group visited the wild space known to us as the Sewage Farm to play wide games during the light summer evenings. My memories are a little hazy, but I know that we were split into two teams so I guess this might have been ‘Capture the flag’ or something similar.

The site was established as a sewage works in 1865 and saw use until 1967. On its closure nature reclaimed the site, a mixture of wetland and grassland, followed by the landscaping that came with its formal designation as the South Norwood Country Park in 1988.

It’s a little hard to visualise this less than glamourous past life on a casual wander through the park, though traces of its former life can still be seen if you look beyond the lush vegetation, such as the concrete channels once used to carry sewage to the lagoons.

During the lockdown I have been crossing the park once a week on my way to a weekly shop, giving me the opportunity to appreciate the changes as the trees have come out of their winter slumbers and into gorgeous blossom (especially the crab apple on the pathway into the park). Right now, the park looks particularly splendid swathed in fields of cow parsley.

The highest viewpoint in the park (created from the rubble spoil from buildings demolished after the Second World War) offers views that include local landmarks like the Croydon transmitting station at Beaulieu Heights, the Crystal Palace transmitting station and the floodlights of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

I feel very lucky to have a 125 acre nature reserve so close to hand, a pleasure that I hope to continue appreciating once we finally return to some sense of normality.

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Easter in South Norwood

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on April 13, 2020

I get a little crazy stuck at home for too long at the best of times, but how things have changed in the past weeks! I have largely avoided going outside at all, except for a weekly food shop and a short walk at the weekend for exercise. Today, my walk took in some of the local sights nearest at hand that I have long taken for granted.

The streets of South Norwood would normally be quiet on an Easter Sunday, but this was quite different. The sight of temporarily boarded up pubs, empty shop shelves and firmly shuttered entrances all pointed to a high street that is not about to spring into life any time soon. I was also struck by the near silence – in particular the complete absence of church bells ringing.

Station Road, South Norwood, on an unusually quiet Easter Sunday

The first stop on my walk, the grade II listed St Mark’s Church, was originally built in 1852 and extended seven times between 1862 and 1890. The continual expansion was in part a reflection of the changing nature of the area – when it was first built the church served a local population of 1,300, but by the end of the nineteenth century this had increased to 13,000. It’s not hard to see the evidence of the many additions to the first building, the nave, as you approach the church.

The simplicity of the original rectangular design can be seen in the plan drawn up in November 1852 by the architects, Finden & Lewis, which is helpfully available online through the collection of the Incorporated Church Building Society (ICBS) at the Lambeth Palace Library. The view in my picture shows the chancel with polygonal apse added in 1869, at the junction of Albert Road and Coventry Road.

St Marks Church

The church has been troubled by problems throughout its history. At the end of the nineteenth century the church had fallen into a critical condition owing to settlement in the clay subsoil, necessitating the shoring up of the west wall with timber baulks (as seen in an illustration from the ICBS collection). The floor and aisles of the church had sunk. An appeal, the Twentieth Century Fund, was launched to raise funds for the churches of South Norwood, including St Marks. The cost of making the urgent repairs to the church was assessed as £1200-1400.

Fast forward 100 years and once again the church was assessed as being at risk. Repairs have since been made to the stonework (2013) and the chancel and south slopes of the nave and aisle have been re-roofed (2016) but the church remains on the Heritage at risk register. There were just over 900 listed places of worship on the register in 2019, varying from buildings in good condition with one significant element of risk to buildings becoming vulnerable to risk.

I am embarrassed to say that I haven’t been inside the church, or, if I have it would have been way back in the 1980s (when I attended joint Scout Group meetings in the church hall next door). I’ll have to take a look inside when the lockdown ends and life returns to some semblance of normal, particularly as I gather that the south aisle features stained glass of The Good Shepherd by Henry Holiday, whose work can also be found at Westminster Abbey and at Chartered Accountants’ Hall in London.

Portland Road Bridge

My walk took me underneath the Portland Road railway bridge and the line towards London. It’s not the most friendly of spaces for pedestrians, despite the addition of a rather lovely mosaic designed by local schoolchildren some year ago. The People for Portland Road community group have secured funding for a project that will see the introduction of a lighting installation to make the space more inviting.

As you can see from the photograph above, the bridge is protected by collision protection beams that were installed to prevent any damage to the railway bridge from vehicles ignoring the low height warnings. It has taken quite a battering over the years. The long history of accidents here includes a particularly bad spell of six bridge strikes between April 2014 and July 2015, including one incident where the roof of a double decker bus was sliced off.

The Stanley Halls

The next stop on my walk brought me to the Stanley Halls, one of many buildings associated with the inventor, manufacturor and philanthropist William Stanley (1829-1909) who moved to South Norwood in the 1860s and went on to open a workshop near Norwood Junction Railway Station.

In his later years William Stanley decided that the area was in need of a public hall, gifting South Norwood the Stanley Halls (1903-4) which the Pevsner Architectural Guide considers to be one of the highlights amid the “relentless suburban sprawl” of the area, described as “a vigorously eclectic group in red brick and stone, with two towers and a series of gabled roof-lines, adorned with the extraordinary motif of copper flowers in flowerpots”. Pevsner praised the building as “one of the most eccentric efforts anywhere at a do-it-yourself free-style”. The unusual complex was grade II listed in 1990.

The legacy of ‘Mr South Norwood’ was something we were encouraged to discover at my primary school but I suspect William Stanley’s name will be much less familiar to future generations as many of the buildings associated with him disappeared in the early years of the 21st century.

The former Stanley workshops, latterly in use as a joinery, were badly damaged by fire and later converted into flats. Stanley’s first home in the area at 74-76 Albert Road, known as ‘Stanleybury’, was demolished in 2003. Three years after this, Stanley’s last home at Cumberlow Lodge (1878) was demolished by developers before it could be listed. Finally, the school he founded, Stanley Tech, was renamed in 2006.

In the early 1980s it was used by the local Scout District for their annual gang shows, but hopefully the photographic evidence of me on stage during these will remain well buried!

South Norwood Clock Tower

A short walk along the High Street, took me past the boarded up shopfront of Kennedy’s butchers. The shop, built in 1926, was grade II listed in 2008 but looks more disheveled than ever. It was a place I was very familiar with up until it closed, on account of the superb quality of its pies and puddings, but it was also quite remarkable to step inside a shop with all its original fittings intact. It is another of our local landmarks on the Heritage at Risk register.

At the junction of Station Road and the High Street I reached the cast-iron South Norwood Clock Tower which was erected in 1907 to mark the golden wedding anniversary of William and Eliza Stanley. The clock tower, produced by clockmakers Gillet and Johnston, was paid for by public subscription which just goes to show the immense respect of the local population for a man who gave everything to his community. It is now Grade II listed.

From here I would normally have looped back through a tunnel under the railway station, the world’s first reinforced concrete underpass, built by Robert McAlpine and Sons in 1912. However, it would be impossible to stay socially distanced in the tunnel so I retraced my steps back along the high street instead.

The Albert Tavern

The last stop on my short walk, the Albert Tavern, was not as obvious a sight as the rest. You won’t get any argument from me that this is some pretty unremarkable 1960s architecture, but look behind the walls and you’ll find a much loved and quite simply terrific community pub.

The pub came under threat in June 2019 with the news that Greene King were planning to sell off the plot to developers to turn into flats, as reported on Inside Croydon in ‘Selling off the Albert for flats is like demolishing the Queen Vic’. The importance of the pub to the community is evident from the comments on the Change.org petition. It would be a sad loss for the area were it to disappear.

A public house stood on this spot from the 1860s until 9th July 1944. On that fateful night a V1 flying bomb destroyed the pub and ten neighbouring houses, taking with it seven lives. A new pub was built on the spot in 1966 and it has been going strong ever since. It is boarded up right now, along with other pubs in the area, in response to the lockdown. A sign on the boards says it all: Thank you NHS and key workers. We love you.

It’s a lovely place to enjoy a pint in better times. Let’s hope they are not too far away.

Strange times

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 22, 2020

I took a good look at the view as I crossed London Bridge on Monday night, knowing that it would probably be a long while before I would see it again. A view that has become so familiar over the past twenty years of commuting that I had taken it completely for granted. That’s true of so much else – being able to spend time with your family, enjoy a sunday roast or simply find everything on your shopping list.

The speed at which the coronavirus has unraveled our lives is truly shocking. How innocently we ushered in the new year, little suspecting how our daily conversations would soon be infiltrated by phrases like social distancing and self-isolation, or the acronym WFH. It’s hard to believe that we were still arguing about Brexit only a matter of weeks ago. How trivial that seems now in the face of this global threat.

It’s funny how your priorities change. My original plans for the Spring included a photographic trip to the Rhodope mountains and around half a dozen plays on the London stage. Now, I would just settle for everyone staying safe and well through all of this, plus doing what little I can to help the theatres and creatives that will inevitably struggle. Stay safe everyone.

Delhi to London (via Doha)

Posted in England, London, Qatar by folkestonejack on February 15, 2020

My short stay in India has come to an end. I took the morning flight from Delhi to Doha, connecting to a mid afternoon flight from Doha to London Gatwick, with both legs on Qatar airways 787 dreamliners.

As these were daylight flights I enjoyed taking in as much of the view as I could, including some lovely views of Doha as we landed in mid-morning (with a view from the coast to the Al Janoub Stadium, one of the venues for the World Cup in 2022). The second flight offered up some spectacular views of the Iranian mountains around Isfahan before the scenery was cloaked by swathes of low lying cloud.

Midday in Doha

The last 10-15 minutes of the flight were among the scariest that I can recall in a long time, as we came in to land during the early stages of Storm Dennis. Nevertheless, we were quite lucky as we made it in with only the slightest hint of a hold while other flights around this time were making multiple attempts to land or diverting (to Heathrow, Barcelona, Cologne, Manchester and Paris among others). I was glad to be down on the ground relatively quickly and trudging the corridors of Gatwick’s North Terminal.

It’s always good to reach home after a long day of travelling, but especially so with the increased threat of disruption from the storms and the steady sweep of the coronavirus across the world.

Delhi sunset

Posted in Delhi, India by folkestonejack on February 14, 2020

In mid afternoon I set out for a spot of sightseeing using public transport, taking the Delhi Airport Express from aerocity to New Delhi railway station (a bargain at just 50 rupees for a single journey token) then switching to the yellow line to Jorbagh. A walk of about 10 minutes from the metro station brought me to the gates of the Lodhi Gardens, a favourite place for many families in the city, particularly in the run up to sunset.

Spring blooms in the Lodhi Gardens

The utter charm and liveliness of the Lodhi Gardens was something to behold. The transformation of the royal burial ground for the Lodi dynasty (who ruled Delhi from 1451 to 1526) into a landscaped park took place in 1936, followed by a redesign in 1968. The monuments in the grounds are quite splendid in their own right, but when you come across a group of kids using this as the backdrop to practice a Bollywood routine the ruins take on a different character altogether. I probably spent far too long wandering the gardens, enjoying the sights and the accompanying spring blooms.

A poster at the entrance helpfully presents some of the birds that you might see in the gardens, but didn’t mention the red-naped ibis, which I saw wandering round the borders (identification thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app). There are superb information boards at each of the monuments that provide you with a quick run down of what you are seeing and the World Monuments Fund have produced a terrific A Walk Around Lodi Garden leaflet to help you navigate around them.

The sun was getting lower and lower as I made my way down Rajpath to the India Gate, originally commissioned by the Imperial War Graves Commission to remember the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died between 1914–1921. The design by Sir Edwin Lutyens evokes memories of the other memorials he designed and iconic sights like the Arc de Triomphe. I made it with around 15 minutes of light left in the day.

The India Gate draws the crowds at sunset

The monument is still a potent symbol in India today, drawing huge crowds, so security is tight with a one way system in place with screening at the entrance. I threaded my way through the crowd, dodging a political demonstration circling the monument, to get a closer look and take a photograph or two. Once I had the shots I headed towards the exit, where a pool of auto-rickshaw drivers were waiting to pounce.

I didn’t have much left over from my day, but it was enough to buy me the most terrifying ride of my life. To start with the driver pulled out in front of five lanes of fast-moving traffic and then proceeded to demonstrate some of the most aggressive and borderline insane driving that I have ever seen. I frequently closed my eyes, fearing a side-impact that wouldn’t be pretty. Somehow we ended up at New Delhi Railway station in one piece. Stepping inside from the chaos of the street felt like moving between two different Indias. Time to go home!

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24 hours in Delhi

Posted in Delhi, India by folkestonejack on February 14, 2020

A one day stay in Delhi was always going to be a challenge. At the outset I knew that it would be impossible to adjust to the pace of life in this busy metropolis and see even a fraction of what Delhi has to offer, but it’s surprising how much you can pack in with a little planning.

Isa Khan’s tomb

I decided that throwing myself into the crush of the Delhi rush hour might not be the best introduction to the wonders of the city. Instead, I booked a car and driver through my hotel in New Delhi Aerocity for a morning of sightseeing. Our drive took in four sights – Qutub Minar, Safdarjung’s Tomb, Humayun’s Tomb and the fortress of Purana Qila – with a view of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and Lutyen’s Delhi.

In the afternoon, following a spot of lunch, I headed back out on the airport express and metro. A wander around Lodhi Gardens and along Rajpath to India Gate took me up to sunset.

Qutub Minar

The Qutb Minar complex presents a remarkable accumulation of history in one place, amply illustrated by the Quwwat-ul-Islam (‘Might of Islam’) Mosque which was constructed in the 12th century from the remains of Hindu and Jain temples from much earlier times. The iron pillar at the centre of the complex is the oldest element, dating back to the 4th century, while the more recent additions include thankfully shortlived British ‘improvements’ from the 1820s.

Qutub Minar

The minaret at the heart of the complex, the Qutub Minar, was built in the early thirteenth century, by the sultans Qutbuddin Aibak and Iltutmish as a monument of conquest (it is too tall to be used in the conventional sense for the call to prayer). Nothing I had read prepared me for how absolutely extraordinary this structure was. The photos you see in the guide books give you no sense of the immense scale of the minaret (as much the circumference of the base as its 239 foot height).

It is quite something to think that Sultan Alauddin Khalji intended to better this by building a minaret twice as tall. The base of the unfinished second minaret (Alai Minar) clearly demonstrates the seriousness of the plan, which only stopped with the death of the sultan in 1316. So many extraordinary buildings in such a compact area. My personal favourite among the many buildings was the tomb of Iltutmish (1235) with its beautifully decorated interior.

I would have to say that the Qutub Minar was the absolute highlight of my day in Delhi and I only regret that I didn’t have any time in my schedule to explore the Mehrauli archaeologcal park that surrounds the site. The site was really well maintained and a pleasure to wander round, armed with a copy of the wonderful leaflet A Walk Around the Qutb Complex from the World Monuments Fund.

Safdarjung’s Tomb

Next up was a very short stop-off at the picturesque tomb of the Mughal nobleman Safdarjung, built in 1753-4 with questionably re-purposed marble and red sandstone. It marks an end to the major garden-tombs of Mughal Delhi and has been described as ‘the last dying flicker of Mughal architecture’.

Safdarjung’s Tomb

For me it was all about the view through the entrance arch really, with all its photographic potential, but I still had time to take a wander through the tranquil gardens and get a quick look inside.

Humayun’s Tomb

In contrast, the vast Humayun’s Tomb complex demanded a good bit of exploration to make the most of a visit. Aside from the star attraction of Humayun’s Tomb the 30 acres of gardens that surround it are home to a number of other monuments, such as the marvelously restored octagonal tomb of the nobleman Isa Khan (1547-8). There are some side attractions too, such as the excellent view of the railway line into Delhi from the northern boundary for the railway geeks among us!

Humayun’s Tomb

Humayun’s Tomb (1564-73) is an impressive sight from the moment you pass through the arches of the Bu Halima Gateway and find yourself square onto the massive 12,000 square metre platform. It doesn’t get any less impressive as you get closer, though the interior is quite plain by comparison. Many members of the Mughal royal family have been laid to rest here (leading to its nickname of the ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’) and there are apparently over a hundred graves in the crypt.

Once again a couple of wonderful leaflets from the World Monuments Fund, A Walk Around Humayun’s Tomb and Humayun’s Tomb and its surroundings, provided a good way to navigate the site and understand what I was looking at. For example, looking at the perfectly maintained lawns of Isa Khan’s Tomb Complex I would have never have guessed that an entire village had made its home inside the enclosure up to the early 1900s.

Purana Qila

The final stop on my morning’s sightseeing brought me to Purana Qila, an old fortress built in the 1530s that seems to be undergoing quite a bit of work right now. I didn’t have much time to play with but managed to wander the inner perimeter from my entry point at the Bada Darwaza (the ‘large gate’) to the Talaaqi Darwaza (‘the forbidden gate’), then take the central pathway to the Sher Mandal.

Purana Qila

The Sher Mandal, the two storey octagonal tower at the centre of the site, was built in 1541 but converted into a library by Humayun in 1555. Unfortunately, Humayun didn’t have much time to enjoy his new library, falling to his death down the stairs here in 1556 while carrying an armful of books.

A short walk on from here is the Khairul Manazil mosque, a later addition dating to 1561–1562 which proved an unexpected delight with its beautiful decoration. Needless to say, the World Monuments Fund came up trumps again with their A Walk Around Purana Qila and Purana Qila and its surroundings leaflets.

Once my visit was complete I returned to my car for the drive back to the hotel. Traffic was pretty terrible at times, seemingly exacerbated by some extensive construction works taking place in the area, but I was pleased to have fitted in all that I wanted to see. It was a help to have purchased and printed e-tickets before I set off, though I didn’t see much in the way of queues at any of the sights I visited.

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Day trip to Amer Fort

Posted in India, Jaipur by folkestonejack on February 13, 2020

The astonishing Amer Fort (also known as Amber Fort) is one of the most imposing of Rajasthan’s many hilltop forts and palaces, built on the ruins of an earlier fortress. Although construction began in 1592 the complex continued to evolve right up until the transfer of the royal court to Jaipur in 1727. It’s a fascinating complex of faded glories – once palatial interiors, gardens and pavilions that were designed to impress. No wonder that it is one of the top tourist attractions in the country, drawing in 10,000 visitors a day in peak season.

A view of Amer Fort from the opposite hill

In the build up to my travels I tried to understand how much time you would need to spend and how easy it was to get transport, but the answers were a little elusive. There were plenty of tour company reps suggesting that you need only half a day to visit and that transport is hard to find if you make your own way. I was not entirely surprised to discover that neither of these statements was true.

I ordered an Uber (120 rupees including tip, around £1.20 in sterling) from my hotel on the outskirts of Jaipur to the parking lot opposite the fort. All very easily arranged and very quick (just a 4 minute drive from the Trident Jaipur) with a drop off just after sunrise at 7 o’clock. I was really struck by just how quiet the place was at this time, though I was sure that it wouldn’t stay that way for too long.

Turning away from the fort, I crossed the road and found a staircase leading up to the fortified wall on the hillside opposite Amer Fort and began to climb. It was an exhausting climb with awkwardly steep steps but the reward was an absolutely wonderful view looking down on the palace. Once you are at the top there are a couple of towers that you can clamber up to – perfect spots to sit, soak up the view and wait for the sun to come up.

The sun only really began to peep over the hilltop at 7.30am and it took until 8.45am for the sun to fully illuminate the whole complex down to the gardens on the Maota Lake (apparently home to a crocodile or two). In that time only three other tourists came up for the view and left long before the fort was fully illuminated. I was glad not be in a rush and be able to enjoy the unfolding spectacle with a little music. From my vantage point I could see that the first tourist coach arrived at 7.45am, fifteen minutes before opening time.

The striking geometric patterns of the Panna Meena Ka Kund

After heading back down I walked into Amer town to see the Panna Meena Ka Kund (17th century) and the Sri Jagat Siromaniji Temple (early 17th century) that I spotted on the way. These are easily missed with the big ticket sights on offer and another good reason not to lock yourself into too short a visit. There are at least another three temples that I didn’t get to, including one that was part of the royal palace that predates Amer Fort, should you wish to explore the town further.

I finally headed up to Amer Fort around 10.30, buying a composite ticket for 1000 rupees (approximately £10) that can be used in the attractions in Jaipur city. The complex was reasonably busy, which was no surprise – this is peak tourist season here. Even so, I was able to wander round and enjoy the sights, with the beautifully painted three storey Ganesh Pol gateway (1640) and the pleasing geometry of the Aram Bagh gardens my personal favourites.

Although I enjoyed my visit to Amer Fort I think it is the exterior view that impresses the most. The interior has its moments but doesn’t really live up to that. It doesn’t seem to be as well-loved as it might be and it feels like there is a missed opportunity in the presentation of the palace and its history. I didn’t feel like the place came to life for me in the one and a half hours I spent inside.

To anyone who finds this dispiriting I should warn that the insta-selfie is very much a thing here. You only had to turn the corner in the palace to find a queue of visitors lining up at the most decorative features in pursuit of the perfect selfie. It was kind of cute and frustrating at the same time. I am sure that is less of an issue if you go in to the fort closer to opening.

Jaigarh Fort

Once I had completed a circuit around the palace I took a combination of tunnel, fortified passage and road up to Jaigarh Fort. Positioned on the the Aravalli ridge, the fort was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1726 to protect Amer Fort. It has an interesting mix of attractions – a palace complex, cannon foundry, arms museum and what would have been the world’s largest cannon on wheels in its day. I wouldn’t say that anything here was a must see, but it made for a pleasant couple of hours wandering.

It took a little while to make sense of the layout of the fort and what there was to see – not helped by the faded map at my entry point (at the Awami Gate). It turned out that the guards were only too eager to explain, unprompted, what was around the fort for a little reward. At first I found this a little frustrating, but then decided it was too much hassle to fight against it. One of the guards showed me how the shutters for the foundry furnace worked, so it had its moments.

At the end of my visit I retraced my steps back down through Amer Fort and negotiated a fare of 200 rupees (about £2) for an auto-rickshaw back to my hotel (there is a large pool of auto-rickshaws opposite the pedestrian exit from the fort and there is usually someone looking out for potential customers). I’ve no idea if that was a reasonable fare, but it was certainly a lot less than they first asked for. I reached my hotel a little before 4 o’clock, so the whole day trip had taken just short of nine hours.

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Three days in Jaipur

Posted in India, Jaipur by folkestonejack on February 13, 2020

A three day stay in Jaipur gave me ample time to tackle the sights of the city in a relaxed fashion and take a leisurely trip to see Amber Fort. It seemed like the right amount of time to spend in the city and still allowed for a bit of random wandering through the streets of Jaipur to see local craftsmen at work.

On my first day I booked a driver and car through my hotel to take me to Nahargarh Fort and the royal tombs at Gaitor Ki Chhatriyan, as I thought it might be difficult to get transport back from those locations. For the rest of the trip I used a Uber from the hotel to drop me off wherever I needed and then negotiated a reasonable fare for a tuk-tuk on the way back.

Gaitor Ki Chhatriyan

One of the highlights of my visit to Jaipur was a short visit to the Royal tombs at Gaitor Ki Chhatriyan, in the shadow of Nahargarh Fort. It’s a little off the well trod tourist circuit so you can easily end up with the place to yourself. I counted four other visitors on a mid-afternoon visit.

Gaitor Ki Chhatriyan

Admission cost just 30 rupees (about 30 pence). It doesn’t take too long to wander round, but its well worth it to see the beautiful marble and sandstone pavilions with their exquisite carvings of lions, elephants and the like.

Nahargarh Fort

Nahargarh Fort is a part of the impressive chain of defensive fortifications built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in the 18th century. It’s hard to miss, perched on the edge of the Aravalli Hills, looking down on Jaipur city. That doesn’t mean it is the easiest place to reach – your choice is a steep uphill hike or a winding road with a few too many hairpin bends. I opted for the latter.

Madhavendra Palace

The fort is home to a rather quirky set of attractions, including a waxwork museum, a modern palace of mirrors and a sculpture park. I focused on the last of these, taking a wander through the Madhavendra Palace complex to enjoy some striking sculptures in a historic setting.

The sculptures are a surprisingly good fit and adds some interest to what would otherwise be a sequence of empty rooms. Having said that, there are officials around the site who will happily talk you through the historical dimension to the palace. My favourite would have to be ‘Transformation’ a stainless steel half-animal half-human creation (Mahbubur Rahman, 2018) and an untitled sculpture by Asim Waqif that had been appropriated by a pigeon!

Whatever you do, you should not miss the rather unusual step wells situated in the grounds. These were created to collect and conserve rainwater which was channeled from the hillside and filtered through a purification system. The geometric patterns of the stepwells are quite fascinating.

Jantar Mantar

The Jantar Mahal is an open-air site with gigantic structures to measure time, the position of the planets and even predict when the monsoon will arrive. It is incredibly impressive to wander round the site, utterly dwarfed by the instruments. The complex dates to 1728-1734 with restoration work in the early 1900s.

Jantar Mantar

I didn’t feel like I needed an in-depth explanation of how this all worked, but there are no shortage of guides at the entrance who can provide that.

The City Palace

The City Palace was established by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who was responsible for moving the royal court from Amer to Jaipur in 1727. Today, it is a state museum and home to the 21 year old Maharaja of Jaipur and the royal family of Jaipur. In fact, the complex is home to alot more than just the royal family, as the people who work in the palace live in housing within the complex.

Admission to the Palace costs £7 for a museum ticket (a composite ticket which also covers Jaigarh Fort and the Royal Cenotaphs) or £35 for a museum and guided tour of the private rooms in the Chandra Mahal (only accessible with a guide). I opted for the latter, figuring that having come all this way it would be daft not to see everything on offer here.

Inside the City Palace

The Chandra Mahal (Moon Palace) lives up to its reputation for luxurious decoration in each of the rooms visited during the tour. There is one particularly fine room decorated with Belgian glass that was designed so that the reflections of candlelight would be multiplied, giving the ceiling the appearance of a sky full of stars. I certainly appreciated a demonstration of this from my guide.

After completing my guided tour I was left to wander the rest of the palace complex on my own, armed with an audio guide. The highlight of this was the court of the beloved with its four beautifully decorated doorways, each representing a different season. I easily spent a couple of hours working my way round the museum, enjoying the many collections (especially the exhibition of work by Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II, whose passion for photography has gifted us a remarkable picture of nineteenth century Jaipur, its inhabitants and visitors).

Hawa Mahal

The strikingly pink Hawa Mahal was constructed in 1799 as part of the City Palace complex, designed to allow the ladies of the court to observe street life without being seen themselves. Today, it is one of the biggest draws to Jaipur and its most iconic sight.

It’s a strange structure in many respects. You might expect a substantial building to sit behind this ornate facade, but it is actually a very thin building which is just one room deep. The design was not just intricate, but ingenious, as the latticework design had a cooling effect, leading to its naming as the “Palace of Wind”.

The Hawa Mahal illuminated by the early morning sun

The Hawa Mahal is at its most glorious in the morning, when the sunlight makes the pink facade glow even more vibrantly. It’s a sight that you can take in from street level (there is a deliberately fenced spectator area, protected from the traffic) or from the relative comfort of a table at the rooftop Wind View cafe on the opposite side of the street (easily accessed by taking a narrow stair case up from the street).

I opted to take in the view after sunrise, take a look around shortly after it opened at 9 o’clock and then return in late afternoon when the sun illuminated the rear of the building. There’s not alot to see inside, but you can wander around the interior courtyards and take a combination of ramps and stairs to see the other side of the structure.

Isarlat

The Isarlat or Sargasuli is a seven storied octagonal tower, built to commemorate the victory of Swai Ishwari Singh in the battle of succession for the royal throne in 1749. Standing at 140 feet in height, the tower offers superb views over the historic heart of Jaipur.

Isarlat

It’s fairly straightforward to find the tower, which is situated behind the shops that front Tripolia Bazaar, within an easy walk of the Hawa Mahal. There are a couple of gateways that lead through to the quiet road that runs past the back of the shops and up to the entrance.

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Colombo to Jaipur

Posted in Delhi, India, Jaipur by folkestonejack on February 11, 2020

My travels have taken me from Colombo to Delhi with SriLankan airlines, where I continued my journey on a domestic flight to Jaipur with the low cost carrier IndiGo.

Security is still tight in Colombo. There were no fewer than four security screens between my arrival at the airport and walking down the airbridge to the plane (an A320). In the light of the Corona Virus all the cabin crew were wearing masks. I’d like to be able to say that my first experience of SriLankan airlines was a good one, but instead it was rather chaotic at every stage.

The apron at Colombo airport

In contrast the IndiGo flight from Delhi to Jaipur was a model of efficiency. It’s really striking to see how smoothly their operation works at Delhi Terminal 1. Buses take all passengers to their planes – there are no air bridges at all. The best way I can think to describe it is that they operate what looks like a bus station at the terminal with buses lined up at 20+ gates.

Tickets are checked before taking the escalator down to the bus gates, before boarding the bus and again at the foot of the ramp leading to the plane. It’s a slightly strange experience stepping on board an IndiGo plane as it’s all rather dark – they keep all the window blinds down whilst at a stand to help keep the interior cool. At the end of a flight they ask all passengers to lower the blinds.

It’s only a short hop from Delhi to Jaipur and in no time at all I was on my way to the Trident hotel, just across the road from a remarkable 300 year old water palace. The water palace is five storeys tall, with all but one of these hidden underwater. It is at its most spectacular in the run up to sunset with its sandstone walls glowing in the last light of the day.

The Jal Mahal on Man Sagar Lake

There are some very flash and luxurious hotels in Jaipur that can easily set you back £600 a night, whereas a half-board stay at the Trident was very reasonably priced at £125 per night with a dash of luxury. It is no exaggeration to say that I would rate the Trident among the very best places I have stayed in the world, which is in no small part down to the incredible staff.

Odds and ends

In my pre-holiday research I had read that the processing of e-Visas at Indian immigration could take anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours. I can only think that the longer times reflect early morning long-haul arrivals as I got through immigration in 5 minutes (including the mandatory recording of fingerprints).

As I purchased my IndiGo ticket with a non-Indian credit card I could not check in online and the credit card I used for the booking had to be shown on check-in. The modest add-on charge for express check-in was worth every penny as the queues in Delhi T1 for check in/bag drop were absolutely massive.

Taking to the tracks at Viharamahadevi Park

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 10, 2020

The tour group left the hotel in the early hours of the morning to escape the city before getting caught up in the traffic of the morning rush hours, but I thought I might get a rare lie in. Sadly, that was not to be – my presence seemed to be a surprise to housekeeping, who knocked on my door at 5 o’clock to ask if I should have left. I think it was probably just karma for all those occasions when my early rising habits have woken up my better half!

Railway tracks in Viharamahadevi Park

My long weekend in Sri Lanka may have come to an end, but before I left the city I took a morning walk in Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park) following the line of the 2ft 6in gauge tourist railway that used to run within its perimeter. The track is mostly still in place, if a little mangled in places and chopped off at one end. I gather that at one time you could see rusting signals and a platform, but these have long gone.

The locomotive that used to ply these tracks, a P1 class Hunslet 0-6-0 diesel no. 527 (1950), was to be found in the shed at Dematagoda along with at least one carriage when I visited in 2018 but I didn’t check whether it was still there on this occasion.

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Diesel delights in Sri Lanka

Posted in Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 9, 2020

One of the delights of a visit to Sri Lanka is the sheer variety of traction you will come across on the network, most with differences in styling that looks exotic to British eyes. Most classes are relatively small in number so you have a good chance of seeing a decent mix in a relatively short time.

Class M2b diesel-electric locomotive 594 ‘Prince Edward Island’ (General Motors, 1958) passes through Mount Lavinia with an express passenger train

Over the course of three days I saw diesel multiple units from 6 classes (S8, S9, S10, S11, S13 and S14), diesel electric locomotives from 7 classes (M2, M4, M6, M7, M8, M10 and M11) and one class of diesel-hydraulic locomotive CW3).

I must admit to a particular liking of the M2 class of diesel-electrics, known locally as ‘Canadians’ on account of their manufacture by General Motors Diesel (Canada) which have been plying these tracks since 1954. I was lucky enough to see two locos from the class on this trip (594 ‘Prince Edward Island’ and 595 ‘Newfoundland’).

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Time and tide

Posted in Colombo, Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 9, 2020

Our northbound steam hauled coastal express headed out of Galle around 8.30, taking us up the single line that had been hidden from us in the darkness last night. We made good progress, helped by some diesel assistance, pausing along the route from time to time to allow trains to cross or overtake us. The trains we saw crossing and passing us amply demonstrated that this line was still very busy outside the working week.

Payagala

Once again we made a lengthy stop at Aluthgama (11.02) to take on water and allow some express trains to overtake us, before continuing up the line to Payagala South (13.12) and North (13.14). Our arrival on the most scenic section of line in early afternoon meant it was time for some photographic action. The weather gods had fortunately once again blessed us with blue skies and sun.

The best position for us to stand for one of the shots here turned out to be out to sea, so off we strode into the sea with trousers rolled-up armed with stepladders and stools in the hope of putting us out of reach of the ever higher waves of the incoming tide. This failed the intelligence test on many counts. My step-stool steadily sank hopelessly into the sand, undoing any good that it might have done, while others found their stepladders completely submerged by the time our loco steamed past.

We looked quite absurd to each other, so goodness knows what the locals made of us. Not that has ever stopped us from doing utterly bonkers things in the name of photography (I’m thinking of painting coaches in the Brazilian midday sun as a classic example).

After four runpasts we re-joined the train and continued on our way, passing through Katukurunda (14.07), Kalutara South (14.18), Kalutara North (14.52), Train halt no. 1 (14.58) and then Wadduwa (15.07). The journey was not dull with plenty of local scenery on offer, including many games of cricket (on both sand and grass), an array of stupas and hundreds of fish being dried on village roofs.

Wadduwa

The stop at Wadduwa should have been a simple pause to allow an assortment of trains to overtake us, but one of these seemed to have hit trouble. Water was pouring from the radiator of the class M7 diesel (806) as it arrived with a Colombo bound passenger service (15.22) and with the engine shut down looked to be going nowhere fast. The crew started passing buckets of water up to a colleague on the roof of the diesel who was dutifully filling her up. In the light of this our steam hauled special was given the road but not too much later a neat bit of wrong-line working allowed the signalers to route the revived diesel past us.

Things started to fall apart as we got closer to Colombo with an interesting photo stop at a beach between Koralawalla and Moratuwa cancelled by the railway authorities when nearly everyone was in position, then a sunset shot later in the afternoon was lost when the train was sent by the railway authorities fast to Colombo Fort before our buses could be sent to an appropriate location. I can only imagine the immense frustration that our tour organiser felt at this point.

Thankfully we got a memorable last shot in the bag at Mount Lavinia (17.20) which involved a walk along the tracks, through the bathers on the beach and onto a photo position on the rocks overlooking the track. Once again it looked bonkers, especially as ever higher waves were crashing against over our feet and trousers, but it was fun. I don’t rate the picture I took but the experience was unforgettable.

Our day ended at Wellawatta (17:53) and from there we returned to our hotel in Colombo and a wonderful evening of conversation. It was a brilliant way to end my all-too short participation in this tour. I really wished I could be continuing on with the group.

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Morning in Galle

Posted in Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 9, 2020

A night with bursts of sleep at our hotel, the Fairway Sunset, was followed by a reasonably leisurely breakfast in the rooftop restaurant. The views over Dewata Beach and across to Galle Fort were quite splendid, particularly with the spectacle of the local fishermen pulling one of their boats in.

A fishing boat comes in at Dewata Beach

My room had an impressive balcony looking out onto the level crossing and railway track which allowed for a little unexpected early morning railway photography. I’m not sure if regular guests as impressed by this, or the sound of trains rumbling past in the early morning, but it worked for me!

Today’s plan will see us return from Galle to Colombo. Our southbound journey yesterday was made easier by the lighter traffic of a public holiday, but we don’t have that advantage today so we’ll have to cope with a few more service trains on the line. On top of that we’ll be travelling against the light, making the photography more challenging. It will be interesting to see how many opportunities we get once we get going.

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Boats, beaches and a B1a

Posted in Colombo, Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 8, 2020

Our run south along the coast towards Galle took us past three trains in succession heading in the opposite direction, each packed to the rafters. Our train was also filled with local passengers, all extras paid (and fed) to join the train for the day to help give it an authentic feel through the photostops. In between stops it also gave the carriages a lovely friendly atmosphere.

The attention to detail on the tours run by FarRail is second to none, which I really appreciate. However, that is only a fraction of the incredible organisation and behind the scenes work required to achieve this. The heroic efforts to deliver the best trip began long before that, ranging from the manufacture of new parts to keep the locomotives working to the air freighting of oil to overcome local shortages.

Our train on the line between Payagala North and Katukurunda

The temperature had risen to around 35 degrees as the clock struck midday, accompanied by a welcome sea breeze. In these conditions our train had reached a stretch of line between Kalutara South and Payagala North with the most idyllic setting imaginable – an authentic combination of palm trees, boats and the gentle lapping of the Indian Ocean against the shore. For around an hour in the early afternoon sun we photographed our train in paradise.

Sometimes the temptations of a better vantage point brought extra challenges, such as when we walked further round the sweep of one beach to find the tide coming in surprisingly quickly after finishing the shot. The setting was lovely – a curving beach, driftwood, traditional boats and a line of palm trees behind the track. All it needed was for the photographer not to screw up his shot. Ho hum!

B1a 251 ‘Governor class’ 4-6-0 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ on the curve at Katukurunda

After our photo frenzy we re-boarded our train and continued on to Payagala North (14.05). From Payagala South (14.18) we joined the single track which would take us all the way to our destination at Galle. At Aluthgama (14.47) we stopped for the loco to take on water from a local tanker. The volume of local passengers and tourists on the platform was a clear indication that some late-running trains were expected in both directions.

As we settled in for the wait at Aluthgama the station cafe was opened up and an enterprising local chap set up an impromptu beer delivery service. There was time enough to check out their turntable (Cowans Sheldon & Co Ltd of Carlisle 1960). The stop turned out to be longer than anyone expected and it was not until 16.22 that we set off again, after three diesel worked local trains had passed through.

Our journey south took us on to Bentota (16.27), where our extras left; Induruwa (16.40); Mahu Induruwa (16.45); Kosgoda (16.50); Piyagama (16.57) and Ahungalla (17.00). A quick stop between Piyagam and Ahungalla allowed us to get a shot with one of the many semaphore signals still on this route and to observe one of the stranger sights of the day – a cow tied up in the middle of a football pitch.

The train reached Ambalangoda at 5.25pm, with a stop of just short of an hour to let service trains cross and overtake us. After a false departure we headed away with the diesel on the back for the run through the dark to Galle (19.35) with occasional glimpses of the festivals to celebrate the new moon. It was a long but satisfying day and worth a bottle or two of ginger beer at the hotel to celebrate (no beer is sold on religious holidays).

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Coastal express from Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 8, 2020

The tour got underway this morning with a run along the coast from Colombo Fort to Galle, a distance of around 70 miles, with the track rarely too far from sight of the shore.

Our motive power for the day would be provided by freshly overhauled B1a 251 ‘Governor class’ 4-6-0 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (Beyer Peacock 6469/1928) hauling three coaches with M4 class 747 ‘Kelani’ (Montreal Locomotive Works, 1975) as our standby diesel. The timings to work around the marginally lighter holiday services would be tight, with five photo stops planned in the schedule and the hope that more could be squeezed in on the fly.

B1a 251 ‘Governor class’ 4-6-0 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (Beyer Peacock 6469/1928)

It was hard to imagine better conditions for photography when we stepped off our tour buses and onto the main coastal road. Perfectly blue skies with not a cloud in sight. A vast improvement on the last time I spent time on this stretch of line photographing regular services with an abundance of cloud and barely a glimpse of the sun. It would have been easy to forget why we were here with temperatures in the mid 30s and the tempting sound of the ocean lapping against the shore!

The delayed departure of our train from Colombo Fort (originally scheduled for 8.00) gave us ample time to explore the options for photographing our coastal express as it passed by. The complications of a streetside view with traffic and street furniture, plus the probability of people stopping at the last moment to photograph the spectacle on their smartphones, persuaded me that a higher viewpoint would be preferable.

The staff of the Hotel Sunhill were most accommodating in allowing us to take their lift up to their rooftop terrace. It turned out to be the most fashionable spot to be on this fine morning with a jet-setting crowd of photographers lining the walls when we got up top. I found a spot and settled in for the wait, with plenty of entertainment from the regular passenger services in the meantime. Never dull with the astonishing variety of diesel traction on offer here.

Our steam hauled coastal express heads towards Bambalapitiya

Our patience was rewarded at around 9.20. From our exclusive rooftop vantage point we watched as our train made its way along the coast and on to Bambalapitiya, the next station on the line. A glorious sight with a long trail of smoke, even if not necessarily the most straightforward or satisfying of photographs judging by my efforts. Once the moment was over it was time to get back down to the street, into our buses, and on to Mount Lavinia.

It seemed appropriate to spend a bit of time at Mount Lavinia Hotel to photograph ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ steaming through as the buildings at the heart of the hotel were part of Sir Thomas Maitland’s original mansion. The mansion was built in 1806 during his tenure as the second Governor of British Ceylon, but adapted for use as an asylum and then the forerunner to the hotel of today.

The Mount Lavinia Hotel is a lovely place and the staff were kind enough to let us spend a moment or two on their terraces and on a service bridge over the line to grab a few rather unusual shots. It’s a little hard computing the combination of sandy beaches, palm trees and steam locomotives when it’s so far from the image in my head of the traditional setting for British locomotives.

The view from the terraces

Once we had the shots in the bag it was time to board the train (10.45) and head south. Our express took us through Ratmalana (10.55), Angulana (11.00), Lunawa (11.01), Moratuwa (11.04), Koralawella (11.07), Egodayuana (11.10), Panadura (11.17), Pinwatta (11.24) and then brought us to a stop at Wadduwa (11.30). Our stop allowed a diesel hauled passenger express to overtake us (12.00) before we continued on our way south (12.07).

As mornings go, this had delivered plenty already but we still had the promise of some interesting running along the coast not too much further down the line. In the meantime, it was great catching up with old friends, enjoying the wonderful scenery and marveling at our ability to enjoy such a spectacle in the 21st century!

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Till dusk at Dematagoda

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 7, 2020

A one hour drive from Ratmalana works brought us to the gates of Dematagoda, where the three steam locomotives for the coming tour were sitting ready for a week of action. I’m only staying for a couple of days, so I will only see one of these – the freshly overhauled B1a 251 “Sir Thomas Maitland” – and I must admit to a pang of regret that I wouldn’t be doing the whole tour. I had quite forgotten how addictive this was.

V2 Sentinel steam railcar 332 at Dematagoda

The sights at Dematagoda were no less fascinating than the works, with so much to discover across the site from the modern units in the running shed to the historic survivors across the tracks. It was good to see that the V2 Sentinel steam railcars were still here, with 332 now moved from its well hidden spot in the vegetation to join 331 under the shed and in close proximity to the rather derelict 333. A frame has been built around 331 and it sounded as though the plan was for 331 to be transferred to the national railway museum.

Other highlights included a narrow gauge class N1 Krupp diesel-hydraulic loco (no 566), one of five introduced to Sri Lanka in 1952-53, and one of two class S5 Hitachi diesel multiple units introduced in 1969-70 which were used for the short-lived airport express service. In a complete contrast to these historic survivors we also saw one of the brand new Chinese diesel-electric multiple units (introduced 2019-20) accompanied by a group of engineers from CRRC Qingdao Sifang.

Time ran out all too quickly. Our visit came to an end as the sun set and with the striking sight of a flock of bats filling the sky above the running shed.

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Railway heritage at Ratmalana

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 7, 2020

The last time I was in Sri Lanka we made a visit to the workshops at Ratmalana, but a quirk of our timing meant that the place was virtually empty. It was great to make a return visit on this occasion and see each hall looking considerably more lively.

Furnace at Ratmalana Workshops

The railway workshops at Ratmalana are the largest in Asia, with 40+ workshops on a 56 acre site and over 3000 employees. Most astonishing is that much of the machinery dates back to the colonial era and is still in use – including steam hammers, presses and overhead cranes. It really is like stepping back in time.

A couple of hours wandering around the complex at Ratmalana passed all too quickly. Highlights included a steam crane being restored at the back of one of the halls; a look inside the pattern library; the sight of C1a class Garratt no. 347 (1946, Beyer Peacock) whose parts are scattered across the site; D2 class no. 21 (1914, R. Stephenson) as a stationary boiler; and J1 class no. 220 (1925, Hunslet). One notable change since my last visit was the disappearance of L1b class no. 203 (1920, Hunslet) which has now moved to the national railway museum.

Not all the abandoned locomotives and rolling stock that we encountered around the complex were steam age veterans – we came across a selection of Leyland buses converted into railbuses and even a 21st century M9 class diesel electric locomotive that had suffered a software failure and had been left to rust.

However, best of all was the opportunity to see the everyday work being carried out here. It was particularly impressive to see the workers braving the furnace with temperatures in the mid thirties (understandably, equipped with shorts and flip-flops). I could have spent a day just watching the many processes involved in keeping the Sri Lankan railway system running – all very impressive.

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Coast Line Express

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 7, 2020

The reason for my return to Sri Lanka is the opportunity to see a steam locomotive that was out of action when I last visited, the freshly overhauled B1a class 4-6-0 locomotive 251 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (1928, Beyer Peacock). In 2018 the locomotive was in pieces in Ratmalana works, so it will be a pleasure to see it out on the mainline.

B1a 251 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ at Mount Lavinia station

Tomorrow we get to start our trip in earnest with a recreation of a steam hauled coastal express to Galle, returning the following day. Saturday is a national holiday so the line will be busy rather than very busy, opening up the narrow window that we need for our photo opportunities.

Until then, there’s time to chill for a bit and to re-visit Ratmalana Works and the running shed at Dematagoda.

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Colombo come back

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 6, 2020

The lure of steam has once again tempted me across the world for a spot of photography. On this occasion my destination is Sri Lanka, which I last visited almost exactly two years ago.

My routing has taken me from London to Colombo via Doha, travelling with Qatar Airways. The flight path gave me a good view of the Kirkuk field around 4am, the orange glow from the oil wells matched by the spectacular sight of a blood red sun rising in the distance. Three breakfasts later, my body clock by now thoroughly disorientated, I found myself landing at Bandaranaike International Airport in late afternoon.

Urs Fischer’s 23-foot tall Lamp Bear greets visitors to Hamad International Airport in Doha

Some things have changed since my last visit to Sri Lanka, most notably the substantially increased security arrangements in the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks of Easter 2019. The steady creep of corona virus is also making its presence felt, with extensive checks in place at the airport and in hotels across the city. I felt reassured by the thoroughness of the measures that have been put in place on both counts.

Colombo continues to grow at a rapid pace. The Lotus Tower (350m) and the Altair (240m) are now complete, but other new tower blocks have appeared on the skyline under construction. Having said that, the Lotus Tower is not yet open to tourists (unfortunately) and I was surprised to see that the much talked of port city is still little more than a vast and empty sandy expanse. To my untrained eye it doesn’t look a lot different to the last time I saw it.

A diesel hauled passenger service pulls out of Secretariat halt shortly before sunset

The plans to re-link the airport to the city by rail seem to be as far away as ever so I reacquainted myself with the considerable traffic of the Colombo rush hour. Once again I found myself reaching my hotel in time for the last moments of daylight, grabbing a few shots as a perfectly timed diesel hauled service passed by on its departure from Secretariat Halt. It is good to be back!

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Down below at Down Street

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 1, 2020

I have hesitated for quite some time on whether to book on the Hidden London tour for the long abandoned Down Street station, before finally being enticed by a Black Friday discount. I needn’t have worried – this ninety minute tour was one of the most enjoyable guided tours that I have experienced anywhere. Incredibly well-organised, led by a thoroughly knowledgeable tour-guide and backed up by meticulous research.

Down Street Station

Over the years I have read bits and pieces about Down Street station, but I’ve never seen the station building until today. Although it has long since been closed and partly adapted for re-use as commercial premises (the former booking hall is now a newsagents) it remains unmistakable at street level with its red glazed tiling and the arts and crafts styling that you see across London in the station buildings designed by Leslie Green.

The uniform design hides a distinctly unusual underground layout dictated by the distance of the station buildings from the platforms and the health and safety requirements of the day. It wasn’t a great success, closing in 1932 after failing to generate sufficient usage. Taking a walk along Piccadilly I would never have guessed that a tube station lay down a side street, so I can totally get how this doomed the station from the outset.

The story might have ended there, but for a new lease of life as the underground headquarters of the Railway Executive Committee, a body established in 1938 to bring together the ‘Big Four’ railway companies and co-ordinate their efforts in the event of war to ensure that the vital trains carrying urgent supplies and munitions were not disrupted.

The station was converted into a remarkable bomb-proof office complex, complete with boardroom, sleeping quarters, kitchen and toilet/bath facilities. It was sufficiently impressive that Churchill used it, nicknaming it the Burrow. The specialist skill of the carriage fitters came into its own in making the best use of this space, which could hold 40 staff living on site in 19 shared staff dormitories.

Traces of wartime signage

The moment we stepped off the street and down the first staircase, passing through a gas-proof door with a telling spyhole, it was clear that this was going to be fascinating. As we descended the spiral staircase our guides pointed out the many remaining signs of the adaption of this space, from signage to telling shadows on the walls corresponding with photographs from the time.

Armed with torches we headed down to platform level. The platforms were mostly walled in, but at the platform crossing points a grill separated us from the tube trains running on the Piccadilly line today. On a few occasions we were asked to switch our torches off to avoid creating a distraction for the drivers. If nothing else, it added to the remarkable atmosphere.

As we worked our way through the complex each room was explained and gradually we began to build a picture of the operations that took place here in wartime. It’s impossible now to appreciate just how stressful it must have been to work a shift down here in this claustrophobic environment, working round the clock to keep everything running. I had no idea of this bit of hidden history and found it fascinating from start to finish.

Thank you to the Hidden London team and everyone who has played a part in making these tours possible.

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