FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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Unstoppable Brexit

Posted in England by folkestonejack on January 31, 2020

Forty seven years of EU membership years of membership comes to a close tonight at 11pm. I’ve spent all but 8 months of my life as a citizen of the European Union and always appreciated the importance of the project in bringing peace and stability to the region after the cataclysm of the mid-twentieth century. Tomorrow will be a strange day, even though nothing much changes yet

Banksy mural in Dover

I hope that what comes after the transition, in 2021, proves worth the high price. I have a horrible feeling that everyone loses something from this and that there are no winners, but I guess we’re about to find out.

24 hours in Porto

Posted in Porto, Portugal by folkestonejack on January 26, 2020

A weekend break to see a Keane concert at the beautifully restored art deco Coliseu do Porto (1941) gave me the opportunity for a day exploring the sights of Porto, the oldest city in Portugal, and plenty of exercise heading up and down its steep streets. At the time I booked I had no idea that it would be my last adventure as a citizen of the European Union, adding an extra layer of poignancy.

The everyday and the sublime: a traffic signal in front of the striking tiled side facade of the Capela das Almas

I drew up an ambitious list of sights and set about seeing how much I could cram in, beginning with sunrise over the Ponte de Dom Luís I. In the end I managed to visit three churches, ride on a vintage tram to the Tram museum, take a guided tour of the Palácio da Bolsa, climb the Clérigos Tower and wander the cloisters of the cathedral. It’s a compact city centre so this was easier to achieve than I expected, even if I hadn’t quite appreciated how steep the streets of the city would be to get from the riverside back up to the top.

The two highlight of my visits would have to be a guided tour of the Palácio da Bolsa and the interior of the incredibly ornate gothic church of São Francisco next door. The church is stunning throughout, but what caught my eye was a stunning three dimensional carved wooden alterpiece (1718) which depicts the family tree of Jesus, decorated with twelve kings of Judah among the branches. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. No photo does this justice – it really has to be seen up close.

The Arab Room in the Palácio da Bolsa

Next door to the church is the Palácio da Bolsa, home to the stock exchange until the 1990s. The clever interior decoration makes great use of painted plaster to create an opulent setting for the commercial activities of the city. Our guided tour through the building impressed throughout, but saved the wow factor for the last room – the exquisite Arab Room which took 18 years to complete.

It was fascinating to wander the city and take in the many churches and cathedral cloisters decorated with blue Azulejo tiles, strikingly different to anything I have seen elsewhere. A ride on the tram, rattling up the steep slopes from the tram museum to the city centre, was quite delightful too.

I was pretty exhausted by the end of the day but satisfied with how much I had seen, even if I didn’t quite make it to the last couple of sites on my list. Still, it’s always good to have something to come back for.

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Farewell to 2019

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on December 31, 2019

The final hours of the year seem set to end with the damp and drizzly conditions that have been lingering for most of the day, accompanied by a bit of low lying cloud resolutely clinging to the tallest buildings of the city. The city was at the quietest that I’ve seen it in a long while as I trudged in to work this morning. In theory my commute coincided with the sunrise but there wasn’t much evidence of that through the grey gloom!

Superyacht Support vessel Game Changer arrives in London on 28th December 2019

The year has been challenging in many respect, but certainly had its high points. I had a wonderful trip to visit family in New Zealand in April and spent some time exploring the North Island. The highlights of the trip included a visit to White Island. Little did we know then the tragedy that would unfold at the other end of the year or that the wonderful guide who took us round would end up among the injured. Everyone affected has been in my thoughts since that day.

Our travels have taken us to Helsinki, Mariehamn, Paris, Tallinn, Turku, Varna and Vilnius. The trip to the Aland Islands fulfilled a childhood wish and a little later we had the opportunity to catch up with our longtime family friend in Helsinki. Other highlights included the best meal of my life (a tasting menu at Amandus in Vilnius), the astonishing spectacle of the Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna and the splendours of Fontainebleau.

The strangest thing about 2019 has been that I have somehow managed to avoid seeing any steam locomotives in action, for the first time in at least 15 years. It probably also explains the enormous decrease in the number of photographs that I have taken during the year. However, the re-discovery of ten pin bowling (which I hadn’t played since the late 1980s) and creation of our own inter library-team ten pin bowling league was one of the loveliest surprises of the year.

The year in numbers…

9,100 holiday photos taken (down by 6,700)
73 blog posts written (up by 6)
63 hours endured in the air (up by 5, mainly to/from New Zealand)
44 plays watched (down by 5)
12 rounds ten pin bowling (new for 2019)
7 castles/forts/palaces explored (down by 6)
6 games of minigolf played (up by 1)
0 steam locomotives seen in action (down by 16)

Although I rarely talk about theatre much in this blog, there have been some wonderful plays this year. The standouts for me were Wife at the Kiln Theatre and We are arerested at the Arcola Theatre. Honourable mentions should go to the gender-reversed Company at the Gielgud; The Unreturning at Stratford East; Gently down the stream at the Park Theatre; the shocking Cyprus Avenue at the Royal Court; the acrobatic and immersive Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre; Small Island and Top Girls at the National Theatre; the wildly inventive A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic; and Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith.

I don’t really go to gigs, but my better half has helped me to see that live performances can surpass the experience of recorded music. I have ventured out to see three of my favourite bands this year – The Adventures at the Empire Music Hall in Belfast, Keane at the Royal Albert Hall and White Lies at the O2 Academy Brixton. I’ve rarely seen such displays of infectious joy on all three occasions. The White Lies gig was astonishing with 5,000 people singing along as the band played some of their most loved songs on a 10th anniversary tour of their first album.

My local area has seen a few changes in the past year, notably the welcome sight of a restaurant (Mamma Dough) opening inside the retail space that was once one of South Norwood’s longest running businesses. I love the fact that they have retained the old store signage as a feature inside. Admittedly it is only 30ish years old, a replacement after the last sign got destroyed in the Great Storm of 1987, but it is still a lovely nod to the past and a much loved local institution.

South Norwood Library

At some point in the not too distant future we will be saying goodbye to the old South Norwood Library, currently housed in an unusual brutalist building (designed by Hugh Lea, Borough Architect of Croydon, 1966-68). It is scheduled to move to the ground floor of a new property development close to the railway station. Whilst I can see the benefits that would bring, it will still be sad to see a building where I first developed a love of books, close. Rumour has it that it will be demolished for flats.

Finally, I wonder how the history books will reflect on a decade that began with us showing the world a home Olympics with pride and ended with a splintered isle heading for the exit doors. Hopefully, 2020 will offer some improvement on an exhausting year of Brexit debate and all the madness that came with that. However, I am not holding my breath!

Threads of history

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on December 28, 2019

On my day off from working for the library, what do I do? Yes, of course – head to the archives to do a bit of research. Plus ça change!

I was following a lead in my family history on this occasion. One of my ancestors, Augustus Thomas Wilkinson Tomkins, was imprisoned in the early nineteenth century. I hoped that the records at the National Archives might help shed some light on this episode.

A roll of commitment papers for the Fleet Prison

My search led me to the commitment books that recorded my ancestor’s incarceration; the files associated with the commitment; and the warrant for release of my ancestor from the Fleet Prison. This presented a fascinating array of documents – a solid bound register, a tricky to handle roll of documents tied together in one corner and the tiniest little paper parcels tied together in bundles.

Sometimes you turn up documents that provide a breakthrough in the brick walls of a family tree or perhaps provide a much richer insight into their lives. On other occasions, such as this, the documents don’t reveal all that much. Nevertheless, they are fascinating survivors from the early nineteenth century and I was struck by how this almost insignificant looking little folded piece of paper in the archive was the difference between imprisonment and freedom.

The warrant for discharge – a small folded piece of paper

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As ever, family history leads you to appreciate aspects of history that you have never even imagined, let alone known about, such as sponging houses.

Augustus Tomkins was taken into custody on 25th August 1809 following a writ, called a Capias ad satisfaciendum, brought by Richard Edwards on a charge of trespass. This would have required the sheriff to detain Augustus and keep him safe (usually at a ‘sponging house‘ intended to squeeze money out of debtors) until he was set to appear in court. The keeper of the sponging house would also benefit by charging extortionate rates for food and lodging.

Augustus appeared before the King’s Justices at Westminster to answer the charges and was committed to the Fleet Prison on 31st August 1809, presumably after refusing to pay up. The sum of money at stake in this claim is recorded in the committal summary as damages of £100 and an oath of £46 upwards. This would have been a considerable sum given that average annual income for the common worker in the mid-1800s ranged from £50 to £100.

The disgrace of imprisonment in a debtors prison like the Fleet was intended to put pressure on friends and relatives to pay up. It is hard to know what conditions in the Fleet were like for Augustus as the experience would have depended on what money could be raised for food and lodging during his stay. However, we can say with certainty that his six month stay coincided with the beginning of a decade of harsh winters, reckoned to be the coldest in over 100 years.

A warrant for the discharge of Augustus Tomkins, addressed to the wardens of the Fleet Prison, was issued on 12th February 1810. Augustus was eventually discharged from the Fleet Prison on 21st February 1810.

It is not clear what the family situation had been before his imprisonment, but certainly in the years after his release the times were hard for the Tomkins family. From my privileged viewpoint in the 21st century I can’t begin to imagine the depths of the struggle to survive and thrive in some of the most squalid neighbourhoods in London. I can only recognise and salute my ancestors for the immense determination that must have required.

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Farewell to HSTs on the East Coast

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on December 21, 2019

Today marks another stage in the gradual disappearance of the iconic InterCity 125 High Speed Train (HST) from the railway network. The last LNER HST services finished on Sunday 15th December, leaving just one last four-day charity railtour with a HST painted up in its original livery. The final leg of that railtour took the beautifully painted HST from Leeds to London King’s Cross today.

The arrival of the last HST into King’s Cross was eagerly anticipated

The story of the last four days has been captured rather wonderfully on twitter under the hashtag of #HSTFarewell with some stunning pictures taken as the tour crossed Scotland under snow conditions. The rather grim conditions today didn’t allow for the best photo opportunities, so I settled for the simplest shot of the last HST arriving to an appreciative audience.

These fantastic creations of the 1970s still have a bit of life in them yet, with operators still using HSTs including East Midlands Railways and ScotRail. I’ll have to make it back to Scotland at some point to try ScotRail’s HST operated Inter7city services between Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth and Stirling. Sounds like a vast improvement on the overcrowded inter city diesel multiple units I have used on past trips to Scotland.

Cathedral to Nature

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on December 14, 2019

It’s not often that you can say that you made a visit to a museum for an installation, expecting to be wowed by the display, but instead find yourself utterly wowed by the museum building instead. The building in question? The Natural History Museum in South Kensington, which was constructed from 1873 to 1880.

Fishy exterior decoration at the Natural History Museum

I must have been on outings to the Natural History Museum on dozens of occasions over the years – with my primary school, family and cub scouts. Somehow I have always failed to miss the obvious – the stunning decoration of the building influenced by the animal and plant kingdoms. Admittedly, the dinosaurs were a big distraction as a child but I’ve been to exhibitions as an adult more recently and still failed to notice.

The building was styled in a fusion of Gothic Revival and Romanesque by the architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905). It is stunning in its own right, but the exterior and interior decorations inspired by the natural world are simply astonishing. You have monkeys climbing the arches, columns inspired by fossilised tree trunks, pterodactyl gargoyles, fossilised fish wall tiles, birds aplenty and creatures peeking out from unexpected nooks in the intricate decoration. As if this wasn’t enough, Waterhouse created a beautiful ceiling featuring 162 hand-painted and gilded panels of plants.

Museum of the Moon

The display I had come to see was quite splendid too – the Museum of the Moon. The simplicity and beauty of Luke Jerram’s detailed seven-metre model of the moon is quite something. Here it is presented hanging in the darkness of the Jerwood Gallery accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack. It’s on until 5th January 2020 at the Natural History Museum, but can also be found touring in other locations too.

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A winter election

Posted in Croydon, England by folkestonejack on December 12, 2019

This has been a strange election, one of more importance than usual, but also one where all the normal conventions seem to have been tossed in the air. If I am honest, none of the choices thrill me. However, far worse in my mind is the casual discarding of truth and respect. This election will set the course of the country far into the distance, so a solid foundation of facts has never been more necessary. Instead, we have a terrifying mixture of lies, half truths and disinformation. It’s scary to think where that will lead.

Croydon Central

In some ways I am in the lucky position of having a vote that can make a difference. My constituency, Croydon Central, has form as a seat that has swung between the Conservatives and Labour with some very small majorities (75 for the Conservatives in 2005, 165 for the Conservatives in 2015 and 164 for the Conservatives in October 1974). It’s a constituency nestled between a safe Labour seat (Croydon North) and a Conservative stronghold (Croydon South).

The polls initially suggested that the vote in the constituency would be tight again. This probably explains the deluge of election pamphlets that have come through our letterbox, been delivered by door-to-door canvassers or handed out in the street. So far we have received ten from Labour, two from the Conservatives, one from the Brexit Party and one from the Liberal Democrats. I also received one Green Party flyer, but for the wrong constituency. The dedication of the volunteers has to be admired – one of the Labour party leaflets was pushed through our letterbox between 1am and 6am on the day of the election.

I placed my vote in the darkness of the early morning, at my local polling station in a Scout Hut, then headed in to work as the sun rose. I wonder what the view will look like in 24 hours time.

Hughenden Manor

Posted in England, High Wycombe by folkestonejack on November 30, 2019

An outing to Hughenden Manor, just outside High Wycombe, provided the perfect opportunity to get some fresh air after a week sat behind a desk. Having said that, I thought I had made a mistake as I set off by train. Thick fog bathed the countryside and underneath lay an icy white frost. Not exactly ideal conditions for a trip to a country estate! As the fog burned off to reveal beautifully clear blue skies I knew that I had made the right call.

Hughenden Manor

Hughenden Manor was the home of Benjamin Disraeli, a two time Prime Minister (for six months in 1868, then from 1874 to 1880) and founder of one-nation conservatism.

It’s a slightly odd beast, having been purchased as a plain white struccoed manor house in 1848 and then stripped back to the brickwork and transformed with one architect’s interpretation of the fashionable Gothic features of the day. Pevsner described these ‘would-be-Jacobean embellishments’ in cut and moulded brick as ‘excruciating’, saying that it gave the place the look of a Victorian institution rather than a country house.

It’s not hard to spot the ‘sharp, angular and aggressive’ details that so offended Pevsner but Disraeli clearly loved the place. Our guide told us that he rejected the remote Chequers (for sale at the same time) in favour of this place.

The manor house has changed hands relatively little over the years before passing to the Disraeli Society in 1937 and then to the National Trust in 1947. The existence of comprehensive interior photographs, taken not long after Disraeli’s death, enabled the National Trust to restore the interior to something that would have seemed reasonably familiar to Disraeli, allowing for those rooms that have been switched around.

Christmas decorations in the library

The story of Disraeli’s career and his life in the house was really brought to life as we took a tour through the rooms, with our guide pointing out the most interesting features and curiosities (such as the surprisingly large number of royal portraits lining the walls of his bedroom). Unsurprisingly, it was the library that captured my attention the most.

The library at Hughenden holds a collection of 4,000 books with the earliest dating to the 1470s. The collection comprises volumes from three generations, including some of the 25,000 work’s collected by Disraeli’s father. The library was originally located in one of the rooms facing the gardens, but was switched around with a drawing room by Disraeli’s nephew Coningsby as the sun was started to affect the leather bindings of the books on the shelves.

In 2015 the library suffered from an overnight leak which resulted in the collapse of plasterwork from the ceiling, plus water damage to the furniture and those books on open display (such as an ornately bound copy of Goethe’s Faust, a Christmas present from Queen Victoria in 1876, only recently returned from conservation freeze-drying). It was lovely to see the library looking so good in the circumstances.

The Ice House

It was long known that Hughenden Manor had been used during wartime, but the exact nature of the work carried out had proven somewhat elusive until a visitor in 2004 was overheard telling his grandson where he used to work in the building. Once the small matter of the Official Secrets Act was addressed the wartime story of ‘Hillside’ (as it was codenamed) was revealed.

In 1941 the estate was requisitioned by the Air Ministry and became home to a top secret mapping unit, responsible for producing accurate maps that could be read in the low light of a bomber cockpit. A new exhibition, opened in July 2019, explores the process of mapmaking at the manor house and a separate display in the external ice house shows how the space was adapted as a photographic studio. It’s a fascinating story and an important one – the maps produced here were used in critical missions such as the Dam Busters raid and the bombing of the rocket factory at Peenemunde.

Overall, my visit to the manor house and the nearby church of St Michael took around three hours. I came away understanding quite a bit more about one of those figures in history that I have heard mentioned so many times, but had very little sense of. It was fascinating to learn about his relationship with Queen Victoria and to hear the tale of her sad pilgrimage to his house and grave a few weeks after his death.

A trip in the winter months means that you are never going to see the gardens at their most colourful and the statues might have been wrapped up for the winter, but the compensation is to see the house decorated for Christmas. The theme for this year was a 1940s Christmas which would see rooms decorated with paper chains, a tree made from a patchwork of rag rugs and shimmering lametta. All rather lovely, it has to be said.

Practicalities

I took a Chiltern train to High Wycombe and then made the 15 minute walk to the bus station to pick up a bus (300) for the 5 minute ride up to the bus stop on the A4128, opposite the end of the driveway up to Hughenden Manor. It’s still an uphill slog from here, so if you are not at your fittest the National Trust’s suggestion of a taxi is not a bad idea. Half-way up the drive you can stop off at the 13th/14th century church of St Michael and see the Disraeli family vault.

St Michael’s church, Hughenden

There is a bus stop on this route a bit closer to the centre of High Wycombe but the bus driver bombed past this without any hope of spotting anyone waiting (probably untypical, but perhaps safer to board at the bus station where the route starts) and then bombed past my stop too (thankfully the walk back from the next stop wasn’t too painful). The ticket cost £3.30 return, paid on the bus, though you can also buy slightly more expensive day tickets from the counter in the bus station.

The cost of an adult admission to Hughenden Manor came in at £11.80 (£13.00 with Gift Aid) at the time of my visit with a welcome voucher for a free tea or coffee for taking public transport. The grounds of Hughenden Manor open at 10 o’clock, followed by the house an hour later.

I took the opportunity to join a guided tour of the house (at 10.40) just before it opened for the day, which really helped bring the place to life. There are few explanations of what you are looking at inside the house so the guides really help you make sense of what you are seeing and how this fits into Disraeli’s life (even down to details such as the worn piece of carpet where Disraeli liked to pace in front of the fireplace).

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Gormley retrospective

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 27, 2019

The Royal Academy’s Gormley retrospective is in its last few days, closing on 3rd December, but we somehow managed to squeeze in a half hour long wander round the 13 rooms. The exhibition provides an interesting selection of artworks from Gormley’s small scale experiments from the 1970s/80s through to the room-filling architectural constructions of recent times.

It is hard to think of a sculptor who has made as much of an impact on the public consciousness as Antony Gormley, from the unforgettable sight of his figures staring impassively out to sea at Crosby to the iconic figure of the Angel of the North. I’ve made trips to see both of these and they have been every bit as impressive up in situ as they have seemed in the many photographs that I have seen in the press over the years.

Familiar figures

The familiar cast-iron figures on display at the Royal Academy are presented in a much more intimate setting than I have seen before, attached to the floor, ceiling and walls. It’s hard to know where to look and easy to become disoriented as you look up. At one point I found myself apologising to the person behind me for stepping in front of them before realising that I was talking to one of the cast-iron figures. In other rooms you can see Gormley’s abstracted steel slab figures and a single figure made from a metal lattice.

I am a little claustrophobic so it takes quite something to tempt me into a confined space, but I was intrigued by the vast room-filling steel structure called ‘Cave’. AS you approach the doorway to the room all you can see is the angular metal structure filling the door frame. The choice is yours – walk around the outside or step inside. I couldn’t resist and headed in.

At the entrance it looks as though you can see light ahead but once inside the darkness takes over and you have to feel your way through until you reach an open space at the centre. Eyes gradually adjust to the subtleties of light on the metal, much like his Room at the Beaumont Hotel. The effect was soon spoilt by an idiot (me) who found his phone lighting up like a Christmas tree. I’ve always been very conscious not to be that person whose phone rings in the theatre, so was mortified to be that person in an art gallery…

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