FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Ships in the September sun

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

A late burst of September sunshine conjured up a very summery feel on the Thames, drawing plenty of folk out for riverside walks, sunbathing and even the occasional barbeque. It looked like a lovely day to be out on the water too, which was just as well with over 300 small boats taking part in the Great River Race from Greenwich to Richmond.

RFA Lyme Bay leaves the Greenwich Peninsula behind

I took the opportunity to enjoy the good weather too, with a walk along the Thames and see the departure of some of the unusual ships to have visited these waters for London International Shipping Week. The first of these was RFA Lyme Bay (3007), a Bay-class landing ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, whose departure was assisted by tugs SD Shark and SD Seal. A little later Pharos, a lighthouse tender operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board, followed downstream en route to Dundee.

There were a few unexpected surprises, most notably the sudden appearance of a US Army Chinook (13-08132) and an Apache gunship (09-05582). These helicopters were heading home after attending DSEI 2019, the controversial defence trade show. Another surprise was the appearance of Ocean Dreamwalker III, a one year old luxury yacht complete with its own helicopter.

Pharos spent a week berthed alongside HMS Belfast

I haven’t walked around the Greenwich peninsula in a long while and it was a bit of a shock to see how many new high rise apartment blocks have appeared. The whole development is planned to take 20 years, with work on the tallest buildings at Meridian Quays not expected to start until 2028-2029. It already feels incredibly densely packed so goodness knows what it will be like then.

In a similar fashion, I spent quite a bit of time staring at the northern stretch of riverside between Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Thames barrier trying to recall what industrial buildings had existed where the first two phases of the luxury apartment blocks of the 40-acre Royal Wharf development now stand. There are still further changes to come with work progressing on the distinctive buildings of Mariner’s Quarter in phase 3 of the project.

Some reassuringly industrial sights along the Thames Path

It was astonishing to see how a few decades of development have erased the industrial riverscape here, but such is progress. It was almost a relief to find that the Thames Path still winds through through the unpolished industrial scenery of Angerstein Aggregates Wharf!

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A test of geography

Posted in England, Lithuania, London, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 27, 2019

The last day of our short stay in Vilnius disappeared in a whirlwind of churches and museums, while still leaving plenty behind that we could slot into a future trip to Lithuania. Soon enough it was time to head to the airport and we decided to take the quick and cheap option of travelling by train, with the bonus of a quick look at the plinthed L class steam locomotive at the station.

L class 2-10-0 freight steam locomotive plinthed at Vilnius Central Station

The journey from Vilnius Central Station to the airport station took just seven minutes, with a short walk across the parking lot at the other end to reach the terminus building. The departures hall is located in a modern extension to the 1950s airport building – still relatively small by European standards, but not particularly crowded when we passed through. There is talk of building a new mega airport midway between Kaunas and Vilnius to cope with the anticipated increase in passenger traffic.

Our homeward flight with LOT, the Polish national airline, once again saw us boarding an Embraer 190 but this time we were lucky enough to have a seat that lined up with the windows (not entirely sure if this was down to the individual plane, or the fact that we were towards the back of the plane on this occasion). This was much appreciated as our flight took us on a loop around Vilnius, giving us one last splendid look down on the old town before heading west. I was struck by how green the city looked from the air.

A last look at Vilnius

The routing today took us over Berlin (instantly recognisable with the distinctive shape of the former Templehof airfield and hexagonal terminal building at Tegel) then on to Rotterdam, before taking us across the North Sea.

Our progress was sufficiently good that air traffic control deemed it necessary for us to get a closer look at the London array on two loops of the North Sea. I don’t recall having seen the 175 turbines of the London array before on my flights, which is odd as it is the second largest operational offshore wind farm on Earth and an incredibly impressive sight.

A closer look at the London Array

I always enjoy the test of geography that any homeward flight brings, trying to spot familiar landmarks that will tell me which approach to London our flight is taking. Today was no different. After completing our North Sea crossing I could see a distant view of the Sheppey Crossing, then the distinctive shape of Coalhouse Fort, the Sikh temple in Gravesend, but then…. where were we? I couldn’t see any of the landmarks I expected along the Thames.

A large stadium loomed into view and I was struggling to think what that could be until I recognised the swimming pool next door, and then – much more obvious – the Crystal Palace Transmitting Station. Suddenly the unfamiliar seeming landscape clicked into place and I could see my local park, my old primary school, the local railway depot and my childhood home! We had clearly veered south and I hadn’t even realised…

After heading further across South London we made a turn over Battersea Power Station for a westerly approach to London City Airport, landing a few minutes early. Fifteen minutes after disembarking I was on the DLR platform, ready to head home by train. The wonders of London City Airport.

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Wet, wild and windy

Posted in Brands Hatch, England by folkestonejack on August 10, 2019

A summer saturday at Brands Hatch to see the next generation of DTM cars seemed like a terrific idea when I booked in the depths of the British winter. Who could have imagined the combination of a UK wide power cut with the threat of unusually wet, wild and windy weather!?

It was something of a miracle that the trains were running relatively smoothly to Eynsford, while other lines faced severe delays caused by fallen trees. After an hour of hiking I was once again passing through the familiar entrance to the circuit, ready to hear the roar of DTM engines reverberating through the Kent countryside.

The climb to Druids

My hike was rewarded with a fascinating morning of free practice and qualifying in very changeable conditions, followed by a thrilling race in the afternoon. One of the commentators described the conditions as four seasons in one day, just short of the snow. Free practice was a good illustration of that – starting in the dry, working its way from light rain to heavy rain, before ending in brilliant sunshine.

Qualifying started on a damp but drying track. Only a quarter of the session had elapsed when the red flags came out following a heavy shunt at Paddock Hill Bend for Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of F1 legend Emerson Fittipaldi. It was quite some bad luck for the WRT team as both their cars crashed on the same lap, leaving their mechanics with a mountain of work. Thankfully, both drivers were ok.

The session resumed after twenty minutes, accompanied by a fresh burst of rain. The remaining quarter of an hour or so was a thriller, with the drying track really mixing things up. For a long while Jake Dennis topped the times and the possibility of a first pole for the Aston Martin seemed tantalisingly in reach.

Setting fire to the timesheets early on in qualifying

Conditions on the track were clearly tricky to judge, but by the end of the session slicks were definitely the way to go and as the field switched over the times started tumbling. Marco Wittmann (BMW) timed his run perfectly to claim a last-gasp pole position with Rene Rast (Audi) alongside him on the front row. The second row was filled by Loïc Duval (Audi) and Paul Di Resta (Aston Martin).

The race itself was a thriller from the off, with Paul di Resta carrying out an audacious move around the outside of Paddock Hill bend to take an early lead and pull clear of the chasers. It wasn’t to last – the officials judged it to have been a jump-start, though it really didn’t look like that on the big screens. The result was a five second penalty taken before the pit-stop. Others had even worse luck – Jake Dennis was clouted into the wall at the start and had to retire without getting a lap in.

The race was far from dull, offered overtaking moves throughout the field – including a daring overtake by Marco Wittman through the middle of two cars at Paddock Hill Bend (taking positions from Rene Rast and Jamie Green at the same time). It was thrilling to the end, with everyone keeping an eye on the battle between Wittman in the lead and Rast in the rapidly closing Audi. At the flag the gap was down to 0.3 seconds and who knows what might have been with another lap.

Through the middle

It was a wonderful reminder of how thrilling the DTM can be and what a wonderful circuit Brands Hatch is for the spectator. It really is better to be at the race track here to appreciate the challenge, particularly the change in elevations, which never really comes across on the TV. I thoroughly enjoyed my day seeing the new breed of DTM cars and the new entries from Aston Martin. I didn’t even mind getting soaked with the high winds and sun to dry you out quickly!

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HNLMS Luymes visits the capital

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 26, 2019

On my way into work today I had the pleasure of watching a naval vessel arrive for a four day stay. It’s a while since I’ve been around at the right time to see the spectacle of the bridge opening for a warship but it certainly doesn’t get any less spectacular. The seagulls seemed much less impressed with my presence, preferring to use me for target practice!

Zr. Ms. Luymes shortly after passing through Tower Bridge

The visitor on this occasion was the hydrographic survey vessel HNLMS Luymes (A803) from the Royal Netherlands Navy. HNLMS Luymes arrived at the beginning of the rush hour, passing through Tower Bridge just after 7am. The ship, a familiar visitor to the capital, was accompanied by the tug Svitzer Cecilia, who assisted in turning the ship around to face the bridge after passing through. HNLMS Luymes is currently scheduled to be berthed alongside HMS Belfast until 1pm on Monday 29th July.

The vessel is soon to undergo a scheduled mid life upgrade in the shipyards of Damen with her classmate HNLMS Snellius, which will see the ships updated with new hull plating, the renewal of the radar and an upgrade to the communications equipment.

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Royal International Air Tattoo 2019

Posted in England, Fairford by folkestonejack on July 21, 2019

Every five years or so, I make a trek down to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to enjoy the spectacle of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), the world’s largest military air show. This edition saw 245 aircraft from 25 countries, on static display or in the air, ranging from small turboprop trainers to heavy transports.

The airshow celebrated a number of anniversaries this year, including the 100th anniversary of British Airways and the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO. The first of these saw an eye-catching flypast with a British Airways 747-400 in a splendid retro BOAC livery accompanied by the Red Arrows on the appropriately designated flight number BA100. A gap in the clouds opened at the perfect moment and illuminated the spectacle beautifully.

British Airways retro-liveried 747-400 (G-BYGC) performs a flypast with the Red Arrows at RIAT 2019

I was particularly delighted to see a MiG-21 flying at the air tattoo for the first time since 2001 courtesy of the Romanian Air Force who sent over their modernised air-defence variant. These supersonic fighters are true veterans, having first entered service with the Soviet Union in 1959. An impressive 11,000 fighters rolled off the production lines and have been flown by 60 nations. I had seen one on static display on a previous visit, but it was a treat to see one in the air.

The MiG-21 was not the only Soviet creation on display. The Ukrainian air force had sent over two of their Sukhoi Su-27 (‘Flanker’) fighters from the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade at Myrhorod and an Ilyushin Il-76 (‘Candid’) transport from the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade at Melitopol Air Base. For a jet that first appeared in 1977 the Su-27 looked as impressive today in its manoeuvrability as I’m sure it must have done for astonished audiences when it first appeared at western air shows.

The Patrouille de France take off to perform their acrobatic displays over Fairford

Other highlights included a beautifully painted C-130E Hercules from the Pakistani Air Force; an exhilerating display from the Finnish Air Force’s F/A-18 Hornet; and wonderful acrobatic displays from a number of national teams such as the Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France and the Frecce Tricolori.

Practicalities

It was a straightforward journey for me – an hour by train from London to Swindon, then around half an hour on an airshow shuttle bus to the showground. Once you are inside the scale of the show is astonishing, stretching around 2 miles alongside the runway and taking up in excess of 300 acres. Thankfully, there is a free bus inside the grounds (with 8 stops along the length of the showground) so when the feet start to give up you can take it easy.

I stayed around to the end of the show on the Saturday and discovered an absolutely massive queue for the shuttle buses back to Swindon. Once on board the return journey took an hour, without really seeming to hit any massive jams. I was thankful I was coming back to an overpriced hotel room rather than trying to make an evening train.

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London from the air

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 9, 2019

On my homeward flights to London I have often caught the occasional glimpse of a sight or two that I recognise, but rarely have I seen such an extended run of the familiar as we followed the path of the Thames in to Heathrow today on our much delayed flight.

The flight took us over the millennium dome; the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf; London Bridge and the City of London; Waterloo; Victoria Station and Battersea Power Station; the National Archives; Kew Gardens; and the Cavalry Barracks at Hounslow. The last of these was especially interesting to me as one of my ancestors was stationed here in 1800-1801 when the site was still relatively new. It is currently scheduled for closure in 2020.

The Cavalry Barracks at Hounslow

The Cavalry Barracks are historically significant, being among the oldest and most complete barracks in the country. The first buildings on the site date back to the first wave of construction in 1793 and there are 14 grade II listed buildings on the Site, some of which are in a poor state of repair. In addition to this, there are 19 locally listed buildings on the site.

Earlier this year the local council released a planning brief for the cavalry barracks which sets out their vision for a new neighbourhood that will integrate new build with the site’s heritage. It will be interesting to see how this progresses.

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The indirect route to Tallinn

Posted in England, Estonia, Finland, Helsinki, London, Tallinn by folkestonejack on June 28, 2019

The first day of our Baltic circuit took us to Tallinn by an indirect routing through Helsinki that would take us on two trains, one plane, one tram, one ferry and a taxi! Our original plan was to spread this over two days but after British Airways moved our flight forward by 3 hours it made sense to take the hit and get all our travelling done in one day.

The Heathrow Express started our multi-transport day for a short hop between terminals, having spent the night at an airport hotel (that in itself was a little problematic – our original choice of hotel cancelled our room shortly before our arrival, saying they had overbooked). Thankfully our flight from London Heathrow went very smoothly and delivered us to Helsinki airport with splendid views over London, Denmark and Sweden along the way.

A view of Wembley Stadium at the start of our journey

On arrival in Helsinki we had a bit of a wait for our luggage, but once we were on the move everything turned out to be quite straightforward (an airport train in to the central station, switching to a number 7 tram at the stop just outside). We stepped off the tram into Terminal 2 at the West Harbour almost exactly two hours after our flight landed.

Our transfer to Tallinn was to take us on board the Tallink Megastar, one of the new generation faster shuttle ferries operating between the Baltic capitals. It’s also pretty large at 212 metres in length and with a capacity of 2800 passengers. Fast seemed to the operative word – boarding started just 20 minutes after the ship arrived (3.30pm) and the ship left ten minutes before its scheduled departure time (4.20pm).

It was pretty clear that we were among many seasoned Tallink customers so just followed the crowd to the sitting lounge and found a couple of spots to rest up for the two hour crossing. The ships are pretty well geared to the needs of foot passengers with an extensive number of storage lockers of different sizes (most requiring a couple of euros) near the main seating areas.

Tallinn: A room with a view

The Megastar gave us a terrific view of the Estonian coastline as we closed in on the Port of Tallinn in the early evening, not that you had any strong sense of the approaching night with sunset not too far short of 11pm. We should probably have used public transport to get to our accommodation but settled on a short hop by taxi at the end of a long day. Time to chill out and enjoy a view over the harbour from high up in our hotel room.

Tip

The Tallink ferries sell Tallinn Cards on board, saving time and effort to find a sales point in the city. We picked up a couple of 3 day cards at 47 euros each and calculated that it would saved us at least the same again – terrific value.

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Above, below and inside Clifton Suspension Bridge

Posted in Bristol, England by folkestonejack on June 8, 2019

The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century that has gone on to become one of the most recognisable symbols of the city. It was a daring project at its conception and yet despite the passage of time has still managed to surprise and impress us all over again in the 21st century, as we discovered on a visit today…

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

The idea of bridging the Avon Gorge had been cherished for nearly a century, encouraged by a bequest from a Bristol merchant by the name of William Vick in 1753. The will specified that when the interest on the initial bequest had reached £10,000 it should be used to build a stone bridge across the 91 metre tall Avon Gorge from Clifton Downs to Leigh Woods. It was not to prove a straightforward exercise.

A competition held in 1829 to design a viable stone bridge failed to produced a design that everyone was satisfied with on the grounds of cost, appearance or feasibility. Among the entries were four ambitious designs from a 23 year old engineering apprentice looking to make his mark on the world – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the end the highly respected competition judge, Thomas Telford, produced his own design for a suspension bridge and the committee sought approval to change the terms of Vick’s bequest to allow it to be built.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not to be deterred, proposing an alternative to Telford’s design which picked up much public support. The ensuing arguments and debate prompted a change of plan, leading to the announcement of a second competition in October 1830. The winner on this occasion was a design by Smith and Hawkes of the Eagle Foundry in Birmingham, but Brunel somehow managed to persuade the lead judge to change his mind at a private meeting.

The foundation stone was laid in 1836 but progress with the construction was exceedingly slow. The two abutments were completed by 1840 followed soon after by the towers. Although most of the ironwork had been manufactured, the money to finish the job had run out. A decade of proposals and alternative thinking could not find a way to complete the bridge. Some wanted to see the abutments demolished to remove the stigma of failure, but in time the Clifton abutment took on a new life as a viewing platform.

Brunel died in 1859 without seeing his ‘first love’ completed. However, the death of the great engineer galvanised his peers and led to a renewed effort to complete the bridge as a fitting monument. The money was raised in a surprisingly short time and the bridge eventually opened on 8th December 1864. It is now hard to imagine Bristol without the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has taken on a life way beyond the hopes of its initiator, William Vicks.

The bridge is indeed a great monument to Brunel and to the foresight of Vicks (wonderfully remembered in the playful latin inscription on the bridge ‘Suspensa Vix Via Fit’).

Looking down into the Avon Gorge

Our reason for visiting the bridge today was to take a look at one of the most surprising discoveries from its more recent history. It had been long assumed that the Leigh Woods abutment was solid but as the plans from the early phases of construction had not survived no one could say that with any certainty. In 2002 a worker replacing the paving slabs above the Clifton abutment discovered a small void and repeated the exercise on the Leigh Woods side out of curiosity, discovering a much deeper void.

The experts lowered in by rope discovered an amazing double-deck arrangement of 12 vaults connected by small tunnels. The surprises didn’t end there. The vaults were surprisingly well finished for a space that no-one would ever have been expected to see again and despite traces of the construction scaffolding it was pretty clear that everything must have been removed through the access shafts at the end of the job. No mean feat in itself.

In the last few years the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust has opened up two of the larger chambers (vaults 4 and 5) to members of the public on hour long hard hat tours and we eagerly snapped up a couple of tickets at the second time of trying (it’s well worth subscribing to their updates by email to get notification of the next batch of tours on offer).

After a quick orientation exercise on the bridge we made our way down, descending a caged vertical ladder to a new entrance that has been bored into the side of the abutment. No matter how many photos I had seen of the newly discovered space I found stepping into the first vault to be a real wow moment, exceeded only by passing into the larger cathedral-like vault.

The dimensions take some believing – the walls are two metres wide at their thinnest and the height of the chamber we had entered was equivalent to three double decker buses. It is a little hard to comprehend that an equally tall chamber lies underneath your feet, accessible by ladder. Quite extraordinary.

Inside the first vault

An hour passed incredibly quickly as we absorbed the fascinating story and the sights of the chambers on our wonderful volunteer led tour. It also has to be said that the trust have done a terrific job in telling the history of the bridge in the permanent exhibition on display in their visitor centre. It was fascinating to see the alternative designs for the bridge and consider what might have been.

We combined our visit to the bridge with a visit to the Clifton Observatory which offers an unusual perspective on the bridge through the 360 degree camera obscura installed in the roof of the tower. The museum in the tower is also well worth a look, particularly the displays that explain the early adoption of photography here. The historic Clifton Rocks Railway site is also located nearby, though this is currently only open a few days a year.

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Farewell to HSTs in the west

Posted in England by folkestonejack on May 18, 2019

There are some iconic British designs that have taken on a life way beyond their original purpose and remain much loved as they slip out of everyday use. In time, some may well be forgotten while others cement their place in the history books. Today sees one of those design icons, the InterCity 125 High Speed Train (HST), reach its end in the west of the country.

The last long-distance HST passenger services on the Great Western Railway network today brings to an end a 43 year run. This is rather fitting, given their current designation as class 43 locomotives. The story of the last day has been captured rather wonderfully on twitter under the hashtag of #LastoftheHSTs but I couldn’t let the moment pass without adding my own farewell.

HST on the Teignmouth Sea Wall in 2014

HSTs have been a familiar sight on the western railway network since their introduction in 1976, running from Paddington to the South West and Wales. Some of my earliest childhood memories are associated with the wonder of seeing HSTs, which have been with us for virtually all of my life. It’s hard to imagine taking a walk along the Teignmouth and Dawlish sea wall without seeing a HST come whizzing past.

Thankfully it’s not quite the end of the HSTs altogether – you’ll still be able to see them for a while yet in Scotland, the East Midlands and on the East Coast Main Line.

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Inescapable Brexit

Posted in England by folkestonejack on March 29, 2019

I have travelled to the other side of the world and still can’t escape Brexit. It’s everywhere. On the rolling ticker of news updates on the in-plane entertainment screens, on local television and in the papers.

The perspective to be gained as you travel away from the UK is interesting, which I think can best be summed up as bafflement at how a country can voluntarily choose to tear itself apart like this. One question running through through some of the recent international coverage is how such a close 52-48 result came to be interpreted in some quarters as a mandate for the hard Brexit that Parliament is now rejecting. Mostly, it seems to have become a spectacle for all the wrong reasons and I think can only be destroying the credibility of Britain on the international stage.

Banksy mural in Dover

I am no political activist, shying away from political matters. However, I supported the recent ‘Put it to the People’ march and signed the petition. Not because I want to see democracy thwarted, but because I wanted to see the close result respected. It was a small way to get my voice heard and was pleased to hear this reflected in the words of Donald Tusk in his stirring speech to the European Parliament.

I don’t know what will unfold in the coming days, but I hope that the Brexit that is finally delivered takes a much softer form.

London’s newest rooftop viewpoint

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 24, 2019

I have been known to grumble, every now and again, about the monstrous skyscrapers that have been filling the skyline of the City of London over the past couple of decades. However, I have to confess that I rather like the rooftop spaces that they have created for the public to enjoy. The newest addition to the list is The Garden at 120 at 120 Fenchurch Street.

The view from the Gardens at 120 across to the Walkie Talkie

A week after the public opening I took a look for myself. It’s not on most tourist itineraries yet, so there were just ten of us queuing for the morning opening (10 o’clock) while a much larger queue was in evidence just a short walk away at the Walkie Talkie. There might not have been many of us, but I was still impressed by the speed that the staff got everyone through the security checks and into the lift to enjoy the tranquility of the gardens fifteen storeys up. Over the next hour a steady trickle of visitors arrived to join us but nowhere enough to trouble the limits.

It was a glorious morning to go up top with the morning fog giving way to clear blue skies and full sun. Needless to say, the views of the surroundings were superb. The walkway around the gardens offered sight lines to St Pauls, the Walkie Talkie, Lloyd’s Building and the Gherkin. In particular, I liked the fact that you are looking across the rooftops of these mid-height buildings, rather than looking down from a great height with little chance of admiring the detail.

The garden aspect of the rooftop is still in its infancy but once the wisteria reaches maturity this will be a lovely spot. There are plenty of benches spread around the spacious rooftop and a handful of visitors were taking advantage of the opportunity to bask in a little of the unseasonably warm weather on offer today and admire the bravery of the cleaners washing the windows of the Scalpel next door.

If the planners at the City of London have anything to do with it we will see more accessible and free to enter roof terraces and spaces. The draft City Plan 2036 would require the provision of ‘free to enter, publicly accessible areas’ as part of all tall building developments to help deliver their vision of a more inclusive city.

Views of St Pauls and the Lloyd’s Building from the rooftop gardens

In the space of a week there have been quite a few reports from the rooftop, including IanVisits and Diamond Geezer. The Guardian also published an interesting architectural review of the development, describing it as a candy-striped miracle in the central London skies.

Information on opening hours and a live footfall counter is available on the official 120 Fenchurch Street website. In the rush to get up top don’t forget to admire the wonderful giant video screens (with accompanying sound installation) on the ceiling of the entrance.

Photography is permitted but a little tricky, on account of a sloping see through barrier that runs around the 360 degree perimeter of the roof garden. Not that it stopped anyone from trying today!

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Farewell to 2018

Posted in England by folkestonejack on December 31, 2018

I am glad that I am not one of those journalists having to round up a year filled with as much madness as 2018 has seen and can just focus on a much narrower field. It has been a great year for travelling and I am particularly glad to have finally made it to Eritrea some six years after abandoning plans for a trip there. I really thought my chance had passed so I was absolutely made up that it was possible again. It exceeded every expectation.

The year in numbers…

15,800 holiday photos taken
450 hours spent commuting
67 blog posts written
58 hours endured in the air
49 plays watched
36 museums visited
33 roast dinners consumed
16 steam locomotives seen in action
13 castles/forts explored
5 rounds of minigolf played
3 art exhibitions wandered
1 wedding attended

The year has brought about some stunning surprises, many of which did not make it to the blog. One of those that I did not really know how to describe at the time was the Good Friday service at Westminster Abbey. I got absolutely drenched waiting to go in with Jo but the strange yet beautifully sung Solemn Liturgy of the Passion and Death of Our Lord (Tomás Luis de Victoria) was quite unlike anything I have heard or ever expected to hear. I still don’t know how to describe it!

Although I rarely talk about theatre much in this blog, there have been some absolute crackers this year. The standout for me was a heartbreaking performance of Peter Gill’s play The York Realist at the Donmar. Honourable mentions should go to a few more: Seawall at the Old Vic; Julius Caesar at the Bridge; The Inheritance at the Young Vic; the Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward; the gutsily staged Troilus and Cressida at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and the wonderfully bonkers Tell-Tale Heart at the National.

There were plenty of TV highlights in the year including the big dramas of Bodyguard and Killing Eve. One of the unexpected delights for me was ‘A Passage to Britain’, a fascinating documentary series that set about tracing what happened to the individuals recorded on ship’s passenger lists who were emigrating in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Some fascinating and relatively little known nuggets of history were recalled during that – I certainly had no idea there was a Polish settlement in India in the 1940s.

Plenty of good food was on offer during the year, but the best meals got served up at The Medina Restaurant in Mdina, Malta (the background music and sound of cannons firing to celebrate a saints day added to an already excellent meal); Rubino in Valletta, Malta; 4 Stagioni in Gibraltar (especially if your better half is too ill to eat a second dessert and you have to bravely step in…); Tides in St Aubin, Jersey; and rather surprisingly, the tasting menu at Belle Epoque at Heathrow of all places!

It has also been a year of family re-unions. Two events, my parents golden wedding anniversary and my brother’s wedding, brought together family members that I haven’t seen in years and some that I had never met. I thought that was all quite wonderful. Sadly, my brother didn’t get any luck with the weather – heavy rain on his big day was a bit of a downer.

In the equivalent post last year I wrote about the long established businesses closing down in my local high street. Since then, the last bank has finally closed but aside from this the degree of change has been less dramatic. That is likely to change in the years ahead as there are plans to build a 17 storey tower block (8 storeys higher than the existing buildings) behind the Victorian high street that sits in the South Norwood Conservation Area. Not quite sure how that squares up, but what do I know!?

I had a little chuckle when I read the suggestions in the planning documents that the design of the new tower block would be an elegant addition, echoing the historic buildings of South Norwood, and that it would ‘fix’ the aesthetically unpleasing ‘broken tooth’ skyline that we have already.

An unexpected sight at the end of the year – a festive slug at Tate Britain this Christmas

I suspect that 2019 will be a challenging year on many fronts, not least the sad denouement of the Brexit saga, but if it gets anywhere close to the highs of 2018 I will be very happy indeed.

Fort Burgoyne

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on September 9, 2018

The first sight of Dover Castle in its majestic hilltop position must have impressed any visitors to the town in the nineteenth century, who would have felt re-assured by its supposed impregnability and its symbolic status as the key to England. In practice, matters were not so simple. Military engineers had long known that improvements in artillery had left the castle vulnerable to attack from the higher ground immediately behind the castle. The solution was simple – build another fort to defend it!

A view of the Haxo Casemate at Fort Burgoyne

The result was Fort Burgoyne, one of many Palmerston Forts that sprung up across the South coast to meet the recommendations of the 1860 Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom. The fort has never been tested in the heat of war but remained in use by the military until 2006. Since then, the 10-hectare site has been handed over to the Land Trust (along with 32 hectares of grassland and recreation ground).

The local area is undergoing considerable change. The final evolution of the barracks which have surrounded the site since 1913 were demolished in 2016 and plans for the construction of 500 new homes have been announced. It’s all part of a significant shift in the use of the military landscape in Dover that can also be seen on the Western Heights with the sale of the 13 hectare site of the Citadel following the end of its use as a detention centre.

Against this backdrop of change, ideas for the future of Fort Burgoyne are being explored with great potential for a community space, commercial use and as a visitor attraction. It’s tricky though – Dover has the unusual problem that with so much history on its doorstep it can be hard for anyone to see beyond the biggest draws. Anywhere else, places like Fort Burgoyne and the fortifications of the Western Heights would be significant tourist attractions in their own right.

A view of the parade ground at Fort Burgoyne

Every now and then the site has been opened up for tours. Such has been their popularity that places have booked up very quickly, invariably faster than I have been able to get my act together. However, this time I was lucky enough to get a place on one of the two hour walks scheduled for Heritage Open Days.

Our tour took us from the parade ground to a viewpoint atop the centre caponier, into the casemates, down to the lower levels of the fort, over to the buildings on either side of the gate and then round the ramparts. It was fascinating to see the different layers of history that have survived from each evolution of the site, which even include old cannons re-used as pivots for AA guns!

It was also great to see that traces of more recent history have not been lost – unlike other sites which have been stripped back later additions in order to reach an artificial golden age of military development. The remains of more recent usage include markings on the parade ground and position markings for WW2 era guns.

Concrete blast walls show how the fort was adapted in World War 2

The fort was adapted during both World Wars to meet the changing nature of warfare, with a series of gun emplacements and pill boxes added across the site. Some of these are now in a parlous state, far worse than the older structures. Windows of the casemates were reduced in size or bricked up and new concrete walls placed in front of them in an effort to make the casemates less vulnerable in the event of a bomb exploding on the parade ground.

It is easy to focus on military development and overlook the everyday life of the fort and the surrounding barracks. One of the most surprising sights in the fort would have to be the paintings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in one the casemates. It’s a helpful reminder that the families of many soldiers would have lived here. The paintings are thought to date to the late 1930s and are evidence of the three casemates adapted for use as schoolrooms by 1906.

An unexpected presence – Mickey Mouse in one of the casemates

The two hour long tour flew by with so many fascinating spaces and historic elements to explore. You can get a good idea of just how impressive this fort looks from the terrific video produced by the Land Trust and a superb guide to the fort by David Moore is available to purchase through the Victorian Forts website.

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Maison Dieu

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on September 8, 2018

One of the pleasures of Heritage Open Days is to discover extraordinary buildings that have somehow blended into the surroundings, raising barely a glance from most passers by. The town hall in Dover is one such building, hardly helped by the fact that the town and the surrounding countryside are simply overflowing with historic buildings that would be major attractions in their own right anywhere else!

Dover Town Hall

Dover Town Hall, originally known as the Maison Dieu, has seen an unusually large number of changes of use from its beginnings in 1203 as a hostel for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to its current use as an event space. Along the way parts of the complex have been used as a hospital, navy victualling yard (complete with bakery and brewery), courthouse, council chambers, gaol and exhibition hall.

The future restoration plans might expand this further with proposals for a visitor centre to explain the history of the building, community meeting rooms, a new cafe and holiday lets.

The Mayor’s Parlour

The current shape of the building and its gothic design is the work of Ambrose Poynter and William Burges, who were approached in the mid-nineteenth century to adapt the building on its purchase by the town council. The highlight is the stone hall, which includes medieval style gargoygles climbing over the doorways and stone carvings of the coats of arms of past Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports along its length. Six wonderful painted glass windows, designed by Edward Poynter, depict scenes from Dover’s history such as the relief of Dover Castle from a siege by the French in 1216. A display of weapons and portraits on the walls complete the effect. It’s alot to take in!

Other rooms on our tour included the council chamber, with a beautifully decorated ceiling and rare gas sunburner for illumination; a large assembly room named the Connaught Hall; the Mayor’s Parlour with an original Burges ceiling design; and the Courtroom, entered through one of the original 13th century arches. Sadly, many of the decorative designs by Burges had been painted over by the 1950s but some traces have survived under layers of paint and wallpaper, which we saw in the corridor and the Mayor’s Parlour.

The proposals for restoration include the re-instatement of the interior designs of William Burges in the Mayor’s Parlour and the Connaught Hall which would be really worth seeing. The digital images produced during the bid for Heritage Lottery funding already give a hint of just how impressive that will be.

Although I made my visit during a Heritage Open Day there are opportunities to see the interior on regular tours led by volunteer guides from The Dover Society.

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Back to Folkestone Harbour

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 8, 2018

A trip down to Folkestone for a family gathering provided an opportunity for a short stop off at the harbour to see how much progress has been made with the re-development of the old station at Folkestone Harbour.

Since my last visit the old ticket office (facing towards the Leas) has been demolished and the station platforms have re-opened following extensive repairs to the station canopies. The difference between the station today and in its last years of decay is rather striking!

Folkestone Harbour Station – 2011

Folkestone Harbour Station – 2018

In some of the press reports from earlier in the year there was talk of providing train carriages for traders to operate from so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

I’m not against the wider development that will follow on from this, but I can’t help thinking that the harbour will look swamped with over 1,000 beach houses, apartments and town houses surrounding them (some apparently up to 12 storeys tall). I wish the density of the development was somewhat less. On top of that, it is sad to see that the familiar sight of the harbour master’s house doesn’t feature in the plans. Still, it’s good to see the preservation and restoration that has taken place so far.

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Mercedes mastery

Posted in Brands Hatch, England by folkestonejack on August 11, 2018

In the early 1990s the arrival of commercial satellite services to the UK opened up an exciting panoply of European motor sport series that had been largely invisible before.

Our dish was installed in 1992 and I immediately started channel hopping. My happiest discovery was the live broadcast of DTM races on 3sat. I only had a limited grasp of German but soon picked up enough new vocabulary to understand what was going on. My ad-hoc German lessons ended when live coverage of later seasons appeared on english speaking channels. The first races I saw were dramatic enough to ensure that I came back for more and I have been pretty faithful, losing touch only during the years when UK coverage largely disappeared.

Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters

The ‘exotic’ sight of cars like the Mercedes-Benz 190E Evo 2, Mercedes C-Class V6 and Alfa Romeo 155 V6 Ti made for a thrilling spectacle on TV and one that we couldn’t resist seeing up close, buying tickets for the non championship races at Donington Park. I was completely hooked and ended up travelling to see races at Brands Hatch, Hockenheim, the Norisring and Zandvoort as the series evolved, died and got re-booted.

This year the DTM returned to Brands Hatch after a five year gap and better still, racing on the grand prix circuit rather than the shorter indy circuit. I booked my tickets for the first day early on, eager to see the Mercedes C-Class one last time before the manufacturer leaves the DTM at the end of the season. It was money well spent – the sight of these machines plunging down the track from Paddock Hill Bend and up to Druids was as wonderful as ever.

I don’t know how I had ever forgotten just how brilliant Brands Hatch is for spectators but I fell in love with it all over again. On top of that, a compact schedule served up action aplenty – two free practice sessions, a series of practice starts, qualifying and a race. The drivers had alot to take in as most were unfamiliar with the grand prix circuit. A few found the limits of the track the hard way and the grid had a quite unusual look to it, with the current championship contenders scattered throughout the ranks.

A little off-track excursion

The racing was rarely dull, though the absolute highlight had to be Mike Rockenfeller’s audacious pass on Glock and Green at the same time to jump from 13th to 11th towards the end of the race. All the talk at the start had been of the difficulty of passing, so the sight of three cars abreast was quite an effective ripost! The race victory went to Daniel Juncadella, recording his first win in his 67th DTM outing.

There is much talk of 2019 being a transition year for the DTM and the possibility of aligning the series with the Japanese Super GT championship. Wherever it is headed, I hope the next evolution of the DTM is as successful as its past and that it won’t be long before we see these cars climbing Hailwoods Hill once again.

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RAF 100 Flypast over London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 10, 2018

The blue skies and wall to wall sunshine might have disappeared but that could not diminish the sight of 100 aircraft flying over London today to celebrate one hundred years of RAF operations. Every rooftop, building site and crane seemed to be alive with spectators eagerly anticipating ten minutes of noise and spectacle. Crowds started to gather at Waterloo Bridge a good hour before the clock struck one.

22 Typhoons mark the RAF’s 100th anniversary in style, seen here passing over the City of London

It was amazing to think that as the first helicopters reached the mall the Red Arrows were only just starting their flight along the route from Ipswich to London, via Chelmsford. It’s not often you get to see some of these aircraft in the skies, let alone over central London, so it was a real pleasure to watch. The RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft, the E3-D Sentry, Sentinel R1 and the soon to be retired Tornados were all pretty special. However, the highlight had to be the 22 Typhoons in an astonishing ‘100’ formation.

The photos are almost silhouettes and not really worth sticking up here, but I have included a few to give a sense of the occasion. Thank you to the 200+ aircrew and all those involved in creating this wonderful spectacle.

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Paddling along the Thames

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 7, 2018

The sporting smorgasbord on offer this weekend offers something for everyone, whether that be the opening stages of the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix and the World Cup quarter-final between England and Sweden. However, slipping under the radar a little is a rather interesting newcomer – the International Stand-up Paddle Board World Tour.

Michael Booth approaches the finish line at the 2018 London SUP Open Pro Thames Race

This is the first time that the world tour has come to London, giving Londoners a chance to see some of the world’s best paddle boarders in action. After London the world tour will move on to New York City, San Francisco and Paris.

Most of the activity this weekend is taking place at the City Paddle Festival at the Royal Victoria Docks but first up there was the small matter of the 2018 London SUP Open Pro Thames Race early this morning. The race took in a 4.5km stretch from Battersea Bridge to an impressive finish outside the Palace of Westminster, with victory claimed by Michael Booth.

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Bank holiday sun atop the city

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on May 9, 2018

A couple of months ago I booked a table at one of the restaurants at 20 Fenchurch Street for my father’s 80th birthday, little suspecting that it would be a day of record breaking temperatures, beautiful blue skies and wall to wall sun. Perfect conditions for a lovely family occasion – a little wander round the Sky Garden followed by a leisurely meal as the sun set.

The view towards Canary Wharf from the Sky Garden

It was my first visit to the Sky Garden and I was impressed by the sights on offer, even if the feel of the space was more green airport concourse than public park to my mind. The outdoor terrace was closed throughout our time on floor 35 but even without this we still had the most wonderful views across the city and out to Canary Wharf (albeit with the shocking sight of a layer of pollution hanging over London).

The Sky Garden opened in January 2015 so my visit comes rather late in the day compared to most bloggers. It is interesting to see that the green element, such as it is, is a little more substantial than it appeared to the first visitors (the Evening Standard reported some users describing it as more of a “Sky Rockery”). It’s definitely worth a look though and a good deal easier to get up top now that the initial rush has subsided, though clearly still a very popular destination.

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Night sleeper to Cornwall

Posted in England, Penzance by folkestonejack on March 26, 2018

I thought that a long weekend in Penzance in the off-season was a little bit bonkers, given the likelihood of the English weather throwing everything and a little bit more at us, but it turned out to be not too bad at all. Admittedly, there were some bursts of heavy rain and blustery winds but we got away with it. In any case, it turned out to be not quite such a strange idea as I discovered one of my work colleagues waiting to board the same night sleeper (either that, or our work has driven us all mad!).

Our night sleeper to Penzance would be hauled by a GWR class 57 diesel locomotive

The refurbished cabins on the ‘Night Riviera‘ sleeper are rather delightful. Ours contained two bunk beds with wonderfully soft duvets connected by a clever space-saving ladder, a sink that doubles up as a table and a cute GWR branded box of travel essentials from Spezia Organics (organic soap, muslin flannel and skin balm) for the journey. In theory we could have popped down to the buffet carriage for a late night drink, but after partaking of drinks and snacks in the first class lounge at Paddington station we just wanted to settle down to a good night’s sleep.

I slept surprisingly well, waking up to see the sunrise as we crossed the Tamar Bridge into Cornwall. On our arrival into Penzance at 8 o’clock we stored our baggage (a handy service offered by The Longboat Inn which we had arranged in advance) and headed back out by train to St Ives. Unfortunately the return trip was affected by a problem on the track which brought trains in all directions to a halt. After a couple of hours sheltering from the heavy rain it was a relief to be on the move again!

Our home for the next few days would be an apartment in the Egyptian House, a remarkable building from the 1830s built as a museum with an elaborate Egyptian facade. It was acquired by the Landmark Trust in 1968, restored and converted into holiday accommodation. The second floor apartment was just perfect for us – a cosy space with two bedrooms and a roaring fire to keep out the lingering chill.

The Egyptian House in Penzance

Over the next few days we covered a handful of the local attractions by bus, including the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, St Michael’s Mount and Mousehole.

I had no idea of the importance of Porthcurno, which held the distinction of being the largest telegraph station in the world at the time of the Second World War. The need to safeguard this vital communications hub prompted the decision to move the telegraph station underground. Two hundred tin miners from St Just and the West Indies were employed in the construction of two bomb-proof tunnels protected by foot-thick steel blast-proof doors. The work to move the equipment inside was completed in May 1941. It was just in time – 48 hours later enemy bombs fell nearby.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this unlikely site on the Cornish coast and how much we have to thank for their efforts to keep communications flowing 24 hours a day. The museum uses the illustration of a message being transmitted from London being rapidly repeated through Porthcurno, Gibraltar and Malta on its way to military headquarters in North Africa. At one point in the Blitz, when the landline was severed, the messages were transmitted to Porthcurno and then put on trains to London!

The wartime tunnels at the Telegraph Museum

The telegraph station at Porthcurno was sufficiently important that all sorts of extraordinary hidden defences were built into the valley including flamethrowers mounted under the beach that could be switched on at the flick of a switch from a control room in the cliffs. It really is hard to imagine that this quiet green valley could have once been such a heavily fortified and restricted zone.

Inside the Telegraph Museum you can learn about the history of telecommunications and visit the impressive underground telegraph station. You get quite a good sense of how well buried into the clifftop the tunnels are if you take a walk up the emergency escape stairs to a cliff-top platform 30 metres up. This was originally intended for use if the main entrance had become blocked.

A free map of Valley Tales and Trails highlights the history of the parish, the telegraph station and the engineering college. It’s a helpful guide to some sights that would seem a little odd without explanation, such as mini training telegraph poles. Around the beach warning signs highlight the hidden danger still posed by cables just under the water and there are signs of cables coming up through the sand in a few places, especially near to the cable hut.

It’s fair to say that I was absolutely fascinated by Porthcurno and it was certainly the unexpected highlight of our Cornish adventure for me.

Mousehole

St Michael’s Mount and the fishing village of Mousehole made for charming spots to visit on our last full day. The tide was in so we had to make use of the small boats to get across to the mount and then took our time making our way around the castle. One of the most surprising discoveries on our visit to St Michael’s Mount was the cable-operated incline railway that has been used to carry goods from the harbourside to the castle ever since it was constructed in 1901.

We hadn’t planned a visit to Land’s End as the winter bus timetable didn’t offer an easy way to integrate a stop into our schedule without a lengthy stay, but in the end a broken down bus forced our hand! While an engineer was called out out to fix the bus we wandered over to the clifftop. It all looked rather more commercialised than I remembered from my last visit in 1981/82 but it was still good to be able to take a peek.

Our stay in Cornwall was a short one. On the Monday morning we headed back to London on the 10:00 train from Penzance. It’s a journey that continues to retain its appeal, particularly with the stretch along the coast through Teignmouth and Dawlish. Hopefully I’ll be back again before another quarter century passes!

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Lighting up London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on January 18, 2018

The winter gloom has been banished for four nights by the bright illuminations of Lumiere London, a festival of over 50 artworks clustered in six locations across London. I took the opportunity of a pre-theatre wander around Westminster and the West End to check out some of the delightful sights.

Westminster Abbey illuminated for Lumiere London 2018

The highlight for me had to be Patrice Warrener’s The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) at Westminster Abbey which has brought two gates of the abbey to life with a colourful overlay of light. The effect is quite astonishing. Other favourites include the glowing stairway to heaven atop St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Flamingo Flyway in Chinatown and the nightlife of Leicester Square Gardens.

The second edition of Lumiere London runs from 18th to 21st January 2018 with the illuminations available to view from 5.30pm to 10.30pm each night. Maps and guides are available to download from the Visit London website to help plan your visit. If you are looking for a good night at the theatre to accompany your wanders why not check out the superbly improvised and addictive shows at Mischief Movie Night. I can’t stop going back for more!

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Stars in London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on January 13, 2018

A little weekend outing to the Tate Modern provided one of the odder sights of the year to date – Tom Cruise running over the roof of Blackfriars Station!

Tom Cruise sprints across the roof of Blackfriars Station

It was a little puzzling at first – a glance from the rooftop viewpoint revealed dozens of orange clad crew on top of Blackfriars station and the buildings that surround the northern end of the railway bridge. The appearance of a low-flying helicopter with a giant camera, following a running man across the rooftop, helped put us in the picture and twitter confirmed the rest.

Our visit to Tate Modern gave us an opportunity to see Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55 on a grey winter’s day. It’s a fascinating exhibition that covers the remarkable wave of art and graphic design that accompanied the new regime, from highly decorated agitprop train wagons to colourful posters bringing the revolutionary message to the farthest reaches of the state.

The exhibits ranged from Aleksandr Deineka’s optimistic studies (which formed the basis for the giant mural at USSR pavilion at the 1937 ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques’ in Paris) to the chilling evidence of the doctoring of photographs and paintings to airbrush discredited individuals from history. I found it all fascinating. I haven’t seen Soviet revolutionary posters in arabic script before and found the explanation of how posters were altered for the eastern republics especially interesting.

It’s well worth catching the exhibition whilst it’s at the Tate Modern (8th November 2017-18th February 2018) and the connected exhibition of works by Ilya and Emilia Kakakov (18th October 2017-28th January 2018) which offers some interesting perspectives on the Soviet past, beginning with Ilya’s clandestine artworks from the 1960s.

Farewell to 2017

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on December 31, 2017

Over the past few decades I have watched as the relatively well served high street in my local area, South Norwood, has gradually been losing the shops that once made it a great independent shopping centre – a story that I’m sure has been echoed across the country. It feels like 2017 was a turning point, seeing the arrival of some exciting new businesses as well as the departure of another long-standing store.

Emertons closed after 115 years

There are few historic survivors left in South Norwood so the closure of Emertons, The Ironmonger after 115 years was sad to hear. It was a brilliant store in its time which would always have just what you needed for home repairs, backed up by a really knowledgeable team. It’s going to be strange seeing Station Road without the familiar green storefront (although it has to be said that this was a latter day creation, the signage was bright orange when I was growing up and only met its end with the storm of 1987!).

It follows the closures of other long-standing high street businesses in the past decade, including Kennedy’s (1877-2007) which made the best sausage rolls anywhere in London and terrific Christmas puddings to a long-standing recipe with ale and suet. Other businesses that have disappeared from South Norwood High Street have included Boots, Co-op, Dewhursts (Butchers), Woolworths, Lawrences (Bakers) and Lorimers (Stationers and toy shop). When my parents arrived in the area there was also a branch of Mac Fisheries on the High Street.

The Clocktower (1907)

In many ways the trigger for the steady decline of the high street was the arrival of the first large supermarket in the form of Safeways many years ago (subsequently replaced in sequence by Morrisons, Somerfield, Co-op and now Aldi!). Up to the arrival of Safeways there were at least three butchers, three greengrocers and a couple of bakeries in the high street. In some ways it is surprising how long it took for shopping habits to change and the true impact to be felt on the high street.

It’s not just shops that have been disappearing. Not so long ago there were three banks in South Norwood High Street and at least two Building Societies. The last remaining of these will leave the high street when NatWest closes its doors on 22nd May 2018. I’m sure the nuisance value of this for me must be outweighed by the inconvenience of trekking further afield for local business owners.

Aside from this, I miss the re-assuring sight of Norwood Junction Models (1963-2013), just off the high street at the top of Portland Road, even though I had long since stopped spending my pocket money there by the time it closed.

The artwork ‘The Long Way Home’ in Norwood Junction subway (1912) shows Emertons in happier times.

More change is on the way with a proposal to re-locate South Norwood Library to a spot on Station Road next to Aldi in 2019. Much as I love the old library building, a place I spent many happy hours as I was growing up, the idea of creating a library within sight of Norwood Junction Station, next door to Aldi, seems a great way of binding the library even closer to the community. It’s certainly better than the talk of closing the library altogether a few years back with nothing in its place.

There has been some talk about the unwanted gentrification of South Norwood which rather overlooks the ups and downs of the past 100 years. I prefer to think that the arrival of some of the new businesses to the area as a much needed and welcome revival. Long may it continue!

A day at the château – in Buckinghamshire!

Posted in England by folkestonejack on October 14, 2017

One of the most surprising sights in Britain can be found in Buckinghamshire, a short drive from Aylesbury, where Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild built an exquisite turreted country home in the style of a French château between 1874 and 1883. It is one of only a handful of Rothschild family houses that survive today out of the forty that were once spread out across Europe.

Waddesdon Manor

The moment you step onto the drive it feels as though you have somehow been transported to the Loire valley and that first impression carries through into the extravagant interior, especially in the marble-clad dining room with its echoes of the grandest French palaces. Among the many extraordinary furnishings are pieces commissioned by Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Marie Antoinette for the Louvre and Versailles respectively. The mixture of 18th century decorative arts and English portraits from the same era works remarkably well – nothing feels out of place.

Marvels abound in every room and reward a slow soaking up of detail, such as the set of chairs with small carvings of birds assembling a nest or a golden cherub appearing to climb out of a set of drawers.

One highlight was a bronze elephant automaton dating to 1774 which stuns even in its static state. A video of of the automaton shows how much more astonishing it is in action. Other stunners included a musical box depicting Orpheus taming the animals (c. 1720) and a strikingly curvy-swirly silver gilt cup by Christian Van Vianen (1640) which is now paired with a contemporary painting showing a boy holding the cup. In truth, it is a house of highlights.

The house might seem like a historical anachronism to us now but in its heyday it was a showcase for cutting edge technologies, including central heating, electric lighting and one of the first lifts to be installed in an English country house. Queen Victoria was said to have been so impressed by the lights that she asked for them to be switched on and off repeatedly!

The original Otis lift (installed in 1898) is now on display in the Power House

The Rothschild family had great foresight in understanding that great collections such as this would naturally drift towards national art museums without taking special steps. James de Rothschild (1878-1957) ensured that the collection could be enjoyed in its family context by future generations by donating Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust backed by a suitably large endowment. It’s a pleasure to step inside and marvel at their legacy.

Practicalities

Our trip to Waddesdon Manor proved to be one of the most straightforward days out that we have enjoyed. An hour or so on the train from London Marylebone to Aylesbury Vale Parkway station followed by a short ride on the free shuttle bus to Waddesdon Manor.

At the time of writing the shuttle bus connects with the Chiltern Railways service that leaves London Marylebone at 9.57am so you end up reaching the property at around 11.15am. Return times vary. The bus only runs once a day in each direction, but that’s not really a problem as there’s plenty to see at Waddesdon. If you time your visit for Wednesday, Thursday or Friday you will also be able to see the rooms in the Bachelors’ Wing.

We spent around two hours inside the house but could easily have spent longer looking at the displays on the first and second floors. The rest of our time was divided between the aviary, grounds and stable block. Although the food on offer in the cafe in the stable block was perhaps a little on the pricey side there was no doubting the quality and super taste of everything we sampled. Last but not least, the fudge was sensationally good…

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Charlecote Park

Posted in England, Stratford-upon-Avon by folkestonejack on October 8, 2017

A weekend trip to Stratford upon Avon gave us an opportunity to take a Sunday morning outing to see Charlecote Park, a National Trust property that is a mere 14 minute bus ride away from the centre of town. From the moment you enter the estate and start your walk down the drive towards the sixteenth century turreted gatehouse you get a sense of how special this place is. More of the magic gets revealed as you make way through the archway and see the main house and as you explore the deer park beyond.

Through the gatehouse

The Lucy family has lived here since at least 1189 when Sir Walter de Cherlecote inherited the estate, though the current house dates back to 1558 and what we see today is very much how the Victorian owners wanted to present it. The site looked a little familiar to me without ever having visited which turned out to be because this historic site was a source of inspiration for the set designers of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won!

The Elizabethan exterior is magnificent but the interior is a nineteenth century vision, partly drawing upon a two year grand tour by the Lucy family that sounded like the ultimate in holidays from hell! The family set off in their carriages with their retinue but got stuck in heavy snow whilst crossing the alps, resulting in the death of their young son. Incredibly, another child was born while they were on the road! You can still see the carriage they used on their grand tour in the carriage house.

The material gathered during their grand tour was much more than a collection of artifacts, even extending to the red and white marble flooring in the Great Hall which was picked up in Venice.

The view from the west

Overall, a visit to the house and grounds kept us entertained for a leisurely two and a half hours – including some lovely moments watching deer running through the west park. Hard to imagine that a young William Shakespeare spent time in the same grounds here whilst poaching!

Practicalities

We were thoroughly confused by the information available on the bus route that passes the property. The information on the National Trust website and in the journey planner suggested that we needed to take the X18 bus, but on arriving at the bus stop at Bridge Street in Stratford-upon-Avon we discovered a notice stating that the X18 is now taking a more direct route to Warwick and would no longer stop at Charlecote. Instead, passengers are asked to take the X17, which only runs Mondays to Saturdays. Not much help for our Sunday outing…

Our disappointment turned to delight when the driver of the next X18 confirmed that he was going to Charlecote. At the other end we discovered a crucial piece of missing information – a notice at the Charlecote bus stop states that on Sundays the X17 runs as the X18! Talk about a convoluted change. So, in summary, X17 Mondays to Saturdays and X18 on Sundays/Bank Holidays. The notice states that not all X17 buses will serve Charlecote so it is worth checking carefully…

The bus route passes the Charlecote estate before reaching a bus stop outside the Pheasant Hotel. The visitor centre is an easy walk round the corner from here and the entrance to the estate is just over the road.

At the time of writing adult admission costs £12 (with Gift Aid) for the house, grounds and outbuildings but is free for National Trust members. You can get a discount for the restaurant or shop when arriving by public transport.

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A peek inside Crossrail Liverpool Street

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 21, 2017

The last stop on our Open House London schedule for 2017 brought to the Crossrail site at Liverpool Street Station, just around the corner from my workplace. I was quite intrigued to see what was going on behind the hoardings that I regularly pass during my working week.

The entrance to the Eastern Ticket Hall (Broadgate) will be through a five metre tall glazed canopy in a newly pedestrianised plaza

I think we all knew that it is a massive undertaking to build this new railway line but I still had not appreciated the degree of complexity involved in weaving this new line through the heavily built up city and finding a place to fit the infrastructure needed to support it. This even includes the need to avoid the disused stretch of the mailrail that passes through here.

The other fascinating insight was how innovative technology is being used to improve the efficiency of the build, from drones used to inspect the tunnels to VR hard hats allowing easy access to plans and drawings whilst working with both hands. The future industrial application of this technology sounds so optimistic that it makes you wonder why so much of the initial focus was on the leisure market!

Our visit allowed us to take a look inside the construction site at what will be the Eastern ticket hall of a new station that will stretch all the way across to Moorgate which has a rather striking ceiling design that looks like someone has been making origami in concrete.

The view down from the Eastern Ticket Hall to the lower levels of the concourse

From here we could also see the space where escalators and an incline lift will take passengers down to the lower levels. It’s hard to believe that in just over a year this space will be bustling with passengers. As it will almost halve the time from the City to Heathrow I am sure it won’t be long before I am amongst the throng.

Exploring Alexandra Palace’s hidden history

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 20, 2017

Our first stop on this year’s Open House London weekend took us to Alexandra Palace, a pleasure palace built for the people in the late nineteenth century. In act, it was built twice over – the first palace burnt down in 1873 sixteen days after its grand opening so the building we see today is a complete re-build which opened on 1st May 1875.

Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace is probably most famous as the birthplace of television with the first BBC broadcast transmitted from here to 200 television sets on 2nd November 1936. However, our visit focused on the basement and some remnants of earlier chapters in its remarkable story.

After donning hi-vis jackets and hard hats we headed through the doors of the curiously named ‘Traitor’s Gate’ below the south terrace and into the surprisingly extensive south basement where the layers of history are still visible. In contrast the north basement, which was completely rebuilt after the terrible fire of 1980, is of little interest.

Entering the basement through Traitor’s Gate

At first it was hard to imagine that this derelict and dusty space was once a thriving underworld filled with offices, kitchens, cellars, store rooms, larders, ice wells, plate stores and a dining hall for servants. However, as our guide pointed out the surviving features, including storerooms with shelf markings still visible and bread ovens, the space started to come alive a little.

The industrial scale of the dining experience here looks pretty grand in the pictures that survive but it was said that the food was often cold by the time it reached the table after making the long journey from the kitchen!

Bread ovens

Move forward a decade or two and the picture is entirely different. Alexandra Palace became home to Belgian refugees in 1914 and then an internment camp for German, Austrian and Hungarian ‘enemy aliens’ between 1915 and 1922. Over the span of the war 17,000 aliens spent time at Alexandra Park, divided into three battalions reflecting their social class. The working classes found themselves crammed into the great hall whilst the upper class inhabitants had a more comfortable living space in the towers. The divisions didn’t end there – working class men were allowed weekly visits of just 15 minutes whilst the upper classes were allowed 2 hours.

The basement space was a part of this re-purposing of the palace. Our guide pointed out a prison cell with barred windows that survives in the basement (apparently many internees tried to get themselves sent here to escape the noise of the overcrowded hall) and some of the discarded heavy machine tools from the workshops used by the internees. Amongst other things, the internees made model boats that they sailed on the boating lake behind the palace. Other aspects of the camp have long since vanished, such as the 400 allotments that once surrounded the site.

Abandoned workshop tools

After making our way back into the main building we had an opportunity to see a marvelous short film that gave us a little bit more of the story of the internment camp, drawing on letters and drawings from the individuals detained here. The last internees left in 1922 but the effects were longer lasting, whether from mental illness brought on by the confinement (‘barbed wire disease’) or through harrowing deportations that separated the men from their english families (only a minority of 4000 were allowed to remain).

Alexandra Palace has so much history to share and I hope that the plans for restoration will allow the spotlight to be thrown on all these layers.

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Open House London 2017

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 16, 2017

Open House London celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with another bumper crop of new buildings added to the list of old favourites. It is testament to the riches of London that there is never any shortage of places to visit every year from stunning livery halls to astonishing industrial sites. This year was no exception – with two palaces offering some fascinating and very different glimpses of the past.

Lambeth Palace

Our day took us back and forth across London with visits to Alexandra Palace, Lambeth Palace, Watermark Place, The Walbrook and Crossrail Liverpool Street. Along the way we enjoyed a side-visit to the incredibly surprising St Mary Abchurch which we just happened to see was open whilst walking between sites.

The highlight of the day was a ‘taster’ tour of Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury for over 800 years. The sense of history is overwhelming, such as when you step inside the Guard Room to find yourself being watched by two centuries worth of Archbishops of Canterbury and learn that this was where the fate of Sir Thomas More was sealed.

Other interesting sights on our tour included the beautiful stained glass and blitz marked floors of the chapel, the vaulted crypt and the charming State Drawing Room.

The enthralling nature of our tour of Lambeth Palace was as much a testament to the story-telling skill of our wonderful guide as the building itself, weaving in historical events, tales of chance encounters with past archbishops and some unusual discoveries (such as the green man in the Guard Room). Absolutely wonderful.

The roof gardens at Watermark Place

The biggest surprises of the day came at Watermark Place, where we enjoyed a stunning rooftop view and met the hawk that keeps the skies above clear of pigeons two days a week, and at St Mary Abchurch, where we discovered that the conventional looking square red-brick exterior hides an astonishing painted dome (one of Wren’s experiments in preparation for St Paul’s Cathedral).

From the outset Open House London has been an incredible event and to my mind it is by far the best weekend of the year in the city, though it is considerably more popular than when I first participated as a university student in the 1990s! Thank you to Victoria Thornton, the Open House London team and the many volunteers for twenty five years of wonderful insights into the architectural gems of this city.

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THV Galatea visits London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 11, 2017

The Trinity House Vessel Galatea, a Multi-Function Tender, arrived in London in the early hours of this morning after making the journey round the coast from her home port of Harwich. The visit has been organised in conjunction with the biennial London International Shipping Week (11-15 September 2017).

THV Galatea arrived in London in the early hours of this morning

The Galatea is just a month shy of the tenth anniversary of her naming by the Queen at this very spot on 17th October 2007. The vessel was constructed at the Remontowa shipyard in Gdansk and launched on 26th July 2006. She is normally based at her home port of Harwich.

The near ten year old tender was designed as a state of the art vessel to support Trinity House’s role as the General Lighthouse Authority for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar. This includes buoy handling, wreck marking and hydrographic surveying. Quite a striking change from the cruise ship visitors more familiar through the summer, especially with her distinctive 30 tonne lift crane!

THV Galatea and HMS Belfast with Tower Bridge in the background

The evening rush hour got a rather impressive view of the ship with black skies, brilliant sunshine and a rainbow which are probably circulating on social media right at this minute. I was a little too slow making it to the bridge for that shot, timing my arrival for the last few rays of sun and the arrival of a deluge! After sheltering for a moment or two I was lucky enough to have a chance to redeem myself.

THV Galatea will be moored alongside HMS Belfast until the evening of Thursday 14th September.

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Seven highlights from the Folkestone Triennial 2017

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 3, 2017

The Folkestone Triennial has once again served up an interesting mix of work from 20 artists which have been spread across the breadth of the town from the Leas to the East cliff. Highlights include a couple of figures from Anthony Gormley, gilded replicas of Folkestone’s fishing fleet by Jonathan Wright and an audio installation by Emily Peasgood in the Baptist Burial Ground.

I usually pop down some time after the event has got into its stride, but on this occasion I took a look on its opening weekend and discovered that not everything was quite ready. One of the artworks, Bill Woodrow’s The Ledge, won’t be installed until later in September so all you can do now is admire an empty black plinth!

1. Fleet on Foot – Jonathan Wright

The moment I stepped into Tontine Street my eye was immediately drawn to Jonathan Wright’s distinctive gilded replicas of boats from Folkestone’s current fishing fleet which stand atop poles at various points along the street, leading you down to harbour square. The location is rather appropriate as the street sits atop the Pent stream, a mostly hidden water channel that runs along a culvert and into the harbour (though I discovered the hard way, in August 1996, that it causes havoc when it floods!).

A 3D printed replica of fishing boat FE75 “Rowena” (built Rye, 1989) in Tontine Street

I’m no art connoisseur but I liked the crossover between the artworks and the familiar everyday sights of Folkestone Harbour. It was fun comparing these to the real thing a little later in the day on a wander along the Stade.

2. Halfway to Heaven – Emily Peasgood

The Bradstone Road Burial Ground is a Folkestone oddity – a graveyard that has sat 20 feet above street level since the mid-nineteenth century. The burial ground was originally on the hillside, in the grounds of the local miller’s house, but when the railways arrived the land was needed to allow the town to expand. No-one wanted to disturb the dead so the burial ground was left untouched as the rest of the hillside was cut away. The graveyard was surrounded by retaining walls that have kept this last piece of the hillside intact right up to the present day.

Bradstone Road Burial Ground

The sound installations at the Baptist Burial Ground were quite hauntingly beautiful. The artist, Emily Peasgood, had researched the individuals buried here and this was used to create sound pieces that triggered as you wandered amongst the graves. It was perhaps at its most amazing when a handful of people were wandering around, triggering the sound pieces at the same time.

I was really pleased that we got the chance to go up the stairs to the burial ground and look around. It really is very odd to find a graveyard up a set of steepish stairs with the street on one side and a garage at the back. My father was fascinated too – his best man’s house overlooked the burial ground from across the street but he had never been up until this weekend. It’s a fascinating curiosity of history.

3. Holiday Home – Richard Woods

It is pretty much impossible to miss Richard Wood’s contribution to the Folkestone Triennial – six one-third size ‘holiday homes’ that draw attention to the growth in second homes at a time when many cannot afford a house at all. The six homes are deliberately placed in unlikely places to show that ‘no site is too small, too unlikely, or too inconvenient for its neighbours, for a holiday home’.

One of the holiday homes on the shingle in front of Marine Crescent

The printed maps we picked up show a different location for one of the houses (marked on the map as 6e) to that shown in the map available to download from the website. This house is sited on the shingle in front of Marine Crescent not part-way up the zig zag path.

4. Another Time XVIII and XXI – Antony Gormley

Two of Anthony Gormleys now very familiar cast-iron figures are on loan to the Folkestone Triennial and were a big draw on the opening weekend. One is placed at the far end of the Parade, nearest to the east cliff, whilst the other has been installed in a loading bay on the Folkestone Harbour arm.

Another Time XVIII 2013 at the Loading Bay, Folkestone Harbour Arm

The figure on the harbour arm was sufficiently popular that queues had formed at one point on the first day of the Triennial. A short set of steps takes you down to a viewpoint over the loading bay but you can’t get up too close. You also need the tide to be in your favour – when I returned on the sunday the floor of the loading bay and viewpoint was completely covered with water!

By contrast, the figure in the parade was somewhat easier to access, albeit down a rather slippery set of steps. I probably haven’t wandered around the arches here since I was a child, so it was good fun looking at the different angles that were possible for a photograph.

Another Time XVIII 2013 at high tide (photographed through the grill)

I’ve seen these figures in a few locations now, but nothing quite compares to the effect of seeing so many spread along Crosby beach. Nevertheless, it was great to see them in Folkestone.

5. Siren – Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od

The piece from Marc Schmitz and Dolgor Ser-Od really appealed to me as it draws on the ‘listening ears’ along this stretch of coast which I just happened to have visited a little over a month back.

Siren at sunrise

Siren is marvelously positioned near the East Cliff Pavilion, with a great view over the Sands and Folkestone Harbour. It was proving a popular spot on the first day, though most folk seemed more interested in hearing their own voices impressively amplified than listening to the waves to get the sea-shell effect.

6. Lamp Post (as remembered) – David Shrigley

The idea behind David Shrigley’s piece was to reflect Folkestone’s creative-led move away from its long history serving the traditional tourist market. To that end he invited an artist to spend 40 seconds memorising the decorative lamp posts on the Leas and then re-create this from memory, thus turning heritage into an artwork befitting of the new Folkestone.

Lamp Post (as remembered)

It’s an interesting concept and one that plays out nicely as you stroll along the Leas wondering if you will spot the interloper immediately. In fact, it is easy to do so because it is much shorter and then as you get closer you notice the differences in design. Quite apart from anything else it made me look closer at the existing lamp posts which I have too easily ignored in the past!

7. Minaret – HoyCheong Wong

One of the things I love most about the triennial is the chance to see Folkestone afresh, whether that is surfacing a bit of forgotten history or providing a new viewpoint on a familiar sight. I have to confess that I had absolutely no idea of the existence of the Islamic Cultural Centre, which has operated as a Mosque in Foord Street for 28 years. I must have walked past it plenty of times on my way to my Nan’s house without noticing.

The Islamic Cultural Centre illuminated at night

You certainly can’t miss it now. For the duration of the triennial HoyCheong Wong has added a delightful temporary facade with minarets which is illuminated at night. It proved a popular spot to visit on our evening stroll, turning the usually quiet side street into a magnet for art-hunters. I’m not sure what the occasional motorist made of the folk lined against the wall that borders one side of the road in an attempt to get that perfect shot!

Practicalities

The fourth incarnation of the Folkestone Triennial runs every day from 2nd September to 5th November 2017. A map and app are available through the Folkestone Triennial website.

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