FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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Cats in charge

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

A mid-week outing to Piccadilly provided an opportunity to see some of the many Christmas lights strung up across the west end, take a wander through the Gormley retrospective at the Royal Academy and admire the annual Christmas display in the windows of Fortnum and Mason.

Cats in control

This year’s display in the windows of Fortnum and Mason reveals a series of animated scenes from a Christmas factory operated by cats. Each window shows a different part of the operation, with my favourite being the salmon smoking operation (complete with a cat with a pipe sitting under the grill). As if that wasn’t enough, the whole frontage of the shop has been turned into an illuminated advent calendar. It’s quite a spectacle and already a popular photo-op judging by the crowd on the opposite side of the road. It’s worth a look if you are in the area.

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Powerful words

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 15, 2019

Every now and again you see a play so powerful that it transports you away from everything you know and makes you reflect on your understanding of the world. Tonight, was one of those rare occasions and quite unexpected.

The play in question was #WeAreArrested, a joint production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Arcola Theatre. This is a powerful retelling of the true story of Can Dündar, a journalist whose decision to publish the truth about illegal actions by the Turkish state saw him imprisoned and separated from his family. The play deliberately downplays the specifics of the location to focus on the possibility that this could be happening anywhere.

The eloquent script was beautifully delivered by a cast of three with a bit of magic, a dash of humour, a bit of Adele and even a prison cell recipe for cheese toasties! It’s quite the most marvelous and inventive piece of theatre that manages to conjure up and tear down a prison with words. Quite appropriate, as we were watching the show on the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

An after show discussion with the writer, cast and creative team provided many fascinating insights, but also brought home the continuing deterioration in freedom worldwide. Hundreds of writers have been imprisoned for their work. Not in some distant unimaginable land, but in Europe. A recurring theme throughout the discussion was the simple understanding that you can’t take anything for granted in today’s world. It’s a sobering thought.

#WeAreArrested runs at the Arcola Theatre from 13th November to 7th December 2019

Chihuly at Kew

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 19, 2019

The main reason for my visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew this weekend was to see the glass artworks of Dale Chihuly before the current exhibition closes on 27th October 2019 after a six month long run. I was far from alone in making the most of the beautiful weather to take a look, with plenty of eager folk ready and waiting at the gates for opening time.

Summer sun in front of the Palm House

The current exhibition, Chihuly – Reflections on nature, features 32 artworks in 13 locations. The outdoor exhibits are concentrated in the section of gardens from the Palm House to the Japanese Gateway, making it relatively easy to make a stroll between the exhibits armed with the handy map provided. The Sapphire Star looks particularly stunning with the autumnal red backdrop provided by nature (even though the sun had hidden itself at this point of my visit).

The scale and intricacy of the sculptures is extraordinary, especially those on view in and around the Temperate House. Most of the pieces on display have never been seen in the UK before and the centre piece, a stunning new arrangement of tumbling blue glass, specially designed for the Temperate House, just looks amazing from every angle you see it (you can look up from ground level or look across from the balcony around the glasshouse).

An indoor display of smaller, but equally exquisite and playful pieces can be found in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.

A stunning display in the Temperate House

Chihuly’s daring glass installations are as wonderful as ever, looking perfectly at home amid the natural forms of the plant kingdom. I don’t think any of the photos in any way do justice to the astonishingly sinuous shapes or their vibrant colour, but it might give some idea of how special these artworks are.

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Autumnal adventures at Kew

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 19, 2019

A beautifully clear and sunny start to the weekend made a welcome change from the rain of the past fortnight. It was enough to tempt me out for a long overdue return to Kew Gardens. I have been meaning to return ever since the Hive was installed in 2016 and since the Great Pagoda was re-opened after restoration in 2018. Somehow, I have not managed to find the time until now. Better late than never, as I seem to say rather too frequently…

A view of Kew from the top floor of the Great Pagoda

The Hive is a remarkable construction, made from 169,300 pieces of aluminium, which was originally designed as the British Pavilion for World Expo 2015 in Milan. It was re-installed at Kew in 2016 and has since become a firm favourite of visitors. The structure was designed to give visitors a multi-sensory experience that captures the essence of the life of a working bee.

One of my colleagues visited in 2016 and gave a terrific account of the experience. It has been in place for a few years on, so doesn’t get quite as much attention as when it was brand new. In some ways that’s good, as it is quite something to stand there on your own and absorb the gentle and quite astonishingly beautiful soundtrack of a 40,000-strong honeybee colony. A lovely way to start my visit before continuing on towards the always impressive Palm House and on to the southern section of the park.

The Hive

The Great Pagoda was built in 1762 as part of the landscaping for Princess Augusta, the founder of the botanic gardens. On its opening the rooves of the 10 storey pagoda were decorated with 80 hand-painted carved Dragons but these only lasted 22 years. It was a delight to read that the restoration work on the Great Pagoda would see the return of dragons after a 234 year interval. The result is every bit as spectacular as you can imagine from the description.

I hadn’t intended to take a look inside, but on a whim decided to buy a ticket at the Pagoda and after climbing the 253 steps was rewarded by a stunning view across to the Temperate House while it was still bathed in sunshine. From this height the shadow of the pagoda across the gardens is pretty impressive too and surprisingly photogenic in its own right. The pagoda is only a few weeks away from its winter closure, so I was glad to have got my timings right on this occasion.

One of the drgaons perched on the Great Pagoda

Quite apart from these permanent attractions at Kew Gardens, my visit was timed for the end of the exhibition of works by Dale Chihuly, of which more in the next post. Overall, it was a splendid day out and, as ever, I underestimated the time you can spend in the gardens. There are still many sections of park that I have not reached. After a series of visits to Kew in the autumn, I must remember to make my next visit in the Spring and get a very different burst of colour.

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Banksy in Croydon

Posted in Croydon, England by folkestonejack on October 3, 2019

The overnight appearance of a Banksy ‘shop’ generated a lot of attention in the media. It’s not often that Croydon gets in the news for the right reasons, so it made a nice change. It’s also not often that you get to go out for your weekly shop and admire some Banksy artworks along the way!

The pop-up-shop, named Gross Domestic Product, has been set up by Banksy as part of a legal action with a greetings card company over the use of his trademark. The result is an extraordinary shop that never opens its doors and never switches off the lights. It will only be with us for a couple of weeks but in the meantime it was great to have the opportunity to take a look at the products on display and the accompanying descriptions.

Banksy in Croydon

I thought the cot continually observed from above by a set of moving surveillance cameras was particularly accurate and chilling. The label next to it described it as a Baby Mobile, stating: Banksy has created the Ultimate ceiling mounted stimulus toy to prepare your little one for the journey ahead – a lifetime of constant scrutiny both state sanctioned and self imposed. Other favourites included the three wall display drones (instead of the more familiar ducks) and a toilet duck leading a series of yellow ducks.

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Energy Observer visits London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 3, 2019

The experimental Hydrogen powered ship Energy Observer arrived in London tonight at the end of a Northern European tour, part of a six year long odyssey that is set to take in 50 countries (with 101 stopovers). I thought she made an impressive sight as she passed under Tower Bridge, though this was probably not the most popular of bridge lifts, coming mid-way through the rush hour!

Energy Observer approaches Tower Bridge

Energy Observer is the first ship in the world to be powered by hydrogen generated on-board through seawater electrolysis. The ship also uses a mix of renewable energy technologies (solar, wind and hydropower) and two types of energy storage (li-ion batteries and hydrogen). The project is a French initiative to develop a more environmentally friendly method of ship propulsion with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not the first innovative renewable energy powered vessel that the Thames has seen (the Swiss solar powered ship Planet Solar visited in August 2013) but it’s never been more welcome to see ground breaking ships like this in the face of the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Energy Observer is set to stay in London until the 13th of October and a travelling exhibition about the ship and her technologies can be visited in St Katharine Docks, Marble Quay.

Open House London 2019

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

The annual delight of Open House London has once again delivered with an impressive list of over 800 interesting buildings to explore, ranging from private residences to skyscrapers. I made a rough plan for a circuit to three sights in the City of London and then added another three on the fly, taking up roughly five hours.

My wanders through the city took in the modern art on display at the ING UK offices at 8-10 Moorgate; the brutalist masterpiece at Salters’ Hall; St Bartholomew the Great, the oldest parish church in London; the recently re-opened Butchers’ Hall; the tranquil St. Michael Cornhill; and the stunning interior of Lloyd’s Register Building at 71 Fenchurch Street.

Salters’ Hall

One of the more intriguing buildings in the city is Salters’ Hall, a brutalist masterpiece unveiled in 1976 – one of the last buildings conceived by Sir Basil Spence. The building has undergone extensive redevelopment by dMFK from 2013 to 2016 to bring it up to date and help ensure continued returns from their income generating office space. The revamp also saw the restoration of the interiors designed by David Hicks. The fluted ash paneling in the hall is particularly gorgeous.

The theme of salt is repeated throughout the building in many ways, from a top floor lobby intended to resemble a salt mine to a striking staircase chandelier with lumps of salt rock crystal. The dMFK revamp saw the re-orientation of the building and the creation of a new entrance pavilion, with a reception design inspired by salt formations, echoing the work of Hicks. It is wonderful to see.

The Worshipful Company of Salters has its origins in the medieval salt trade and their first hall was constructed in the 15th century, close to the city’s salt trade in Bread Street. Today’s hall is the seventh. An interesting display in their small basement museum space presents models of the fifth, sixth and seventh halls – all strikingly different. There are no known images of the first four, the last of which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The sixth hall was demolished after suffering substantial damage in World War 2.

A small part of the last hall survives in the form of wrought-iron gates with birds and beavers in front of the entrance pavilion. These were originally to be found in St Swithin’s Lane and date from 1887. The gates were originally commissioned for an exhibition so the animals have no particular significance for the Salters, though their arms were added later.

Stained glass in Butchers’ Hall

Another unexpected highlight was Butchers’ Hall. This is the home of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, one of the oldest livery companies in the city. The current hall is the sixth and relatively young, built on the footprint of its predecessor after its destruction in the war. It has been closed for for four years while a significant volume of demolition and construction works took place all around it, re-opening in September 2019. The closure allowed an upgrade of the hall to make it fit for the 21st Century and they were understandably proud of the results.

Butchers’ Hall holds plenty of surprises. I particularly loved the stained glass and representations of the company arms throughout the building. It’s not often that you get to see pigs and cattle represented in stained glass!

A short walk away from the hall brings you to the Smithfield General Market buildings, once home to the largest wholesale meat market in the UK. It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this place was in its mid-nineteenth century with hydraulic lifts to being meat up from the underground railway to the market floor. I hoped to get a place on one of the tours here, but they filled up very quickly. I’ll settle for a return in 2024 when this place re-opens as the new Museum of London.

Wanders around West Smithfield reveal many other buildings that were added to serve the market, such as the Port of London Authority cold store (1914), which had capacity for 78,000 carcasses, and the geometric designs of the modern Poultry Market, replacing the Victorian original after a terrible fire lasting three days in 1958. It’s an area I know very little about but there is clearly much more to discover.

Contrails over the city

I walk to work through the city five days a week, but rarely do I look up and see what is around me. One of the beauties of the Open House weekend for me is that it encourages you to look at your surroundings in a new light. On this occasion, some of the most enjoyable moments were the simplest – such as navigating my way through some of the tallest buildings in the city and looking up to see the reflection of the Lloyd’s Building captured beautifully by one of its newer neighbours.

One of my regular commuting routes through the alleys and lanes of the city takes me past the church of St Michael, Cornhill, but I have somehow never stepped inside until today. It hadn’t occurred to me that what I was glancing at while commuting was a 17th century church given the George Gilbert Scott treatment with the addition of a Franco-Italian Gothic styled porch and extensive interior re-decoration. The colourful circular stained glass of Christ in the east wall is stunning.

In similar fashion, an unplanned stop at the ING UK offices at 8-10 Moorgate gave me a chance to see inside a building round the corner from my workplace. I hadn’t expected the gallery of modern British painting on display on the top floor rooms with artists that include Lowry, Stanley Spencer, John and Paul Nash. The open air terraces front and back offered some interesting perspectives on the neighbourhood too – having spent decades walking along Moorgate at ground level it was strange seeing the rooftop level view of the street!

Stained glass in the Colcutt Building

Another unplanned stop on my circuit took me inside the oldest parish church in London, St Bartholomew the Great, with the unexpected and arresting sight of Damien Hirst’s gilded sculpture ‘Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain’, which is on long term loan to the church. The image of the apostle with his flayed skin is not easily forgotten. I suspect I have visited the church in the past, but it was well worth spending time to admire the detail afresh – especially with the sun beautifully illuminating the tomb of Rahere (1143), the courtier to Henry I who founded the priory.

Finally, my circuit of the city concluded with the stunning interior of Lloyd’s Register Building (the Colcutt building) at 71 Fenchurch Street which features a committee room with an incredible painted barrel-vaulted ceiling influenced by the Sistine Chapel. It was quite an architectural highlight to end my Open House weekend on!

The barrel vaulted ceiling by Gerald Moira that took 17 months to complete

So that was a few more of the 800+ buildings on the Open House London list ticked off, but many more still to see. Roll on Open House London 2020!

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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.

Open House London 2018

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 22, 2018

This year’s Open House London was a rather damp affair, but such is the love of the event that queues still formed across the city in the rain. I made it to just two buildings on this occasion. First up was Australia House on the Strand, home of the Australian High Commission in the UK, followed by the National Audit Office near Victoria.

Australia House

Australia House was celebrating its 100th anniversary, making it a great weekend to visit, with specially printed celebratory Tote bags and a selection of Australian products to sample.

The construction of Australia House began in 1912. During the First World War an embargo was placed on any building works not contributing to the war effort, but an exception was made for Australia House. Finally, Australia House was opened by King George V on 3rd August 1918, six years after construction began.

The lavishness of the material used in its construction is apparent from the moment you enter the grand entrance – using stone, marble and timber shipped all the way from Australia. The exhibition hall contains 1200 tonnes of Australian marble and is illuminated by three large chandeliers. The building is incredibly photogenic throughout – even the staircases are spectacular with one thought to have the longest continuous brass handrails in London.

An unusual attraction in the building were the basement vaults, once used to store gold bullion but now just a general store. The vaults are perhaps more familiar as the location of Gringotts Bank in the Harry Potter films. However, my favourite part of the building would have to be the series of murals added to the rotunda outside the High Commissioner’s Office in the late 1950s. The murals, created by artist Tom Thompson, depict Australia’s agriculture, mining and industrial sectors.

National Audit Office

My second stop of the day was the National Audit Office at 157-197 Buckingham Palace Road in Victoria. It’s a stylish art-deco building that was, rather surprisingly, once the finest airport terminal in the world despite being located in the centre of the city and nowhere near an airport!

The building, originally known as Airways House, opened in June 1939 and was a hub where travel connections by air, rail and road came together. In its original layout passengers would have transferred from the terminal to pullman trains on the adjacent platform, for a service connecting up with the flying boats operating from Southampton. In time the flying boats were replaced by jets operating from Heathrow and the trains gave way to buses. Astonishingly, the terminal continued to see use until 1980. The NAO took over the building in 1984.

It was a spot of good fortune that our tour group was taken round by the facilities manager who had organised the restoration of some of the art-deco features that had been lost, giving us a great insight on how to balance the desire for restoration with a cost effective solution.

As ever, Open House Weekend served up some absolutely fascinating glimpses of buildings that would normally be off limits. Thank you to everyone involved in making our visits so enjoyable.

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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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