FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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.

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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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Riding the Mail Rail

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 8, 2017

One of the more extraordinary feats of engineering in Great Britain has to be the Post Office Railway, a six and a half mile long line on which driver-less mail trains ran beneath the feet of unsuspecting Londoners for 76 years. In its heyday it carried an average of 12 million letters and parcels a day, though this had reduced to four million towards the end of its active life due to the relocation of sorting offices away from the line. It was officially renamed the ‘Mail Rail’ in 1987 to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

One of the narrow tunnels on the Post Office Railway, now re-used for the Mail Rail experience

Standing in front of the electric units used on the line at a MailRail themed open day at the BPMA Museum Store at Debden, Essex in April 2012 I lamented the demise of such a remarkable system and wished I could have seen it in operation. The tantalising glimpses of the system offered by urban explorers showed that the line, mothballed in 2003, was still in reasonably good condition and only increased that desire to see more.

I could never have imagined that five years on the MailRail would be back up and running, this time as London’s newest and most exciting tourist attraction. At that time any possibility of reviving the system seemed complete fantasy, so hats off to the believers who kept pushing the idea. When the news about the plans first broke in 2013 I was delighted and only too happy to make a small contribution to its revival by sponsoring a sleeper when the opportunity arose. I still hardly dared believe that it would really happen.

Today, I got a chance to take a sneak-peak at the MailRail experience as workmen continued to apply the finishing touches to the new museum buildings. Our day included a ride on the Mail Rail in specially designed new passenger viewing coaches, a look at the new Postal Museum and a walk along the tracks to see the sleepers we had sponsored.

Walking the tunnels – hard hats were a must for the low tunnels on parts of the route

The Mail Rail ride experience takes in a relatively short stretch of line underneath the Mount Pleasant sorting depot. The ride begins in what was the depot and then takes you through two platforms that have apparently been left largely untouched since the last mail train ran on the system (although emptied of the mail trolleys that would once have filled them). Along the way some pretty clever projections bring the history of the Postal Railway to life. It might only take a quarter of an hour before you loop back round to the beginning but they are very satisfying minutes!

It’s worth noting that it could all have been very different. There were a number of commercial proposals on the table around the time of the closure, including the transportation of wine, document exchange and the delivery of high value small goods to retail stores on Oxford Street. I’m thankful that it was the museum curators who won that battle.

The new miniature passenger vehicles, specially commissioned for the museum, are a little bit of an awkward squeeze but then again the system was never intended for the transportation of human beings. That’s not to say that the system is utterly without human touches – rather wonderfully a dartboard still hangs on one of the Mount Pleasant platforms with scores chalked up from the last game.

Looking ahead at the entrance to the tunnel system with one of the two new passenger vehicles in the station

Our walk along the tracks later in the day gave us a bit more space to appreciate the route and just how narrow the tunnels are. It was rather lovely to see the sleeper we sponsored, complete with a plaque, which should have a lifespan of 25 years before it needs replacing. The walk allowed us to get a better look at the stalactites hanging down from the tunnel roof, the graveyard of wagons part-way through and the dummy vehicle used to test the dimensions of the new passenger vehicles in the tunnels.

The final element of our visit was a chance to look around the half-finished Mail Rail exhibition space which shows off the surviving locomotives on the tracks they were built for, rather than languishing in the museum warehouse out of context. It’s a superb historical walk through but it took a locker preserved just as it was left on the last day of operation (complete with 2003 vintage shower gels) to remind me that this is a story of the 21st century as much as of the ingenuity of the first engineers.

A deconstructed engine from the 1930s

The Postal Museum itself is one of the best presented I have seen anywhere, telling the five hundred year long story of the postal system with real verve. It also manages to achieve the near impossible balance of serving up sufficiently engaging stuff to entertain children and plenty of fascinating exhibits/information for adults. Star exhibits included Machin’s ‘Diadem Head’ plaster cast and trial stamps (essays), a display about Edward VIII stamps and an array of rather wonderful postboxes. The pneumatic postal tubes looked fun too.

My absolute favourite had to be the hand-illustrated envelopes that Frederick Tolhurst sent to his children when his marriage ended in 1915. Every one is a marvel, incorporating the address into the design in ever more ingenious ways such as on the side of a barrage-balloon over a search-lit London skyline. You can see some of the wonderful designs on a blogpost from the BPMA at The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelope: Case Closed.

I learned plenty too – I had no idea that the first postboxes were installed in the Channel Islands, that you could post game with nothing but a neck label in the 1930s (as long as they didn’t leak) or that at one time you could send postcards for a cheaper rate if you only wrote five words!

One of the displays in the Postal Museum

It is safe to say that the combination of the MailRail and the Postal Museum is fabulous – it really deserves to become one of the top attractions in London. The Postal Museum is opening to the public on 28th July 2017 but the Mail Rail exhibitions and ride don’t start until 4th September 2017. Full details are available from the Postal Museum website.

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Splendours of Syon House

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on June 26, 2017

On a recent flight into London I took a glance out of the window and found myself looking down on the marvelous sight of Syon House, a former royal palace, set in 200 acres of parkland on the Thames riverside. I resolved to take a closer look from the ground and on stepping inside discovered wonderful palatial interiors far beyond my expectations.

An aerial view of Syon House and Park, as seen from a recent flight into Heathrow

Syon House has been the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland since their grand house on the Strand was earmarked for demolition in the 1860s. Although it might not attract the volume of tourists that travel to the palace at nearby Hampton Court it is just as steeped in the bloody history of the country, notably with Lady Jane Grey’s acceptance of the crown in 1553 which would ultimately lead her to execution at Tower Hill a year later.

The walk from Syon lane station to the house offers a tantalising preview of Robert Adam’s re-modelling with a grand lion-topped entrance on London Road with porters lodges standing astride the driveway to the house. Not much farther beyond this is a rather splendid crenelated gateway that leads pedestrians towards the former royal palace, cunningly hidden behind a garden centre car park! Mind you, nothing is that ordinary here – the garden centre is based in a 16th century stable block.

The entrance to the footpath from London Road

As the house doesn’t open until 11am we took the opportunity to take a wander round the gardens first and admire the marvelously photogenic grand conservatory with Mercury posed in a pool in the foreground. It is a little hard to appreciate today just how ambitious this building was when Charles Fowler came up with the design in the 1820s. It also marks a fascinating point in the transition between the orangeries of the 18th century and the Victorian conservatory. Structures like Kew’s vast Palm House were still a couple of decades away when this place was unveiled.

The conservatory also has greater significance, as it was the shipment of 36 vine cuttings from Syon House to Sydney in 1832 that helped found the Australian wine industry.

The Great Conservatory (1826-1827)

I hope that it is not too rude to say that the sober exterior, whilst grand, is not the most thrilling that I have seen, but step inside and you are immediately transported into Robert Adam’s vision of a Roman basilica, watched over by four classical sculptures. However, your eye is immediately drawn to the far end of the hall and a striking copy of the Dying Gaul (the original sits in the Capitoline Museum, Rome). It’s quite an entrance!

The great hall is immediately followed by a succession of astonishing rooms – from an intensely colourful ante-room with gilded statues to a stunning long gallery decorated with medallions showing past members of the Percy family (including the most famous Percy of all, Hotspur). It is testament to the talents of Robert Adams and the craftsmen that he employed that the re-modeled interior still delivers such a wow factor today. It’s a pity that Robert Adams never got to add the giant rotunda that he planned for the inner courtyard but what he was able to deliver is nothing short of astonishing.

The house is filled with incredible artworks and treasures, including many royal portraits. I think my favourites would have to be the pair of paintings from the Flemish School in the Oak Passage that show King Henry VII with his three sons and Elizabeth of York, Queen of England, with her four daughters.

Syon House

Syon House itself has plenty of royal connections of its own which place it at the heart of British history and not just through the nine day queen. These connections include Charles I, who visited his children at Syon House during his imprisonment at Hampton Court, and Princess Victoria who stayed frequently at Syon House before succeeding to the throne.

The most gruesome royal connection is perhaps Henry VIII, whose coffin lay at Syon in 1547 whilst en route from Westminster to Windsor. The coffin seeped blood from the bloated corpse which a dog was seen to lick up – an act that many saw as just retribution for Henry’s suppression of the Bridgettine abbey that preceded Syon House. Although the abbey is long gone, it is still remembered in an exhibition space in the house which showcases the finds and architectural discoveries from Time Team and other archaeological digs on the site.

Practicalities

It is well worth a visit to Syon House to admire the marvels of Robert Adam’s interiors and the treasures of the Percy family. We took the train to Syon Lane and it took us around 15-20 minutes to make the walk to the entrance to the house, next to the garden centre. The garden centre has a restaurant but a freezer-failure saw us head to a delicious alternative at the Coach and Horses, Isleworth which more than satisfied us.

The gardens at Syon Park are usually open all week during the season but the house only opens three days a week. Full details of opening hours and ticket prices are available on the Syon Park website.

Tilbury B and the changing Thames riverside

Posted in England, Gravesend, London, Tilbury by folkestonejack on April 26, 2017

On a stroll along the shoreline at Gravesend you can’t fail to miss the twin chimneys of Tilbury B Power Station, a structure that has dominated this stretch of the Thames since its construction started in 1961. Like so many other industrial landmarks of the twentieth century it is a sight that won’t be with us for much longer – it is set to share the fate of its sister power station, Tilbury A, and will be completely demolished by the end of 2018.

SB Hydrogen sails past Tilbury B Power Station

Work on the destruction of the site began in January 2016, three years after its closure, but the majority of the explosive demolition jobs are scheduled for this year. The first of these will see half of the Turbine Hall demolished at 10am tomorrow, followed by the chimneys, boiler house and bunker house later in the year.

So many colossal industrial structures have disappeared from London and kent, such as the gasholders at Battersea and Kings Cross and the 244m chimney of Grain Power Station, but I had not entirely appreciated just how much change was taking place on the Thames.

The Royal Wharf development at Silvertown

The Greenwich Peninsula development

The degree of change is particularly striking on the stretch of the river at West Silvertown (between The Thames Barrier and Trinity Buoy Wharf) and around the Greenwich Peninsula where a low height industrial landscape is being replaced by high-rise residential developments. In the not too distant future it will be as hard to imagine the industry that the Thames supported here as it is to imagine that a forest of cranes and warehouses once surrounded Tower Bridge!

My trip up the Thames between Gravesend and Greenwich over the Easter weekend gave me plenty of opportunities to see the vanishing industrial landscape, as well as the occasional survivor such as the Victorian marvel of Crossness Pumping Station (somewhere I must get around to visiting). It was a fascinating trip – I wonder how different it will all look in a decade or two and how much further the de-instrustrialisation of the Thames will have extended.

Thames Gallery

Sailing beyond the storm

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

The splendid sight of the parade of sail for the Tall Ships Festivals 2017 certainly drew the crowds to Greenwich and Woolwich. It looked as though the initial forecasts of around 600,000 visitors could easily have been met over the course of the four days that the event spanned. Indeed, some 11,000 visitors were reported to have got on board one of the tall ships moored at the two sites over the first three days of the festival alone.

Once the tall ships began their procession it was striking to see that just about every spot lining the Thames to Woolwich has been filled, despite the miserable weather. In some places, such as around the Trafalgar Tavern, the crowds looked to be six-deep, though one chap on the water had the best view of all!

Artemis heads towards the towers of New Providence Wharf

As a spectacle, I think the Parade of Sail in 2014 has the edge, if only because there were a few more sails on display and the significantly better weather, but it was still a treat to be able to admire such a great line up of beautiful ships on our doorstep. I hope it is not so long before we see such a gathering again.

It has taken a while to go through the thousand or so pictures that I took during the parade, but I think the selection below gives a reasonable flavour of the event. I was a little lucky to be on a sightseeing boat for the event as it gave us a chance to outrun the gathering storm and try and catch the ships in the better conditions to the east. Nevertheless, I can’t help but like the drama that the dark skies add to some of the pictures.

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Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2017

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

Over the course of the Easter weekend around 30 ships have been moored at Woolwich Arsenal and Greenwich for the Royal Greenwich Tall ships Festival, an event marking the start of the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta.

Amongst the ships on display there were nine that would be participating in the first leg of the regatta from Torbay to Sines, Portugal, with the remainder visiting for the weekend from ports across Europe. The visitors span an impressive 122 year stretch of shipbuilding history, from the gaff cutter Leila (1892) to the brig TS Royalist (2014).

The Santa Maria Manuela (1937) is turned by a tug, ready to lead the parade of sail away from Greenwich

The largest ships in the festival were the four masted schooner Santa Maria Manuela (1937) and the fully-rigged ship Christian Radich (1937), both of which are participating in the first leg of the regatta (the other participants being the Etoile, Jolie Brise, Rona II, Peter Von Danzig, Vera Cruz, Wylde Swan and Hosanna).

The handful of ships participating in all the legs will visit Sines, Bermuda, Boston and the eastern US seaboard before reaching Quebec on July 18th for the celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Afterwards, the return voyage will see the ships cross the Atlantic to Le Havre via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Artemis (1926) returns to a mooring at Woolwich Arsenal at the end of the parade

For the last day of the festival I joined a group of photographers on board the sightseeing ship Jacob Marley for a cruise upstream from Gravesend to follow the parade of sail, setting off at 1.30pm and returning to our starting point at 8pm. Along the way we got to see the ships mustering in Greenwich for the grand departure, the parade of sail and the onward travels of a handful of vessels making their way to a mooring at Gravesend.

The forecast was not exactly promising when we set out but there were a few wonderful moments of light amidst the gloom and that’s all you need to get a few good shots. I returned with over a thousand photographs, so I could hardly claim to have been deterred by the lack of sunlight!

Thank you to the team from Timeline events and the Jetstream Tours crew for a marvellous afternoon on the water.

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Art and architecture beyond the revolution

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 19, 2017

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen the opening of a couple of new exhibitions in London – Imagine Moscow at the Design Museum (15th March – 4th June 2017) and Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at the Royal Academy (11th February — 17th April 2017) which both explore the seemingly limitless boundaries in both art and architecture during the early years of the new state. Over the past two weekends I enjoyed visits to both and came away with some surprising highlights.

The Design Museum in Kensington, London

I have long been astounded by some of the imaginative buildings proposed for Moscow so the new exhibition “Imagine moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution” at the Design Museum was always going to fascinate me.

A full size 4 metre long reconstruction of Lenin’s index finger, which was intended to point from the top of the Palace of the Soviets towards his mausoleum, makes you appreciate the vast scale of the unrealised plans of Boris Iofan and his contemporaries. It’s hard to appreciate just how much Moscow would have been altered by all of these vast schemes, but the footage on a loop from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s 1938 film “New Moscow” gives you a good idea. No room for cathedral spires or ancient towers in this vision!

As astonishing as these designs were, it was a couple of the smaller exhibits that intrigued me the most. The first was a copy of “About Two Squares” (1922), a suprematist childrens book authored by El Lissitzky telling the story of a black and red square that come to earth from space. It’s a strikingly bold approach to teaching children about the new Soviet order, but it’s hard to imagine this being a tale that would have won many hearts and minds.

The second exhibit that caught my eye was a Ne Boltai poster from the new state’s drive to improve the literacy of the population. The poster by M. M. Litzvak (1925) is a call to all citizens to take note that a library was being installed in the restaurant wagon of every train – with an image of a trio of ordinary workers engrossed in books to re-inforce the point.

On top of all this, it’s terrific to explore the interior of the relatively recently re-opened design museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building) now that the crowds have eased a little and neighbouring Holland Park is a delight at this time of year with its vast swathes of daffodils.

The astonishing roof of the Design Museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building)

There are some pleasing overlaps between the two exhibitions. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 includes a rather marvellous urn “Commemoration of the Flight of a Russian Dirigible from Moscow to New York Piloted by Three Soviet Airmen” (c. 1932) shows the Palace of the Soviets on one side and the Empire State Building on the other (if the Palace had been completed these would have been the two tallest buildings in the world).

The two exhibitions complement each other quite nicely in other ways too – for example, you get a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living at the Royal Academy and then at the Design Museum see some of the imaginative buildings devised to create communal spaces that would break the mould of family life.

The highlights of the exhibition at the Royal Academy for me were some of the hidden treasures of the twentieth century – such as Kliment Redko’s painting “Insurrection” (1925) and Georgy Rublev’s “Portrait of Joseph Stalin” (. 1930) which are both on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. These two paintings were hidden from view for entirely different reasons.

As his view of the revolution soured Kliment Redko drew upon his early years as an icon painter and in “Insurrection” created a striking image of Lenin at the heart of a city ablaze – it’s a quite extrordinary painting with incredible detail, from the workers on the march to the disciples surrounding him. It’s hard to imagine that Lenin’s displacement of Christ was meant to be viewed as a positive development.

In contrast, Georgy Rublev gives us an informal painting of Stalin quite unlike anything that I have seen before. Stalin looks decidely relaxed as he sits cross-legged, reading Pravda, in a rattan chair with a dog curled at his feet. It clearly sprang from a far less critical place than Redko’s work but was no less unshowable, only emerging after his death.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the Royal Academy exhibition makes it a pleasure to wander. I can’t say that all of the artworks appealed to me but they certainly captured my interest for an hour or so.

If this wasn’t enough, there is another exhibition of Soviet art coming along later this year. Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern (8th November 2017 – 18th February 2018) looks set to show us the development of Russian and Soviet art from the 1905 revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953. I’m certainly happy to see some more!

All hail the robot revolution – or maybe not!

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 25, 2017

The latest exhibition from the Science Museum In London, Robots, looks at our long quest to build thinking machines in our own image. It’s an exhibition that takes us through the centuries from the clockwork automatons of the pre-industrial age to the developments in robotics of the early 21st century.

Along the way we get to see some of the marvellous robots of the 1950s-60s. Standing proudly at the cntre of this display is Cygan, a remote-controlled robot from Italy powered by thirteen electric motors. Cygan was often to be spotted in the magazines with a glamourous model on his arm, which only goes to show the unlikely appeal of a bit of can-crushing.

Visionary robots of the 20th century

Cygan stands proud amongst other visionary robots of the 20th century

The last gallery of the exhibition is given over to the social robots that are beginning to move among us in all sorts of environments, ranging from the shopping mall to the nursing home. If you had any notion that robots are a threat to your job you might be vaguely comforted by this section as many of the robots seemed to be out of action when we visited.

The highlight of the exhibition for me was an 18th century automaton of a silver swan which ‘picks up’ fish from a stream. You can see this in action once a day (weekdays only) but it still looked incredibly impressive as a static exhibit. Although the exhibition runs until 3rd September 2017 the swan is only included in the display from 8th February to 23rd March 2017.

It’s definetly worth a look, but overall I don’t think it reached the same heights as last year’s epic exhibition on the Soviet space program. Nor was it perfect – after all, it somehow managed to overlook the finest and most talented robot of our age – Metal Mickey. Boogie boogie!

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Exit 2016, pursued by a bear

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on December 31, 2016

I can’t recall a year that I have been so eager to say farewell to as 2016 with its devastating trail of political upheaval and the death of some of our most loved public figures. However, not wishing to dwell on such miserable matters for the last post of the year I thought it was the right time to celebrate another terrific year for London’s theatre scene.

For me, one of the greatest attractions of living in this city is the incredible array of plays on offer in over 200 theatres that range from the 60 or so seats of Theatre503 in Battersea to the 1000+ seats of the Olivier and Barbican Theatres. As the year came to a close I crunched some numbers and was somewhat surprised to realise that 92% of the 66 productions that I have seen over the past year were at theatres outside the West End.

Topping the list for me in 2016 have been three distinctive theatres – the Orange Tree in Richmond, the Arcola in Dalston and the Royal Court in Chelsea – which have delivered up a feast of well judged revivals and thought provoking new plays.

1. Unreachable (Royal Court)
A play about one film director’s obsession with finding the perfect light might not sound like the most unpredictable nights of theatre, but the mid-play introduction of the frenetic actor Ivan ‘The Brute’, played by Jonjo O’Neill, guaranteed that this would be one of the most memorable nights of theatre ever. Ivan’s explosive contributions led the entire audience into bouts of uncontrollable laughter and occasionally left the other actors corpsing. If I hadn’t been seeing this towards the end of the run I would happily have booked to see it again and again…

The Spectator also picked out the creation of Ivan as a standout, describing this as ‘A new role any actor will kill to play‘ whilst Time Out thought the play as a whole was an ‘intoxicatingly chaotic comedy‘.

2. Thebes Land (Arcola)
I almost didn’t go to see this play with its grim description as an exploration of patricide and the promise of the on-stage participation of a convicted killer. Staged inside a steel cage, the two hander turned out to be a thoroughly original piece that is as much about the way we engage with theatre as anything else, twisting and turning our perception of the truth all night long. I was surprised by how funny it was, despite the dark themes. One of those plays that lingers in your head long after you have wandered out of the theatre.

The Guardian described it as an ‘engagingly treacherous twist on Oedipus‘ whilst the Stage concluded that whilst it was not the most festive of pieces, it was ‘a rare treat’.

3. Kenny Morgan (Arcola)
The desperately tragic tale of Terence Rattigan’s secret lover, whose death formed the basis for The Deep Blue Sea, proved to be a thoroughly absorbing couple of hours. Paul Keating gave an astonishing performance in the lead, living and breathing the part of Kenny throughout his heartwrenching descent into despair.

The Telegraph considered it to be a ‘painfully moving new play‘ and the FT thought it ‘an eloquent and compassionate response to Rattigan’s great play‘.

Outside of this trio, I have long had a soft spot for The Winter’s Tale since studying it for my A Levels many years ago, and can never resist a new production. Two strikingly different productions of the story were delivered in 2016 and two more are to come in 2017 (from the English National Opera and Cheek by Jowl respectively).

The first of 2016’s tales had more than a touch of brilliance with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench giving masterful performances and delivering new insights aplenty. The second, Christopher Wheeldon’s three-act ballet adaptation for the Royal Ballet, was a marvel with ravishing sets and incredible movement.

Other honourable mentions for 2016: As you like it (NT); Bassett (Orange Tree); Blue/Orange (Young Vic); French without tears (Orange Tree); Hand to God (Vaudeville); How to date a feminist (Arcola); Kiss me (Hampstead); Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Donmar); No Man’s Land (Wyndhams); The Children (Royal Court); and Travesties (Menier Chocolate Factory).

It is a pity that the perception that good theatre is expensive deters so many from taking a look at what is on offer particularly on the fringe where tickets are often in the same price bracket as the cinema. There are some exciting new seasons on the fringe – I am particularly looking forward to Guards at the Taj at the Bush Theatre and The Cardinal at the Southwark Theatre. Roll on 2017!

Karlsruhe on the Thames

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on November 8, 2016

The Bremen class frigate Karlsruhe (F212) arrived in London at the weekend for a five day stay in the capital, taking up position alongside HMS Belfast for the duration. The Karlsruhe follows in the wake of sister ships Niedersachsen (F208) and Augsburg (F213) which visited in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

On her way to London the Karlsruhe and her crew commemorated two sunken warships which also bore the name Karlsruhe (one scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919 and the other sunk at Kristiansand in 1940).

Bremen-class frigate F212 Karlsruhe

Bremen-class frigate F212 Karlsruhe

The thirty-two year old Karlsruhe has just finished her last operational deployment in the Mediterranean where she took part in Operation SOPHIA, the EUNAVFOR mission to capture and dispose of the vessels used by migrant smugglers. In mid-2017 she will be decommissioned, leaving just two Bremen-class frigates (out of eight) still in operation.

The replacement for the Bremen-class frigates will be the F125-class frigate, currently under construction by Thyssen-Krupp and Lürssen. The first of the class, the Baden-Württemberg (F222) is due to be delivered at the end of November 2016 and should be commissioned in 2017.

The Karslruhe is currently scheduled to pass through Tower Bridge on her way out of London at 07.45am on Wednesday 9th November.

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Signs of Autumn

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 15, 2016

It is three weeks since the official beginning of autumn but to me it is only when the colour of the trees start to turn that it really feels as though the seasons are changing. Perhaps I haven’t been the most observant, but it was only on a weekend outing to Ham House in Richmond that I noticed this for the first time this year.

Autumnal colours at Ham House

Autumnal colours at Ham House

A couple of wonderfully golden trees standing outside the entrance gave the clear signal that autumn is here and that it is time to get the camera out!

Ham House is a stunning survivor from the seventeenth century with an incredible collection of artistic treasures. Freeflow visits of Ham House have already finished for the year, but we took up the offer of a short ‘highlights’ tours which left us wanting to return next year for a better look!

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Open House London 2016

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 18, 2016

The Open House London weekend is always one of the highlights of the year for me and never fails to surprise with the astonishing interiors it opens up. Our itinerary for this year, split over two days, took us from the brilliant opulence of Lancaster House to the darkness of a single, very special, room at the Beaumont Hotel.

Lancaster House

Our weekend began with Lancaster House, a grand building originally commissioned in the 1820s as a home for the Duke of York, befitting of his status as the brother of the new king. Unfortunately, he died soon after the framework was completed, leaving the whole project in doubt and steeped in debt.

In the end the building and its palatial interiors would mostly be shaped by the new leaseholders, the Dukes of Sutherland, who took over the development in 1830 and stayed with the property until 1911. After a spell as a museum it is today managed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and used as a centre for government hospitality, conferences and events.

The Music Room, Lancaster House

The Music Room, Lancaster House

We were delighted to discover that Paul and Trevor, our tour guides, worked in the house and had that wonderful passion for the building and depth of knowledge about its current use that it would be hard for anyone else to bring. It made for a fascinating visit, richly illuminated by tales of the events and filming that had taken place in each room. I particularly appreciated the insights into the everyday use of the less showy rooms on the ground floor, such as the room with a table laid out for a ministerial dinner.

The splendour of the state apartments and wonderful paintings on display across the first floor of Lancaster House would make this a top tourist attraction in any other city and really helped to put into context Queen Victoria’s famous line to the Duchess, “My dear, I have come from my house to your palace.” I think that captures the magnificence of the interior perfectly.

I was a little surprised that we had overlooked this gem on past Open House weekends but as this is only the third time that it has been included in the event there haven’t been that many opportunities to see inside. Don’t pass up the chance if it appears in the listings next year!

Holland House

It took us an hour to get inside our next building, Hendrik Berlage’s revolutionary office block of 1916 in the city. It was originally built for a Dutch shipping company and included many features that we now take for granted in offices, such as movable partitions and the first atrium in the UK.

Sadly, the building has suffered badly over the years with many of the original features removed during successive redevelopment. In spite of these losses the building still has much to catch the eye of the visitor and the lobby spaces have a distinctly continental feel with vibrant aquamarine glazed bricks and colourful tiles arranged in various maritime themes. Work on the building continued during the war, with the flow of materials prioritised over food supplies!

Looking up from the atrium

The atrium at the centre of Holland House

The striking exterior of Holland House is perhaps more American in styling, with grey-green bricks used to cover a steel frame. It must have seemed quite unlike anything else in the city in the early years of the twentieth century and still makes quite a striking sight today.

Tower 42

Tower 42 is one of many tall buildings in the city today and you might not think to give it much of a glance, but for the duration of the 1980s it was the tallest building in the country. It was originally built for the National Westminster Bank between 1971 and 1979, with the Queen opening the building in 1981.

Even though it has long since seen new owners and been renamed it is hard not to think of this place as the NatWest Tower when the footprint of the tower so neatly matches the NatWest logo!

A view of the Gherkin and Canary Wharf from Tower 42

A view of the Gherkin and Canary Wharf from Tower 42

We have seen a few skyscrapers in the city during past Open House weekends so it was interesting to compare these with the first of its kind. Unlike many of the newcomers, which have banks of flash lifts to whizz you to the top, this one had just one small and rather unremarkable lift to take you to the relatively narrow viewing gallery at the top (which is today home to a champagne bar, Vertigo 24).

The view from the top is one of the finest that I have seen in the city and it’s really striking to see the top of the Gherkin just a short distance away. As I work just around the corner it was good fun to try and trace the buildings that I am familiar with from the ground level, such as the re-developed Angel Court and the unmistakeable circle of Finsbury Circus.

The Oak Room (New River Head)

Our second day began with the story of the survival of a single room through history, rather than an entire building. The Oak Room is a late renaissance marvel which was originally the centrepiece of the offices of the New River Company, reflecting the prosperity of the company. It features stunning carvings that are believed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) and a ceiling painting dominated by a portrait of King William III by Henry Cooke (1642-1700). It is quite an ensemble and must have impressed anyone stepping inside during its heyday.

The original home for the Oak Room (actually a main room with anterooms at either end) was demolished to make way for the new headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1915 and the room was then re-incorporated, albeit re-orientated, into the new building. It was dismantled again in 1941 (spending the war years in the relative safety of the Queen Mary Resevoir) and then re-instated.

Thames Water sold off the building for conversion to luxury flats in 1992. However, the room endures with new owners and residents are able to book use of the room for special occasions and the like. Thames Water still has use of the room for 20 days a year, opening it to the public a few times a year and for Open House London.

Detail from the ceiling in the Oak Room

Detail from the ceiling in the Oak Room

It is a splendid room which rewards close examination with plenty of interesting detail to spot. I particularly liked the plasterwork frame to the ceiling painting which presents wonderful scenes of rural life, swans and some rather fierce looking sea creatures. The fish hanging from a hook on the wood carving were a lovely touch too!

Once again, it is thank to the people who have a strong connection to the place that these buildings really come alive. Our tour guide’s tale of her first days at New River Head as all the changes were being announced gave this visit an extra dimension.

Finsbury Town Hall

We were heading for the bus when we spotted the Open House logo on a banner outside the old Finsbury Town Hall, now owned by the Urdang Academy. If I am honest I didn’t expect much from this former municipal space, but the stunning art nouveau design of the Great Hall had a real ‘wow’ factor. The winged angels line the walls holding up garlands of lights were really quite extraordinary.

This was our chance find of the weekend and really captured the essence of Open House London for me. I would never have guessed that the council would have taken such a radical step in the design of the town hall!

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Although it is hard to believe now, the town hall was on the English Heritage list of Buildings at Risk just over a decade back, after the move of the last remaining municipal functions to Islington Town Hall. Thank goodness Urdang stepped in when they did.

Westminster Hall

It is always a pleasure to wander around the vast interior of Westminster Hall and soak up over 900 years of history under the watchful gaze of the angels lurking in the medieval hammer-beam roof. However, part of the appeal of this visit was the opportunity to see the contemporary light sculpture ‘New Dawn‘ which was installed above the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall earlier this year.

The sculpture commemorates the success of the long and difficult campaign for women’s suffrage and was unveiled on the 150th anniversary of the first mass Votes for Women petition. It’s a beautiful addition to the House of Parliament and beautifully completes a space always intended for an artwork but which had lain empty since the 1850s.

HM Treasury

A short walk from Westminster Palace brought us to HM Treasury and the government offices of Great George Street, constructed between 1900 and 1917.

The Drum

The Drum

It is a pity that you can’t see the interior of the Treasury any more (remembering being able to see Chancellor Gordon Brown’s office on a much earlier Open House) but it is always a pleasure to see the massive circular courtyard (the drum) which sits at the centre.

Room at the Beaumont Hotel

The last stop on our Open House London adventures for 2016 brought us to the elegant art deco interior of the Beaumont Hotel to see one of the most unusual rooms in this city. The room in question is an inhabitable sculpture in the form of a crouching figure that quite literally sits on the structure of the hotel.

Room at the Beaumont Hotel

Room at the Beaumont Hotel

It’s not the first time that we have been inside one of Anthony Gormley’s sculptures having visited his vast work Model at White Cube, Bermondsey, in 2013. However, this feels like a quite different and much more intimate experience.

The suite of rooms that make up this hotel room lead up to a curtained off dark oak-clad interior with no distractions beyond a bed. Once the lights are switched off you can gradually discern the shape of the figure through the small amounts of light seeping through. Anthony Gormley has described the concept as offering him the chance to ‘sculpt darkness itself’.

We only spent a short time in the room, listening to our guide James give an enthusiastic explanation of the concept, which was quite enough to convince us that it must be quite remarkable to spend a night here. We were very grateful for the chance to have a small glimpse of that!

Thank you to all the organisers, owners, staff and volunteers who continue to make Open House London such a delight.

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Cats of Clapham Common

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 17, 2016

One of the more delightful stories of the past few days has been a successful crowdfunding campaign to replace 68 advertising spaces at Clapham Common underground station with pictures of cats under the slogan ‘Citizens Advertising Takeover Service’ (CATS). We decided to break our morning travels on the Northern Line to take a quick look.

Clapham Common

Clapham Common

When we first arrived at Clapham Common, we thought we must have picked the wrong station as all we could see was regular advertising from the platform. However, once you climb the stairs into the pedestrian tunnels you get the full cat effect! The cats appear on the ticket barriers, on either side of the escalators and on the passages that lead to/from the steps down to the platform.

The takeover certainly makes a pleasant change from the usual hard sell on the underground, even if it is not quite the complete takeover that some of the news reports might have you believe. If you are in the area for the short lifespan of the project it’s worth dipping in to take a look.

Tour of Britain hits the capital

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 11, 2016

A beautiful sunny day beckoned for the final stage of the 2016 Tour of Britain with the truly majestic setting of Pall Mall, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall at the heart of the stage.

Each year this race just seems to get bigger and better – a far cry from the sparsely attended races of ten years back. Admittedly that makes it harder to find a spot to spectate as you move around the course, but I’d much rather have the crowds and atmosphere than empty streets!

Gabriel Cullaigh (Great Britain), Tom Stewart (Madison-Genesis) and Taylor Phinney (BMC) towards the end of their breakaway

Gabriel Cullaigh (Great Britain), Tom Stewart (Madison-Genesis) and Taylor Phinney (BMC) towards the end of their breakaway

The final stage of the Tour of Britain was always likely to end in a sprint finish, but you can always dare to hope that a breakaway might succeed. On this occasion a four man break formed by Jasper Bovenhuis (An Post-Chain Reaction), Taylor Phinney (BMC), Tom Stewart (Madison Genesis) and Gabriel Cullaigh (Great Britain) got away from the pack early on. It was thrilling stuff to watch, helped by lap-by-lap updates broadcast from a vehicle running ahead of the race.

The gap between the leaders and the peloton reached a peak of 45 seconds in mid race, with the leaders racing down one side of Whitehall as the peloton made its way up the other. Inevitably, the peloton picked up the pace as the race finish loomed and caught up with the break on the penultimate lap. In the end the sprint spoils went to Caleb Ewan (Orica-BikeExchange) whilst Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) took a richly deserved overall victory.

It was great to see the Tour of Britain reach the capital once again, particularly with the opportunity to see some of the cycling greats and stars of the future. I thoroughly enjoyed walking a small section of the route from Waterloo Place to the sharp turn at Parliament Street (many of the spectators had as much fun watching the team cars trying to take the 180 turn at speed as they did the riders). Roll on next year!

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Great Fire 350

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 3, 2016

London has been ravaged by fire many times in its history but it is the great fire of September 1666 that is lodged in the annals of history and taught to every child in primary school. This weekend sees the 350th anniversary of the fire and a variety of events are taking place to mark the occasion.

London 1666 under construction on the Thames

London 1666 under construction on the Thames

It’s a curiosity in some respects, as it is likely that earlier fires, such as the great fire of 1212, were more destructive but this one is probably remembered because of the relatively good documentation of the fire (at least compared to the earlier conflagrations) and the way that it reshaped the city. I suppose we don’t really appreciate the iconic buildings lost, but we certainly gained a fine new cathedral and livery halls as a result!

Today, we caught up with two of the events taking place. Our first stop gave us a view of the final stages of the build for London 1666. This collaboration between artist David Best and Artichoke has seen a remarkably detailed 120m long wooden representation of the city skyline constructed on a floating platform opposite the Oxo Tower. It is a sculpture with an incredibly short lifespan as tomorrow night it will be set alight on the Thames!

Of all the people on all the world at the Inner Temple Hall

Of all the people on all the world at the Inner Temple Hall

Our second stop brought us to the Inner Temple Hall to see Of all the people on all the world, which is a surprisingly simple but incredibly effective installation from Stan’s Cafe. It takes the premise that a single grain of rice represents one person and then graphically demonstrates the numbers for different events/statistics using piles of rice spread across the hall.

The rice piles were quite instructive in showing the number made homeless by the great fire compared to the population of the city at this time, but also highlighted other revealing statistics from the number of people who watched the first episode of the Great British Bake Off to the number of people that made the difference in the EU referendum. I also loved the fact that someone used this as a way to propose!

Statistics in rice!

Statistics in rice!

It was an apt location as the walls of the hall hold the portraits of many of the fire judges who adjudicated in the disputes between landlords and tenants of buildings burnt in the fire or demolished as a consequence. The installation is open for one more day and is well worth a look.

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Treasure houses of the city

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on August 24, 2016

The talk of the hidden wonders in London in my last post reminds me once again about the treasures lurking in the libraries of the city, out of everyday sight.

One such treasure house is the library at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales. The name might suggest a narrow focus, but instead this is a collection of international significance. Today, at the grand age of 145, it stands as the largest accountancy library in the world.

However, make no mistake – this is a working library, rather than a fossilised relic of a bygone age. This makes it even more of a challenge for the librarians to ensure that the right material is held from the past (for accounting historians), recent past (for forensic accountants/expert witnesses) and the present (for the accountants of today) whilst also trying to anticipate what will be required by accountants in the future! It’s a tricky balance to get right but the quality of the collection speaks for itself.

A glimpse into the Indian railways of the 1920s

The collection is an important resource for researchers seeking to understand the global development of the profession, with the roots of accountancy in many countries inevitably entangled with the last days of the British empire. It is no surprise to learn that accounting historians have travelled the world to use the collection.

Indian & Eastern Railways: Official organ of the Institute of Railway Accountants and Auditors [in India]

Indian & Eastern Railways: Official organ of the Institute of Railway Accountants and Auditors [in India]

Amongst the more unusual items in the collection is a short run of Indian & Eastern Railways, a monthly magazine which was the official organ of the Institute of Railway Accountants and Auditors [in India], an organisation established in September 1927.

Railways have always been strongly associated with the development of the accounting profession since the crises of the 1840s created the earliest need for professional accountants, but here we can see a journal chart the progress of the profession in finding its feet at a time of great change (the Indian Railway Accounts Service was established in the late 1920s, having been born out of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service).

The journal also highlights the early involvement and support of ICAEW members such as Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson, who was an honorary life member of the new body. A long letter from Sir Arthur was published in the November 1928 issue in which he offers advice and encouragement.

A sample page shows the East Indian Railway Priced Store Audit Section at Calcutta, an office clearly at the cutting edge of technology with 16 electric book-keeping and calculating machines.

A sample page shows the East Indian Railway Priced Store Audit Section at Calcutta, an office clearly at the cutting edge of technology with 16 electric book-keeping and calculating machines.

The nine issues in the collection (running from October 1928 to June 1929) offer a curious mixture of railway news, best practice in audit, updates on locomotive design and travel writing. The magazine mainly reports on railway practice and developments in India and Great Britain, but some international developments of interest are also covered.

In the span of a single issue (February 1929) it is possible to read about a trial use of periscopes for railway guards; new locomotives in Argentina, Brazil, Great Britain, South Africa and United States; steam breakdown cranes; audit controls; the southern gateway of India; Indian railway problems; an introduction to railway accounts and an account of the history of the Fort of Seringapatam. Quite an extraordinarily diverse mix of subjects!

One issue carries a list of the examination questions set in the subordinate railway accounts service examination for November 1928 which includes some marvelous questions, such as ‘Draw up an estimate for a private saloon for an Indian Prince to be built in a State Railway Workshop’ and ‘Allocate and state the authority competent to sanction [the expenditure for] illumination of railway stations on the occasion of [the] visit of a foreign prince at a cost of Rs. 5,000’ which I don’t imagine feature on exam papers these days!

This is but one of many treasures in the collection and a reminder of what waits to be discovered in the many other treasure houses of the city. The challenges of this library in preserving the past and providing for the future remind me of Ray Bradbury’s oft quoted line: “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.”

St John’s Gate and the Priory Church of St John

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on August 20, 2016

One of the delights of life in London is the way the city has a habit of springing surprises from one year to the next with its rich back catalogue of historic interiors. It never ceases to amaze me how many of these lurk in unexpected corners of the city, out of everyday sight, from sumptuous livery halls to gloriously ornate power stations.

Today, we visited the last surviving buildings of Clerkenwell Priory, which quite easily falls into the bulging category of London’s hidden gems. The Priory was the headquarters of the English chapter of the Knights Hospitaller (the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem) and was palatially appointed in its sixteenth century heyday. Sadly, the dissolution in 1540 set the priory on a pathway of decline, re-use and destruction.

St John's Gate

St John’s Gate

Although the only buildings standing today are the great southern entrance (St John’s Gate) and the Priory Church they still offer some quite marvellous sights, from a stunning tudor spiral staircase made from oak to an entrancing twelfth century chapel. Our visit combined an 80 minute long guided tour with a wander around the fascinating Museum of the Order of St John and I recommend both highly.

The Museum of the order of St John tells three inter-linked stories, covering the origins and history of the order, the priory and the modern order. The exhibits on display are astonishing, ranging from the marvellously mischievious painting of The Cardsharps by Caravaggio to an ornate 17th century model of the Holy Sepulchre. My favourite exhibit would have to be the pair of beautifully crafted 14th century bronze lion door knockers excavated from the site of the Order’s first hospital in Jerusalem.

The Chapter Hall

The Chapter Hall

Our tour of the building took us first to the gothic styled chapter hall of 1902 (designed by John Oldrid Scott, son of Sir George Gilbert Scott) which is lined with the coats of arms of the priors of the order from its inception to the present day. It was worth lingering here a while to take in the little touches of detail, such as the St John’s wort worked into the design of the fireplace, and to admire the marvellous portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and George V in the ceremonial dress of the sovereign head of the order.

From here the tour took us through the Old Chancery, into the Council Chamber, down a tudor spiral staircase, into the Malta Room and then out into the street. Our guide had no shortage of stories to tell us and remarkable exhibits to wow us with. In summary, it was nothing short of enthralling.

It was astonishing to learn of the connections with famous figures from the past such as William Shakespeare (who probably brought his plays here for approval from the Master of the Revels), William Hogarth (whose father ran a rather unsuccessful latin-speaking coffee house), Samuel Johnson (who worked here as a writer on The Gentleman’s Magazine), David Garrick (who gave one of his first performances in the gatehouse) and Charles Dickens (who frequented the gatehouse during its period as a public house known as ‘The Old Jerusalem Tavern’).

The Cloister Garden

The Cloister Garden

A short walk from the gate brought us to the Priory Church. The church was originally constructed with a round nave but today all that survives is the chancel and the lower chapel that sits underneath. A gallery in the entrance to the church expands a little on the history of the priory and a beautiful cloister garden lies beyond this (including the familiar yellow blossom of St John’s Wort).

The chancel itself has undergone quite a large degree of change in its history, not least from the destruction of its interior during the blitz. After the war the decision was made to leave the building as a shell, rather than restore the arcades of the 18th century interior. The beauty of this is that this allows you to see the centuries of change, from the norman pillar footings of the first church to the restorations of the twentieth century.

In contrast, the lower chapel is a much more intimate affair and the earliest part can be dated to 1140. The chapel presents its own surprises, such as the tomb sculpture of a Spanish knight of the order which was discarded by Valladolid Cathedral during re-building works and found a new home here in 1902!

As you might have gathered, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different. The Museum of the Order of St John is free to visit and full details of opening times are available through the museum’s website. Guided tours are available a few days each week and although no charge is made for these, a donation is suggested.

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The Bermondsey disentanglement

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on August 16, 2016

Last summer my daily commute offered the interesting spectacle of the demolition of the old railway viaducts in Bermondsey and the clearance of the infrastructure between the South East Kent and Sussex lines. Since then it has been fascinating to see the day-by-day transformation of a victorian railway landscape into one fit for the 21st century.

The Bermondsey Diveunder starts to take shape

Spring saw the Bermondsey Diveunder start to fill the space vacated by the Victorian structures

The last time I wrote about this project, in June/July 2015, the Victorian structures had just been demolished. The only escapees from this destruction were the arches of the viaduct from New Cross and these have now been cleverly re-used as the base for the new Charing Cross lines. Alongside these survivors are a number of new concrete structures, including the impressive 155 metre long concrete dive under box itself.

The Bermondsey diveunder is not the easiest of projects to understand, but there is a good explanation in the article Making the Grade (Separation): The Bermondsey Diveunder on the London Reconnections website. The simplest answer is that the disentangling of the tracks on the approach to London Bridge will deliver significant improvements to the flow of traffic through the station, benefiting us all.

The arches of the new Charing Cross lines are built on top of the cut down columns from the arches of the original viaduct (seen here on 27th February 2016)

The arches of the new Charing Cross lines are built on top of the cut down columns from the original viaduct

Over the past six months I have taken the occasional shot as this impressive engineering project has progressed, as illustrated below. Nevertheless, there is still a way to go with completion scheduled for spring 2017.

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Rising sun on the Thames

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 31, 2016

The flagship of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Training Squadron, JS Kashima (TV 3508), arrived in London this afternoon after a 15 day ocean crossing from Baltimore. This will be the very first time that a JMSDF training vessel has made the voyage up the Thames to visit London (although not the first Japanese warship to have graced the Thames).

The Kashima was constructed to a unique design by Hitachi Zosen Corporation and entered service in early 1995 after successfully completing her sea trials in 1994. The ship made the headlines in 2000 when she was rammed by the QE2 after getting caught up in a maritime ‘traffic jam’ off New York.

JS Kashima (TV 3508) passes through the Thames Barrier at 12.25pm

JS Kashima (TV 3508) passes through the Thames Barrier at 12.25pm

It was a close call at my chosen spot by the Thames Barrier as the skies steadily clouded over. My luck was in today as the warship carrying the flag of the rising sun picked a short-lived burst of sun to transit. It was not my only piece of good fortune – I managed to make it back to London Bridge by tube in perfect time to see her pass through Tower Bridge and take up a berth alongside HMS Belfast.

The Kashima will stay in London for three nights, with a public open day on Tuesday 2nd August (full details of the open day, times and cost are available on the website of the Japanese embassy). She is currently scheduled to depart at 2.30pm on Wednesday 3rd August.

JS Kashima takes up her berth alongside HMS Belfast assisted by tugs ZP Bear and SD Seal

JS Kashima takes up her berth alongside HMS Belfast assisted by tugs ZP Bear and SD Seal

The Training Squadron, which also includes the training ship JS Setoyuki (TV 3518) and the Asagiri-class destroyer JS Asagiri (DD 151), is on a 168 day tour of the world which will see them visit 16 ports in 13 different countries. The aim of the deployment is to help develop the skills of the 190 newly commissioned officers on board the three ships.

After leaving Tokyo on May 20th 2016 the squadron made visits to Pearl Harbour, San Diego, Panama City and Baltimore. The other two ships in the squadron, are currently in Brest, France. The squadron will return to Japan on 4th November 2016.

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On parade: Clipper Race 2015-16 finishes in London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 30, 2016

Today saw the triumphal homecoming for the crews taking part in the 2015-16 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race after completing around 46,000 nautical miles on 70-foot ocean racing yachts.

The winners of the 2015-16 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race pass the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich

The winners of the 2015-16 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race pass the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich

The fourteenth and final race of the 11 month circumnavigation, a short sprint between Den Helder and Southend, finished last night with victory going to Derry~Londonderry~Doire. However, the handful of points they gained were not enough for them to overhaul the slender points lead of LMAX Exchange on the overall leaderboard.

The final leaderboard sees LMAX Exchange confirmed as the winners of the tenth edition of the Clipper Race, followed by Derry~Londonderry~Doire in second and GREAT Britain in third.

I took a wander to the riverside at Greenwich to watch the ships on their homecoming parade upriver to Tower Bridge before entering St Katharine Docks. As always, the yachts made a welcome and colourful sight on the Thames under skies filled with grey clouds!

Gallery

RMS St Helena visits London on her farewell tour

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on June 7, 2016

The RMS St Helena made her way up the Thames this afternoon for a triumphal pass through Tower Bridge at the end of a twenty six year career serving the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, shuttling passengers and goods between Cape Town, Saint Helena and the Ascension Island. Today, she is one of only two ocean-going vessels still carrying the title of Royal Mail Ship.

RMS Helena passes through Tower Bridge

RMS Helena passes through Tower Bridge

Originally, the British territories in the South Atlantic were served by commercial shipping but by the mid 1970s this had declined to such an extent that the British Government had to step in and purchase a ship to fulfill this role. The ship in front of us today is the second to bear the name, having been purpose built in 1989 in Aberdeen to replace her smaller predecessor.

The construction of a new airport on St Helena has brought about the end to the ship’s time plying the waters of the South Atlantic. She was originally scheduled to be taken out of service in July 2016, but her working life has been extended a little further as the first test flights into the new airport identified problems with wind shear which have yet to be overcome (in one test a Comair Boeing 737-800 in British Airways livery took three attempts to land). One article described it as the island airport where planes can’t land and the comments of pilots don’t sound encouraging. There have been suggestions that the £250m airport may never open.

The farewell tour saw RMS St Helena arrive in the UK on 5th June 2016 and she returns to the South Atlantic on 14th June 2016 (via Tenerife). RMS St Helena will be moored alongside HMS Belfast until the afternoon of Friday 10th June when she will head back down the Thames to Tilbury.

Gallery

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Track Worlds 2016 – Fantastic finale

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 6, 2016

After three nights in the velodrome I settled in for the last two days of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships on my TV screen with all the comforts of home. The action was as thrilling as ever, particularly the golds for Jason Kenny (Men’s Individual Sprint) and Laura Trott (Women’s Omnium). However, nothing could quite beat the thrilling finale of the Men’s Madison.

The  Lee Valley VeloPark dressed for the 2016  UCI Track Cycling World Championships

The Lee Valley VeloPark dressed for the 2016 UCI Track Cycling World Championships

It was simply electrifying to see Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins going for it in the madison with 33 laps to go but even after gaining a lap there was still the drama of Cav going down onto the deck and the continued threat from counter attacks before they could celebrate victory, repeating their world championship win of eight years ago.

To see two of the cycling greats racing together like this on the track, at this stage of their careers, was quite extraordinary and a reminder of an age in which the likes of Mercx were as at home on the track as they were on the road. If it is the last time that these two race together in international competition then that was quite some finale and what a way to finish the world championships!

The level of competition has been extremely high and the margins increasingly close. The Great Britain team may not be the all conquering force that they once were, but despite a slightly shaky start they have finished on a high with nine medals (five gold, one silver and three bronze) which seems an encouraging haul five months out from the Rio Olympics.

Overall, I’d have to say that the TV cameras have done a pretty good job of covering the racing over the past five days. Even if you can sometimes hear the crowd reacting to a move on track some time before the cameras have picked up on it, this has been more than compensated for by the excellent commentary and insight provided by the BBC Sport team. It’s always going to be better in person if there’s any possibility of that, though I am definetly armchair bound for Rio!

Track Worlds 2016 – Points make prizes

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 4, 2016

The third day of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships offered so many thrilling moments, from the constant tension of the elimination race to the thrills of the 160 lap points race. All of which reminded me once again just why I love track cycling!

Team GB head to bronze in the Women's Team Pursuit

Team GB head to bronze in the Women’s Team Pursuit

First up was the Women’s Team Pursuit, which served up a wonderful come back to bronze by Team GB and a well deserved gold for Sarah Hammer, Catlin Kelly, Chloe Dygert, and Jennifer Valente of the US team. It’s rather wonderful to watch a team working together in these 4km pursuits, especially when one team is able to catch the other (as demonstrated by Australia against Italy in the race for fifth place).

The second course of the evening was the Men’s Individual Pursuit which introduced us to the talented 19 year old Italian rider Filippo Ganna whose superb win left you in no doubt that he is going to be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future. Ganna is stepping into big shoes, as the last Italian world champion in the individual pursuit was the cycling legend Francesco Moser.

Filippo Ganna on the way to the Men's Individual Pursuit title

Filippo Ganna on the way to the Men’s Individual Pursuit title

My favourite event was up next – the elimination race (sometimes rather wonderfully referred to as the devil takes the hindmost) in which the last rider is eliminated every other lap. It’s a rather tense race to watch as you follow the fierce racing at the back of the group to avoid each elimination.

Tonight’s race saw Mark Cavendish put up a superb fight to take second place, although the somewhat confusing end to the race meant that we didn’t get to enjoy the spectacle of a final sprint showdown with Fernando Gaviria. Cavendish’s second place will add to his tally for the men’s omnium (the cycling equivalent of the decathlon) and strengthen his case for a place in the Olympic Squad.

Mark Cavendish mid-pack in the elimination race

Mark Cavendish mid-pack in the elimination race

The final gold medal race of the evening was the Men’s Points Race – a 40 km race that demands your full attention from start to finish if you are to have any hope of understanding what is going on! The race takes place over 160 laps of the velodrome with sprints every 10 laps (the first four places over the line score points) and extra points on offer for any riders able to take a lap over the field. Needless to say, it can get hard to follow if you look away for too long…

British interest in the race came from Jon Dibben and he gave everyone plenty to cheer in the early stages of the race, picking up points in the first sprints and after getting a lap on the field. However, with two thirds of the race run it looked as though Dibben might not have much more to give – losing wheels and slipping out of the podium places. The race looked to be all but sewn up by Austrian racer Andreas Graf, who had been steadily picking up the sprint points in the latter stages.

The crowd really got behind Dibben as he made a move round the outside that saw him collect the top points in the fifteenth sprint (10 laps out from the finish) and the volume really turned up a notch when he made a sudden acceleration with two laps to go. Whilst the TV cameras were still focusing on Benjamin Thomas out front all eyes in the velodrome were firmly fixed on Dibben as he swept round the front of the peloton, past Thomas, into clear ear and on to victory. Incredible stuff.

Jon Dibben in the latter stages of his courageous ride to gold in the points race

Jon Dibben in the latter stages of his courageous ride to gold in the points race

The night ended with the 8000 strong crowd singing every word of the national anthem as Jon Dibben stood on the top step of the podium in his newly acquired world champion’s jersey. A wonderful moment to finish on, with Team GB’s lead in the overall medal table the icing on the cake.

Results

Women’s Team Pursuit
Men’s Individual Pursuit
Men’s Omnium: Elimination race
Men’s Points Race

Track Worlds 2016 – Scratching for gold

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 3, 2016

The second day of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships brought about a good haul of medals for Team GB, starting with a brilliant victory for Laura Trott in the women’s scratch final that must have gone some way towards making up for the disappointment of a poor qualifying performance for the women in the Team Pursuit. A first gold for Team GB in these world championships and hopefully not the last!

Laura Trott and Maria Giulia Confalonieri before the start of the scratch final

Laura Trott and Maria Giulia Confalonieri before the start of the scratch final

The 40 lap scratch race was a more controlled race than the men’s equivalent yesterday, with no-one able to put a lap on the field and the leading contenders marked throughout. A few laps from the finish Laura Trott made her move to escape the peloton and join the leading group, naturally accompanied by a deafening roar from all around the velodrome. In the last half a lap Trott put in a burst of all-or-nothing speed to stake her claim to a world championship jersey.

The capacity crowd in the velodrome were even more vocal in their support for the local heroes in the men’s pursuit team as they fought Australia for gold. An early lead 0.6 second for Australia was overhauled by the three-quarters mark and the team held a slender lead as they entered the final 250 metres. The atmosphere in the velodrome was incredible at this point with everyone screaming, cheering and making noise in any way they could – by far the loudest that I have heard in the velodrome (apparently registering 115 decibels according to a reading taken on the night).

Bradley Wiggins, Owain Doull, Jon Dibben and Ed Clancy line up for the final of the Men's Team Pursuit

Bradley Wiggins, Owain Doull, Jon Dibben and Ed Clancy line up for the final of the Men’s Team Pursuit

Sadly it was not to be – Ed Clancy dropped off the back in the run up to the line, his energy spent (nevertheless, Ed Clancy has made an astonishing return to the track given that he underwent back surgery just 12 weeks ago). Australia’s seriously impressive winning time of 3 minutes 52.727 was a national record and the second fastest time ever set in the team pursuit. It will be fascinating to see a re-match at the Rio Olympics later this year.

The other gold medal up for grabs tonight went to Kristina Vogel in the Women’s Keirin, having successfully held off the legendary Australian track cyclist Anna Meares and Team GB’s Rebecca James. Vogel’s story is quite remarkable – a car crash in 2009 left her in a coma but she recovered to take olympic gold in 2012. Who would not bet on her adding more to her palmarès in Rio?

Results

Men’s Team Pursuit
Women’s Keirin
Women’s Scratch race

Track Worlds 2016 – Sprint glory for New Zealand

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 2, 2016

The opening day of the UCI Track Cycling World Championships brought me back to the velodrome in the Olympic Park at Stratford almost four years on from my first visit for a test event ahead of London 2012. I’ve been back a few times since then but rarely has it looked quite so good as tonight, dressed in the world championship rainbow colours and with a full crowd in attendance.

A drummer added to a lively opening ceremony

A drummer added to a lively opening ceremony

The evening saw the award of the first world championship jerseys to Rebecca Wiasak (Australia) for the Women’s Individual Pursuit; Sebastian Mora Vedri (Spain) for the Men’s Scratch Race; Anastasiia Voinova and Daria Shmeleva (Russia) for the Women’s Team Sprint and Ethan Mitchell, Sam Webster and Eddie Dawkins (New Zealand) for the Men’s Team Sprint.

The final of the Men’s Team Sprint was particularly thrilling as the Dutch team’s strong start took them into a slender lead over the New Zealanders which they maintained into the last lap. The supreme efforts of Eddie Dawkins turned that around and gave the New Zealanders victory with a margin of two-tenths of a second (43.257 against 43.469).

Sam Webster celebrates after victory for New Zealand in the Team Sprint

Sam Webster celebrates after victory for New Zealand in the Team Sprint

It was a good reminder to me of all the reasons that I love track cycling and also, crucially, how much better it is to see live – particularly in the endurance races where things are going off on every part of the track but the camera can only focus on one (and is often slow to pick up on the start of a move).

I am here for three evenings in a row, which seemed a little mad when I booked the tickets a year ago but which makes perfect sense now that I am in the stands. The atmosphere, the spectacle and the opportunity to scream your lungs out (which I never do anywhere else) – it’s just perfect.

Results

Women’s Individual Pursuit
Men’s Scratch Race
Women’s Team Sprint
Men’s Team Sprint

Gallery

Chasing camels

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 27, 2016

A walk along the Thames embankment offers so many incredible sights that it is easy to overlook the street furniture that surrounds you, but that would be to miss some of the most surprising and delightful sculptures to be found in the city. Along this route you can find a series of cast iron benches sculpted in the shape of camels or sphinxes, matched up with a line of dolphin lamp posts.

One of the sphinx benches on the Victoria Embankment

One of the sphinx benches on the Victoria Embankment

I have to confess that I had long thought all the benches were sculpted in the shape of sphinxes so was rather surprised to learn of the existence of the camel benches and decided I had to take a closer look (whilst on a day trip into the city to see the rather marvellous Egyptian exhibition at Two Temple Place).

On a walk from Embankment underground station I followed the line of sphinx benches along the riverside until I came across the first camel opposite Middle Temple Gardens. Along the way I was able to reacquaint myself with the rather splendid sight of Cleopatra’s Needle, guarded by two Egyptian styled sphinxes (a favourite spot of mine to watch dawn after a night clubbing). It’s a lovely walk, though perhaps a little fresh today with temperatures hovering around 4 degrees!

A camel resting at the side of the Thames!

A camel resting at the side of the Thames!

The creator of these wonderful sculptures was the architect George John Vulliamy (1817–1886) who had been appointed as superintending architect to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1861.

When the board secured agreement to build out on to the foreshore of the Thames to create an embankment (needed to house new sewers) the responsibility for designing the street furniture to sit along the new walkway fell to George. For his inspiration, George reached back into the memories of his grand tours in the early 1840s which had taken him to Asia Minor and Egypt.

Vulliamy’s fine work with the lamp posts would eventually see him commissioned to design the pedestal and sphinxes that would flank Cleopatra’s needle. It feels like a well integrated scheme today but in fact this came together over a decade – the lamp posts were installed in 1870, followed by the benches in 1877 and finally the needle in 1878. The fact that this all works so well together is a testament to Vulliamy’s landmark designs. It is also a helpful reminder that to appreciate this great city you sometimes have to look down, as well as up!

Soviet space pioneers at the Science Museum

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 6, 2016

Almost a decade ago I had the opportunity to visit the remarkable sights on offer in Moscow. Unfortunately, I timed my visit for the three year spell in which the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics was being re-constructed. A temporary museum with a small selection of the exhibits was opened in a hall at the All-Russian Exhibition Centre which both thrilled and disappointed me at once. The hall contained lots of amazing equipment in a couple of roped-off rows but no explanations in English to help you understand what you were looking at. Immensely frustrating!

I was therefore thrilled with the news that the Science Museum in London was going to host Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition telling the story of Russian space travel, from 18th September 2015 to 13th March 2016. I hoped this would be my chance to see some of this stuff and be able to appreciate its full historical context.

Soyuz TM-14 descent module, 1992

Soyuz TM-14 descent module, 1992

I finally managed to catch up with the exhibition at the Science Museum today and loved every minute of our wander around the displays, from the moment that I walked through the doors to the sight of Konstantin Fedorovich Yuon’s 1921 painting ‘New moon’ (on loan from The State Tretyakov Gallery) until we walked past the mannequin (with the face of Gagarin) in the last room which was used to test radiation levels. Absolutely fascinating from start to finish, with all the explanation that you could hope for. I would heartily recommended a visit as the exhibition enters its last few weeks – it seems unlikely that these exhibits will ever be on display in the UK again.

The highlights for me were the incredibly claustrophobic Vostok 6 capsule flown by Valentina Tereshkova, the first ever woman in space, and the LK-3 Lunar Lander from the abandoned plan to put a Cosmonaut on the moon (on loan from the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia). However, many of the smaller exhibits were equally compelling – such as the only possession (a mug) that Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, brought back from his time in the gulag.

My visit has stirred up lots of memories, stretching back to the Space 2000 exhibition held at Dipoli, Finland, in 1984 which first sparked my interest into the Soviet space program (I still remember queuing for an hour for the privilege to go on board the full scale model of the Salyut-Soyuz-Progress space station). Maybe I will have to head back to Moscow some day and see the re-opened Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics and explore some of the museum’s collection of around 85,000 exhibits from Russia’s space program.