Friday, 14 April 2017

Les Ponts Neufs renewed

I'm quite a fan of Breton architect Louis Auguste Harel de La Noë, leading architect of the (now closed) Cotes du Nord railways. Born in Saint Brieuc, de la Noë studied in Paris before returning to Brittany as chief engineer of roads and bridges for the Côtes du Nord in 1901. He had already won awards for an x-shaped bridge in Le Mans (sadly destroyed in the Second World War) and for his pioneering work in reinforced concrete construction. He would now play a vital role in the building of the region's new local rail network, impressing with his light and elegant bridges.

The x-shaped bridge, Le Mans
For tourists, the railway was a way of accessing the beautiful Breton coast. For those who lived in the region, it was an essential way of moving around an area whose infrastructure was otherwise poor. However, the line faced growing financial losses and closed in 1948. Since then, other bridges have been demolished; thankfully, this one has been spared that fate. 

Over 237 metres long and 27.6 metres high, the Ponts-Neufs viaduct is an  impressive sight. The tall pillars and ornamented spans are more than visually appealing, though: constraints of time and budget called for technical innovations. Built in 1913, this was among the first reinforced concrete constructions. Building methods including prefabrication and standardised processes were also novel.

The joy of Harel de la Noë's work is that it is attractive and distinctive, going beyond the purely functional. Unfortunately, the pioneering nature of the technology he used brought its own problems. The sand used included salt; bubbles were not removed by vibration; and the steel was insufficiently protected.

The viaduct during construction

Nonetheless, the bridge not only survived but continued to soar over its valley - and thanks to the hard work of the association devoted to promoting and preserving his work, it has recently been restored and brought back into use for pedestrians and cyclists.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Heavy Motor Cars

While the speed limit had been raised to fourteen miles per hour in 1896, drivers had to wait until the Motor Car Act 1903 for it to reach a dizzying twenty miles per hour. Less well-known is that the 1896 changes applied only to vehicles under three tons in weight, so that buses and lorries remained seriously restricted. The relaxation of that weight limit following the 1903 Act explains a now-defunct cast-iron sign still outside Blackheath Station. 

'Heavy motor cars' were not what we think of as 'cars', but vehicles such as buses and lorries. The 1903 Act allowed the three-ton weight limit to be raised, and regulations followed in 1904 defining heavy motor cars as between two and five tons in weight (with a maximum laden weight of twelve tons). 

Such relatively heavy vehicles could pose challenges, though, for infrastructure built with horse-drawn vehicles in mind. Thus the South Eastern and Chatham Railway erected this notice warning heavier automobiles not to use their bridge. Its effectiveness may have been limited by the rather complex information and varying fonts, even before the actual weights were erased!

1911 B-Type motorbus (now in London Transport Museum)

Nonetheless, the changes had a real impact on public transport in London. In 1904, the city had 31 licensed motor omnibuses; the following year, there were 241, rising to 783 in 1906.

Other innovations of the 1903 Act are not unfamiliar to motorists today: reckless driving offences, car registration, and drivers' licences (but not driving tests: you just paid five shillings to the local council to get your licence). Archaic as it appears, then, the Blackheath sign symbolises the start of modern motoring. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Surrey Docks sentinel

The busy working docks of south-east London have been quieted, as industry gave way to housing and leisure. A few reminders are scattered along their banks, stilled and silent, incongruous among the blocks of flats. 

One such is Surrey Docks' last surviving crane, reaching out to the Thames with frozen arms, its cabin empty and gently decaying. It has been here since just after the Second World War, and operated until the 1980s. 

It's a Scotch (or stiffleg) derrick: a type of crane with fixed legs holding its mast in place, while its jib can be moved. For this crane, the jib reached over to the river to load and unload barges of hardwoods. 

While such cranes were once a common feature of the London docks, this is the last, lonely survivor. Its arm no longer lifts cargoes of timber, but frames the high and shiny buildings now occupying the former docklands. Commercial Dock pier, which used to extend into the river here, is gone; the working ships it served have been replaced by occasional pleasure boats and Thames Clippers.  

Thanks to these transformations, the crane has gone from commonplace feature to local landmark. However, it may not be with us for much longer. The land has been sold to developers, and their planning application submitted last year involved its removal from the land.  If that happens, we will lose a local landmark, a bit of character among the often-bland developments, and a physical piece of our past. 

Although not everyone would agree. One commenter on the planning application sums up the alternative view: 'On the subject of the red crane I am an agnostic. I understand the arguments about local heritage; but I have always viewed it as a ungainly piece of junk.'

Further reading: there's a fuller history of this site at A Rotherhithe Blog.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Ghost signs (128): a Breton profusion!

Once on the main road but now bypassed by a dual carriageway, Vildé-Guingalan still bears its vintage roadside advertising. There are a number of ghost signs in quick succession, the first so faded that it is indecipherable (I didn't stop to photograph it).

Subsequent signs, though, are in much better condition.Sadly, the first palimpsest is largely obscured by later hoardings. The word 'cognac' is clearly legible, and combined with the first and last letters of the brand name, suggest that this was an advertisement for Cognac Bisquit

The blue-and-yellow painting underneath, though, is much more difficult to decipher. After a lot of playing in Photoshop, I'm fairly sure that the partly-visible word is Jambon (ham). The likeliest candidate, then, is jambon Olida which features in ghost signs elsewhere. Here's a clearer palimpsest example from Chatelaudren.

At the bottom left corner of our cognac-ham palimpsest is a little more text, although complete words can't be deciphered. 

Two further signs pose no such difficulties. Bold letters spell out the names of Lu biscuits and Forvil brilliantine. 

Between them, though, is a final, faded example. The vegetation which partially obscures it doesn't help, either. In fact, I was completely stuck - until my dad realised it's probably Valvoline motor oil. One last mystery solved!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The strange after-lives of Clapham South

Clapham South Deep Level Shelter was one of eight underground bomb shelters created in response to the 1940-41 blitz. Unused for several years after its 1942 completion, it opened to the public during the V1 and V2 rocket attacks of 1944. 

Creating a complex for 8,000 people, 30 metres underground, in the middle of the war was no mean feat. Sections of the tunnels are lined in cast iron, and marks show the companies for whom these panels were originally made. Some bear the initials LER, for London Electric Railway - a company which had ceased to exist when the Underground system was unified in 1933, so they had obviously been found in storage somewhere. 

The two parallel tunnels were each divided horizontally into upper and lower levels, mostly dedicated to bunk bedding (although other facilities included a medical centre, recreation room, a buffet serving tea, sandwiches and cakes, and bathrooms). Triple layers of bunks were crammed into the tunnels, each set of six separated from the next 'room' by a thin divider. Red-painted ventilation ducts sat between the bunks. With no natural air or light, trains rattling close overhead, music until lights out, and the sound of conversations, crying babies and snoring adults, it must have been an extraordinarily difficult place to get some sleep! Unsurprisingly, the deep-level shelters were never filled to more than one-third capacity. 

Yet after the war, the tunnels would come into use as accommodation again. While smaller numbers of residents, no fear of devastation above, and the knowledge that this was only 'home' for a few nights must have made it more palatable, Clapham South still seems a strange and unappealing option. 

So who stayed here? Among the most significant guests were 230 of the passengers on the MV Empire Windrush who arrived in London in 1948. Answering an appeal to emigrate from the Caribbean to fill essential jobs in Britain, it's hard to imagine how they must have felt to find that their first accommodation here was a repurposed air raid shelter 180 steps below ground. One described it as a 'sparsely-furnished rabbit warren'. Even given the housing shortages in post-war London, the choice of this venue is indicative of the ambiguous-to-hostile welcome they received. Leaving by day to go to the nearest labour exchange in Coldharbour Lane, many soon found new homes in the Brixton area; none stayed in the shelter for longer than three weeks.  

Many of the Windrush men were ex-servicemen, so somewhat bleak and utilitarian accommodation was perhaps not a novelty. The same may have been true of the armed forces personnel who stayed here, both in 1945 after it closed to the public in May and immediately reopened as a military leave hostel, and during George VI's funeral in 1952. They were bored enough to graffiti the walls as they lay in their bunks; since they were lying in bed as they wrote, the graffiti are of course upside down. 

However, a more ambitious use of the tunnel came in 1951 when it was rebranded the Festival Hotel, a budget option for Festival of Britain visitors, especially groups. Bed and breakfast was three shillings a night. For their money, guests got a bunk with blankets (women also got a sheet), cold water to wash in, canteens, and a first-aid room. A South London Press report described the experience:
Deputy manageress Mrs Florence Davison deals with incredible brusqueness and efficiency with all comers and with ubiquitous eyes sees to it that those down from the tube do not miss the cash desk and their 3s. contribution for the night. ... Those staying the night are not encouraged to put in an appearance before 8.30pm at night and by midnight the air is filled with the whistle of mass snoring, the creaking of beds and an occasional cough. But after 6am there is no peace. Tube trains rumble across the ceiling, armies of people walk the corridor overhead. ... The 1,500 Festival visitors climb up the 192 steps to air and sunshine, or wait for the lift, six at a time.
Even with a few more lavish touches like white tablecloths on the buffet tables, one suspects that they were rather taken aback at the 'hotel'! There seems to have been a determination to enjoy the experience nonetheless: French student Bernard Masson later recalled, 'It was very, very, very primitive ... The bunks were quite stiff, but in fact, we didn't mind too much because we were all excited to be in a foreign country.' The venture was clearly successful enough to bear repeating: the shelter again provided accommodation for visitors (and troops) during the 1953 Coronation. 

The shelters were not used for accommodation after that. Instead Clapham South and most of the others stayed empty until they were later used for secure document storage. Belsize Park had been first in 1977, with Clapham South following in the mid-80s: its bunks were back in use, now holding storage boxes. However, about a decade ago the company's lease was not renewed and the shelter became empty once more.  

Traces of these past uses are scattered throughout the shelter: a sink from the medical room, the buffet fuse box, shadows on the wall where urinals once were. Shelves hold archive boxes - there for illustrative purposes, not forgotten originals! Taking us full circle, these fragments from the shelter's beginnings are also key to its current use: as a venue for historical tours, part of the London Transport Museum's Hidden London series

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Victoria Coach Station, happy 85th birthday!


Eighty-five years and a day ago, on 10 March 1932, Victoria Coach Station was officially opened. The building was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, whose many other London buildings include the Hoover Factory. (The firm was led by Thomas Wallis; Gilbert seems to have been his invention rather than a real person!) Oscar Faber was the consulting engineer, a pioneer in the development of building with reinforced concrete as well as engineer on projects including the Bank of England and Houses of Parliament.

Although it's now part of TfL, the station was originally built by a consortium of coach operators under the name London Coastal Coaches Ltd. Long-distance coach travel had begun thirty years earlier, when the Vanguard Omnibus Co ran buses between London and Brighton - but they were too far in the vanguard, and ceased operations within a couple of years following a fatal crash in 1906. The industry really began to develop after the First World War, often using army surplus vehicles; better coaches with technical innovations like pneumatic tyres made coach travel a popular option in the 1920s. By the end of the decade, dedicated stations began to appear - London's first was at King's Cross, opened in 1929. London Coastal Coaches, who had been using a temporary yard, soon followed that example. They acquired the site and began work on the station in 1930.

1937 Dennis Lancet 2

Its Art Deco style has been recognised by Grade II listing. However, few traces of the past greet the traveller who steps inside. Sadly, the lounge bar and restaurant it boasted on its upper floors are long gone; modern signage and bland interiors dominate. This birthday weekend, though, is a little bit different: the station's history is being celebrated with a display of vintage coaches spanning the past eight decades. 

1951 Leyland Beadle

1960s Bristols

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Deptford in Wesley's Chapel

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, had a home and chapel on the City Road, opposite Bunhill Fields burial ground. The home is now a museum, but the Chapel remains a place of worship - and has a piece of historic Deptford inside.

The chapel was built in 1778 by preacher and builder Samuel Tooth, to designs by George Dance the Younger. The large room had a gallery, supported on oak pillars donated by George III. And the source of the wood? Ships' masts from Deptford Dockyard.

In 1891, the wooden supports were replaced with marble pillars, the gift of Methodist churches around the world to commemorate the centenary of Wesley's death. However, one of the original pillars has been kept just outside the chapel itself, and can still be seen today. 

Although it is painted, a small area of wood has been exposed, allowing visitors to touch this bit of naval history from south-east London. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Auber, fading underground wonder

Auber station, just behind the Paris Opera, serves the RER (local railway): you can catch a train from here to Disneyland. However, there's little magic and sparkle on view. 

The gloomy lighting, dated styling, and general air of mild decay belie this station's history. When it opened in 1971, it was one of the largest and most advanced underground stations in the world. If such size seems excessive for a single railway line with a maximum of thirty trains an hour, it's partly because tunnels also link the RER station to another, Haussmann-Saint Lazare, as well as three nearby Metro stations, and the mainline Saint Lazare station. However, the train hall and ticket hall themselves are enormous: the train hall is 225 metres long and 24 metres wide. There are 73 escalators, 15 lifts, and 4 km of tunnels.

Popular Science, August 1972

In 1972, Popular Science was enthusiastic about 'one of three stations operating to date in a visionary new super-subway system.' It enthused about this 'veritable subterranean cathedral' with its cutting-edge technology: 
I bought a ticket at a remarkable vending machine whose mini-computer does most of the thinking for harassed travellers. The RER network is pictorially represented with push-buttons; another 10-button row selects ticket categories - single, return, etc. After you push two buttons, the mini-computer calculates the fare and displays it with electronic digital readouts. You then drop coins in the appropriate slots or insert a 10-franc note in a scanner. The machine prints your ticket on a blank card with magnetic coding carrying up to 60 bits of information.
Popular Science, August 1972: ticket machine, Auber

The interior didn't rely on its scale for effect. It also had some eye-catching features, particularly the 'igloo domes' which housed shops, a bank, and a travel agency. They are long gone, sadly.

Popular Science, August 1972: ticket barriers and igloo domes

The difficulties of building such a large underground space below central Paris can be imagined. After all, sewers, a Metro line, the historical Opera building, and some of Paris' most prestigious department stores are immediately above. To make matters worse, the ground here is particularly wet - and indeed, it's water ingress which accounts for much of the dank, stained appearance of the station today. The station of the future has lost its shine.

I was taking the RER to some rather more beautiful examples of innovative engineering: the former Menier Chocolate Factory at Noisiel, with its extraordinary mill.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Breton chapel

Small chapels are liberally scattered around Brittany; many villages have several. They are testament not only to the importance of faith in the region's history but also to the relative isolation of many small communities in the days before modern transport infrastructure. Many also incorporate pre-Christian beliefs about the healing powers of springs or stones: Brittany is thus famous for its abundance of healing saints, many not recognised by Rome.

The modest parish of Ereac in the Cotes d'Armor had 900 inhabitants at the end of the eighteenth century, and 1,500 at its peak in 1890. Nonetheless, it has two chapels - plus a third destroyed in the early nineteenth century and a fourth lost in the 1870s - in addition to its parish church. This one is the Chapelle des Rothouers, consecrated in 1858 and flanked by two Japanese cedars. It replaced an earlier one completed in 1768, which had stood a little to the south and fell into ruin following the French Revolution. (There may even have been an earlier one standing before that.)

The chapel used to have a statue, Our Lady of Rothouers, which has now been moved to the church. The statue in front of the door is a more recent work by a local artist. Francis Guinard was born in a nearby village and studied art in Rennes before moving to Paris in 1931; shortly after he returned to live in the area, his granite statue of Mary and child was placed here to mark the chapel's centenary in 1958.

The site also housed a miraculous fountain - these, too, are common in Brittany. It has largely dried up and disappeared, however. 

It may not be especially historical or exciting in its own right, then, but the Chapelle des Rothouers tells an important story all the same. It is one of thousands such chapels which were a central part of Breton life and a link with its land and ancient past, and which remain a central part of its social and physical landscape today.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Ghost signs (127): Moorgate Station

Moorgate Station is being stripped and retiled, and for the most part the walls are strangely bare - with an intriguing exception. By the ticket barriers for the Stevenage trains, among the tiles and signs, a painted advertisement from the past peeks out. 

We can make out some words: 'The National Building Society', and a hint of 'founded' at the bottom. It's apt: the National Building Society was based in Moorgate. It had been founded in 1849, as the National Freehold Land and Building Society, by three Liberal MPs; by 1944, when it merged with Abbey Road to form the Abbey National, it was the sixth largest British building society. 

Mutual building societies, owned by their members, began in the late eighteenth century; they boomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but legislative changes saw most of them become limited companies in the 1990s. The first building society to demutualise, the Abbey National became a bank in 1989. Now, the Abbey National is also gone, submerged into Santander. And this little bit of history may soon go, too - but for the moment, it offers a glimpse of this important strand of our financial past.

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