Saturday, 23 September 2017

Rhinoceros, rhinoceroses, rhinoceri*


Apothecaries' Hall is home to what must be London's largest rhinoceros collection! The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries doesn't have a menagerie, but it does have the rhino as its unlikely symbol. And not just any rhino, but Dürer's rhinoceros (famously inaccurate, with an extra horn on its back). 


Why this animal? It's thought to be because the horn was reputed to have medical properties (a persistent myth, contributing to the endangerment of the species today). There may even have been some association of rhinoceros horn with the magical powers of unicorn horn. 


The Apothecaries had been members of the Grocers' Company, since they were originally spice-sellers. However, by the sixteenth century, they had pharmaceutical skills and sought to establish their own livery company; they received their charter from James I in 1617. From 1704, apothecaries were permitted to prescribe as well as dispense medicine, and the Society has been responsible for examinations, licensing and regulation of the profession since 1815. Unlike many livery companies, it remains at the heart of its original trade, with medical professionals making up the vast majority of members. 


The Society played a key, if unintended, role in the history of women doctors. Victorian pioneer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was refused entry to medical school, but was tutored by the apothecary at the Middlesex Hospital, where she worked as a nurse. She was admitted to the Society of Apothecaries in 1865 and was thus licensed to practice medicine. (However, she had done so through a loophole in the Society's regulations - which were quickly amended to exclude women.) Unable to obtain a hospital position, she set up her own practice before going on to take her medical degree in Paris and founding the New Hospital for Women and Children and the London School of Medicine for Women. 


In 1632, the Company acquired its current livery hall site in Blackfriars. Not too many years later, it fell victim to the Great Fire of London, but was rebuilt and the second hall still stands today. 


It is arranged around a courtyard, which features a key tool of the trade: a pestle and mortar. 


A staircase (carpeted with rhinceroses, of course) leads to the court room and parlour. The latter has an impressive collection of apothecary jars, varying enormously in age, size, and shape. Most, though, are the traditional blue-and-white. 


The heart of the building is the Great Hall. And on Open House weekend, it was filled with information about the Society's continuing educational role, with diplomas ranging from medical history to conflict and catastrophe medicine, as well as lecture programmes. The society is very much active in the present, even as the rhinos remind us of its long past. 



* Spot the deliberate mistake! Rhinoceri is not a correct plural of rhinoceros, but rhinoceros is.



Friday, 15 September 2017

Open House 2017: ideas and inspiration

It's that happy time of year again: this weekend, all kinds of London buildings are open to the public and free. With over 800 to choose from, the Open House London guide can hover between exciting and overwhelming. Here are some favourites of mine from previous visits, all open this year without pre-booking. 

Central London
City of London
The civic heart of the City, the Guildhall, is open both days including its Art Gallery and (Saturday only) its library


Relocated from Deptford, Trinity House is now on Tower Hill. Responsible for all Britain's lighthouses, its lavish interior has plenty of nautical elements (open Saturday).


The Livery Halls hold a great deal of the City's history, as well as that of the trades they represent. Among those you can see are the original home of copyright enforcement, Stationers' Hall with its charming, 'hidden' garden (open Sunday); or Drapers' Hall, built on the site of Thomas Cromwell's mansion after his execution in the 1540s. It has been rebuilt since, after the Great Fire and more recently in 1772; the opulent interiors are largely Victorian - and lit by elaborate chandeliers. (Open Sunday.)  The Thames-side location of Vintners' Hall (open Saturday) reminds us of its history at the heart of London's wine trade. 


The Gherkin is enormously popular - expect very long queues and a very short time at the top. Since it's open from 8am both days, you can try to fit it in first and still have a full day elsewhere - but everyone else has the same idea, so queues form early. Alternative towers include St Botolph Aldgate - no views but plenty of bells, open both days 


For more domestic architecture, try Billingsgate Roman House and Baths (open both days). 


Westminster
Our highest court, the UK Supreme Court, is generally open to the public but offers much more access this weekend


Probably Westminster's star attraction, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office attracts a queue - but offers much more reward for your patience than the Gherkin. (Open both days.) 


Smaller, but also stunning, is the recently-restored Middlesex Hospital Chapel, now renamed Fitzrovia Chapel (open Sunday). And there's more extravagant Victoriana at Two Temple Place (also open Sunday). 


Tower Hamlets
Don't forget to enjoy the river view while you explore the museum of London's oldest police force, the Thames River Police (both days). And London's oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue, Sandys Row, is open on Sunday


Now a working venue again, Wilton's Music Hall is a battered but beautiful survivor from the Victorian era. The former home to Champagne Charlie is open on Saturday


Further out, you can climb the 'practical folly' at Chrisp Street Market (both days), and discover one of the Festival of Britain's less-known exhibits. 


Other boroughs: 

BrentKilburn's Tin Tabernacle 'ship' offers a quirky experience on both days

Bromley: Well worth the likely queues is the extraordinary Crystal Palace Subway. (Open both days.)

CamdenModernist masterpiece, once home to Agatha Christie amongst others, the Isokon Building opens both days and offers the possibility of seeing inside the flats



GreenwichIf you don't associate South East London with Jacobean mansions, use Sunday to discover Charlton House

Haringey: Markfield Beam Engine will be in steam both days. A marvellous piece of Victorian engineering and survivor of the Tottenham sewage works.  

Islington: A diamond of a hidden gem, W Plumb Family Butchers is a remarkable survival. (Open both days.)


Lewisham: Contrast the intimate scale of Boone's Chapel (open both days) and its surrounding almshouses with the height of the Seager Distillery Tower (whose interest lies in its views over Deptford; open both days). 

Southwark
If you want to concentrate on a small area, Rotherhithe is an excellent choice. From the slightly macabre (the Old Mortuary, open both days) to the totally magical (Sands Film Studios, open both days), via an engineering wonder (the Thames Tunnel, explored at the Brunel Museum on both days), it crams a lot of variety into a small area. 



Thursday, 14 September 2017

Below Bristol's bridge


Bristol's most famous sight, the Clifton Suspension Bridge hangs over the Avon Gorge. Brunel's suspension bridge floats from cables supported by two towers. One is on a firm footing of rock, but the other required a brick abutment.


It was long assumed that the abutment was solid, and only in 2002 was it discovered to be a hollow construction with ten vaulted chambers on two levels. They were found almost by chance, when builder Ray Brown was replacing paving. He came across a hole, and on testing it with a rod, found it was very deep indeed! The first people to explore the vaults did so with no idea of what they would find; being lowered into dark spaces of unknown size and contents, then wriggling through tiny access tunnels to unknown spaces, sound a truly terrifying prospect! Luckily, visits are now possible in rather more congenial circumstances: last year, the vaults were opened to guided tours. It is now possible, for the first time since it was completed, to go inside the bridge.


It may be less solid than originally thought, but the abutment is still a very sturdy construction. In order to allow access to its interior, a door had to be drilled through two-foot-thick walls.


The interior, having been sealed, contained none of the smells and sights that we associate with abandoned buildings. No animals had lived inside, there were no ancient cobwebs, and no unpleasant odours. Protection of that environment is one of the reasons access remains restricted to a limited number of guided tours.


The vaults were not entirely empty, however. Knowing that they would soon be sealed, the builders had used the access point in the roadway above as a convenient hatch for depositing building waste. Victorian contractors were clearly not so different from today's! They unwittingly did the bridge a favour, though, by leaving a small supply of original stone which might be useful in future repairs.


Two adornments are noticeable inside the otherwise-plain vaults. One is the masses of stalactites lining the roof. These form very quickly as water seeps through the lime mortar. However, they are fragile and break off before reaching any great size, only to be replaced by new ones.


The other feature is the ties which line the walls. There was some concern that these show signs of decay, which might pose a significant issue. Surveys were reassuring: in fact, thanks to Victorian over-engineering, the ties were an unnecessary precaution and do not bear any weight at all. They can be left as they are quite safely.


The holes in the walls are deliberate. Narrow, round passages lead into other vaults - so narrow, in fact, that they cannot be crawled through. Instead, the intrepid explorer must drag themselves through on their elbows. They also lead to steep drops and sharp corners. 


Scaffolding for surveys therefore posed something of a challenge. The solution was neat, in both sense of the word: a small, round hole was drilled through which scaffold poles could be passed.


As in so many areas of life, the Victorians have proved less solid than they appear!


Similarly, the solid cliff on the other side of the Gorge is ... a little less solid than it appears. The Giant's Cave is visible, marked by its metal balcony, but impossibly high on the sheer rockface. That didn't deter the Victorians, of course, and the owner of the observatory at the top of the cliff built a 200-foot-long tunnel through the rock to the cave. This, too, is now accessible to the public although it's a tricky walk full of uneven stairs and irregular walls and ceiling: you have to be prepared to duck in places. 



The cave itself is a relatively shallow, if high, space which hardly seems a spacious home for the giants who gave it its name. 


The tricky walk is rewarded, though, by the opportunity to stand suspended above the Gorge, feet supported by no more than a few metal bars, and get one of the best views of the bridge. 



There is, of course, only one way to travel between these two underground spaces. The bridge still charges tolls to vehicles, but is free to pedestrians. It's an engineering marvel, a beautiful icon of the city, an incredible viewpoint - and a sharp contrast to the dark, mysterious spaces on either side. 



Clifton Suspension Bridge: while there are a limited number of vault tours, the regular guided tours of the bridge are excellent and free. There is also a lovely visitors' centre open 10-5 daily. A London Inheritance also did the vaults tour. 

Giant's Cave: accessed via the Clifton Observatory, which also has a terrace cafe with panoramic vies and a camera obscura. 

Sunday, 3 September 2017

All change! Maintaining trains at Old Oak Common


When Old Oak Common traction maintenance depot held its open day, the amazing assortment of locomotives from all eras grabbed everyone's attention. Indeed, the day was a celebration of Legends of the Great Western. However, this was also a unique opportunity for the public to see the maintenance depot - 111 years old, but soon to close. 


The Great Western Railway opened its depot on 17 March 1906. Since then, it has been maintaining the railway's trains - even as the operating companies have changed their names and ownership, to British Rail,  Great Western Trains, First Great Western, and finally coming full circle to Great Western Railway again. 


The GWR had outgrown its maintenance depot in Westbourne Park when, in 1901, it acquired this land in East Acton. In particular, locomotives had got larger, the railway was operating more routes, and Paddington Station had expanded over recent decades, with more growth to come. Most of the original buildings would be demolished in the 1960s, when the depot was transformed to service diesel engines rather than steam. Further buildings have been added since, and a larger transformation is to come. 


Since 1976, Old Oak Common has maintained the fleet of High Speed Trains (HSTs) which carry passengers from Paddington to West and South-West England and South Wales. This is no small undertaking: every train is checked, refuelled, and toilet waste emptied each night, with more comprehensive maintenance also carried out here as required. That means that the depot is a 24-hour operation (making the open day quite a logistical feat). 


In addition to some familiar railway sights (albeit multiplied in quantity), such as rails leading to buffers, there is plenty of specialist equipment visible. This electric engine moves stock around: the coupling on the front can be changed as required. As well as being much more precise than a locomotive, it can be operated remotely as well as driven from the cab. 


Some sheds have pits, much like those in motor garages - but considerably longer! 


This stock also requires more in the way of lifting equipment than the average motor vehicle. 




Even familiar items such as screen wash are on an absurdly different scale. 


A gantry allowed visitors an unusual view of an engine - from above. 


This engine shed has only four tracks with access to fuel lines, so there's lots of movement as engines are refuelled and then moved out again so that others can take their place. 



Train wheels need their own special care, and a shed is devoted to this. We were able to have a relaxed look around, but usually this is a noisy and dangerous area with protective clothing and equipment required. 





However, there are two major changes coming soon. First, the HSTs are being replaced by Hitachi Intercity Express Trains, which will be maintained by Hitachi at the nearby North Pole depot. Secondly, Crossrail is coming to Paddington and will have its own maintenance facility here. The combined effect of these is that the current depot at Old Oak Common will be closed over the next eighteen months, with ambitious plans for transforming the area being formulated by the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation. Thus the open day was not only a rare look, but a last one, at the work done here to keep our trains running. 



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