Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureFun PalacesLatest

Theatre Royal, Nottingham

The classical portico of Nottingham’s Theatre Royal has dominated the streetscape since it was built in 1865:

Originally designed by the prolific and prestigious Victorian theatre-architect Charles John Phipps (1835-1897), it was modernised in 1896-7 by the more famous Frank Matcham (1854-1920), who at the same time built the new Empire Palace Theatre for what shortly after became Moss Empires partly on what had been the site of the Theatre Royal dressing-rooms.

There are stories of artistes straying into the wrong backstage-area, particularly after Moss Empires took over the Theatre Royal in 1924.

The Empire was also the site of Ken Dodd’s stage debut, as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, “Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter”, in 1954.

The Empire closed in 1958 and was demolished eleven years later for road-widening.  At a time when Nottingham City Council were planning and building the ultra-modern Playhouse as a repertory theatre, there was talk of demolishing the Theatre Royal also and building a replacement touring house elsewhere.

In fact, the Theatre Royal lingered on, becoming so decrepit that eventually the D’Oyly Carte company refused to appear because of the state of the backstage areas.

In 1977 the City Council purchased the County Hotel, on the opposite side of the Theatre Royal building to the former Empire, and commissioned Renton Howard Wood Levin to restore Matcham’s design, except for the proscenium arch and adjacent boxes, within Phipps’ auditorium envelope.

Subsequently, in 1980, Renton Howard Wood Levin built from scratch the magnificent Royal Concert Hall behind the Theatre Royal.  The two auditoria work in tandem [], with the Playhouse operating at the other side of the city centre:

Nottingham has a proud claim to have been at the forefront of the late twentieth-century revival of live performances in provincial towns and cities.

Posted by: mike on Apr 11, 2014

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal

Kennet & Avon Canal Bruce Tunnel west portal inscription

Just as the proprietors of the Kennet & Avon Canal named the Dundas Aqueduct at Limpley Stoke after the company chairman, Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury, so they named the tunnel at Savernake after the local landowner Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury (1729-1814).

Bruce Tunnel wasn’t in fact needed.  It was built solely because the Earl declined to have a deep cutting splitting his estate.

It's 502 yards long, with a wide bore to take Newbury barges, and has no towpath.

Above the west entrance portal is a stone panel carved with an elaborate dedication by Benjamin Lloyd, the canal company’s mason:

The Kennet and Avon Canal Company
Inscribe this TUNNEL with the Name of
In Testimony of the Gratitude
for the uniform and effectual Support of
through the whole Progress of this great National Work
by which a direct communication by Water was opened

The inscription is almost illegible, so a modern duplicate, smaller and in a different stone, stands to the side of the tunnel arch, with a pendant:

“This monument was erected by the Kennet & Avon Canal Partnership and John Lloyd, seventh generation mason of Bedwyn, as a replica of that erected by his ancestor, Benjamin Lloyd, mason of Bedwyn to the Kennet & Avon Canal Company, AD 2003.”

John Lloyd delivered the new inscriptions, appropriately, by boat.

Posted by: mike on Apr 7, 2014

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesLatest

John Lloyd's yard, Great Bedwyn

Participants in my 2012 Waterways & Railways between Thames & Severn tour were bemused when I insisted on stopping in the Wiltshire village of Great Bedwyn to look at the post office.

Ostensibly it had nothing to do with waterways or railways but the building is a delight because it’s the historic base of the stonemasonry business of John Lloyd [], a family firm dating back seven generations to the arrival of Benjamin Lloyd in 1790 in connection with the cutting of the Kennet & Avon Canal.

The post office itself and the yard beside it are encrusted with monumental panels, miscellaneous carvings, offcuts, uncollected orders, rejected pieces of all kinds.

A Daily Telegraph article [Hamish Scott, ‘Say it with stone’, September 21st 1996 [] about John Lloyd records his laconic advocacy of taking time and care to respect natural stone:  “You have to listen to its ring. If the note changes, then you're doing something wrong. The stone will tell you what you can get away with, so long as you respect it.”

John Lloyd no longer manufactures on the site.  One of the most spectacular lots sold at an auction in 2009 was a memorial to a First World War airman – a stone Sopwith Camel with an eleven-foot wingspan.

Still remaining are a selection of eccentricities, including the ‘Repairs to a monument’, an account in stone of the mason’s work and his charges.

Posted by: mike on Apr 2, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (2013):  balcony

Since Phil Robins took ownership of the former Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield, he’s tidied up the interior so that at last it’s possible to see the entire auditorium from the back of the stalls or the back of the balcony.  The stage remains a forest of scaffolding until the stage-tower roof is made weather-tight.

When the Sheffield Antiques Quarter Christmas Market took place at the Abbeydale I was asked to show people the auditorium, a privilege that gave me opportunity to learn more about the building.

Insurance restrictions meant that visitors were not allowed on the stage or in the circle, so I provided a PowerPoint sequence showing the angles that weren’t accessible.

Talking to people who visited the cinema regularly from the 1950s to the 1970s suggested that there were at least four colour schemes over the years:

* pale and deep cream and gold from the opening in 1920
* pale green and gold sometime up to the early 1950s when Cinemascope was introduced
* white or cream until at least the end of the 1960s
* the current blue, claret and cream by the beginning of the 1970s

There may have been other colour schemes that only a paint analysis will reveal:  planning documents indicate, for instance, that a major refurbishment took place in 1928 and Clifford Shaw, in Sheffield Cinemas (Sheffield Cinema Society/Tempus 2001) p 101, shows a monochrome image of a decorative scheme that dates from August 1949.

I’m told I was introduced on the PA system as the Abbeydale’s “resident historian”, which led a friend to enquire if I had a flat in the projection room.

He’d no reason to know that in the late 1970s there was a flat in the projection suite after A & F Drake Ltd took it over as an office-equipment showroom.  Later in the day I met a lady who had lived in the flat for a couple of years.

She said that her dad and his mate had spent a night in the auditorium seeking ghostly presences.  The only presence that appeared was her cat.

Oddly, even later in the afternoon a lady asked me about the psychic history of the Abbeydale.  I had to say I didn’t know there was one, but I was able to point her towards the only accredited haunted cinema, the Don on West Bar, which still exists:  [see and].

People were reassured to know that Phil’s plan to use the Abbeydale as a climbing centre won’t damage the listed interior:  all the climbing installations will be free-standing.  Indeed, one climber, a regular visitor to Phil’s existing centre, The Edge [], said he was looking forward to sitting in the circle with a cup of coffee watching other climbers.

The next opportunity to see the interior of the Abbeydale Picture House will be at the Sheffield Antiques Quarter Spring Fair on Sunday April 27th 2014, between 12.00 noon and 3.00 pm.

Posted by: mike on Mar 28, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (March 13th 2014)

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (March 13th 2014)

No sooner had I posted a blog-article complaining that St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield had stood a roofless ruin for six months than the demolition team moved in.

Within a week, March 10th-14th 2014, the building was flattened – an eyesore that need never have been an eyesore.

The earliest reference I’ve so far found to the possibility of closure is in 1993.  As late as 2004, Ruth Harman and John Minnis clearly thought it merited an illustration in their Pevsner Architectural Guide Sheffield (2004), p 188.

By the time I became aware it was threatened and my neighbours started a campaign to save it at the end of 2011 it was far too late to have any effect.

This is what I’ve learned from following the fate of St Hilda’s Church:

  • the Church of England’s procedure for disposing of redundant churches is ponderous, glacially slow and largely ignores the possibility that the secular community might resolve the problems of disposal
  • local politicians, hammered for a generation by central governments’ stripping away of their autonomy, think in terms of solving problems rather than exploring possibilities
  • the network of amenity organisations, particularly English Heritage and the national amenity societies, prioritises its concerns in terms of national perspectives, with a bias against twentieth-century architecture and buildings of purely local significance
  • just as the churches declined because people think they’re going to be there for ever and never set foot across the threshold, so local people will sign petitions but aren’t inclined to participate actively in seeking uses for derelict local buildings

It was always on the cards that St Hilda’s would go.

One less twentieth-century suburban church makes the others that remain marginally more valuable.

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  Lancaster Corner

One of the most poignant exhibits at the Newark Air Museum is the wingtip of a Lancaster bomber, R5726, which was fished out of Knipton Reservoir, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.

It broke up in the air in bad weather on the afternoon of April 4th 1944, killing the crew of seven, and was found by Newark Sub-Aqua Club in 1979.

Next to it is a short section of the fuselage of another Lancaster Mk I, W4964, which flew 106 missions, one of them part of Operation Catechism, the final attack on the German battleship, Tirpitz, on November 12th 1944.

When this aircraft was retired its fuselage was used for ground training, and eventually a sawn-off section became a garden shed in Gainsborough, from where it was rescued for preservation in 1974.

Its wartime paintwork remains intact.  The accompanying display shows a photograph of its crew returning from its first sortie to Stettin in 1943, with the plane’s insignia in the background.

Also on display is one of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bombs, properly an Upkeep Mine:  this one was a test version dropped in a practice run at Reculver, Kent.

It’s one thing to see a historic relic, whether a plane or a train or a building, fully restored as new, but it’s a far more resonant experience to see actual artefacts unchanged from the time of the story that they tell.

Posted by: mike on Mar 19, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  Taylor JT1 Monoplane G-APRT

Newark Air Museum:  Taylor JT1 Monoplane G-APRT

The most endearing aircraft in the Newark Air Museum is the prototype Taylor JT1 Monoplane, G-APRT, designed in 1956 and built in Ilford in 1958-9 by Mr John F Taylor.

He specified that it had be within the capabilities of a do-it-yourself constructor, fabricated entirely of wood, and originally cost less than £100.  Its wingspan was restricted to sixteen feet, because that was the size of the lounge in his apartment.  Even so, extricating the finished plane involved removing the bay-window and sliding it down ramps from first-floor to ground level.

At least 110 of these nippy little planes have been built, and you can buy one for slightly above £4,500:

It cruises at 90-100 mph, and has a range of 290 miles.

I imagine John Taylor’s family were glad to get it – and him – out of the house.

There’s an article about the Taylor JT1 Monoplane at

Posted by: mike on Mar 15, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Newark Air Museum:  English Electric Lightning T5 XS417

Newark Air Museum:  English Electric Lightning T5 XS417

I know very little about aircraft.

I was brought up alert to steel wheels on steel rails.  I was taught to read, write and count by watching the trams go past the house in post-war Sheffield.  My dad took me trainspotting on Sunday mornings while my mum cooked lunch (which we called dinner).

I still think numbers look best in sans-serif, as they were on the front of most Sheffield trams and buses and on the cab-sides of British Railways locomotives.  And though roller-blind destination indicators are on their way out, if I see a driver scrolling to change his display I have to stand and watch the succession of place-names.

My mate Richard was brought up on rubber wheels – cars and motorbikes – and seems to have spent his childhood building model planes.

So when he suggested spending a couple of hours at the Newark Air Museum, just off the A1 in Nottinghamshire [], I didn’t expect to learn much.

In fact, it’s a rich, varied and highly professional museum, with excellent interpretation that’s informative for enthusiasts and at the same time intelligible to numpties like me.

We wandered through two vast display halls and a small-objects display hall, inspected a range of aircraft outside, and briefly looked at a collection of aero-engines (to appreciate which you presumably need an engineering degree).

I declined an offer to sit in the cockpit of a Jaguar, knowing that when Dick walked round the corner he’d jump at the chance.  He had at least a vague idea of what all the knobs and dials were for, whereas I’d be like the guy at Crich who asked how you steer a tram.

The Museum runs a rich series of events, ranging from an Aeroboot sales day to a Cockpit-Fest.  There is a comprehensive education programme, particularly for primary schoolchildren, Cubs and Scouts, and Air Training Corps squadrons.

There’s a shop, billed as “the best specialist aviation outlet in the Midlands”, and a small, warm and welcoming café, which for the moment only goes as far as “legendary” toasties and paninis but will in due course branch out in a new building, thanks to ‘Project Panini’ [].

The site, adjacent to the Newark and Nottinghamshire Agricultural Society showground, was formerly RAF Winthorpe, a Second World War base that operated from September 1940 until July 1959.

The aircrew who flew from there and didn’t come back are commemorated by a poignant memorial which incorporates part of a propeller hub of a MK III Short Stirling, EF186, which was based at RAF Winthorpe and crashed out of control at Breeder Hills near Grantham on December 4th 1944.

In essence, this rich collection of magnificent engineering commemorates the skill and the bravery of those who flew from airfields like this before, during and after the Second World War and their successors who continue to do so.

Posted by: mike on Mar 10, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Cecilia's Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield – nave & baptistery

After I’d taken part in the Church Commissioners’ meeting to discuss the redundancy and proposed demolition of St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield, I spent some time talking to people in the Parson Cross community about the building’s practical possibilities.

Apparently, there aren’t any.

Local community workers told me that there’s already full provision of community facilities on the Parson Cross and neighbouring Foxhill estates:  a further facility, if it could be financed, would threaten the viability of those already existing.

Public finance is, of course, an impossibility.

One City Councillor told me with understandable passion of the difficulties of maintaining social provision in the face of draconian financial cuts.  One particular priority at present, justifiably, is somehow to maintain a branch library within reach of local residents.

Yet the emotional pull of St Cecilia’s still remains.  A clergyman spoke movingly of how the building holds the prayers of seventy years of congregational worship, and is a monument to the revered Kelham Fathers who built up the parish from nothing.

The one positive insight I heard came from someone with enterprise experience:  “The only hope for that building,” he said, “is serendipity.”

That, after all, is what happened at Gorton Monastery in Manchester, the Abbeydale Cinema on the south side of Sheffield, and the former St Thomas’ Church, Brightside, which is now Greentop Circus.

The Gorton Monastery project was co-founded by Elaine Griffiths, MBE;  the Abbeydale Cinema turned a corner when Phil Robins spotted its possibilities as a climbing centre;  the founders of Greentop Circus had the wit to challenge Anneka Rice.

In other words, the only possibility of finding a use for the building is if someone comes along with a practical idea that no-one else has thought of.

The only way of saving St Cecilia’s is for someone who needs an attractive space on the north side of Sheffield to come up with a business plan that relieves the Church Commissioners of the need to spend nearly £200,000 knocking the place down brick by brick to the great inconvenience of the neighbours.

Posted by: mike on Mar 6, 2014

Category:Sheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (September 27th 2013)

St Hilda's Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield (September 27th 2013)

Last August the scaffolding went up around St Hilda’s Church, Shiregreen, Sheffield, and it was apparent that it would be demolished.

I was told that the schedule was to have the site cleared by the end of September 2013.

A cheerful crew duly turned up and over a matter of two or three weeks removed the entire roof.

Then they went away, and nothing further has happened.

The place continues to stand a roofless ruin.

My diocesan source tells me that the delay results from “discussion between the Sheffield City Council Planning Department, Church Commissioners, Diocese and the Contractor”.

The Church authorities don’t seem to have much luck either with keeping redundant buildings standing or knocking them down.

St Hilda’s is now neither one thing nor the other.

It’s perhaps mischievous to point out that roofless churches have been preserved against all the odds, such as the Welsh Presbyterian Church, Toxteth, Liverpool [] and the Welsh Baptist Chapel, Upper Brook Street, Manchester  [].

Both these examples are listed, and are of undeniable historical and architectural merit.

But sometimes even the most unassuming derelict buildings gain a purpose that keeps them standing and restored to good order:

Update – March 11th 2014:  The interrupted demolition of St Hilda's has resumed, and it should be gone within a matter of days.

Posted by: mike on Mar 2, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureSheffield's HeritageSacred placesLatest

St Thomas' Church, Brightside, Sheffield

Because of the discussions about the future of the redundant St Cecilia’s Church, Parson Cross, Sheffield, I’m looking at examples of successful conversions of redundant religious buildings which have preserved the architecture while enabling the building to earn its keep.

I’ve already written about the former St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Seel Street, Liverpool (now a restaurant) and the Wesleyan Reform Chapel, Attercliffe, Sheffield (now a Muslim community centre) and the spectacular revival of the Monastery of St Francis, Gorton.

One of the best examples I’ve come across is the former St Thomas’ Church, Brightside, Sheffield, a modest Victorian parish church of 1854 by the local architects Flockton & Son, built to serve the first growth of artisan housing as the steelworks crept across the Lower Don Valley after the arrival of the railway in 1839.

It’s a more modest building than Flockton & Son’s contemporaneous work in Sheffield – the General Cemetery Church and Christ Church, Pitsmoor (both 1850), and St Matthew’s, Carver Street (1855) – but it is, as the cliché goes, small and perfectly formed, with a nave and chancel, a south aisle but no north aisle, a bell-tower and spire.  The architects’ plans are online at  and

It was listed Grade II in 1973 and made redundant in 1979.  At first it was converted as a gymnasium for the Sheffield School of Gymnastics but then fell into neglect.

It was rescued by Anneka Rice’s TV programme, Challenge Anneka, broadcast on August 27th 1995 [ and] as a circus school for Greentop Circus [].

Apart from a shortage of storage-space, the interior is ideal for its present purpose.  The trapeze rig sits comfortably on the load-bearing walls of the nave;  there is ample height and floor-area and cramped but well-organised office-space in the west gallery, accessible by an intriguing spiral staircase in the tower.

Greentop is an arts education charity which provides, alongside training facilities for professional performers, school workshops and team-building for adults as part of its mission “to use contemporary circus skills to enhance people’s lives and inspire positive change”.

When I met a committee of the Church Commissioners to discuss the proposal to demolish St Cecilia’s, I was asked if there weren’t already enough community facilities on the Parson Cross estate.  I replied that if the existing six buildings were sufficient, the area would not figure so high on indices of deprivation.

Greentop’s value to the local Firvale community is incalculable.  Some of the young people who have become involved are from the local Roma community, who have had a famously bad press recently:

And without Greentop, the consecrated churchyard of St Thomas would contain only graves and a wreck or an empty space.

Posted by: mike on Feb 25, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesLatest

The Towers, Scarborough

Castle-by-the-Sea, Scarborough

Scarborough has three castles – the genuine article which dates back to Roman times, and two Victorian shams which have their own unique appeal.

The Scarborough brewer Thomas Jarvis built The Towers, designed by William Baldwin Stewart in 1866, immediately below the gatehouse of the medieval castle on the promontory that divides Scarborough’s two bays.

He later added the Castle-by-the-Sea, which overlooks the North Bay, at the other end of the little street that became Mulgrave Place, and in 1876 leased it to the Leeds artist, Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893).

Atkinson Grimshaw was the son of a Leeds policeman, an ex-railway-clerk who without formal training executed canvases of dusk and moonlight scenes, mainly of coast and harbour settings, with considerable commercial success.

One of his first and finest Scarborough works is 'Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, the Burning of the Spa Saloon' (1876), which was probably commissioned by Jarvis and was painted in great haste for the sake of topicality but not publicly exhibited.  It is now in the Scarborough Art Gallery [], along with 'Scarborough Lights' (c1877), 'Burning off a Fishing Boat at Scarborough' (1877) and 'Lights in the Harbour, Scarborough' (1879).

Atkinson Grimshaw reputedly influenced Bram Stoker into setting Dracula in Whitby.

He’s also regarded as a possible influence on Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, the Whitby photographer.

He returned to Leeds in 1879 after getting into financial difficulties, and went on to paint numerous scenes in Hull, Liverpool, London and Glasgow Docks.

The Castle-by-the-Sea is a notably welcoming bed-and-breakfast hotel, one of the pleasantest places to stay in Scarborough:

The Towers is a private residence and not open to the public.

Posted by: mike on Feb 20, 2014

Category:LatestTransports of delight

Bure Valley Railway:  Wroxham

An unexpected sight on the rail journey between Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham is the busy little station of the Bure Valley Railway at Wroxham.

It’s literally little because the Bure Valley trains run to the tiny gauge of fifteen inches.  The line follows the trackbed of the former East Norfolk Railway standard-gauge line to Aylsham, which is now the terminus.  Originally it extended past what is now a Tesco car-park to a junction at County School.

The scale of the Bure Valley trains allows for the full paraphernalia of main-line steam and diesel operation.  The Aylsham station has four platforms and a complicated track layout, and both termini have turntables:  indeed, the turning of the locomotive at Wroxham is a highlight of the journey.

The full fleet of four steam and three diesel locos can be seen in operation on the Everything Goes Weekend, May 24th-26th 2014.

Miniature it may be, but this is no toy railway.

Indeed, it operates boat trains which offer a return journey from Aylsham to Wroxham with a ninety-minute Broads cruise:

Three adults can sit comfortably side by side in the passenger coaches, some of which have electric heating for winter operation.

It’s a seriously attractive attraction.

Posted by: mike on Feb 16, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Mid-Norfolk Railway:  Wymondham Abbey Station

At present, the Mid-Norfolk Railway [] preserves an 11½-mile-long, unremarkable stretch of the former Great Eastern Railway between Wymondham and Dereham.  Though there is a physical connection to Network Rail at Wymondham, public services stop short at Wymondham Abbey.

As well as providing the usual tourism services of a heritage railway, the enterprising Mid-Norfolk line provides freight services through its connection to the national network, serves military traffic and provides testing facilities for the rail industry and training opportunities for the emergency services.

Most of its operations are diesel hauled, and there are regular appearances of guest steam locomotives.

Reaching this stage of development has been a considerable struggle [] and future plans are ambitious and exciting.

The Mid-Norfolk Railway Trust owns a further six miles of track-bed northwards to County School Station (built for and named after a long-gone boarding school operated by Dr Barnardo’s from 1907 to 1953).

Linking this section to the existing line provides a springboard for a further lengthy extension to Fakenham.

And that’s not all.  The proposed Holt, Melton Constable & Fakenham Railway plans to reinstate continuous railway from Holt to Melton Constable, the core of the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway system, continuing on to the M&GNR main line to Fakenham, where it would ultimately connect with the extended Mid-Norfolk Railway on the former Great Eastern Railway.

This project involves several physical alterations to the historic route –

  • reinstating a rail link alongside the A148 by-pass into Holt
  • construction a new Melton Constable station on a different site to the vanished original
  • realigning the route through Melton Constable to avoid reversal
  • avoiding the Pensthorpe wildfowl park which occupies the original alignment on the entry to Fakenham

The completed project, the Norfolk Orbital Railway [], would reintroduce rail transport to north-west Norfolk, and provide an 84-mile continuous loop incorporating the current rail-services between Wymondham, Norwich, Cromer and Sheringham.

A further project, the Whitwell & Reepham Railway Preservation Society Limited, based at Whitwell & Reepham station on the M&GNR Fakenham-Norwich line, has long-term [] plans to reinstate seven miles of track and to link with either the North Norfolk Railway or the Mid-Norfolk Railway.

Posted by: mike on Feb 11, 2014

Category:Sacred placesExploring New YorkLatest

New York City:  Riverside Church

On Riverside Drive overlooking the River Hudson is a great twentieth-century Gothic church of surprising proportions, the Baptist Riverside Church, largely financed by John D Rockefeller Jnr, and opened in 1929 to the designs of Allen, Pelten & Collens.

Especially when seen from the river, the huge tower, 392 feet high, dominates the church, which is itself a hundred feet high and 215 feet long. 

The tower is in fact a 22-storey office building for the church administration, surmounted by a 72-bell carillon which visitors can inspect on their way to view the panorama from the top of the tower. 

From here the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan dot the horizon.

Riverside Church is proud of its stained glass and sculpture.  It has two Epsteins, the bronze ‘Madonna and Child’ (1927) and the gilded mould of the cast ‘Christ in Majesty’ at Llandaff Cathedral, Wales.

From the outset of its ministry, started by Rev Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), Riverside Church has been a springboard for all kinds of social intervention, and has provided a pulpit for a dazzling array of speakers, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson to Desmond Tutu, and Fidel Castro to Bill Clinton.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 7, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesExploring New YorkLatest

New York City:  Trinity Church

Perhaps the most famous image of Wall Street is the vista westwards along the canyon of tall twentieth-century buildings to the apparently modest-sized Trinity Church, designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.

This was itself once the tallest building on Manhattan, 281 feet high.

The original foundation dates from a royal charter of 1697, and the present building is the third on the site.

The great wealth of the trustees arose from Queen Anne’s 1705 grant of the land west of Broadway between Fulton and Christopher Streets, the rentals of which have supported widespread endowments, educational institutions and subsidiary chapels.

Upjohn’s church was a significant influence on the architecture of nineteenth-century New York, firstly because it effectively established the Gothic Revival here (though its suspended plaster vault would have offended contemporary English purists such as Pugin), and because it helped to popularise the use of the local brownstone, a material which became synonymous with New York housing in the half-century that followed.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 2, 2014

Category:Liverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Forum Cinema

At the north end of Lime Street, on the opposite side to the Futurist Cinema, is the much more imposing former Forum Cinema, designed for the ABC circuit by William R Glen and Ernest A Shennan and opened in 1931, “one of W R Glen’s finest”, according to the Theatres Trust website:

This splendid Portland stone building occupies a corner site corresponding to Lewis’s department store at the other end of Lime Street.

Its fine interior, described by some writers as “semi-Atmospheric”, was a celebration of the possibilities of indirect lighting using Holophane reflectors with a sunburst light-feature in the ceiling.  On each side of the proscenium are curious relief panels, supposedly Venetian though one includes a recognisable representation of the Chrysler Building.

The architects contrived to squeeze a big auditorium, originally 1,835 seats, into a constricted space 150 feet × 75 feet, by creating a huge balcony seating 750 and placing the projection ports high above the rear circle with a throw of 146 feet.

Such a narrow auditorium was less than ideal for wide-screen films, and when the Forum was tripled in 1982 a false ceiling was inserted from the balcony front so that the proportions of the proscenium were lost.

It finally closed in January 1998 with a showing of Casablanca at 50p per seat and has remained unused.  Although (or perhaps because) it’s listed Grade II, the various proposals for the building have so far come to nothing.

But at least it’s still intact.  This is how it looked in 2007 – – and, photographed by someone who can’t hold a camera still, in 2011:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 29, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Lime Street

As Liverpool city-centre regenerates, the remaining patches of neglect stand out more clearly.

The east side of Lime Street has been neglected for years, and yet the stretch between the Crown and the Vines pubs includes a spectacular landmark building that still, somehow, remains in one piece.

The Futurist Cinema, originally the Lime Street Picture House, was the first purpose-built cinema in Liverpool, opened in 1912.  It was the first to show sound movies, in 1926, three years before The Jazz Singer at the Olympia, West Derby Road.  It converted to Cinemascope in 1954 without interrupting performances, and at the end of its long history it was the only place in Liverpool fitted with Sensurround for the film Earthquake (1975):  [].

It closed in July 1982 and has remained empty and untended ever since.  Kim Ryan’s film of the Merseyside film-maker Alex Cox revisiting the Futurist shows the interior in 2008:  An April 2013 news article raises the question of whether the building is beyond saving:

The campaign to save at least the façade of the Futurist is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 23, 2014

Category:Fun PalacesLatest

Futurist Cinema, Scarborough

Reputedly the largest remaining single-screen cinema auditorium in Britain, with 2,150 seats, the Futurist Cinema, Scarborough closed its doors on Sunday January 5th 2014:

It was built in 1921 to designs by Frank Tugwell. The stage was first extended for live performances in 1957 and two years later the proscenium was widened.

In 1968, when the stage-area was further enlarged by the impresario Robert Luff to accommodate The Black and White Minstrel Show, the elaborate classical white faience façade was hidden behind plain cladding which has not worn well.

It would be optimistic to say the place has an uncertain future.  In fact, the chances of its survival don’t look favourable.

The chartered surveyor Mark Rothery described the building as “past the point of saving for refurbishment” in 2010, and English Heritage has twice declined to list it.

The Borough Council’s report by Kate Wafer and Jennifer Hadley (March 2013) identified these practical disadvantages to the building:

* small stage in relation to the size of the auditorium
* small box-office and bar-areas in relation to the size of the auditorium
* inadequate wing-space
* limited backstage get-in
* small orchestra pit

The lessee since 2002, Barrie Stead, has estimated that refurbishment would cost at least £5 million, and regeneration would need at least £250,000 pa revenue subsidy.

Its owners, Scarborough Borough Council, have promised to mothball the building for three months to allow the Save Our Futurist campaign [ and] to present a £3 million business plan to regenerate the existing auditorium:

Despite the submission of a 4,000-signature petition in November 2013, the fact remains that for the moment no-one has produced a practical plan for the site as an alternative to the Council’s plans for demolition and redevelopment.  An apparently separate e-petition shows 870 signatures:

Time is short.  It’s a tall order to persuade the local politicians to stall their plans and give the Futurist a further chance of survival.

Posted by: mike on Jan 18, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Liverpool Vines Hotel

The Vines Hotel, next door to the Adelphi, is a sister pub to the splendid Philharmonic Hotel on Hope Street, designed by the architect Walter Thomas.  It’s a little later than the Phil, opened in 1907, so its mahogany, copper, glass and plaster interior has a distinctly Art Nouveau feel.

Alcohol has been served here since 1823, and the present building takes its name from its late-Victorian licensee, Albert B Vines, who came to the site in 1867.

Because of its location at the end of Lime Street the Vines has traditionally been noisier than the Phil.  Indeed, one reviewer [] comments,–

The Vines will usually give you a fairly rockin’ Friday, Saturday and indeed Sunday evening provided what rocks you are karaoke and somebody's grandmother pinching your arse.

Architectural-history enthusiasts may choose to visit for breakfast.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 14, 2014

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesCemeteries, Sewerage & SanitationLatest

Liverpool Philharmonic Hotel gentlemen's lavatory

One of the great Liverpool experiences is having a drink – or perhaps more than one drink – in the Philharmonic Hotel (1898-1900) on the opposite corner of Hope Street to the Philharmonic Hall from which it takes its name.

This palace of a pub is the result of a partnership of the architect Walter W Thomas and Robert Cain’s Brewery during the great boom in public-house building at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Thomas was well-funded and fortunately placed to call on the formidable design-skills of the Liverpool University School of Architecture and Applied Art and of the Liverpool craftsmen who executed the decorative schemes of the interiors of the great ocean-liners.

The exterior is an odd combination of Scottish Baronial and Art Nouveau, with elaborate iron gates by the German-American artist H Blomfield Bare, who also designed the repoussé copper panels inside.

The interior scheme was co-ordinated by George Hall Neale and Arthur Stratten, who employed Charles J Allen to produce the distinctive plaster caryatids and atlantes in the billiard room (the former modelled by his friend Mrs Ryan), the Irish plasterer Pat Honan and the stone-carver Frank Norbury.

The gentlemen’s lavatories at the Philharmonic Hotel are not to be missed.  Indeed, the protocol is that any respectable lady customer can request any respectable gentleman customer to check the coast is clear so she can admire the marble, the mosaic and the brass-work of this palatial pissoir.

John Lennon declared that one of the disadvantages of fame was “not going to The Phil any more”.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 10, 2014

Category:Liverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesLatest


Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

I once booked a Cinema Theatre Association Liverpool tour primarily on the strength of seeing On Golden Pond on the big screen at the Philharmonic Hall.

The Philharmonic Hall is a 1937-9 rebuild, replacing a predecessor of 1846-9 which had been burnt down in 1933.

It’s a very fine Art Deco auditorium, designed by Herbert J Rowse whose other distinguished Liverpool designs include India Buildings, Martin’s Bank and the ventilation shafts and other structures for the Mersey Tunnel.

The 1,700-seat auditorium has a continuous rake of stalls seats with horseshoe boxes and a balcony:  the suspended ceiling has troughs containing indirect lighting fittings.

It’s the home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir and Youth Orchestra, which together have an outstanding history of performance dating back to the foundation of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society in 1840:

The CTA was attracted to this temple of serious music was to hear the three-manual Rushworth & Dreaper concert organ, which is fitted with tremulants, a feature commonly found in theatre-organ specifications.

Though lacking the drums, chimes and whistles of a conventional cinema-organ it was clearly intended for use in film presentations as well as taking its place in the classical repertoire.  Its console is mounted on a revolving lift, and can be played from below stage or in full view of the audience.

Even more unusual, and unmissable if you’re a serious cinema buff, is the seven-ton rising proscenium, now apparently the only example in working order anywhere in the world:

This cinema screen, complete with footlights and curtains and fitted with integral sound speakers, rises from the stage-floor in three minutes, uniquely transforming the concert hall into a movie palace before the eyes of the audience.

That’s an experience you can only have at the Philharmonic.

The very last 35mm performance at the Philharmonic takes place on April 30th 2014.  The choice of film is subject to an e-poll at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 5, 2014

Category:Exploring South AfricaLatest

Cape Town:  Robben Island

The single essential place to visit in Cape Town is Robben Island, the flat, parched patch in the bay where political prisoners have been incarcerated within sight of the city since the seventeenth century, and where three of the post-apartheid presidents of South Africa spent years of their lives – most famously Nelson Mandela (imprisoned on Robben Island 1962-1982, eventually released 1990), and also the third president Kgalema Motlanthe (imprisoned 1977-1987) and the present incumbent, Jacob Zuma (imprisoned 1963-1973).

When Robben Island wasn’t in use as a prison it served as a leper colony, one which the lepers were originally admitted voluntarily but eventually were brought there involuntarily.  It was also used as a medium-security prison for criminals.

It is a miserable place, yet unexpectedly uplifting.

When I visited Cape Town I made a point of booking a Robben Island tour [], and the white man who sold me my ticket was once Nelson Mandela’s jailer, the black man beside him behind the counter an ex-prisoner.

Over on the island, a thirty-minute catamaran trip away, we were bussed past the former leper colony, the lighthouse and the view of Table Mountain, before being introduced to the prison-guide, another ex-prisoner.

All tours are guided by ex-prisoners, so you get the message directly.

At one point the group simply sits in a meeting room to question the guide.  One tourist asked what was the greatest injustice done on the island, and the guide simply replied that the removal of freedom, the deprivation of life’s opportunities was the essential injustice.

I told him he’d taught me that much good occurred on the island, and he said, yes, the prisoners learned to depend on each other, to support and to develop their potentialities.

This isn’t merely a prison, like Alcatraz, but a crucible of political thinking and social revolution.  Kgalema Motlanthe wrote, of his time on Robben Island,–

We were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities. We shared basically everything. The years out there were the most productive years in one's life, we were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life.

A clip about Robben Island featured in the BBC News coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela.  I've no way of knowing if Christo Brand, featured in the clip, was the man I spoke to when I visited in 2000:

Posted by: mike on Jan 1, 2014

Category:Exploring South AfricaLatest

Cape Town:  Bo-Kaap

Not far from District Six is an area of Cape Town called Bo-Kaap, formerly known as the Malay Quarter.

This is a Muslim area, occupied by a community that’s been there virtually as long as the Dutch, over three hundred years.  They’re known as the Cape Malays, from their patois not their origin.

The ancestors of the Cape Malays were slaves brought to Cape Town by the Dutch settlers from other parts of Africa, from Indonesia and other parts of south-east Asia as well as the Malay Kingdoms. 

Bo-Kaap's survival is an indicator of the crassness of the social system that blighted South Africa.

Because the area was racially homogenous the apartheid government simply ignored it, leaving its distinctive pale-painted architecture intact.

Stretching up the slopes of Signal Hill, the streets are spacious and attractive, and it’s ironic that in the post-apartheid era they’ve become highly desirable.

The Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street is an example of some of the earliest property-development in Cape Town, dating back to the end of the eighteenth century.  It’s now restored to show the lifestyle of the early-nineteenth-century Cape Malay Community.

The Museum is a fascinating introduction to a community that has survived remarkably intact from the earliest history of foreign settlement at the southernmost tip of Africa:

Posted by: mike on Dec 28, 2013

Category:Exploring South AfricaLatest

Cape Town:  District 6 Museum

I first learnt about the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika when his poem ‘Nothing’s changed’, about post-apartheid South Africa [], appeared in a GCSE English anthology that I taught to fifteen-/sixteen-year-olds around 1999-2002.

The video-clip that came with the anthology [] revealed that, despite his pen-name, given him by the ANC’s militant wing Umkhonto We Sizwe, he looked like a white man.

Tatamkhulu Afrika was actually of Egyptian and Turkish descent, adopted by White South African parents who concealed his ethnic origin in order to give him better opportunities under apartheid.  As an adult he rebelled against this, converted to Islam and lived in the cosmopolitan community of District Six in Cape Town.

The poem expresses his anger at the destruction of District Six after the government declared it a white-only area and razed the buildings, exiling the polyglot population to the bleak Cape Flats area, a fifteen-mile rail journey from the city centre.

During the time I was repeatedly working with ‘Nothing’s changed’ with classes of teenagers, I happened to take a trip to South Africa and spent time in Cape Town.

I made a point of persuading a tour-guide to take me to the District Six Museum

The Museum is in a Methodist chapel (one of the numerous places of Christian worship that were left standing) and the coloured guide was a veteran of the injustice.  Showing us a display of identity cards, alongside a whites-only park bench and a whites-only taxi-rank sign, he was able to point to his own picture.

It’s hard to comprehend the bitterness and anger that apartheid generated, and impossible not to admire the way that the new South Africa, for all its imperfections, has travelled so far in the twenty years since the abolition of apartheid.

Posted by: mike on Dec 24, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring South AfricaLatest

The Blue Train

The Blue Train (interior)

Everyone deserves to be treated at least once in their lives as well as passengers are treated on South Africa’s Blue Train [] which trundles the 990 miles between Pretoria and Cape Town at a leisurely pace in 27 hours.

From the moment passengers are ushered on to the platform and then the train by the train-captain, all they need to do is ask.

My butler was called Herbert.  He showed me the cabin, awash with armchairs and cushions, the marquetry panelling, the marble bathroom, the mobile phone to summon him at any time, the multiplicity of light-switches and lights, the TV zapper which also controlled the venetian blinds within the double-glazed window.  You can even tune the TV to the camera on the front of the locomotive, a quarter of a mile ahead, so you can see where you were going.

When you have a bath on a train, the water slops up to your head or down to your feet every time you go round a bend.

Everything you could possibly need was there, if sometimes not where you’d expect to find it, and every time I ventured into the corridor Herbert was invisibly in and out tidying the pencils and replacing the mineral water bottle.

Everything, including the postcards and the postage, is on the house.  In the lounge car I asked the barman, a young man called Wesley, if people sometimes got out of control and he said, yes, it sometimes happened.

In the dining car Irene, my waitress, kept me stocked up with appropriate wines, tuning into my preference for cheese before dessert and proffering dessert wine at the appropriate moment.  For lunch I had venison;  for dinner ostrich.  There was also afternoon tea, and pots of tea and coffee delivered to the cabin by Herbert.

Before dinner I sat on a bar-stool watching the sunset, and drinking white wine, and returned to the bar afterwards with an English couple I’d met in the observation car, and we mulled over brandies which Wesley had expertly warmed.  Very large double brandies.

When I eventually went back to my suite, transformed by Herbert into a bedroom, and opened the window-blinds, the sky was ablaze with stars as we crossed the Karoo desert.

For breakfast there was smoked-salmon omelette – and much, much else.

I was very fortunate to make the journey in 2000, when the Rand was falling through the floor.  In 2014 the single fare from Pretoria to Cape Town or vice versa is just short of £1,200.  Seriously, there are far worse ways of spending that sort of money on a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Or perhaps twice in a lifetime.

Posted by: mike on Dec 19, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLatest

Wainhouse Tower

Wainhouse Tower

John Edward Wainhouse (1817-1883) was the owner of the Washer Lane Dyeworks on the side of the Calder valley below King Cross, on the southern outskirts of Halifax.

In 1870 he leased the works to Henry Mossman, and at the same time responded to complaints about atmospheric pollution, particularly from a neighbour, Sir Henry Edwards Bt (1812-1886) of Pye Nest, by commissioning an extremely tall chimney, 253 feet high, connected to the works below by an underground flue.

Construction began in 1871, the year after the passing of the Smoke Abatement Act which required that industrial smoke should be carried away at a height.

J E Wainhouse instructed his architect, Isaac Booth of Halifax, to encase the functional brick chimney in stone, with a spiral staircase of 403 steps to the top.

The purpose of installing a staircase at considerable expense to the top of a smoking chimney was never clear:  a regularly repeated legend is that J E Wainhouse wished to annoy Sir Henry Edwards, who was High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1872, by overlooking his residence.

In 1874 J E Wainhouse sold the dyeworks to Edward Mossman, who declined to take on the cost of the chimney, so instead Wainhouse took on the liability of what became a tower instead of a chimney, resolving to turn it into a “General Astronomical and Physical Observatory”.

He dismissed Isaac Booth, who in any case appears to have grown sick of being caught in the midst of the feud between Wainhouse and Edwards, and commissioned Booth’s assistant, Richard Swarbrick Dugdale, to finish the architectural treatment of the tower with an elaborate gothic cupola that is so densely embellished that it is practically useless as an observatory, except to look down on neighbouring properties and to admire the distant views.

By the time this second phase of construction was completed on September 9th 1875, the entire project had cost £14,000 or £15,000.

By 1893, ten years after J E Wainhouse’s death, it was open as a public attraction and in 1909 it was operating a radio transmitter.  Suggestions in 1912 that it should be adapted as a crematorium came to nothing, but in 1919, prompted by a campaign in the Halifax Courier, Halifax Corporation bought it;  the Corporation and its successor, Calderdale Borough Council, have maintained it ever since.  Its only practical function appears to have been as an observation post in World War II.

It was substantially repaired and restored in 2008 at a cost of £400,000, and reopened to the public on May 4th 2009.  It is open on bank holidays, and available for private openings at other times.

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2013

Category:Exploring New YorkLatest

New York City Citicorp Center

When they designed Citicorp Center, now renamed 601 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan in 1977, the architect Hugh Stubbins and the structural engineer William LeMessurier were faced with the uncompromising elders of St Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, who were entirely happy to have their tired nineteenth-century Gothic building replaced but refused point-blank to give up its corner site.

Consequently, William LeMessurier supported the tower on four stilts planted firmly in the centre of each side so that it overhangs the corners of its footprint.  This odd-looking construction is stabilised by a series of stacked braces that transfer the load of the 59-storey structure to the nine-storey supporting columns.

The Citicorp Center was fitted with a 400-ton tuned mass damper to stabilise the effect of high winds.  Other tall towers of the period, while rolling safely with the wind, had made their inhabitants nauseous.

The wedge-shaped top was intended to carry solar panels which were never installed because the slope faces north.

The building is remarkable, not only for its engineering attributes, but for the fortuitous discovery and surreptitious repair of its structural weaknesses.

Within a year of the opening, LeMessurier received a phone-call from a trainee architectural engineer questioning the ability of the centre columns to support the building in extremely high winds.

Niggled, LeMessurier revised his calculations, and realised that in following the regulations by calculating wind-resistance square to the building he’d ignored the potential effects of quartering winds, hitting the tower cornerwise where there was no support to ground-level.

Casual discussions of the specification for a new project alerted LeMessurier for the first time to the fact that his office had sanctioned the use of bolted braces instead of welded ones in the Citicorp tower.  This made the building vulnerable to a once-in-55-year wind, but if the tuned mass damper was disabled by a power failure, the vulnerability increased to once in every sixteen years.

This came to light in June, just at the start of the hurricane season.

The building’s owners, Citibank, a team of construction-industry specialists and the City of New York – all of them anxious to avoid a public panic – arranged for the two-hundred-odd braces to be quietly patched with heavy steel plates, one by one, during evenings and weekends, without disturbing the building’s users.

The press were fed an innocuous explanation which remained unprobed because, as the work began, the entire New York newspaper industry was shut down by a strike.

And the city’s Office of Emergency Management created an emergency plan to evacuate the building and 156 blocks of the surrounding neighbourhood if high winds were forecast.

Part way through the process Hurricane Ella headed directly for New York City, only to turn eastwards and follow the coast northwards towards Canada.

This remarkable episode remained outside the public domain for twenty years until an article in the New Yorker [] was published in May 1995.

Le Messurier, whose entire career had been on the line eighteen years earlier, was hailed for his integrity in owning up to the problem and providing a solution.  601 Lexington Avenue is now rated as resistant to a once-in-700-year hurricane even without the damper.

A more critical view of Le Messurier’s ethics can be found at

Other accounts of the whole episode are at and

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City', please click here.

Posted by: mike on Dec 9, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLatest

Thames & Severn Canal Sapperton Tunnel Coates Portal

Thames & Severn Canal:  Sapperton Tunnel, Coates Portal

Sapperton Tunnel on the Thames & Severn Canal epitomises the canal-builder’s dilemma about crossing a watershed – whether to dig an expensive tunnel to save lockage, or to build locks that demand a constant and abundant source of water.

Sapperton Tunnel cost a great deal to build, and leaked like a sieve.

The engineer Josiah Clowes is thought to have worked on the 2,880-yard, nine-foot-wide Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal for James Brindley, and Sapperton Tunnel was longer, at 3,817 yards, and was built to broad-canal dimensions without a towpath.  At the time of construction it was the longest tunnel so far built.

Work began in the spring of 1784 and was completed in 1789:  the first boat went through on April 20th that year.  Defects in the structure led to a ten-week closure only a year after the opening.

The original surveyor of the Thames & Severn Canal, Robert Whitworth, had observed, on a frankly superficial inspection, that the summit level ran “over some bad Rocky Ground...worse than [he had] even seen any Canal cut thro’ for such a continued length”.

In fact, the line of the tunnel alternately passes through impermeable oolite and the unstable, permeable clay known as fuller’s earth:

The geologist John Phillips (1800-1874), in his biography of his geologist uncle Memoirs of William Smith (1844), wrote scathingly about the fundamental weakness of the line:

Such canals…are like the buckets of the Danaids, and with the water goes the profit.  In vain the Thames, raised from its source by a mighty engine, is poured into such a thirsty canal;  the flood passes into the gaping rocks below, in spite of renewed puddling and continual repairs.

The last boat went through Sapperton Tunnel on May 11th 1911 and almost the entire canal was abandoned in 1927.

The Cotswolds Canal Trust has been working since 1975 to restore the entire length of the Thames & Severn Canal, and the reopening of Sapperton Tunnel forms part of the third and final phase of their project:

It won’t be easy, as Ken Burgin’s inspection 2009 report indicates:

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Dec 4, 2013

Category:Sacred placesLatest

Panacea Museum, Bedford

Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance states that the brain cannot simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas.  It’s a useful device in empowerment training.  He developed it from research into a group of Canadian millenniarists who convinced themselves that the world would end on December 21st 1954, and when no such cataclysm took place declared that the light which spread from their group had saved the world.

Leon Festinger (1919-1989) would have dined out on the Panacea Society, founded in 1919 by Mabel Barltrop, the widow of an Anglican curate, who received a message that she was a new messiah.  This was the first of a succession of messages from God, delivered promptly at 5.30pm each day, which ultimately filled sixteen handwritten volumes.

The Panaceans became custodians of Joanna Southcott’s box, which that prophetess had prepared before her death in 1814 with strict instructions that it was only to be opened at a time of national crisis by an assembly of twenty-four Anglican bishops.

Mabel’s supporters renamed her ‘Octavia’ and bought houses near to hers in and around Albany Road in Bedford.  Here they lived in a community of genteel and elegant delusion.

Here also the Society duly prepared a residence for twenty of the requisite bishops (the other four would have to make do with a nearby hotel) to carry out the box-opening ceremonies in appropriate dignity and comfort.  Endless petitions and advertisements in the national media failed to persuade their lordships to take Joanna Southcott at all seriously.

Mabel herself would not step more than 77 paces away from her home for fear of being attacked by Satan.

She identified this Bedford colony as the original site of the Garden of Eden, and the location to which Jesus Christ would return at the Second Coming.  No 18 Albany Road, “The Ark”, was duly prepared for His reception.  There was agonised debate about whether He would need a shower, being “radiant”, but one was provided in case.

Mabel, who administered the Sacrament to her flock wearing a Liberty scarf, began a healing ministry, breathing over tap-water that was used to soak linen which was then cut into little squares for dispatch to something like 130,000 applicants between 1921 and the end of the century.

The Society received a considerable jolt in 1934 when Mabel was found dead in bed.  This extraordinary behaviour seemed inexplicable, and they waited four days for her to resurrect.  When she became increasingly off-colour they eventually called an undertaker.

Nevertheless, the last believing member of the Society survived until 2012, and the Society has now reinvented itself as a philanthropic charity to disburse its accumulated resources of at least £22 million.

One of these projects is the Panacea Museum [], an unusually fascinating place that needs a couple of hours to assimilate.

When I photographed it on a visit with the Ancient Monuments Society, one image of the garden included a glowing apple within the frame.  A trick of the light, surely?

Panacea Museum, Bedford:  garden

Posted by: mike on Nov 30, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesLatest

Bunyan Meeting, Bedford

The Bunyan Meeting is a Free Church congregation in Bedford which dates back to 1650 and was led by Rev John Bunyan (1628-1688) from the time of his release from his first imprisonment in 1672 until his death.

John Bunyan is regarded as a literary giant as the author of Pilgrim’s Progress (1678/84), which is at once a great devotional work and a precursor of the English novel.  One section of Part Two became the hymn of which the original first line is ‘Who would true valour see’.

His life was a remarkable journey from working as a tinker, through an agonising religious conversion to imprisonment for his Puritan beliefs in the Restoration period and a subsequent career as a powerful popular preacher.

The fine 1849 galleried chapel has stained-glass windows and elaborate bronze doors by Frederick Thrupp depicting scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress, and Bunyan’s life is commemorated in a compact, vividly displayed museum adjacent to the Meeting church:

The great prison reformer John Howard (1726-1790) is Bedford’s other figure of international importance.

He had an estate nearby at Cardington:  when he attended the Bunyan Meeting services he stayed at the adjacent house from Saturday night to Monday morning so that his coachman didn’t have to drive on the Sabbath.

As a result of the controversy over paedobaptism, John Howard founded a breakaway congregation which became the Howard Church (1775-6):

Posted by: mike on Nov 25, 2013

Category:Sheffield's HeritageFun PalacesLatest

Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield (2013)

I reported in July 2012 that the Abbeydale Cinema, Sheffield had been bought by Phil Robins, the owner of The Edge [], an indoor climbing centre near to Bramall Lane football ground.

Phil showed me round the Abbeydale last month and allowed me to photograph the improvements he’s so far made while making the building secure and weather-tight.

The two major changes he’s made are to lower the iron safety-curtain to its proper level, so that it can be seen in its entirety for the first time for many years, and to remove the partition that divided the balcony from the rest of the auditorium when the Abbeydale was used as an office-equipment showroom.

At present, therefore, it’s possible to see the entire auditorium space as it existed in the mid-1950s.  The only feature that is not original is the false proscenium that was inserted when Cinemascope was installed.  The sides of the narrower original 1920 classical-detailed proscenium are visible, but not the top which, according to the opening-night description in the Sheffield Independent, displayed “a chaste panel of Grecian figures on a background of pale blue”.

The original decorative scheme was pale and deep cream with gold;  the 1920s proscenium is now a faded pale green trimmed with gold, and the rest of the auditorium is a strident concoction of blue, claret and cream.  (The lighter colours now visible may, of course, be tempered with nicotine.)

Phil intends to restore the interior space as far as possible to its original state, and to install free-standing climbing equipment which will not affect the listed decorative features.

The Sheffield Antiques Quarter is running a Christmas Vintage Market in the Abbeydale Cinema car-park on Sunday December 8th between 11.00 am and 5.00 pm.

There will be an opportunity to see the interior of the Abbeydale Cinema from the stalls, though the rest of the building is inaccessible because of insurance restrictions.

Posted by: mike on Nov 20, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesBirmingham's HeritageLatest

All Saint's (formerly St Aidan's) Church, Small Heath, Birmingham

The Anglican parishes around the Birmingham Small Arms factory in Small Heath were carved out of the ancient parish of Aston between 1846 and the end of the nineteenth century, and became part of the Anglo-Catholic “biretta belt” of South Birmingham. 

One of the last of these was St Aidan's Church, begun in 1893, designed in red brick with buff terracotta by Thomas Frederick Proud (d 1901), with a clergy house, intended for a team of single curates, by the Birmingham metalworker and architect Arthur Stansfield Dixon (1856-1929).

The eastern end of the church – chancel, guild chapel and two bays of the nave – was completed in 1894 and consecrated two years later;  the western end including the baptistery and bellcote was finished by the end of 1898.

Once the shell of the church was complete, Arts & Crafts designers supplied much of the decoration:  Bertram Lamplugh of the Birmingham School of Art designed the Good Shepherd window in the Guild Chapel in 1907, and Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945) and W E Ellery Anderson (1888-1942) collaborated with the incumbent, Canon Newell Long, to begin an ambitious decorative scheme, some of which remained unexecuted because of the intervention of the Great War.  The last decorative addition during Canon Long’s incumbency was the free-standing reredos for the Sanctuary by Ellery Anderson, executed by Mowbray & Sons of Oxford and dedicated in 1921.

The grandiose celebrations of Anglo-Catholic worship created continuing problems within the politics of the Birmingham diocese.  Bishop Ernest W Barnes (1874-1953;  bishop 1924-1953) took against the figures on the Rood Screen, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and the use of incense, and at one stage refused to take confirmations within the parish.

St Aidan’s was valued highly by the early aficionados of Victorian and Edwardian art and architecture, such as John Betjeman – “[a] successful Perpendicular design in red brick and terra cotta”, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner – “a striking and successful example of the local red brick and terracotta school...with an atmosphere much encouraged by the splendid Rood and Screens”.  The Victorian Society identified it as “one of the six or seven finest Victorian churches in Birmingham”.

Housing clearance and the collapse of the BSA company in 1973 encouraged the flight of the local population.  By 1991, only nine of St Aidan’s communicants lived within the parish boundary.  Meanwhile an influx of Asian families meant that by 1997 at least 65% of the population within the parish was Muslim, and most of the local schools had at least 90% Muslim pupils on roll.

From 1994 the diocese of Birmingham closed and disposed of surplus buildings in the parishes of St Gregory and St Oswald, and concentrated activity on the St Aidan’s site, while renaming the parish All Saints to commemorate the dedication of the original early Victorian parish.

The St Aidan’s building was radically reordered, reversing the direction of worship to use the apsidal baptistery as a sanctuary, enlarging the Lady Chapel to provide an intimate worship space and forging an entrance directly on to the street with a meeting-hall above where the High Altar had formerly stood.

The Victorian Society vigorously opposed this attack on the historical integrity of the building, and in 1998 forced the issue to a Consistory Court where the Chancellor found against them, accusing the Society of acting “arrogantly, unreasonably and without common sense”.

This fine church, the “Cathedral of the Back Streets”, continues to serve its purpose under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet in an environment vastly different to that for which it was built.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2013

Category:Fun PalacesLatest

Funny Girls, Blackpool

In the summer of 1939 Blackpool ignored the possibility of war.

The huge new Art Deco, 2,920-seat Opera House auditorium opened in the Winter Gardens, starring George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned Out Nice Again.

A short distance down Dickson Road the Odeon Cinema, designed by W Calder Marshall for Harry Weedon, opened on May 6th 1939.  Its capacity of 3,088 made this the largest auditorium in the company’s chain, bigger even than the flagship cinema in London’s Leicester Square:  it cost £82,500.

This was one of the relatively few 1930s Odeons intended to have an organ, a magnificent five-manual Compton instrument, big enough to stand comparison with the Wurlitzers in the Tower and Winter Gardens.  Oscar Deutsch disapproved of theatre organs:  he thought they were a waste of money. 

As it happened, the Odeon organ was not delivered until after war broke out, and was apparently bombed in the railway sidings at Blackpool.  Eventually, in 1946, the Conacher organ from the Ritz, Southend, was installed.

The Blackpool Odeon was tripled in October 1975 and closed in 1998.

It stood derelict for some years, until Basil Newby recreated it magnificently as Funny Girls, refreshing the meaning of the expression “holiday camp”.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire's Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 14, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry HousesLatest

Sion Hill Hall

Sion Hill Hall has been described – convincingly but imprecisely – as “the last of the great country houses”.  It was built for Percy Stancliffe, the son of a wealthy brewer by one of Yorkshire’s foremost local architects, Walter H Brierley, in 1912-3. 

Walter Brierley (1862-1926) was a partner in the dominant York architectural practice which was begun in the eighteenth century by John Carr and had included in the intervening years such figures as J P Pritchett (1789-1868) and G T Andrews (1804-55, architect to the North Eastern Railway).

Like John Carr, Walter Brierley’s fame was limited because his work is concentrated in the North.  He built a rich collection of houses, churches and public buildings including a distinctive series of 1890s school buildings for the York School Board and the Principal's House at the King's Manor in York.  He restored Sledmere House after the major fire in 1911 and designed Welbeck Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, which was built (1930-1) after his death.

At Sion Hill Hall there were temperamental clashes between the rich but parsimonious Percy Stancliffe and his perfectionist architect, whose belief that “cheap work is always there to remind and annoy us” did not encourage a quiet relationship.

Nevertheless, the resulting building made Brierley’s reputation as “the Lutyens of the North”, and its expansive horizontal façades, enlivened by generous hipped roofs and tall chimneys, have a strong air of assurance, with an ambitious classical doorcase, dated 1913, as an entrance and on the south-facing garden front, roundels and painted shutters.

In fact, the house is only one room deep, with connecting corridors the length of the north front and all the principal rooms facing the sunny south.  At the western end the corners are stepped, so that Percy Stancliffe’s study and his wife’s boudoir share the advantage of south- and west-facing windows.

(The real Edwin Lutyens, on one of his rare Northern commissions, took no nonsense from his rich Yorkshire client, whom he despised.)

Percy Stancliffe lived at Sion Hill House until his death in 1949.  It was eventually purchased in 1962 by a remarkable collector, Herbert W Mawer (1903-1982), who rose from humble origins, trained as a chef at the Royal Station Hotel in Hull and started his own model bakery, “Our Herbert’s”, at Stokesley in 1926.  The family business prospered enough for Herbert to retire in his forties with sufficient wealth to support a passion for antiques which had begun with the purchase of two candlesticks for £1 5s in Hull when he was eighteen.

In the late 1930s he bought Ayton Hall near Guisborough, but by the 1950s that modest Georgian house was too small to house his accumulating possessions.

Herbert Mawer chose, in the absence of an heir, to establish the H W Mawer Trust to administer Sion Hill Hall and the Mawer Collection, which has since his death been increased to include the remarkable pot that contained the Breckenbrough Hoard (discovered in 1985) and paintings by the identical twins Dorothy and Elizabeth Alderson (respectively 1900-1992 and 1900-1987), who were Herbert Mawer’s aunts.

The house is open for group visits by prior arrangement:

Posted by: mike on Nov 11, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Midland Railway Butterley:  46203 Princess Margaret Rose

Midland Railway Butterley:  46203 Princess Margaret Rose

Billy Butlin (1899-1980) was as sharp as a tack.

South African-born, raised in Canada, he came to England with £5, of which he invested £4 in a stall at his uncle’s fair.  From this humble start as a showman he built his empire of holiday camps.

He was astute.  Fred Pontin once told him, “You’ve taught me everything I know about holiday camps.”  To which Butlin responded, “Maybe, but not everything I know.”

He had a pragmatic attitude to the finer things of life.  To furnish the chapels that he installed in each of his camps, he instructed his staff to source paintings – “religious, big, and not more than fifty quid”.

When British Railways were scrapping steam locomotives in the early 1960s, Billy Butlin bought eight as ornaments for his camps at Ayr, Minehead, Pwllheli and Skegness.

He saved four tank-engines (three LB&SCR Terriers and an L&SWR dock-tank) and four magnificent express locomotives from the LM&SR – all of which are now in serious preservation – purely so that kids could climb on them and be photographed in front of them.

Thanks to Billy Butlin we can still enjoy 6100 Royal Scot, 6203 Princess Margaret Rose and two of the huge ‘Princess Coronation’ class – 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, now in the National Railway Museum restored to its original streamlined shape, and 6233 Duchess of Sutherland, currently earning its keep pulling charter specials on the main lines.

6203 Princess Margaret Rose is one of the jewels in the crown of the Midland Railway Butterley [], where the Princess Royal Class Trust [] has its base.

Occasionally, when tour itineraries require it, Princess Margaret Rose is visited by its sister engine 6201 Princess Elizabeth, named after the present Queen.

Then it is possible for the Trust to wheel out its two 21-inch-guage replicas of the two locomotives, which were also built for Butlin’s Camps, alongside.

Two locomotives, in two sizes – all side by side.  Unique, as far as I know.  All thanks to Billy Butlin.

Posted by: mike on Nov 9, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

National Fork Truck Heritage Centre

Of all the topics I’ve come across in a lifetime of researching architectural and social history, the development of the fork-lift truck is singularly bereft of humour, entertainment or engaging personalities.

In the fork-lift world there’s nobody like Percy Shaw, who invented the retro-reflective road marker or “cat’s-eye” [].

Instead, there’s a simple story of complex machines that can shift and stack heavy loads without overbalancing – machines which we tend to take entirely for granted.

One of the few fork-lift history websites [] declares, “Everything we eat or wear, and everything in our home, including the materials to build the house itself, has at some stage been stored and handled by materials handling equipment.”

The National Forklift Truck Heritage Centre [] preserves the heritage and the archives of these clever pieces of kit.

The Centre’s collection spans from the oldest fork-lift truck in existence, a Yale model of 1926, to examples from the end of the twentieth century.

Who would cross the road to see a collection of eighty-odd fork-lift trucks?  Anybody who’s ever driven one, for sure.  Engineers, and those with an appreciation of engineering, certainly.

In fact, ordinary tourists, families out for the weekend and railway enthusiasts find their way to the Centre because it’s part of the Midland Railway Butterley museum in Derbyshire:

In addition, the rental that the Centre presumably pays to the Midland Railway Butterley helps to develop their hugely ambitious transport-museum campus.

It’s a win-win situation.  Uplifting, so to speak.

Posted by: mike on Nov 7, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLatest

Midland Railway Butterley, Swanwick Junction

Midland Railway Butterley, Swanwick Junction

First-time visitors to the Midland Railway Butterley, Derbyshire, the biggest and most comprehensive attempt to commemorate one of Britain’s finest pre-Grouping railway companies, might initially be underwhelmed by the presentation of the place.

Riding in a rag-tag collection of railway carriages with slow speeds, limited mileage and much standing in stations may not impress at first.

The full length of the line is 3½ miles, and you can’t get off at either end, but the main site at Swanwick Junction is extensive.

There are meticulously reconstructed station buildings in the classic Midland design at Butterley and Swanwick Junction, four Midland-pattern signal boxes and other structures including the tin church of St Saviour from Westhouses, Derbyshire.

There are actually several railways:  apart from the standard-gauge line there’s a narrow-gauge railway, a miniature railway and a garden railway.

In a succession of museum buildings there are locomotives, rolling stock, buses, stationary steam engines and the national collection of historic fork-lift trucks.

A notice in one of the museum buildings apologises for the dust – because “we are a working museum”.

That’s the key.

This is a hugely ambitious project, driven by a consortium of preservation groups, “dedicated to the glory of the Midland Railway”, according to the website strapline:

The scale of the task is measured by the contrast between the finished preservation projects, such as the Midland Railway royal saloon and the only surviving Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway coach, and the desperately decayed relics waiting for attention.

Butterley reminds me of the Sydney Tramway Museum in New South Wales – another grand scheme to recreate a vanished and much celebrated transport system.

The Midland Railway project has been at Butterley now for forty years, and it might take another forty to accomplish the vision.  No doubt an influx of volunteers and repeated injections of cash would help, but the place is busy.

I spoke to a seasoned enthusiast on the train back to Butterley.  “There’s a lot here,” he said.  He thought he’d be on his way home by 2.30 and it was coming up to half past four.

That’s the short-term measure of success – and the encouragement to return.

Posted by: mike on Nov 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesLatest

Reform Synagogue, Bowland Street, Bradford

Reform Synagogue, Bowland Street, Bradford

The Bradford Jewish communities were never numerically large, perhaps a hundred families in the late-nineteenth century, but they were extremely influential.

The German and Danish Jews whose warehouses are now called “Little Germany” were not refugees, but came in search of prosperity in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  They assimilated, and then coalesced into the city’s Reform Congregation.

From their ranks came four Bradford mayors, including Charles Joseph Semon (1814-1877;  Mayor 1864-5) and Jacob Moser (1839-1922;  Mayor 1910-11), as well as the merchant Sir Jacob Behrens (1806-1889) and Professor Friederich Wilhelm Eurich (1867–1945) who led the search for a cure for cutaneous anthrax or “wool-sorter’s disease”.  The composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and the painter Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) both came from Bradford German-Jewish families.

This Reform Congregation built the magnificent Moorish Grade II*-listed Reform Synagogue on Bowland Street, designed by T H & F Healey in 1881, a rare and fine survival of the Islamic Revival style.

In the 1880s, fleeing the pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, came Russian Jews who disliked the practices of the Reform Synagogue and founded their own Orthodox Synagogue in Spring Gardens in 1906.

The Orthodox community were sufficiently confident of their future to close the Spring Gardens synagogue in 1970 and move to a modern building at Springhurst Road, Shipley.  The Spring Gardens building, with the inscription above its doorway, “How goodly are your tents, O Israel”, is now the Al Mumin independent Muslim primary school, and the Orthodox Congregation had to close their Shipley synagogue in April 2013 because they no longer had sufficient numbers to hold services.

Meanwhile, the Reform Congregation of around thirty-five people somehow manages to maintain their building and hold monthly services:

Among the supporters who have helped this tiny community financially are the Bradford Council of Mosques and other members of the local Muslim community:

The local MP, George Galloway, tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons which congratulated “the members of the Bradford Muslim community for their extraordinary ecumenical gesture in raising a very large sum of money to repair the roof of Bradford’s last remaining synagogue, thereby enabling members of the Jewish community to continue to worship there;  and believes that this generous gesture shows the true spirit of Islam towards other People of the Book.”

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 1, 2013

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernLatest

Crofton Pumping Station

Crofton Pumping Station is a very precious and also a very pleasant place to be, if you can find it.

If you’re sailing on the Kennet & Avon Canal you can’t miss it, because it stands beside the locks as they climb to the canal summit approaching Bruce Tunnel.

If you’re driving it’s near the Wiltshire village of Great Bedwyn and well signposted – once you find Great Bedwyn.

All canals that cross a watershed represent an engineering compromise between climbing and tunnelling.  The Leeds & Liverpool Canal experienced recurrent maintenance problems because of the engineer Robert Whitworth’s recommendation to build Foulridge Tunnel.  The parallel Rochdale Canal suffered from water-supply difficulties following William Jessop’s suggestion of eliminating a 1½-mile tunnel by building more locks to a higher summit.

The Kennet & Avon Canal, like the Rochdale, was built with a very short, high summit pound which contained insufficient water to replace the two lockfuls that each passing boat took away with it.

Crofton Pumping Station was built in 1802 to back-pump water from the locks up to the canal summit.

The original engine was replaced in 1846, and the 1812 Boulton & Watt engine that remains is the oldest working steam-engine still in situ.

Under Great Western Railway ownership the pumping station was neglected, but both engines continued to pump until 1952, when pumping was transferred first to a diesel pump and then to an electric one.

The 1812 engine operated occasionally until 1958, when the top twenty feet of the chimney was dismantled leaving insufficient draught to run the boilers.  Though the steam engines were, in effect, retired the resident engineer, Mr Wilmot, continued to keep them in workable order.

The pumping station was purchased in 1968 by the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, and a volunteer team returned the 1812 engine to steam, with an electric fan to supplement the natural draught, in April 1970.  Initial teething troubles were resolved in time for Sir John Betjeman to perform the opening ceremony in August.

The second engine was subsequently restored by a team of Rolls Royce apprentices, and returned to steam in November 1971, and the chimney was restored to its original height in 1996-7.

So now you can experience the engines working within the original engine-house, or watch the boats working the locks as the trains pass by alongside the canal, or sit inside the Engineman's Rest Café eating home-made food and drinking real beer.

The place is a welcoming experience for boaters and gongoozlers alike:

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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