Posted by: mike on Apr 21, 2014

Category:Transports of delightLiverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesLatest

Museum of Liverpool:  Liverpool Overhead Railway 3

Liverpool’s trio of Edwardian buildings fronting Pier Head – the Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the former Mersey Docks & Harbour Board Building – are collectively known as the “Three Graces”.

The design of Liverpool’s “Fourth Grace” – to occupy Mann Island, the space next to the Pier Head group – brought lengthy controversy.

The initial scheme, for Will Alsop’s design “The Cloud”, described by one journalist as a “diamond knuckleduster”, was eventually dismissed as expensive and impractical:, and

The eventual outcome was the Museum of Liverpool by the architects 3XN and engineers Buro Happold, an altogether quieter building that provides a surprising amount of space for exhibits and offers superb views along the river front.

Here at last are opportunities to savour some of the most significant major exhibits that could rarely if ever be displayed in the limited amount of museum space that was previously available.

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway locomotive Lion, built in 1837, latterly the star of the 1953 film The Titfield Thunderbolt and last steamed in 1989, rests alongside a reproduction stretch of the former Liverpool Overhead Railway viaduct, on which stands the one remaining vehicle from that much-mourned fleet.

Upstairs, the great model of the unbuilt Roman Catholic Cathedral designed between the wars by Sir Edwin Lutyens stands before a panorama showing exactly how this vast structure would have dominated the Liverpool skyline and streetscape.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, in the amount of time it demands, is Ben Johnson’s huge, minutely-detailed painting ‘Liverpool Cityscape’ (2005-8) commissioned for the Liverpool Capital of Culture Year and now permanently displayed at the Museum.

These are the star attractions of a rich, constantly evolving museum that celebrates one of the vibrant cities in the UK:

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 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 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 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 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 Oct 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, Bavaria

Hohenschwangau (foreground) and Neuschwanstein (background)

Among the tourist highlights of Bavaria are the fascinating castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, the former built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria (1811-1864) and both most vividly associated with his son, Ludwig II (1845-1886), who is a most interesting, sad figure.

Hohenschwangau reminded me a great deal of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, whereas the vast, unfinished Neuschwanstein has the dark, dreamy Gothic quality of Pugin’s Alton Towers and Alton Castle, and Burges’ Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.

Both sit high above the valley – Hohenschwangau beside the lake Alpsee on a prominent hill which is no great problem to surmount by stairs or a circuitous driveway;  Neuschwanstein high up the valley side.

There’s no easy way to Neuschwanstein:  the shuttle bus only runs in the summer;  the horse-drawn carriages are in heavy demand;  the line of least resistance is, paradoxically, to walk.  It took me over half an hour, with regular stops on the way.  Even the wheeled transport gives out well below the castle gatehouse.

Both castles operate a strict timed-ticket admission system, to the nearest five minutes, and there are no compromises for latecomers.  My guide at Hohenschwangau was audible, precise and unhurried.  Neuschwanstein was a very different matter.  When I arrived at the gatehouse there appeared to be a species of riot going on, which turned out to be a large group of Italian teenagers who stood between me and the gents, though not for long.

When we got inside we were herded round in a group of over forty, with a determined lady guide who did surprisingly well in the circumstances.  The traipse through a series of astonishing interiors, intricately decorated like a mad version of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, is crowded with swans (hence Neuschwanstein – new-swan-stone) at every turn.

There’s little wonder that Ludwig, a seriously damaged personality, brought up by distant parents, conflicted about his sexuality and his Roman Catholicism, introverted and reclusive and addicted to building using his own rather than the state’s financial resources yet drowning in debt, was eventually dethroned by despairing practical politicians.

His mysterious death four days after his deposition secured his place as a national hero. 

Neuschwanstein was opened to the public six weeks after his death, and his castles, ironically, have become a significant source of prosperity to the surrounding district.

Posted by: mike on Oct 21, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Groudle Glen Railway:  Sea Lion Rocks

Many of the Manx glens remain open to the public, but one above all recaptures the atmosphere of its late-Victorian heyday because of the restoration by a team of ten volunteers of the Groudle Glen Railway.

Richard Maltby Broadbent, the owner of Bibaloe Farm, Onchan, built the Groudle Hotel, and opened Groudle Glen as a resort to coincide with the opening of the Manx Electric Railway in 1893.

He added to the glen’s amenities by opening a miniature railway in 1896 to carry visitors to see the imported Californian sea-lions at a zoo at Sea Lion Rocks.  The service became successful enough to justify supplementing the original locomotive, Sea Lion, with a companion, Polar Bear (1905).

After the First World War battery-electric locomotives were used for six years, but proved to be so unreliable that the original steam locomotives were overhauled and returned to service.

The Groudle Glen Railway reopened after the Second World War in 1950, but a landslip made the terminus inaccessible.  The line was abandoned in the late 1950s, briefly reopened in 1962, but was then closed and lifted.

In the 1980s it was rebuilt by the Isle of Man Steam Railway Supporters Association:  diesel-hauled trains as far as the Headland began running in May 1986, until Sea Lion, fully restored by BNFL Sellafield apprentices, was ready for service in October 1987.

The line was restored to Sea Lion Rocks in May 1992, and a tea-room with spectacular views now stands at the terminus.

The railway has gone from strength to strength in the past twenty years and is well worth seeking out:

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes an optional visit to the Groudle Glen Railway if the 2014 timetable permits.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 19, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Snaefell Mountain Railway:  Laxey

The Snaefell Mountain Railway really shouldn’t exist – a line to a bleak mountain top, using barely altered Victorian technology, built to a different gauge to the line it connects with.

While Alexander Bruce was engaged in constructing what became the Manx Electric Railway he was also driving an electric-powered mountain railway, the first in the British Isles, to the summit of Snaefell, the “snow mountain”, just over 2,000 feet above sea level.

For this he enlisted the engineer George Noble Fell, whose father, John Barraclough Fell, had developed an Incline Railway system, involving a central third rail to provide extra adhesion.  Because of this additional rail, the Snaefell Mountain Railway has a gauge of 3ft 6in.

The line was built with astonishing speed, beginning in January 1895:  despite the “Great Snow” and a navvies’ strike, the 4½-mile route, climbing at an average gradient of 1 in 12, was complete and ready to operate – with track and overhead in place and a coal-fired power station halfway up the mountain – in less than eight months.  The opening ceremony took place on August 20th 1895.

It turned out that the six 100hp electric cars, the most powerful in Britain at the time, could cope with the gradient without the Fell drive, but the centre rail was retained for braking.

In 1896 a hotel, which became known as the Bungalow, was built at the halfway passing loop and a further battlemented hotel was constructed at the summit in 1906.

Through all the political uncertainties that threatened the island’s railways as traffic declined from the 1950s onwards, the Snaefell cars have run up and down the mountain.

Car 5, destroyed by fire in August 1970, was rebuilt and returned to service within a year;  the entire Snaefell fleet was equipped with new bogies built by London Transport and electrical equipment from Aachen tramways in the mid-1970s.

The Summit hotel was burnt down in 1982 and rebuilt two years later, and new car sheds were built for the Snaefell fleet in 1995.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the Snaefell line has more purpose than ever – the Summit Sunday lunches, sunset dinners, astronomical suppers (branded “Pie in the Sky”) with telescopes provided.

Only in the Isle of Man…

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a trip to the Summit on the Snaefell Mountain Railway.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 17, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manx Electric Railway: Groudle Glen

When the Manx Electric Railway was developed in the 1890s it brought the best and newest transport technology to the Isle of Man and opened up the east of the island to property development.

It was masterminded by energetic engineers and financed by smoke and mirrors.

In 1889 the manager of Dumbell’s Bank, Alexander Bruce, and a civil engineer called Frederick Saunderson bought land north of Douglas and sold it on to Douglas Bay Estate Company for housing development. 

They consulted leading experts in the new technology of electric traction, Dr Edward Hopkinson and Sir William Mather of Mather & Platt, Salford, over the construction of 2¼ miles of 3ft-gauge track from Douglas to Groudle, with gradients of 1 in 24 at each end of the route.  The initial service, using three electric cars, began on September 7th 1893, and carried over 20,000 passengers in the first three weeks.

The following year the original company was renamed the Douglas Bay Estate & Groudle Glen Company Ltd, and it promoted the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Company to extend the line to the harbour town of Laxey.

The company, having taken over the Douglas horse-trams and promoted the Upper Douglas Tramway, was renamed the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd.  It subsequently took over Bruce’s Snaefell Mountain Railway which ran from Laxey to the top of the island’s highest peak.

By the time the line reached Ramsey – 17½ miles from Douglas – in 1899, the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company had become an established and powerful force in the Island’s economy.  The company was carrying well over two million passengers by 1896, a quarter of them on the partly-completed electric railways, and 2,500 tons of goods, including quarry traffic.

However, expenditure up to early 1899 amounted to £518,000, which was covered by capital of only £336,000.  Half-yearly dividends of up to 8½% were paid, and the company secretary, quietly and understandably, resigned in January 1900.  When in February 1900 Parr’s Bank foreclosed on a loan of £150,000 to Dumbells’ Bank, the bank, and with it the tramways and the power company, were finished.

The electric railway, along with the Douglas horse and cable trams, continued to operate in liquidation, and the Douglas-Ramsey and Snaefell lines were purchased in 1902, first by a UK syndicate for £250,000, and then sold on to the London-registered Manx Electric Railway Company for £375,000.  This new owner put the electric railways back on their feet, repurchasing in addition the Dhoon quarry and the original company’s string of hotels.  It also opened the Snaefell Summit Hotel in 1906 and owned or operated the Laxey, Ballaglass, Garwick and Dhoon glens as resorts.

In 1906 the electric railways carried 535,021 passengers, generating £34,279 profit.  By 1913 over 700,000 passengers were carried, and the undertaking was solvent and paying dividends.

So the Isle of Man gained a superb late-Victorian transport facility which earned its keep well into the twentieth century and remains as a much-loved government-owned tourist attraction that has repeatedly escaped closure by the inimitable twists and turns of Manx politics.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop visit to the Manx Electric Railway depot at Derby Castle, and uses the railway repeatedly as a means of travel.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 25, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesBirmingham's Heritage

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Town Hall was the centre of its musical life from its opening in 1834 until 1991, and the home base for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from its inauguration in 1920.

When Sir Simon Rattle became Principal Conductor & Artistic Adviser in 1980, and Music Director from 1990, he made it his business not only to develop the orchestra further but to provide it with a better home.

He had told Russell Johnson, head of the acoustic consultants Artec of New York, that “If I am ever involved in a new concert hall, you will design it...”

And they did.

Symphony Hall is primarily a concert hall which can be adapted for conference use, with 2,200 seats, 63m long, 31m wide and 22m high.  The seating is tiered, with 877 on the main floor, 347 on the first gallery-tier, 291 on the second and 485 on the third.  At the rear of the platform there is seating for a choir of up to two hundred.

The design combines traditional materials and sophisticated technology to provide flexible acoustics for every musical genre from chamber music to the most ambitious orchestral and choral works.  It has sliding acoustic control banners to reduce reverberance, an adjustable reverberation chamber above and behind the stage fitted with twenty concrete swing-doors each weighing approximately eight tons to vary the volume of the auditorium by up to 30% and a 42-tonne acoustic canopy.

Its reverse fan shape is based on traditional opera houses and concert halls, with the audience stacked in tiers in a narrow chamber.

Russell Johnson advocates using wood “...similar to that of a violin”.  The perimeter walls of the Hall are one foot thick, and much of the acoustic quality comes from this sheer weight of materials.

Ironically, this masterpiece of modern acoustic design stands only 35m from the busiest rail tunnel in Britain, running under Monument Lane to the southern approach to New Street Station.  In fact the Hall is located as far away as possible from the railway line.  (A proposal to create further space by moving the Crown public house across the canal was rejected.)  The railway tracks were relaid with rubber-lined sleepers, and the silence of the Hall is protected by noise-insulating piles and mountings designed by Ove Arup & Partners.

Like its predecessor, the Town Hall, it was incomplete when it was opened.  The front pipes and casework for the Klais organ were installed in time for the opening by HM Queen Elizabeth II on June 12th 1991;  the organ itself – the largest mechanical-action instrument in the United Kingdom – was inaugurated in 2001.

Now the two halls run in tandem, providing the city of Birmingham with an unrivalled diet of musical experiences.

Take a look at what’s on – the variety is astonishing:

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 Aug 11, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Bayerische Zugspitzbahn

The Bavarian Zugspitze Railway [Bayerische Zugspitzbahn] is an outstanding travel experience – a 19-kilometre journey by metre-guage electric railcar from Garmisch [sic] station at 705 metres above sea-level to the Zugspitzplatt (2,588 metres) near the summit of the Zugspitze mountain, 2,962 metres (9,718 ft), the highest point in Germany.

The railway was originally driven in 1930 to a higher point, Schneefernerhaus (2,650 metres) where a hotel was constructed:  the hotel is now a scientific field-study centre, serviced by the railway.

The first part of the journey is a conventional, fairly speedy route along the valley floor, until at Grainau the rack-section begins and the train climbs precipitously up to a tunnel-mouth at Riffelriss (1640 metres above sea level).

From then on the entire journey is in tunnel, 4,466 metres (14,652 feet).  The smart advice is to travel at the front of the train so you don’t have to climb the last few feet along the sloping station platform.

The physical effects of being at high altitude are immediately noticeable:  walking up a short flight of stairs produces disconcerting breathlessness, and I found that when I came out of the cold fresh air into a warm interior my voice wouldn’t work for a few moments.

I was told that coming up to this height gradually by rail was a better idea than using the cablecar that covers the 6,398 feet from the lake to near the summit in ten minutes.

The little chapel above the tourist centre was consecrated in 1981 by the then Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.

The indoor facilities at the top are fairly spartan, understandably geared to skiers.

Outside on the plateau, making the most of the superb 360° view across the Alps on either side of the border between Germany and Austria, is a circular restaurant with a revolving roof to catch the sun and shade as required.  It’s the most congenial place on the Zugspitzplatt to shelter for refreshments, though the food-menu is necessarily restricted because of the location.

Posted by: mike on Aug 9, 2013

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Igls Bahnhof, Austria

Igls Bahnhof, Innsbruck, Austria

There’s much to attract the visitor in the Austrian city of Innsbruck.  One of the less likely enjoyments for a first-time visitor is an astonishing curiosity, the Igls tramway [Innsbrucker Mittelgebirgsbahn] – in English, the Innsbruck Central Mountain Railway.

It joins end-on to the Innsbruck city tram-system, which is now a state-of-the-art light rapid transit, with dignified claret-coloured Bombardier trams very similar to the new Blackpool fleet.

The Igls line, which runs as Route 6, climbs sharply away from the streets and disappears into deep forest, climbing steadily by means of cuttings, embankments and hairpin bends to an upland level of pastures, dotted with expensive residences.  It serves two intermediate villages, Aldrans and Lans, and passes a couple of recreational lakes, the Mühlsee [Mill Lake] and Lanser See.  The surviving original Igls Bahnhof building is a generous-sized branch-line station.

It could hardly be a serious tram-route:  its purpose could only be for pleasure, carving its way through the woods, and it has a strong resemblance to the Manx Electric Railway with the practical pointlessness of the Snaefell Mountain Railway.

Surely, I thought, it can’t have run by any other means than electricity.

But it did.  It was conceived as an adhesion steam railway in 1900, and only converted to electric traction in 1936. 8½ kilometres long, it was intended to connect the upland town of Igls with the centre of Innsbruck, yet has never penetrated more than three-quarters of a mile from the centre of Igls, which is now served by buses.

Nevertheless, the tram is more fun than the bus, and is within easy walking distance of coffee and cake.

There’s a detailed history of the line, eccentrically translated into English, at

Posted by: mike on Jul 18, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Lytham St Annes Lifeboat House

St Annes’ splendid modern £1.3 million lifeboat house, completed in 2003, offers members of the public a view of the boat, currently Her Majesty The Queen.

It is one of ten modern lifeboat stations by the Cornwall-based practice Poynton Bradbury Wynter Cole, who also designed the RNLI College, Poole (2004).

The historical display describes and commemorates the wreck of the Mexico, which resulted in the greatest loss of life in the history of the British lifeboat service on the night of December 9th 1886.

The entire thirteen-man crew of the St Annes lifeboat, Laura Janet, were drowned when it capsized on its way to assist.  Fourteen of the sixteen crew-members of the Southport lifeboat, Eliza Fernley, similarly perished when their boat capsized.

All the twelve crew-members of the German-registered Mexico were rescued by the fifteen-man crew of the Lytham lifeboat, Charles Biggs, on their maiden rescue.

The men who died were fishermen, most of them living in varying degrees of poverty.  They left sixteen widows and fifty orphans.

As a result, Charles Macara, a Manchester businessman who had taken up residence in St Annes, helped to initiate Lifeboat Saturdays, fundraising events which began in Manchester and Salford in 1891 and rapidly spread to other towns and cities.

The RNLI continues to rely entirely on voluntary donations and bequests to support the volunteer crews who continue to save lives at sea throughout Britain:

Posted by: mike on Jul 15, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Grimsthorpe Castle:  north front

It’s curious how the flat lands of Lincolnshire produce architectural surprises.  Tattershall Castle can be seen from miles away, but Grimsthorpe Castle, though it’s visible from the main road, is a sudden revelation.

The show front is unmistakably the work of Sir John Vanburgh, the architect of Castle Howard (1699-1726), Blenheim Palace (1705 onwards) and Seaton Delaval Hall (c1720-8).

Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus Volume III (1725) shows three elevations, dated 1722, respectively for the north, south and west or east sides of the house.  These façades were intended to mask rather than entirely replace the earlier fabric behind, as at Vanburgh’s Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire (1707-9).

Vanburgh was commissioned by the first Duke of Ancaster who died in August 1723, but Vanburgh was almost immediately summoned by his son, Peregrine, 2nd Duke, to begin construction which was under way before Vanburgh’s death in 1726.

Once the north front and forecourt were completed, possibly under the supervision of Nicholas Hawksmoor, around 1730 the project abruptly stopped.

Walking round the four sides of this huge courtyard house shows that it is in fact a palimpsest:  though the facades were tidied up in 1811, it’s obvious that the fabric grew over centuries:  the earliest identifiable fragment dates from the twelfth century.

It’s one of the English country houses that developed in interesting ways during the twentieth century.

When Gilbert, 2nd Earl of Ancaster, inherited Grimsthorpe Castle in 1910, he and his American wife, Eloise, brought in the architects Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey and the decorators Lenygon & Company to modernise the house and built a service wing in the courtyard.

After wartime military occupation, the estates and titles passed in 1951 to the 2nd Earl’s son, James, 3rd Earl of Ancaster and 27th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, who with his countess, Phyllis Astor, employed the architect R J Page and the decorator John Fowler to alter and improve the house, replacing the Edwardian service block with a single-storey kitchen range and turning the riding school into a garage.

Now Grimsthorpe Castle belongs to the third Earl’s daughter, Jane Marie Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby.

It’s one of the finest country-house experiences for miles around.  It deserves a whole day:  there’s plenty to see, do, eat and drink.

Of all the entertainments on offer at Grimsthorpe, the ranger-led Park Tour by minibus is particularly good value:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  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 Jul 12, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiences

Todmorden Industrial & Co-operative Society

When I’m hungry in Todmorden, on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, I head for the old-fashioned Co-op.  It’s not a co-op any more, though it retains its splendid iron-and-glass two-storey shop front emblazoned with the title ‘Todmorden Industrial & Co-operative Society Limited’.  The building dates from the 1860s, and was refurbished when the Co-operative Society took it over as its haberdashery department in 1910. 

Now it’s the Bear Café [], a vehemently wholefood shop and café bringing the very finest local produce in conjunction with the food hub Incredible Edible Todmorden Unlimited

Sometimes you simply can’t get a seat at the Bear Café, so next door is Bramsche Bar [], a little more relaxed and slightly less purist, offering alcohol and meat for those who’re so inclined.  I had eggs Benedictine, which is a combination of the ham and spinach components of Benedict and Florentine.

There used to be a nice little café with interesting posters in the loo which has now been transformed into Hanuman Thai & 3 Wise Monkeys Pub [] which might be worth a look.

And that’s just for starters.

Posted by: mike on Jul 6, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesHumber HeritageFun Palaces

White Horse Inn, Beverley

When I was an undergraduate at Hull University in the late 1960s, what passed for debauchery was a trip on the train to Nellie’s at Beverley.

Once I’d ascertained that Nellie’s was in fact a pub – I was mindful of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), which tells of men who went to the Bear Flag Restaurant for a sandwich – it became, and remains, a favourite.

This famous and memorable hostelry has medieval timbering but has been radically altered in and since the eighteenth century.  It belonged to St Mary’s Church (which stands at the opposite end of the street) probably from 1585, and had become an inn by 1666.

It seems to have changed little since the tenancy was taken on by a sadler, Francis Collinson, in 1887.  Mr Collinson bought the inn in 1927, and after his death it was run by his son, William, and after his death by three of William's sisters, Nellie (after whom it is now popularly known), Ada and Dorothy, who maintained the ancient tradition of opening their private kitchen to drinkers during the evening, serving from a table beside the hand pumps and washing up with hot water from the coal-fired range.

After the three sisters died in rapid succession during 1975-6 the White Horse was sold to Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster:  under this new ownership the nineteenth-century fittings and gas lighting are lovingly preserved, but not the brick wall that served as the original gents’ lavatory.

There is a grandiose unofficial website at  It has a link to the masterly site of Beverley’s chimney-sweep,, which is classic example of internet style and enterprise.  Take a look, even if you don’t have a chimney, aren’t getting married and don’t live in Beverley.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 20, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Ocean Baths, Newcastle, New South Wales

Newcastle, New South Wales is a Geordie home-from-home.

The deep-water estuary of the Hunter River was recognised as a source of coal as soon as it was first explored, in 1797.  After it ceased to be a penal settlement in 1822-3, it was colonised primarily by miners from Northumberland and Durham:  it’s slightly unnerving to anyone who knows the north-east England to find that the Australian city has satellites with names such as Gateshead, Hexham, Jesmond, Morpeth, Pelaw, Stockton and Wallsend.

Already exporting the greatest volume of coal of any harbour in the world, Newcastle expects to increase its annual tonnage from 97Mt in 2009-10 to 180Mt by 2013.

Yet the seashore has beaches as fine as any in Great Britain.  Indeed, it’s probably the only place in the world where miners can go surfing at the weekend, if not immediately after work.

As an alternative to surfing, the seashore offers the open-air Ocean Baths (1922) [] and the Merewether Baths (1935) [], where you can swim in a pool with a sea-view to the horizon.

Like its English counterpart, the Australian Newcastle suffered an economic downturn as the traditional manufacturing industries, particularly steel, went into decline at the end of the last century, but in the past decade the Australian port has been boosted by increases in the prices of coal and iron and easy access to Asian markets.

Newcastle has some of Australia’s finest surviving theatre-buildings, the disused Victoria Theatre (1891) [;search=place_name%3Dvictoria%2520theatre%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=100971], the Regent Cinema, Islington (1928) [], presently a hardware store, and the still-functioning Civic Theatre (1929) [].  Newcastle’s historic theatres and cinemas are listed at

Though Newcastle lost some historic buildings in the 1989 earthquake, its most prominent landmark, the Cathedral Church of Christ the King survived.  The Cathedral is such a magnificent building it deserves an article all to itself.

Posted by: mike on Jun 18, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Newcastle, New South Wales

View from Noah's on the Beach, Newcastle, New South Wales

One of the joys of working for the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, lecturing on one of their three circuits, was the opportunity to travel to ordinary parts of Australia, away from the tourist tracks, and whenever possible – as I did in New Zealand – I took the opportunity to travel surface so that I could see the landscape.

Accordingly, when I lectured to a succession of societies in New South Wales, I travelled twice by rail on the Main North Line from Sydney to Armidale.

This line was the original connection to Queensland, opened between Newcastle and Wallangarra between 1857 and 1888, and then completed south to Sydney in 1889.

The southern section out of Sydney was the most difficult to construct and is the most spectacular. 

Once out of the north Sydney suburbs it shares a route with the freeway, then plunges into the four Boronia Tunnels to Hawkesbury River Station.  From there it disappears into Long Island Tunnel, crosses the thousand-yard Hawkesbury River Bridge (1946, replacing the 1889 original) and immediately enters Mullet Creek Tunnel then skirts the waterside, after Wondabyne Station, into Woy Woy Tunnel, slightly over a mile long.  All the way to Gosford the train provides a constant panorama of the Brisbane Water, alive with boats.

Beyond Gosford the landscape becomes mundane as the line travels through something we no longer have in Britain – an active coalfield.  There are collieries, a power station, a station with the evocative name Sulphide Junction, and another which was originally Windy Creek but was later renamed, by a popular vote of its Welsh miner inhabitants, Cardiff.

Suburban trains from Sydney actually terminate in the city of Newcastle, but I was booked on the once-a-day, more comfortable CountryLink service and disembarked at Broadmeadow, the out-of-town station in the Newcastle suburbs, to meet my Newcastle DFAS hostess Gwen Hamilton.

The Society booked me into the excellent Noah’s-on-the-Beach [], to which one day I’ll return.  The only facility it didn’t offer was free wi-fi, for which I trekked to the Bakehouse, 87-89 Hunter Street.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Drury Hill caves, Nottingham

Nottingham’s City of Caves attraction shows what remains of the Drury Hill cave-system, named after a street that was swept away to make room for the Broadmarsh shopping centre which opened in 1972.

The complex includes the only underground tanneries in Britain, if not the world, dated, by pottery found in the cess-pit, to 1270-1300, and known to have been used as late as 1639.  The tanning process was so obnoxious, involving soaking hides from the slaughterhouses in vats of urine and ordure, that the caves were rat-free and the tanners, who had little else to be cheerful about, were notably immune to the plague.

Further tanneries at the Black’s Head, Drury Hill, behind 14 Low Pavement, were filled in for safety in 1992

The City of Caves website is at  It’s a good idea to switch your computer to mute.

Posted by: mike on May 27, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham

Tony Waltham begins his invaluable study of underground Nottingham, Sandstone Caves of Nottingham (East Midlands Geological Society, 2nd edn, 1996), by saying that there are no caves in Nottingham:  all the cavities which honeycomb the historic centre are man-made.

The Sherwood Sandstone strata on which the city stands is so soft that it’s possible to dig a well by hand faster than the aquifer can fill it.  Indeed, the cavities beneath Nottingham have been used as cellars, dwellings, wells and cisterns, access passages, malt kilns and in one possibly unique case a tannery.  Wealthy householders sometimes dug ornamental garden features out of the rock, and from the late eighteenth-century at least sand was mined as an industrial abrasive.

Some of the existing underground sites date as far back as the twelfth century, and centuries before that a Welsh chronicler refers to a locality called ‘Tiggua Cobaucc’ – the place of the caves.

I’m indebted to my friend Stewart for tipping me off about the Nottingham Caves Survey [], which seeks to map all the surviving underground spaces in and around central Nottingham.  The survey uses laser-scanner technology to produce accurate three-dimensional representations for record, and to create fascinating fly-through videos.

If you’re in Nottingham, of course, some of these fascinating spaces are physically accessible, in some cases for the price of a drink.

The most famous of all, perhaps is the Trip to Jerusalem, a pub which claims a history back to 1189AD, though the buildings are clearly seventeenth-century or later:  Its history is certainly much older than the buildings, because it stands at the foot of the Castle Rock, next to the castle’s Brewhouse Yard.

Drinkers have been calling at the Trip, so it seems, ever since the Crusaders set off to the Holy Land.

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

'Another Place', Crosby Beach

Why is it that local councils want to look a gift horse in the mouth when they’re presented with an opportunity to adopt a tourist attraction of international importance?

Bristol City Council was initially dubious about having the SS Great Britain sitting in the otherwise useless harbour in the 1970s.

Bradford failed to support Jonathan Silver’s attempt to bring the Victoria & Albert Museum’s South Asia collection to the derelict Lister Mill in Manningham.

Sefton Council in Merseyside wasn’t at all keen on Antony Gormley’s haunting collection of cast-iron figures, Another Place, staying very long on Crosby Beach.

Another Place originated in 1997, and Gormley’s figures had previously gazed out to sea in Germany, Norway and Belgium before they were brought to the Mersey estuary as a component of the 4th Liverpool Biennial (2006) and the European Capital of Culture event (2008).

They were intended, when the temporary planning permission for their installation ran out, to be taken to New York, but Sefton Council relented and they are now to remain.

They’re by no means universally popular.  They’re considered a hazard to watersports.  Wildlife authorities worry about the effect of visitors on feeding birds, though biologists study with interest the colonisation of the figures by barnacles.

Some people regard them as pornographic, because each has a “simplified” penis.  Whether the objection is to the penis or the simplification is unclear.

The plethora of brown tourist signs directing motorists to Another Place is stark evidence that this mysterious installation has put Sefton on the map.

When all’s said and done, why else would people traipse down to Burbo Bank, but to gaze on Gormley’s iron men?

Nicholas Wroe’s 2005 profile of Antony Gormley is at

Posted by: mike on Mar 11, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesBirmingham's Heritage

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery [] in the middle of Brindleyplace was formerly the Oozells Street School (Martin & Chamberlain 1877), one of the forty-one designs for the Birmingham School Board produced by Martin & Chamberlain between 1873 and 1898, in this case built to three storeys to make best use of a cramped site.

From 1906 it was the Pupil Teachers’ Centre for Girls, later the Commercial College Day Department and latterly the College of Food and Domestic Arts until 1967.

After years of neglect in the blighted Broad Street area, it was redeveloped for gallery use and its saddle-back ventilation tower rebuilt by Levitt Bernstein Associates (1997).

It’s a superb conversion, for the most part using the original classroom spaces, with modern access needs, including a glass-sided lift, carefully inserted.

Its excellent Café Ikon [] is open to visitors without entering the gallery itself, and is a particularly pleasant place to sit on warm days.  It’s a good idea to beware of the teapots, though:  they’re good to look at but come adrift in the act of pouring.

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 Mar 6, 2013

Category:Sacred placesLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania

St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania

My only chance to see the scale of Tasmania was a bus-journey from Hobart north to Launceston (pronounced Laun-ces-ton with three syllables) – an enjoyable journey following by road an entirely serviceable railway track that hasn’t seen a passenger train since 1978.

My curiosity was aroused by odd places I’d have stopped at if I’d been in a car – Oatlands, its early-nineteenth-century sandstone buildings constructed by convicts, Callington Mill (1837) the only functioning Lincolnshire windmill in the southern hemisphere [], Perth, which has a dignified octagonal Baptist church and a rather sad locomotive “plinthed”, as the website describes it, in a park:

The Launceston Decorative & Fine Arts Society booked me into the splendidly named Clarion City Park Grand Hotel [] and made sure I didn’t starve:  I like to sample southern-hemisphere fish, so at lunch I ordered gummy and potato salad at Silt @ Seaport [now apparently closed –] and after the lecture I was taken for dinner at a carnivore’s nirvana, the Black Cow Bistro

I liked Launceston, where I had a free morning before flying back to Sydney.  The shopping streets are particularly rich in Art Deco buildings.  My particular favourite building, however, was St John’s Anglican Church, a weird pot-pourri of different building phases – a “Regency Gothic” tower dating back to 1830, the chancel and transepts added according to an unfinished plan by the Huddersfield-born architect Alexander North (1848-1945) between 1901 and 1911, with the nave enlarged, again by Alexander North, in 1937-8.  North’s splendid crossing is spanned by a concrete dome, but the massive central tower remains unbuilt.

At the time I visited St John’s I didn’t realise – there’s no reason why I should – that the organ was first installed by Charles Brindley, organ-builder of my native Sheffield, in 1861:   It seems that Brindley, together with his eventual business-partner, Albert Healey Foster, exported organs to the southern hemisphere on a regular basis.

Mike Higginbottom's lecture Gothic Down Under:  English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand.

For details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 30, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Harwich Electric Palace

The survival of the Electric Palace, Harwich is an example of serendipity approaching the miraculous.

This tiny 308-seat picture house, opened on November 29th 1911, was one of hundreds built across Britain in response to the requirements of the Cinematograph Act (1910), which outlawed travelling picture shows and dangerous conversions of pre-existing premises in order to prevent fires and panic.

Designed by the 26-year-old Harold Ridley Hooper of Ipswich, it was commissioned by the East Anglian showman, Charles Thurston.

Built on a backstreet plot vacated by a recent fire, its most prosperous days were 1914-18, when Harwich was a teeming naval base surrounded by army camps.

Thereafter the Palace struggled against bigger and more modern rivals and an inter-war shift of population away from the docks into new housing in Dovercourt.

When it converted to sound films with The Singing Fool on March 10th 1930 the Palace gained a Western Electric system that was superior to those used at the Regent and the Empire cinemas in Dovercourt.

Though it never fully recovered from the damage caused by the 1953 East Coast Flood, it was the entertainment tax, particularly punitive for a small auditorium, that drove the Palace out of business.

It closed on the night of Saturday November 3rd 1956.  Its lessee, Major Bostock, instructed the manager simply “to lock the door and leave it locked”.

And so it remained, vandalised and stripped of anything of value, colonised by stinking feral cats but still with the tickets in the paybox machine, until it was discovered in 1972 by Gordon Miller, a Kingston Polytechnic lecturer running a field-study programme in Harwich.

He enlisted the support of Mrs Winifred Cooper, chairman of the Harwich Society, and one of his former students, David Atwell, who was then in the midst of writing Cathedrals of the Movies (1980), the first serious textbook about cinema architecture in Britain.

The nascent Harwich Electric Palace Trust gained as its first patron Sir John Betjeman, which no doubt helped things along.

To the fury of Harwich Borough Council, who wanted the site for a car park, Gordon Miller’s campaign got the Palace listed, and with increasingly powerful support and favourable media attention the building was cleaned up, restored and reopened as a cinema on its seventieth anniversary, November 29th 1981.

It was one of the very first cinema-preservation projects in Britain, and it remains a delight to visit:

The Cinema Theatre Association’s magazine, Picture House No 37 (2012) reproduces Gordon Miller’s extensive survey and historical account of the Palace, written in 1972 to support the application for listing.  It’s a bulky read, but fascinating and copiously illustrated:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jan 27, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Blackpool Pleasure Beach

Apart from being great fun, the Pleasure Beach has a long, proud history as part of Blackpool’s entertainment culture and as a hugely successful business dedicated, in the words of its former director, Leonard Thomson, to “separating the public from their money as painlessly and pleasurably as possible”.

Leonard Thomson was the son-in-law of one of the co-founders of the Pleasure Beach, William George Bean, who brought an American Hotchkiss Bicycle Railway to Blackpool’s South Shore in 1895 and collaborated with a Yorkshire meat-trader, John W Outhwaite, to import other rides from Coney Island to set up a permanent fairground on what had previously been a gypsy encampment.

Their ambition was to create, in the words of W G Bean, “…an American Style Amusement Park, the fundamental principle of which is to make adults feel like children again and to inspire gaiety of a primarily innocent character”.

In 1906 they contracted for an electricity supply from the Tramways Department, which meant that the rides could operate into the evening, which in turn increased the traffic on the tramway.

When the Corporation widened the Promenade across the site in 1913, Bean and Outhwaite secured an advantageous agreement that no amusement facilities or tram services would be permitted further south for fifteen years.

Their price for varying this agreement when the trams were extended to Starr Gate in 1926 was that all trams made a compulsory stop at the Pleasure Beach, and those trams terminating there showed the destination “Pleasure Beach” rather than “South Shore” – providing free advertising that continues to this day.

When Leonard Thompson died in 1976 his widow Doris became Chairman and their son, Geoffrey Thompson, Managing Director.  Mrs Thompson made a point of testing each new ride as recently as 2002 when, aged 99, she rode the Spin Doctor.

Geoffrey Thompson ran the company until his death at the age of 67 in June 2004:  his mother died, aged 101, shortly after her son’s funeral.

The company is now operated by Geoffrey’s children, Amanda and Nicholas Thompson.

The Pleasure Beach website is at

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 Jan 24, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric Chester

Chester Cathedral Refectory

Chester Cathedral Refectory

It’s hard work being a tourist.  You need to eat and drink.

When my mate Richard and I explored Chester recently, we had reasonable coffee in splendid surroundings at the Queen Hotel, directly opposite the railway station:

At lunchtime we had a pit-stop at a branch of Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street:  This is a dependable food-chain experience, very French – so French, in fact, that I felt compelled to text my Francophone friend John to find out that ‘framboises’ means ‘raspberries’.  It’s a male thing, not liking to ask.

By teatime we’d reached Chester Cathedral.  We both take exception on principle to having to pay admission to a place of worship, but we’re more than happy to pay good money for superb cakes, tea and coffee in the Refectory Café

Richard is adept at real-beer research, so by 5pm opening-time we were at the door of The Albion [], where we put away a couple of pints of a beer called Flying Scotsman (“hints of raisiny spiciness and toasty dryness. Fresh, slightly citrus tang with a rich rounded finish” – while gazing at evocative enamelled advertisements for Colman’s Starch “sold in cardboard boxes”, the Public Benefit Boot Co [] and one with the reassuring strapline that “Craven ‘A’ will not affect your throat”.

For our evening meal we hiked back towards the station to the canal-side Old Harkers Arms [], named after the chandler whose warehouse became a pub in the late 1980s.  Here we drank Great Orme Celtica (“full of citrus taste and aroma – and I ate an excellent steak-and-ale suet pudding.

We saw some buildings too.  See The Scrape School, The other Chester Cathedral and Quaint old Rows.

Posted by: mike on Dec 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiences

Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos, Cuba

When I spent Christmas in Cuba in 2001, the most eccentric building I visited was the Palacio de Valle in Cienfuegos on the south coast:

Built for a wealthy sugar merchant Oclico or Acisclo del Valle y Blanco as a wedding-gift from his father-in-law, it was designed by an unnamed local architect, possibly Pablo Carbonell Donato, and constructed by Alfredo Colli Fanconetti, an Italian civil engineer.  Begun in 1913, it was completed in 1917 at a cost of 1½ million pesos.

It’s an astonishing mixture of styles and materials – marble, alabaster, brass, glass and faience.  The dining room is in the Mudéjar (Andalucian) style, based on the Patio of the Lions in the Alhambra.  The music room is Louis XV.  The three rooftop turrets are respectively gothic, Indian and Moorish, respectively symbolising war, love and religion.

Del Valle died in 1920, and his widow and children left the place a couple of years later.  After passing through a succession of ownerships it was converted by Panchin Batista, brother of the dictator, to a casino in 1950.

After the Revolution it became an art school and is now a restaurant.  When I visited, some years ago, a lady whom our guide described as a “character” played a grand piano very loudly all through the meal.

There’s so much to see and enjoy in Cuba, but in the time I spent there I saw nowhere more memorably unusual than the Palacio de Valle.

Posted by: mike on Dec 20, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Prague

Crowne Plaza Hotel Prague

Yet another of my wanderings around Prague by tram took me on route 20 to Podbab, where I found an astonishing Crowne Plaza Hotel which I considered couldn’t possibly have been built as a hotel.

Sure enough, it turns out to be a defence-ministry building, the creation of the very powerful Stalinist Minister of Defence, Alexej Čepička (1910-1990) who, if his Wikipedia entry is to be believed [], came straight from Central Casting.

According to Wikipedia, its nuclear shelter for 600 people is now the staff cloakroom.

Though the hotel website [] describes its architecture as Art Deco, it was actually constructed in 1952-4.

A Czech website describes the style as “an original combination of the architecture of Socialist Reali known as Sorela, and art-deco of the American type, completed by Czech artists and craftsmen”:

The room-rates aren’t at all bad:  I could stay there.

Posted by: mike on Dec 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Prague

Prague Lapidarium

The Lapidarium, Stromovka, Prague

A random tram journey through suburban Prague on route 5 took me to Stromovka, where I jumped off out of sheer curiosity to find out what on earth was a grandiose building which turned out to be the Industrial Palace of the 1891 exhibition:

The huge expanse around it was virtually deserted.  One building which looked semi-derelict but open turned out to be the Lapidarium [], the Czech National Gallery’s home for old statues.

Here is gathered a plethora of baroque saints and bishops waving their arms about and carrying on – or as my mother would have said “showing off”.  The baroque style is essentially theatrical, so the figures which adorn church interiors, rooftops and the King Charles Bridge camp themselves silly.

It’s a delightful experience to stroll among statues from nine centuries – the noisest, liveliest gathering of figures, totally silent and frozen in time.

Posted by: mike on Dec 12, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Prague

Prague Castle & St Vitus' Cathedral

There’s plenty to eat in Prague.

On the night I arrived I ate at the charming and comfortable Restaurant Benada, next door to the Clarion Hotel [], where I sat on the veranda overlooking the park, dodging the raindrops, to eat veal ossobuco with a glass of representative Czech beer and a cappuccino.

The best lunch I found in the city was round the corner from the Cathedral of St Vitus, the Vikárka Restaurant [], which would be extremely cosy on a cold day, and provides a veranda with people-watching opportunities in good weather.  I had a classic beef goulash [guláš] and another glass of generic Czech beer.

Most evocative of all was Café Slavia [] opened in 1881, the same year as the National Theatre across the road, remodelled in the 1930s, the regular haunt of the dissident playwright Václav Havel in the years before he became president.

The first dinner I had there was a steak of Norwegian salmon roasted in ham with spinach roll strudel and horseradish aioli.  It was memorable, with a large glass of Budweiser.

The following night I grabbed the very best window seat, looking over the Vltava River to the Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral as the sunset faded and the lights came up.  I ate beef broth with meat dumplings, pork tenderlion coated with almond breadcrumbs with a potato salad that included a significant proportion of gherkins, accompanied by another large glass of Budweiser.  I treated myself to a blueberry sponge-cake and a cappuccino.

My final eat-your-way-round-Prague experience was the simplest:  a pot of tea in Paul, a patisserie alongside the I P Pavolva metro-station.  (Make what you can of their website:

Posted by: mike on Dec 7, 2012

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Matlock Bath Royal Well

Royal Well, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

Driving through the limestone gorge along the A6 through Matlock Bath always has a feeling of being on holiday.

The place has in fact been a resort since the end of the seventeenth century, when a mineral spring on the hillside was developed for the growing fashion for cold-bathing that had already fostered the growth of new spas such as Harrogate, Scarborough and Tunbridge Wells.

This spring still feeds into a grotto at the back of a public car-park that occupies the site of the Old Bath Hotel, latterly the Royal Hotel, which burnt down in 1929.

The New Bath Hotel of 1762-7 remained a hotel where the basement bathing pool is supplied with tepid thermal water from the original spring, until it suddenly closed in July 2012:

Further along the valley, the Temple Hotel [] was built in 1786 alongside the Fountain Baths, which had opened eight years previously.

A fourth hotel, known simply as the Hotel or Great Hotel, proved overambitious, and was subdivided in the 1790s into a terrace which became Museum Parade, so named after Mawe’s Old Museum which took over the enormous dining-room.

In days gone by, the appeal of Matlock Bath was that it wasn’t Buxton.  Though Buxton was anything but grand until the 5th Duke of Devonshire tried to turn it into Bath in the late eighteenth century [see Mary, Queen of Scots slept here, Buxton’s Crescent and Duke’s Dome], Matlock Bath, in a dark gorge with hardly any road access, was much more secluded.

Phyllis Hembry, the historian of British spas, described the late eighteenth-century lifestyle:  “…the company...had their meals at 1s each in common ‘in a very sociable manner’;  they dined at 2 pm and had supper at 8 pm and were free to drink as they pleased.  The evening concluded with dancing or card-playing.  Visitors inclined to exercise could take the ferry near the Old Bath, rowed by Walker the boatman, to the other river bank where he had made a Lovers’ Walk.”

Indeed, Dr Hembry relates, when the teenage 5th Duke of Rutland turned up with some friends at the end of the season in 1796 he had the place to himself.

Nowadays the main road runs through the dale, and at weekends it’s the resort of bikers, whose gleaming machines are lined up outside the cafés and chip-shops.  The black leather gear may look intimidating, but you may be sure the people inside are entirely respectable.

Indeed, when my mate Richard bid at a fantasy auction for a ride on a Harley Davison, he found himself whisked off to Matlock Bath for a greasy-spoon breakfast by a hospital consultant.


There’s a particularly well-constructed website of Matlock and Matlock Bath history at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros 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 15, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesBirmingham's Heritage

Great Western Arcade, Birmingham

Birmingham’s finest shopping arcade, the Great Western Arcade, was built, as its name suggests, on the girders which were installed to cover the open railway cutting leading into Snow Hill Station in 1874.

Designed by the Birmingham architect W H Ward, it lost its top storey, its dome and the original design of the entrance to Colmore Row in the Birmingham blitz.  Sympathetically refurbished by Douglas Hickman of the John Madin Design Group in 1984-5, and further restored in 2009, it remains one of the pleasantest of Birmingham’s shopping experiences.

Even if you hate shopping and shops, one of the great pleasures of central Birmingham is the Victorian Restaurant [] in the Great Western Arcade – an ideal place for breakfast, lunch or tea, preferably on the first floor, looking out on to the gallery and a glazed roof that could be Victorian, but isn’t.

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 10, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Cadman's Cottage, Sydney

Cadman's Cottage, Sydney

The historic heart of Sydney is the area between Circular Quay and the Harbour Bridge known as The Rocks, because of the soft sandstone ridge on which it stands.

Standing on the harbour front, it was always a rough, disreputable district, and after an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 the New South Wales Government took steps to flatten the entire area.  The interruptions of two world wars and the disruption of building the approaches to the Harbour Bridge in the 1920s meant that a substantial number of historic structures survived into the 1960s.

An energetic campaign by a residents’ group in the early 1970s secured the conservation of the Rocks area, and now it is a tourist magnet, especially interesting for the overlays of successive historic periods on the oldest colonised site in the whole of Australia.

Among the places to see is Cadman’s Cottage, named after John Cadman, one of the government coxswains, an English publican transported for stealing a horse.  It dates from 1816 and is the third oldest building in Sydney.

The history of The Rocks is well interpreted in The Rocks Discovery Museum [], set in an 1850s warehouse restored by the National Trust.

What must have been the roughest collection of pubs in Sydney is now a variegated succession of tourist honeypots – the Fortune of War (1828) [], the Lord Nelson (1841) [], the Orient (1844)[] and the Russell Hotel & Wine Bar (1887) [] – among many others.

A good way to start a stay in Sydney is to have dinner in the open air at Circular Quay, watching the ferries come and go, and then to take your pick of the watering-holes along George Street towards the Harbour Bridge.

The big city seems far away, though actually it’s just over the hill.

Posted by: mike on Nov 8, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Museum of Sydney

If you arrive in Sydney and want to understand its history, the best place to start is the Museum of Sydney, a modern complex at the base of a high-rise block immediately south of Circular Quay, designed by Richard Johnson of Denton Corker Marshall and opened in 1995.

It stands on the site of the original Government House, built in 1788 for Governor Arthur Phillip and occupied until 1846.  Some of the foundations and the outline of the building are visible, and within there’s a detailed model and a recreation of part of the façade.

On the forecourt of the Museum is a haunting sculpture by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley entitled ‘Edge of Trees’, marking the spot where the Gadigal natives must have observed the arrival of the First Fleet of colonists from England.

The three floors of exhibition space tell the story of the early settlers and their relationship with the indigenous population.  There are models of the eleven ships of the First Fleet, and displays about the nine Governors who resided on the site, other important figures in the early history of the city, and a video montage Eora [“people”], by Aboriginal filmmaker Michael Riley, highlighting the life of Sydney people of indigenous descent back to the time of their dreaming.

Details of visiting times, and an online guidebook, are at

Posted by: mike on Oct 7, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces


Ravenscar is the highest point on the Yorkshire coast between Scarborough and Whitby.  Until the end of the nineteenth century it was simply called Peak.

Peak House, latterly Raven Hall, was built in 1773 by the owner of the local alum works, Captain William Childs.  He bequeathed it to his daughter Ann, widow of the Dr Francis Willis (1718-1807) who treated King George III in his apparent insanity.  Their son, Rev Dr Richard Willis, was a notorious gambler and a reputed smuggler.  There is an enjoyable tale of the estate being lost on a bet over two lice crossing a saucer:  in fact, it was mortgaged by Mr William Henry Hammond, who foreclosed and took over the property in 1845.

W H Hammond went to inordinate lengths to sponsor a railway link between Scarborough and Whitby, though he died in 1884, three months before the line opened.

The railway was absurd:  gradients of 1 in 39 and 1 in 41 meant that locomotives often stalled and had to take a run at the summit.  Hammond insisted that the track ran through his estate in a practically unnecessary tunnel.  Passenger trains from Scarborough to Whitby had to reverse to enter both termini.

In 1890 Hammond’s daughters sold the estate to the Peak Estate Company for £10,000, and by 1895 the house was extended and converted into a hotel “replete with every modern convenience”, and the surrounding land was laid out as a holiday resort of 1,500 building plots with roads and mains drainage and a public water-supply.

The North Eastern Railway was persuaded to rename the station “Ravenscar” in 1897 and to provide a passing loop and second platform.  Regular land-sales were held from 1896 onwards, for which free lunches and special trains from the West Riding towns were provided.

In fact, barely a dozen houses were ever built.  One sad boarding house, clearly intended as part of a terrace, stands in the fields that would have been the Marine Esplanade.  On one occasion the station waiting-room blew away in a storm.

The Ravenscar Estate Company apparently went into liquidation in 1913, but sales were continued until after the Great War.  Building a seaside resort seven hundred feet above sea level was perhaps not a good idea.

Still, from time to time, hopeful descendants of the original purchasers appear at Ravenscar clutching deeds they have found among family papers:  their reactions on seeing their inheritances are, by all accounts, uniform and entirely understandable.

The railway, which closed in 1965, now forms part of the Cleveland Way trail:  Ravenscar is also the terminus of the celebrated Lyke Wake Walk:  see

However you get there, don’t miss tea at the Raven Hall Hotel [] with a log fire and the view across to Robin Hood’s Bay.

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 Sep 14, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureManchester's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manchester John Rylands Library

Leave the traffic and bustle of Manchester’s Deansgate, and step into the studious quiet of the John Rylands Library, and you’re transported to a different world – of peace, calm and more books and manuscripts to study and admire than you could absorb in a lifetime.

It’s no longer usual to enter through the street doors into the gloom of the original entrance lobby, which in some ways is a pity.  Instead you enter through a light, white modern wing that brings you to the original Gothic library by a gradual route.

This brown stone Gothic Revival temple of learning is a monument to one of Manchester’s greatest cotton merchants and philanthropists, John Rylands (1801-1888), conceived and paid for by his third wife and widow, the Cuban-born Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908).

She had a very strong idea of what she wanted – a free public scholarly library in the heart of the city of Manchester, for which she purchased as core collections the Althorp Library of Lord Spencer and, later, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana from the Earl of Crawford.

Initially, she intended the library to specialise in theology, and specified a Gothic building that would suggest ecclesiastical and university architecture, so she engaged Basil Champneys (1842-1935) on the strength of his work at Mansfield College, Oxford (1887-90) [see,_Oxford].

Enriqueta Rylands was so anxious to begin work on the Deansgate site that, though Champneys produced the initial design within a week of gaining the commission, she demanded to see building work begin before the detailed work had even started.

To satisfy her, he contrived a 4ft 6in concrete platform on which later rose his spatially complex, technological advanced repository of some of the most valuable books in Manchester – its interior insulated from the smoke and noise of the city by lobbies and ventilated by the best air-conditioning that was practical at the time.

The reading-room is on the first floor, to catch the limited available light, approached by a capacious, picturesque sequence of staircases, galleries and vaults that Nikolaus Pevsner described as “a cavalier throwing-away of whole large parts of the building to spatial extravagance pure and simple”.

The atmosphere of monastic calm, within yards of the busy city-centre street, is dramatic, and reflects the religious emphasis of the original book-collection, though Mrs Rylands insisted on toning down some ecclesiastical features such as the intended traceried screens to the reading-bays. 

Despite the romanticism of its aesthetic appeal the building was designed to be fireproof, with a six-inch ferro-concrete lining to the masonry vaults, and was from the beginning lit by electricity, generated in the huge basement.

Cost was not a restriction:  when it opened in 1900 the bill came to £230,000, and by 1913 Champneys was required to extend the building.  Further extensions were added in the 1960s and in 2004-7.

Since 1972 the building has been the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, though members of the public are free to join:

The building itself is open to the public [], and the entrance wing contains the excellent Café Rylands [] and a quality bookshop.

It’s worth seeking out.

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

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester's Heritage, 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 Aug 30, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Savoy Hotel

My 1960s grammar-school education was enlivened by the headmaster’s obsession with the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, which provided our only experience of practical drama.  Shakespeare was for classroom study;  any play written after 1900 was to be seen in the professional theatre.

I didn’t understand for years why the G&S canon is referred to as the “Savoy operas”.

The reason, of course, is that the promoter of these odd survivals of Victorian show-business was Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who used the capital he accumulated from the first collaborations of William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) to build a brand-new theatre on the land between the Strand and the Thames Embankment, ground which had been the site of the medieval Savoy Palace, of which the chapel still survives.

He named his new venue the Savoy Theatre.  When it opened in 1881 it was the first building in the world to be entirely lit by electricity, though limited generating capacity meant that the stage itself was lit by gas for the first couple of months.

D’Oyly Carte’s other theatrical innovations included free programmes, queues, numbered tickets and tea at the interval.

The Savoy Theatre was built on the profits of Trial by Jury, HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and Patience, which transferred from the Opera Comique to open the Savoy Theatre.  Gilbert & Sullivan’s first work for the new theatre was Iolanthe.

It seems that the profits of The Mikado provided the capital for D’Oyly Carte to build the Savoy Hotel (1889), which boasted no less than 67 bathrooms, “ascending rooms” between each floor and “speaking tubes” communicating between floors.

When the hotel was enlarged in 1903 its main entrance transferred to the Strand, and the theatre-foyer was moved to the hotel courtyard, so that the audience enters at a level higher than the top of the proscenium arch, descending to their seats by stairs and corridors which are partly beneath the roadway of Savoy Court, the only roadway in Britain where vehicles drive on the right.

Rupert D’Oyly Carte, Richard’s son, had the entire theatre remodelled in 1929 in an uncompromisingly modern manner by Frank A Tugwell and Basil Ionides – a splendid confection of silver and gold, autumnal fabrics and concealed lighting.

This was the venue for the 1941 première of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

During a renovation in 1990 a fire destroyed the entire auditorium.  The terms of the theatre’s insurance required that Tugwell and Ionides’ design should be meticulously reinstated, and so it reopened in 1993.  The architect, Sir William Whitfield, added a further storey, so that now the 56-ft stage-tower is surmounted by plant rooms and a leisure-centre with a swimming pool.

The hotel was closed in 2007 for a comprehensive renovation that took until 2010.

The stories and the personalities attached to the theatre and the hotel are endless.  My own favourite is of the actor, Richard Harris (1930-2002), a long-time resident, who was carried out of the hotel foyer on a stretcher on his way to his hospital death-bed, shouting to passers-by, “It was the food!”

There is a comprehensive history of the theatre in Kevin Chapple et al, Reflected Light:  the story of the Savoy Theatre (Dewynters 1993).

To see what's on at the Savoy Theatre, go to  The Savoy Hotel website is

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Melbourne Shot Tower

Apart from eating and drinking my way round Melbourne with Gabe and Dave [Eat your way round St Kilda, Eat your way round central Melbourne and Exploring Melbourne:  Madame Brussels] I’d come to the city to work.  This was the starting point for my lecture tour with the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Societies [ADFAS:], and as soon as I met my Melbourne host Christine Penfold I knew I was in good hands.

Christine brought to my hotel not only a fat folder of air-, train- and bus-tickets, but also a beautiful bowl of fruit to sustain me.  This told me that I was being looked after, as I had been with the New Zealand Decorative & Fine Art Societies, by warm-hearted, civilised people with imagination and a flair for enjoying life.

ADFAS put me up at the Mercure, Spring Gardens [] which meant that when I wasn’t needed for their programme I could find everything I wanted on the doorstep – food and wi-fi at the Spaghetti Tree [] and a memorable independent bookshop:

The one tourist site I fitted in within my work-schedule was the 165-feet-high Coops Shot Tower (1889) [] spectacularly enclosed in the dome of the Melbourne Central shopping-centre, built in 1991.

Built to manufacture lead shot by dropping molten lead through a copper sieve, it’s not even the tallest shot-tower in Melbourne:  the sister Clifton Hill Shot Tower of 1885, [;295] built by the same Coops family, stands 263 feet high.

I’d never paid any attention to shot towers in the UK, though I knew there was one in Derby that was demolished in 1931-2 to make way for the bus station.

There are remaining examples in Chester (1799) [], Twickenham (late 18th-/early 19th-century) [] and Bristol (1968) []. 

Posted by: mike on Aug 1, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric York

Assembly Rooms, York

The most magnificent eighteenth-century interior in York is the Assembly Rooms (1731-2), designed for grand public gatherings by the grandest architect of the day, Lord Burlington (1694-1753), who for a generation locked British building design into the classical Roman style promoted by the sixteenth-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio.

Burlington’s Yorkshire residence (now demolished) was at Londesborough, from where he would naturally visit York for the assizes and the races.  His neighbours were clearly grateful to him for providing a decorous environment for social occasions:  “We entirely leave to your lordship to do in what manner you shall think proper.”

His lordship conceived the Great Assembly Room, as it was called, as a Vitruvian Egyptian Hall – in other words, Egyptian as understood by the Roman writer Vitruvius, interpreted by the Italian designer Palladio.

It is a truly magnificent space, 112 feet by 40 feet and 40 feet high, bordered by huge Corinthian columns, eighteen on the long sides and six across the ends, painted, marbled and gilded.  In daylight this toplit space is breathtaking;  at night, when sympathetically lit, it is magical.

Now it’s a restaurant, operated by the ASK Italian chain [!/restaurants/york].

I’ve taken every opportunity to eat there because there’s no more elegant accessible eating place in the city, and I’ve regularly brought people there to be impressed.

Originally, there were tablecloths, and elegantly dressed staff, and baroque music on the PA system.

The last time I went the tables were bare and the chairs hard and modern.  All the waiters, male and female, were in denims and T-shirts.  The music was wallpaper.

The cheerful and welcoming staff were energetically hospitable.  They asked how we were so often they might have been working for the NHS.  When they were wrong-footed into a unscripted conversation they turned out to be warm and charming.

The maitre d’ tells me that all this is a marketing concept.  It’s called Milano.  Presumably it saves laundry bills while increasing footfall.  But it demeans the building.

The food is as excellent as ever.  For £13.95 my mate Richard and I had bruschetta classica (Italian bread with chopped marinated tomatoes), rigatoni di manzo piccante (pasta and meatballs) and apple rustica (essentially apple crumble).  This was the winter set menu, and will no doubt have changed with the season.

I’m imagine this admirable menu is on offer at every ASK Italian restaurant in the country.  I gather that wherever you eat it you sit on the same tables and chairs.

The furniture sits well in an ordinary building, like my local ASK Italian in Sheffield.  But there’s nothing anywhere like the York Assembly Rooms.  The building deserves appropriate dressing.

ASK Italian’s mission-statement says, “We want it to be amazing.  A restaurant that's fresh and bold.  With a passion for the details.”  To which I say, in York at least, bring back tablecloths (paper if necessary) and turn up the Vivaldi.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York 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 Jul 30, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric YorkFun Palaces

Blue Bell, Fossgate, York

When my mate Richard and I have a day out together there’s always a problem period around late afternoon, when we struggle to find something to do.  The shops and tourist places start to close down, and it’s too early to dine in style.

In York recently we sandwiched the National Railway Museum between coffee, lunch and afternoon tea, and then spent an hour in the small but enriching York Art Gallery [].

Thanks to the Good Beer Guide [] we came upon the Blue Bell, 53 Fossgate – easily missed, and unmissable.

It’s an utterly unremarkable-looking place until you step inside.  It has a bar and a smoke-room, neither big enough to swing a cat in, board-panelled from floor to ceiling.  There’s a real fire and a splendid choice of beers.  The old cliché about stepping into someone’s front room is entirely apt at the Blue Bell.

It seems odd that the Blue Bell is listed II*, until you read the English Heritage list description:

Like many buildings in the streets of central York, the Blue Bell and no 54 next door have a timbered core, here dating back to the middle of the seventeenth century.  The jettied timber fronts were cut back and refaced sometime in the late eighteenth century.

At the end of the nineteenth century, when no 53 became the Blue Bell, an embossed front window was installed.  Since then, very little is changed:  the list description, without specifying a date, describes it as “the last C19 pub interior in York to survive intact”.

This is probably because it was continuously owned by the same family for almost a century until 1993.

Like the more famous “Nellie’s”, the White Horse Inn in Beverley, East Yorkshire, the Blue Bell has survived all the vicissitudes of the licensed trade through the twentieth century, so that it’s now a tiny treasure, an unlikely jewel in the crown of the historic heart of York.

And it’s a particularly good place for what in Yorkshire we call a “sneck-lifter”.  “Sneck” is the latch of a door or gate.  When you lift the sneck, literally, it lets you into warmth and hospitality.  When you sip your first pint (and your second), you’re ready to enjoy the next few hours.

Update:  Evidence that a quiet night is virtually guaranteed in the Blue Bell is to be found in this article in the Daily Mail (March 22nd 2013):

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York 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 Jul 25, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Blackpool LRT trams 012 & 013

The new Blackpool trams are up and running – sleek, smooth articulated LRTs in a funky purple-and-white colour scheme.

It’s a superb service, all the way from Starr Gate to Fleetwood and back with space, comfort and ease.  It cost £100 million.

The demise of the old fleet is regretted by some, but it really was past its sell-by date.  Some trams dated back to the 1930s, and many had been rebuilt and patched like the hammer with three new handles and two new heads: [see Essentially Victorian Blackpool and Tram terminus].

The beauty of the promenade tramway, and the reason it survived, is its ability to shift holiday crowds, most of all at the illuminations.  Blackpool trams have always been much bigger than buses, and they take up less road space because they mostly run on their own private tracks.

And the new ones, like the old ones, appear to be crewed by committees.

I don’t know how the new service will shake down, though.  One vehicle with the capacity of a small train every twenty minutes doesn’t offer the same opportunity to hop on and off on an impulse as a constant procession of trams running on demand.

It remains to be seen how much spare capacity is available when the crowds materialise later in the year.

Unlike their predecessors, the new trams are free to holders of senior bus passes.

And if you want a nostalgia trip, you can pay buy a day-saver to use the heritage fleet, when it’s running:

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.

Posted by: mike on Jul 22, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Melbourne General Cemetery:  Sir Samuel & Lady Gillett monument

Dave is one of the half-dozen brightest people I ever taught.  When I told him that he asked for it in writing.  QED.

I hadn’t seen him for ten years when we met up in Melbourne, where he’s worked for the past few years and is happily settled.

We acted out the Australian dream drinking beer in the sunshine at the Beachcomber at the St Kilda Sea Baths:, and then we hopped on a tram to sample the fleshpots of central Melbourne.

I recall, with diminishing coherence, the Palmz roof bar at the Carlton on Bourke Street [], Penny Blue (in the former Money Order Building next to the GPO) [], before eating at the Golden Monkey [] where Dave’s marital-arts experience came in useful tussling with the Japanese menu.

On a second evening out we drank at the Gin Palace [] where the gents has a set of urinals for use and another for lighting, and ate at Sarti [].

At some point I regaled Dave (who is at heart a Sheffield lad) with the story of Sir Samuel Gillott (1838-1913), a Sheffield lad who emigrated to Melbourne at the age of eighteen, trained as a lawyer and operated as a politician, became Melbourne’s first Lord Mayor and was eventually exposed for his financial dealings with a lady called Caroline Hodgson, who traded as Madame Brussels and ran brothels like banks, with branch operations scattered around the city-centre.

Without a word Dave led me into a strange rooftop bar with artificial grass instead of a carpet and waitresses in maids’ outfits with white ankle socks, where only after I’d ordered St George Ethiopian beer and turned to the menu did I discover the name of the place:

Posted by: mike on Jul 20, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Central Melbourne from Kew

Central Melbourne from Kew

During my weekend’s rest and recuperation in St Kilda, one of my hosts was Gabriel, the guy I’d met on The Ghan on my previous visit to Australia [Exploring Australia 5:  The Ghan].

I took to Gabe immediately when we met because we introduced ourselves as Gabriel and Mike, and he immediately said, “Ah! two archangels!”.  This guy’s sharp, I thought, and then cottoned on that he’s Romanian, and unlike me capable of wit in more than one language.

It fell to Gabe to help me find clean clothes to buy in Melbourne, in the course of which he felt compelled to buy a couple of T-shirts out of a sense of solidarity.  Our salesman was a Botswanan guy called Ojee, with a Singaporean degree studying media in Melbourne as a postgraduate.

Gabe also showed me where to eat:  the French Brasserie [] is architecturally exciting, gastronomically satisfying, and tucked out of sight of Flinders and Exhibitions Streets;  Mecca Bah [], out in the wide-open spaces of Melbourne’s Docklands, is elegant, comfortable Moroccan cuisine with an Australian accent.

Once I was properly clothed, fed and watered, and after we’d drunk white beer on his balcony with a magnificent view across the centre of Melbourne, Gabe gave up his precious time off while his wife Cordelia was at work to show me some fascinating Victorian buildings that I would never have found unassisted.

I’ll describe them in a short while, but first comes an article that could be entitled ‘Drink your way round Melbourne’, but isn’t.

Posted by: mike on Jul 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Le Bon Continental Cake Shop

When I first visited Melbourne I decided that on my second visit I would stay in St Kilda, the beach resort twenty minutes away by tram from the Central Business District.

True to his word as ever, Malcolm the genius Co-op travel-agent found me a minimalist suite at the Medina Executive Hotel, St Kilda [], one of a chain of apartment hotels – the sort which provides a kitchen capable of roast Sunday dinner, and a patio big enough to host a dozen people.

All of which was ironic because I arrived there with only my laptop and the clothes I stood up in after Air New Zealand left my luggage in Nelson.

The beauty of St Kilda, even away from the beach, is that you can eat, drink and do most things al fresco.  On my first night I had chicken risotto on the street outside the hotel, and every morning I had breakfast – eggs Benedict and or a big fry-up, with flat white coffee – at 2 Doors Down [], and the only time I ate lunch in the apartment I had a salami sandwich from the baker Daniel Chirico [ (website half-baked, so see the reviews and].

There is, of course, much more to eat in St Kilda:  my earlier explorations are described at Exploring Australia 10: St Kilda.

But the real deal in St Kilda is one or both of the cake shops on Acland Street, Le Bon Continental Cake Shop [] and Monarch Cakes “exquisite since 1934”

The only way to decide between them is to try both.

Posted by: mike on Jun 21, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

One of the finest ferry journeys in the world is the 70-kilometre Interislander voyage across the 24-kilometre wide New Zealand’s Cook Strait, between the south of the North Island and the north of the South Island.  The three-hour trip takes so long because it involves sailing in or out of Wellington Harbour and penetrating the drowned valleys of the Marlborough Sounds.  There's a detailed history of the Cook Strait ferries at

It’s a fine, relaxing journey – as long as you’re a passenger, and not responsible for steering the ship.  The Cook Strait is notoriously rough and unpredictable, with particularly weird tidal surges:

The vessel, MV Kaitaki, felt oddly familiar.  It turned out to be a former Irish Ferry, originally built in 1995 for the Holyhead-Dublin route:  originally the MV Isle of Innisfree, it was latterly P&O’s MV Challenger, operating between Portsmouth and Bilbao.  'Kaitaki' is the Maori word for ‘challenger’.

The other two vessels on the Interislander service, DEVs Arahura and Aratere, are rail-capable, purpose-built as the physical link between the railway systems on the two islands.

Though none of the ferries transport passenger rail vehicles, they make it possible to travel all the way from Auckland to Christchurch by surface public transport, using the Overlander [see Train through Middle Earth], the Interislander ferry and the Coastal Pacific train [see].

Indeed, when I return to New Zealand at leisure I plan to use that route and then the TranzAlpine to reach the west coast of the South Island at Greymouth:  [see By rail across the Southern Alps].

The errand that took me on the Interislander was a lecture for the Nelson Decorative & Fine Arts Society at the Suter Art Gallery [].

While I was in Nelson my host, Ainslie Riddoch, and her colleagues gave me snapper for lunch at the Boat Shed Café [] and dinner at Harry’s Bar [], where we admired the waiter’s sang froid in serving a ménage à trois in the far corner.  Ménage à trois is not, I’m assured, usually on the menu.

Ainslie’s husband, Hamish, told me about the holiday potential of the “Top of the South”, in particular, the tiny settlement of Collingwood, named – like Nelson and Wellington – after a British hero of the French wars a generation earlier.

During the 1850s gold rush there was a serious suggestion that Collingwood should be designated the capital of New Zealand.  Now it’s where tourists go to experience wide-open spaces, with curious outliers of history such as the Collingwood Cemetery (1857) and St Cuthbert’s Church (1873):

I’m fascinated by remote places that time passed by, so I will return to the Top of the South.

Posted by: mike on Jun 15, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Regent's Canal above Camden Lock

Thousands descend on Camden Lock and Camden Market to eat, drink, shop and otherwise enjoy themselves in the industrial-picturesque surroundings of the Regent's Canal, within a short bus- or tube-ride of central London.

On my last visit I spent an unseasonably warm spring lunchtime with my mate Ants at Camden Lock, eating and drinking and gazing across the water outside the Ice Wharf

There’s much more to the scene than meets the eye.

The Regent’s Canal was originally the early nineteenth-century version of the M25, built by a consortium that included the canny architect John Nash (1752-1835), who had the ear of the Prince Regent, later King George IV, and who made the most of his royal patronage to devise a master plan for a swathe of central London that runs from St James’s Park via Regent Street to Regent’s Park.

The practical purpose of the canal was to link the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington Basin with the London docks at Limehouse.  It was begun in 1812, completed as far east as Camden Town by 1816 and fully opened in 1820.

In fact, most of its traffic came from the docks:  it was more used as an artery to deliver freight around north London than to convey traffic to the Midlands canals.

Boats floating through Regent’s Park were an embellishment rather than intrusion:  indeed, repeated attempts to turn the canal into a railway through the nineteenth century invariably came to grief.

In between the First and Second World Wars, the Regent’s Canal amalgamated with connecting waterways through the Midlands as the Grand Union Canal, a brave and partially successful attempt to revive water transport as a bulk carrier.

Since 1945, commercial traffic has given place to pleasure cruising, encouraged by recognition of the amenity value of canalside homes and leisure facilities, and the growth of some of the finest market-shopping opportunities in the capital.

Latterly, it has proved invaluable for an entirely different purpose:  since 1979 trunk cables have carried electricity at 400KV, cooled by canal water, buried beneath the towpath.

John Nash and his chief engineer, James Morgan, would be astonished.

Posted by: mike on May 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City Grand Central Terminal

The very heart of Manhattan’s 42nd Street is Grand Central Terminal, New York’s principal monument to the age of the railroad, which will celebrate its centenary next year:

Many New Yorkers have never forgiven the destruction of the other great terminus, Penn Station, McKim, Mead, and White’s triumphant pink granite temple to transportation, built in 1910 and flattened in 1963:

Grand Central was the destination of steam-hauled trains from the north, ploughing down a cutting that was covered over when electrification became practical from 1889 onwards.

Begun in 1903, the terminal was structurally completed ten years later but not fully operational until 1927.  Its concourse is 275 feet by 120 feet and 125 feet high, lit by arched windows 75 feet high.  The Guastavino roof is decorated with a painted zodiac (which is for some reason reversed) by Paul Helleu. 

It has sixty-seven tracks on the two levels, a turning loop and connections to the subway, including the 42nd Street Shuttle, which takes a minute to shunt between Grand Central and Times Square.

This was the starting point for some of the great trains of the early twentieth century, the Knickerbocker to St Louis, the Ohio State Limited to Cincinnati and the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago to which, among its many luxuries, is attributed the original red-carpet entrance.

A major conservation campaign, led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, saved Grand Central from demolition in the 1970s, and in 1994-8 a $197-million renovation was undertaken by LaSalle Partners and Williams Jackson Ewing, the restorers of the superb Union Station in Washington DC.

Now it looks as good as it did in 1913 – if not better.

The quintessential Grand Central experience, other than catching a train, is to eat at the Oyster Bar [], where journalists used to take advantage of the acoustics to pick up scoops.  If that's outside the budget, there's plenty to eat in the food court:,

To see images of parts of Grand Central Terminal that ordinary travellers don’t see, go to

To enjoy the best flashmob invasion of the Grand Central concourse go to

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

Posted by: mike on May 20, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTaking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Buxton Dome

Any modern tourist resort needs a car park.  A Victorian resort needed a railway station.  In the days of coach-travel, stables were essential.

When the 5th Duke of Devonshire developed the spa at Buxton [see Buxton’s Crescent], he commissioned the architect John Carr of York also to build a commodious stable block on the hill at the back of the Crescent (1780-90).

The Stables (1785-1796) was a huge octagonal building accommodating 110 horses and sixty coaches, with a circular covered gallery around the internal courtyard for exercising.  Ostlers and grooms were accommodated above the horses, to take advantage of their body heat.

On top of the capital cost of the Crescent – £38,601 18s 4d – the Stables cost the Duke a further £40,000.

The imminent arrival of the railway in 1863 [See The shortest way, or the prettiest] indicated that the Stables would soon be redundant, and the Seventh Duke allowed two-thirds of the building to be converted by the Buxton Bath Charity “for the use of the sick poor” by the Chatsworth estate-architect Henry Currey in 1859.

Subsequently the courtyard was enclosed in 1881-2 by the superb 156ft-diameter dome – the largest in the world at the time of construction – by the Buxton architect Robert Rippon Duke (1817-1909).

Robert Rippon Duke is one of those minor Victorian architects who never made a national reputation, but stamped his identity on a particular locality.  His life is chronicled in an admirable biography by Mike Langham & Colin Wells, The Architect of Victorian Buxton:  a biography of Robert Rippon Duke, “the Duke of Buxton” (Derbyshire Library Service 1996).

The hospital was renamed the Devonshire Royal Hospital in 1934, and continued to offer hydropathic treatments until 2000.

After it closed, the University of Derby took over the site, restored and converted the building as reopened it as the Devonshire Campus in 2003.

The dome is open to the public and, because the campus houses the faculties of hospitality and what are described as culinary arts, there’s always a cup of coffee to be had at Bistro 44, and serious food at the Fine Dine Restaurant  Be sure to book.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros 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 May 14, 2012

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent ValleyCountry Houses

Buxton Old Hall Hotel

When I lectured to the Cavendish Decorative & Fine Arts Society in Buxton [], I was taken for an enjoyable lunch to the Old Hall Hotel [], where the food was as excellent as the service was leisurely.  I chose wild boar burger which, to be honest, tasted much like any other hand-made burger – very good indeed.

The Old Hall is at the heart of historic Buxton.  It stands on the site of the Roman bath and medieval holy well, and was constructed as a typical Midland four-storey high house [compare with North Lees Hall, Hathersage] by George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury who recovered from an attack of gout after trying the “baynes of Buckstones” in 1569.  It had a battlemented roof and contained a great chamber and lodgings for up to thirty guests.

Here he entertained most of the greatest names in Elizabethan politics – Lord Burghley (1575), Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (five times between 1576 and 1584) and his older brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick (1577).  Queen Elizabeth herself never travelled this far north, but did receive a delivery of Buxton water, which gave her no benefit:  it was said not to travel well.

Lord Shrewsbury was the fourth husband of the formidable Bess of Hardwick and the custodian of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, who stayed here nine times between 1573 and 1584.  Caught between his domineering wife, the duplicitous Scottish queen and the volatile English one, he lived an unenviable life [See Des Res].

Buxton Old Hall was substantially rebuilt in 1670 and again in the late eighteenth century, but its core survives within the present-day hotel, as becomes obvious when you move from room to room through thick walls and odd doorways.

Celia Fiennes hated it when she visited in 1697:  

Its the largest house in the place tho’ not very good... the beer they allow at the meales is so bad that very little can be dranke...if you have not Company enough of your own to fill a room they will be ready to put others into the same chamber, and sometymes they are so crowded that three must lye in a bed;  few people stay above two or three nights its so inconvenient:  we staid two nights by reason one of our Company was ill but it was sore against our wills, for there is no peace or quiet...

Needless to say, it’s much improved over the past three hundred-odd years.  They take their time over the boar burgers, and the result is worth waiting for.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros 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 Apr 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Castle Howard Mausoleum

Horace Walpole, a man not easily impressed, was bowled over by Castle Howard:

Nobody had informed me that at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive;  in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Charles, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, proclaimed in his inscription on an obelisk near the house that he –


Of all these out-works and monuments, the most sublime is undoubtedly the Mausoleum, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1728-9, begun in 1731, and completed substantially to the original design in 1742, six years after Hawksmoor’s death and four years after Carlisle’s.

This great domed rotunda, seventy-six feet high, its twenty slender Doric columns set deliberately narrowly together, sitting on a bastion of gargantuan proportions, is a noble monument not only to Lord Carlisle, whose remains were finally laid to rest there, but also to its designer, who never saw it.

Members of the Howard family continue to be interred in the Mausoleum, which is off limits to ordinary visitors.

But it is possible to see inside the Mausoleum, and to visit other inaccessible parts of the estate, on pre-booked walking tours which are detailed in the Castle Howard website at

The walking isn’t strenuous, though the tour can take up to 2½ hours.  It’s worth every step.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, 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 Mar 25, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Kinema-in-the-Woods, Woodhall Spa

Photo:  Janet Miles

The March/April 2012 edition of the Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin mentions the forthcoming ninetieth anniversary of the Kinema-in-the-Woods, Woodhall Spa – one of the most eccentric and evocative film-going experiences in England.

The Pavilion Cinema opened in a converted cricket pavilion in 1922 and only later became known as the Kinema-in-the-Woods.  It has always retained the original Greek spelling, derived from the word for ‘motion’.

The building started out as a cricket pavilion, and because the roof supports are integral to the structure, films have always been shown by back-projection of surprising clarity.

According to a 1937 advertisement, “while furnished with comfortable plush seats, deck chairs and cushions are provided for those who appreciate them”.  The deck chairs on the front six rows were priced at 1s 6d, threepence dearer than the best fixed seats in the house.

The Kinema was operated for half a century by its founder, Major C C Allport:  when he applied for his fiftieth licence in 1972 the magistrates waived the fee.

By the 1980s it had become a precious survival, and its next owner, James Green, installed the Compton organ from the Super Cinema, Charing Cross Road, to provide concerts in addition to current-release movies.  Its console is mounted on the lift from the former Regent Cinema, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.

Now there is a second screen, Kinema Too, opened in 1994, to complement the original auditorium and offer a wider variety of films.

Woodhall Spa is an unlikely spot to see first-release movies.  But after all, Woodhall Spa is an unlikely spot.

The history of the Kinema-in-the-Woods can be found in Edward Roy Mayor, The Kinema in the Woods: the story of Woodhall Spa's unique cinema (J W Green Cinemas 2002) and at

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modernVictorian architecture

Petwood, Woodhall Spa

Petwood, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire

There is no shortage of places to eat and drink in Woodhall Spa – the Dower House Hotel [], the Golf Hotel [] and the Woodhall Spa Hotel (formerly the Eagle Lodge)[].

The most historically interesting of them all is the mock-Tudor Petwood [], built by the Baroness Grace Von Eckhardstein, daughter of the furniture-store owner Sir John Blundell Maple in 1905.

In 1910, she divorced her German husband and married Captain Archibald Weigall, grandson of the eleventh Earl of Westmorland, who served as land agent for the Earl of Londesborough’s nearby Blankney estate.

The following year they commissioned the London architect Frank Peck to extend Petwood, building a staff wing to the east on what the Horncastle News described as “an enormous scale”.

Peck’s carefully stylised modifications give this wholly twentieth-century house a “borrowed history”, suggesting a series of additions through the Tudor and Jacobean periods.  The main staircase, often attributed to Maples carpenters, is more likely the work of Peck’s foreman-carver James Wylie.  At an unknown later date – but probably not much later – the grandiose two-storey oriel-windowed entrance bay was added.

Also, mainly during 1913-4, Harold Peto was employed to design the ambitious gardens. 

In 1933 Petwood became a hotel, and during the Second World War this was the officers’ mess for 617 Squadron, the “Dam Busters”.

Now, it’s an exceptionally relaxing place to eat, drink or stay.  Indeed, you could spend a very satisfactory weekend staying at any one of the Dower House, the Golf, Petwood or the Woodhall Spa, and wandering off to have coffee, tea or a meal at each of the others.

And you could take home a picnic from the Bakery & Delicatessen at 14 Broadway (01526-352183):  they’re far too busy selling superb food to bother with a website.

The history of Petwood, successively as a house and a hotel, is detailed and illustrated in Edward Mayor, Petwood:  the remarkable story of a famous Lincolnshire hotel (Petwood 2000).

Posted by: mike on Feb 14, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Pateley Bridge High Street

Pateley Bridge, High Street

When my mate Richard and I have a day out we take it in turns to choose the itinerary.  He took it into his head he’d never been to Pateley Bridge, west of Ripon:  in fact he had, as he realised when we got there, and it’s a delightful little town, the geographical centre of Nidderdale, with a few historic buildings and more to eat than you could possibly ever consume.

We had lunch at the Crown Hotel [], where the Persian lamb turned out to be Persian beef and was none the worse for the metamorphosis, though I wonder how many cows there are in what used to be Persia.

Richard’s wife Janet had asked him to bring her back “something interesting”, and we were spoiled for choice.  At Kendall’s butchers [] he found pork, turkey, stuffing and apple pie (all in one pie, naturally), and I treated myself to the pork and blue cheese alternative.  I’d have had the pork and mushy peas pies that we saw on our way up the hill, but by the time we came down again they’d all been snaffled.

Down the hill, at Weatherhead’s butchers [], I couldn’t resist the pork, chilli and chocolate sausages, the pork, spring onion and ginger burgers and a batch of chicken cushions with cream cheese and chorizo filling.

We admired the Oldest Sweetshop in England [ – the building dated 1661 and the shop founded in 1827 – but we didn’t indulge:  Richard is an ex-dentist and I decided I’d done enough present and future damage to my waistline.

Pateley Bridge is bristling with red plaques pointing out the local history features, and the Nidderdale Museum is based in the former workhouse:  Neither of the two churches, the older, ruined St Mary’s or its 1825-7 replacement, St Cuthbert’s is remarkable;  indeed, the most exciting building is the former Board School of 1875, now St Cuthbert’s Primary School, dominated by a tower bristling with turrets and gargoyles.

We chose to resist the temptation to visit the Old Bakehouse [8 High St – 01423 711189], though the piles of pastries looked well worth sampling, and drove across to Ripon to work up an appetite for tea.

There we fell upon the Wakeman’s House Café [] where we calculated it’d take a fortnight to get through the cake cabinet.

I completed my Christmas shopping at Drinkswell [], which stocks every imaginable sort of alcohol from bottles of quality beer to malt whisky at silly prices.  I chose three-packs of beer.

To end the day we wandered around Ripon Cathedral [] in the dusk – quiet, welcoming, virtually empty and beautifully lit.


Posted by: mike on Feb 3, 2012

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Northern PenninesTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Dent Station

Dent Station on the Settle & Carlisle railway is the highest main-line railway station in England.  It stands 1,150 feet above sea level.  Its remoteness is such that it lies four miles from the village of Dent, six hundred feet below in the dale.  The site is so bleak that the stationmaster’s house was built with integral double-glazing.

The stretch of line to beyond the summit at Ais Gill (1,168 feet) was notoriously difficult to keep open in snow.  The trackside snow-fences of wooden railway sleepers are a gaunt reminder, even at the height of summer, of conditions in the worst of winter.

In 1947 the drifts reached to the road bridge north of the station platforms and took three weeks to clear. 

There is a story, related in the Settle-Carlisle Partnership website [] of a signalman dying in the Dent signalbox, and his relief laying him on top of the locker until they were relieved at the end of the shift.

After the station buildings were sold in 1985 Neil Ambrose spent twenty years restoring the down-side building.  In 2006 a quantity surveyor, Robin Hughes, bought it for £250,000 and spent a further £150,000 upgrading the interior as holiday accommodation for six.

The adjacent Snow Hut, provided as a base for the track workers who battled, often unsuccessfully, to keep the line open in winter, is now a studio bunk barn for two (or, at a pinch, three).

Details of Dent Station and the Snow Hut are at

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Waterways & Railways across the Northern Pennines 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 Jan 29, 2012

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Llandudno Great Orme Tramway

Llandudno’s Great Orme Tramway [Tramffordd y Gogarth] is the only British example of a street-running funicular railway.  It is completely unlike the San Francisco cable-cars [see Halfway to the stars], because its trams work in two pairs, permanently fixed to a winding cable.

It opened in two sections, the lower half on July 31st 1902, and the summit section on July 8th 1903.  The winding house was steam-powered from 1902 to 1958, and since then the cables have been electrically hauled.

The lower section of the Great Orme Tramway looks like its San Francisco cousins, because the cable is concealed for much of its length under the roadway in a conduit slot between the running rails.  The upper section, above the half-way winding house, runs on railway track, and the complex arrangement of cables and rails is visible.

Until 1991 the tramway had an overhead trolley-wire solely to carry the telephone-system so that tram-drivers could communicate with the engineman.  Now the communication-system is radio-operated and the trolley poles, which convinced some visitors that this was an electric tramway, are entirely cosmetic.

The line is operated by four trams, 4 and 5 on the lower section and 6 and 7 on the upper:  the first three numbers were taken by jockey-cars, propelled by the cable-connected trams and manhandled along loop tracks between the two sections.  Cars no 1, 2 and 3 were wagons for carrying coal for the boiler house and coffins to St Tudno’s Church:  all three disappeared before 1930.

There has been only one fatal accident:  the drawbar on No 4 snapped on August 23rd 1932, killing the brakesman and a little girl he tried to rescue by jumping from the car.  In 1963 a retired GOT employee revealed to Ivor Wynne Jones [Llandudno:  Queen of Welsh resorts (Landmark 2002)] that the Board of Trade inspector was deceived into thinking the emergency brake worked at the time of his inspection on July 30th 1902.

As a result of compensation claims amounting to £14,000, the original Great Orme Tramway Company went bankrupt, and after a completely new and still effective safety system had been designed for the lower section, a new Great Orme Railway Company was formed in 1934.

The Llandudno Urban District Council compulsorily purchased the tramway in 1949;  the UDC was absorbed by Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974.

After a collision between cars 6 and 7 on April 30th 2000, when the facing points at the loop malfunctioned, injuring seventeen passengers, the entire tramway was closed and refurbished, with an induction-loop system that electronically locates each car on a monitor in the central control-room, and the system was fully operational in time for its centenary in 2002.

A further accident occurred in 2009, when cars 6 and 7 collided as a result of another points failure on the passing loop:

It’s worth the ride, not only for the vintage travel-experience but also for the views from the top of the Great Orme.  Having blown away the cobwebs at the summit, the smart advice is to return to the Victoria Tram Station and visit Fish Tram Chips alongside:

The most recent history of the tramway is Keith Turner, The Great Orme Tramway – over a century of service (Gwasag Carreg Gwalch 2003).  The tramway website is at

Posted by: mike on Jan 27, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Llandudno Marine Drive & Lighthouse

The connection between Llandudno and Alice in Wonderland is never knowingly undersold – and and – even though it’s entirely spurious.

Dean Henry Liddell, father of the real Alice, purchased an unpromising plot on the West Shore from the Mostyn Estate and built an elaborate Gothic villa which he called Penmorfa, “the end of the shore”.

The house was completed in 1862:  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was inspired to write Alice in Wonderland by a boat-trip on the River Isis near Oxford on July 4th 1862, and completed his manuscript in February 1863;  there is no record of him visiting Llandudno during that period.

This didn’t prevent the construction of the white-marble statue of Alice, unveiled by David Lloyd George in 1933.  Strenuous attempts to protect this twee souvenir from vandalism eventually led to its removal to the middle of a lake:

There’s a much better story about Alice Liddell than anything to do with Lewis Carroll.

When the Liddells first came to Llandudno the only route around the Great Orme was a precipitous walkway called Cust’s Path, built in 1856-8.  This was so vertiginous that when he came to stay at Penmorfa W E Gladstone had to be blindfolded and led to safety by Dean Liddell and his family, including Alice.

Cust’s Path was adapted for road vehicles between 1872 and 1878 as the four-mile Marine Drive.  Building it wiped out the last remaining cave-dwelling on the Great Orme, occupied by Isaiah and Miriam Jones.  Isaiah was famous for having attempted to fly using seagull’s wings attached to his arms:  his wife nursed him to a full recovery and he lived into his eighties.

She lived to the age of 91, dying in 1910, and protested that having brought up thirteen children in a cave she disliked the more modern accommodation she was given in compensation for her eviction.  From her Welsh name, Miriam yr Ogof, “Miriam of the Cave”, her many descendants are still nicknamed ’R’ogo.

You can ride round the Marine Drive in a vintage coach [], drive round it on payment of a toll, or walk.  Half way round is the Rest-and-be-thankful Café

You can even stay at the Lighthouse, built by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board in 1862 and now a sumptuous bed-and-breakfast guest-house:

Near the western end are the fragmentary remains of what was called Gogarth Abbey but is in fact the thirteenth-century palace of the Bishop of Bangor, Anian, his reward from King Edward I for baptising his eldest son, the first English Prince of Wales and later King Edward II.

Dean Liddell’s Penmorfa, which for years was the Gogarth Abbey Hotel, was demolished, despite protests, after a botched restoration attempt, in 2008:  see and

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 Jan 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Llandudno Grand Hotel & Pier

Llandudno Pier is one of the finest unspoilt British piers, and it’s always been my favourite because it’s the one I remember, as a child, still in use for its original purposes.

Seaside piers were, after all, primarily landing stages, which quickly gained an entertainment function because they offered landlubber holidaymakers the experience of being out at sea without the inconvenience of sea-sickness.

The main section of the Llandudno Pier by the engineer James Brunlees, 1,200 feet long, opened on August 1st 1877.  The Baths, Reading Room and Billiard Hall alongside were reopened as the Baths Hotel in 1879, and a spur was added linking the Pier to the promenade in 1884.  Alongside this the Pier Pavilion, a huge glass structure 204 feet long and between 84 and 104 feet wide, was opened in September 1886.  Its basement contained a swimming pool 160 feet by 48 feet, then one of the largest in existence.

The Baths Hotel was replaced in 1900 by the existing Grand Hotel, designed by James Francis Doyle.  The Pier Pavilion, having stood derelict in the ownership of a developer who famously didn’t develop, was destroyed by fire on February 13th 1994:  [See and].

When we stayed in Llandudno in the 1950s one of the highlights was a paddle-steamer trip from Llandudno Pier to Menai Bridge and back on one or other of the Liverpool & North Wales Steamship Company steamships, St Tudno or St Seiriol [].

The trip, which we did on more than one occasion, included chugging round the enigmatically inaccessible Puffin Island, with its mysterious hill top tower, and gazing from Telford’s suspension bridge at the beached wreck of HMS Conway.

Puffin Island [Ynys Seiriol] was part of the Bulkeley family’s Baron Hill estate, of which the derelict Palladian house by Samuel Wyatt is illustrated at and

The tower forms part of the remains of one of the stations on the semaphore telegraph system that brought news of incoming ships from Holyhead to Liverpool [see Frank Large’s detailed study, Faster Than the Wind: A History of and a Guide to the Liverpool to Holyhead Telegraph (Avid 1998)].  More details of the island, and the opportunity to take a close look at it, are at

What we knew as HMS Conway was originally HMS Nile, launched in 1839 and used as a Liverpool-based training vessel until, while being towed through the Menai Strait in 1953, she grounded and broke her back.  She was eventually destroyed by fire three years later.  A detailed account is at

The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company maintained a tenuous steamer service to and from Llandudno Pier, and the celebrated PS Waverley and MV Balmoral made occasional visits until the landing stage was declared unsafe in 2007.

Nevertheless, the Pier itself appears to be in good order, and it’s an essential part of the Llandudno experience to stroll to the end of the pier, watch the fishermen and have either a cup of tea or an alcoholic drink in the bar, very much as the Victorian patrons would have done 130 years ago.

Descriptions of Llandudno Pier are at and

Blog-articles about other piers are at Last resort in YorkshireStars on the streetEnd of the pier showExploring Australia 10:  St Kilda and Wasting asset.

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 Jan 17, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City Empire State Building

The Empire State Building, described when it opened in 1931 as “the eighth wonder of the world”, epitomises Manhattan. Perhaps the most elegant of all the New York skyscrapers, faced in Indiana limestone and granite, with stainless steel mullions running from the six-storey base to the Art Deco pinnacle, its setbacks make light of its vast bulk.

Nowadays it wouldn’t get built, because it occupies the site of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel: This grand Victorian pile, originally two hotels of 1893 and 1897, was pulled down in 1930 and the business transferred to its current address at 301 Park Avenue.

The Empire State Building was extended during construction from its planned 86 storeys to 102 storeys to be sure of the accolade of the World’s Tallest Building. It was completed in advance of schedule and below budget, yet initial rentals were so few that it was dubbed the “Empty State Building”. Once again the tallest building in New York City after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, its height to the top of the TV mast is 1,454 feet.

There are comfortable open promenades as well as a glass-enclosed viewing-area at the 86th floor. The view from the 102nd-floor observatory stretches up to eighty miles, reaching into the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The mast was originally intended as a mooring for dirigibles, but only one landing was ever attempted. This hair-raising procedure failed because it was impossible to stabilise the end of the airship that wasn’t anchored to the tower.

In 1946 a B-25 bomber collided with the 79th floor in thick fog, killing fourteen and causing only localised damage.

The Empire State lives in New York legend. It starred notably in the film King Kong (1933) where the giant gorilla ends its life clinging to the top of the building.

When the film director Peter Jackson consulted primatologists while planning his 2005 version of King Kong, he was told that a real giant ape would fling excreta at the attacking aircraft, and offer what was discreetly described as a “display-challenge” [John Harlow, ‘Hollywood agenda,’ The Sunday Times, November 2nd 2003].

The Empire State Building is open to the public until midnight, which makes it an admirable and popular place from which to watch the city lights, carpeting the view in all directions.

The official website is, and the smart tourist information is at

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

Posted by: mike on Jan 9, 2012

Category:Sacred placesLiverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Liverpool Alma de Cuba

If you’re looking for somewhere unusual to eat in the centre of Liverpool you can do a lot worse than Alma de Cuba [] on Seel Street, one of the streets running parallel to, and between, Bold Street and Duke Street, within easy walking distance of Lime Street and Liverpool One.

This vibrant, ultra-modern bar restaurant sits inside the oldest surviving Catholic church building in Liverpool.

Indeed, St Peter’s Church is astonishingly old for a post-Reformation Catholic place of worship.  It opened in 1788, ten years after the passing of the first Act of Parliament rescinding the penal laws governing the persecution of Catholics ever since Tudor times.

St Peter’s thrived as a place of worship for nearly two hundred years.

When it could no longer support a local congregation it was transferred in 1976 to the Polish Catholic community and rededicated to Our Lady of Czestochowa.  This attempt to keep it going lasted only two years.

Eventually, the developer Urban Splash rescued the building and it opened as a particularly fine Latin American restaurant in August 2005.

It’s the sort of place where award-winning barmen toss glasses in the air and usually catch them.  And Sunday brunch is enlivened with, of all things, a Gospel choir.

The walls are stripped to the bare brickwork and the ceiling has been removed, revealing the roof-beams.  The ornate Classical sanctuary is intact, with a plate-glass mirror in place of the reredos.

It’s disconcerting to eat and drink and listen to music while staring at the inscription “TU ES PETRUS” – Christ’s words to St Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” [Matthew 16:18].

The contrast between spirituality and hedonism isn’t quite comfortable, and some customers might look askance at the restaurant’s tag-line “Heaven can wait”.

Nevertheless, the building – arguably the most precious archaeological gem of the proud Liverpool Catholic community – survives and is physically safe.  It needn’t be a restaurant for ever, and at least it’s not a pile of rubble.

For so many former places of worship, that’s all too likely a fate.

There is a website to test the strength of support for saving St Hilda’s Church, Wincobank, Sheffield [see Losing a landmark, Church going and Praised with faint damns]:  If you feel able to sign the petition, please indicate whether or not you’re a local resident, and why you wish to see it kept.

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.

The 'Save St Hilda's' group also has a Facebook page at

Posted by: mike on Dec 31, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Pah Homestead

When I visited the Auckland Decorative & Fine Arts Society to give a lecture, my hostess Anne Gambrill picked me up at the airport and swept me off for lunch to the Pah Homestead, which is – as the old V&A advert might have said – a very fine café with an art gallery attached [].

The homestead was built for a businessman, James Williamson, in 1877-9, to designs by the father-and-son team Edward (c1824-1895) and Thomas (1855–1923) Mahoney, who also built St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Auckland [See Gothic New Zealand:  Auckland 1].

It ceased to be a home as early as 1888, after Williamson’s death, and has been successively used by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches.  Fortunately, although not a stick of furniture remains, the building itself is remarkably intact and rich in plasterwork, joinery, parquet flooring and marble fireplaces.

Auckland City Council purchased it in 2002 to develop it and the surrounding park as an amenity.  As the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, the Pah Homestead opened to the public in August 2010.

It is now the home of the James Wallace Art Trust, which collects and displays contemporary New Zealand art.  Sir James Wallace, who has been collecting since the early 1960s, admitted, “I learned enough trying to paint to know that I was no good at it.”  Instead, he invested massively in young artists:  the result is a “diary collection”, from which nothing has been sold.  There is an entertaining attempt to interview Sir James at

Of all that was on offer when I visited the Pah, I most enjoyed Matthew 12/12 by Gregor Kregar (b 1972) – seventy-two ceramic sheep, all in woolly jumpers, crowded into one corner of the room by a ceramic sheepdog:  You could say it’s a fresh interpretation of New Zealand lamb.

In addition to live sheep [, and] Gregor Kregar, who is based in Auckland, also does ceramic pigs [] and mongrels [].  Perhaps live pigs and mongrels are less biddable than sheep.
You can take a virtual tour of the current exhibition at the Pah Homestead at  Indeed, you can change the colour of the walls if you like.

Posted by: mike on Dec 25, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Abu Simbel Temple of Ramesses II

For many years, my summer work in England obliged me to holiday abroad – if at all – at Christmas, and I’ve got used to heading off to exotic locations around the winter solstice.

The first time I chose Egypt I was so beguiled I went back for a second helping.

Egyptology is studied and researched entirely in English, so the local guides are astonishingly fluent, to the extent that on my second tour they invariably addressed our tour-manager, a lady from Essex, as “Na’alie”.

Tourist tours to Egypt tend to follow a pattern:  in Cairo the Pyramids and the Sphinx, together with the Egyptian Museum, are virtually compulsory.  You could hardly not visit them, though not everyone would enjoy the interior of the Great Pyramid, which is rather like Holborn underground with emergency lighting, no ventilation and no escalator.

The Sphinx was smaller than I expected, about half the length of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I was surprised to find it has a tail.  When you stand level with its paws you notice it’s gazing straight at a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken operation.

The Egyptian Museum is astonishing, especially if you’ve already seen Tutankhamûn’s modest tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor:  the treasure – case after incredible case of thrones and shrines and beds and a chariot and the mask and two equally rich coffins in gold, lapis lazuli and turquoise – fills half a floor of a building the size of the National Gallery.  There’s no understanding Ancient Egypt, but it’s possible to gain a sense of wonder.

Luxor town made me think of Mabelthorpe with minarets.  Here again, there’s a tourist track – Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Queen Hapshepsut, the Colossi at Memnon and a disconcerting coach-ride to Dendera, which in the 1990s involved an armed convoy of tour-buses high-tailing across the fields and through sleepy villages for an hour:  a tourist bus was blown up some years previously, after which the locals’ sales-opportunities became extremely limited.

Best of all, though, is the Nile cruise – temples at Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan, the location of the First Cataract.

The town of Aswan is dominated by the astonishing Aswan High Dam, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s great legacy, holding back 111 cubic kilometres of water to irrigate the lands downstream and provide up to half of the country’s electricity.

The highlight of my Egyptian travels was a before-dawn plane-journey from Aswan to Abu Simbel for the awesome experience of being inside the great temple of Ramesses II at the moment of sunrise.

What has always been a great archaeological miracle is now an engineering marvel, for the entire rock-hewn temple was dismantled in 1964-8, moved 200 metres and raised 65 metres away from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam.

I’ve never before or since paid over £100 for a half-day excursion, and I don’t regret a penny of my early-morning odyssey to Abu Simbel.

For the moment Egypt is an uncertain destination for holidaymaking but not completely out of bounds.  The warm and friendly Egyptian people continue, in the manner to which they are accustomed, to welcome visitors to their breathtaking land.

UK Foreign Office advice about travel to Egypt is at

Posted by: mike on Dec 22, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesCountry HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Edgwarebury Hotel

Branching off Station Road, in the middle of the North London suburb of Edgware, is Edgwarebury Lane, lined with elegant thirties houses.

It crosses the busy A41 Edgware Way, otherwise the Watford by-pass, where pedestrians are provided with a very grand footbridge.

North of the A41 the houses eventually give way to tennis courts and a cemetery, and the road diminishes into a bridleway, though the bridge over the M1 motorway is built to main-road dimensions.

Edgwarebury Lane then climbs steeply past the Dower House, and eventually reaches what is now the Edgwarebury Hotel.

The name, and the persistence of the route against the grain of the modern road-system, suggest that Edgwarebury must have been at least as important as the once-rural village of Edgware.

This is, of course, not a sensible or practical way of reaching the Edgwarebury Hotel.  It’s reached via Barnet Lane and the last few hundred yards of the old lane.

The hotel was originally Edgwarebury House, the residence of Sir Trevor Dawson (1866-1931), managing director of the armaments company Vickers Ltd.

As an essay in Victorian or Edwardian black-and-white revival, it has one attractive show front, looking south across a gently-sloping garden surrounded by trees and looking across to distant views of London.

Within, the major rooms are embellished with antique carved timber and stained glass.  It has all the hallmarks of a late nineteenth-century interest in collecting architectural antiques.

It served as a location for the Hammer horror film The Devil Rides Out (1968), the rather more cheerful Stardust (1974) and much else.

It’s my favourite place to stay in the London area, whenever its special deals are cheaper than Premier Inn.

I like to walk down Barnet Lane, where the local motorists often drive at absurd speeds, to the crossroads and eat at the Eastern Brasserie [0208-207-6212], which serves the sort of Indian meals where you savour every mouthful, from the popadoms at the start to the slices of orange at the finish.

It’s my favourite start-of-the-weekend-in-London experience.

The Times, March 30th 2012, reported that Corus has sold the Edgwarebury Hotel to the Laura Ashley group as a "brand showcase":

Posted by: mike on Dec 14, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernLife-enhancing experiences

Claverton Pumping Station

There’s something strangely miraculous about using water to lift water.

It’s not by any means unusual.  Even before the Industrial Revolution, in mines particularly, waterwheels were used to harness the power to lift water vertically, using Heath Robinson contrivances called “rag and chain” pumps.

The engineer George Sorocold (c1668-c1738) used waterwheels to provide mains water to houses, first in Derby, and then elsewhere including the area around London Bridge.

Just about the only surviving example, however, is at the Claverton Pumping Station on the Kennet & Avon Canal, a few miles outside Bath.

The Kennet & Avon notoriously suffered water-supply problems, primarily because its summit level was so short, but also because the stretch along the Avon valley around Limpley Stoke was continually drained by the Bath locks and also leaked like a sieve.

The Claverton pump uses two adjacent breastshot waterwheels, each seventeen feet in diameter, to lift water fifty gallons at a time 48 feet from the River Avon into the canal.

It’s an oddly peaceful piece of machinery.  The wheelhouse has all the illusory ease of water-power.  It’s easy to forget the amount of energy concealed in the tranquil water and the idle splashing of the wheel paddles.

The water drives what is in effect a beam engine, very like the more familiar stationary steam engine, but at Claverton there’s no heat, no sense of simmering energy.  It’s extraordinarily restful to watch the beam rise and fall without apparent effort.

The pump started work in 1813, and stopped finally when an obstruction stripped many of the oak teeth from the main spur wheel in 1952.  The canal was no longer navigable by that time and the British Transport Commission chose to replace it with a diesel pump simply to fulfill their legal obligation to maintain a level of water.

Fortunately, industrial archaeologists were alert to the significance of the place, and the Kennet & Avon Canal Trust, assisted by the then Bath University of Technology and apprentices from the British Aircraft Corporation at Filton, Bristol, painstakingly restored it.

The water was heaved from the river into the canal once more in 1976.

Now it’s possible to enjoy the sights and sounds of eighteenth-century engineering on regular opening days.  The team-members at Claverton are very welcoming:  they have an excellent coffee machine and an executive loo.

The best access is by walking along the towpath.  Arriving by car involves dodgy parking and an unnerving crossing of the Wessex Main Line railway.

Details of opening times and operating days for the Claverton Pump are at

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 11, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Tranz Scenic Overlander

When I did a lecture-tour for the New Zealand Decorative & Fine Arts Societies [] their travel co-ordinator Jenny offered me the option of travelling from Hamilton to Wellington (that is, much of the length of the North Island) by air or by rail.

For me that’s a no-brainer.  There’s no finer way to see a land than through the window of a railway carriage.

The Overlander takes twelve hours for the full journey from Auckland to Wellington, 9½ hours from Hamilton southwards.  It’s a comfortable, leisurely trip, in rolling stock very similar to the TranzAlpine [see By rail across the Southern Alps].

Mark Smith, the Man in Seat 61, points out that this is the journey that inspired the film producer Peter Jackson, who first read J R R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings on a train on the North Island Main Trunk Railway and returned to the region to shoot his film trilogy Lord of the Rings (2001-3).

The journey is an unmissable opportunity to sense the scale of the North Island.  The line climbs into the volcanic centre of the island, and then drops into the precipitous Rangitikei gorge.  Towards evening it finds its way to the west coast, where on fine summer evenings there’s a grandstand view of the sunset.

Driving a railway through the heart of the island took nearly a quarter of a century:  construction started in 1885 and the last spike was driven in 1908.

The engineering is spectacular.  The most memorable feature of all is the Raurimu Spiral, which lifts the line 132 metres within a distance of two kilometres, by twists and a spiral over 6.8 kilometres of track.  It’s one of those stretches of railway where the train nearly meets itself coming back:

Some of the viaducts on the final 1908 section are as impressive as those on the TranzAlpine line.  The Makatote Viaduct [] is an original steel structure, 258 feet above the river-bed;  the curved Hapuawhenua Viaduct is a modern concrete replacement, 167 feet high, built on a diversion from which the earlier steel viaduct is visible to the east of the line – and,171.928037&sspn=0.002533,0.004967&ie=UTF8&ll=-39.385256,175.399566&spn=0.002687,0.004967&t=h&z=18.

The most endearing and surprising landmark on the journey south is at Mangaweka, where a DC3 aircraft rests beside the Hub Café

New Zealanders customarily disparage their railways, which were built with difficulty and have been managed half-heartedly over the years.  It’s as if the nation can’t decide whether rail is essential or superfluous to the task of transportation across the two mountainous land-masses.

The North Island Main Trunk Railway has been improved over the years by building deviations before and after the Second World War, and by a piecemeal electrification.  The Wellington-Paekakariki section was electrified at 1,500V DC in 1940, and 255 miles between Palmerston North and Hamilton were electrified to 25 kV 50 Hz AC in the 1980s.

This means that the Overlander leaves Auckland behind a diesel locomotive, changes to electric power at Hamilton and back to diesel haulage at Palmerston North, running under electric wires it does not use from Waikanae through the Wellington suburbs to its terminus:

In 2006 there was a strong likelihood that the Overlander, the only remaining train between the North Island’s two biggest cities, would close completely:  the service was reprieved three days before the closing date, and both the line and the rolling-stock were refurbished.  As a result, passenger numbers rose significantly, and the length of the trains and the number of days’ service have repeatedly increased.

If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Update:  In June 2012 the Overlander was rebranded, speeded up but reduced in frequency as the Northern Explorer  The route and the scenery are just the same.

An excellent description and a practical guide to booking trips on the Northern Explorer is at

Posted by: mike on Dec 2, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiences

Hebden Bridge

The steep downhill walk from Heptonstall [see Poets and coiners] into the Calder valley gives spectacular views of the town of Hebden Bridge which stands at the confluence of the River Calder and the Hebden Water.   Glaciers formed these valleys, so they have hanging tributaries which maximise the head of water available to mill engineers.

As the textile industry became mechanised from the late eighteenth century onwards, the old domestic industry of gave way to the first generation of water mills.  Then, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, steam-powered mills, no longer dependent on a rapid flow of water, moved out into the flatter land of the valley-floor.

Transport became industrialised too.   The packhorse system was replaced by turnpikes from 1771-2, the Rochdale Canal, built 1794-8, and the railway (1840-1).

Often known as “Trouser Town”, Hebden Bridge prospered until the post-war period, and then its economy crashed.

Between 1955 and 1965 thirty-three mills closed around Hebden Bridge, and 60% of the local shops went out of business.  The Hebden Bridge Co-operative Society went bankrupt when one of its officials defaulted with its reserves.  Cottages changed hands for as little as a penny, and the local planning authorities initially despaired of attracting new industry to the district.

Within a few years, however, the cheap housing, attractive surroundings and easy rail links to Manchester and Leeds brought a variety of incomers – dormitory commuters, home-workers such as writers and artists and a well-assimilated lesbian community [see]. 

Houses that couldn’t be given away in the early sixties traded for £300 in 1975 and twenty-five years later were worth £65,000.  Even in the current static market, you can’t find two-bedroomed accommodation in the town for much less than £120,000.

Hebden Bridge now boasts nearly two hundred retailers, including a wide range of antique-dealers, booksellers and music-stores.  It’s also a minor capital of culture.

From the early 1970s it was the one of the homes of the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes (1930-1998), who was born down the valley at Mytholmroyd.  His house at Lumb Bank is now one of the writing centres of the Arvon Foundation [], founded by two of Hughes’ friends, John Fairfax and John Moat.   

The Blackburn-born sculptor Edward Cronshaw (born 1959), best known for his statue ‘The Great Escape’, a popular Liverpool meeting-place often referred to as “The Horse’s Balls” [], lived in Hebden Bridge until he moved up the valley to Todmorden.

And Margaret Thatcher’s famed press secretary, Bernard Ingham, began his career on the Hebden Bridge Times.

Take a look at what’s on in Hebden Bridge –  it’s a hive of activity.

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 30, 2011

Category:Sacred placesLife-enhancing experiences

Heptonstall Old Church

Drive up the steep tortuous hill from the A6033 from Hebden Bridge, or better still catch the bus so you can enjoy the view as you climb, to Heptonstall at the top of the hill, where you find yourself in West Yorkshire at the end of the eighteenth century.

There has been a settlement at since before Domesday, straddling the packhorse route, the “causey”, from Lancashire at the point where it drops steeply down to cross the brook at “Hepton Brig”.

This was a place so bleak that farming was at best an uncertain living, and the inhabitants boosted their income with hand-loom weaving.

The rugged gritstone houses with their mullioned windows, clustered round the medieval church, have changed relatively little since canal transport and water-power, followed by steam-power and railways, altered the scale of local industry and moved the centre of population into the Calder valley below.

The last handloom weaver in Heptonstall worked till the end of the nineteenth century and died in 1902.

Heptonstall churchyard contains two churches.  The Old Church, dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, dates from the mid-thirteenth century.  Repeatedly extended, it has two naves as well as two aisles.  John Wesley described it as “the Ugliest Church I know”.  It was damaged by a gale in 1847 and patched up only until its replacement opened in 1854.  Afterwards it was allowed to fall into ruin.

The New Church, dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle, contains the thirteenth-century font, the 1809 clock, and the Royal Arms of King George III from the Old Church.  The New Church was modernised and extended in 1963-4 by a legacy of Mr Abraham Gibson (d 1956).

Buried in the churchyard is David Hartley, ‘King’ of the Cragg Coiners, hanged for “unlawfully stamping and clipping a public coin” on May 1st 1770.

The poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (1937-1963) is buried in the new churchyard.  Her admirers don’t take kindly to the fact that her stone bears the name of her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes.

Another, less well-known poet, Asa Benveniste (1925-1990), who latterly ran a bookshop in Hebden Bridge, is also buried here.  Roy Fuller wryly describes how the locals automatically assume any stranger in the graveyard must be looking for Plath:

Heptonstall is an oddly mordant place, full of Yorkshire ambiguities, best visited on a sunny day.  To find the real warmth, you need to step inside either of the pubs, the White Lion [] or the Cross Inn [] or the Towngate Tea Room & Deli [].

To read about the Octagon Chapel, Heptonstall, please click here.

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 27, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring New York

New York City:  The Cloisters

Catch a Madison Avenue bus from lower Manhattan uptown.  As you pass through midtown, fashionable ladies with designer handbags and designer dogs trip on and off.  When you reach Harlem, more substantial ladies get on with bags of shopping.  Eventually, you reach a turning-circle, and the driver expects you to leave the vehicle.

You walk through an archway to a turnstile, and after the customary museum formalities you’re in The Cloisters, an American version of the Middle Ages – complete with Gregorian chant on the PA system.

At a time when European scholars lagged far behind their American counterparts in appreciating the value and significance of early medieval art, John D Rockefeller Jnr (1874-1960) and the sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) took the opportunity to dismantle and transport across the Atlantic a wealth of artefacts and works of art, including four complete cloisters which are reconstructed in Fort Tryon Park near the northern tip of Manhattan.

Somehow, this strange collection casts a spell over its visitors.  Put together in 1938 with a reproduction tower based on a twelfth-century French original, it is a most beguiling place.

As well as the four cloisters, the exhibits include the complete apse of the chapel of San Martin de Fuentiduevña from Segovia, the chapter house of the abbey at Pontaut in Gascony and a wealth of tapestries, manuscripts, reliquaries and glass.

The Cloisters is administered as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  See

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

Posted by: mike on Oct 28, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Mr Straw's House

One day in 1991 a Worksop solicitor telephoned the National Trust East Midlands office at Clumber Park to say that the Trust was to receive a significant bequest.  The official who received the call was told, “I think you’d better have a look.”

Indeed, the £1 million value of the estate was not the most significant feature.  When National Trust staff stepped over the threshold of 7 Blyth Grove, they immediately realised they were in a time-warp.

Mr William Straw and his brother Walter had lived in the house most of their lives, and since their father died suddenly in 1932, followed by their mother in 1939, hardly anything had changed.

Walter had taken over his father’s grocery business, and invested the profits in Marks & Spencer shares.  William, after mother died, returned from his teaching work in London and kept house for his brother.

They kept to themselves without being reclusive:  they bought the house next door and the plot across the road to avoid intrusion by keeping control of their immediate neighbourhood.  Though he ultimately left the entire estate to the National Trust, William preferred to join the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire because the subscription was cheaper.

The National Trust duly opened the place to the public as a snapshot illustration of bourgeois lifestyle in early-twentieth century England.  Walking round the cramped, cluttered rooms is a powerful experience – intriguing or depressing according to the visitor’s viewpoint.

Like most such time-warp historic sites, it has in fact been carefully renovated.  My friend Jenny observed that the cupboard full of tins and groceries was in fact remarkably clean at the back.

An audio-file in the visitor-centre next door is of one of Walter Jnr’s shop-assistants who admired him for his integrity and describes him as “the most complete man I’ve ever known”.

Perhaps one or both brothers, and possibly one or both of their parents, were, as Dominic Lawson has perceptively remarked of Warren Buffet, affected by high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome.

There is a clip from One Foot in the Past (with spectacularly inappropriate background music) at

Dominic Lawson’s observations about Warren Buffet are in a review of Alice Schroeder, The Snowball:  Warren Buffett and the business of life (Bloomsbury 2008)], in The Sunday Times, October 12th 2008.

Visitor-information about Mr Straw’s House is at

Posted by: mike on Oct 25, 2011

Category:Waterways & Railways between Thames and SevernTransports of delightLife-enhancing experiences

Dawdling Dairy

You have to be a special person to have an aqueduct named after you.

Charles Dundas, 1st Baron Amesbury (1751-1832) was in fact the chairman of the Kennet & Avon Canal company:  someone thought it would put a smile on his face to give his family name to John Rennie’s aqueduct across the River Avon at Monckton Combe.

Its parapet carries a plaque commemorating Charles Dundas on one side and, on the other, John Thomas, the company’s chief engineer, “by whose skill, perseverance and integrity, the Kennet and Avon canal was brought to a prosperous completion”.

The Dundas Aqueduct is slightly larger than the Avoncliff Aqueduct [see If it moves, charge it].  The main span is 65 feet (Avoncliff 60 feet) and the whole aqueduct 150 yards long (Avoncliff 110 yards).

Whereas the Avoncliff Aqueduct has a light, simplified Corinthian entablature, the Dundas Aqueduct has full-dress twin Roman Doric pilasters and an exaggerated cornice that may be a not entirely successful attempt to give weather-protection to the masonry beneath.

Only at the Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster Canal [], with its five arches, Doric entablature and buttresses, did Rennie exceed his aqueducts on the Kennet & Avon.

As a tourist attraction, and an excuse for gongoozling [see], the Dundas is a prime spot.

You can even buy cheese and an ice-cream from the floating dairy that is currently moored alongside the aqueduct:

You don’t get that at any old aqueduct.

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 Oct 20, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Radio Ferrymead

Radio Ferrymead, Christchurch, New Zealand

Ferrymead Heritage Park, Christchurch, New Zealand, portrays an early twentieth-century township, complete with trams, trolleybuses, buses, trains, a working cinema, shops and houses, populated with volunteers in costume.

It’s in the same genre as the British museums at Beamish [], the Black Country []  and Blists Hill [], and reminds me of Old Sturbridge in Massachusetts [].

Its constitution is interesting:  because of its historical development [see], Ferrymead is run by an umbrella trust and provides a home for a fascinating variety of independent societies, in the same way that some British rail and tramway museums offer homes to subsidiary groups [see Shunter Hunters].

Its transport exhibits include steam, diesel and electric trains, running on the trackbed of the first railway in the South Island (opened 1863, closed 1867, restored 1964 onwards), as well as tram and trolleybus services [] and a magnificent aircraft display [].

The museum has a convincingly scaled tiny picture house, a post office which accepts mail and a practical radio station that broadcasts on AM, using 78rpm, vinyl and cassette recordings for mature listeners.  When the station is on air, it’s possible to listen online at [].

The museum escaped serious damage in the February 2011 earthquake [], and is back in operation:

Posted by: mike on Oct 13, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Wortley Hall

In the uncertain times after the Second World War, when many country-house owners had to decide whether they could ever live in their big houses again, Wortley Hall, South Yorkshire became a socialist stately home, and for more than sixty years now has been a home for stately socialists.

In 1950 Archibald, 3rd Earl of Wharncliffe (1892-1953) leased the much-battered house to a consortium of Labour organisations under the leadership of Vin Williams, the South Yorkshire organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges.

Trade union organisations have unusually good access to craftspeople, and in May 1951, powered by the efforts of a small army of volunteers, Wortley Hall opened as a conference centre under the title Wortley Hall (Labour’s Home).  Even with masses of goodwill from the Labour movement, the initial conversion cost the then huge sum of around £10,000.

John Cornwell’s account, The Voices of Wortley Hall: the sixtieth anniversary history of Labour’s home, 1951-2011, tells this remarkable story in detail.

Ever since, Wortley Hall has grown and thrived, hosting groups from Britain and abroad, from the Workers Music Association Summer School to the Clarion Cycling Club, and providing an entertaining series of public events from car rallies to comedy nights.  Friends of mine count themselves lucky if they are quick enough to book the Wortley Hall New Year’s Eve celebration.

Wortley Hall Ltd, as it's now called, is a shining example of the spirit of co-operation which traces back directly to the Rochdale Pioneers.

It’s a very beautiful place – a Palladian show-house by John Platt of Rotherham on a more modest scale to the nearby Wentworth Castle and the gargantuan Wentworth Woodhouse, vigorously extended in Victorian times, and surrounded by elegant grounds with a panoramic view to the east across the Yorkshire countryside.

In the days when I ran senior-student training at Wortley Hall for a local comprehensive school, the younger kids aspired to become senior students so they could go to “that mansion”.

There is a detailed photograph-album of Wortley Hall at  The conference-centre website is at

Wortley Hall near Sheffield is the stately home-from-home for the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014).  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 27, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Arthur's Pass

Arthur's Pass:  approach to Otira Tunnel

The TranzAlpine train-journey across the breadth of New Zealand's South Island from Christchurch to Greymouth is not cheap, and it's worth every cent.  Parts of the journey are spectacular, and the 4½-hour journey unfolds a variety of landscape across the divide between the dry eastern plains and mountains to the tropical, rainy west of the country.  The Midland Line depends heavily on its coal traffic.  The lengthy and heavily engineered route couldn’t possibly survive solely on passengers.

The most exciting part of the route traverses the Waimakariri and Broken River gorges through a series of tunnels and vertiginous viaducts including the Stair Case Viaduct, 240 feet high [].

The line climbs continuously to Arthur’s Pass (population 54), in the heart of the aptly-named Southern Alps, and plunges downgrade into the Otira Tunnel, 5.3 miles long, with a gradient of 1 in 33.  Built between 1907 and 1923, this was originally only workable by electric locomotives;  since 1997 trains have been diesel-hauled with a system of airtight doors and fans at the tunnel mouths to enable trains to expel their foul air.

The line skirts Lake Brunner, itself strongly reminiscent of the European Alps, and terminates at Greymouth.  This is the nearest large town to the Pike River Mine, where 29 miners were killed in explosions in November 2010.

The long main street is well geared to the daily one-hour influx of tourist train-passengers, and provides coach links to places along the coast that might once have been rail-connected.
Since I rode in February 2011, the odd-looking yet extremely comfortable 1950s TranzAlpine rolling-stock has been replaced by new 'AK' panoramic sightseeing stock.  New Zealand railways run on 3ft 6in-guage, so the carriages, rebuilt from older stock, are compact, yet there’s room for two seats each side of a central aisle and more than adequate leg-room.  The rear coach is an enclosed observation car.

In the middle of the rake is a generator car, with viewing platforms at each end for fresh air and photographers.  A further observation platform, with less panoramic views, is built into the end of the baggage car.  As the train approaches the major viaducts these areas become a species of genteel, geriatric cage-fighting.

The on-board team-members are friendly and eager to please, and service is excellent – plenty of food and drink to purchase, pauses for fresh air at major stops and an informative, well-scripted commentary.  (I’m fully tuned to the New Zealand habit of turning most vowels to a short ‘i’, but one young man on the TranzAlpine insisted on turning the ‘i’-vowels to apostrophes, describing the route as the “M’dln’d Line” and referring to “licim’ves” and “trick m’nance crews”.)

The central Christchurch rail terminal, opened in 1960 [], was sold off in the 1980s and demolished after the February 2011 earthquake, and the present rail station for South Island’s largest city is a one-platform affair in an industrial estate, a ten-minute drive from the centre.

My hotel promoted a so-called complimentary station shuttle.  There is no such thing.  Only at the end of the spectacularly relaxed journey out to the train does the driver reveal that it costs NZ$6 to return at the end of the day – the oldest con-trick in transport history.  The alternative taxi no doubt costs more, but nevertheless I didn’t like the feeling of being taken for a ride.

A detailed description of the route and advice about booking the TranzAlpine from outside New Zealand is at

Posted by: mike on Sep 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Ultimate Driving Experience, National Tramway Museum

My friend John from the Isle of Man had the time of his life learning to drive a tram at the National Tramway Museum, Crich.

The Ultimate Driving Experience [] was a retirement present from his colleagues.  I had the privilege of being the photographer, which brought with it the challenge of working out how to capture someone driving a moving vehicle fitted with a windscreen.

John was superbly looked after from start to finish by his instructors Nigel and Paul.  Paul is a superlative driving instructor, and Nigel (nominally the conductor) kept us interested and informed and patiently answered our questions throughout the day.

The day starts, over a cup of coffee, with classroom instruction.  John needed to know one end of a tram from the other, as it were, and to be aware of the safety requirements of steering fifteen tons of tram along predestinate grooves.  (Nigel told us that a recent visitor actually asked him how you steer a tram.)

John’s chosen Blackpool tram was in the sick bay, so he was given a huge, bosomy Liverpool “Green Goddess”, a shiny powerful beast that hadn’t been out of the depot for some weeks and took a certain amount of getting going.  At one point we had to call the Crich equivalent of the AA when 869 mysteriously parked itself on the main line and refused to budge.

I was grateful to be allowed to listen in on the entire day so that I learnt a lot that I’d never realised about these ponderous vehicles.

The technology, for instance, is at once simple and complicated;  the machinery is both robust and extremely delicate.  Six hundred volts moving from wire to rail through a wood, steel and glass double-deck vehicle is not to be messed with.  Direct current behaves in a different way to the alternating current we use at home.

If you treat the tram properly, John was told, it’s really quite easy to move;  if you’re uncertain, there can be smoke and bangs and flashes – and you can cause damage that takes time and money to put right.  It very rarely happens.

I learned, watching and listening to Paul’s meticulous instruction and encouragement, that driving a tram is much more about coasting and momentum than I’d imagined.  As with a car, you keep your foot off the throttle as much as you can.

Making it move is one thing;  stopping it is another.  This is why the regular Crich tram-drivers have one or more of seven different licences, largely because of the variety of braking systems in the historic fleet.

We were hospitably received by this exceptionally professional museum – coffee in the morning, lunch, and then more coffee at the end of the day, constant friendly attention, the run of the museum both on foot and in our own big green tram.  We arrived at 10 am and left at 5 pm, and Paul and Nigel showed no haste to see us off.

I know more about trams and Crich than I’d have learned any other way, and – thanks to his former colleagues – John has another skill to add to his CV.

Posted by: mike on Sep 19, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Scampston Hall

Motorists hammering along the A64 to the coast have little chance of noticing that they fly through the Capability Brown park of Scampston Hall.  An understated road-sign indicates ‘Scampston only’.  It’s worth following.

Apart from its historic interest, Scampston Hall has a superb restaurant, offering better lunches than you’ll find within sight of the A64.

Its historic interest is considerable.  Five St Quintin baronets, all of them called William, developed this estate.  The 3rd baronet built the original house, parts of which are still visible at the back, in the 1690s.  The 4th baronet brought in Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the park.  The 5th baronet accumulated a significant art collection.  His heir, William Thomas Darby St Quintin, employed the architect and interior designer Thomas Leverton to transform the house in 1800-3, so that it looks – inside and out – Regency in style.

The man who takes your ticket when you start a house tour is, in fact, the current owner, Sir Charles Legard, 15th Bt.  He and his wife Caroline took on the place in 1994 when it was, as Sir Charles puts it, “tired”, reroofed, rewired and replumbed it, and welcome the public on a limited number of days each year.  Their son Christopher’s family now lives there.

Lady Legard had, through her voluntary involvement in the National Trust, gained an invaluable apprenticeship from the interior designers John Fowler [see Southern Comfort] and David Mlinaric, planning the restoration of Beningborough Hall, Nostell Priory (after a fire) and Nunnington Hall.  She was more than qualified to take on the challenge of managing the restoration of her family home to the highest standards.  Scampston Hall was the Country Life House of the Year in 2000:  John Cornforth’s account of the house and family appeared in the January 27th and February 3rd 2000 issues.

Lady Legard then set about finding a purpose for the former kitchen garden.  She commissioned the internationally renowned Dutch designer Piet Oudolf [see] to create a flower garden to attract public visitors, and engaged the local architects Mark Bramhall and Ric Blenkharn to design the restaurant.  The Walled Garden opened in 2004.

The result is an utterly delightful visiting experience.  Sir Charles shows groups round his house in relaxed style:  visitors are encouraged to ask questions and to sit on the furniture.  Outside, a half-hour walk around the inner park, the Cascade Circuit, passes the Pump House with its plunge bath, the Palladian Bridge and the ruined ice-house.  The Walled Garden is a fascinating essay in contemporary garden design.  And the restaurant offers the sort of menu you need to return to.

You can always go to Scarborough another day...

Details of all that Scampston Hall has to offer are at  Card-carrying members and Friends of the Historic Houses Association are admitted free.

Posted by: mike on Aug 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring New Zealand

Christchurch tour bus RTL68

I wrote this piece while I was staying in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the week before the February 2011 earthquake.

On my first morning in Christchurch I spotted the familiar and unmistakable shape of a London Transport red double-decker, and booked a tour that afternoon.  My friend Doug, who likes buses, would have been miffed not to ride on the roof-box RTL that I’d seen;  I rode in a common-or-garden Routemaster, but I’m easy to please and a red bus is a red bus.  I’m only concerned that it has a top deck and windows that open in hot weather.

The conductor, for so he called himself though he didn’t ring the bell or shout “Hold tight”, was Paul, who quickly entered my pantheon of tour-guides I wish to emulate.  He was adept at the fortissimo bonhomie required by cruise-groups and loud American ladies who chirp and squawk fit to drown the PA system.  When they stopped talking and listened it was quickly apparent that Paul knew his way round Christchurch, and that his presentation was as sharp as a pin.  He could fill in time when stuck in traffic, yet never missed a cue to point out sites, and if he said look left he meant left not right.

The bus company is aptly named Hassle-free Tours [].  The logo and web-address on the side panels of the Routemaster use the elegant, authentic London Transport Johnston font.  It’s a quality outfit:  the entire fleet runs on biodiesel fuel from restaurant cooking-oil.

As an introduction to Christchurch the itinerary was ideal – a quick spin round the city centre for orientation, a walk in the park to Mona Vale Mansion (designed by Joseph Clarkson Maddison 1899-1900), a walk in another park to Riccarton House (1856 onwards) and the transplanted Deans Cottage, the successive homes of the Deans family who first settled the site of Christchurch, and a look at the Riccarton Bush, a preserved area of the vegetation that filled the Canterbury Plain before the Deans tamed it, now used as a kiwi nursery.

Then the bus headed out of town for an ice-cream at the seaside resort of Sumner – Christchurch’s answer to Bondi Beach (though no-one with sense would surf around Cave Rock).

And then Steve the driver came into his own as the bus crawled up the precipitous road over the Port Hills to the port of Lyttelton, where cruise liners sit alongside the wharves from which west-coast coal is loaded for shipping to China, Japan and South Korea.

There’s no finer introduction to Christchurch and its surroundings than the precipitous ride back over Mount Pleasant Road, savouring the views from the top deck of a vehicle built to chug down Oxford Street, driven with care and precision and much horn-sounding on the hairpin bends by Steve.

Mona Vale Mansion is closed because of earthquake damage for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: mike on Aug 16, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Strawberry Hill: gallery

Horace Walpole (1717-97) didn’t expect his house at Strawberry Hill to last much longer than he did:  he built in plaster and papier-mâché and decorated his “little plaything-house” with wallpaper.

The house that gave its name to a style, “Strawberry Hill Gothic”, was for amusement only, so small that one of his visitors, Lady Townsend, declared, “Lord God!  Jesus!  What a house!  It is just such a house as the parson’s where the children lie at the end of the bed.”

As a reaction to the stern mansion at Houghton in Norfolk built by his father, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, and indeed to his own town house off Piccadilly, Walpole extended Strawberry Hill between 1749 and 1776 asymmetrically, as if built over centuries, because he was “fond of the Sharawaggi, or Chinese want of symmetry”.

He commissioned a group of friends as his “committee of taste” – among them John Chute (1701-1776) and Richard Bentley (1708-1782) – to advise on designs based on medieval originals.  This is why the chimneypiece in the library imitates John of Eltham’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, and that in the Holbein Chamber is based on Archbishop Warham’s tomb at Canterbury, while the gallery ceiling is derived from the side aisles of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey.

The house was a cabinet of curiosities, a Schatzkammer, filled with every kind of object from Cardinal Wolsey’s red hat to the gilded armour of the French King Francis I, James I’s gloves to a lock of Edward IV’s hair “cut from his corpse in St George’s Chapel at Windsor”.    Stripped of Walpole’s collections in a sale of 1842, its rooms currently stand virtually empty.  Yet they have the unmistakable feeling of what Walpole called “gloomth”, which inspired his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1765), an important milestone on the road which leads to Frankenstein, Dracula and Hogwarts.

For a building that was outrageously against the prevalent architectural fashion, it was the object of insatiable curiosity.  Walpole was so pressured by visitors that he issued timed tickets.  “Never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court,” he wrote to a friend.  “Everyone will live in it but you.”  He declared that he should marry his housekeeper, because her gratuities were such that she had more money than he did.

Strawberry Hill, for many years the core of a Catholic teacher-training college, is now – at a cost of £9 million – as bright and crisp as Horace Walpole would have remembered it.

Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, is open to the public by timed ticket:  see  The café, called The Committee of Taste, is superlative:  I couldn’t bring myself to eat the cheesecake until I’d photographed it:


Posted by: mike on Aug 10, 2011

Category:Sheffield's HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesFun Palaces

Sheffield Fat Cat

The Fat Cat is a Sheffield legend:  It’s not the only award-winning real-ale pub in the city – there’s another round the corner on the next street – but it was the first, and it has a special place in the affections of beer-drinkers.  It welcomes anyone who enjoys civilised traditional conviviality and home-cooked food within easy access of public transport – so you don’t have to drive home (though there’s ample car-parking if you do).

There was a Kelham Tavern on the site by the 1830s.  After the street was named Alma Street to commemorate the Crimean battle of 1854, the pub was renamed the Alma Hotel.

The exact date of the present building is unclear:  it’s of straightforward artisan construction, with a traditional bar inside.  Though it has been extended, the only significant architectural alteration is the blocking of the original corner entrance door.

For many years it was crowded by surrounding housing and the noise and dirt of heavy industry.  Now it’s much quieter.

The saving of the Alma Hotel was Stones’ Brewery’s failure to implement 1952 planning permission to extend the building, doubling the number of bedrooms to eight and creating an open-plan interior.

Because the building survived intact while the local community contracted, it was an ideal location for Dave Wickett and Bruce Bentley’s scheme to reintroduce traditional beers to Sheffield.  They gave the building its current name when they opened in 1981 serving beers from independent breweries.  The first pint was pulled by the much-loved Sheffield football legend, Derek Dooley.

Their policy has proved durable and enormously successful:  good beer well served, home-cooked food ranging from carnivore to vegan, no piped music or gaming machines.  (There is a Monday quiz-night, when for lack of a microphone Stephen the quizmaster flits between rooms shouting the questions and answers.)

Dave Wickett became sole owner in 1989 and began brewing beer behind the pub the following year.  Within ten years he built the Kelham Island Brewery next door, and now you can find his beer in real-ale pubs across the country, and buy bottles in Waitrose.

Dave Wickett died, aged 64, on May 16th 2012:  The Fat Cat is a memorial to a man who added a great deal to the sum of human happiness.

Posted by: mike on Jul 7, 2011

Category:Manx HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Milntown House

The Isle of Man's latest historic site to open is Milntown, a country house and garden on the outskirts of Ramsey.  (This is a reversal of history, for Ramsey was, until the late 1880s, on the outskirts of the Milntown estate.)

The house is a delightful early-nineteenth century Gothick confection, built around a seventeenth-century core on an estate that belonged to the McCrystyn, later Christian, family from the early fifteenth century at least.

This was the birthplace of the great Manx hero, William Christian, otherwise Illiam Dhone or Brown William (1608-1663) [See].  Fletcher Christian, the instigator of the mutiny on the Bounty was of the same family.

After the Christian family left, Milntown was a school, a hotel and then a private house belonging to the owners of Yates' Wine Lodges.  The last owner, Sir Clive Edwards, left the estate in trust to the Manx people, and it's now gradually opening up for public enjoyment.

In an interesting reversal of UK National Trust practice, visitors enter through the tea-shop to reach the proudly organic gardens, which provide produce for the kitchen and an array of the sort of flowers that the monochrome photographer Cecil Beaton sourly described as "retina irritants".

Designed by Richard Lucas, the garden is a vivid, crowded, complex place to wander, with woodland walks, seats and a mill-pond.  The waterwheel of the 1794 mill turns idly, and the mill will one day open to the public.

This will be a site to return to – not least for the serious catering.  When you walk in to pay your admission, you see satisfied customers tucking into the full cake-stand for afternoon tea.  It's difficult to resist the temptation on the way out.

Details of Milntown's opening arrangements are at

Posted by: mike on Jun 22, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Leadenham House

As you drive eastwards along the A17 from Newark-on-Trent, it's difficult to miss seeing a splendid Georgian house sitting on the top of the escarpment.  This is Leadenham House.  Despite its prominent position, it was virtually invisible when the main road clambered up the slope to Leadenham village;  since the by-pass opened in 1995 it's become an attractive landmark for travellers.

Built for William Reeve by Christopher Staveley of Melton Mowbray in 1792-6, the house has a cantilevered staircase said to be the work of John Adam, oldest of the three famous Adam brothers.  It was extended by Lewis Vulliamy in the 1820s, and the morning room, originally the kitchen, was decorated with antique Japanese rice-paper panels discovered by Detmar Blow in 1904

Leadenham House is open to visitors on a limited basis:  William Reeve's descendant, Mr Peter Reeve, uses visitors' fees to support the Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust.

Opening arrangements can be found at which cheerfully advises prospective visitors to "ring the front door bell, as they aren't open in any sort of commercial sense and all the money they receive from visitors goes to a village charity, so there is nobody waiting expectantly for anyone to arrive".

There is a fulsome description of the house and its owners at

The other reason to visit Leadenham is much more freely open.  The George Hotel is my favourite pit-stop on journeys along the A17, whether for morning coffee or a sandwich lunch.  The pub prides itself on using beef from Lincoln Red cattle.

It also has a world-beating collection of seven hundred malt whiskies, collected since 1970.  Just think:  if you lived within walking distance you could go to the George for what Denis Thatcher referred to as a "tincture" every night for two years without repetition.  Ranged round the walls of the bar is a positive library of malt whisky.

The only down-side is that the prices of a single single malt range from £2.10 to £350.

The George website [] recommends the malt liqueur Drunkeld Atholl Brose [sic] which you can sip on its own or with fresh cream floated on top.

Denis Thatcher would have been appalled: he avoided ice because, as he said, it dilutes the alcohol.

(Drunkeld Atholl Brose – it seems – is really spelled Dunkeld:

Posted by: mike on Jun 12, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring California

San Francisco Ferry Terminal

San Francisco Ferry Terminal

There's no shortage of good food in San Francisco.  All you need do is avoid obvious tourist traps and eat where the locals eat.

If you ride the F-line all the way to its Castro terminus, you more or less fall into Orphan Andy's, within yards of the streetcar terminus, where I ate a classic burger and fries for a little over $10, including a properly made pot of English Teatime tea.

Another time I tried the memorably named and nearby Squat & Gobble [] which offered good food (corned beef toasted sandwich) at a very reasonable price served with wit and panache.  If I lived in Castro I'd go there for brunch.

It turns out that there's a London branch of Squat & Gobble on Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia (ie, near the Post Office Tower):  the menu looks thoroughly English rather than a Californian import.  I wouldn't wear the T-shirt, though.

I ate Kobe (having first had to ask what it was) at the Market Bar [], at the magnificent Ferry Terminal on the Embarcadero.  Kobe, so Juan Carlo the waiter told me, is a special breed of cattle which the Japanese raise in idle luxury so that the animal does not develop much muscle:  apparently, they also massage the animal's buttocks (while it's still alive).  Once dead it is indeed exceptionally tender.

Wikipedia tells me [] that Kobe beef is from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, though in the USA it is usually crossbred with Angus to suit the American taste for darker meat.

Market Bar is a splendid lunch venue for people-watching and listening, in my case to a ball-busting lady executive laying into a male colleage in high-pitched staccato:  when she left it was, as my Yorkshire friends say, "like t'mill stoppin'".  The restrooms are a long walk across the food hall, however:  when I nipped out to take precautions during a kitchen delay, an over-zealous waiter cleared my table and had to lay it again, to his embarrassment.

I also fancied, but did not have time to try, Butterfly [] at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero, right next to the Alcatraz Cruise terminal.  This is not a recommendation, but a suggested alternative to the perfunctory, cheap and cheerful Alcatraz Landing Café, where I dined with a persistent pigeon that resisted the waitress's attempts to drive it out with a water-pistol.

My adviser about Italian food in San Francisco, John Rozatti, recommended I eat at the Molinari Delicatessen [,+CA,+USA&cid=15255183613653254552&z=14] on Columbus Avenue.  When I went looking for it, after dark, I missed it because it closes at 5.30pm and I ended up instead people-watching in the front window of Pinocchio [], eating an excellent fettucine con salmone with a glass of Montepulciano, an attractive red wine I hadn't previously heard of.

John would no doubt still vote for Molinari:  he says, "order a number 8 (Renzo's Special – request imported meat).  You will leave there (1) content and (2) full."  I trust John:  he has Italian ancestry and a sister who lives in San Francisco.

Posted by: mike on May 4, 2011

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Isle of Man Railway Port St Mary

My Isle of Man host John and I watched the Royal Wedding, toasted the happy couple in Sauvignon Blanc (because the island – or at least the island's co-op – had apparently run out of champagne) and wondered what else to do for the afternoon, rather than watch Huw Edwards busking while waiting for something to happen.

We caught the steam train one stop, from Port St Mary to the end of the line at Port Erin, and went for tea at the utterly seaside Cosy Nook Café [], walked back up the hill and took the same train back an hour later.  For £4.00 return, rather than £3.20 on the bus.

It is of course a delight to travel, even for a few minutes, in a wooden railway compartment with windows that let down on leather straps.

Even more, it's satisfying to be able to use a Victorian heritage line as practical transport.

As we watched the red locomotive and carriages chug off towards Douglas, I remarked that this railway wasn't designed to be cute.

When it opened in the 1870s this was practical modern transport, scaled down to the geography of the island.  It opened up towns like Port St Mary and Port Erin, and enabled people to travel across the island quickly and relatively cheaply for the first time.

The system of four lines, run by two companies, survived because it worked, and because the manager between the wars surreptitiously subsidised the steam trains from the revenues of the bus routes.

The routes to Peel and Ramsey eventually expired in the 1960s, and the remaining Douglas-Port Erin line was in effect nationalised in 1977.

It's now heavily marketed as a tourist attraction, which rivals the bus-service in speed though not in frequency.  When the TT annually blocks the island's road-system, it provides a much-needed commuter service.

Meanwhile the Peel and Ramsey trackbeds remain substantially intact as footpaths [see Walking the Manx Northern Railway].

Details of the Isle of Man Railway services appear at

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the line to Castletown and Port Erin.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent Valley

Grindleford Station

One of the finest, and simplest, eating experiences in Derbyshire is the full breakfast at the Grindleford Station Café.

Grindleford is the first station westwards on the Hope Valley Line, which carries passenger services between Sheffield and Manchester.  This line between Dore and Chinley was a late link in the Midland Railway network, opened in 1894.  The station building, like others on the line, is a standard design, built in timber with stone footings and chimneys.

Its interior has been altered, and for well over thirty years it has housed one of the truly great hikers' pit-stops.  Whether you walk, cycle, motor-cycle or drive it's a rest-and-be-thankful port-in-a-storm.  You can of course reach it by train with no more effort than walking the ramp up from the platform to the bridge;  if you're really decadent you can arrive by car.  (The station is a mile north of the village of Grindleford, on the B6521 road to Fox House.)

It was founded and driven by Philip Eastwood, a man who affected a truculence which would have been noticeable in the grumpiest eateries of Lower Manhattan.  His notices are legendary:  "Don't even think of asking for mushrooms", "Unaccompanied children will be sold into slavery", "This is a serving hatch, not a gawping hatch" and "If you want to be a fire guard, join the fire brigade".

Inevitably, some innocent customers took exception to this, but astute reviewers recognise that nobody builds a successful business by hating customers.  Review comments on describe the service as "charmingly grumpy", "curt but helpful", "so awful it was wonderful".  The place is so special its Wikipedia entry contains irony:

Philip Eastwood Snr died in 2007 at the age of 63, dancing at a party, and his son, also Philip, then aged nineteen, promptly gave up his business-management degree-course and his plans for an athletic career to take on the family legacy, much to the relief of the rambling community.

The café continues, and Philip Jnr has added to the notices, but long-standing visitors will sense that the new management has a gentler temperament, and some of the heart has gone out of the truculence.  A Sheffield Telegraph writer ['Station café still on track', January 13th 2009] even spotted one that ended with the words "Thank you".

For cholesterol-on-a-plate breakfasts and lunches with chips piled high there is nowhere finer anywhere in the Peak District.  Don't use the loo without making a purchase, and if you want to check if the hair-dryer's still working, ask for mushrooms.

Posted by: mike on Mar 27, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

The Pineapple, Dunmore

Some time ago, I stayed with some mates for a week in the Dunmore Pineapple, near Stirling, one of the most appealing of the many delightful holiday experiences provided by the Landmark Trust [].

I don't like the pseudo-architectural term "folly", because the builders of strange buildings usually had (indeed, have) their own reasons for spending their money as they wish, but the Pineapple is most certainly one of the oddest architectural statements in the whole of the British Isles.

The Pineapple marks the entrance to the south-facing 6½-acre kitchen garden of Dunmore Park.  The sixteen-foot-high brick retaining wall on the north side incorporated furnaces to heat glasshouses to grow expensive, exotic and highly prized fruit which marked the wealth and status of an aristocratic host.

The lower part of the structure, incorporating a scrupulously correct Palladian archway entrance, was built in 1761 for John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (1732-1809).

He became the last, contentious royal governor of Virginia between 1771 and 1776, and ultimately returned to Scotland, having lost control of the colony.

Because the two halves of the structure, the garden entrance and the pineapple, are built from exactly the same stone and there is a 1761 date-stone, some historians have assumed that is the date of the whole structure.  Atop the cool classicism of the entrance, the octagonal gazebo segues into the pointy doors and windows of eighteenth-century Gothick, and then simply sprouts into a forty-five-high pineapple.

It's likely that, in conformity with the sailors' custom of placing a pineapple on the gatepost on returning home from the tropics, Lord Dunmore had the elaborate and skilfully constructed pineapple gazebo built above the entrance to his kitchen garden sometime after his return in 1777.

The pineapple itself is a superb piece of craftsmanship, with each of its leaves individually drained to prevent frost-damage.  Folly it certainly isn't.

It's a diverting place to stay, even though you have to step outside to get from bed to breakfast, and the foxes tend to grab their breakfast from the dustbin.  The interior of the octagonal gazebo is entirely circular in plan, which my guitar-playing mate proved has resonant acoustics.  You could probably hear his eighteenth-century amplification a mile down the road in Airth.

Posted by: mike on Feb 4, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Berwyn Chain Bridge

Take the steam train out of Llangollen, and get off at the first stop, Berwyn.  Leave the station and cross under the line along a distinctly dangerous stretch of road over the King's Bridge of c1902-6.

A couple of hundred yards downstream is another bridge, an attractive suspension footbridge called the Chain Bridge, which has been out of use since 1984 though plans exist to restore it.  The original bridge, to a different design, was built by a mine-owner, Exuperious Pickering, to connect with the Llangollen Canal and the Holyhead Road in 1814.  This was replaced in 1870, shortly after the railway opened, by Sir Henry Robinson, owner of the Brymbo Steel Works:  it was destroyed by a flood in 1928 and replaced by the present strengthened structure the following year.

Alongside is the Chainbridge Hotel [], one of my favourite retreats (though admittedly not the prettiest building in Wales).  An attractive Victorian black-and-white revival house is overwhelmed by an uncompromising sixties block of bedrooms.  It's an extremely narrow, cramped building, simply because it sits between the rapids of the River Dee and the watercourse that takes water from the Horseshoe Falls to feed the Llangollen Canal.

These constraints are actually virtues.  The ground-floor dining room and bar offer close-up views of the ever-changing patterns of water on rocks.  The river-view bedrooms have balconies looking across to the railway, so that at regular intervals the steam-exhaust, the whistles and the quiet clatter of railway carriages carries across the valley.

Pick a quiet time of year, and you could be anywhere in the world, surrounded by trees and water.

And one day soon, it'll be possible again to catch the train into town by walking over the suspension bridge.  All it needs is £100K.  And a little more on top.

Update:  The Ancient Monuments Society Newsletter (Autumn 2012) reports that the Chain Bridge has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £325,000.

Posted by: mike on Jan 29, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiences


Whenever I stand on the fourteenth-century bridge over the River Dee in the centre of Llangollen, it feels as if Wales starts here, though the actual border is several miles to the east, beyond Wrexham and Ruabon.  It's a particularly welcoming town, an irresistible stopping-off point on any journey into the Welsh hills.  There are lots of set-piece tourist sites, some of which will feature in subsequent articles, and plenty of opportunity for rest and recuperation in a break of journey.

July is the month of the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod [] and the Llangollen Fringe []:  these may be an attraction or a reason to avoid crowds, depending on taste.

A particularly spectacular place to eat is the Corn Mill [] built in 1786 but originally founded by the monks of Valle Crucis Abbey in the Middle Ages.  It overlooks the rapids of the River Dee and faces the station of the Llangollen Railway [], which offers a 7½-mile ride up the Dee Valley to a terminus at Carrog, taking just eighty minutes for a return journey.

Whenever I have time to kill in Llangollen I end up browsing in Maxine's Cafe and Books [], located in a former cinema.  Beyond the shop-front café up a succession of stairs there are endless shelves of unexpected and tempting titles that easily stretch a quick visit into a whole morning or afternoon.

Other diversions within easy reach include the Llangollen Motor Museum [], the medieval Valle Crucis Abbey, now administered by Cadw []
and – beyond it to the north – the spectacular A542 Horseshoe Pass road, built as a turnpike in 1811.

Posted by: mike on Jan 24, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureLiverpool's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Liverpool University Victoria Gallery & Museum

The expression "red-brick university" stems from the great Victorian Liverpool-born Quaker architect, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), and his love for terra-cotta, glazed moulded brick, with which it is possible to contrive elaborate effects without the great expense of masons and masonry.

The term was actually coined by Liverpool University's Professor of Hispanic Studies, Edgar Allison Peers (1891-1952) in his polemic, Red Brick University, published under the pseudonym Bruce Truscot in 1943.

Waterhouse is responsible for, among much else, Manchester Town Hall, the Refuge Assurance Building in Manchester that is now the Palace Hotel, the Natural History Museum, South Kensington and a series of unmistakable office-buildings for the Prudential Assurance Company. His predilection for terra-cotta led his architectural contemporaries sarcastically to label his work "slaughterhouse Gothic".

His influence on the competition for the Victoria Law Courts, Birmingham, which were eventually built by Aston Webb & Ingress Bell, undoubtedly encouraged Birmingham to become "terracotta city" in the Edwardian period.

In his native Liverpool, Waterhouse built (in stone) the former North Western Hotel in front of Lime Street Station, and the iconic Victoria Building of Liverpool University (1892). This was conceived as part of an 1880s federation of University College, Liverpool, Owens College in Manchester and the Yorkshire College in Leeds, which split up when first Liverpool and then Leeds gained independent university status in 1903 and 1904.

Many of the architectural interesting parts of the Victoria Building are now open to the public as the Victoria Gallery & Museum, and the interior is an eye-opening. Rather than the lavatorial reds that one might expect, Waterhouse used an interesting palette of buff and pale green faience. Staircases weave through the building, supplemented by an ingeniously inserted modern lift. The Tate Hall, formerly the library funded by the great sugar baron, has a spectacular timber roof.

It's well worth a visit. Admission is free. The displays feature aspects of the University's work since its foundation in 1887. And it's a welcome addition to Liverpool's superb range of places to have morning coffee or afternoon tea. See

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 7, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesFun PalacesExploring Australia

St Kilda Pier

St Kilda is lively at night, and laid back by day.  It's so easy to nip down there by tram from the centre of Melbourne that I took to eating breakfast and an evening meal there.  On Sunday morning there is a craft market.  When I return to Melbourne next I'll seriously consider staying in St Kilda rather than in Melbourne itself.

It has three living monuments to the history of entertainment – the Palais Theatre, Luna Park and the St Kilda Pier.

The pier has a chequered history.  The original timber jetty was replaced by the present concrete structure on a slightly different alignment.  The charming and much loved pavilion, known locally as the "kiosk", was destroyed by fire in 2003, and as a result of vehemently expressed public opinion was rebuilt in its original form, with a cool, glass-fronted modern extension behind which houses Little Blue [].  Here you can eat either in air-conditioned comfort or wafted by natural breezes:  I had a restorative risotto, while others around me tucked into Sunday brunch.

Beyond the pier and its kiosk is a breakwater, part of which is fenced off as a wildlife reserve.

I liked The St Kilda Pelican [16 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 3182 VIC] for its intriguing wooden veranda with circular openings through which to see and be seen, its relaxed, sunny, morning atmosphere, and its eggs Florentine for breakfast.

There's a plethora of choices for an evening-meal venue at St Kilda Beach.  I stumbled upon The Street Café [] which I enjoyed so much I made a second visit.  This return visit showed that what I thought was pumpkin and lamb soup the first time was in fact pumpkin and lime.  (I still have trouble with Australian vowels.)  The service at The Street Café is highly polished, and it's possible to sit by the window watching the people go past in the evening sun.  Food and entertainment is what the seaside should be about.

Posted by: mike on Jan 5, 2011

Category:Transports of delightLife-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Colonial Tramcar Restaurant

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant [] is a stroke of business genius.  There is no more appropriate place to dine in Melbourne than on a tram.  This popular tradition, dating back to 1983, operates twice nightly, providing a five-course dinner and liberal amounts of alcohol while gliding and occasionally grinding along the streets of central and southern Melbourne to the greatest hits of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Abba.  Irresistible.

There are actually three trams, clearly the same American-style model as the City Circle vehicles, and from the outside they look surprisingly tired, in a dull red-brown livery with lamps missing from the illuminated display above the door.  Inside, however, the two restaurant compartments are a feast of plush curtains and mirrors and extremely comfortable seating in twos and fours:  each of the two compartments seats a total of eighteen.  The maitre d's introductory announcement mentions that the evening takes 3½ hours and that the on-board lavatory is the smallest in the southern hemisphere.

The staff of three that I witnessed at work was the acme of teamwork.  No sooner had the wheels begun to turn than the champagne came round, and as we pottered back and forth, reversing from time to time, they presented a choice of pâté, a choice of entrée (the Australian term for a starter), of which I had duck risotto, and a choice of main course, of which I had an excellent, thick and perfectly cooked steak.  The trams are fitted with stabilisers, and there was – wisely – no thought of soup.

Individual service was leisurely, in keeping with the steady ride through the streets, while the staff worked non-stop to maintain an efficient and apparently effortless service to thirty-six covers.  And all the time the wine, a simple choice of red or white, was poured and poured again.  It was one of those wine-waiter situations where the only way to slow the flow is to keep the glass full.  I forgot.

There's something magical about gliding through the streets, gazing through tinted windows at the ordinary world we customarily inhabit – people waiting at crossings and tram-stops, yellow taxis picking up fares, shop windows, houses.

There was only one discordant moment, somewhere around the University, when the car paused opposite a tram-shelter where there was what in England is called a tramp and in the United States a "derelict", complete with his carrier bags, seated in state.  The tram moved forward to reverse in front of a urinal.

Most of the time we processed back and forth around the centre and out to the beach-resort of St Kilda, which is magical in the evening.  After the main course, the three trams parked up at Albert Park for a cigarette-break, and then dessert (in my case date pudding), coffee and liqueurs were served.  Eventually, in good time, we were returned to our starting point, where a fleet of taxis was lined up waiting.  I sauntered into my hotel thinking I'd quite like a malt whisky, but fortunately the bar was shut.

The following morning I didn't want to move very fast.  At the coffee shop (I'd given up on the hotel breakfast) the barista made a great deal of noise bashing and grinding behind his big machine.  When I walked across to the Southern Cross Station the locomotives were roaring very loudly.  I caught a tram, which shook a great deal, to St Kilda and sat very quietly until I felt better.

The Colonial Restaurant Tram is not cheap, and worth every cent.  But it's a good idea to keep the wineglass full for much of the time.

Posted by: mike on Dec 30, 2010

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesExploring Australia

Alice Springs

Alice Springs is seriously hot, heading towards 36°C as I stood in the station yard waiting for the most charming bus driver I have ever met to check in his passengers for the shuttle into town.

The drive between hotels crosses several watercourses:  each of them has all the paraphernalia of bridges, cutwaters and culverts, yet consists entirely of sand, dotted with opportunistic grass and trees, indicating that water is present below the river bed.

Alice Springs people tell of sudden flash floods, the most recent in January 2009, when no rain fell in the town but a storm further north sent so much water that houses in the Casino district had to be sandbagged.  When you ask Alice people about the last time it rained, they tend to mention years, like 2000 and 1988, though in fact a few inches falls each year.  Their idea of a drought appears to be anything up to a decade.

Elsewhere in Australia, farmers and local governments contend with the ironies of the climate:  I repeatedly read newspaper reports of farmers in one place rejoicing because their land was replenished by rainstorms while others desperately wondered how many months they could hold out in the drought;  in different parts of the country, authorities battle with flood disasters whilst elsewhere they squabble over apportioning available supplies.

For a town that didn't exist until the early 1870s and only gained a rail connection in 1929, Alice Springs is extremely proud of its heritage.  There are tours of the Royal Flying Doctor Service [], tracing the origins and development of a quintessentially Australian enterprise, without which much of the remote regions could not have developed, and the Telegraph Station Historical Reserve [], now a historic monument that shows where, how and why the location was first colonised by white settlers:  the original "spring" is actually a waterhole on the Todd River – Alice was in fact the wife of the postmaster-general of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd (1826-1910).

While I was in Alice Springs I bought Doris Blackwell's Alice...on the line (apparently co-written with Douglas Lockwood 1965), an account of growing up there between 1899 and 1908 when her father was officer-in-charge of the telegraph station.  For a reader who has travelled to Alice Springs overland in the comfort of The Ghan and experienced the summer heat there, it starkly focuses the imagination on the conditions endured by the men who laid out and built the telegraph line and the families who came to this desolate and beautiful place to work and live.

On a Tailormade Tours half-day tour with an excellent driver/guide called Graeme, I also visited the Alice Springs Reptile Centre [], and met a two-foot lizard called Fred who ambles about the place getting under people's feet, and drove to the top of ANZAC Hill, the vantage point that reveals the geography of the place, located on a narrow gap in the MacDonnell Range through which the railway and the road penetrate.

In a short stay I left interesting sites unseen, the Museum of Central Australia, the Old Ghan Museum & Heritage Railway, which runs a steam train along a surviving stretch of the narrow-gauge original line, and the National Road Transport Hall of Fame next door, housed in a hall big enough to contain a couple of road-trains and much else.

What I wouldn't have missed, however, was the Outback Ballooning [] dawn flight over the outback, hosted by the inestimable pilot Frans and his driver Ron (apparently they swap roles from time to time).  A balloon flight is worth getting up before dawn for:  it offers time to see the night-sky in desert conditions, all the practical activity of inflating the balloon and, later, squashing it back into its five-foot-high carrier-bag, the eerie silence of drifting above the landscape with absolutely no sensation of vertigo, the entertainment of surprising kangaroos and horses going about their morning business and – since the route and destination are dictated by the wind – such points of local interest as the jail and the oil-refinery.

The champagne breakfast afterwards, a regular ballooning custom, was convivial:  the watermelon, chicken legs and pieces of quiche were washed down with champagne laced with apple and guava juice, a sort of antipodean Bucks Fizz, and the conversation warmed up considerably.  I spent the rest of the morning drinking strong coffee.

There's enough to do in Alice Springs to while away several days:  in future I'd make a point of visiting in winter, when the temperature goes down to a cool 20°C.

Posted by: mike on Dec 16, 2010

Category:Life-enhancing experiences

Singapore Raffles Hotel

Everybody deserves – more than once in their lives – to be looked after as they look after you at the Raffles Hotel [], Singapore's most venerable pit-stop.

Afternoon tea here is not just a snack, or even a meal, but an occasion, with all that you might expect from a top-of-the-range internationally famous institution – elegant classical decor, white tablecloth, cake-stand, napkin carefully placed on your lap not once but every time you leave the table, and a harpist.  Lots of attentive waiters and waitresses, all of them clued in to the fact that I'd ordered Assam tea, which came in a dainty silver pot that poured slowly and with dignity.  Because I was on my own, someone brought me a magazine, unsolicited, in case I got bored.

The cake stand was, I was told, simply to start things off.  The buffet included hot dishes, of which the most remarkable was a savoury carrot cake with dried squid.  (I can remember being astonished, around 1985, to discover that carrots will make a sweet cake, to which I was introduced by a Canadian lady called Cathy;  here the concept goes full circle.)

It's important in these circumstances to pace oneself:  the sandwiches (inevitably with the crusts cut off) are moreish;  the cakes even moreish, and a man comes round with a basket of scones at regular intervals.  I lost track of the number of small pots of Assam that came my way as I gazed at the elaborate cast-iron Victorian fountain outside the window.

It was one of the afternoon teas of a lifetime:  the Mount Vernon Hotel in Cape Town offers more variety;  Marshall Field's department store in Chicago is more theatrical;  in my limited experience the Swan Hotel in Harrogate [see Educating Archie] comes nearest to the Raffles.

This is the sort of life-enhancing moment for which you simply don't ask the price.  When the bill came it was S$57.65, which my credit-card company translated as £26.29.

A bargain.

Posted by: mike on Sep 6, 2010

Category:Waterways & Railways across the Derbyshire PeakVictorian architectureLife-enhancing experiences

Derby Brunswick Inn

The other rite-of-passage at the age of sixty, after the bus pass, is the Senior Railcard.  It has to be after the bus pass because there is a cost and it's not worth having until the first time you use it:  if you buy it the first day you need it, you have more days to use it at the other end (assuming you live that long).

We chose to launch my mate Richard's railcard by taking the train from Sheffield to Derby, a mere forty minutes, to visit the Brunswick Inn in the Railway Village, three minutes' walk from the station:

Take a close look at the Railway Village houses and it's obvious that this is polite architecture, not speculative artisan housing – actually by Francis Thompson, company architect of the North Midland Railway – built very early in the railway age, 1840-2.

The pub, occupying the apex of the triangular street-pattern, is distinctly elegant:  apparently it was originally the Brunswick Railway & Commercial Inn – catering for commercial travellers by offering storage for sample-cases, telegram facilities and generous opening hours.

The houses and the pub were scheduled for demolition in 1970, and were rescued by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust.  The Brunswick reopened in 1987, and a microbrewery was added in 1991:  the place collects awards, including UK Beer Pub of the Year, 2001.

From the Brunswick, we walked round to London Road, where there is a superlative Indian restaurant called Anoki [].  Anoki's chief claims to fame are its superb food – £30 buys a multi-course banquet that leaves you full but not bursting – and its assiduously attentive staff.  The male waiters, who are in a majority, wear the sort of elaborate uniforms I associate with Indian border guards – hats with fans and shoes with curly toes.  The place is high camp:  the immaculate gents is liberally provided with fluffy white towels, the floor scattered with rose-petals.

Its historical claim to fame is that the building is the former Cosy Cinema, built in 1913, and later renamed the Forum (1939) and finally the Cameo (1950).  As the Cameo it featured an adventurous and unsuccessful line in French avant garde films;  better business was done by placing an advertisement at the exit to Derby Midland Station to attract long-distance passing trade.  Occasionally, when the house-lights went up, patrons would be found wearing dressing-gowns and pyjamas, refugees from the Infirmary across the road.

After the cinema closed in 1959 it became a furniture showroom:  installing display windows wrecked the ornate baroque façade.  The restaurant occupies the balcony level, built across to the former proscenium.  The barrel ceiling and caryatides are beautifully decorated and, where the original screen would have been, an endless loop of Bollywood clips is projected.

The place has impeccable style.

Posted by: mike on Sep 3, 2010

Category:Sheffield's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Sheffield Rivelin Valley

One of the great privileges of reaching the age of sixty is having a bus pass, especially now that they're available across the whole of mainland Britain.

When my mate Richard reached his sixtieth birthday we made a point of meeting for breakfast in order to celebrate both his birthday and his new-found freedom.

At some expense (because before 9.00 am you have to pay bus fare even if you're sixty) we met in the Sheffield suburb of Hillsborough in order to catch the once-every-two-hours bus to Rivelin Post Office.  We travelled in state, because no-one else got on or got off, and from the terminus walked down the picturesque Rivelin Valley, past ponds and waterfalls that in the era of water-powered industry had been dams and mills.

Sheffield has a much better known route, the Round Walk, which follows the River Porter through the elegant Victorian western suburbs.  Rivelin, on the north of the city, is much less frequented, but just as attractive.  All it lacks is more thorough interpretation:  we knew we were looking at historically interesting scenery, but only one notice-board told us anything about it.

There are other priorities, however.  Our goal was the Pudding Ladies' Café [], which offers smoked-salmon and creamed-cheese bagels for breakfast.  (Richard had bacon and creamed cheese, which seemed to me a little eccentric.)  When his wife Janet appeared, she had kippers and scrambled egg.

Janet looked a little surprised when Richard declined a lift back so he could ride home on Supertram for free.

The guy has style.

Posted by: mike on Aug 2, 2010

Category:Sheffield's HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

111 Arundel Street Sheffield

Sheffield's proud cutlery industry is based on the work of the "little mesters", small – often one-man – crafts businesses that divided up the multiplicity of tasks involved in creating tableware, kitchenware and cutting tools.  Some of these businesses prospered and grew, sometimes into very large, ultimately world-famous enterprises such as Mappin & Webb [].

Around the original town centre there remain tall tenement blocks, often now converted to apartments or offices, which bear the names of long-gone enterprises which imprinted the phrase "Made in Sheffield" as a mark of quality on the best cutlery in the world.  These are areas very like the better known Birmingham Jewellery Quarter.  There is an excellent account of these characteristic Sheffield buildings in Nicola Wray, Bob Hawkins & Colum Giles, One Great Workshop: The buildings of the Sheffield metal trades (English Heritage 2001) [].

One such was George Ellis (Silversmiths) Ltd.  George Ellis (1863-1944) began working in 1895 in a little mesters' shop in John Street, gained his own hallmark from 1912 and formed a limited company in 1932.  The works on Arundel Street – in what was originally an eighteenth-century house – ceased trading around 1971.

Now, after some encouragement from Gordon Ramsay, the building is Silversmiths [] , a very modern restaurant with an emphasis on regional food, which in Sheffield includes the resolutely local Henderson's Relish [], the work of another kind of Sheffield "little mester", Henry Henderson.

My friend Paul, who suggested we visit, was present when Gordon Ramsay gave his encouragement.  This apparently involves lots of cameras, lights and theatricals.

We happened upon Pie Night, with Yorkshire pudding served – as it should be – as a starter with Henderson's Relish gravy.  The pies were excellent, with chips like miniature house-bricks.  And there was gooseberry fool.

The inimitable Yorkshire journalist, Stephen McClarence, had a less favourable experience of Silversmiths, so – much as I admire Steve's writing – I'll draw a veil over his review.  You can find it if you know where to look.

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