Friday, 15 September 2017

Open House 2017: ideas and inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other boroughs: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Below Bristol's bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 September 2017

All change! Maintaining trains at Old Oak Common

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 August 2017

Paris's missing museum

There is no shortage of museums in Paris - from the great national institutions to the smaller, quirkier collections. However, one type of museum is perhaps conspicuous by its absence. For unlike London, Paris does not have a transport museum. 

No smoking and spitting

It does, thankfully, have a collection, held by RATP (the city's public transport operator, not unfamiliar to Londoners since it also runs a number of our bus routes). The historical vehicles, signage, and assorted other objects are stored outside the city in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. They are beautifully kept and displayed, but only visited by special arrangement (my tour was organised by the Seine-Saint-Denis tourist board, who have an excellent programme of events). 

The station feels a long way from Paris: small and quiet, with few facilities. But a bus meets us here - a vintage vehicle from the collection itself.

Our destination is an unremarkable warehouse - but there are treasures inside! We are guided through over  a century of public transport, beginning with the métro. It's younger than London's, so never ran on steam engines: the first underground trains ran in 1900. However, the modern, electrical railway suffered a disaster only a few years later, at Couronnes station in 1903. A short circuit caused a train to catch fire; the resulting smoke overwhelmed the evacuating passengers, and 83 lives were lost.

The consequent safety improvements are well-illustrated by the trains on display. A recreation of the original, all-wooden train also illustrates the luxurious first-class carriage interiors. (This is the only replica in the collection.)

First and second classes were maintained in the next generation of trains. Their passenger accommodation was still made of wood, although they had been modified quickly after the Couronnes tragedy to have metal driver's cabs.

By 1908, the first fully-metal trains were introduced.

Metro trains continued to develop - as did their branding. Separate companies were united into the RATP in 1949, but the logo changes continued.

One famous Parisian innovation - whose prototype is here - is the use of pneumatic tyres. They brought better acceleration and braking, better passenger comfort ... and no more sounds of shrieking metal. However, the expense of converting tracks to accommodate them means they are used on only a minority of Parisian metro lines.

A second hall holds buses, most of which belong not to the RATP but to Sauvabus. The volunteers of this organisation keep many of the buses in working order - including the one that brought us here.

Another bus from the collection takes us back to the station. Travelling home in modern vehicles, one has a new appreciation for the history of this network - and for London's good fortune in having a dedicated museum in the heart of the city. 

There is also a museum of urban transport just east of Paris, with a collection drawn from across France. The Musée des Transports Urbains has moved around in recent years, only opening on a few special occasions each year; but is now settled at Chelles, with monthly openings. Something for my next visit to the city!

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