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!

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Inside St Paul's Cathedral

While its exterior is one of the most photographed in London, the interior of St Paul's is usually off-limits to cameras. It was a rare treat, then, to go into the cathedral and be positively encouraged to take pictures.

There is, of course, much that is shiny and spectacular. However, there are also plenty of smaller details to catch the eye.

The special evening openings also offer non-photographers a chance to visit after work. However, camera bags were strongly in evidence when I visited!

They continue on several more evenings throughout this month. Do note that these after-hours visits don't include the Whispering Gallery.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator

The Victoria Centre clock is a Nottingham landmark, and has been since its installation in 1973. A kinetic sculpture as much as a timepiece, its central bronze sunflower opens every fifteen minutes to reveal an animal orchestra.

The clock was created by Rowland Emett. A cartoonist for Punch, he also brought his ideas to three-dimensional life in a series of sculptures (or as he called them, 'Things'). Among his most celebrated work was the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway at the 1951 Festival of Britain.

There are few surviving examples of Emett's work on public display in Britain. That makes the Victoria Centre clock all the more important, but at some point it ceased to work. Thanks to the efforts of Pete Dexter, a local engineer, and the Rowland Emett Society, refurbishment was carried out and completed in 2015. The clock, or aqua horological tintinnabulator, is now delighting shoppers once more.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Sailors' Society, Limehouse

This sign caught my eye while I was exploring Limehouse Town Hall. The jaunty red and navy blue, highlighted by the late afternoon sun, draw the attention. They are a reminder that the building and its neighbour once belonged to the British and Foreign Sailors' Society, one of several properties in Limehouse.  

These premises on Newell Street were a sea training establishment for boys, and apparently have a Victorian swimming pool in the basement. The Prince of Wales' Sea Training Hostel opened in 1920, the buildings having been adapted at a cost of almost £10,000. There were stringent requirements for admission on the six-month training programme. Boys between 14 1/2 and 16 years old, able to swim 100 yards, needed to provide medical and sight certificates along with excellent character references. Perhaps the easiest element to satisfy was height, with a requirement that the boy be over 5 feet 1 inch tall. Sailors' orphans had priority, and their fees were waived. 

In 1940, the hostel moved to Norfolk and this building was requisitioned. However, its enamel sign remains, one more tangible link to Limehouse's maritime past.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Smoke machines

With plain packaging, screened-off displays, and age limits, cigarettes are not as visible or easy to buy as they once were. Indeed, it's easy to forget that you used to be able to get them 24 hours a day from readily-accessible vending machines. However, a few are still around to remind us of simpler, unhealthier times. 

Right outside the station and highly-rated on Tripadvisor, the Bridge Coffee Shop once also offered cigarettes from its shiny vending machine. It's now empty, the Player's advert has faded, and even if you were tempted to use the coin slot, no price is shown.

The sale of cigarettes from vending machines began in the 1920s but was banned in 2011. However, judging by the prices on display, the Stoke-on-Trent example had ceased trading much earlier. While machines dispensed as few as 16 cigarettes in a packet, to keep prices stable and in round numbers, it is a very long time since they would have been 30p. In fact, the early 1970s seems likely, making this machine a real survivor.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hackney's tin tabernacle

When a Presbyterian congregation in Shrubland Road, E8 built their chapel in 1858, it is unlikely they thought it would still be standing today - for the building is a 'tin tabernacle' made of corrugated iron. Bought by mail order and shipped worldwide, such buildings were usually intended as a cheap and short-term way of accommodating people, typically while a more permanent structure was built. 

The Shrubland Road chapel is reputed to be the oldest in Britain. The popularity of tin tabernacles was just beginning - by 1890, William Morris was condemning them as 'spreading like a pestilence' - and given their nature, most have not survived. Like its more permanent counterparts, the chapel has gothic windows and even a small 'steeple'. The proportions feel a little odd: that's because the chapel is more or less square, and able to hold 500 people. 

Although it was firmly closed when I visited, the listing details tell us that inside, there is a panelled lobby; wooden rafters and pews; a reading platform with carved pulpit; and organ. (You can also get a slightly wobbly glimpse inside on some YouTube videos of worship.)

The manufacturers were Tupper & Co of Moorgate, London (their factories were in Limehouse and Birmingham). Other churches built that same year included one for export to Rangoon; under its former name Tupper & Carr, the company had also manufactured telegraph cable laid in the Mediterranean. Their move into buildings saw them advertise houses and sheds as well as churches. An 1862 advertisement published in New Zealand boasted that they could 'supply, properly packed for Shipment, with all necessary drawings and instructions for erection abroad, every description of Iron Roofing, Iron Sheds, Stores, Houses, Churches, &c.; these are temporarily erected at the Iron Roofing Works; in London, where they can be inspected prior to shipment.' Indeed, it went on, Tupper's were 'well known in the Australian, Cape, East and West Indian, and most Foreign Markets, as the best and cheapest.' 

The Hackney chapel cost between £1,200 and £1,300: about £60,000 or so at today's values. (Four years later, Lurganboy in Ireland got their smaller, simpler chapel of ease for just £350.) That's a fairly substantial amount of money, but a lot less than a permanent building would cost. It's easy to understand the appeal of such construction to less affluent or established congregations. Even better, it apparently only took ten weeks to build. 

This unassuming chapel is a significant piece of social history, then. However, the building's current position seems uncertain. Last year, it was reported that owners The Site of Eternal Life Church were selling it at auction for at least £1.7 million. (It had already been on the market for several years.) The pricing seemed optimistic, since it is Grade II listed and perhaps not the easiest type of building to convert into the suggested nursery or cinema; the chapel did not sell. A community use might be more appropriate, but less lucrative. It is currently on the Historic England 'At Risk' register, its status given as 'in need of some repair and discussions are ongoing with the owner.' Let's hope that the outcome for this rare survivor is positive. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Dreaming of Dinan

One of the loveliest towns in Brittany, Dinan has historic ramparts, half-timbered houses, and a vertiginous descent to the port below. While it has plenty of galleries, gift shops, restaurants and bars, the best thing to do here is to wander the mediaeval streets. 

The Place des Merciers, at the centre of the town, is a jumble of half-timbered buildings, some dating back to the fifteenth century.

The Saint-Sauveur Basilica was founded in the twelfth century, but completely remodelled in the sixteenth and seventeenth. After a short spell as a Temple of Reason during the Revolution, it was re-dedicated in 1801. The promotion from church to basilica came in 1954.

The hilltop town is protected by mediaeval ramparts and a castle (now the museum). As Dinan lost strategic importance, new gates were added in the seventeenth century and maintenance of the walls was neglected. They were briefly pressed back into service during the Revolution, but have enjoyed a more peaceful existence ever since. The most extensive still surviving in Brittany, the ramparts are now walked by tourists and townspeople rather than soldiers. 

Although the newer Rue du Port offers a long and relatively gentle route down to the port, the traditional roads are much steeper.

Many travellers now bypass the descent altogether. A viaduct takes motorists straight over the valley to Lanvallay, sparing them the narrow stone streets and bridge, as well as the sharp inclines. It was built in 1852 by engineer Jules Fessard, and is 250 metres long and 50 metres high. Combined with the arrival of the railway in 1879, it contributed to the port's decline. The growth in size of ships was the final straw.

Before the rise of road and rail, the river Rance had been the main route for goods to enter and leave the town. It's difficult today to imagine a busy commercial port, central to the then-thriving cloth industry.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Sutton House: a queer place

An atypical National Trust property, Sutton House in Hackney makes an extraordinary launching point for arts and events. 

It is, like so many of the Trust's houses, the creation of a wealthy family. We are in the Tudor home of Sir Ralph Sadler, confidant of Thomas Cromwell and Secretary of State to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. There are portraits in oils, clocks and candlesticks, wood-panelled walls. 

However, it also has a squatters' mural, Edwardian graffiti, and bare bricks. Far from staying in the same family for centuries, Sutton House has enjoyed many incarnations. Its surviving Tudor features overlap with alterations from its times as home to merchants and weavers, a boys' school, a girls' school, union offices and a squat - even the facade is a Georgian makeover. 

With fewer original furnishings to safeguard, and with some rooms fairly bare and robust, the house can be used and explored, not just admired. It is home to community groups, contemporary art, and a wide range of activities: an energetic and exciting property. 

This year, the theme is Sutton House Queered, part of the Trust's Prejudice and Pride programme. Marking fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, the programme brings to light LGBT histories which are often a fundamental, if not always expressed, part of its properties' past. A guidebook by historians Alison Oram and Matt Cook introduces some of these histories.

For example, Kingston Lacy in Dorset is celebrated for its art collection, created by William John Bankes. He sent may of the pieces home from exile in France and Italy, where he had fled to avoid trial and possible execution for 'indecency' with a guardsman. Smallhythe Place, bought by actress Ellen Terry, was later the home of her daughter Edy Craig and her female partners Chris St John and Tony Atwood. And National Trust founder Octavia Hill had passionate friendships with other women including Harriot Yorke, with whom she lived for over three decades until her death. 

We can even explore those histories without having to travel around the country, thanks to a new series of podcasts. Its six episodes feature a host of stories, told by historians, writers and artists, and presented by Clare Balding. The first is already available, with more to follow weekly. Meanwhile, films are being created by artists-in-residence Simona Piantieri and Michele D'Acosta, including one of the Caravan Club

But where better for Londoners to begin our explorations than here, in Hackney's oldest house? 

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