Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Above the scaffolding

The stunning Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College has entered a new phase of conservation work. After the newly-bright West Wall was unveiled, cleaned and conserved, it's now the turn of the main hall. Scaffolding fills the space, giving access to the elaborately-painted ceiling. 

Thanks to the Ceiling Tours running regularly throughout the process, we have the opportunity to get incredibly close to painting we normally only get to see from ground level. Stood so close to the ceiling that you could touch it, details which are usually invisible to us can be appreciated.

The total solar eclipse of 1715 was most famously predicted by Edmond Halley (better known for his comet). However, this paper marking its passage is in tribute not to Halley but to John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal - who also correctly predicted the eclipse. In fact, it was painted the year before it happened. He must have been pleased to get credit here, since he felt his rivals had stolen it from him elsewhere: his lunar observations had been vital to the work of Sir Isaac Newton, published by Halley. Flamsteed didn't believe he was properly credited for them. Worse, Halley and Newton then printed his catalogue of the stars without his approval. This detail of the ceiling represents a small compensation!

Perhaps my favourite usually-unseen detail was this tiny dove on Queen Anne's sceptre, too small to be spotted from the floor below. 

It's perhaps just as well that some details aren't usually visible. A restorer wrote details including the date right across Queen Anne's cleavage!

There's also the chance to get a closer look at favourite details. The model for Winter was John Worley, known as one of the first and oldest pensioners in the Hospital - and one of the most badly-behaved.

A close look at the carved crest is an opportunity to enjoy the detail...

... a chance (which some may prefer not to take) to see just how high up we are ...

... and a reminder that normally, there's no access to it for dusting!

Unfortunately, we can also see the dirt and damage currently detracting from the painting's impact. This baroque masterpiece has been in place for three centuries, and undergone earlier restorations, so it's unsurprising that there are issues such as blanching (where fractured varnish creates the white spots visible up close), as well as the effects of city pollution, pre-electric lighting, and dinners held before the smoking ban. 

The final stages of the Painted Hall project will involve environmental control measures, as the highly variable conditions in the large, window-filled hall pose an ongoing challenge to the art.  Altogether, this work should ensure that further conservation is not needed for several generations - so the current project is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us to get this close to the Baroque masterpiece.

Tickets for the Ceiling Tours can be booked here.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Eiffel's Edwardian laboratory at work

Gustave Eiffel was always keen for the Eiffel Tower to be more than simply a tourist attraction. Originally built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, it survived demolition threats once the exhibition was over because it became a radio mast for the military. 

That wasn’t the only innovative use of the Paris landmark, however. Eiffel also installed a drop test machine to measure the drag and velocity of bodies dropped from the tower. As well as proving the concept of relative motion, this cutting-edge device was also invaluable for early aviators, as was the wind tunnel he built at the tower's base.

When Eiffel had to move his equipment from the Tower, he was encouraged by his aeronautical associates to set up a new laboratory in order to continue these tests.

 Opened in 1912 in Auteuil, the aerodynamic laboratory and its wind tunnel are still operating today – and as I discovered when I had the luck to visit, there are signs of its rich past throughout the building. 

Unassuming premises in a quiet Paris street don’t give much of a clue as to the extraordinary machinery within.

Most of the space is taken up by a wind tunnel which runs the length of the building. The intake is 4m in diameter, narrowing to 2m at the experiment chamber end. At the other side of the chamber is a 2m-long diffuser with 23-blade fan, which pulls air through the wind tunnel.

Although the original engines are still present, modern electric ones are now used to power the wind tunnel. However, the original equipment otherwise remains in use.

To answer an obvious question about such a facility in the middle of a residential area, it is surprisingly quiet. The neighbours are not disturbed.

Marble-backed instrument panels are still in situ, although many have been superceded by modern technology. This is still very much a working lab, even if laptops have taken the place of paper records. 

The laboratory is full of models used for aerodynamic testing throughout its history. They range from the propellors of early aeroplanes to modern buildings. There is a workshop on site, with a specialist model-maker.

Other reminders of the building's long and special history include graphs and publications. They evidence Eiffel's wider interests too, which included meteorology.

In his late seventies when the laboratory opened, Eiffel nonetheless took an active interest in its activities; his desk is still there today. By the time of his death in 1923, the wind tunnel had become a pattern for others throughout the world.

Anemometer used by Eiffel to measure wind speed

Friday, 14 April 2017

Les Ponts Neufs renewed

I'm quite a fan of Breton architect Louis Auguste Harel de La Noë, leading architect of the (now closed) Cotes du Nord railways. Born in Saint Brieuc, de la Noë studied in Paris before returning to Brittany as chief engineer of roads and bridges for the Côtes du Nord in 1901. He had already won awards for an x-shaped bridge in Le Mans (sadly destroyed in the Second World War) and for his pioneering work in reinforced concrete construction. He would now play a vital role in the building of the region's new local rail network, impressing with his light and elegant bridges.

The x-shaped bridge, Le Mans
For tourists, the railway was a way of accessing the beautiful Breton coast. For those who lived in the region, it was an essential way of moving around an area whose infrastructure was otherwise poor. However, the line faced growing financial losses and closed in 1948. Since then, other bridges have been demolished; thankfully, this one has been spared that fate. 

Over 237 metres long and 27.6 metres high, the Ponts-Neufs viaduct is an  impressive sight. The tall pillars and ornamented spans are more than visually appealing, though: constraints of time and budget called for technical innovations. Built in 1913, this was among the first reinforced concrete constructions. Building methods including prefabrication and standardised processes were also novel.

The joy of Harel de la Noë's work is that it is attractive and distinctive, going beyond the purely functional. Unfortunately, the pioneering nature of the technology he used brought its own problems. The sand used included salt; bubbles were not removed by vibration; and the steel was insufficiently protected.

The viaduct during construction

Nonetheless, the bridge not only survived but continued to soar over its valley - and thanks to the hard work of the association devoted to promoting and preserving his work, it has recently been restored and brought back into use for pedestrians and cyclists.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Heavy Motor Cars

While the speed limit had been raised to fourteen miles per hour in 1896, drivers had to wait until the Motor Car Act 1903 for it to reach a dizzying twenty miles per hour. Less well-known is that the 1896 changes applied only to vehicles under three tons in weight, so that buses and lorries remained seriously restricted. The relaxation of that weight limit following the 1903 Act explains a now-defunct cast-iron sign still outside Blackheath Station. 

'Heavy motor cars' were not what we think of as 'cars', but vehicles such as buses and lorries. The 1903 Act allowed the three-ton weight limit to be raised, and regulations followed in 1904 defining heavy motor cars as between two and five tons in weight (with a maximum laden weight of twelve tons). 

Such relatively heavy vehicles could pose challenges, though, for infrastructure built with horse-drawn vehicles in mind. Thus the South Eastern and Chatham Railway erected this notice warning heavier automobiles not to use their bridge. Its effectiveness may have been limited by the rather complex information and varying fonts, even before the actual weights were erased!

1911 B-Type motorbus (now in London Transport Museum)

Nonetheless, the changes had a real impact on public transport in London. In 1904, the city had 31 licensed motor omnibuses; the following year, there were 241, rising to 783 in 1906.

Other innovations of the 1903 Act are not unfamiliar to motorists today: reckless driving offences, car registration, and drivers' licences (but not driving tests: you just paid five shillings to the local council to get your licence). Archaic as it appears, then, the Blackheath sign symbolises the start of modern motoring. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Surrey Docks sentinel

The busy working docks of south-east London have been quieted, as industry gave way to housing and leisure. A few reminders are scattered along their banks, stilled and silent, incongruous among the blocks of flats. 

One such is Surrey Docks' last surviving crane, reaching out to the Thames with frozen arms, its cabin empty and gently decaying. It has been here since just after the Second World War, and operated until the 1980s. 

It's a Scotch (or stiffleg) derrick: a type of crane with fixed legs holding its mast in place, while its jib can be moved. For this crane, the jib reached over to the river to load and unload barges of hardwoods. 

While such cranes were once a common feature of the London docks, this is the last, lonely survivor. Its arm no longer lifts cargoes of timber, but frames the high and shiny buildings now occupying the former docklands. Commercial Dock pier, which used to extend into the river here, is gone; the working ships it served have been replaced by occasional pleasure boats and Thames Clippers.  

Thanks to these transformations, the crane has gone from commonplace feature to local landmark. However, it may not be with us for much longer. The land has been sold to developers, and their planning application submitted last year involved its removal from the land.  If that happens, we will lose a local landmark, a bit of character among the often-bland developments, and a physical piece of our past. 

Although not everyone would agree. One commenter on the planning application sums up the alternative view: 'On the subject of the red crane I am an agnostic. I understand the arguments about local heritage; but I have always viewed it as a ungainly piece of junk.'

Further reading: there's a fuller history of this site at A Rotherhithe Blog.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Ghost signs (128): a Breton profusion!

Once on the main road but now bypassed by a dual carriageway, Vildé-Guingalan still bears its vintage roadside advertising. There are a number of ghost signs in quick succession, the first so faded that it is indecipherable (I didn't stop to photograph it).

Subsequent signs, though, are in much better condition.Sadly, the first palimpsest is largely obscured by later hoardings. The word 'cognac' is clearly legible, and combined with the first and last letters of the brand name, suggest that this was an advertisement for Cognac Bisquit

The blue-and-yellow painting underneath, though, is much more difficult to decipher. After a lot of playing in Photoshop, I'm fairly sure that the partly-visible word is Jambon (ham). The likeliest candidate, then, is jambon Olida which features in ghost signs elsewhere. Here's a clearer palimpsest example from Chatelaudren.

At the bottom left corner of our cognac-ham palimpsest is a little more text, although complete words can't be deciphered. 

Two further signs pose no such difficulties. Bold letters spell out the names of Lu biscuits and Forvil brilliantine. 

Between them, though, is a final, faded example. The vegetation which partially obscures it doesn't help, either. In fact, I was completely stuck - until my dad realised it's probably Valvoline motor oil. One last mystery solved!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The strange after-lives of Clapham South

Clapham South Deep Level Shelter was one of eight underground bomb shelters created in response to the 1940-41 blitz. Unused for several years after its 1942 completion, it opened to the public during the V1 and V2 rocket attacks of 1944. 

Creating a complex for 8,000 people, 30 metres underground, in the middle of the war was no mean feat. Sections of the tunnels are lined in cast iron, and marks show the companies for whom these panels were originally made. Some bear the initials LER, for London Electric Railway - a company which had ceased to exist when the Underground system was unified in 1933, so they had obviously been found in storage somewhere. 

The two parallel tunnels were each divided horizontally into upper and lower levels, mostly dedicated to bunk bedding (although other facilities included a medical centre, recreation room, a buffet serving tea, sandwiches and cakes, and bathrooms). Triple layers of bunks were crammed into the tunnels, each set of six separated from the next 'room' by a thin divider. Red-painted ventilation ducts sat between the bunks. With no natural air or light, trains rattling close overhead, music until lights out, and the sound of conversations, crying babies and snoring adults, it must have been an extraordinarily difficult place to get some sleep! Unsurprisingly, the deep-level shelters were never filled to more than one-third capacity. 

Yet after the war, the tunnels would come into use as accommodation again. While smaller numbers of residents, no fear of devastation above, and the knowledge that this was only 'home' for a few nights must have made it more palatable, Clapham South still seems a strange and unappealing option. 

So who stayed here? Among the most significant guests were 230 of the passengers on the MV Empire Windrush who arrived in London in 1948. Answering an appeal to emigrate from the Caribbean to fill essential jobs in Britain, it's hard to imagine how they must have felt to find that their first accommodation here was a repurposed air raid shelter 180 steps below ground. One described it as a 'sparsely-furnished rabbit warren'. Even given the housing shortages in post-war London, the choice of this venue is indicative of the ambiguous-to-hostile welcome they received. Leaving by day to go to the nearest labour exchange in Coldharbour Lane, many soon found new homes in the Brixton area; none stayed in the shelter for longer than three weeks.  

Many of the Windrush men were ex-servicemen, so somewhat bleak and utilitarian accommodation was perhaps not a novelty. The same may have been true of the armed forces personnel who stayed here, both in 1945 after it closed to the public in May and immediately reopened as a military leave hostel, and during George VI's funeral in 1952. They were bored enough to graffiti the walls as they lay in their bunks; since they were lying in bed as they wrote, the graffiti are of course upside down. 

However, a more ambitious use of the tunnel came in 1951 when it was rebranded the Festival Hotel, a budget option for Festival of Britain visitors, especially groups. Bed and breakfast was three shillings a night. For their money, guests got a bunk with blankets (women also got a sheet), cold water to wash in, canteens, and a first-aid room. A South London Press report described the experience:
Deputy manageress Mrs Florence Davison deals with incredible brusqueness and efficiency with all comers and with ubiquitous eyes sees to it that those down from the tube do not miss the cash desk and their 3s. contribution for the night. ... Those staying the night are not encouraged to put in an appearance before 8.30pm at night and by midnight the air is filled with the whistle of mass snoring, the creaking of beds and an occasional cough. But after 6am there is no peace. Tube trains rumble across the ceiling, armies of people walk the corridor overhead. ... The 1,500 Festival visitors climb up the 192 steps to air and sunshine, or wait for the lift, six at a time.
Even with a few more lavish touches like white tablecloths on the buffet tables, one suspects that they were rather taken aback at the 'hotel'! There seems to have been a determination to enjoy the experience nonetheless: French student Bernard Masson later recalled, 'It was very, very, very primitive ... The bunks were quite stiff, but in fact, we didn't mind too much because we were all excited to be in a foreign country.' The venture was clearly successful enough to bear repeating: the shelter again provided accommodation for visitors (and troops) during the 1953 Coronation. 

The shelters were not used for accommodation after that. Instead Clapham South and most of the others stayed empty until they were later used for secure document storage. Belsize Park had been first in 1977, with Clapham South following in the mid-80s: its bunks were back in use, now holding storage boxes. However, about a decade ago the company's lease was not renewed and the shelter became empty once more.  

Traces of these past uses are scattered throughout the shelter: a sink from the medical room, the buffet fuse box, shadows on the wall where urinals once were. Shelves hold archive boxes - there for illustrative purposes, not forgotten originals! Taking us full circle, these fragments from the shelter's beginnings are also key to its current use: as a venue for historical tours, part of the London Transport Museum's Hidden London series

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