Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

’Ackydoc

Worksop Road Aqueduct, Sheffield & Tinsley Canal (1977)

Worksop Road Aqueduct, Sheffield & Tinsley Canal (1977)

I’ll journey some distance to hear Mike Spick, the distinguished Sheffield local historian, and indeed I travelled as far as Chesterfield when he gave his Sheffield Canal presentation to the North-East Derbyshire Industrial Archaeological Society.

At the risk of showing disrespect I took issue when Mike referred to the Worksop Road Aqueduct as “T’ackydoc”.  The “t’” may be useful in print, but in Attercliffe dialect it was a pure glottal stop, as in “Weer’s thi dad?”  “Is on ’closet.”

Otherwise I listened to Mike’s presentation with admiration for the accuracy of his account, the richness of his illustrations and his adept use of PowerPoint to animate and explain.

The Sheffield & Tinsley Canal, not quite four miles long, climbs from the River Don at Tinsley, very near to the latter-day M1 viaduct and the much-lamented cooling towers that were demolished in 2008, by a flight of eleven (originally twelve) locks to its terminus on the edge of Sheffield city centre.

For over a century before it was built the nearest navigable waterway was the River Don Navigation at Tinsley;  the next nearest was the River Idle at Bawtry, over twenty miles away.

The canal was financially supported and its route along the south side of the Don Valley was directly influenced by the estate of the Duke of Norfolk, the ground-landlord for much of Sheffield.

To please the Duke a branch canal was built to his Tinsley Park collieries.  The course of the Greenland Arm is now Greenland Road, part of the Sheffield ring-road.

Authorised in 1815, four years after Attercliffe Common was enclosed, the Sheffield Canal opened with much celebration in 1819.

It was the first effective means of breaking Sheffield’s physical isolation, surrounded by seven hills.

Its heyday lasted barely twenty years, until the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway opened in 1839, following (as it still does) the north side of the valley.

For thirty years Sheffield passengers and goods headed east to Retford or north to Rotherham in order to travel south to London.  Only in 1870 did the Midland Railway complete its direct line from Chesterfield, the present-day route via Dronfield that to this day is known to railwaymen as the “New Road”.

The canal continued to serve the city under railway ownership well into the twentieth century.  Indeed, a new warehouse was built, for lack of anywhere else to put it, over the quay in 1896 and is known for obvious reasons as the Straddle Warehouse.

The last commercial cargo went down the canal in 1980.  It never became unnavigable but it was practically derelict by the time the opening scene of The Full Monty was filmed near Bacon Lane in 1997.

Now, as part of the regeneration of the Lower Don Valley, the canal has become almost unrecognisably emparked.  The terminal basin is a marina called Victoria Quays, presumably commemorating the defunct Victoria railway station.  The Quays, like the former station, is out on a limb, not easily accessible from the city centre.

There are hotel boats offering an alternative pied-â-terre to the corporate hotels, and a trip-boat offering “cruising for all occasions”, along the surprisingly silvan Attercliffe Cutting, over ’Ackydoc and down the locks to Tinsley.

In fact, it’s an ideal venue for a birthday party.

Grim times for Grimsby’s buildings

Victoria Flour Mills and Corporation Bridge, Grimsby

Victoria Flour Mills and Corporation Bridge, Grimsby

Ice House, Grimsby Docks

Ice House, Grimsby Docks

Dock Tower, Grimsby

Dock Tower, Grimsby

As recently as 1950 Grimsby had the largest fishing fleet in the world.  Cod wars and economic change put paid to the rich, dangerous trade, and now Grimsby docks handle cars instead of fish.

Grimsby’s most distinctive architecture is firmly associated with the docks.

The Custom House (1874) and the Dock Offices (Mills & Murgatroyd, 1885) remain in use, but the Victoria Flour Mills (Sir W A Gelder, 1889/1906), which was partly converted to apartments in the 1990s, is threatened by structural problems with its unconverted silo tower:  http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/grimsby-mill-tower-on-endangered-buildings-list.

The Grimsby Ice Company’s Ice House (1901), which could produce 1,250 tons of ice every 24 hours for direct loading into the trawlers, ceased production in 1990.  Though it still contains historic refrigeration equipment of world importance, it is no longer watertight and regularly appears on at-risk registers:  http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/the-grimsby-ice-factory-gorton-street-the-docks-grimsby.

Most dramatic of all is the Dock Tower (James W Wild, 1851-2), its extreme height, 309ft, determined by the need to provide a head of hydraulic pressure, using a 30,000-gallon water-tank, by gravity alone.

The hydraulic machinery by Sir William Armstrong was the first to be applied to working dock gates:  both sets of gates could be opened within 2½ minutes by two men.

The relatively little-known architect was well travelled, and brought his sketchbook ideas to Grimsby.  Pevsner’s Buildings of England entry points out that “the tower…is straight from Italy [ie, Siena Town Hall], but the crowning minaret is oriental…”

Grimsby’s workaday architecture is too good to lose:  http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/council-inaction-worse-for-grimsbys-image-than-sacha-baron-cohen-film.

Meldon Viaduct

Meldon Viaduct, Devon

Meldon Viaduct, Devon

If ever there’s a need to restore the old L&SWR main line between Exeter and Plymouth, perhaps because the present route past Dawlish becomes unsustainable, there will be a problem at the Meldon Viaduct, three miles west of Okehampton.

It’s a spectacular piece of engineering, 120 feet high, crossing the West Okement River on a curve.  The initial single-line crossing, which opened in 1874, was duplicated by an identical structure, spliced to the original, in 1878.

Designed by the company engineer W R Galbraith, it has five wrought-iron piers which support cast-iron Warren truss spans, and as such is a unique survivor and a Scheduled Ancient Monument

Even more spectacular examples of this type of construction have vanished – the Crumlin Viaduct (200ft high, built 1857, demolished 1965) in south Wales and the Belah Viaduct in Cumbria (196ft high, built 1861, demolished 1963).

The nearest equivalent is the much longer but lower Grade II*-listed Bennerley Viaduct on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, which has lattice-work spans rather than Warren trusses.

The trackbed across Meldon Viaduct, having been used as a roadway for lorries serving the construction of the Meldon Dam in 1970-2, is now part of the Granite Way, which links Okehampton with Lydford.

This presents a difficulty if there’s ever a need to restore the railway because apart from being a Scheduled Ancient Monument the viaduct is no longer strong enough to support the weight of trains.

The easiest way to visit Meldon Viaduct and to clamber down steps to see it from below is by riding the volunteer-operated Dartmoor Railway from Okehampton station to Meldon Quarry station.

A single dining car from an electric multiple unit serves as a café with a spectacular view of the viaduct as the walkers and cyclists cross to and fro.

Meldon Viaduct is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

Maids of all work

British Railways D4167, otherwise 08 937, built 1962, in service on the Dartmoor Railway (2016).

British Railways D4167, otherwise 08 937, built 1962, in service on the Dartmoor Railway (2016).

The most ubiquitous locomotive still in use on Britain’s railways is a design that dates back to the late 1930s.  It still does its job, moving rolling stock around rail yards and sidings, which is why it remains a favourite with both commercial and heritage railways.

British Railways Class 08 diesel shunters are based on the specification of the great steam-locomotive engineer William A Stanier (1876-1965) and were built for the London Midland & Scottish Railway from 1935 onwards.

They were intended to make use of the advantages of diesel traction – quick starting, cleanliness, flexibility and economy.

They capitalised on the twin technical breakthroughs of newly developed smaller, more powerful diesel engines connected to electric transmission that was more robust than the mechanical clutch-operated gearbox that serves smaller road vehicles.

Yet to deliver adhesion while minimising wear on the track, the engines were mounted on a steam-locomotive frame and drove the wheels through a jackshaft, connecting rods and coupling rods.

In the post-war period, when British Railways owned thousands of steam shunting locomotives, the diesel-electric shunter proved equal to the required physical tasks without the need to keep the boiler fired up in slack periods, and they didn’t send the crew home filthy at the end of a shift.

None of the pre-war English-Electric built LMS shunters survived past the 1960s, but several of the post-war version, built from 1945 onwards, became British Railways Class 11 and are still maintained by heritage railways.   Other versions of this design, developed for the War Department during the Second World War, were exported to the Netherlands, Australia and Liberia.

They were followed by Class 08, of which nearly a thousand were built between 1952 and 1962.

Their reliability and efficiency stood out from the heterogeneous ragbag of inadequate shunters ordered, many of them off-plan, in response to the 1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan.

There were variants – a low-height version (Class 08/9) for the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Railway in South Wales, and a faster but less powerful variant with a maximum speed of 27½mph instead of 15mph (Class 09), another batch with different engines (Class 10) and a Southern Railway derivative (Class 12).  A small number were paired as master-and-slave units with one of the cabs removed (Class 13) to work over the humps at Tinsley Marshalling Yard between Sheffield and Rotherham.

All these together amounted to nearly twelve hundred locomotives, and though many were scrapped or cannibalised for spares in the 1970s and 1980s, their adaptability meant that industrial users such as the National Coal Board snapped them up, and heritage lines found them extremely useful as well as historically interesting.

Many main-line freight and passenger operators still run Class 08 locomotives to marshal rolling stock, and over seventy are preserved.

Like the long-lived High Speed Train, the longevity of Class 08 proves that British railways had the expertise to design world-beating locomotives after the age of steam.

Railways round Dartmoor

Okehampton railway station, Devon

Okehampton railway station, Devon

The premier rail route to the South West has always been the Great Western main line, the first to open and the best-known.

It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who visualised his line from London to Bristol should be extended to New York by means of steamships, the first of which was Great Western (1838), followed by the celebrated Great Britain (1845).

Beyond Bristol, a series of railway companies, either sponsored or taken over by the Great Western Railway, extended the line through Devon and Cornwall via Exeter (1844) and Plymouth (1849) to Penzance (1852).

Brunel chose to direct this route across difficult, spectacular country along the south coast:  that was the reason for his failed atmospheric experiment, his magnificent Royal Albert Bridge (1859) and his long-vanished timber viaducts.

The early rail route from London to Southampton grew into the London & South Western Railway, which reached Exeter in 1860 via a southerly route through Andover, Salisbury and Yeovil.

The only way the L&SWR could penetrate into Devon and Cornwall was by taking the opposite route to the GWR, round the northern fringes of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock, reaching Plymouth in 1876.

This line was severed in 1968, and regular services now run only from Plymouth to Bere Alston (for Gunnislake) and along the so-called Tarka Line from Exeter to Barnstaple.

Track remains along the former L&SWR main line to a quarry three miles beyond Okehampton for quarry traffic, and occasional Sunday services operate between Exeter and Okehampton.

Okehampton Station is maintained by the Dartmoor Railway, a volunteer-led group which runs trains up the line as far as Meldon Viaduct, and sometimes eastwards to Sampford Courtenay.

The track between Okehampton and Coleford Junction, where it joins the Tarka Line, is now operated by British American Railway Services, a subsidiary of the American railroad operator Iowa Pacific Holdings.

There is an as-yet-unfulfilled plan for the Dartmoor Railway services to extend to Yeoford, the station south of Coleford Junction, to provide passenger interchange with Exeter-Barnstable.

Increasing concern about the sustainability of the Great Western main line through Dawlish, particularly after a washout in 2014 which halted services completely for three months, has led to suggestions that the L&SWR line through Okehampton should be reinstated to Plymouth as an alternative route.

The plan to reinstate the line from Bere Alston to a new station at Tavistock West is at least a step in implementing this proposal.

So yet again one of Dr Beeching’s cuts may at great cost be rolled back.

Network Rail’s consideration of the options to safeguard the rail route into Devon and Cornwall can be found at https://www.networkrail.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/West-of-Exeter-Route-Resilience-Study.pdf

Okehampton Station is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

Friargate Bridge

Friargate Bridge, Derby (1977)

Friargate Bridge, Derby (1977)

The magnificent cast-iron railway bridge across Friargate, north of Derby city-centre, made a grand statement proclaiming the arrival of the Great Northern Railway in the home town of its rival the Midland Railway in 1878.

The Midland’s monopoly of the East Midlands coal trade had been a grievance of local businesses and the new railway was welcomed, to the detriment of the local environment:  the bridge cuts across Derby’s grandest Georgian street, Friargate, authorised in 1768 as a speculation by the notoriously unscrupulous banker-brothers, John and Christopher Heath.

Many important personalities in late-eighteenth-century Derby had residences on Friargate, including the architect Joseph Pickford (1734-1782), whose house at 40-41 Friargate is now a museum.

Though it’s commonly referred to as Friargate Bridge, there are in fact two bridges side by side accommodating pairs of tracks fanning out to the station platforms immediately beyond. 

To mitigate – or perhaps to pay back – for the intrusion, the GNR engineer, Richard Johnson, provided a particularly dignified design with elaborate decorative spandrels cast by the Derby ironmasters Andrew Handyside & Co, featuring the buck within the palings of a park that appears in the coat of arms of the borough, now the city, of Derby.

The gesture did not go down well with some residents, one of whom described it as “meretricious decoration, which only emphasised the insult”.

Passenger services between Derby and Nottingham closed in 1964 and goods services finally ceased four years later.

Little remains of Friargate Station itself, which stood on a brick viaduct west of the bridge, except for the enormous goods station, now ruinous.

Bud Flanagan told a BBC interviewer that seeing homeless men sleeping under the railway viaduct at Friargate gave him the idea for the 1932 song ‘Underneath the Arches’, which he co-wrote with Reg Connelly) while Bud and Chesney Allen were playing at the nearby Hippodrome Theatre.

It’s ironic that the bridge, like the viaduct at Monsal Dale, has become a conservation issue.  Derby City Council, which bought it from British Railways for £1, has been vexed for years finding a practical solution to safeguard its future.

It was listed Grade II in 1974, oddly suggesting a lesser value than the other surviving structure on the line, Bennerley Viaduct (Grade II*).

At present a species of hairnet protects the cast ironwork from pigeons, and also creates difficulties for photographers.

Beside the line of the former railway viaduct on the north side of Friargate remains one of the oddest survivals of Derby’s transport history, the 4ft-guage rails and setts of the horse-tram depot of the Derby Tramways Co, which were in use from 1890 until the route was electrified in 1907.

Bennerley Viaduct

Bennerley Viaduct, Nottinghamshire (1973)

Bennerley Viaduct, Nottinghamshire (1973)

The River Erewash is not widely known (and often wrongly pronounced – three syllables, “Er-e-wash”).  Indeed, it’s an unremarkable river, meandering between its wide, low-lying valley sides, bordering Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.  It gives its name to the Erewash Canal and is the location for many of D H Lawrence’s stories, including much of the novel The Rainbow (1915).

Eastwood, the town of Lawrence’s birth, claims to be the “birthplace of the Midland Railway”, on the strength of a meeting at the Sun Inn, which led to the formation of the Midland Counties Railway in 1832.

In fact the railway didn’t reach the valley until the late 1840s, after which the local mine-owners deserted the canals to send their coal by rail to Leicestershire and London.

This was the heartland of the Midland Railway, until its rival the Great Northern Railway, egged on by local businessmen anxious to break the Midland’s monopoly, chose to compete by building a line west from Nottingham across the southern edge of the coalfield and on to Derby and beyond.

This Derbyshire & Staffordshire Extension, authorised by Parliament in 1872, spawned numerous branches to local collieries, and was intended also connect with the North Staffordshire Railway to take some of the Midland’s Burton beer traffic.

Little survives of the route, which closed in the 1960s, except for the remarkable Bennerley Viaduct, which strides across the Erewash flood-plain east of Ilkeston, opened in 1878.

The wrought-iron lattice construction, designed by the GNR engineer, Richard Johnson, was necessary because the floor of the Erewash valley was already riddled with coal workings.  A brick-arch viaduct would have been vulnerable to subsidence;  iron legs could be jacked up if necessary.

The structure survives because wrought iron cannot be cut by an oxy-acetylene torch, and dismantling it piece-by-piece proved unduly expensive.

It’s a unique survivor, now listed Grade II*:  two taller and more spectacular viaducts, at Crumlin on the Taff Vale Railway near Caerphilly (1857, 200 feet high) and Belah near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria (1860, 196 feet high) were demolished in 1965 and 1962 respectively.

Belah Viaduct, designed by Thomas Bouch who went on to build the first Tay Bridge, had the same lattice construction as Bennerley;  Crumlin, like the surviving Meldon Viaduct near Okehampton, Devon, had distinctive Warren Trusses.

Bennerley Viaduct belongs to Sustrans, and may one day form part of the National Cycle Network.  For the present, it’s remarkably difficult to approach or see.  Indeed, the best view is from passing trains (on the left-hand side heading south) between Langley Mill and Nottingham.

Clad in complete steel

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (2015)

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (2015)

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (January 12th 2017)

Former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield (January 12th 2017)

Steel cladding is an admirable and relatively inexpensive way of modernising the façade of a building.  It conceals the original usually without obliterating it.  I’d far rather see a historic frontage, such as the Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, clad than stripped of its aesthetic value.

The Bijou Cinema, Derby, lost its elaborate faience façade when it became a furniture showroom in the early 1960s.  The interior, at balcony level at least, survived to become a particularly beautiful curry house, which would have been even more eye-catching if the original cinema frontage had remained intact.

There’s hardly anything left of the auditorium of the former Don Cinema, West Bar, Sheffield, which after it closed in 1958 also became a furniture showroom, and latterly a self-storage unit, yet the rich façade in brick and brown faience survives largely intact behind steel cladding that was installed as late as the 1980s.

Indeed, part of the façade became visible when a gale brought down the corner of the cladding on January 11th 2017.

Though at present barely recognisable , the Don has a particular place in the history of the city’s cinemas.

Sales people working at the furniture showroom were perturbed by manifestations that they couldn’t explain – whirring noises, voices and a figure in an overall wearing cycle clips.

The late Bernard Dore, who had managed the Don Cinema in the 1950s, pointed out that the chief operator, Mr Potter, invariably cycled to West Bar from his home in Ecclesall rather than take the tram, and stored his bike in the projection room.

Furthermore, he habitually wore plus-fours and a tweed jacket covered by an overall.

He had a habit of creeping up behind his junior colleagues and whispering their names to make them jump.

Dan, the manager of Armadillo Storage, showed me what’s left of the cinema structure – an intact staircase and the space that was once the projection room.  He and his colleagues say they haven’t experienced manifestations.

I hope that when the steel cladding has eventually to come down, the façade behind it will be retained.

After all, the Don Picture House is, as far as I know, Sheffield’s only documented haunted cinema.

We never closed

Former Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (2016)

Former Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, Sheffield (2016)

I passed the former Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top, twice a day for nearly thirty years on my way to work without ever taking much notice of it, from a time when it was still a cinema, through years as a bingo club, until eventually it became a carpet showroom.

I wrote a blog article about it and illustrated it with an image dated 1985, when the exterior was largely as designed by the London architect, George Coles.

A couple of years ago the carpet showroom advertised what became the longest-running closing-down sale I can remember.

I got to know the staff, who were unclear about when and indeed whether the closure would take place.

They’re still there, and in the autumn of 2016 the cinema marquee was dismantled and the entire façade covered with elegant steel cladding.

It’s reassuring to know that the owners are investing in the building, so it’s unlikely to be threatened in the near future, which is as well because it’s unlisted and unrecognised as a building of merit.

It was Sheffield’s last pre-war cinema, opening shortly after the start of the Second World War, on September 18th 1939.

George Coles was a highly regarded architect who built numerous cinemas for Oscar Deutsch’s Odeon circuit, such as the Odeons at Muswell Hill and Woolwich.

In Sheffield he was commissioned by the building contractor M J Gleeson to build the Forum, Southey (1938, demolished) and shortly afterwards began work on the Capitol.

Indeed, Coles’ plans for the proposed cinema show that Gleesons intended to name it another Forum, until they thought better of having two cinemas with the same name a little more than a mile apart.

The exterior is an impeccable, restrained version of the Art Deco manner that Odeon favoured, but the interior in contrast is elegant neo-Georgian, with alcoves and statuary and a 36-foot proscenium, much of which remains, apparently, behind immaculate white cladding.

The street-level foyer has been swept away to open up the showroom area, but the upstairs crush lobby (inaccessible to the public) remains as it was in the days of bingo, and the operating box and rewind room are intact though empty of equipment.

Although the building has a secure future for the moment, some day it will change hands, and its considerable architectural merit may not be recognised as a largely intact late-1930s moderne cinema by an architect with a national reputation.

Lacking the protection of listing, the long-term future of the Capitol depends on the vigilance of local observers and the support of national conservation organisations.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the building as worth less than the site, when in fact its historic integrity could be a selling point sometime in years to come.

Christmas in a T-shirt: Martinique

Cathedrale de Saint-Louis, Fort de France, Martinique

Cathedrale de Saint-Louis, Fort de France, Martinique

Cruises are a good way to explore the world superficially.  A few hours on dry land is only long enough to sniff the atmosphere.

When my friend Jenny and I took a Caribbean cruise in 2011 my priority at our first port of call, Fort de France on the French island of Martinique, was to buy a pair of jeans, having omitted to pack any informal trousers.

My French is limited.  I now know that you should ask for le jeanLes jeans is apparently permissible, but you may get more than you bargained for.

Once that mission was accomplished Jenny and I wandered around Fort de France and drank mojito at Le Foyaal (now apparently closed):  https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147328-d1567683-Reviews-Le_Foyaal-Fort_de_France_Arrondissement_of_Fort_de_France_Martinique.html.

I intended to follow the cruise spirit and simply idle away my days in tropical luxury, but my history antennae twitched when we passed the Cathedrale de Saint-Louis (1895), which looked for all the world like a British Commissioners’ Church but in Roman-Byzantine style, tricked out in tan and brown decoration with a tower and spire 186 feet high.

The building was being renovated, so we couldn’t go inside.  I simply photographed the exterior and looked it up later.

In fact, it’s an interesting and significant building, the seventh on the site since 1657.  The sixth church was destroyed in the great fire of Fort de France on June 22nd 1890, and a temporary repair-job was swept away by a cyclone the following year.

After this latest in a succession of natural disasters, the Archdiocese resolved to build an iron-framed structure that would resist hurricanes, storms and earthquakes.

The design of St Louis’ Cathedral is by Pierre-Henri Picq (1833-1911), who had worked alongside the ubiquitous Gustav Eiffel (1832-1923) in France.  Picq built the Palais du Chili [Chile Pavilion] for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle for which Eiffel’s great tower was the landmark.

Both men used their knowledge of iron construction to construct public buildings abroad.  Eiffel, for instance, is responsible for the General Post Office (1886-1891) in Saigon, Vietnam.

Judging by photographs, the interior of Picq’s St Louis’ Cathedral [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_Cathedral,_Fort-de-France#/media/File:Cath%C3%A9drale_de_Fort_de_France_-_Int%C3%A9rieur.jpg], is glorious – light, colourful and unmistakably iron rather than masonry.

Despite its iron construction, an earthquake in 1953 destabilised the tower so that the spire had to be dismantled.  A replacement spire was installed in a restoration programme of 1976-9.

Since the cathedral was designated a historic monument in 1990, successive restoration programmes have taken place.

Picq also designed the Bibliothèque Schœlcher [Schœlcher Library] (1893), commemorating Victor Schœlcher (1804-1893), the French abolitionist writer and Martinique politician.  The Library is recognisably by the same hand, in an eclectic Byzantine style, making use of an iron frame, glass, tiles and mosaic.

Another of Picq’s buildings in Fort de France is the Magasin du Printemps (1901).

You don’t see much of a place when you arrive on a cruise ship.  The way to know anywhere is to stay there, and in most places there are interesting buildings to look out for.

If I ever find my way back to Martinique, I now know what else there is to see.