Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

Home of clocks

Upton Hall, Nottinghamshire

Upton Hall, Nottinghamshire

Upton Hall, near Newark in Nottinghamshire, has been the home of the British Horological Institute’s museum collection of timepieces of all shapes and sizes since the early 1970s, but it has only recently opened to the public:  http://bhi.co.uk/museum/museum-events.

It’s a fascinating place, currently open only on Fridays and for occasional special events, though the adjacent Clock House Café & Tea Room in the grounds is open seven days a week and well worth a visit:  http://clockhousecafe.co.uk/about.

Upton was an ecclesiastical estate, attached to Southwell Minster, in the Middle Ages, and there was a hall in the village from the 1580s at least.

The Hall itself is an attractively quirky building, redesigned by the architect William John Donthorn (1799-1859) for the banker Thomas Wright (1773-1845).  The garden front, with its tetrastyle portico, is more impressive than the austere entrance, and the splendid central staircase hall is top-lit by a leaded dome.

A later owner, the Newark brewer John Warwick, extended the house, adding the west wing containing a ballroom, a billiard room and a suite of six bedrooms with dressing rooms, after he bought it in 1895.

It was purchased in 1936 Sir Albert Ball, the son of a trading plumber who had risen to wealth as an estate agent and land dealer and became Lord Mayor of Nottingham.  He sold it on to the Catholic order of the Fathers of the Holy Ghost for use as a novitiate house for trainee priests.

A post-war vicar, Rev Frank West, describes how, when he took over, one of the churchwardens declared, “over the road is The Holy Ghost, but you won’t get much help from that.”  (In fact, Frank West found, social relations were entirely amicable:  each group of adherents supported the other’s annual fête.)

Frank West arrived in the village just in time to be isolated by the vicious winter of 1947.  By chance he discovered a cache of seventeenth-century parish papers, and his researches, carried out while confined to his new vicarage by the weather, produced one of the best-written village histories in the language:  Rude Forefathers:  Upton-by-Southwell, 1600-1660 (1949;  Cromwell Press 1989).

George Lillywhite, A Tickle to Leg:  the history of Upton-by-Southwell and its cricketers, 1855-1901 (Morley’s 1996) follows in the same tradition, turning the quest for sporting archives into a portrait of a village community.

Upton’s most famous son appears to be Professor James Tennant (1808-1881), the mineralogist who was responsible for the cutting of the Koh-i-nor diamond.

Most people drive through Upton village on the A612 in not much more than a minute without any idea of its quiet history.

It’s a pity to miss the Clock House Café and the Hall full of clocks, and I hope that increased footfall will encourage the BHI to open their Museum more often.

Exploring Melbourne – the Karachi to Melbourne tram

 

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria:  tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria: tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria:  tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria: tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria:  tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

Melbourne Tram Museum, Hawthorn, Victoria: tram no 81, aka Karachi W11

As you would expect of a tram city, there is a Melbourne Tram Museum, in the former Hawthorn tram depot, not far from Boroondara Cemetery.

The Museum has an encyclopaedic collection of vehicles dating right back to the cable-tramway (which began in 1885 and finally expired as late as 1940), parked in densely packed lines which make them difficult to see and sometimes impossible to photograph.

Its saving grace is that visitors have the run of all the vehicles.  This was apparent as I walked through the doors by the cacophony of tram bells.  Melbourne Tram Museum is the antithesis of places like Crich or Prague where the interiors of vehicles are mostly treated as shrines unless you’re actually riding on them.

I particularly enjoyed the “Karachi W11” tram – a superannuated 1970s vehicle that was decorated to within an inch of its life by a team of Pakistani artists for the Commonwealth Games of 2006.  It’s great fun, done up like a Karachi minibus with flashing lights, tassels and all manner of glitter and carrying the number of a Karachi bus-route.

Originally fleet-number 81, dating from 1977, it was the first of the Z1 class, one of the generation of Melbourne trams that began to replace the long-lived W class which are still the emblem of the city’s transport.

The Karachi tram’s side-panels carry the message “Love is Life” in English and Urdu, and inside are invocations in both languages to “Respect your elders” and “Travel in silence”.

The newly decorated tram ran on the City Circle for the duration of the Games, March 14th-26th 2006, and again on Friday evenings during the summer of 2006-7 as part of the City of Melbourne Living Arts Program.

Otherwise it remained in store until it was transferred to the Museum in June 2015.

By far the most amusing tram in the city, it deserves an occasional outing as an alternative to the celebrated Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.

Because the Museum is staffed by volunteers it’s only accessible on open days, and it’s well worth a visit:  http://www.hawthorntramdepot.org.au.

Exploring Victoria – Puffing Billy Railway

Puffing Billy Railway, Victoria, Australia:  Monbulk Creek viaduct

Puffing Billy Railway, Victoria, Australia: Monbulk Creek viaduct

The rail-traveller’s approach to the Puffing Billy Railway is by suburban electric train from the City Loop eastwards to Belgrave.

Though the route is a conventional trip through the Melbourne suburbs, it’s noticeable that further out the track has been expensively lowered into a steep-sided cutting to eliminate dangerous at-grade road crossings.

Towards the end of the journey, the line changes character.  After Upper Ferntree Gulley the broad-gauge electric multiple unit squeezes itself on to a rural single line with passing loops until it reaches its terminus at Belgrave.

The reason for this is that when the 1889 line as far as Upper Ferntree Gulley was extended ten years later it was built as one of four experimental 2ft-6in gauge branch lines, an extreme expression of Victorian Railways’ commitment to provide rail service even to remote communities in the days before motorised road transport.

Even though none of these narrow-gauge lines ever made a profit, the line from Upper Ferntree Gulley to the far terminus at Gembrook operated until a landslip in 1953 gave VR an excuse to close it.

The manifest popularity of the numerous “farewell” specials run as far as Belgrave motivated enthusiasts to raise the possibility of running it as a volunteer-operated heritage railway, the Puffing Billy Railway, named after the local nickname for the narrow-gauge trains.

Though VR management was initially sceptical, the scheme went ahead, with the narrow-gauge trackbed from Upper Ferntree Gulley to Belgrave converted to broad gauge and electrified.

Belgrave reopened as a suburban station in 1962, the same year that the Puffing Billy Railway opened its service as far as Menzies Creek, extending it to Emerald (1965), Lakeside (1975) and to the original terminus at Gembrook in 1998, a total journey of fifteen miles.

The result is an absolute delight for tourists as well as enthusiasts.  The clearances are such that passengers are encouraged to dangle their legs out of the train windows.  The route passes through beautiful countryside and crosses two spectacular timber viaducts at Monbulk Creek and Cockatoo Creek.

The railway’s preservation credentials are impressive.  It possesses every surviving VR narrow-gauge locomotive, all but one of which are operable, as well as one magnificent G-class Garratt locomotive which is capable of hauling eighteen-coach trains.

It runs trains every day of the year except Christmas Day, with a core group of paid staff alongside a welcoming, cheerful team of volunteers.

The Puffing Billy Railway has now run for longer as a heritage line than it did as part of a main-line network.  It dates back to the time when enthusiasts first began to believe they could run a railway, and rail professionals learned to trust them.

As such it stands alongside Britain’s narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway (reopened 1951) [http://www.talyllyn.co.uk] and standard-gauge Bluebell Railway (reopened 1960) [http://www.bluebell-railway.com] demonstrating that committed, hard-headed amateurs can make heritage rail a practical success.

Perhaps the ultimate accolade is a proposal for Victorian Railways to restore an original broad-gauge Tait electric multiple-unit set to operate a complementary service between Flinders Street and Belgrave in conjunction with the Puffing Billy trains:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tait_(train)#/media/File:TaitNewportWorkshops.jpg.

The spire and the minaret

Trinity Methodist Church and the Jamia Mosque Ghausia, Firvale, Sheffield

Trinity Methodist Church and the Jamia Mosque Ghausia, Firvale, Sheffield

The multicultural, multi-faith nature of the local community, depicted in the Channel 4 documentary Keeping up with the Khans (2016) [http://www.channel4.com/programmes/keeping-up-with-the-khans], has a remarkable architectural expression in the buildings of Trinity Methodist Church, Firvale, Sheffield, which has closed because its congregation felt they could no longer maintain their large, listed building:  http://www.thestar.co.uk/our-towns-and-cities/sheffield/a-120-year-old-sheffield-church-to-close-due-to-cost-of-upkeep-1-8561680.

The church was built in 1899, designed by the Derby architect John Wills (1846-1906), a prolific builder of nonconformist churches and chapels.  The Gothic design is remarkably church-like, with a chancel, an altar and a tall spire that dominates the narrow fork of the junction between Firth Park Road and Owler Lane.

This High-Church Methodist layout, unusual in north Sheffield, is more often found in the affluent south-western suburbs.

The interior, split to provide meeting rooms in 1979-81, still retains its alabaster pulpit and font, and a three-manual Wilcox organ.

The adjacent Sunday School, added in 1907, was sold in 1976 and has become the Jamia Mosque Ghausia, carefully extended with a domed minaret that echoes the Gothic spire at the other end of the complex.

The church itself was put up for sale, with a price of £375,000, early in 2017.

The departure of the Methodists diminishes the symbolism of the two groups of worshippers as neighbours.  It will be interesting to see whether the church is taken over by the Muslim congregation or put to some other use.

Christians and Muslims remain neighbours in the heart of Firvale, however, because the Anglican parish church of St Cuthbert continues its work, with a well-designed community centre leading from the north aisle, opened in 2014:  http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/community-boost-from-new-sheffield-church-1-6698115.

St Cuthbert’s is a building of quality, dating shortly after the opening of Trinity Methodist Church.  It was built 1901-5, designed by John Dodsley Webster (d 1913) whose many Sheffield buildings included the recently demolished Jessop Hospital for Women.

The diminutive tower of 1959 is an unfortunate addition.  However, the church contains fine stained glass by Archibald Davis (1877-1953) of the Bromsgrove Guild, including a particularly beautiful war-memorial east window depicting the Resurrection and the Ascension.

Whatever happens to the Trinity Methodist Church buildings, the Christians and the Muslims will continue to be neighbours and no doubt will work together for the good of the local community.

St Cuthbert's Church, Firvale, Sheffield:  east window

St Cuthbert’s Church, Firvale, Sheffield: east window

Ding-dings

Hong Kong Tramway:  tourist tram 68 & 139

Hong Kong Tramway: tourist tram 68 & 139

Like San Francisco and Melbourne, Hong Kong has its own inimitable street-transport experience, the British-style four-wheel double-deck trams that the locals call “ding-dings”.  (There was a public outcry in 2000 when the bells were briefly replaced by a beeper.)

The tramway dates back to 1904, when a fleet of British-built single-deck electric trams began running between Kennedy Town and Causeway Bay.

Double-deckers, originally with open tops, arrived in 1912.

The route was later extended eastwards to Shau Kei Wan, eight miles from Kennedy Town, and in a loop round the Happy Valley racecourse.

Though the trams duck inland in places, the main line largely follows the shore line of the early 1900s.

The system was restored after the Second World War and while street tramways in Britain went into steep decline Hong Kong’s double-deckers proved invaluable as the colony’s population expanded in the 1950s.

The main line was double-tracked in 1949, and the tramway began to build its own cars in the traditional pattern, double-ended, fully enclosed, with four-wheel trucks and British electrical equipment, taking power by trolley poles.

Single-deck trailers were introduced in 1964, and when they disappeared in the early 1980s Hong Kong became the only tram-system in the world exclusively using double-deckers.

There are two teak-framed private-hire trams of antique appearance, convincing to the average tourist [https://bluebalu.com/2016/03/01/tramoramic-tour] though in fact they’re of no great age: no 28, Albert, dates from 1985 and 128, Victoria, was built in 1987.  They were joined by a open-balcony tour tram, 68, in 2016.

Two other trams remain unmodernised:  50 is a static exhibit in the Hong Kong Museum of History, and 120 continues to operate with its teak and rattan seating.

Travelling on a Hong Kong tram feels like a time-warp:  much more than any of the heritage tramways in Britain, this is real transportation serving ordinary workaday passengers going about their daily routine.  For tourists, moreover, the trams provide a grandstand view of shops and shoppers for miles.

Since 1976 passengers have boarded at the rear of the car through a turnstile and alighted at the front, paying their fares beside the driver.  All termini are balloon-loops, and trams are driven from one cab rather than two.

The appearance of the trams seems constant, though nowadays enlivened by all-over advertising, yet they have in fact been subtly modernised:  the heavy British controllers have been replaced by electronic controls and the seating is more comfortable.

A single flat-rate adult fare works out at around 23p in sterling:  https://www.hktramways.com/en/schedules-fares.

It’s even cheaper than the Star Ferry.

Star Ferry

'Northern Star', Hong Kong Star Ferry

‘Northern Star’, Hong Kong Star Ferry

Though it only takes a matter of seven or eight minutes, Hong Kong’s Star Ferry is one of the most memorable ferry-trips anywhere in the world.

The channel between mainland Kowloon and Hong Kong Island is perhaps a kilometre – rather less, for instance, than the distance between Liverpool’s Pier Head and the Wirral.

The Star Ferry was started by an Indian entrepreneur, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, who arrived in Hong Kong as a stowaway in 1852, traded opium and became a hotelier.

His habit of naming vessels after stars is attributed to his regard for Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889) –

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea…

He named his company Star Ferry in 1898, just before he sold it to the merchant combine Jardine Matheson & Co and retired to India.

The vessels are double-ended, with two sets of bows to facilitate fast turnarounds.  The oldest still in service, Radiant Star and Celestial Star, date from 1956:  all but the two newest were built by the local Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Co.

Until 1972, when the first cross-harbour road-tunnel opened, the ferry was the only practical means of travelling between Kowloon and Hong Kong Central.

Now there are three road and three MTR subway tunnels, and using the ferry is a deliberate choice rather than a necessity.

Though they carry far fewer passengers than in their heyday, the ferries remain popular with tourists.

A single adult trip costs roughly 25p, which is the second cheapest travel experience in Hong Kong:  http://www.starferry.com.hk/en/service.

Day or night, it’s a superb way to see the spectacular skyline with its array of skyscrapers backed by The Peak.

Palladian design for living

Henbury Hall, Cheshire

Henbury Hall, Cheshire

A very myopic estate agent might describe Henbury Hall, Cheshire, as a six-bedroom detached house with every modern convenience, set in a spacious garden.

An architectural historian would see it as a spectacular modern version of Andrea Palladio’s celebrated Villa Capra (1567-1585), which stands on a hill outside Vicenza in northern Italy.

Palladio’s masterpiece is mounted on a rusticated basement and capped by a magnificent dome. Its plan is a square with a hexastyle (six-columned) portico on each side, and the rooms open from the central hall, allowing breezes in the hot Italian summer, and offering shade at all times of the day.

The British architect Julian Bicknell (b 1945) conceived Henbury Hall as a scaled-down version of the Villa Capra, 56 feet square, with tetrastyle (four-columned) Ionic porticos, and a more intimate interior, appropriate to the colder English climate.

The house was designed for Sebastian de Ferranti (1927-2015), grandson of the founder of the electronics company.  Mr de Ferranti’s father, Sir Vincent de Ferranti, had purchased the Henbury Hall estate in 1957, demolished the existing eighteenth-century house and converted the Tenants’ Hall of 1770 into a residence.

His great contribution to Henbury is the garden, twelve acres of extensive views across two lakes, now restored with its walled garden and Victorian glasshouses and a magnificent Pool House.

The family originated from Venice, and after Sir Vincent’s death in 1980, Mr de Ferranti asked the painter Felix Kelly to visualise a Palladian eye-catcher in place of the lost Henbury Hall.

The result was realised by Julian Bicknell in French limestone with a lead dome surmounted by a lantern, built between 1983 and 1986 over the extensive cellars of the eighteenth-century house.

The interior was decorated by the prestigious designer David Mlinaric (b 1939) with carving by the York master carver Dick Reid.

The ground floor, the “rustic” in architectural terminology, contains the domestic quarters in the Palladian tradition – the kitchen, breakfast room and utilities – and the customary entrance.

The formal piano nobile floor consists of an axial space running beneath the dome from north to south, with drawing room and dining room spaces on the opposite east-west axis to make an open cruciform space for living.  The southern corner rooms are intimate, despite their classical proportions – a study and a sitting room.  The northern corners contain respectively an elegant cantilevered spiral staircase and two lifts.

Above are six bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

Here is proof that the design for living that Palladio offered his Venetian clients in the sixteen century remains practical 450 years later.

Henbury Hall Gardens are open to the public by arrangement:  http://www.henburyhall.co.uk/visitor-info-2.

Henbury Hall itself is strictly private.

Lord Burlington’s bauble

Chiswick House, Middlesex:  entrance portico

Chiswick House, Middlesex: entrance portico

When Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was building his exquisite villas across the Venetian terra firma, English architects were constructing such weird confections as Wollaton Hall (1580-1588), Barlborough Hall (c1583-1584), Hardwick Hall (1597) and Burton Agnes Hall (c1600).

In the late sixteenth century England was segregated from Catholic Europe, where the Renaissance had been flourishing for generations.  Builders in England could only understand the vocabulary of classical architecture through pattern books – and often got the proportions wrong.

Only Inigo Jones (1573-1652) had the good fortune to travel on the continent, and returned with the capability to design the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1616-9/1630-5), the Banqueting House at Whitehall (1619-22), St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (1631), and Wilton House, Wiltshire (1633-40).

The man who eventually brought Palladian architecture to Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century was Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753).

In his early twenties he made three Grand Tour visits to Europe, and on the third, in 1719, he took with him a copy of Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura, which catalogues the Italian’s built and unbuilt designs.

On his return he added a pavilion to the Jacobean family seat, Chiswick House, then in a rural setting a little less than ten miles from the City of London.

This exquisite little building – which is now known as Chiswick House, the Jacobean building having long since disappeared – was completed in 1729, and was described by Lord Hervey (Alexander Pope’s ‘Lord Fanny’) as “Too small to live in, and too big to hang to a watch”.

It derives obviously from Palladio’s Villa Capra, but with only two porticos instead of four, a taller dome more in keeping with Palladio’s intention, and obelisks that serve as chimneys, a necessity in England but not in the Mediterranean.

The villa and the surrounding garden were carefully designed to suggest a Roman original, based on Palladio’s patterns rather than direct archaeology.

It represented a huge departure from the heavier Baroque buildings that had been erected in the late seventeenth century – Chatsworth, Blenheim, Castle Howard – and it became the precedent for elegant buildings for a generation.

Lord Burlington’s social status and aesthetic authority enabled him to promote a coterie of architects – Colen Campbell, William Kent, Matthew Brettingham, Henry Flitcroft, John Wood the elder, James Paine and John Carr of York – who designed the great houses of the early eighteenth century, such as Holkham Hall, Houghton Hall, Stourhead House, Prior Park and – most of all – Wentworth Woodhouse where an old-fashioned west wing is concealed by the magnificent Palladian east wing.

The long line of classical beauty, ultimately derived from the Greeks and the Romans, passes from the Roman writer Vitruvius to Palladio, then to Lord Burlington, and it continues to the present day, if you know where to look.

La Rotonda

Villa Capra, "La Rotonda", Vicenza, Italy

Villa Capra, “La Rotonda”, Vicenza, Italy

One of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen is Andrea Palladio’s Villa Capra, otherwise called La Rotonda, on the outskirts of Vicenza.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was the Italian architect who, during the second half of the sixteenth century, studied and revived the principles of proportion and decorum that distinguished classical Roman architecture, designing and building villas across the rural Veneto, and churches, public buildings and palaces in Vicenza and Venice.

Strictly, La Rotonda is not a villa:  it was not intended to have ancillary farm buildings, and Palladio himself referred to it as a palazzo.  It was built within reach of the city as a retirement residence for a Vatican priest, Paolo Almerico, who died in 1589 before the building was completed.

The house passed to two brothers, Odorico and Marco Capra, who engaged Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), to finish the project, lowering the profile of the Palladio’s intended dome to resemble the Pantheon in Rome, though with a cupola instead of an open oculus.

The Villa Capra’s aesthetic perfection is founded on practicality.  The square footprint is set at 45° to the cardinal directions of the compass, so that the corners point north, south, east and west, and the layout of the four porticos and the rooms within is intended to provide shade throughout the day.

The house stands on a small hill, approached by a carriage drive to the north-west portico, so that the other three porticos each present a distinctive view across the surrounding plain.

Within each portico vestibules lead to the double-height circular central hall, which has a balcony above and is lit by the cupola that surmounts the dome.  The walls are covered in sumptuous trompe d’oeil decoration and frescoes by Alessandro and Giambattista Maganza and Anselmo Canera.

Had he lived, Paolo Almerico would have enjoyed a degree of state to echo his working life in the Vatican.

This treasure of classical architecture has survived intact, and is regularly open to visitors:  http://www.villalarotonda.it/en/visiting.htm.

Dedicated to all the gods

The Pantheon, Rome:  dome and oculus

The Pantheon, Rome: dome and oculus

Rome was the first foreign city I ever visited on my own, and among the many memorable sights and sites I remember being most astonished by the Pantheon, simply because it is by far the oldest Roman building that is not a ruin and is still in use.

Though the inscription on the pediment suggests it was built by Marcus Agrippa (64/62BC-12BC), the existing structure, apart from the façade, is in fact a rebuilding by the Emperor Hadrian (76AD-138AD) dating from 118AD-128AD.

The interior is a remarkable space, a cylinder surmounted by a coffered dome which rises to a circular oculus, open to the skies.  This is the only source of light – there are no windows – and when it rains the water drains away beneath the floor.

The proportions are mathematically exact:  the footprint forms a square in plan and elevation that equals the height of the oculus, 150 Roman feet (142 Imperial feet or 43.3 metres).  This means that a sphere 142 feet in diameter would fit exactly within the dome.

The name Pantheon indicates that this may have originally been a temple “dedicated to all the gods”.  It survived because in 609AD Pope Boniface IV converted it to a church dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs.

It has remained a place of Christian worship ever since, and is the burial place of, among others, the painter Raphael (1483-1520), the composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and two Italian monarchs, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878, king of Sardinia until 1861 and afterwards the first king of Italy) and his son and successor Umberto I (1844-1900).

Apart from its long history and survival, the Pantheon’s great significance is its influence on Western architecture.  Square – and sometimes circular – Classical buildings with cylindrical interiors and portico entrances are ubiquitous.

The great Italian architect Andrea Palladio produced variations on the theme, such as the church of Il Redentore (1577-92) in Venice, where he was obliged to lengthen the nave and, near Vicenza, his magnificent Villa Capra (designed 1566-7) and the Tempietto Barbaro (designed 1580).

Paris has its Panthéon, built as a church between 1758 and 1790.  There is a Pantheon in the garden at Stourhead, Wiltshire (1756).  The interior of the Marble Saloon at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (1788) is directly based on the Roman original

Thomas Jefferson, whose own plantation house, Monticello (1772), echoes the Roman Pantheon, designed a more precise reproduction as the Rotunda library at the University of Virginia (1822-6) and his own memorial in Washington DC, designed by John Russell Pope in 1935, follows the same form.

Manchester’s Central Library, designed by Vincent Harris and built 1930-34, follows the same pattern.

There are many such buildings across the world, and they all refer back to the original in Rome.