Category Archives: Transports of Delight

London’s canal museum

London Canal Museum, King’s Cross: horse ramp

The area of London we now know as King’s Cross was until the early nineteenth century called Battlebridge, commemorating the tradition that it was the site of Queen Boudicea’s defeat in AD60-61.  (A more recent and tenuous tradition asserts that the queen is buried beneath platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station.)

The original “king’s cross” was a bombastic memorial to King George IV, sited at the junction of Grays Inn Road, York Way, Euston Road and Pentonville Road.  It was built in 1836 and though it lasted only nine years because it obstructed the traffic the name King’s Cross has stuck ever since.

The name Battlebridge survives at a canal basin on the Regent’s Canal, now a desirable mooring and the home of the London Canal Museum [http://www.canalmuseum.org.uk/index.html], which occupies a former ice warehouse on New Wharf Road.

The museum has two equally important themes – waterways and ice.  It’s the only dedicated waterways museum in London, and it’s probably the only place to learn about the once-important ice industry that vanished in the face of mechanised ice manufacture after the Second World War.

It was an ingenious trade, meshed with the Norwegian timber trade.  During the winter ice was cut by the loggers who chopped timber in the warmer months, and carried to London in March in the freighters than brought the timber later in the year.

The ice was brought from Limehouse on the Regent’s Canal, loaded and unloaded by metal devices called ice dogs, and stored in cavernous ice wells, much like the icehouses on country estates but rather bigger, built in 1857 and 1862.

The filled wells were insulated by sawdust, an otherwise useless by-product of the timber trade.

The enterprise on New Wharf Road was run by Carlo Gatti (1817-1878), an Italian-speaking Swiss who is credited with introducing ice cream as a popular luxury.

His carts delivered raw ice to restaurants, butchers, fishmongers, hospitals and domestic users.

He also developed a chain of ice-cream parlours and diversified into music halls before returning to Switzerland for a wealthy retirement in the early 1870s.

His warehouse continued in use until at least 1902.

The London Canal Museum, opened in 1992, is small but rich in interest.  The ground floor shows one of the two original wells, and the space above, originally stables which the horses accessed up a steep ramp, has comprehensive displays and film clips that explain and bring to life London’s waterways.

It’s a little-known gem, within five minutes’ walk of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, and a visit will take at least an hour.

English Institute of Sport Sheffield

English Institute of Sport Sheffield: A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe visit, April 7th 2019

On the popular Bus Ride Round Attercliffe trips that I run in conjunction with South Yorkshire Transport Museum, we regularly make a stop at the English Institute of Sport Sheffield, to show that the Lower Don Valley has begun an astonishing transformation since the demise of the heavy steel industry in the early 1980s.

Designed by FaulknerBrowns Architects, the Institute opened in December 2003, funded by Sport England and managed by SIV Ltd, a Health and Well Being Charity.  It’s newer than the Arena and the demolished Don Valley Stadium which were built for the 1991 World Student Games.  It’s even newer than the nearby IceSheffield, designed by the Building Design Partnership and opened in May 2003.

It has and continues to provide training facilities for an impressive array of champions, including Sheffield-born heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, boxers Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams and the Paralympian table-tennis player Will Bailey, as well as sixty local sports clubs and seventy thousand local school children a year.

The initial cost of the facility was £28 million, and the Institute aims to balance usage at 90% local community to 10% elite athletes.

Our guide, Ryan Ruddiforth, shows Bus Ride passengers, many of whom grew up in Attercliffe after the Second World War, the facilities for boxing, wheelchair basketball and – most impressive of all – the huge 200-metre indoor running track.

I’m looking forward to offering heritage bus-ride experiences to groups from outside Sheffield in 2020, and in the ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ tour I plan to take people first of all to Magna, to see the hot, dark, dangerous spaces where workers spent their days in the steel industry and then, for contrast, to EISS to experience the light, clean, air-conditioned spaces in which people exercise and perfect their sport skills in the twenty-first century.

The Valley has come a long way within a lifetime, and I want to present this in as dramatic a way as possible.

The ‘Sheffield’s Industrial Heritage’ bus tours are arranged on an individual basis, and Magna and EISS may not always be available because of major events taking place.  On occasions the Bus Ride may visit other equivalent buildings in the city centre or the Lower Don Valley.  For further details please click here.

For details of the next public Bus Ride Round Attercliffe, please click here.

Nottingham London Road Low Level

Former Great Northern Railway: Nottingham London Road Low Level Station

Former Great Northern Railway: Nottingham London Road Low Level Station

Britain’s railways are notoriously ill-organised, thanks to the Major government’s privatisation process of 1994-97, in which operating companies hired trains from rolling-stock companies and ran them on track owned by a nationalised entity.  (Sir John Major himself suggested simply reviving the “Big Four” grouping of 1922, which on reflection doesn’t seem such a bad idea compared with what we’re now stuck with.)

The early railway builders quickly dismissed the idea of having independent operators running on railway lines, like the eighteenth-century turnpikes, and Gladstone’s Railway Regulation Act of 1844 provided for the possibility of nationalising the railway system even as it was being built.

But the Victorians put their faith in competition, and Britain’s railways grew willy-nilly, leading to a confusion as profound as the 21st-century British rail system.

This is evident in Nottingham, where throughout the nineteenth century two competing railway companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, ran from separate stations a short distance away from each other, on Station Street and London Road respectively.

In 1879, under the auspices of the ponderously named Great Northern & London & North Western Joint Railway, a third company, the London & North Western Railway, began running passenger services into London Road Station and delivering goods to a purpose-built station at Sneinton.

Then in 1900, a fourth company, the Great Central, built the magnificent Victoria Station, which it shared with the Great Northern, in a cutting in the centre of town.

The Great Northern built a duplicate London Road station, which they named High Level, to distinguish it from their original station, latterly Low Level, which the L&NWR continued to use for their services to Market Harborough via Saxondale Junction, Bottesford and Melton Mowbray.

This absurdity continued until 1944, when the former L&NWR trains were diverted into Nottingham Midland and the Low Level station became a goods depot.

Much of this has since been swept away.  There is now only one station in Nottingham, the former Midland, though it serves trains run by three separate modern operating companies.  The lines into Low Level were taken up in the 1970s, and after a fire in 1996 Thomas Chambers Hine’s imposing 1857 building was restored and refurbished as a health club.

But it’s a mistake to think that the way we run British railways in the 21st century is any more bizarre than the travellers’ chaos that the Victorians created.

The East to West

Former Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway: Fledborough Viaduct

Former Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway: Fledborough Viaduct

Of all the grandiose railway schemes proposed in Britain in the nineteenth century, few match the audacity of the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway.

Its original Act of 1891 authorised a 170-mile line from Warrington in Lancashire to Sutton-on-Sea in Lincolnshire, together with extensive docks at each terminus, crossing the paths of every major main line to the North in the hope of carrying substantial traffic east and west from new collieries opening on the concealed coalfield in east Nottinghamshire.

In fact, only the section between Chesterfield and Lincoln was built.  It opened in 1897, along with a branch to Sheffield in 1900.  It was sold to the Great Central Railway in 1907 without ever paying a dividend.

Driven by Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coal-owners’ desire to exploit their untapped mineral resources, it would have involved audacious engineering over the Peak District, including a three-hundred-foot viaduct topping the existing sixty-three-foot viaduct at Monsal Dale.

Most of what was built has disappeared – the main station at Chesterfield Market Place, the sixty-three-foot high viaduct at Horn’s Bridge on the outskirts of Chesterfield, which crossed two rivers, two roads and two railway lines within a couple of hundred yards, and the notoriously unstable 2,642-yard Bolsover Tunnel.

The line west of Langwith Junction closed in 1951 when Bolsover Tunnel became impassable, and passenger services on the remaining section ended in 1955.  Freight traffic over parts of the route continued until 2015.

The only part of the line still in use is now Network Rail’s High Marnham Test Track, reopened in 2009 between Thoresby Colliery Junction and Dukeries Junction.  Beyond that, almost all the way to the end of the LD&ECR at Pyewipe Junction, the trackbed is now part of the National Cycle Network.

And on that stretch is the only surviving substantial engineering monument of this bravura piece of railway building – Fledborough Viaduct, 59 brick arches and four girder spans, in total just over half a mile long, crossing the River Trent and its wide flood plain at no great height.

There had to be a viaduct at this point because of the Trent’s propensity to flood.  An embankment would have acted as a dam and caused serious flooding upstream.

On the west bank of the Trent High Marnham Power Station opened in 1962 and the railway supplied it with coal until a derailment in 1980 led to a temporary closure that became permanent.

The power station in turn closed in 2003 and was finally demolished in 2012.

The cycle trail is the best way to appreciate the scale of Fledborough Viaduct, which is difficult to see from any public road.

The best view of the Viaduct is from the river path at High Marnham, where the Brownlow Arms [https://www.thebrownlowarms.co.uk] marks the existence of a now-vanished ferry.

Waterways to West Stockwith

Chesterfield Canal: West Stockwith

Chesterfield Canal: West Stockwith

Nottinghamshire is a surprisingly large county.  It’s difficult to imagine, strolling in the East Midlands countryside that surrounds the city of Nottingham in the south, that the north-eastern corner is fenland, and feels like Lincolnshire.

The eastern boundary with Lincolnshire is the River Trent, always an important transport artery and notoriously unreliable in drought and flood.

Up to the late eighteenth century the hinterland of western Nottinghamshire, south Yorkshire and Derbyshire was badly served by roads and waterways.  Sheffield’s cutlery had to be carted by road as far as the River Don at Rotherham from 1740 and at Tinsley from 1751.  Chesterfield’s trade, including coal, iron and Derbyshire lead, had to be taken by road to Bawtry to join the nominally navigable River Idle, which joins the Trent at West Stockwith.

When a canal was proposed from Chesterfield to the Trent in the late 1760s, there were alternative proposed routes – to the Idle at Bawtry, to the Trent at Gainsborough or via Retford entering the Trent downstream of Gainsborough at West Stockwith.

The cheapest alternative – a 46-mile canal from Chesterfield to West Stockwith, recommended by James Brindley, was built.

Bawtry was cut out of the waterway traffic, but continued to prosper as a staging post on the Great North Road.  The River Idle practically ceased to be a commercial waterway, though navigation remained technically possible.

Retford gained greater importance because it was situated on both the Chesterfield Canal and the Great North Road.

West Stockwith is a quiet little place, out of the way for road-travellers, but still significant if you travel by boat.  It’s possible to walk in less than ten minutes between the canal and the River Idle, which has long been unnavigable, its tendency to flood moderated by a huge floodgate.

The canal wharf is now a marina and the original tollhouse of 1789 still overlooks the lock that leads down to the tidal Trent.

Of the eleven pubs that served this once thriving little port only two now operate.  One, the warm and welcoming White Hart [http://www.whiws.co.uk], has its own brewery:  http://www.theidlebrewery.co.uk.

Georgian transport hub

White Swan Hotel, Drakeholes, Nottinghamshire (2018)

White Swan Hotel, Drakeholes, Nottinghamshire (2018)

Chesterfield Canal: Drakeholes Tunnel

Chesterfield Canal: Drakeholes Tunnel

When my navigator Richard directed me to Drakeholes to photograph the tunnel on the Chesterfield Canal the first thing we saw was not the canal but a very large, very Gothick, very derelict building which turned out to be the former White Swan Hotel.

This marks a major transport interchange from the days when everything that moved along roads and canals was propelled by muscle power.

It sits where the junction of four roads, where the old Roman road between Bawtry and the Trent ferry at Littleborough crosses the road from Blyth to Gainsborough.  Here it coincides with the canal, which burrows under the road in a 154-yard-long tunnel as it turns north on its way to its terminus at West Stockwith.

Almost opposite the White Swan is a pair of lodges, beautifully restored after years of dereliction, flanking what used to be the gateway to Wiseton Hall.  The pair was in fact a single dwelling, one lodge for living, the other for sleeping.

It forms only part of the work of Jonathan Acklom, local landowner and the instigator of the Wiseton Enclosure in 1763, who marked the “surrounding eminences” with elegant farms, such as Pusto Hill Farm and Blaco Hill Farm, described by the late-eighteenth historian John Throsby as “ornaments to the domain,…highly creditable to the taste of the owner”.

At the time that Jonathan Acklom rebuilt his family seat at Wiseton Hall in 1771 the Chesterfield Canal was under construction.  He stipulated that it should not approach his estate nearer than two hundred yards.

He built the White Swan to serve traffic coming along the roads to reach the canal company’s wharf at the southern end of the short tunnel, which opened in 1776.

Drakeholes was the Georgian equivalent of a modern transport interchange, and it was all created within a decade.

Though the Hall has gone, replaced by a smaller neo-Georgian house in 1962, its stables survive opposite the old gateway, along with the newer avenue which crosses the canal by the ornate Lady’s Bridge, otherwise known from its decayed carving as Man’s Face Bridge.

The modern Wiseton Hall is strictly private.

For background information on the Georgian Wiseton Hall see http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/Jacks1881/wiseton.htm and http://landedfamilies.blogspot.com/2013/03/14-acklom-of-wiseton-hall.html.

Exploring Sydney: Necropolis Receiving Station

Necropolis Receiving Station, Chippendale, Sydney

Necropolis Receiving Station, Chippendale, Sydney

Just outside Sydney Central Station stands a high-quality Gothic structure which commuters pass without a second thought.

From the street, in an area called Chippendale, it’s more obvious and impressive.

It was built as the Necropolis Receiving Station, from where funerals departed by rail to the Rookwood Cemetery out at what was then Haslem’s Creek and is now called Lidcombe.

It was designed in Venetian Gothic style by the Colonial Architect, James Johnstone Barnet (1827-1904), a Scot who worked with the first generation of New South Wales architects – Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), both English, and the Canadian John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904).

The exceptionally fine carving was the work of Thomas Duckett Jnr (1839-1868) [https://www.daao.org.au/bio/thomas-duckett/biography] and Henry Apperly (1824-1887), both of them born in England.

Funeral trains began operating in April 1867.  Passengers were required to buy return tickets, but corpses travelled free.

Though rail-borne funerals practically ended in 1938 and the mortuary station became disused, a service for mourners continued from the main Central platforms through the Second World War until the cemetery railway was closed in 1948.

The station was subsequently renamed Regent Street Station and used to dispatch animals such as dogs and horses, and later as a parcel depot, until in the late 1980s it became an unlikely and ultimately unsuccessful pancake restaurant.

Subsequently it became an even less likely wedding venue.

Montecatini Alto

Monticatini Terme, Italy: Funicolare

Monticatini Terme, Italy: Funicolare

The town clustering round the Montecatini Terme spa is relatively modern:  until the eighteenth century the area on which it is built was a swamp.

The old town is a small, perfect Tuscan hill town, Montecatini Alto, strongly suggestive of the better known San Gimignano, with towers, churches and a market place perched at an altitude of 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Of the twenty-five medieval towers built in Montecatini, six survive.

The easy way to Montecatini Alto is by the Funicolare connecting the historic hill-town with the baths in the valley bottom.  This one-kilometre line opened in 1898, in the presence of local resident Giuseppe Verdi.  The track was blown up in 1944 and restored in 1949.  There was a further closure for upgrading between 1977 and 1982.

The two cars, named Gigio and Gigia (also numbered 1 and 2 for the avoidance of ambiguity) are inclined, with three compartments and external balconies front and back.  Gradient markers towards the top indicate increasing gradients from 25% to 38.5%.  The views are spectacular and the experience didn’t feel vertiginous.  The line stops for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.30pm.  A round-trip, taking less than ten minutes, costs €7:  https://www.funicolare-montecatini.it/orari-e-prezzi/timetable-and-prices.

At the top I visited the quiet little Church of St Joseph & St Philip and, next to it, the Torre dell’Orologio, a clock tower with an unusual dial showing only six instead of twelve numbers.  The Torre dell’Orologio was fitted with a dial facing northwards across the town by 1552, and the existing mechanism dates from 1695.  It chimes “alla Romana”, the Roman striking system in which a low note represents five and a high note one.

At the opposite end of the main square, the Piazza Giuseppe Giusti, I climbed another hill to visit the Church of St Peter the Apostle, which has an odd little museum, including a disconcerting relic of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of Montecatini.

There’s an authoritative account of Montecatini Alto at https://experiencedtraveller.com/journal/2016-08-21-montecatini-alto-in-tuscany-medieval-meets-modern.

Tunnel vision

Queensbury Tunnel, West Yorkshire (February 6th 2019)

When we walked the stretch of the Great Northern Railway Trail from Thornton to Queensbury, my mate Richard and I were puzzled by the undulations in the former trackbed.  There were steep sections that couldn’t possibly have carried a railway train.

It became apparent that whole stretches of the line had been infilled.  Indeed, at the site of the triangular Queensbury Station it’s impossible to work out where the railway went without recourse to the old maps on the very useful interpretation boards.

We walked a couple of hundred yards along the trackbed towards Halifax to look at the north portal of Queensbury Tunnel, where repair work is underway in preparation for filling it in (if the Historical Railways Estate has its way) or restoring it as a cycle path (if the Queensbury Tunnel Society succeeds in making its case – http://www.queensburytunnel.org.uk).

Outside the portal stands a new wooden cross commemorating the ten navvies who died during the construction of the tunnel.

Landfill in the Strines Cutting at the southern end of the tunnel has flooded it to half its length:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queensbury_Tunnel#/media/File:Queensbury_Tunnel_flooded_south_entrance.jpg.

We could only guess the location of the nearby Clayton Tunnel on the line to Bradford, because its approach has been completely obliterated by landfill.

In fact, the west portal is visible and accessible if you know where to look – http://www.lostrailwayswestyorkshire.co.uk/images/donations/Grahame%20H%20Beacher/!cid_.jpg – and almost all of the tunnel’s 1,057-yard length is intact though dangerous, but the east portal is filled in – http://www.lostrailwayswestyorkshire.co.uk/images/donations/Graeme%20Bickerdike/Clayton%20Tunnel/clayton-1.jpg – and the approach cutting has completely disappeared beneath a housing estate.

In the 1960s, when these railways lost their traffic to road transport, hardly anyone envisaged their alignments might have a future purpose.  Campaigners argued to retain the train services, and routinely lost.  The conservation argument that planning policy could safeguard miles-long continuous corridors of land by making them available only for reversible purposes simply wasn’t made in time.

Opening up abandoned railways in the Derbyshire Peak from the 1970s onwards has given millions of tourists healthy pleasure on the Tissington, High Peak and Monsal Trails.

Indeed, in Sussex the Bluebell Railway cleared a huge filled cutting as part of a successful scheme to restore services from Sheffield Park to East Grinstead, removing much of the spoil by rail.

The Great Northern Railway Trail is a laudable attempt to bring people into the West Yorkshire countryside, but the short-sighted disposal of solid Victorian infrastructure a generation ago has compromised the vision for the future.

That’s why it’s so important that the practical, economic case for the reopening of Queensbury Tunnel is sustained.

There is a well-written and well-illustrated account of the railways that met at Queensbury – Martin Bairstow, The Queensbury Lines (Amadeus 2015):  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Queensbury-Lines-Northern-Railway-Riding/dp/1871944449/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1551044322&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=Martin+Bairstow%2C+The+Queensbury+Lines+%28Amadeus+2015%29.

There is also an oddly spooky evocation in virtual world of railway simulations:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msL3L5t1uAs

A Bus Ride Round Attercliffe

Sheffield Corporation Leyland Titan 687 (RWB 67)

We’re now taking bookings for the next Bus Ride Round Attercliffe on the afternoon of Sunday April 19th 2020, starting at the Penny Black pub, Pond Hill, across the road from the Sheffield Interchange at 2.00pm.

The Lower Don Valley – that is, the villages of Attercliffe, Carbrook and Darnall – was the powerhouse of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry and was where many of its workers lived.  

Even though some of the remaining historic buildings are inaccessible to visitors, and much has gone altogether, there’s still plenty to see.

The star of the event is a 1954 Sheffield Corporation Leyland Titan double-deck bus – no 687 (RWB 87) – immaculately restored and part of the South Yorkshire Transport Museum fleet.

From a top-deck seat there’s a grandstand view, on and off the main roads – industrial sites, schools, pubs, places of worship and sites associated with crimes, riots and the Blitz.

The trip includes visits to the newly-restored Carbrook Hall (c1620), the Zion Graveyard (opened in 1805), and the English Institute of Sport (2003).

Riding in the sort of vehicle that replaced the trams in the 1950s is itself an experience, because buses have changed so much in half a century.

Colin Morton, who will be the driver, says that driving 687 is much more physically demanding than its 21st-century successors.  There’s no power steering and the crash gearbox requires double-declutching, which was once normal procedure and is becoming a lost art.

Colin is a fully qualified PSV driver with decades of experience, and he tells me that the Museum is short of younger volunteers prepared to learn how to manage the heritage fleet for wedding hires and other events.

So if you have time to spare and the patience to learn the skills, driving a 1950s or 1960s bus will keep you fit as well as bring pleasure to passengers of all ages: https://sytm.co.uk/join/volunteer.html.

And if you’d like to explore Sheffield’s industrial and working-class heritage while travelling in style on Sunday afternoon, April 19th 2020, please book here.

Places are limited so that everyone can have a top-deck seat, yet people with mobility and other impairments are very welcome to use the lower deck.

For information about some of the historic buildings that survive in Attercliffe – and some that don’t – please click here.