Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

Tokyo Skytree

Skytree Tower, Tokyo, Japan

Skytree Tower, Tokyo, Japan

The successor to the Tokyo Tower, transmitting digital broadcasting signals and other communications across the region, is the Tokyo Skytree, which, at 634 metres, is almost twice the size of its predecessor.  It claims to be the tallest tower in the world, and the second-tallest structure, after the 830-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Its design is both practical and elegant.  The footprint is an equilateral triangle, surrounding the central core, and the external lattice transitions gradually to a cylinder at around 350 metres.  There are two public observatories at 350 and 450 metres.

It was built 2008-2012 on the site of the Tobu Railway’s Narihirabashi Station, now renamed Tokyo Skytree Station, four miles north-east of Tokyo’s central station.  The railway company is a major investor in the tower and the commercial development around its base.

In a location prone to earthquakes the Skytree is seismic proofed, with a suite of devices including the same sort of tuned mass damper that stabilises the CityCorp Center in New York City.

Its colouring is carefully chosen:  it is painted a special blue-white, and is lit sky blue and purple on alternate nights.

The Tokyo Tower and the Toyko Skytree represent the best and most beautiful solutions to the same problem, a generation apart.

And now the city has two landmark high towers.

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower, Japan

Tokyo Tower, Japan

When Gustave Eiffel received criticism over the appearance of his 1889 tower in Paris, he simply replied that he’d done the maths and the shape required to withstand the physical forces bearing on the structure was also the best aesthetic solution to the design.

Indeed, the shape has proved impossible to improve.  The canny Lancashire proprietors of the half-size version in Blackpool built a three-storey entertainment complex around the legs, with a circus at its base.   Sir Edward Watkin, the British railway magnate, began an abortive giant version next to the Metropolitan Railway at Wembley, where the stadium was later built.

Over thirty replicas – some closer to the original than others – have been built:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eiffel_Tower_replicas_and_derivatives.

Of all these tributes to Eiffel’s design, there is no more sincere example of flattery than the Tokyo Tower, built in 1958, at a time of recovery from the devastation of war, to provide broadcasting transmitters for radio and television.

It stands on top of a hill in the Shiba-koen district, and has always been distinctively painted in white and international orange to satisfy the requirements of air safety.  In 1987 the original outline lighting was replaced by a more flexible floodlight system by Motoko Ishii, varying the customary colours, white in summer and orange the rest of the year,

At 333 metres, it was for long the tallest structure in Japan, and exceeds the height of the Paris tower by precisely thirteen metres.

At the base is a visitor-reception building, FootTown, which is not integrated into the structure as in Blackpool.  It’s possible to ascend to two observatories, at 150 and 250 metres respectively.  Indeed, those who wish can climb 660 steps to the first observatory by a staircase from the roof of FootTown.

The Tokyo Tower is not tall enough to provide full digital coverage across the region, but it will continue to carry FM transmitters and act as a limited digital back-up, and its status as a landmark and a tourist attraction seems secure.

La Tour Eiffel

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

The Eiffel Tower, like the London Eye, was intended to have a limited life.

The most memorable creation of the prolific engineer Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was devised as the centrepiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, marking the centenary of the start of the French Revolution.

Eiffel was not at first interested in the proposal of its initiators, his colleagues Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier.  He rose to the challenge because his experience of working with wrought iron in structural engineering made him the pre-eminent specialist in his field:  no contemporary could have accomplished so elegant a solution.

Eiffel had made his name as a bridge-builder – in particular for the magnificent Maria Pia Bridge (1876-7, 353 metres high) in Portugal, and the Garabit Viaduct, (1882-5, 565 metres high), in the French Massif Central.  Both are higher than the Eiffel Tower, which was ultimately 324 metres high, and both consist of an elegant arch which supports piers carrying the deck.

The Tower’s appearance challenged the traditionalists – Guy de Maupassant took to eating in its restaurant, declaring it was the only place in Paris where he couldn’t see it – but Eiffel insisted its daring design had its own aesthetic, “Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony?”.

More importantly, Eiffel intended it to be useful for scientific experiments, some of which he carried out from a private apartment at the top.   After the exhibition and his subsequent withdrawal from engineering work, he conducted experiments in aerodynamics, set up a meteorological station and encouraged its use as a communications tower.

When Eiffel’s licence to operate the tower ran out in 1909 the City of Paris intended to dismantle it, but its value as a mast in the early days of wireless telegraphy, later known as radio, along with its status as an emblem ensured its survival.

It proved almost immediately useful in the First World War to jam the radio signals of the German army advancing on France.

In the Second World War French partisans made sure it was practically useless to the Nazis by cutting the lift-cables.

It is still used as the primary transmitter of digital radio and TV in the Paris region, and is the most visited paid monument in the world.  More than 650 million visitors have taken the vertiginous ride to at least one of the three levels.

The London Eye

London Eye

London Eye

Whenever I pass the London Eye, the great Ferris Wheel on the South Bank, I marvel at its audacity and reflect that the original planning permission for its construction envisaged it would be dismantled in 2005.

It was designated the Millennium Wheel, and intended to mark the start of a new epoch.  Now it’s become an integral part of the 21st-century London skyline, even though it has been superseded as the tallest viewpoint by the Shard observation deck and is no longer the largest Ferris wheel in the world, an accolade successively claimed in Nanchang, Singapore and Las Vegas.

The concept and the construction process were daring.  The husband-and-wife team of Julia Barfield and David Marks enlisted a team of specialists to construct the components downstream and float them to the South Bank location for assembly.

Manufacture was, appropriately for the period, a European enterprise, involving contractors from the UK, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy.

Raising the wheel took two weekends.  During the intervening week it was held at a seemingly precarious angle of 65° over the river.

Its ceremonial opening by Tony Blair on New Year’s Eve 1999 was a deception:  technical problems delayed public access until the following March.

The Daily Telegraph’s architecture critic, Giles Worsley, complained in 2002 [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3574331/Pull-down-the-London-Eye.html] about plans to retain the Eye, as it had become known, and suggested moving it to Crystal Palace.

Lambeth Borough Council, however, was never likely to reject such a successful tourist magnet on its patch.

By 2015 it had had 60 million visitors, 5,000 of whom have proposed marriage during their half hour spin on the wheel.

It has repeatedly changed ownership since 2000, and has been rebranded at frequent intervals.

It has to make money, and it brings money to the South Bank.

It’s difficult to imagine London without it.

Exploring Tasmania – Lenna

Lenna, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Lenna, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

My excellent travel-agent Lisa Machin at Sheffield Travel Centre Ltd [http://www.sheffieldtravel.net] has a knack of finding comfortable hotels for me even in unlikely places, and sometimes she excels herself.

From the bottom of the hill the Lenna Hotel, Hobart [http://www.lenna.com.au] looks like a conventional block of modern hotel rooms built above a carpark.  It’s only when the taxi turns into the entrance that Lenna itself, a largely intact and well-restored Victorian villa, comes into view.  The rooms, therefore, are modern and fully up to specification;  the lobby, lounge and restaurant are splendidly Victorian.  I was very happy to spend my stay in Hobart there.

Lenna – the word apparently the Tasmanian indigenous word for ‘house’ or ‘hut’ – was built on what was then a bare hillside overlooking the harbour by a whaling captain and ship-owner, James Bayley (1823-1894), in the 1860s.

It was bought by Bayley’s brother-in-law, the ship-owner and merchant Alexander McGregor (1821-1896), whose brother John had built the Gothic Hillcrest next door.  James Bayley requested that the original hip-roofed house should not be destroyed, and so Alexander McGregor incorporated it into the taller Italianate structure that he built between 1874 and 1880.

Mr McGregor could observe maritime comings and goings in Hobart harbour from his lookout at the top of the house.  The current hotel-owners are rightly proud of this and make it accessible to guests.

In other parts of the world this feature is known as a “widow’s walk”, presumably because it allowed widows during heavy mourning to take exercise unobserved while etiquette prevented them appearing in public.

Eventually, in 1914, the house passed to Sir Alfred Ashbolt (1870-1930), a rich businessman described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as the “undisputed leader of the commercial community in southern Tasmania” in the final years of his life.

Lenna eventually became a hotel in 1973 and now belongs to Lloyd and Jan Clark, who treasure its original features.

Steaming to Dartmouth

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway:  British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

Kingswear Station, Dartmouth Steam Railway: British Railways locomotive 7827, Lydham Manor

The Dartmouth Steam Railway is part of an exceptional heritage-railway enterprise which operates as a full commercial operation, with a small amount of volunteer help at one of the five stations.

The original railway, the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway, opened between Paignton and Churston in 1861 and to Kingswear in 1864.  The Kingswear terminus connected by ferry with Dartmouth, where there remains a railway station that has never seen a train, like the former station at Hull (Corporation Pier).  An independent branch line three miles long, the Torbay & Brixham Railway, opened from Churston into Brixham in 1868.  The two railways were absorbed into the Great Western Railway in 1876 and 1883 respectively.

Both branches carried heavy passenger traffic until the 1960s, when the Brixham branch closed in 1963 and most through trains to Kingswear were cut back in 1966.

Complete closure was avoided when the Dart Valley Railway Co Ltd, which had been set up to run what is now the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Buckfastleigh, agreed to purchase the Paignton-Kingswear line directly from British Rail.  The last BR train ran on December 30th 1971 and the first service by the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway, as it was then called, began on January 1st 1972.

The £250,000 cost of the purchase was balanced by the sale of surplus land, including a hotel in Kingswear, and astute management has kept pace with demand from holidaymakers as well as rail enthusiasts ever since.

While the Dartmouth Steam Railway has developed as a commercial enterprise, the former Dart Valley Railway, now the South Devon Railway, has remained a volunteer operation, successful enough to purchase the freehold of its trackbed and premises from the Dartmouth Steam Railway PLC in 2010.

There’s more to the Paignton-Kingswear railway than trains.  As the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company it runs a fleet of river boats between Kingswear and Dartmouth, and between Dartmouth and Totnes, and its vintage bus service no 100 connects Totnes Quay with the rebuilt GWR-style railway station at Paignton (Queens Park) so that, tide permitting, it’s possible to make a full circuit within the day.

The railway also opened Greenway Halt in 2012, providing direct access to the Agatha Christie estate, Greenway, a National Trust property.

The combination of glorious seaside, heritage transport and the beauty of the River Dart and its estuary make the Kingswear peninsula a magnet for visitors.

All this is accessible by means of the Round Robin ticket [http://www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk/tours/round-robin], as well as a variety of other options to suit individual visitors’ inclinations.

The Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour includes a visit to the Dartmouth Steam Railway as part of a rail, bus and riverboat Round Robin tour of the Dart estuary.  For further details, please click here.

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.

Wallace Collection

Wallace Collection, London

Wallace Collection, London

My friend Eric and I, trapped by the rain in a Lebanese restaurant behind Selfridges, made a run for it to the Wallace Collection, which I’d never visited before.

This stunningly beautiful treasure house of art is the product of four generations, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marquesses of Hertford and the 5th Marquess’s illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace Bt (1818-1890), whose widow bequeathed it to the nation.

It’s located in Hertford House, Manchester Square, Sir Richard Wallace’s townhouse.  In the glazed-in courtyard there is a brasserie restaurant, the Café Bagatelle, named after Sir Richard’s French residence.

Like the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, the Wallace Collection is a static collection reflecting the taste of its period.  Nothing may be added or subtracted, and nothing from the Wallace Collection can leave the building, even on loan.

You could visit the Wallace Collection every day for a year and still find fresh treasures.

I had always regarded Franz Hals’ ‘Laughing Cavalier’ as somewhere between an icon and a cliché until I stood in front of the original and marvelled at the minute detail of the textiles, particularly the lace, and the realistic treatment of his beard and moustache.

The breadth of the collection and the sheer volume – twelve Reynolds, nineteen Canalettos, several hundred pieces of Sèvres porcelain, nearly two dozen pieces of Boule furntiure  – provides a plethora of enjoyment.

The Wallace Collection is open to all, free of charge, 362 days a year:  http://www.wallacecollection.org/visiting.

Trains to Looe

Liskeard railway station, Cornwall:  platform 3

Liskeard railway station, Cornwall: platform 3

The train-ride from Liskeard (rhymes with “hard” not “heard”) to Looe is one of the most bizarre as well as attractive journeys on the British rail system.

Trains to Looe start from a platform at right angles to the Cornish main line, and the train sets off northwards, which is disconcerting because Looe is due south.

In the course of two miles the route drops 205 feet by turning 180°, diving under the main line at the 150-foot Liskeard Viaduct, then turning another 180° to face north once more at Coombe Junction Halt, the second least-used station in Britain.  This spectacular loop has a maximum gradient of 1 in 40 and a minimum-radius curve of eight chains (160 metres).

At Coombe Junction the train reverses and trundles down the East Looe valley, a particularly picturesque route past remote little stations, Causeland, Sandplace and St Keyne Wishing Well Halt [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Keyne_Wishing_Well_Halt_railway_station], until the river opens out into a wide estuary that divides the towns of East and West Looe.

It’s an idyllic piece of railway with a complex history.

The Liskeard & Looe Canal was opened in 1827-8 to develop a traffic carry copper and tin ore down the valley, and lime and sea-sand for agriculture upstream, linking in 1844 end-on with the Liskeard & Caradon Railway, a mineral line serving the mines and granite quarries around Caradon Hill.

There was so much traffic that the canal was replaced in 1860 by the railway down the valley, which handled freight only and remained isolated from the Cornwall Railway main line above.

Passenger services began in 1879, running to the now-closed Moorswater station, a long walk and a stiff climb to the town of Liskeard.

The great loop up to Liskeard was installed in 1901, facilitating a boom in passenger traffic and enabling the development of Looe as a resort.

Somehow this eccentric train service has survived the decline in rail travel, probably because bus services to and from Looe are patchy and it’s not an easy place to reach by car:  http://www.looe.org/buses.html.

It’s a delightful part of the Cornish coast, though, and there’s a particular satisfaction in leaving a main-line express at Liskeard, hiking over to Platform 3 and riding down the valley to the sea.

A club as well

National Liberal Club, London

National Liberal Club, London

Thanks to a Victorian Society visit to the National Liberal Club [http://www.nlc.org.uk], entertainingly led by Ronald Porter who is a member of both Club and Society, I now more fully understand the context of one of my favourite anecdotes about F E Smith, latterly Lord Birkenhead (1872-1930).

The Club was founded in 1882 “to provide a central meeting-place for Metropolitan and provincial Liberals, where all the comforts of life should be attainable at what are called ‘popular prices’” and opened in 1887.

It was located away from London’s traditional clubland on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and the Thames Embankment.  Nowadays its terrace looks across to the London Eye.

Its architect was Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), the great proponent of terra-cotta and faience whose style was derisively termed “slaughterhouse Gothic” by his architect contemporaries.

The National Liberal Club is a huge place even after the bulk of the building, including five floors of bedrooms, was sold in 1985 to become the Royal Horseguards Hotel [http://www.guoman.com/en/hotels/united_kingdom/london/the_royal_horseguards/index.html]. It remains one of the largest private club-houses in the world.

It’s a palatial shrine to comfort, conviviality and the principles of Liberalism.  There are, predictably, more pictures and statues of Mr Gladstone than you can shake a stick at, and portraits of every Liberal worthy, not least the Derby artist Ernest Townsend’s 1915 portrait of Winston Churchill, which for a couple of decades was not displayed after the former Tory-turned-Liberal turned Tory again in 1924.

The building is also a shrine to the extravagant but relatively inexpensive decorative possibilities of glazed brick.  Like Waterhouse’s Victoria Building at what is now Liverpool University, the interiors are predominantly brown and beige, warm and comfortable, and particularly suitable for the then new electric light.

The Tory MP F E Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) used to drop in, while walking between his chambers at the Temple and the Houses of Parliament, to use the gentlemen’s lavatory.  He was eventually approached by the club porter and asked if he was a member, to which he famously replied, “Good God! You mean it’s a club as well?”

When you see the lobby of the National Liberal Club, that story suddenly makes more sense.