Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

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):

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 [,_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:

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 [], 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:

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 [], 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 []. 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.

Café for film-lovers

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Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield:  March 26th 2016

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: March 26th 2016

Photos:  Scott Hukins []

The latest improvement to the Abbeydale Picture House was revealed at the most recent film-revival night on Saturday March 26th.

The back of the stalls has been converted to a superb café-bar with a flat timber floor and dado panelling in keeping with the architecture, and painted in a relaxing cream and beige scheme which highlights the plasterwork and echoes the original 1920 decoration.

It’s an unobtrusive addition to the auditorium and a welcome asset to help the building once more earn its keep.

The film-night showed comedy programmes by two of the greatest figures in silent cinema, Buster Keaton in One Week (1920) and The Goat (1921) and the most famous of Harold Lloyd’s many films, Safety Last! (1923), with a live piano accompaniment by the immensely talented Darius Battiwalla [].

More power to the Abbeydale’s owner, Phil Robins, and the team that runs the film nights, Rob Hughes, Louise Snape and Ismar Badzic.  They’re bringing the Abbeydale back to life and filling it with an appreciative clientele that’s clearly growing by word of mouth.

And now you can wake up and smell the coffee at the Abbeydale, where the café is open on Fridays and Saturdays, 10.00am-5.00pm:

Bell-mouth spillway

Bell-mouth spillway, Ladybower Reservoir, Derbyshire

Bell-mouth spillway, Ladybower Reservoir, Derbyshire

One of the best free shows in the Peak District National Park, in rainy seasons, is the bell-mouth spillway beside the A6013 road that skirts Ladybower Reservoir, the biggest of the three Derbyshire Derwent valley reservoirs.

The original Derwent Valley water scheme of 1899 envisaged six reservoirs but only two of these, Derwent and Howden, were built.

The engineer, Edward Sandeman, pointed out that repositioning the Derwent Dam slightly further upstream would dispense with the need for the top dam, Ronksley. Geological problems in the tributary Ashop valley led to the abandonment of the other three dams, Hagglee, Ashopton and Bamford, which were superseded by a single huge reservoir, contained by a dam at the next available nick-point, Yorkshire Bridge.

This great dam, named Ladybower after a local farm, was begun in 1935.  It drowned two villages, Derwent and Ashopton, and was so badly needed that construction continued without interruption throughout the Second World War.

It was opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on September 25th 1945. Designed by G H Hill & Sons of Manchester, and constructed of earth around a clay core by Richard Baillie & Sons, East Lothian, the dam is 416 yards across.  Its trench and embankment required 100,000 tons of concrete, 1,000,000 tons of earth and 100,000 tons of puddled clay.

Unlike its predecessors at Derwent and Howden, which spill their excess water over the stone sill of the dam, at Ladybower the dam has a clay core and a grassed slope downstream.

The overflow water is directed into two bell-mouth spillways, which from above look for all the world like plugholes, but are actually shaped like ear-trumpets, 80 feet across at the rim, tapering to a 15-foot pipe that emerges at the foot of the embankment.

This footage brings the still picture to life:  In-depth explorations can be found at and

Ladybower Reservoir is a destination on the four-night tour, The Derbyshire Derwent Valley (June 6th-10th 2016) in which a lunch-stop at the Yorkshire Bridge Inn provides an opportunity to see one of the two bell-mouth spillways (though with no guarantee that the water will be flowing).  For further details, please click here.

End of the Highway – Key West

Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Key West, Florida

Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, Key West, Florida

Key West is beguiling.  It’s an island about four miles long and hardly a mile wide.  The southern tip is the Old Town, a gridiron of the most charming wood-framed clapboard houses with verandas, ornate woodwork they call gingerbread, and often a rooftop balcony belvedere they call a “widow’s walk”.

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum [], was the writer’s home from 1931 to 1939 where he wrote ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936) and To Have And Have Not (1937).  Built in 1851, the house became one of the first on the island with indoor plumbing supplied by rainwater, was certainly the first with an upstairs plumbed bathroom and in the 1930s had the only swimming pool within a hundred miles, a huge and impractical installation.  The place is still inhabited by descendants of the polydactyl cats which Ernest Hemingway kept.

Directly opposite the Hemingway home is the Key West Lighthouse [], completed in 1848 after its predecessor was destroyed by a hurricane, and heightened by twenty feet in 1894 because of encroaching buildings and trees.  It was decommissioned in 1969 and now serves as a museum and vantage point.

Also on Whitehead Street is the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens [], commemorating the 1832 visit of the famous ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).  The so-called Geiger Tree in the front garden features in the Birds of America image of the white-crowned pigeon.

Other historic sites in the Old Town include the former Old Post Office & Custom House (1891) [], which now houses the Key West Museum of Art & History, and the Richard Peacon House (c1885), an example of the distinctive American octagon house, a mid-nineteenth century device for increasing indoor floor-area in a narrow rectangular urban plot.

Within the naval base Fort Zachary Taylor (1845) is the historic Truman Annex or Winter White House [], built as officers’ quarters in 1890, where the post-war President Harry S Truman stayed on eleven separate visits for a total of 175 days during his presidency from 1945 to 1952.  He was the first president to take full advantage of modern communications to work remotely from Washington DC.

The Mel Fisher Museum [] on Greene Street illustrates aspects of Keys history which would be otherwise invisible.  Mel Fisher (1922-1998) was a diver and treasure hunter who, after years of persistence, located the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon that sank off the Florida coast in 1622.  Mel Fisher identified the site in July 1985 and recovered a breath-taking array of gold, silver and emeralds.

On Christmas Eve I watched the sunset from Mallory Square – contemplating the fact that my Sheffield friends would at the same moment be trudging between pubs in the cold and wet.

There’s a lot to be said for Christmas in a T-shirt.

Christmas in a T-shirt: the Florida Keys

Florida Oversea Railway:  Seven Mile Bridge

Florida Oversea Railway: Seven Mile Bridge

Florida Oversea Railway:  Seven Mile Bridge

Florida Oversea Railway: Seven Mile Bridge

It took me three attempts to spend Christmas in Florida.  The first time there were no flights and I ended up in Jordan.  The second time that Florida was full I stayed at home and bought myself a television.

Eventually, in 1999, I hired a car in Miami and drove down the Keys.  The name “Key” derives from the Spanish “cayo”, meaning “small island”.

The road-journey on US Highway 1 down the Florida Keys is unique.  In some places it’s a dreary highway bristling with motels, but for most of the time you drive between the sea and the mangrove swamps.

The highway is mostly built on the trackbed of the Florida Overseas Railroad, the inspiration of one man, Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913), one of the original partners, along with John D Rockefeller, in the great Standard Oil enterprise.

After Henry Flagler had taken his first wife to St Augustine, Florida, for her health in 1878 he pulled back from active involvement in the oil industry and started a second entrepreneurial career extending his Florida East Coast Railway southwards from St Augustine to develop what became Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

In the following years Henry Flagler took the decision to extend his Florida East Coast Railway 128 miles all the way across the archipelago south of Biscayne to Key West, then the largest town in Florida with a population of 20,000.

The string of islands that curves from south-west to west for over seventy miles presented huge engineering challenges.

The seaways between the islands were spanned mostly by closed-spandrel concrete viaducts like the 2.15-mile Long Key Viaduct which consists of 186 35-foot arches carrying the track 31 feet above the sea.

The longest of all these crossings was the Seven Mile Bridge, which curves across the small island of Pigeon Key and is in fact four successive viaducts.  The northern three sections, Knights Key, Pigeon Key and Moser Channel bridges, consist of steel spans laid directly on concrete piers;  the southernmost section, the Pacet Channel Viaduct, has 210 53-foot closed-spandrel concrete arches.  The total length including approaches was actually nearer to nine miles.

Trains crawled along the single track, completely unfenced, at a limited speed of 15mph, for fear of a derailment.

The rationale behind building this prodigious railway, which some at the time dubbed “Flagler’s Folly”, was that Key West was a major coaling station for ships sailing between the New York City and South America, and would be the first and last port in USA territory for ships traversing the Panama Canal, then under construction.  In fact, coaling declined in the twentieth century as vessels increased in range and changed to oil propulsion.

The railroad was literally blown away by a hurricane in 1935, but its spectacular viaducts survive:  the road now traverses modem concrete viaducts alongside, and the disused railway bridges serve as fishing platforms.

Cameron’s cars

Manx Electric Railway "Tunnel" car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

Manx Electric Railway “Tunnel” car 7 and Snaefell Mountain Railway 6 & 1

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Blackpool & Fleetwood 40

John Cameron was a Victorian engineer whose career deserves to be better known.

He began his career as a ganger on the Settle & Carlisle Railway in the early 1870s, and was a subcontractor for the Manx Northern Railway in 1878.  He stayed on to serve as secretary and manager of the Manx Northern from 1879, making it the cheapest operational railway in the British Isles, and he built the Foxdale Railway in 1886.

He was appointed consultant engineer for the Douglas-Laxey electric railway and the Snaefell Mountain Railway, but left the island before the electric railway extended from Laxey to Ramsey and was renamed the Manx Electric Railway.

In 1898 he became secretary and manager of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad.

Both the MER and the Tramroad were promoted by property speculators.  The Manx line started out as a pretext for property development north of Douglas, and became involved in a bubble of enterprise that spread to electricity supply, quarrying and hotels and burst spectacularly in 1900.

The sponsors of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, Benjamin Sykes and his business partner Thomas Lumb, between them owned or had significant control over virtually all the undeveloped land along the tramroad route.  They proceeded cautiously, and eventually sold their line to Blackpool Corporation in 1920.

For both these electric railways John Cameron provided very similar rolling stock, flat-fronted box-shaped single-deckers with corner entrances.  The Manx Electric Railway was laid to three-foot gauge track, but the Snaefell Mountain Railway, fitted with a central Fell rail to aid adhesion and braking, is 3ft 6in gauge.  The Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad, running along the spacious, gently graded Fylde coast, was built to standard 4ft 8½in gauge.  The obvious similarity of the rolling stock on the two lines is clearly Cameron’s signature.

All three lines remain in operation.  The Manx Electric Railway, though unobtrusively modernised for practical reasons, provides an authentic Victorian travel experience as it grinds its way over the cliffs between Douglas and Ramsey, powered predominantly by John Cameron’s fleet of “Tunnel” cars (1894) and “Winter Saloons” (1899).  (There is no satisfactory explanation of why the narrow “Tunnel” cars are so called.  There are no tunnels on the MER.)

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes visitors from the MER at Laxey to the top of the island’s highest mountain.

The Blackpool to Fleetwood tramway has been upgraded to modern light-rail standards, and is operated by uncompromisingly modern Bombardier Flexity 2 vehicles.   There remains one survivor of John Cameron’s fleet in Blackpool, no 40, built in 1914, now part of Blackpool’s heritage fleet.

By courtesy of YouTube, it’s possible to enjoy a cab-ride from Starr Gate to Fleetwood in six minutes:

The Isle of Man moves at a slower pace, and YouTube offers the real-time experience, complete with rain on the window-glass, of a back seat from Ramsey to Douglas in just over an hour:

(There was another railway engineer called John Cameron, who learned his trade in the south of England and became the locomotive superintendent of the Taff Vale Railway 1911-1922.  He died in 1938.)

Good spirits at the Abbeydale


Photos:  Scott Hukins []

I’ve never seen the point of dressing up for Halloween – just as I’ve never understood the point of punk, or tattoos.  If you’re beautiful, why make yourself look ugly?  And if you’re ugly, why make matters worse?

At the Abbeydale Picture House Halloween film night there were lots of people who had taken a great deal of trouble to make themselves look as if they’d just been dug up.

Even though I’ve never had a taste for horror films, Nosferatu (1922) came to life, so to speak, in the Abbeydale’s faded auditorium with the brilliant piano improvisations of Jonathan Best:

There is something magical about watching a silent movie in a packed silent-movie picture-house with a resonant piano that fills the acoustic.

Effects that would seem primitive through the prism of modern media, such as colour-tints for mood, work when seen as they were meant to be seen.

Though a modern audience inevitably reacts to Nosferatu with the irony born of two generations of horror movies, I found myself wondering just how frightening all this was in 1922.  Though it’s now PG-rated, it must have seemed pretty scary to the original audience.

For those of us who seek to bring Sheffield’s finest suburban cinema back to practical use there’s magic in seeing hundreds of people turn up for an exceptional cultural experience within its walls.

For me, there was extra magic on the way home when the taxi-driver, who came to Sheffield fifty years ago to work in the rolling mills, asked me where I’d been and reminisced about the cinemas he knew – including the Abbeydale – in the 1970s.

Sunday afternoon, he told me, was when the Asian community gathered at the Adelphi and the Pavilion to watch Bollywood.

And he’s glad to see such places survive and come back to life.

Cinema is magic – before, during and after the film.

For the next life-enhancing Abbeydale experience, watch this space: