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.

Old Town Hall at risk

Old Town Hall, Sheffield, interior (circa 2014)

Photo: Chard Remains

Sheffield’s Old Town Hall, on Waingate, has stood empty and unmaintained for over twenty years.  As far back as 2007 it figured on the Victorian Society’s annual list of endangered buildings, and it’s more recently been added to SAVE Britain’s Heritage Buildings at Risk register.

I wrote about it in 2011 and again in 2015, since when there has been little to report.  Successive urban-explorer reports have simply underlined the continuing decay:  https://www.proj3ctm4yh3m.com/urbex/2015/02/01/urbex-sheffield-crown-court-south-yorkshire-september-2014-revisit-4.   

Eventually, in August this year, a planning application was posted proposing a solution to the dilemma of what to do with this huge public building with its sensitive interiors.

The new owner, Mr Efekoro Omu, is already refurbishing the long-neglected Cannon public house on Castle Street.

Mr Omu’s company, Aestrom OTH, plans to clean and restore the exterior of the Old Town Hall, and intends to strip out much of the listed interior to provide twelve serviced apartments, twelve “pod” hotel rooms in the old cells and, on the basement and lower ground-floor levels, a “souk” – “a boutique marketplace of characterful commercial spaces” of 918 square metres (equal to 3½ tennis courts).

The Friends of the Old Town Hall, an energetic group of volunteers who have been monitoring the building since 2014, applaud the arrival of someone actually prepared to take on the building but are highly critical of the proposed alterations to the interior:  http://sheffieldoldtownhall.co.uk/our-response-to-the-planning-application.

Mr Omu’s scheme threatens to obliterate the three most impressive courtroom spaces and compromise the Waiting Hall area, making the interior as a whole unreadable as a former courthouse.

There’s no doubt that any historic building has to earn its own keep.  In this case, the current scheme prioritises commercial necessity above historic integrity.

Some parts the Old Town Hall complex, especially the 1955 extension, lend themselves to radical alteration because their historic value is inconsiderable.

The earlier interiors, dating back to the nineteenth century with some later alterations, need more tactful treatment.

Sheffield can boast of a number of practical, attractive, sensitive refurbished historic buildings within a couple of minutes’ walk of the Old Town Hall, such as the Old Post Office in Fitzalan Square and the former bank that is now the Curzon Cinema on George Street.

The Planning Committee of Sheffield City Council meets on November 19th to decide whether to approve this application concerning a major public building in an area of the city that’s subject to radical redevelopment.

Let’s hope that the Committee gives Mr Omu every encouragement to think again in more depth about how to revive the Old Town Hall, which deserves a better fate than to become a historic shell.

Morgan’s Library

Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

Concern over inequality and the power of huge corporations is nothing new.  At the end of the nineteenth century the richest 1% of the American population owned 51% of the nation’s wealth.

One of the most powerful of the “robber barons” (or “captains of industry”, depending on your viewpoint) was J Pierpont Morgan (1837-1914) who amassed great wealth by consolidating already large enterprises into conglomerates – General Electric, International Harvester and the United States Steel Corporation.

In the financial emergency now known as the Panic of 1907 the United States government had, for lack of a central bank, to rely on Morgan to pull together enough support from his fellow financiers to keep the economy afloat.

When he wasn’t making money, J P Morgan took to spending it on great art, amassing a spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, paintings and objets d’art which his son, J Pierpont Morgan Jnr (known as Jack, 1867-1943), endowed as a public institution.

Ever since my first visit to New York in 1981 I’ve been familiar with the Frick Collection, the Fifth Avenue villa that houses the treasures amassed by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), but I only recently found the Morgan collection thanks to a Time Out 101-things-to-do-in-New-York feature.

The Morgan Library & Museum occupies the site of J P Morgan’s small colony of brownstone houses off Madison Avenue in Manhattan.  He had bought a townhouse at 219 Madison Avenue at 36th Street as a family home in 1882, and commissioned from the architect Charles F McKim (1847-1909) a purpose-built library extension next door, completed in 1906.  (J P Morgan also bought, in 1903 and 1904 respectively, the two adjacent brownstones, one to demolish for a garden, the other as a residence for his son Jack.)

The 1906 library building is a Palladian design in Tennessee marble, linked to the 1928 annex which Jack Morgan built on the site of his father’s townhouse and to the surviving mid-nineteenth century brownstone by the Expansion of 2006 – three glass pavilions and an atrium by Renzo Piano, the architect of London’s Shard.

The core of the museum is the McKim building – three main rooms, one a triple-decker library, linked by a rotunda.  It was here that Pierpont Morgan corralled his banking colleagues in 1907, literally locking them in until they agreed on a rescue package to safeguard the financial system.

J P Morgan’s policy of acquiring great art with a significant story attached was continued after his death by his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), a light-skinned woman of colour who was enormously influential in the New York art world.

This is why the collection embraces illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and Near Eastern cylinder seals, alongside the drafts of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’.

Within a few paces I examined the manuscript of a symphony by the teenage Mozart corrected by his father, Dr Johnson’s handwriting, a first edition of Jane Austen’s Emma and a Gutenberg Bible.  Hard-headed business dealings paid for this fabulous treasure house of art and human talent, accessible to the public simply by walking in from the street.

Cinderella House

Grainsby Hall, Lincolnshire (1968)

A chance feature in Lincolnshire Life in 1968 led me on my Lincolnshire Road Car Company staff bus-pass to another remote country house not far from Cadeby Hall – the Italianate fantasy of Grainsby Hall, which clearly bemused Henry Thorold in his Lincolnshire Houses book and was dismissed by Pevsner as “crazy”.

I didn’t think the place at all crazy;  in fact, I rather liked it.

It was wilfully asymmetrical, with a tower over the entrance portico and lots of stark plate glass windows which, in 1968, were largely intact.

When I revisited by car a couple of years later, the windows – and, I think, the door – had gone and I was free to take pictures of the shattered and clearly dangerous interior, which included a grand octagonal drawing room and a massive galleried staircase hall.

This Italianate confectionery dated from 1860 and was built around an earlier, eighteenth-century house.

The Haigh family has owned the Grainsby estate since it came to William Haigh of Norland, Halifax, by marriage in 1827.  In the nineteenth century the family owned the Garden Street Mill in Halifax.

The Hall must have been a splendid place but it was occupied by the military during World War II and fell into disrepair.

For a time it was used as a grain store, until it became dangerous.

It quickly became beyond saving, even between the dates of my two visits, and it was duly demolished in February 1973.

The c1820 stable block remains and is listed Grade II.

Sleeping beauty house

Cadeby Hall, Lincolnshire (1982)

I recently read Henry Thorold’s Lincolnshire Houses (Michael Russell 1999), an extensive compendium of domestic buildings in a huge, empty, varied county, ranging from great palaces like Grimsthorpe and Harlaxton to tiny rectories and houses hidden in the Wolds, quite a few of which were built, bought or inherited by Henry Thorold’s relatives over the past four centuries.

It reminded me of when I first got to know Lincolnshire in the late 1960s, working on the buses in Skegness during university vacations, and travelling the county on a quarter-fare staff bus pass.

In those days there was, of course, no easy way to find information about historic buildings in the county, except the local library, the 1964 first edition Pevsner for Lincolnshire, and the periodical Lincolnshire Life.

A few brief paragraphs in Lincolnshire Life alerted me to Cadeby Hall, up in the Wolds near Ludborough, on the way to Grimsby.

Even the later 1979 Pevsner gives the place short shrift – “an early C18 stone front of seven bays and 2½ storeys…inside, a good staircase…at the time of writing derelict…”

The inimitable Henry Thorold calls it “the Sleeping Beauty house par excellence”.

When I first saw it in 1968 it was already derelict, with a ‘Danger Keep Out’ notice on the front door.  At the rear a service wing which I then thought to be Victorian but now know to have been eighteenth century had been demolished.  I didn’t attempt to enter.

The Hall is easily visible from a public footpath but it’s not a place you’d come across on your way anywhere.

I found it again driving round north Lincolnshire in 1982, by which time it had been tidied up and was apparently in use as a shooting lodge.

Now, by the magic of Google, I discover that it has been splendidly refurbished with, on the site of the demolished rear wing, a tactful, decorous neo-Georgian extension:  http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4163107.

I’ve no idea who lives there:  they’re lucky, and we’re lucky that they’ve saved a hidden gem.

Cadeby Hall is a private house.

Big fuss about a little thing

Jubiläumsbrunnen fountain, Wuppertal, Germany

In the German city of Wuppertal, birthplace of aspirin, the town hall, the splendid Rathaus, was opened in 1900 by Kaiser Wilhelm II on the same day as the celebrated Schwebebahn.

In front of it stands the jolly Jubiläumsbrunnen fountain, sculpted by the Düsseldorf sculptor Leo Müsch (1846-1911) to celebrate the silver jubilee of the Elberfelder Verschönerungsverein [the Elberfeld beautification club].

Müsch’s design, 11.5 metres high, carved in red sandstone, is a glorious riot of sea gods and monsters, tritons and mermaids, topped by the figure of Neptune.

Quite what this maritime composition has to do with a landlocked industrial valley in the heart of North Rhine-Westphalia escapes me.

According to the English translation of the Wikipedia article, the inauguration in 1901 caused a stir because “the figures were too much male distinctive”.   

The “form of the anatomically correctly modelled pubic region” caused great offence, and an unknown person or persons took a hammer and chisel to the sculpture.

The community was divided, and strong positions were taken.

The local writer Walter Bloem (1868-1951) wrote a four-act drama The Jubilee Fountain which provoked his pastor to ask him to leave the church.

The City Council eventually resolved to restore Neptune’s masculinity, after a vehement debate about acanthus leaves.

Nevertheless, as the English translation remarks, “the scars are still visible today”.

I didn’t notice anything outstanding when I photographed the fountain. 

When I looked closer at my photograph I recalled the lady who, when annoyed by a flasher in a Marks & Spencer elevator, remarked “Is that it, then?”

Mr Ashworth’s pet project

Rochdale Town Hall: corbel portrait of William Henry Crossland (1823-1909)
Rochdale Town Hall: corbel portrait of George Leach Ashworth (1823-1873)

When I planned my 2019 Manchester’s Heritage tour I knew I couldn’t include Manchester’s magnificent Town Hall because it’s closed for a five-year refurbishment.

However, there’s more to “Manchester” than Manchester, and a tram-ride away from St Peter’s Square terminates close to  Rochdale Town Hall, smaller, but hardly less magnificent than Manchester Town Hall, with a host of entertaining stories attached to it.

No sooner had the new borough of Rochdale elected its first Corporation in 1856 than a sub-committee began work to provide a suitable town hall.

The committee chairman, George Leach Ashworth (1823-1873), was originally unenthusiastic about the project.

When the Church Commissioners eventually agreed a price for land alongside the River Roch, Ashworth tried unsuccessfully to limit the budget to £15,000, on the grounds that it was “…only requisite that we should have a handsome frontage.”

An architectural competition, stipulating a budget limit of £20,000, was won by the Leeds architect William Henry Crossland (1823-1909), a pupil of the great Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott.

Despite the budget-limit, Crossland’s initial estimate of £26,510 was repeatedly augmented at the Corporation’s request.  The Great Hall was increased in area to 90ft × 56ft, and the 240ft tower was embellished with an octagonal lantern decorated with carved trumpeting angels and surmounted by a spire supporting a solid wood statue of St George and the Dragon by Earp of London.

Several ancient buildings were demolished and the River Roch culverted to provide the impressive seventy-foot-wide esplanade.

Crossland provided grand public rooms, the Mayor’s suite, administrative offices and, initially, the public library, and the west wing was given to the fire and police departments, together with a court room and ancillary cells and a residence for the Chief Constable.

The building is faced with millstone grit from Blackstone Edge, generously dignified by sculpture.  The fire department, for example, was identified with the phoenix, the salamander, the owl (symbolising watchfulness) and the dog (indicating alarm-raising).  For reasons that are unrecorded, a buttress on the porte-cochère is ornamented with a winged pig.

The interior was no less extravagant.  The entrance hall, designed as a wool-merchants’ exchange though never used as such, has a heraldic Minton tiled floor.  The windows of the vast staircase are filled with lancet windows showing the arms of the counties, towns and ports with which Rochdale traded, together with the technological marvels of the day – the steamship, the railway and the telegraph.

The Great Hall is lit by windows depicting every English monarch from William the Conqueror to William IV, together with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector;  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are portrayed in the rose windows at each end.  On the eastern wall is Henry Holiday’s fresco of the signing of Magna Carta, and the hammer beams support carved angels, from which originally hung chandeliers.

The magistrates’ retiring room has depictions of nine English figures associated with lawmaking and the English constitution.  The Mayor’s Parlour is decorated with the Garden of the Hesperides, the four seasons, the months of the year and a group of musicians.  The committee room frieze shows animals associated, in one way or another, with primitive clothing, and the walls of the arched council chamber are decorated with a ground of bursting cotton pods and teasels, and panels showing weaving, spinning, textile-printing, the plants used in textile manufacture and the inventions of Kay, Cartwright, Hargreaves and Crompton.

In No 3 Committee Room the corbels show the supporters of the Town Hall scheme, deftly described by Colin Cunningham, in Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1981):  “…the architect wearily toying with a pair of dividers and the mayor clutching his new town hall”.

By the time the Town Hall was completed in 1871, the final cost was £154,755 9s 11d, and the Mayor, G L Ashworth, remarked that “we cannot have beauty without paying for it.”

Dry rot in the spire was being treated when the tower burnt down in 1883.  One local legend declares that the fire was deliberately started by the workmen, who feared for their own safety as they took apart the rotten structure.  Another legend has it that the Rochdale fire brigade, which was stationed at the back of the building, was beaten to the blaze by the Oldham brigade.

The more modest but still impressive 191ft-high replacement was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of Manchester Town Hall, and completed in 1887.

The smartest Starbucks in Sheffield

Carbrook Hall, Sheffield: Oak Room fireplace overmantel

Every old building needs to earn its keep.

It’s pointless to argue for the retention of a historic building, listed or not, without the means to maintain it into the future.

Seventeenth-century Carbrook Hall, for many years a pub in the heart of Sheffield’s industrial east end, closed in 2017, yet another casualty of the inexorable decline of the British public house, and a year later suffered an arson attack that was fortunately arrested before the entire building went up in smoke.

Local historians and CAMRA members hoped it would reopen as licensed premises, but its new owner, the property developer Sean Fogg, applied lateral thinking and leased it to the coffee chain, Starbucks.

Mr Fogg spent £700,000, assisted by Starbucks’ contribution of £400,000, to restore the remaining stone wing of what was a much larger house, enhancing its surroundings, replacing a nondescript twentieth-century service block with a tactful 21st-century drive-in facility, and bringing the three exceptional historic interiors to a high state of preservation.

Walking into the building is a time-warp, because the coffee-shop counter, located where the pub bar used to be, is an up-to-the-minute skinny-latte-and-panini experience.

Turn left and enter the Oak Room, though, and despite the bright lighting and modern furniture, you’re surrounded by high-quality panelled walls and a crisp plaster ceiling that witnessed the discussions about besieging Sheffield Castle during the Civil War nearly four centuries ago.

This was the home of the Puritan Bright family, in those days lost in the spacious meadowlands of the Lower Don Valley. It’s possible that their interior decorators were the craftsmen who worked on the Little Keep at Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire.  It’s the oldest building in the valley and has seen no end of changes.

At the opposite end of the ground floor is an ancient kitchen with stone stoves and a bread oven.

A second panelled room upstairs is not yet completed, but will be dedicated to public use when fully restored.

The restoration is meticulous, though the conservationists were disturbed to find that the ancient oak had been peppered by stray darts around the site of the dart board: https://theworldnews.net/gb-news/historic-former-sheffield-pub-damaged-by-stray-darts.

The reopening of Carbrook Hall is a boost to public awareness of the area’s historic heritage.

I’m pleased that we can now end the heritage Bus Rides Round Attercliffe at the oldest building in the Lower Don Valley.

To find out about what’s happening at Carbrook Hall Starbucks, follow them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StarbucksCarbrookHallSheffield.

There’s still room on top for the Bus Ride Round Attercliffe on the morning of Sunday September 29th.  For details and to book, please click here.

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.