Monthly Archives: May 2014

Cruising the Mekong River

Mekong River, Vietnam

Mekong River, Vietnam

The second great surface-travel experience of the Great Rail Journeys’ ‘Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong Delta’ [] is the day-long speedboat-ride up the Mekong River to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

We spent the whole of Sunday sailing up the Mekong River from a place I’d never heard of, Cần Thơ, on a speedboat, a relaxing and revealing experience because the Mekong, with its various tributaries and distributaries, is a working river.

Its vessels range from tiny craft to huge coasters, carrying sand, rice and bricks to the coast, and there are ro-ro ferries of various sizes plying crossings at intervals.   The distributary from which we started was as wide as the Mersey at Liverpool;  upstream we joined a channel that was nearer to the width of the Humber at Grimsby.

There was a particularly impressive stretch of river lined with brick kilns, pouring out black smoke, a reminder that the smokestack industries that Britain eliminated after the Second World War remain in the Far East.

Before leaving Vietnam the crew topped up the tanks with fuel, while members of our group tried to work out what two young boys were doing in the water.  It appeared they were washing a dead pig.

The Vietnamese formalities were negligible:  our passports were processed by the boat crew, and all we had to do was get off the boat, sit around for five minutes and get back on again.  There was no attempt to match the passports to the people whatsoever.

In between the two border posts the crew lowered the Vietnamese flag at the bow and raised the Cambodian one, which seemed a polite gesture at least.

At the Cambodian border post a short distance upriver there was the full performance of queuing at a window, and much stamping and scribbling by a heavily uniformed officer, while the lady from the boat stapled slips into passport pages.  The process was lubricated by another member of the boat crew silently and dutifully delivering a couple of cases of Tiger Beer behind the counter.

The Cambodian stretch of the river contrasts starkly with downstream.  Suddenly the industry, the river-traffic and the populace vanished, and for well over an hour we travelled past fields with very few signs of activity and none of prosperity.

It’s clear that this place is decades behind its neighbour.  When you read up the history the reasons are obvious:  this is a nation with a tragic past of urban depopulation, genocide, famine.  No Cambodian family is untouched by this late-1970s trauma, yet apparently more than half its young population have no direct memory of it.

There are oddities about being in Cambodia.

A member of our group darkly remarked that the BBC News feed was running nine minutes late.


Reunification Express

Vietnamese State Railways, Hanoi Station:  Reunification Express

Vietnamese State Railways, Hanoi Station: Reunification Express

One of the highlights – and for me the raison d’être – of Great Rail Journeys’ ‘Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong Delta’ holiday [] was the opportunity to travel the whole way from Hanoi to Saigon by rail.

Vietnam’s North-South Railway, built by the French colonial government between 1899 and 1936, was heavily bombed by the Americans.  It triumphantly reopened as the Reunification Express in 1976.

In Great Rail Journeys’ itinerary this journey starts with a so-called “soft sleeper” from Hanoi to the royal capital of Hue, and thanks to this operator’s standards of customer care I had a four-berth compartment entirely to myself and a comprehensive collection of food and drink supplies to last till morning.

The most spectacular part of the North-South Railway is the stretch south of Huế, where the line hugs the coast as it climbs through the Hai Van Pass in a series of sharp curves, viaducts and tunnels:

Visitors knock the Vietnamese State Railways but from my observation they’re efficiently run.

It’s hardly surprising that a thousand-mile route that takes thirty-odd hours to traverse will experience delays:  one of our trains reached us an hour late and arrived at its destination almost on time;  presumably there’s slack in the timetable to compensate for eventualities.  Some speed restrictions are as low as 5kph, where eighty-year-old infrastructure that took a severe hammering through a series of wars is being brought up to modern standards.

At any rate, the crews always turned up, we were never decanted on to a replacement bus service and there were no leaves on the line.

Caudwell’s Mill

Caudwell's Mill, Rowsley, Derbyshire

Caudwell’s Mill, Rowsley, Derbyshire

One of the most attractive Derbyshire places to visit for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea is Caudwell’s Mill at Rowsley, a few minutes’ drive from Chatsworth or Haddon Hall:

The mill itself was built to produce flour and animal feed by John Caudwell in 1874, and he and his son Edward modernised it by replacing the original millstones with roller mills to make finer, purer flour for baking, and installing water turbines to power them.  The last phase of this installation, by the manufacturer Amme, Giesecke & Konegen, was in progress in August 1914:  the German labourers were promptly sent home but the engineers, having finished their work, were apparently interned in the Isle of Man until 1919.  Edward Caudwell eventually settled the bill in 1924.

Caudwell’s ran as a going concern until 1977, by which time it was recognised as an intact, complete example of a distinct phase in the development of modern milling technology.

It was listed Grade II* and taken over by a trust with support from the landowner, the Duke of Rutland’s Haddon Estate, the local planning authority, the Peak Park Planning Board, and a small army of local people, industrial archaeologists and millers with financial assistance from, among others, the Architectural Heritage Fund, the Carnegie (UK) Trust, the Countryside Commission, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Science Museum.

The mill itself is open to the public, a fascinating warren of band-driven machines, hoists and Archimedean screws.  One of the turbines generates the electricity for the site.  The mill shop sells flour, oats and yeast – everything you need for quality home baking.  In the surrounding yard are craft-shops, a blacksmith, an upholsterer, a glass-maker and a jewellery maker:  artisans | Caudwell’s Mill at Rowsley (  

The café is vegetarian and provides the sort of cream cakes that look as if they’d qualify as five-a-day:  hlaf cafe | Caudwell’s Mill at Rowsley (

All this lies beside the waters of the River Wye, in one of the most beautiful of Derbyshire valleys.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

More ghosts than guests

Savernake Forest Hotel, Wiltshire

Savernake Forest Hotel, Wiltshire

Adjacent to the site of the Savernake Low Level Station in Wiltshire stands the Forest Hotel, built by the 2nd Marquess of Ailesbury c1864 soon after the opening of the Berks & Hants railway.  Its commercial purpose is not entirely clear:  on the night of the 1881 census it had one guest.  The 4th Marquess, on his rare visits to his Savernake property, preferred to stay at the hotel rather than open up Tottenham House.

For a period from the 1890s to around 1920 the hotelier also ran the refreshment room at the adjacent station.  From sometime before 1895 the hotel was owned by Richard Henry Bain, who reputedly bought it unseen in a conversation on a railway station:  he ran it for 45 years, until the Second World War, and died in 1946 at the age of 91;  his daughter, Mrs Lott, took it over and kept it for a further 23 years.   The hotel survived the demise of the railway station and closed in 1999:  it was subsequently converted to private residences.

A lively essay by Colin Younger gives more detail of the eccentricities of the landlords of this remote hostelry, and suggests that some of the guests may have proved difficult to get rid of:

The former Savernake Forest Hotel is now in private residential use.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Joined up railways

Site of Savernake High Level Station, Midland & South Western Junction Railway, Wiltshire

Site of Savernake High Level Station, Midland & South Western Junction Railway, Wiltshire

Where the Kennet & Avon Canal enters the practically unnecessary Bruce Tunnel the towpath becomes a footpath through a tiny settlement called, Savernake after the surrounding forest.

This unlikely place used to have two railway stations, High Level and Low Level, because of the absurdities of Victorian competition.

Savernake Low Level Station, opened in 1862, was a simple junction that connected the Great Western Railway’s Berks & Hants line with the nearby town of Marlborough, where the terminus station was called, perversely, High Level.

The other railway that served this isolated spot was the Midland & South Western Junction Railway which ran a tortuous route between Cheltenham Spa and Southampton.  A small section of this line is preserved as the Swindon & Cricklade Railway, just outside Swindon.

Built piecemeal, the M&SWJR initially opened in 1881 from Swindon to Marlborough only, linking into the GWR’s Marlborough branch and the Berks & Hants line at a rental of £1,000 per annum.

Eventually, the last piece of the jigsaw that was the M&SWJR was a nominally independent line, the Marlborough & Grafton Railway, opened in 1898, which provided an independent link from Marlborough Low Level Station to Savernake, where the station was called High Level, and joining end-on to the existing M&SWJR line at Grafton.

From early in 1892 the insolvent M&SWJR was managed by Sam Fay, who retrieved it from the receivers while on secondment from the L&SWR.  He became L&SWR line superintendent in 1899 before moving on to national fame as General Manager of the Great Central Railway in 1902

In the early years, milk was the main freight commodity at most M&SWJR stations;  other distinctive traffics were pigeons and racehorses.

At the 1922 amalgamation of railway companies, both these lines became part of the Great Western Railway which continued to operate them side by side until 1933.

In that year the GWR closed its branch and station to passengers, though retaining the track for freight, and concentrated passenger service at Marlborough Low Level.  Curiously, the two tracks were then worked as parallel single lines – the former up (towards Swindon) line as a branch between Savernake and Marlborough, the former down (towards Grafton) as a bidirectional through route.

Despite extremely heavy military traffic during the Second World War, traffic drained away in the post-war period.  British Railways continued to operate the Marlborough branch service after a landslip in 1958 by diverting trains back on to the former GWR alignment into Savernake Low Level Station, until the entire M&SWJR closed to traffic on September 10th 1961.

Half a century after the branch trains stopped running to Marlborough there is very little evidence of the two branch lines, except by viewing satellite images.  The two Marlborough station sites have been redeveloped and the M&SWJR tunnel has been filled in.

At Savernake, main-line trains still speed along the Berks & Hants line on their way between Reading and Taunton, but the site of Savernake Low Level Station has been obliterated.  The main building at Savernake High Level Station and the adjacent signal box still stand, converted to a private residence.

With heavy irony, what might have been the stationmaster’s house at Savernake Low Level is now called Beeching Villa.

All the railway sites at Savernake are on private land but are visible from the road.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

By the tide of Humber

Humber Bridge, viewed from Hessle, East Yorkshire

Humber Bridge, viewed from Hessle, East Yorkshire

There’s no such place as Humberside.  The name was a confection arising out of the 1974 reorganisation of local government.  The non-metropolitan county disappeared in a further reorganisation in 1996, though the name remains in use by the police and fire-and-rescue authorities, a BBC radio station and an airport in North Lincolnshire.

If Humberside had any reality, its expression would be the beautiful suspension bridge that connects East Yorkshire with North Lincolnshire between Hessle and Barton-on-Humber.

The Humber Bridge [] is the epitome of elegant engineering, designed by Freeman, Fox & Partners with R E Slater as architectural adviser.  Its design is based on the first Severn Bridge (Freeman, Fox & Partners, 1966) – itself a revolutionary advance on its predecessors, such as the Forth Road Bridge of 1964.

Long awaited, it was authorised in 1959 by an Act of Parliament that established a Humber Bridge Board with the power to build it but no power to raise finance.  Even after Harold Wilson notoriously pressured his transport minister, Barbara Castle, to give a go-ahead to influence the Hull North by-election in 1966, construction work only began in 1972, and the bridge opened to traffic in 1980.

Until then, road journeys between Grimsby and Cleethorpes and the city of Hull required a hundred-mile detour via Goole or crossing on the New Holland ferry.

The main span is 1,410 metres, and the total length is 2,220 metres.  The towers, reaching 160 metres above high water, are both vertical but not parallel to each other:  they splay outwards because of the curvature of the earth so that their tops are 36mm (1.4 inches) further apart than the bases.  They also bend inwards in storm conditions, so that in an 80mph wind the deck can move more than three metres at the centre of the main span.

The Humber Bridge was, until 1998, the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was superseded by the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan (1,991 metres, 6,532 feet).  In 2014 it remains the seventh longest in the world and the longest in Britain.

Later proposals to incorporate it into the route of an East Coast Motorway, effectively an extension of the M11, appear to date from a conference called by the then Humberside County Council in July 1988:

The Humber Bridge has never come anywhere near to repaying its costs, so it remains a toll crossing.  You can walk across for free, and there are concessions for disabled drivers.

Motorcyclists were subject to tolls, which provoked a particularly entertaining protest in 2004 when they turned up in force, each carefully removing helmet and gloves before offering high-denomination notes to the toll-keepers.  The motorcycle toll was removed, in line with the Dartford and Severn crossings, in 2012.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 ‘Humber Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Ellys Manor House

Ellys Manor House, Great Ponton, Lincolnshire

Ellys Manor House, Great Ponton, Lincolnshire

Until a few years ago, most people would have walked or driven straight past Ellys Manor House without giving it more than a second glance. It’s a simple, beautiful vernacular house, distinguished by its crow-stepped gables, in the village of Great Ponton, off the A1 in Lincolnshire.

The crow-stepped gables are, in fact, the giveaway – indicating Dutch influence and high status in a building that dates from around 1520, though there is an older core within.

It was probably built by Anthony Ellys who, like his father, was a merchant of the Calais Staple, and was sufficiently prosperous to rebuild the tower of the adjacent parish church of the Holy Cross which bears his arms.

The manor house was altered – possibly reduced in size – in the seventeenth century,  again altered and extended c1826.

By the early twentieth century it had become two cottages, which were reunited in 1921 by the architect Wilfrid Bond and purchased by the Church Commissioners two years later for a rectory in place of what is now called Great Ponton House, built in 1826.

Small areas of the wall paintings in the east room were discovered in the 1930s, recorded by Dr E Clive Rouse, who returned after the full extent of the paintings had become apparent in 1957, and again in 1961 and 1971.

These paintings proved to be of incalculable importance, “the most complete, extensive and important domestic decoration of [its] date in the country”, described by Pevsner as “a rare English interpretation of French verdure tapestries”, consisting of stylised foliage, flowers, fruit and leaves.  There are groups of trees, their trunks coloured in balancing schemes, within what appears to be an architectural setting of columns, a frieze and some kind of base painted and lined to resemble wood, brick or masonry.  The frieze is decorated with elaborate scrolls, which may have once carried texts.  There are numerous animals – a peacock, deer, and a lion.

They have been gently and sensitively conserved, first by the 1930s rector and latterly by the current owners, Mr & Mrs Clive Taylor, who first opened the house to the public in 2008.

Ellys Manor House is open from Easter until 31st October daily except Tuesdays from 10am to 5pm. Last admission to the house is at 4.30pm:

As the manor house is a private home, it may on occasions have to close without prior notice due to other commitments.  To avoid disappointment, please telephone first.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.