Monthly Archives: December 2015

Deep Bay Bridge

Florida Oversea Railway:  Bahia Honda Bridge

Florida Oversea Railway: Bahia Honda Bridge

The year I spent Christmas in Florida, it was the only state on the US weather map that wasn’t snow white.

I pottered about in shorts and a T-shirt in glorious sunshine, exploring the extraordinary archipelago and the highway, US1, that leads to the southernmost point of the United States, accompanied by what was then Conch FM, a wonderfully smooth jazz radio-station that, with a characteristically American sense of excess, produced thirty solid hours of Christmas jazz over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

US1 hops across the islands following the route of Henry Morrison Flagler’s Florida Overseas Railroad, which was closed down by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and afterwards converted into the Overseas Highway.

Most of Flagler’s poured-concrete closed-spandrel bridges were easily widened for two-lane motor traffic simply by building lateral cantilever extensions, but the Bahia Honda Bridge created extra difficulties.

Bahia Honda” means “deep bay”, and because of the depth of the channel, 24 feet at its deepest, the bridge, 5,055 feet – almost a mile – long, has steel trusses, through which trains ran on a single track.

There was no way of widening the trackbed for road vehicles to pass, and a mile-long bridge couldn’t possibly operate as a one-way system controlled by traffic lights.

The solution was to lay a roadbed on top of the truss with ramps at either end, providing a precipitous mile-long driving experience 65 feet above the sea.

The Bahia Honda Bridge remained part of the only way in and out of Key West until it was replaced by a concrete viaduct on a different alignment in 1972.

It remains, unmaintained and gradually deteriorating, a haunting reminder of a time when the only way to Key West was on a train, gingerly picking its way at a maximum speed of 15mph across the ocean.

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.

Entertaining Chesterfield: the Winding Wheel

Winding Wheel (former Picture House), Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Winding Wheel (former Picture House), Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Across the road from the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield Borough Council maintains another auditorium, the Winding Wheel, based on the former Picture House, to provide an even wider range of events – everything from classical music to beer festivals, Russell Watson to Ken Dodd – alongside the film and drama of the long-established civic theatre.

The Chesterfield Picture House, designed by the Sheffield architect Harold J Shepherd, opened on September 10th 1923. Its façade, which incorporates shops on each side of the entrance, is in the mock-Tudor style that the Borough Surveyor, Major Vincent Smith, encouraged in the town centre.

The auditorium is in a faintly grotesque Renaissance manner, with a rather more refined T-shaped restaurant looking out over the street. The foyer and the restaurant still retain elegant fireplaces, that must have provided a welcome as well as welcome heat in a town that gained its livelihood from coal.

There was originally an organ, for which Reginald Dixon, then in his late teens, was employed as deputy organist at £5 a week, a significant advance on his first £3-a-week engagement at the Stocksbridge Picture Palace north of his native Sheffield.

The Picture House did well enough for the owners to invite Harold Shepherd back in 1930 to build a ballroom on an adjacent plot, and in 1936 they sold out to Oscar Deutsch, who rebranded it as an Odeon the following year.

Films lasted until 1981, and a nightclub, Jingles, carried on in the ballroom and café areas until 1987 when the Borough Council bought it and converted it to a multipurpose entertainment venue.

In the cinema auditorium the renovations involved stripping out the stalls seating, installing a flat floor which hides the bottom part of the proscenium, and installing a flexible lighting and sound rig suspended from the barrel ceiling.

The Winding Wheel Exhibition, Entertainment and Conference Centre opened in 1987 and was listed Grade II in 2000. Its capacities are now 600 seated theatre-style in the stalls, with 300 in the fixed balcony seating, or 1,000 standing in the stalls area.

For a town with a population of around 90,000, Chesterfield is fortunate in the quality of its auditoria and the range of entertainment that the Winding Wheel and the Pomegranate Theatre between them provide.

What’s on at the Winding Wheel is online at

Entertaining Chesterfield: the Pomegranate Theatre

Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

The Borough of Chesterfield has a proud record of supporting civic theatre.

The Stephenson Memorial Hall, an adult-education institute with a large meeting hall, was built in 1879 to commemorate the railway engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848) who spent the last years of his life in the town and is buried there.

Chesterfield Corporation bought the hall in 1889 and subsequently enlarged it to create a theatre stage and proscenium, but it was leased to a cinema company until 1946.

When the lease expired the borough council established a civic repertory theatre company, which opened in February 1949 with a production of Philip King’s See How They Run (1945).

Weekly repertory theatre, in which a cast on contract rehearse next week’s play in the daytimes while performing each evening and some matinées, became fortnightly in 1965, and continued until as late as March 1981.  The final show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat broke the house record, playing for three weeks at 98% capacity.

This hard-working little theatre, serving a local population of around 90,000, claimed illustrious alumni.  Nigel Davenport and David McCallum were in the cast of Hobson’s Choice, the 200th production (1954), and Diana Rigg made her stage debut while assistant stage manager in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1958).

The council set up a new production company, Chesterfield Theatre Ltd, which operated the theatre as a touring house from February 1982, and adopted the name Pomegranate Theatre in June of that year.  The pomegranate tree “leaved and eradicated proper flowered and fructed Or” appears on the ancient seal of the borough and in the modern borough coat of arms.

The Pomegranate is an intimate, welcoming venue with a rich diet of drama, music, film and other events. It is supported by the Chesterfield Theatre Friends, a group which promotes events, raises funds and looks after the theatre’s archive:

There is also a separate Pomegranate Theatre Friends Membership Scheme [ which offers discounts, advance booking opportunities and free parking to regular patrons.

The thing is done but nobody did it

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey sits oddly in its low lying setting, chosen by Augustinian monks when they built their priory c1131.  (Like Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Calke was never an abbey until long after it became a rich man’s house.)

The present house was built in 1701-4 by Sir John Harpur, the fourth baronet, whose father had had the great fortune to inherit the estates of his great-grandfather’s various descendants, and the misfortune to die when his son was little more than a year old.

No known architect has been identified for Sir John’s externally impressive but internally inconvenient house.  His neighbour Elizabeth Coke remarked of some misdeed that “like Caulk House, the thing is done but nobody did it”.

Sir Henry Harpur, the eccentric seventh baronet, married a lady’s maid and became so reclusive that he was known as the “isolated baronet”, yet changed his name to Harpur Crewe in the vain hope of reviving a long dormant Crewe barony.

His son, Sir John Harpur Crewe, 9th baronet, was – according to his epitaph – “averse to a public life and spent the greater part of his days at Calke among his own people…”

His son, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, 10th and last baronet, was descended from the isolated baronet through both his parents, and in him the trait towards reclusiveness became extreme.

From inheriting the estate at the age of forty in 1886 until his death in 1924 his only major contribution to local life was to take his turn as High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1900.

Like the burrowing Duke of Portland he had more time for his tenants and workers than for his peers, and communicated with his children by letter:  eventually he turned his only unmarried daughter out of the house for smoking.

No motor-car passed the gates of Calke Park in his lifetime, and though he repeatedly sacked servants for keeping fires too hot for his collection of stuffed wildlife they were easily re-engaged because he did not know one from the other.

At his death the property passed to his sister, Mrs Hilda Mosley, and from her to her nephew, Charles Jenney, another shy bachelor who changed his name to Harpur Crewe in 1961.

He left his younger brother Henry (who also changed his name to Harpur Crewe) with a tax burden of £8,000,000 when he inherited in 1981.

Henry Harpur Crewe’s determination to save Calke as a unique historic site attracted the support of the National Trust, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Historic Buildings Council and SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, promised £4,500,000 towards endowing the house and park in his 1984 Budget Speech to keep the place intact.

The house was substantially as it had been left in 1924;  Sir Vauncey had done little but add cases of stuffed animals since his father died in 1886.

Here was the accumulated bric-a-brac of generations of country-house inhabitants and their servants, yet little of significant artistic value except for the most astonishing survival of all, the State Bed, still in its original packing because no suitable family room had height enough for it.

Many thousands of items had to be catalogued, photographed and removed for safe-keeping while the structural restoration of the building was carried out.  Alongside heavy engineering to stabilise the building, enormous care was taken to retain the largely undisturbed patina of the nineteenth century.

In the Drawing Room the chairs had been covered for almost their entire lives, so their textiles were revealed in superb condition, but the curtains, continually exposed to daylight, simply disintegrated and had to be woven anew to the original pattern.  The original linen-backed wallpaper, dating from around 1855, had to be stripped and then put back on the wall.

When the little pot pug dog with the broken foreleg was returned to his place in the entrance hall, the matchbox that had been found propping him up went back into place also.

Calke is a memorable place to visit [], now restored in “as found” condition like the much smaller Mr Straw’s House in Worksop.

Terracotta city: Moseley Road Library & Baths, Balsall Heath

Moseley Road Library & Baths, Balsall Heath, Birmingham

Moseley Road Library & Baths, Balsall Heath, Birmingham

The magnificent brick and terracotta public buildings of central Birmingham stand as a proud symbol of the city’s civilised provision for all its citizens at the end of the nineteenth century

The promise of baths and a library was part of the agreement by which Balsall Heath, formerly part of Warwickshire, was brought within the city of Birmingham.

The Moseley Road Library with its clock tower was designed by Jethro Anstice Cossins & Barry Peacock, with an elaborate terracotta municipal coat of arms by Benjamin Creswick, and opened in 1895.  This is the same team who had built the Bloomsbury Library, Nechells in 1892.

The baths by William Hale & Son opened in October 1907.  The facilities included a galleried first-class and second-class swimming bath (both for men only), first- and second-class private baths for men and women, a small laundry, a clubroom and the public library.

In recent years problems with the building and with budgetary cutbacks have repeatedly threatened the complex since its Grade II listing was upgraded to II* in 2004.

It is one of only three Grade II* listed swimming baths in the country.  Its irreplaceable features include the only remaining complete set of forty-six pre-war slipper baths in Great Britain, still with the original oak ticket office and attendants’ kiosks largely intact, the money-taker’s flat, a vast cold-water tank and, in the first-floor laundry, what may be the only surviving steam-heated drying racks in a British swimming baths:

The photographer Mike Jones’ images of the baths are at

Update:  At last, it seems the future of the baths has turned a corner:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.