Monthly Archives: July 2023

Try-out for St Paul’s

St Stephen Walbrook Church, City of London

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a miraculous human being. 

If central London were obliterated by a sudden disaster nowadays, it’s unlikely that its restoration would be entrusted to a professor of astronomy, but after the Great Fire in 1666 it was the obvious solution.  At that time the best professionals to employ in construction were academics who understood the physics of making buildings stand up.

King Charles II had already consulted Wren, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, over several projects, including a much-needed restoration of the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral, when two-thirds of the City was burnt down in five days beginning in the early hours of September 2nd 1666.  Wren surveyed the wreckage, mapped out a comprehensive, radical plan to rebuild and laid it before the King on September 11th.  This adventurous scheme was scuppered because it necessitated wholesale revision of property boundaries.

Nevertheless, Wren – then in his mid-thirties – spent the rest of his long life embellishing London with replacements for the many destroyed parish churches and constructing his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral.

One of these parish churches is distinctive as what Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described as “a try-out for St Paul’s”.

The site of the medieval St Stephen’s Walbrook was hemmed in on three sides by other buildings and the street, which takes its name from the now-hidden river that runs south into the Thames.  On part of this footprint Wren laid out his biggest London parish church to a largely symmetrical plan and graced it with a top-lit dome.

Pevsner describes in intricate detail the tension Wren contrived between the visitor’s perception of a longitudinal rectangular interior and the overarching centrality of the dome and its supporting columns [Simon Bradley & Nikolaus Pevsner,The Buildings of England:  London 1:  The City of London (Yale University Press 2002), pp 260-261].

It’s a breathtaking space which, despite repeated restorations, retains the integrity of Wren’s intentions in all respects but one.

In 1987 the churchwarden, Peter Palumbo (b 1935), supervised a much-needed refurbishment and reordered the layout, reducing the linearity that Wren intended and emphasising the space beneath the dome.

Lord Palumbo (as he became in 1991) had commissioned the sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) to design a white polished stone altar that sits directly beneath the dome.  It gives priest and people the more direct intimacy that suits present-day worship, and contributes to the lively ministry of a London church, which has few if any resident parishioners, literally next door to the Mansion House.

I saw a well-attended weekday lunchtime Choral Eucharist sung by a youthful choir of organ scholars accompanied by the demure playing of a young lady organist.  The place clearly serves the needs of a community of city workers seeking a calming interlude in their working day.  I wish I could have caught the monthly Rush Hour Jazz.

There’s a lot going on at St Stephen Walbrook:  St Stephen Walbrook London – a place of celebration.  It’s the living testament of St Francis of Assisi:  “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words”.

Rylands Building

Rylands Building, Market Street, Manchester (2023)

John Rylands (1801-1888) was a Manchester textile manufacturer whose name lives on in the John Rylands Library, founded as a memorial by his widow Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908) and opened in 1900.

From 1822 his company, Rylands & Sons Ltd, occupied a site in the city’s High Street in what is now called the Northern Quarter, and replaced these premises with the Rylands Building (1929-32), a bulky modern textile warehouse on Market Street faced in Portland stone with distinctive corner turrets, in a sober version of Art Deco.

The architects were Harry Smith Fairhurst (1868-1945) and his son Philip Garland Fairhurst (1900-1987).  The elder Fairhurst had already built Lancaster House (1905-1910), India House (1906) and Bridgewater House (1912), all on Whitworth Street, and York House (1910-11, demolished 1974) on Major Street – all of them to the Manchester pattern of a packing house and wholesale showroom.

The Rylands Building is prominently visible at the corner of Piccadilly Gardens, an ornamental space opened up on the site of the demolished Manchester Royal Infirmary. 

In 1957 it was bought by the owners of Paulden’s department store after a fire destroyed their All Saints premises south of the city centre.  The splendid architectural treatment, inside and out, and the vast amount of floor space made the former warehouse an admirable retail store, which was rebranded by its ultimate owners, Debenhams, in 1973. 

The debacle that led to the complete closure of the Debenhams chain in 2021 meant that the Rylands Building suddenly became a huge void in the heart of Manchester’s retail quarter – half a million square feet of retail floor-space over ten floors encased in a magnificent and prominent building within sight of the city’s tourist hub, Piccadilly Gardens, and within reach of the nearby Northern Quarter.

The way forward is Rylands Manchester.  The developer AM Alpha gained permission for a scheme by Jeffrey Bell Architects adding four storeys on top of the present roof to compensate for carving an open atrium out of the centre to bring natural light within the building from the second to the seventh floor.

The project respects the appearance of the 1929 design while observing the Manchester Zero-Carbon Action Plan which aims to make Greater Manchester carbon-neutral by 2038 [Zero Carbon Manchester | Zero Carbon Manchester | Manchester City Council].  Insulation, glazing and energy provision will conform to expected future needs, and the respect for original architectural detail includes installing up-to-date Crittall Windows units corresponding with the appearance of the original fenestration.

The finished scheme will offer 70,000 square feet of retail space at ground level, 258,000 square feet of office space above and a winter garden on the sixth floor.  The atrium storeys each include open space, terraced to provide sight of the sky and sheltered by a glazed roof:

Work is expected to be completed by 2025, a tribute to Manchester’s efficacy in grabbing opportunities to improve the urban environment, as it did after the IRA bomb-attack in 1996.

An urban-explorer report uploaded in April 2023 reveals surviving architectural details in the less-frequented areas of the Rylands Building:  Exploring Manchester’s Abandoned Debenhams: Found 1930s Secrets – YouTube.

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

The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Manchester’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 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.

Manx railways in the 21st century

Isle of Man Railway between Port St Mary and Port Erin: locomotive 15 ‘Caledonia’

Wheels turn slowly in the Isle of Man.  That’s why one-third of its steam railway continues to operate after 130 years, and why you can still ride on the first two cars delivered to what became the Manx Electric Railway in 1893:  Senior movers | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Inevitably, there have been losses.  There was a cable tramway in Douglas until 1929, when it was scrapped – superannuated, unloved and unbelievably noisy.  The Isle of Man Railway lines to Peel and Ramsey were closed in 1968 and lifted. 

But each of the surviving nineteen-century transport systems – the steam railway (1874), the Douglas horse tramway (1876), the Manx Electric Railway (1893-99) and the Snaefell Mountain Railway (1895) – has more than enough rolling stock to sustain a vigorous present-day tourist trade.

There have been misfortunes:  the Manx Electric lost part of its fleet in a depot fire in 1930.  Two of the six Snaefell Mountain Railway cars have in recent years run away from the summit:  no 3 smashed to pieces, fortunately without injuries or fatalities, in 2016.  A second runaway, no 2, with crew and passengers on board, was brought to a safe halt the following year.  There was a yard sale of surplus horse trams in 2016, all of which went to good homes for sums between £1,000 and £2,800 each.

This tight little island, 32 miles long and 14 miles wide at most, is the home of a unique collection of nineteenth-century rail transport lines still in full working order.

Tynwald, the Manx government, is considering how to develop these assets in future.  The steam and electric railways are already tuned to the entertainment value of heritage transport, like their colleagues across in Blackpool, but the horse tramway has become bogged down in the vexed redevelopment of Douglas promenade.  There is an excellent transport museum at Jurby in the north of the island, but the vehicles have not yet provided a mobile tourist attraction to supplement heritage rail.

The practicality of supplementing modern street transport with heritage services is proven across the world, evident in the success of San Francisco’s cable-cars and streetcars, the Melbourne City Circle and Hong Kong’s double-deckers (which look traditional but despite their appearance are in fact modernised).

Heritage rail has the double advantage of attracting enthusiasts who appreciate its historic appeal at the same time as ordinary tourists enjoy an uncommon holiday experience.

Visitors to the Isle of Man, as well as Manx residents, are invited to give their views on how the heritage transport should develop, in a survey that closes on August 13th 2023:  Isle of Man Heritage Railways Independent Review and Economic Impact Assessment – Cabinet Office of the Isle of Man Government – Citizen Space.

This is an invitation to think imaginatively about how to make the island’s transport even more interesting and financially secure.

But bearing in mind the current lamentable state of the horse trams, it would be wise not to expect rapid change.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology 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.

A long way from home

Red Decker Tours, Hobart, Tasmania

Walking down the street in the centre of Hobart, Tasmania in 2017 I noticed a red double-deck tourist bus approaching and instantly recognised its destination display, ‘CITY/CIRCULAR’.

The typeface was unmistakably from my home city of Sheffield.

When I checked the vehicle’s history I found that it was indeed from Sheffield, dating from 1973, the year before Sheffield Transport Department merged into South Yorkshire Passenger Transport and the livery changed from the smart azure blue and cream to a more insipid coffee and cream. Its original identity was no: 299 in the Sheffield fleet, with the UK registration UWA 299L: 298. UWA 298L: Sheffield Transport | Sheffield Transport 298… | Flickr. This had been obscured by its Australian identity as part of Red Decker Tours Hobart Explorer fleet.

Red double-deckers are ubiquitous in locations that lend themselves to hop-on-hop-off city tours, whereas for ordinary services Australian bus operators have traditionally stuck to single-deck vehicles.

I’ve encountered British-style double-deck tourist buses as far away as Brisbane, Philadelphia, Sydney and Tokyo, but it’s never occurred to me to notice their provenance.

Some of these operations take pride in using genuine traditional London red buses, as in Niagara Falls and Christchurch, New Zealand.

Clearly, Red Decker Tours found it practical to import British buses to the Antipodes for the sake of the better view they offer visitors, though their website shop window shows that they now use purpose-built vehicles with panoramic windows as well as open top decks.

Destination art

Sheffield tram blind

I was born in working-class post-war Sheffield to parents who were determined that I would have the educational opportunities that had been denied them between the wars.

They started early, teaching me to read at every opportunity, which included reading the destinations – and the fleet numbers – of the trams that went back and forth along Attercliffe Common outside our house.

The typeface of the blinds that Sheffield Corporation used for both tram and bus destinations is Curwen Sans, developed by the typographer Harold Curwen (1885-1949), and dating from 1912. 

Harold Curwen was taught at the Central School of Arts & Crafts by Edward Johnston (1872-1944) and Eric Gill (1882-1940), respectively the designers of the London Transport Johnston font (1916) and Gill Sans (1928).

Curwen’s lettering is distinctive and I recognised it immediately when some years ago I spotted and afterwards bought a half-size canvas print of a Sheffield tram blind in an antique shop on the Abbeydale Road.

Like Johnston, the Curwen ‘O’ is a circle, as for practical purposes are the ‘C’, ‘G’ and ‘Q’.  The ‘W’ is in fact two overlapping ‘Vs’.  The bar, or middle stroke, of ‘E’ and ‘F’ protrudes, instead of being the same length as or less than those above and below.  Perhaps this is to improve the legibility of a white-on-black sign on the front of an approaching vehicle.

The individual destinations are meticulously composed.  Abbreviations – ‘ST.’ for ‘STREET’ and ‘RD.’ for ‘ROAD’ – are followed by dots.  ‘HILLSBORO’’ has an apostrophe but ‘HUNTERS BAR’ oddly doesn’t.  ‘WOODHOUSE ROAD’, which would only appear in the lower aperture below ‘INTAKE’ above it, has brackets.

Destinations too long to appear as a single line – ‘INTAKE/(ELM TREE)’, ‘CITY/(FITZALAN SQUARE)’ and ‘FOOTBALL/GROUND’ are displayed as two lines which are not of equal height.  The top line is bigger than the bottom, following the typographical convention that the upper half of a line of letters is more noticeable than the bottom.

Even the sequence of destinations is carefully thought out, with displays grouped geographically, clockwise from north to west, to save unnecessary winding of the fiddly handle that turned the blind rollers.

In two well-produced films of the final year of Sheffield trams, tram crews mention the tedium of changing four sets of indicators at each end of a journey:  Sheffield Tram 1960 – Meadowhead to Sheffield Lane Top – YouTube and Sheffield The Last Trams – YouTube.

Nowadays it’s all done by key-taps on a digital display.

Roller blinds are still manufactured, in plastic, primarily for owners of preserved heritage buses and trams:  (2) Replica Blinds by PWC | Facebook.

Complete original rolls change hands for three-figure sums, though cut-up sections framed can cost as little as £10.

Like railway memorabilia – station signs and loco name and number plates – visual mementos of latter-day street-transport have become iconic.