Monthly Archives: September 2023

Rats desert a burning signal box

Diesel multiple unit approaching Caernarvon railway station from Menai Bridge (1963)

I came across a colour slide that I took as a teenager on holiday with my dad of a diesel multiple unit approaching Caernarfon (then spelled ‘Caernarvon’ by the railway authorities) in the summer of 1963.  DMUs were still a novelty in those days.

We didn’t travel there by rail:  my dad was by then the proud owner of a Morris Minor convertible which he called Gladys.

In the 1980s I walked down the trackbed through the cutting that led from the site of Caernarfon station beneath the town centre and into a short tunnel leading to the Slate Quay.

Later still, when the tunnel became an underpass, I drove my car through it.

Remembering this prompted me to look up Caernarfon railway station on the compendious Subterranea Britannica website:  Disused Stations: Caernarvon Station (

There I found an entertaining anecdote about Caernarvon No 1 signal box which controlled movements east of the station towards Menai Bridge.

Apparently, this box had for decades proved difficult to man because crews were intimidated by a colony of rats who liked to dine on the grease that lubricated the machinery beneath the floor.

The rats didn’t seem to mind the humans at all, but the railwaymen tired of hordes of rodents climbing all over the place.

When services south of Caernarfon ceased in 1964 the station became a terminus.  The track layout and signalling was altered and the No 1 signal box was closed and its mechanism dismantled.

There followed an unrepeatable public entertainment.

The wooden structure was soaked in paraffin and surrounded by dogs.  When the building was set on fire, hundreds of rats raced for safety and the dogs captured only a few.

The survivors spread across town and were for some time an inconvenience.

Nowadays, it seems, rats are no more a problem in Caernarfon than anywhere else:  Are you never more than 6ft away from a rat? – BBC News.

It’s once more possible to catch a train from Caernarfon, southwards over the 2ft-gauge Welsh Highland Railway, opened in 1997:  Home Page – Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways (

Zion Graveyard 4

Zion Congregational Church and Sabbath School, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1978)

When I went looking for the site of the Zion Congregational Church in 2017 while reconnoitring my Heritage Open Days Walk Round Attercliffe, all that could be seen through the boundary fence was a twelve-foot-high jungle.

Coincidentally, that was the summer when the group that maintains the undenominational Upper Wincobank Chapel came looking for the burial place of the Chapel’s founder, Mary Ann Rawson (1801-1887). 

It took a great deal of work to locate her family tomb, and the group resolved to form the Friends of Zion Graveyard, which quickly purchased and restored the site and made it accessible.

I don’t do gardening, so instead I’ve brought visitors to the Graveyard through my Walks Round Attercliffe and Bus Rides Round Attercliffe and busied myself researching the history of the buildings and the generations of worshippers dating back to the end of the eighteenth century.

During the lockdown period the Friends produced a series of interpretation boards – to which I contributed – to fix to the boundaries of the Graveyard.

These make a significant difference to visitors’ understanding, particularly because the images show how much the surroundings have changed since the 1970s:  two of the congregation’s three buildings have been destroyed, along with all of the surrounding housing.

Visitors to the Zion Graveyard can now take away the information and the pictures in a guide-book, The Story of Zion Graveyard Attercliffe:

Soane’s country house restored

Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, London: Upper Drawing Room

Just as Sir John Soane’s Moggerhanger Park has been restored after twentieth-century alterations, so his own country seat, Pitzhanger Manor, has been returned to a state that its architect and first occupant would recognise.

By 1800 Soane had established his career:  he was appointed architect and surveyor to the Bank of England in 1788 and clerk of works for St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster in 1791, and purchased and rebuilt the town house at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields that now forms part of the Sir John Soane Museum in 1792.

Though Lincoln’s Inn Fields was ideal for conducting his busy architectural practice he sought a convenient country retreat where he could entertain clients as well as friends.  He purchased a house called Payton Place, which he renamed Pitzhanger Manor, in Ealing on the London-to-Oxford turnpike that provided easy access to and from the capital.

The village of Ealing was becoming fashionable:  Soane’s neighbours at the start of the new century included HRH Prince Edward (1767-1820), newly-created Duke of Kent and Strathearn, and Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), remembered as the only British prime minister to have been assassinated.

Soane had first encountered the Payton Place building in the late 1760s:  he worked on the south wing when he was apprenticed to the architect George Dance the Younger (1741-1825).

He bought the property for £4,500 and demolished all but Dance’s south wing, replacing it with his own design, completed in 1804.  Soane and his family lived there only until 1810:  he became estranged from his two ne’er-do-well sons and his wife Eliza preferred to live in town.  At Lincoln’s Inn Fields he purchased and rebuilt the adjacent houses, 13 and 14 which, with No 12, now form the Museum.

The three-bay centrepiece of Pitzhanger Manor echoes Robert Adam’s south front at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, and is derived from the triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome.  Whereas earlier eighteenth-century architects had used ashlar or stucco to set the tone of their exteriors, Soane here contrasted brick and Portland stone, and stretched the narrow façade with a lofty attic.  The buildings bristles with statues and medallions of Coade stone, the twice-fired hard-wearing artificial ceramic that was prevalent from the early 1770s to the late 1840s in London and elsewhere in the British Isles and overseas.

Pitzhanger Manor is rather like Tardis:  it seems bigger inside than its exterior suggests.  This is because Soane retained the Dance wing to the south and his service buildings to the north were replaced in 1901-02 when the house became Ealing’s public library.

Like Moggerhanger Park, unsympathetic institutional use allowed a practical restoration. 

From 1985 until 2019, in gradual stages, the London Borough of Ealing and the Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery Trust have transformed the place into a sympathetic restoration of the historic house, with the library wing adapted as an excellent modern art gallery.  On the site of the former walled kitchen garden stands Soane’s Kitchen, an attractive modern café-restaurant:  Pitzhanger » Eat & Drink.

For details of opening times and events at Pitzhanger House, visit Pitzhanger » Current Events.