Monthly Archives: December 2023

No fire without smoke

Blackpool Tower: access stair to the Crow’s Nest

A false hue-and-cry created post-Christmas entertainment in the centre of Blackpool on Thursday December 28th 2023 when passers-by thought they could see flames shooting from the top of the Tower.

Phone footage does indeed look convincingly like a fire – – but it was an illusion caused by orange netting flapping in the wind.

Lancashire Fire & Rescue Service deployed six fire-engines, a helicopter and a “rope rescue” team to inspect the upper levels of the structure leading to the “Crow’s Nest”.

The excitement was over before teatime.

It wasn’t the first alarm about a fire at the top of the Tower.

There was a real fire above the 380ft landing, where the passenger lifts terminate, late in the evening of Thursday July 22nd 1897, three years after the Tower was opened.

It was a time when there was no possible way to put it out.  The wooden decking was simply left to burn itself out while crowds watched from the Promenade.

All the fire brigade could do was to protect surrounding buildings from catching fire from falling debris.  The Liverpool Mercury (July 24th 1897) reported –

Showers of sparks flew around in all directions, and large pieces of blazing wood dropped away from the burning mass, and sped through the air like rockets.  As the flames got better hold of the woodwork, the heat became more and more intense, and long before midnight the iron framework on the east side of the platform was white heat.

The most dramatic moment came when the wire rope attached to one of the lift cars burnt through, and the eleven-ton counterweight dropped the full height of the Tower, burrowing into the foundations within a private box in the Circus auditorium, where it still remains. 

The noise of its fall was heard all over Blackpool and brought people out into the streets.

The fire burnt itself out shortly after midnight, and at daybreak it was apparent that below the seat of the fire the paintwork was barely scorched.

The following day Blackpool’s entertainments carried on, profiting from additional visitors drawn in by the news reports.

It’s an ill wind…

The Liverpool Mercury news article can be found at

Whitelock’s, or the Turk’s Head

Whitelock’s, Briggate, Leeds

My friend Simon has worked for three separate employers in Leeds and had never visited Whitelock’s, the celebrated Victorian pub up an alley off Briggate, so we took a train to Leeds, had coffee in the Tiled Hall Café at Leeds Art Gallery, presented ourselves at Whitelock’s for a substantial, totally traditional pub lunch in Victorian surroundings, and whiled away the afternoon over coffee at the Queens Hotel, which has been impressively refurbished.

There has been a licensed ale house, the Turk’s Head, on the Whitelock’s site since 1715, serving merchants and traders from the market in Briggate on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Tucked up one of the narrow medieval burgage plots that characterise the centre of Leeds, its opulent interior dates from 1886, a feast of tiles, mirrors, stained glass and brasswork, and has been improved by successive owners. 

John Lupton Whitelock (1834-1896) held the licence from 1867 and purchased the freehold in the 1880s.  His son William Henry Whitelock (1856-1909) employed the Leeds architects Waite & Sons to extend the facilities and install electric lighting and an electric clock.  He renamed it Whitelock’s First City Luncheon Bar.

The brothers Lupton (1878-1941) and Percy Whitelock (1889-1958) took over in the early years of the twentieth century.  Lupton Whitelock was an accomplished flautist, playing with the Leeds Symphony and Hallé orchestras, and he encouraged his musician friends such as Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Malcolm Sargent to visit.

Over the years it has entertained entertainers as varied as Peter O’Toole, Margot Fonteyn and Dame Anna Neagle.  It was a favourite haunt of writers from the Yorkshire Evening Post such as Keith Waterhouse.

In time its connections brought celebrities who valued its intimacy and formality:  for years dinner jackets were obligatory and only gentlemen were served at the bar.  Women customers were served by waiters. 

HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, held a private party at Whitelock’s, perhaps while staying with his sister the Princess Royal at Harewood House.

The family ownership ended in 1944, when the pub was sold to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries but its character has survived several changes of ownership.  Sir John Betjeman called it “the very heart of Leeds”;  it was listed Grade II in 1963 and upgraded to Grade II* in 2022.  Its Leeds Civic Trust blue plaque, the hundredth to be awarded, was unveiled by Lupton Whitelock’s granddaughter, Sarah Whitelock, in 2008.

The current owners, Mason & Taylor, made a huge effort to restore Whitelock’s to the very heart of Leeds after a marked decline:  Mason & Taylor: A White Knight For Whitelocks? | the CULTURE VULTURE

The mission was duly accomplished:  Whitelock’s Ale House Is at the Heart of Leeds and Its Story | Craft Beer & Brewing (

The most perfect of all station houses 3

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2023)
Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2023)

One summer’s evening in 1965 I caught a train from Wingfield Station to my home in Belper.  I’d no idea of the timetable and I was lucky that a steam-hauled passenger train showed up promptly.  It’s a long walk from South Wingfield to Belper.

The station closed to passengers in 1967, and by the time I photographed it in 1976 it looked distinctly neglected.  A succession of private owners allowed it to become a wreck until the South Wingfield Local History Group successfully campaigned to lift its listing from Grade II to Grade II* in 2015, and prompted Amber Valley Borough Council and the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust (DHBT) to plan a thorough, practical restoration.

I visited the site in 2021 when work was about to begin, and returned in late October 2023 when the Trust ran a series of public events to celebrate the completion of their work. 

The result is impressive:  the building is at last not only weatherproof and structurally sound but restored to the highest standard – a remarkable achievement on a site that stands a few feet from a busy main-line railway.

The new lessees will be grateful for the underfloor heating beneath the stone flagstones.  Visitors will be fascinated by the detailed recreation of the ladies’ waiting room based on the discovery and salvage of original wallpaper. 

When the building begins to earn its keep as office accommodation, public visits will be arranged six times a year.

The DHBT website points out that “Whilst Wingfield Station is not the earliest pioneer railway station to survive, it is one of the least altered surviving examples worldwide”. 

As such it has national and international significance, and local volunteers and historians are building a significant resource that will be useful to online visitors:  Our Project | dhbt-live (

Exciting new discoveries about the context of the station in the development of travel, coal-mining and the growth of neighbouring towns and villages and personal stories of people who worked there are already uploaded and the site has considerable potential for further development.

Already the website offers – as far as I know for the first time – images of all of Francis Thompson’s stations for the North Midland Railway at the end of the 1830s, drawn by Samuel Russell.

Without the DHBT and its partners, on the ground and online, almost all of Francis Thompson’s work for the North Midland Railway would have disappeared, and the talent of a young, pioneering architect of the early railway age could not be fully appreciated.

Derby Roundhouse

Derby Roundhouse

While the architect Francis Thompson was designing the Trijunct Station in Derby and all the other stations up the North Midland line to Normanton in the late 1830s, the engineer Robert Stephenson was laying out repair and storage facilities alongside.

This was the beginning of the “Works”, where locomotives were built and maintained, and the “Carriage & Wagon Works” (1873-76) on Litchurch Lane, a complex of which vestiges survive under the aegis of the rolling-stock manufacturer Bombardier Transportation.

The singular monument of the Works is the Derby Roundhouse, a sixteen-sided locomotive shed built around a turntable within a prestige building by Francis Thompson.  (There were other roundhouse buildings at the Works, all now demolished.)

Francis Whishaw, in The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland practically described and illustrated (2nd ed, 1840), gave this description:

The engine-house is a polygon of sixteen sides, and 190 feet in diameter, lighted from a dome-shaped roof, of the height of 50 feet.  It contains sixteen lines of rails, radiating from a single turn-table in the centre:  the engines, on their arrival, are taken in there, placed upon the turn-table, and wheeled into any stall that may be vacant.  Each of the sixteen stalls will hold two, or perhaps more, engines.

This innovative structure served its original purpose past the age of steam, but eventually became derelict and was threatened with demolition until Derby City Council acquired it in 1994.  Its Grade II listing dating from 1977 didn’t reflect its importance as the oldest surviving locomotive roundhouse in Britain.  It was subsequently regraded to Grade II*.

Maber Architects skilfully refurbished the Roundhouse as part of a flagship campus for Derby College, preserving the track layout, the elegant supporting columns and the complex roof structure. 

Opened in 2009, it now forms a well-used facility for students and conferences, referencing the significance of the rail industry in Derby’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century growth.

The earliest locomotive roundhouse is thought to have been at Curzon Street, Birmingham, dated 1837;  the better-known Camden Roundhouse in north London dates from 1847.  The Barrow Hill Roundhouse (1870), north of Chesterfield, continues to function as a heritage operation where locomotives and rolling stock are stored and repaired.