Monthly Archives: March 2024

The prettiest bridge in Berlin

Oberbaumbrücke, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin

The Oberbaum Bridge [Oberbaumbrücke], which links two Berlin suburbs, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, across the River Spree, is engagingly weird. 

Lonely Planet describes it as “Berlin’s prettiest bridge”, while the Berlin Historical Walks website suggests “its strutting proud form reflects the confidence and swagger” of imperial Germany.

In fact, its chequered history touches every aspect of the growth and resilience of this fascinating city.

The crossing was established at the boundary of early eighteenth-century Berlin as part of a customs wall to collect tolls.  The name literally translates as “Upper beam bridge”, indicating the tree-trunk barrier that was lowered overnight to discourage smugglers.  There was a lower (ie, downstream) beam at Unterbaumstraße.

The original wooden bridge was replaced by the present brick, double-deck structure in 1894-96, to overcome a bottleneck for road vehicles and pedestrians and to accommodate elevated tracks for the city’s first subway trains.  Services on the U-bahn from Stralauer Tor on the eastern side of the bridge to Potsdamer Platz began in 1902.

To mask the bare structure the architect Otto Stahn (1859–1930) dressed it in the distinctive Brick Gothic style, with two entirely decorative towers flanking the central span, indicating that this had been a historic gate into the city.

In the final weeks of the Second World War the Wehrmacht blew up the central section in a vain attempt to impede the advancing Red Army, and Allied air raids damaged the Stralauer Tor station so severely that it was never rebuilt.

The Oberbaumbrücke came to symbolise the division of Berlin, first into four sectors administered by the Allies, and then into the two separate enclaves of East and West Berlin.

In the early post-war years West Berliners could exercise the right to travel across to the East, but East Berliners were strictly forbidden to set foot on the bridge, and the U-bahn service was cut back to Schlesisches Tor in West Berlin. 

The boundary between East and West was the western bank of the Spree, so the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 turned the river waters into no-man’s land. 

On October 5th 1961 25-year-old Udo Düllick got himself sacked by his East German Railways [Deutsche Reichsbahn] supervisor, took a taxi to the Oberbaumbrücke and tried to swim across the river to reunite with his older brother in West Germany.  The East German guards fired warning shots and then took direct aim.  West Berliners watching daren’t enter the water to rescue him for fear of being shot themselves. 

The East Germans failed to hit Düllick but he drowned and his body was recovered from the west bank the following day.  2,500 people attended his funeral.  He was the first, but by no means the last, to die in the waters of the Spree at this place.

A permanent arrangement to open the bridge for pedestrians was agreed in 1972, and three years later a formal emergency plan to rescue people – often children who climbed through gaps in the parapet – from the river waters.

The Oberbaumbrücke came to symbolise the sadness and separation of the city’s inhabitants.  The subway viaduct was partly dismantled and the ornamental towers were demolished in 1974.

The reunification of Germany in 1990 has been celebrated by the restoration of the crossing. 

The gap in the viaduct was filled by a tactful, elegant steel structure by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (b1951), and the distinctive towers were rebuilt.  The bridge reopened to pedestrians and motor traffic in 1994 on the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and the U-bahn service was restored to Warschauer Straße station the following year.

Now the Oberbaumbrüke is a celebrated tourist spot in its own right, enjoyed and loved by Berliners and foreigners alike.

The pedestrian walk beneath the U-bahn tracks is remarkable: it was designed as a prestige project by Otto Stahn in medieval style, with castellated towers, gothic arches, polychrome brick, heraldry – very St Pancras. 

Romantic garden with a theme park attached

Alton Towers Garden: Pagoda Fountain (1978)

The fifteenth and sixteenth Earls of Shrewsbury’s wonderland at Alton Towers is a sideshow to the Merlin Entertainments’ theme park and resort.  To the present operators’ credit, they’ve pumped some of their profits into restoring and maintaining the historic fabric, but visiting isn’t easy if you seek to be edified rather than exhilarated.

The fifteenth Earl (1753-1827) developed the romantic garden in an unwatered valley on his Alton estate from around 1814, repeatedly extending the original estate manager’s lodge to entertain his family and guests.  The house grew until his nephew and heir, the sixteenth Earl (1791-1852), occupied one of the largest country houses in England.

The engineering involved in creating the garden, including terracing and the digging of lakes supplied from a spring two miles away, was largely the work of Thomas Allason (1790-1852). 

Most of the buildings which are scattered about the gardens seem to be the work of Robert Abraham (1774-1850).  He is credited with the range of conservatories, their domes surmounted by earl’s coronets, and the cast-iron Gothic Temple, or Prospect Tower, which provides one of the most panoramic views of the whole composition. 

Abraham also produced the initial design for the Pagoda Fountain in 1827, with a stone base containing a gasometer, six storeys and no less than forty gas-lit Chinese lanterns. The completed structure, started after 1831 and fabricated by the Coalbrookdale Iron Company, is smaller (44ft), unlit, and entirely of cast-iron;  its seventy-foot plume of water remains the major spectacle of the garden.

Guide-books regularly attribute Robert Abraham’s design to a “To-Ho Pagoda in Canton”.  I ransacked Google and Wikipedia for an illustration without success, but I did find this:  Ta-Ho Pagoda Canton Temples Antique Chinese Architecture Engraving Pri – Ephemera Finds.

Among the other garden features to notice at Alton Towers are the Corkscrew Fountain and what is now known as the Swiss Cottage (1835), apparently originally designed by the Uttoxeter architect Thomas Fradgley (1802-1883) for the Earl’s blind Welsh harpist, Edward Jervis, who when not employed in the entrance hall of the house, provided musical accompaniment for promenades round the gardens.

The fifteenth Earl’s contribution to the beauty of Alton Towers is commemorated by his nephew’s iron monument, in the form of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, which stands at the entrance to the garden, containing a portrait bust and surmounted by the motto, “He made the desert smile.”

If all you want to do at Alton Towers is admire the historic house and gardens without being frightened silly, you can ignore the rides: the house is straight ahead and unmissable; the gardens are to the left.

The entire complex is open from mid-March to November and there are quieter times outside school holidays:  Theme Park Tickets, Passes & Discounts | Alton Towers Resort.

There is extensive amateur footage of both the house and the grounds at Alton Towers Ruins 2006 & 2014 (

Brinsley Headstocks

Brinsley Headstocks, Nottinghamshire (2017)

The Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire coalfield, like other British coalfields, has a mining heritage of which its inhabitants are justifiably proud.  The prosperity and power of the United Kingdom was, in the age of steam, almost entirely fuelled by the labour of the country’s coal-miners.

A mile away from the Nottinghamshire market town of Eastwood, the Brinsley Headstocks have long been a landmark from the days when the green fields of the Erewash valley yielded black wealth from below to power the Industrial Revolution.

The Headstocks deserve the overused adjective “iconic” because they’re distinctive and unique. 

To industrial archaeologists they’re precious as the only surviving example of tandem headstocks, by which two adjacent mine-shafts could be wound by one winding engine. 

To readers of English literature they’re treasured because the site is featured in the early fiction of the local writer D H Lawrence (1885-1930) in his short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911) and his novel Sons and Lovers (1913).

Lawrence certainly knew Brinsley Colliery, because his father Arthur worked there, and his grandfather Bert before him.  The colliery was still operational, though no longer drawing coal, when the 1960 film of Sons and Lovers was made, and the headstocks, painted an uncharacteristic shade of pale blue to show up in monochrome, are part of the movie’s background.

The colliery began as shallow workings in the early nineteenth century, and the deep second shaft was sunk in 1872.  The original headstocks were badly damaged in an explosion in 1883, and were either repaired or replaced by a pair from the nearby Willey Wood colliery which had closed in the late 1870s.

After it ceased producing coal in 1934 Brinsley Colliery was retained for ventilation and to provide underground access to neighbouring collieries at Moorgreen and Pye Hill, so when it was finally closed and sealed off in 1970 it presented an important example of untouched nineteenth-century mining practice, which the industrial archaeologist Alan Griffin detailed in ‘Brinsley Colliery:  a conflict of evidence’, Industrial Archaeology, vol 9, no 1 (February 1972), pp 28-47/100.

The above-ground buildings were demolished and the headstocks transported to the then new Coal Museum at Lound Hall near Retford.  When that museum closed in 1989 the Brinsley Headstocks were returned to their original location as the centrepiece of a wildlife reserve and picnic site that is maintained by the volunteer Friends of Brinsley Headstocks.

Problems have arisen because inspections by the local authority, Broxtowe Borough Council, revealed a serious physical danger to the visiting public.  The site was fenced off initially;  in September 2023 the winding wheels were removed to reduce the load on the timberwork, and in December the entire structure was dismantled and some of the timber chopped up.

This caused uproar in the local community, and the Friends were left uninformed of what had been done and why:  ‘Disgust’ in Nottinghamshire village as historic mining feature removed without consultation – Nottinghamshire Live (;  ‘It makes me want to cry’: anger over Brinsley Headstocks demolition | Nottinghamshire | The Guardian.

There is no need for this.  Keeping the local community in the dark is bound to generate more heat than light:  “Nobody’s informed us what was happening…This village isn’t Brinsley any more.”

In an age where communication has never been easier, yet the scope for misunderstanding through haste is abundant, it should be a priority to manage with care the relationship between local communities and the elected representatives who serve them.

I have no personal connection with Brinsley, but in my native Sheffield I continue to come across situations where amenities are threatened and the people who care about them feel they aren’t heard:  History repeats itself | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.  In some parts of the city you need only say “trees” to provoke a reaction.

Broxtowe Borough Council has proposed three strategies to restore the Headstocks site, two of which don’t seem at all satisfactory:  News (  Before the councillors decide how to proceed, they need to ensure that their constituents feel that they’re being listened to.

When you need to get out of a hole, or a mine shaft, the first thing to do is stop digging.