Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

Steps to learning

Central Library, Sheffield

Architects and designers between the wars paid less attention to health and safety than we nowadays expect, as I discovered when I missed a step at the entrance to Sheffield’s Central Library and ruptured a tendon.

I’ve examined the architecture of this splendid building from the cold pavement while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  Descriptions of its style vary – beaux-arts, Art Deco, neo-Georgian:  from the ground it’s clearly eclectic, with fine crisp Classical and Egyptian details in Portland stone.

The Central Library, which includes the separately funded Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, was designed in 1929 by the City Architect, W G Davies, in collaboration with the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb.  It’s obvious that an extension was intended:  the glazed brick east wall would have formed an internal light-well but for the construction of the 1960s Arundel Gate dual carriageway.

The Library was intended as a keynote building in a civic square as part of Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1924 development plan for the city centre.  In fact, it was the only part of this scheme to be completed, like Birmingham’s incomplete Civic Centre on Broad Street, where the Hall of Memory (1923-24) and the hurriedly completed Baskerville House (1938-39) have been absorbed into later planning schemes.

There was doubt that Sheffield City Council could scrape together the funds to replace the previous lamentable library building on the same site, until the mail-order pioneer and civic benefactor John George Graves (1866-1945) offered £30,000 to lay out the top floor as an art gallery, to which he donated part of his personal art collection.

The exterior is embellished with carvings by the ubiquitous Sheffield firm Frank Tory & Sons – in this case Frank’s identical twin sons, Alfred (1881-1971) and William (1881-1968).

Within, despite years of neglect, much of the marble flooring, coffered ceilings, wood panelling and door furniture and the magnificent marble staircase rising through the building remain intact, waiting for sympathetic restoration:  https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/library.html.

The completed building was opened in July 1934 by HRH the Duchess of York, later HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  Her husband, then known as Prince Albert, was ill at the time, and the Duchess took his place.

The Central Library came into its own during the Blitz.  It was relatively unscathed in comparison with buildings in the surrounding streets, and was quickly deployed as a refuge providing information and support for the tens of thousands of Sheffield citizens who were rendered homeless by the bombing. 

After the War Sheffield City Libraries gained a high reputation for innovation and for the breadth of the collections and the generosity of provision.

In recent decades services, staffing and opening times have been repeatedly cut, yet the Library still offers users facilities that are simply unavailable online.

It’s sad to see Mr Davies’ splendid rooms defaced by peeling plaster and faded paintwork, and I for one would approve of a recent scheme to turn the Central Library into a five-star hotel. 

The admirably-timed Library of Birmingham (2013), opened in a more favourable financial climate and so far surviving subsequent cuts, is an example of the physical information resource that a modern city needs.

And when Sheffield removes its library from the 1934 building, I hope they’ll provide safer entrance steps in the new location.

Central Library, Sheffield: entrance

A library for the twenty-first century

Library of Birmingham
Birmingham Central Library (2011)

My first memory of Birmingham, at the start of the 1960s, was of bulldozers battering buildings.

This activity was the life’s work of the City Engineer & Surveyor from 1935 to 1963, Sir Herbert Manzoni (1899-1972), who insistently proclaimed the need to get rid of the detritus of the past in favour of a brave new twentieth-century future.

I have a memory of spending an afternoon, sometime in 1971-2, in the clerestoried reading room of J H Chamberlain’s magnificent Central Library of 1882, manhandling bound volumes of The Times in search of a Victorian scandal.

The building was already doomed, being in the way of Manzoni’s Inner Ring Road, and the books were soon to be transferred from their galleried shelving, accessed by spiral staircases [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_Central_Library#/media/File:BCL_restored_after_the_fire_of_1879.jpg], into the replacement building, the Birmingham Central Library (1974) designed by the Birmingham architect John Madin (1924-2012).

John Madin was responsible for many of the significant buildings in Birmingham in the 1970s, and many of these unlovely structures have already disappeared.  I used the Central Library occasionally and loathed it.

It consisted of an unobjectionable three-storey lending library and an eight-storey reference library in the form of an upturned ziggurat.  Prince Charles dismissed it as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”.

The design was repeatedly compromised by the City Council’s refusal to accept Madin’s specification of Portland stone or marble cladding and the glazing in of the central open atrium.  The bare concrete became grubby and the surrounding land was sold off and haphazardly developed.

There were some who valued John Madin’s claustrophobic library as a “… grand romantic gesture of the Brutalist period with subtle use of internal space, and remarkable tact in relating to [its] nineteenth-century neighbours” but the building gradually became too cramped for its purpose, as library users demanded monitors and keyboards as well as books.

Birmingham City Council was lucky to put its plans for a replacement in place in the nick of time before the economic downturn choked local-authority expenditure.

The Library of Birmingham, designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben (b 1955) of the Mecanoo practice, occupies the site of a former car park on Centenary Square between the Birmingham Rep Theatre and the pre-war Baskerville House.  The project was launched in April 2009;  construction began at the beginning of 2010 and the Library was opened on September 3rd 2013 by Malala Yousafzai (b 1997), the world-famous activist who is a Birmingham resident.

It’s a fascinating combination of shapes and levels, rising from below ground to the rooftop, the main bulk of the building clad in gold, silver and glass behind a filigree of metal rings that commemorate the city’s Jewellery Quarter.  Its purpose, in the words of the director, Brian Gambles, is to be “no longer solely the domain of the book – it is a place with all types of content and for all types of people”:  https://www.dezeen.com/2013/08/29/library-of-birmingham-by-mecanoo.

At the top of the building, on Level 9, is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which houses the Shakespeare Library and was transplanted first from J H Chamberlain’s 1882 library, and latterly from John Madin’s Brutalist ziggurat – a symbol of continuity, and of cultural value, linking the city’s nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century centres of learning.

John Madin’s library was demolished – to howls of protest from fans of Brutalist architecture – in 2016.

My first library

Attercliffe Library, Sheffield

When I was around six or seven years old, circa 1954, my mother would collect me from Huntsman’s Gardens Schools, in the depths of Sheffield’s industrial east end, and call round at Attercliffe Library for her weekly fix of books to read.  Though she had left school at fourteen, she was an omnivorous reader.

I have a clear memory that, while she browsed, I would make a beeline for the bottom shelf of the music section, dig out a score of Handel’s Messiah and stare in wonderment at the multiple staves of the ‘Halleluiah Chorus’, amazed to see how much music could be going on at one instant.

How I reached this I’ve no idea.  Somehow I must have known that the ‘Halleluiah Chorus’ was part of Messiah and that it had been written by George Frideric Handel, but the piece is actually buried at the end of Part II and so isn’t easy for a little kid to find.

Attercliffe Library, built in 1894, still exists, an elegant Jacobethan building next door to the older Attercliffe Baths of 1879.  It was designed by Charles Wilke, about whom next to nothing is known.

For nearly a hundred years it provided knowledge and entertainment to Attercliffe workers and their families and then, when the houses eventually came down, it closed in 1986.

It’s now a rather fine restaurant, spearheading the cultural renaissance of Attercliffe as a place to visit:  https://www.thelibrarybylounge.co.uk.

Happy resort

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Over years of driving into East Anglia I have only associated Felixstowe with processions of container trucks hammering down the A14.

When I stayed at the Woodbridge Station Guest House I took the train to Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe to a happy surprise.  “Felix” is, after all, Latin for “happy”.

The mouth of the River Orwell has been strategically important, both for trade and defence, since Roman times at least, and grew markedly after the arrival of the railway in 1877 and the opening of the port in 1886.

The passenger train-service now terminates at the latest of the town’s three stations, Felixstowe Town (1898), which was built in response to an upturn in tourism after the 1891 visit of Princess Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1858-1921), Queen Victoria’s great-niece and the wife of Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

The walk down Hamilton Road, now partly pedestrianised, leads to a clifftop view of the Pier (1905;  rebuilt 2017) [http://www.felixstowe-pier.co.uk], with the cranes of the distant docks to the right, and the promenade to the left.

On the way, you pass the former Ritz Cinema (1937;  still operating as the Palace) [http://www.palacecinemafelixstowe.com].

The seafront is dotted with opulent former hotels, of which the Felix Hotel (1903) is the most prominent.  This is where Princess Victoria and her family stayed in 1901 and, coincidentally, where Wallis Simpson took rooms while her divorce took place in nearby Ipswich in 1936.  (This was the occasion of the legendary American newspaper headline “KING’S MOLL RENO’D IN WOLSEY’S HOME TOWN.”)  The Felix closed in 1952 and became the headquarters of the fertiliser company Fisons Ltd for thirty years.  It is now, predictably, converted to apartments.

Landguard Fort [http://www.landguard.com] introduces visitors to the long history of Felixstowe’s defences.  This was the location of the last opposed invasion of England in 1677, and four of the original seven Martello towers in the town survive.

I had a typical seaside lunch, fish and chips at Fish Dish [http://www.myfishdish.co.uk].  When I told the guy behind the till that the place reminded me of Whitby he smiled and said he’d trained and worked at Whitby for thirteen years before setting up in Essex.

The pleasures of Felixstowe are simple.  On a sunny day you can sit on a promenade bench and watch vast container ships, loaded to capacity, making their way out of the port at surprising speed.

And, because Ipswich is a significant rail hub, you can visit Felixstowe from far afield without using a car.

The Great Sheffield Flood

Dale Dike Dam, South Yorkshire: marker ‘Centre Line Old Bank’
Dale Dike Dam, South Yorkshire: memorial

Sheffield has a poor track-record for civic monuments.

Apart from the statue of King Edward VII standing in recently spruced-up surroundings in Fitzalan Square, most of the other monuments that once graced the centre have been shipped off to suburban parks or, in the case of the Crimea Monument, dismantled:  https://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/sheffields-missing-crimean-war-monument.

Indeed, until recently there was no monument of any significance to those who lost their lives in the most dramatic incident in the history of Sheffield, the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864.

The Sheffield Waterworks Company, desperately trying to keep up with accelerating demand from the rapidly growing steel industry and the expanding population, devised a scheme to capture the waters of the Loxley Valley, north-west of the town.

The first of three planned reservoirs, Dale Dyke, was begun in 1859 and, after its alignment had been altered to avoid unexpected disturbed strata, was completed and filled by early 1864.

No sooner had the waters reached within two feet of the lip of the dam than cracks appeared and, within a day, the dam collapsed at 11.30pm on March 11th 1864, sending 700 million gallons of water down the Loxley Valley at a speed of around 18 miles an hour.  At least 250 people were killed, including 27 whose bodies were never recovered.  Around 800 houses were destroyed or abandoned and well over 4,000 flooded.

There was no firm agreement over the cause of the disaster, at least partly because of the Coroner’s intemperate handling of the inquest.  Among the possible contributory causes were –

  • slippage of unstable strata beneath the embankment
  • poor construction of the embankment surrounding the clay core
  • inadequate thickness of the clay core
  • settlement or undue pressure leading to fracture around the outlet pipes and consequent leakage

The jury’s verdict was that “there has not been that engineering skill and that attention to the construction of the works, which their magnitude and importance demanded…” and they went on to propose that “the Legislature ought to take such action as will result in a governmental inspection of all works of this character;  and, that such inspection should be frequent, sufficient and regular…”

Such legislation was eventually passed – the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act (1930). 

Although designed in the same way as the failed dam, Agden Dam was resumed and its 629,000,000-gallon reservoir completed in 1869.  Further upstream, the Strines Reservoir (513,000,000 gallons) was finished in 1871. 

The new Dale Dyke Dam, a quarter of a mile upstream from the site of the original, was completed in 1875, though the reservoir was not brought fully into use until 1887.   It holds 446,000,000 gallons.

The final Loxley valley reservoir, Damflask, which holds 1,158,000,000 gallons, initially intended for use as compensation water, was constructed in the late 1870s but because of leakage through the strata at one side was not fully operational until a wing-trench was completed in 1896.

For many years the only physical memento of the original Dale Dyke Dam was a marker stone inscribed “CLOB” – Centre Line Old Bank – indicating the alignment of the 1864 dam.

For the 150th anniversary of the disaster, the Bradfield Historical Society cleared a trail around the reservoir and put up a memorial to the victims of the flood:  https://www.joinedupheritagesheffield.org.uk/content/organisation/bradfield-historical-society.

The Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour follows the course of the Great Sheffield Flood from the site of the original Dale Dike Dam through to the Lower Don Valley downstream of the centre of Sheffield.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Woodbridge Station Guest House

Woodbridge Station, Suffolk

The Station Guest House at Woodbridge – https://woodbridgestationguesthouse.co.uk – is an excellent example of practical reuse of a potentially redundant station building.  The station itself continues to operate as the first stop out of Ipswich on the line to Lowestoft and the building houses a high-quality café, the three-bedroom guest house, a florist’s shop and a taxi office. 

The station was built for the former East Suffolk Railway and opened in 1859.  A footbridge provides access both to the Ipswich-bound platform and also to the banks of the nearby River Deben.

I had a comfortable family room with a double bed and a single bed, with an en-suite which allowed me to watch people walking over the footbridge without them seeing me at my ablutions.  It’s a corner room, so from one window I could watch the trains arrive and depart over the level crossings and from the other I could watch the boats riding the tide on the river.

Breakfast is served promptly at 9.00am at a reserved table in the café and the service is admirable.  The only minor downside is that car-parking is £3.00 a day maximum and you have to feed the meter before the guy with the hi-vis jacket books you.  The notice by the machine warns that photographs may be taken, which I read as a threat.

There’s really no reason to bring a car to stay at the Station Guest House.  There’s a perfectly good train service that links with London and East Coast services via Ipswich.

Carla, the delightful lady who welcomed me to the Station Guest House , reeled off a list of places to have dinner as the café closes at 3.00pm.  For most of my stay, however, I happily picnicked each night with more than enough tea and coffee and the sound of the trains through the open window. 

Woodbridge itself is an attractive town.  Beside the river is the Woodbridge Tide Mill, one of two remaining tidal watermills that are restored to working order and producing wholemeal flour for sale [https://woodbridgetidemill.org.uk] and on the opposite bank is the National Trust Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre [https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-hoo], marking the site of the enormously significant Anglo-Saxon ship burial, excavated in 1939. 

First-class fishery

Lister Drive Baths, Liverpool: first-class swimming pool (2019)

Some conversions of old buildings to new uses are an uneasy compromise – cinemas converted into apartment blocks, places of worship adapted as pubs.

The former Lister Drive Baths in Liverpool is an example of reuse as pure genius.

Lister Drive, connecting Newsham Park with Green Lane, was laid out in the late 1890s and furnished with a series of Corporation buildings, all of them overseen, but not all designed by the City Surveyor, Thomas Shelmerdine.

At the west end of the Drive, nearest the Park, was the tramway electricity generating station (c1902, demolished), and to the east Green Lane Council School  (1907, demolished) and Thomas Shelmerdine’s Green Lane Carnegie Library (1904-05, currently being restored), and in the centre the Lister Drive Baths, designed by the Corporation Baths Engineer, W R Court (1901-04) on the basis of “sketch designs” by Shelmerdine.

The Baths is an essay in terracotta, inside and out, in what is described as a “free English Renaissance” style.  The tiles and bricks were supplied by Pilkington & Company, including fish and leaf designs by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941).  The layout provided first- and second-class plunge baths for men (60ft × 30ft and 75ft × 35ft respectively), first-, second- and third-class private baths for men, and women’s private baths.  Women were allowed access to the first-class men’s bath on certain days.

Hot water for the baths was supplied by the nearby electricity generating station.

The Baths were closed because of bomb damage during the Second World War, and were repaired and reopened in August 1949.  They finally closed in 1987 and were appropriately adapted as a welcoming pet shop, with the first-class pool given over to koi carp.

During opening hours the public are welcome to look around, without any obligation to buy so much as a packet of bird-seed. And if you have a pet, it seems the Lister Fisheries & Pet Centre has everything they might need or want:  http://www.listerpetcentre.co.uk/index.html.

The rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) tour includes an informal visit to the Lister Drive BathsFor further details please click here.

Transportation in miniature

Hiroshima, Japan: City Transportation Museum, Chōrakuji

I had a couple of hours to spare in my last afternoon in Hiroshima, so I took to the Astram, opened in 1994, a people-mover built to connect with the major sporting arena up in the hills, Edion Stadium Hiroshima. 

The people-mover is remarkable, over eleven miles long, running underground beneath the central area and then mounting a continuous viaduct that never seems to touch the ground.  I’m not convinced about this rubber-tyred concrete technology:  it’s distinctly bumpy compared with rail and the infrastructure seems to be bulky and intrusive.

The route is up a steep-sided valley that reminded me of Halifax, or Hebden Bridge, in which every piece of flat land is built on, with low-rise housing, high-rise towers and the associated suburban public and commercial development. 

I was interested to see the Hiroshima hinterland, and I took as my destination the transportation museum at Chōrakuji, two-thirds of the way along the route.

The Hiroshima City Transportation Museum [http://www.vehicle.city.hiroshima.jp/VEHICLE_HP/Contents/01_home/0104_English/ehome.html], a five-minute walk from the Astram station, is in an expensive-looking modern building, and was not what I expected.  There are only two full-size vehicles in the whole place – a sports car and one of the atom-bomb trams, identical to the two I’d seen on the streets but painted in a different livery. 

A whole floor is given to an eclectic display of a couple of thousand models of trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes, with very perfunctory labelling in Japanese and English.  I had a go at driving a train simulator but couldn’t get on with it.

Upstairs was a two-storey hall, filled with a gigantic working model of a not-far-into-the-future city to demonstrate as many modes of public transport as possible – not only trains and cars and ships and aircraft but helicopters, monorails, travellators, even a fairground.

So there, under one roof, you can examine past, present and future transportation, most of it in miniature, some of it in motion.

Miyajima

Miyajima, Japan: Itsukushima Shrine

On my second day in Hiroshima I bought a slightly more expensive streetcar-and-ferry pass, and in the morning travelled down tram route 2 all the way to the terminus, Miyajima-guchi.  This was another transport surprise, because after a dozen stops in street-tramway mode, à la Leeds or Sheffield circa 1950, the streetcar turns a corner into a complicated little station and then becomes a fully-fledged railway, like the Fleetwood tramroad but far longer, with houses backing on to the track, stations at regular intervals and endless automatic full-barrier crossings.  A road-sign outside Miyajima-guchi station shows the distance back to Hiroshima as 23km, but the rail line is actually 16.1km.

The ferry takes about fifteen minutes to cross a stretch of water to a wonderfully picturesque island, Miyajima, with the steep, deeply forested mountains that you see in Japanese prints, and on the foreshore the Itsukushima Shrine, ostensibly dating back to the twelfth century but apparently last replaced in 1875.  Tourists flock to photograph themselves with their backs to this monument;  schoolchildren are brought in droves to line up for class photographs.  There are sacred deer, in Shinto belief the messengers of the gods, which are regularly fed by the tourists, despite notices forbidding it.

The Hiroden public-transport operator, through its subsidiary Hiroshima Tourism Promoting [Hiroshima Kankō Kaihatsu] runs a ropeway up the sacred Mount Misen.  The upper terminus is a thirty-minute hike to the actual summit at 1,755 feet but you can’t have everything:  the ropeway takes out 945 feet of that climb and every little helps.

The island has much else to offer, several temples and a pagoda, and spectacular displays of blossom in spring and maple leaves in autumn.  I could cheerfully return for a Japanese holiday on Miyajima, knowing that a day-visit to Hiroshima city is easily practical.

Moving streetcar museum

Hiroshima Electric Tramway, Japan: “Atomic bomb” tram 652

To make the most of my two days in Hiroshima, my first mission was to get my bearings.  Armed with a day pass for the streetcars, I walked to the nearest route and rode to the railway station to find my way to the Sightseeing Loop Bus.  This is a red single-decker with vestigial commentary with two overlapping routes that I did in succession.  My Japan Rail Pass gave me this for free:  the driver simply photographed the pass with a digital camera, but more recently the service has become entirely free [https://www.hiroshima-navi.or.jp/en/information/loopbus].

The red bus tour orientation enabled me to use streetcars for the rest of my day’s travels.  The streetcar system is a full-on transport facility, not by any means a heritage operation, though it’s billed as “the moving streetcar museum” because it runs up-to-date low-floor vehicles alongside earlier generations right back to two of the trams that survived the atom bomb, 651 and 652:  http://train.sakura.ne.jp/train/hiroden/carphoto/index.html.  Indeed, the streetcar company is proud that they had three of these trams back on the road three days after the bomb.

The tram and bus operator is the Hiroshima Electric Railway Co Ltd, known from the Japanese Hiroshima Dentetsu Kabushiki-gaisha as Hiroden for short.

I made use of my streetcar pass to explore the city.  I deliberately took a tram to the end of the line at Hiroshima Port, simply to gauge how big the city is.  (It has a population of around a million, equivalent to Birmingham.)  The ferry terminal provides passenger access to various outlying islands, and indicates that the harbour facility is enormous.  Otherwise there’s little to detain anyone.

The journey back in the rush hour was a farce.  The older streetcars have seats parallel to the windows, so you sit with your back to the view, gazing at the midriffs of standing passengers.  It’s impossible to see where you are;  the in-car signage is in Japanese with no indication of the stop-numbers and there was no PA system (which in Japan might be bilingual Japanese/English).  I eventually got off at a point which fitted with my mental map and took a tram in the opposite direction back to the point where I could walk back to my hotel.  I sense that the only way to deal with the Hiroshima rush-hour is to travel to the end of the line and bag the seat beside the driver.

Rush-hour is rarely fun anywhere in the world.  Hiroshima is a tram city, and though the sightseeing loop bus is useful for orientation, there’s no better way of getting around outside rush-hours than with a day pass on the streetcars.