Category Archives: Life-enhancing experiences

Gladstone’s Library

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire

It’s not everyone’s choice of holiday, but a couple of times a year I like to book myself into comfortable accommodation some distance from home, take my laptop and a couple of paperbacks and spend the better part of a week writing.

It’s my opportunity to write up Sheffield local-history material that will never justify the expense of publishing, but can rest in the Archives as a legacy for future researchers.

Before the pandemic I spent an enjoyable, crisp winter week at the Raven Hall Hotel at Ravenscar in North Yorkshire, followed the same summer by a heatwave on the North Norfolk coast at Sea Marge Hotel in Overstrand where I found a cool, shady corner of the north-facing patio.  At both locations I hardly left the premises all week.

The pandemic prevented me taking up my booking at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, until March 2022, and it was worth waiting for.

The library was founded in 1894 by the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) to “bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books”.

He endowed it with £40,000 start-up capital and twenty thousand of his own books, which he transported in a wheelbarrow from his home, Hawarden Castle, to a temporary building, assisted only by his valet and one of his daughters.

After his death £9,000 was raised to build the present building, designed by the distinguished Chester architect John Douglas (1830-1911), and the Gladstone family provided a residential wing which opened in 1906.

No other British prime minister has a memorial library, though the USA has a tradition of presidential libraries back to George Washington.

John Douglas provided a galleried library which, apart from its visual appeal and vast collection of books, has two welcome attributes – a strict silence rule and the facility to reserve a work-place throughout the day and keep it overnight.

The residential rooms are small but comfortable, and during the pandemic all have been fitted with en-suite bathrooms.

The restaurant, Food for Thought, provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, and refreshments throughout the day, 8.00am-8.00pm.

In four days, I produced seventeen thousand words about the parish of St Cecilia, Parson Cross, Sheffield and its remarkable first vicar, Richard Roseveare.

I wouldn’t have accomplished that at home, having to cook my own meals and load my own dishwasher.

Booking details and other information can be found at Gladstone’s Library | the UK’s finest residential library (gladstoneslibrary.org).

What’s not to like?

Palace fit for a lemur

Eltham Palace, London

Stephen Courtauld (1883-1967) had plenty of money, as a member of the family that introduced the world to rayon and, with no need to work, he spent his life as an art connoisseur and philanthropist, financing expeditions with the Royal Geographical Society, and co-founding Ealing Studios.

He met his wife Virginia (née Peirano) while mountaineering in Italy after war service with the Artists’ Rifles.  They married in 1923.

During the 1930s Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the derelict royal palace at Eltham in east London, and commissioned the architects John Seely (1899-1963) and Paul Paget (1901-1985) to restore the surviving medieval Great Hall and construct a discreet but modern fourteen-bedroom residence alongside.

Seeley and Paget resolved the sharp contrast in scale of the huge royal hall and the practical 1930s residence by setting the new house at a sharp angle, linked by a low entrance front which makes a point of revealing three original Tudor timbered gables behind.  The house is French Renaissance in style, punctuated by three copper-capped towers defining the hinge of the angle between the old and the new buildings.  The tapering copper roofs are an echo of the lost Tudor buildings of the Palace.

Virginia Courtauld had very definite ideas about interior design:  though Seely & Paget did most of the bedrooms and bathrooms, the fashionable designer Piero Malacrida (1889-1983) created her bathroom (green onyx with gold-plated taps) and boudoir, and collaborated with the firm White, Allom to devise the dining-room (maple, black marble floor and fireplace, and silver ceiling) and the contrasting Italian-style drawing room.  The principal feature of Mrs Courtauld’s dressing-room was a wall-map of the Eltham district in appliqué leather.  The triangular entrance-hall, top-lit by a dome, was decorated by the Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer (1892-1970) in blackbean veneer in the style of Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall (1923).

The Courtaulds were devoted to their pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg, purchased from Harrods in 1923.  Mah-Jongg had his own architect-designed, centrally heated quarters and was allowed access, by means of a bamboo ladder, to all areas of Eltham Palace until his death in 1938.

Mr Courtauld suggested adapting the basement billiard-room as “habitations” in the event of enemy attack, and in this underground sanctum the Courtaulds lived through the Second World War, often joined by Stephen Courtauld’s niece, Sydney, and her husband, R A Butler, who drafted parts of the parliamentary bill that became the 1944 Education Act at Eltham.

The house was hardly used as a residence in the way it was designed, for towards the end of the war the Courtaulds went to live in Scotland and eventually moved out to Southern Rhodesia, where their estate, La Rochelle, is now a property of the National Trust of Zimbabwe.  Stephen Courtauld died there in 1967;  his widow moved to Jersey in 1970 and died there two years later.

When Eltham Palace was taken over by the Institute of Army Education in 1944-5, the only fittings left in situ were the wood panelling, the two principal bathrooms and the lacquer dining room doors by Narini. 

The Institute moved out in 1992, and two years later English Heritage began an ambitious programme of restitution, recreating the décor and furnishings of the Courtauld period from the 1937 Country Life photographs and a 1939 inventory taken as a precaution against air-raid damage.

The house opened to the public in 1999 – one of the most modern houses open to the public, but actually more modern than it looks: Eltham Palace and Gardens | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk).

Eltham Palace is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’.  For further details, please click here.

Derby Silk Mill Museum

Derby Silk Mill Museum

After five years of work, Derby’s industrial museum, rich in exhibits that commemorate the huge and varied heritage of the city, is now open to the public, with free entry, as the Museum of Making.

It occupies the much-altered Silk Mill building, on the site of an early mill dating from 1704.  What survived of Thomas Lombe’s 1722 building was destroyed in a fire in 1910, and the rebuilding carefully replicated the five-storey original as a three-storey building attached to the surviving distinctive tower.

Using the best of modern display techniques in a variety of ways, the Museum draws together the varied contributions Derby has brought to the world.

Visitors walk into a new atrium beneath a suspended exploded Toyota Corolla Hybrid car, manufactured south of Derby at Burnaston, and look towards a seven-tonne Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 aero engine, also suspended above the staircase.

There are close-up views of the Trent 1000 upstairs, with an opportunity to compare it with the earliest Rolls-Royce Eagle engine that began production in 1915, one of the type which powered Allcock and Brown’s pioneering non-stop Atlantic crossing in 1919.

There’s a bewildering array of objects and images relating to Derby’s involvement in iron-founding, railways, engineering and textiles, and its association with such diverse figures as the physician-inventor Erasmus Darwin, the painter Joseph Wright and the clockmaker and scientist John Whitehurst.

The pinnacle of this cornucopia of Derby memorabilia is the ‘Railways Revealed’ exhibit, which includes the latest version of the Midland Railway model layout, the grandchild of an original which has delighted Derby children and enthusiasts since 1951.

The Museum is an appropriate gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site which stretches northwards as far as Cromford, which ties together an astonishing variety of historic monuments of the early Industrial Revolution.

In view of the quality and significance of the Museum’s collection, it’s odd that it’s been given the vapid branding ‘Museum of Making’.

It could be anywhere.

I choose to call it the Derby Silk Mill Museum, so that people know where it is.

Derby Silk Mill

Silk Mill, Derby

Though Sir Richard Arkwright is rightly credited with establishing the first successful water-powered cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, in 1771, his was not the first industrial innovation in the Derbyshire Derwent Valley.

On an island on the Derwent in the centre of Derby, Thomas Cotchett had commissioned the engineer George Sorocold (c 1668-c1738)  to build a three-story water-powered silk-mill, using inefficient Dutch machinery, in 1704.

Cotchett’s business failed, and the site was taken over by Thomas Lombe (1685-1739), a Norwich-born London silk-merchant who had had the foresight to send his half-brother John (1693?-1722) to work for Cotchett as an apprentice. 

Thomas then travelled in Italy, where he is said to have worked incognito in a throwing-mill and covertly sketched the machinery.

Lombe took out a British patent for the Italian-designed silk-throwing machinery in 1718, and Sorocold built the Italian Works, on twenty-six arches oversailing the waters of the Derwent, to accommodate the machinery.

The main building contained the twelve circular throwing-machines, eight 12ft 7in-diameter Torcitoii and twelve 12ft 11in-diameter Filatoii, both types 19ft 8in high, on the lower two storeys and 26 winding-machines on its upper three floors.

George Sorocold’s previous experience of water-supply machinery can scarcely have prepared him for the mechanical complexity of the 4,793 star-wheels, 10,000 spindles, 25,000 spinning-reel bobbins, 9,050 twist bobbins and 45,363 winding bobbins of Lombe’s patent-design.

The Mill was completed in 1722, and immediately became an object of exceptional interest to visitors, including Daniel Defoe, James Boswell and John Byng, 5th Viscount Torrington.

After the patent expired in 1732, other silk mills were built in Macclesfield, Stockport and Congleton, and though the trade experienced periodic periods of depression, by 1830 Macclesfield had seventy silk-factories employing 10,000 people.  There were seventeen silk-factories of one kind or another in Derby in 1840.   

Though the silk-trade continued to flourish into the nineteenth century to the north-west, in Derbyshire it declined in the face of the profitable growth of cotton-spinning and the difficulty of importing raw materials during the French wars, and tended to diversify into the specialised manufacture of ribbon and tape.

The Derby Silk Mill operated,  with one short break at the end of  the  eighteenth century, until 1890, when it suffered a partial collapse, then in 1910 the whole of the Italian Works was destroyed by fire and shortly afterwards the adjacent Doublers’ Shop was demolished. 

The present Silk Mill building was rebuilt on the original stone river-arches to a different design, but with a similar belfry, as a chemical manufactory. 

A coal-fired electricity power-station, notorious for its filth, was built on the landward side of the site and the mill building was occupied by the borough electricity department. 

When the power-station was replaced by a more discreet sub-station for the National Grid the Silk Mill building became the Derby Museum of Industry and Technology, opened in 1974, and Robert Bakewell’s Silk Mill gates were returned from the Museum & Art Gallery at the Wardwick, to stand near to their original site.

The Industrial Museum closed in 2016 for a major refurbishment, and reopened, in spite of the pandemic, in May 2021 as the Museum of Making.

Reichstag dome

Reichstag Dome, Berlin, Germany

I learnt the hard way that if you want a ticket to the Reichstag Dome you need to be up with the lark.  I don’t go on holiday to stand in a queue in the midday sun, but I was able to walk straight into the ticket office at breakfast-time.

The Reichstag building can legitimately be called an icon. 

Opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire, which itself had been established in 1871, it remained the seat of government through the post-World War I Weimar Republic until it was infamously and mysteriously burnt out in 1933.

This was the act that enabled the Nazi Party to extinguish, very quickly, all semblance of democracy in Germany.  They had no use for a symbol of representative government, and arranged occasional perfunctory meetings of the Diet in the Kroll Opera House nearby:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kroll_Opera_House#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0703-507,_Berlin,_Reichstagssitzung,_Rede_Adolf_Hitler.jpg.

In the race to occupy Berlin in May 1945, the Red Army made the Reichstag ruins their goal, memorialised by the famous photograph ‘Raising a Flag over the Reichstag’:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_Flag_over_the_Reichstag#/media/File:Reichstag_flag_original.jpg.

Though the Reichstag ruins stood in the British zone of West Berlin, the boundary with the Soviet sector was a few feet from the rear.  The shell was reconstructed, shorn of its cupola and stripped of decorative features that recalled German Imperial bombast, between 1961 and 1964, and used as an office block until after the reunification of East and West Germany, which was confirmed in a ceremony at the Reichstag in 1990.

A year later, the decision was taken to relocate the former West German government from Bonn to Berlin and to restore the Reichstag as the base for the Bundestag, the present-day Diet.

The British architect Norman Foster won the competition to convert the building in 1992.  He restored much of the vanished exterior decoration, and added an elegant glass dome in place of the cupola.  The structure within the external walls is almost entirely new, and the dome is a superlative tourist experience, the second most popular visitor attraction in Germany after Cologne Cathedral.

After an inevitable passport check and baggage inspection, visitors are whisked in a lift to the roof.  They don’t get a look at Norman Foster’s modern interior inside the surviving nineteenth-century shell of the building.  They are presented with audio-guides that automatically start the moment they enter the dome.

The tour involves walking up a spiral ramp to the very top of the dome and then returning down a second ramp.  The arrangement affords spectacular views outwards and inwards, but is not particularly friendly to vertigo sufferers.

The English commentary is consummately professional – not a word out of place, with pauses at appropriate points and breaks in continuity that allow a sense of not being rushed.

Nearby, between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, are two profoundly moving sites, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, a black pool symbolising the evil deeds it commemorates, with a triangular stone in the centre, representing the badges that the Nazis’ victims were required to wear. 

In the northern pavilion of the Brandenburg Gate itself I found the Raum der Stille [Silent Room], suggested by Dag Hammarskjöld’s earlier room in the United Nations Headquarters in New York City – a simple and effective opportunity to withdraw from the hubbub of the city for a while:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.raum-der-stille-im-brandenburger-tor.de/&prev=search.  

Attercliffe remembered

Attercliffe Common, Sheffield (1977)

When I recently showed my ‘A Look Round Attercliffe‘ presentation to the Woodsetts Local History Society near Worksop, a lady stood up at the end and gave a vote of thanks in verse.

Enid Bailey had put this piece together while I was lecturing, and she followed precisely the structure of my presentation:

Thank you Mike, for taking us back to 

Our world of yesterday

Where bricks turned black, each chimney stack 

Coughed out clouds of grey 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To mum’s favourite shop – Banners 

We thought it a splendid place to spend 

Our threepenny bits and tanners 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To swap shops, pubs galore 

Where thirsty steel men often went

Eagerly through the door 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To cinemas so grand 

No wonder they called them palaces 

The finest in the land 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To times so grim and hard 

But the children were sent to school 

And played in the old school yard 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

To when people had high aims 

To better themselves and earn success 

In education, sport and games 

Thank you Mike, for taking us back 

I could go on for ever

Shall we forget our Attercliffe?

It lives in our hearts – so Never!

No vote of thanks has warmed my heart more in forty years of giving history lectures.

I felt like giving a vote of thanks for the vote of thanks.

Bennerley benefactors

Bennerley Viaduct, Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire (2022)

On January 14th 2022, fifty-four years after the last train crossed Bennerley Viaduct, the “Iron Giant” reopened, providing public access to magnificent views across the Erewash Valley on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border.

This remarkable structure, built to cope with the likelihood of subsidence in a heavily mined coalfield has survived because of three lucky circumstances.

Its wrought-iron construction made demolition inordinately expensive;  the demise of most similar viaducts ensured its listing at Grade II* and, most important of all, its location near to the Derbyshire town of Ilkeston meant that local people held it in their hearts.

The novelist D H Lawrence (1885-1930), born in nearby Eastwood, mentions it repeatedly in Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow.  For local youths, clambering in the girders as the trains rumbled overhead was an adolescent rite of passage.  Its distinctive shape told local travellers they were nearly home.

After the railway closed the viaduct survived a succession of vicissitudes until Sustrans, the charity which oversees the National Cycle Network, devised a scheme to fund its renovation.

When Sustrans backed away from the project in 2018, the Friends of Bennerley Viaduct worked with Railway Paths Ltd, the owner of the viaduct, to find the means to make it accessible as a community asset. 

I visited the viaduct within a week of its opening with my mate Richard, who often rides shotgun on my history explorations.

We took a train to Ilkeston Station, from where it’s an easy walk up the Erewash Canal towpath to cross the viaduct by a newly-constructed ramp at the west end and steps at the east, returning by the Nottingham Canal towpath to the station.

There must have been at least fifty people on the deck on a cold January midday, enjoying the new experience and full of curiosity.

The Friends of Bennerley Viaduct have brought long-term benefits to local people, dog-walkers, joggers and cyclists, bird-watchers and nature lovers, as well as rail enthusiasts and industrial archaeologists.

The restoration cost of £1.7 million was met in part by railway heritage organisations (the Railway Heritage Trust, Railway Paths and Railway Ramblers), national heritage organisations (Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund) and the local authority, Broxtowe Borough Council.

Richard was intrigued by the sheer variety of other charities that had contributed to the restoration, and back home he researched the less obvious ones:

© Richard Miles

  • the Charles Hayward Foundation, set up in 1961 by Sir Charles Hayward (1892-1983), a Midlands-based businessman whose engineering company Electrical & General Industrial Trusts Ltd eventually became part of the Firth Cleveland group
  • the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based non-profit organisation founded in 1965 to preserve architectural and cultural heritage sites around the world
  • the Headley Trust, a division of the Sainsbury Family Trust, which makes awards to projects both in the UK and overseas supporting causes from arts and heritage to education, health and social welfare and overseas development
  • the Pilgrim Trust, established in the UK in 1930 by an American philanthropist Edward (‘Ned’) Harkness (1874-1940), son of one of the founders of Standard Oil, and dedicated to the UK’s “most urgent needs” and for “protecting its future well-being”
  • the H B Allen Charitable Trust, founded in 1987 by Miss Heather Barbara ‘Mickie’ Allen (d 2005), a descendant of James Burrough, the founder of Beefeater Gin
  • the Sylvia Waddilove Foundation UK, a trust bequeathed by the Bradford-born textile heiress Miss Sylvia Waddilove (1911-2001) which provides grants for a variety of causes, including the preservation of buildings of architectural or historical significance

I admire the Friends of Bennerley Viaduct for three particular reasons:  they are clearly rooted in an energetic local community;  they manage mainstream and social media extremely well, and – as Richard discovered – they are adept at finding financial support from eclectic sources.

The result is, as the Friends’ spokesman Kieron Lee told the BBC, that there are Bennerley Viaduct supporters as far away as Australia, Canada and Hawaii:  Bennerley Viaduct reopens to public after £1.7m repairs – BBC News.

No-one much under seventy can now remember travelling in a train over Bennerley Viaduct, but there is footage of a journey from Derby Friargate to Nottingham Victoria shortly before the passenger service ended on September 7th 1964:  A short film of the Friargate Line – YouTube.

Additional research by Richard Miles

Soane’s hidden house uncovered

Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was one of the greatest English architects who ever lived, but he’s relatively little known because many of his major buildings have been destroyed or mutilated.

His father and brother were bricklayers, and John used their connections to train with the architect George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) and later with Henry Holland (1745-1806). 

From the start of his career he was fortunate to know the right people and to travel to the right places.

On a Royal Academy travelling scholarship he undertook a comprehensive Grand Tour from London to Malta, centred on Rome, seeing and drawing a huge range of classical buildings between 1778 and 1780.  During his travels he encountered numerous people of influence who would eventually help to advance his career.

After a slow start on his return to England, his reputation grew on the strength of country-house commissions, leading to official posts such as Architect and Surveyor to the Bank of England, architect to the Office of Works, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy and clerk of works to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster.

As a member of the United Grand Lodge of England he extended the Freemasons’ Hall in London (1821-31) – and, no doubt, his client-base.

The most distinguished of his surviving public buildings is the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1817), and his abiding legacy is the row of three terraced houses, 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, filled with his collections of drawings and sculpture and now known as Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the destruction of much of Soane’s Bank of England structures after the First World War as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century”.

Only three of his country houses had remained intact – Pitzhanger Manor, Middlesex, Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire and the decayed but restorable Pell Wall Hall in Shropshire – but one, Moggerhanger Park, Bedfordshire, underwent an astonishing rediscovery at the turn of the twentieth century. 

It was commissioned by Godfrey Thornton, deputy governor and latterly governor of the Bank of England in the 1790s, and further altered for his son Stephen in 1806 and 1811.  His close friendship with Stephen Thornton and his brother and cousin meant that Soane used Moggerhanger Park as a test-bed for architectural innovations.

The house was sold to Bedfordshire County Council in 1919 for use as a TB hospital, which inevitably required extensive alterations and extensions.  In the late 1950s it became an orthopaedic hospital which closed in 1987.

It was bought by a developer who intended to build houses in the gardens, but it remained untouched for ten years until it was acquired by the Harvest Vision charity as a Christian Conference and Retreat Centre.

Harvest Vision worked with the Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust, which was led by a neighbour, Isabelle Hay, Countess of Erroll, to restore the building – a process of fascinating rediscovery that stretched over several years and repeatedly expanded the original budget – aided by designation as a Grade I listed building and support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The cheap hospital extensions were stripped away, and a forensic archaeological examination of the original fabric, aided by the rich archive of the Soane Museum, showed that Moggerhanger could be substantially returned to its 1812 condition, revealing the architect’s command of proportion and spatial planning, the ingenious use of light and colour, and the inventive use and reuse of earlier structures.

Described by the architect Peter Inskip, who was involved in its restoration, as “a great work of art which has been ignored for a hundred years”, Moggerhanger Park could not have a better modern use. 

Alongside their mission work, Harvest Vision opens the house to the public, provides accommodation for individuals and groups and offers outstanding wedding facilities, for which purpose Mrs Thornton’s Dressing Room has become a chapel:  Moggerhanger Park.

It’s loved, it’s lived in, and it’s secured for posterity.  Sir John Soane would approve.

Moggerhanger Park features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’. For further details, please click here.

Beneath the City Streets

BT Tower, Fitzrovia, London

I’ve always been interested in the rumours, urban legends and hard evidence for secret government installations underground, both in urban settings and in remote country areas, quietly inserted before, during and particularly after the Second World War, ever since I first read Peter Laurie’s book, Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), shortly after it was published.

Peter Laurie (b 1937), a freelance journalist, had written an article for the Sunday Times in 1967 about how wartime civil defence had been transformed, with hardly any public attention, ostensibly in response to the peculiar threats of nuclear warfare.

He became sufficiently intrigued to develop his research as a hobby, which he published as a book which ran to two editions.

He concluded that “civil defence in its higher manifestations deals with the brute realities of government…it encases the central essence of political power”.

All this he accomplished on paper, using information that was in the public domain, stringing together data sometimes from unlikely sources, such as the GPO trunk dialling codes and the London Underground map, and throwing up facts that fascinated me at the time.

He pointed out quirks in the alignments of the horn aerials of the GPO microwave system that, while providing the nation with colour television signals, bent back and forth to serve as an impenetrable communication system between sites that would protect government and military operations in the event of warfare or civil unrest. 

He showed that the locations of the GPO towers at Bagshot and Stokenchurch were aligned with RAF Medmenham, a secret installation at Warren Row (identified by the Spies for Peace [Spies for Peace – Wikipedia] in 1963) and the RAF Staff College Bracknell.  Each site had sufficient altitude to tap into the microwave signal overhead making them independent of more vulnerable underground cables.

He drew attention to the existence of Second World War facilities in the underground quarries adjacent to Box Tunnel on the Great Western main line, providing easy transportation for an emergency evacuation from central London and from Windsor to National Seat of Government under the village of Box [Closely-guarded secret | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].

Much of this infrastructure subsequently became outmoded, and some of it is now common knowledge.  Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, for instance, is a celebrated attraction:  Visit Churchill War Rooms – Plan Your Visit | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk).

Nuclear bunkers are open to the public in York [York Cold War Bunker | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)], Cheshire [Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker], Holderness [Home – Home (visitthebunker.com)] and Essex [The Secret Nuclear Bunker – Kelvedon Hatch – Kelvedon Hatch – Secret Nuclear Bunker].  Another is under restoration in Edinburgh [Barnton Quarry Rotor SOC and Regional Seat of Government – Subterranea Britannica (subbrit.org.uk)].

Others, rarely mentioned in the public domain, may still be operational:  Hidden depths at Manchester’s Arndale Centre | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Peter Laurie’s book has long been out of print, though copies are still available [Beneath the City Streets: 9780140033816: Amazon.com: Books], and the content is inevitably dated, but it remains worth reading for insights into the effort expended to preserve government control, and the ubiquity of secret activity hiding in plain sight.

Top Forge

Wortley Top Forge, South Yorkshire

South Yorkshire boasts two of nationally significant historic metal-working sites, the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet on the southern edge of Sheffield and the Wortley Top Forge between Sheffield and Penistone.  Both are scheduled ancient monuments and contain Grade I listed buildings.

They exist because of the foresight of the individuals who formed the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society who recognised the significance of each site and campaigned to protect them from the risk of demolition before the Second World War – back in the prehistory of industrial archaeology and historical conservation.

Abbeydale Works became part of Sheffield City Museums and, along with Shepherd Wheel and Kelham Island Industrial Museum were transferred to Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust in 1998.

Wortley Top Forge, abandoned by 1929, was acquired by the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society in 1953, and the Society continues to maintain and develop the site and open it to the public through its operational arm, the South Yorkshire Trades Historical Trust Ltd.

The leading light of the project was the late Ken Hawley (1927-2014), the celebrated saviour of much of South Yorkshire’s tools and machinery.  His collections are now divided between Wortley and Kelham Island.

The Top Forge, along with the now-obliterated Low Forge, was operating by 1640, though water-powered metal-working was practised in the area from the thirteenth century onwards.

Alongside the remaining original buildings, the Trust has restored and built new structures to accommodate the growing collection of artefacts, including stationary steam engines – a very recent innovation, because the Forge was always powered by water.

A succession of enterprising and innovative lessees imported new techniques to the two forges:  James Cockshutt brought Henry Cort’s reverberatory furnace from Wales to South Yorkshire in the 1790s and in the nineteenth century Thomas Andrews Jnr made Wortley renowned for the quality of its wrought iron for railway rolling-stock axles.  Both these men became Fellows of the Royal Society;  indeed, Thomas Andrews belonged to the Royal Societies in both London and Edinburgh.

Visiting the Top Forge is challenging.  Its site is at least 1½ miles away from Wortley village, deep in the depths of the Don Valley, and access is encumbered by tight bends and the low bridges of the now closed Woodhead railway.  Signage is minimal:  a Yorkshire flag indicates the entrance:  Flag of Yorkshire – Flags and symbols of Yorkshire – Wikipedia.

Those who have the determination to arrive are made warmly welcome, but on ordinary Sunday working days there is little provision for tourists.  The location is beautiful.  The loos are impeccable, but the place is otherwise innocent of visitor amenities.  Donations are gratefully received, guided tours run ad hoc and rides on the miniature railway are free. 

It’s not so much a tourist attraction as a man-cave, populated by friendly, welcoming gentlemen of a certain age in overalls, working with metal and tweaking their engines, who are more than happy to discuss the technicalities of the machinery they tend.

I was shown round by an admirable young guide, Emily, who, once she realised that I know very little about engineering, pitched her tour to my level of understanding.

Open days are a different matter:  then the Top Forge is en fête.  Details are announced on the website events page, which has been understandably disrupted by the pandemic.

The Society’s website provides a detailed history and description of this fascinating place: Wortley Top Forge – The oldest surviving heavy iron forge in the world.