Monthly Archives: February 2020

The world’s oldest railway

Tanfield Railway: Andrews House Station, Co Durham

By an accident of signposting, my visit to the Tanfield Railway [https://www.tanfield-railway.co.uk]  began at East Tanfield which is perhaps not the best place.

I later discovered that Andrews House station is where the party’s at, not least because it’s within walking distance of the Marley Hill engine shed, where there’s lots to see.

The station building at East Tanfield is the very welcoming Tommy Armstrong Tea Shop, its tables impressively laid out with fine-looking china.  Coffee and pastries are in abundance, and they’ll even sell you a train ticket, written by hand.

However, there’s a noticeable lack of what the heritage industry calls “interpretation”.

Even the timetable is occult, possessed by knowledgeable old geezers squinting at sheets of A4 paper which they fold and stuff surreptitiously in the pockets of their anoraks.

You can, of course, ask the station staff.  Like freemasonry, knowledge here is acquired by degrees.

Trains appear when they’re good and ready, and they’re worth waiting for.

This is a no-nonsense coal railway, partly dating back to around 1720, which allows it to claim to be “the world’s oldest railway”.

It operates sturdy little tank engines, such as would, in times gone by, heave long trains of coal wagons out of the local collieries.

The passenger carriages are mostly four-wheelers that don’t go “diddly-dee, diddly da” but rather “clunk, clunk” – Victorian equivalents of the notorious Pacers, but much more elegant.

It’s always heartening on a volunteer-run railway to see engine crew who look not a day over twenty.

The passengers are mostly older than twenty – serious enthusiasts who know what’s going on, and couples with glum-looking dogs which would rather be chasing sticks than catching trains.

There’s a trackside footpath, useful for photographers who wait, tripods set and cameras ready, to capture the seldom-spotted tank engine.

The place is a delight.  Everyone is friendly and unrushed.  And the roast pork breadcakes are superlative.

Castello con un teatro annesso

Castello di Meleto, Tuscany, Italy: theatre

One of the delights of my Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] was a life-enhancing visit to the Castello di Meleto [http://www.castellomeleto.it/eng/castle/castle.php].

This is an intriguing place, a medieval hill-top castle documented from 1256 and for centuries owned by the Ricasoli-Firidolfi family, who sold up only in 1968.  The interiors, on the ground floor at least, are entirely baroque, with an unrestored patina of faded splendour.

We were treated to a cookery demonstration by the chef, Elena, who spoke only Italian, translated (or perhaps explicated) by the hostess Geraldine, who extolled the quality of the Castle’s extra virgin olive oil, which we were invited to smell and taste.

We were shown how to make an Italian stew, which seemed to me exactly how I would make an English stew with Italian ingredients. 

The pasta-making demonstration was more entertaining, and a great deal of pasta was passed hand to hand around the group. 

We were invited out for antipasti on the terrace, where a classical wing of the house (with a medieval turret on the end) faces a flat lawn and a wall, from where expanses of hillside vineyards are visible. 

No sooner had we wandered outside than a misty rain began to fall, and within ten minutes the waitresses shifted the antipasti back into the castle and a loud clap of thunder heralded a downpour that lasted no more than half an hour.

We tucked into the antipasti indoors while Geraldine gave lectures first on the Castle’s white wine and then on the rosé, all the time pouring wine into everyone’s glasses and interrupting her flow with “I’ll fetch another bottle.”  There was no sniffing or spitting.  This was a straightforward invitation to get trollied.

We weren’t formally shown the downstairs rooms, but instead trotted off to the cellars which are tricked out with barrels and racks of bottles.

Geraldine took us from the cellars to a surprise – a tiny, intact private theatre, dated 1741, complete with perspective scenery and a balcony.  I can find nothing of any significance about it online, and I’ve never come across it in the theatre-history literature. 

Indeed, I wonder if its provenance and history have been seriously researched.  It is at any rate a great rarity. 

A three-course dinner followed, liberally lubricated with red chianti and a dessert wine.  I sat back from the conversation and watched the sunset through the trees outside the window. 

Then predictably, “pat,…like the catastrophe in the old comedy”, came the buying opportunity.  My fellow guests queued up to buy bottles of wine and olive oil, while I sat in an armchair and watched.

Eventually we began the journey back, of which the first seventy minutes were simply a succession of hairpin bends and a few small villages.  We joined the motorway south of Florence, and it took another three-quarters of an hour to reach our hotel in Montecatini Terme.

I reflected on the considerable appeal of the Castillo di Meleto.  It’s now owned by a joint-stock company and you can stay there, at rates which are high but not outrageous.  However, it’s so remote that it would be impractical to go anywhere:  it’s simply a place to enjoy, with extensive gardens, an infinity pool and a restaurant down the drive for lunch and dinner:   https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.castellomeleto.it/&prev=search.

Rivelin Valley cemetery

Cemetery of St Michael, Rivelin Valley, Sheffield: chapel interior

On the north-western outskirts of Sheffield, a short walk up the Rivelin Valley from the Supertram terminus at Malin Bridge, a gateway leads to the Roman Catholic cemetery of St Michael, opened in 1862 and still in use:  https://www.saintmichaelscemetery.org.

After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the first parish church in the area was St Bede’s, opened at Masborough on the then outskirts of Rotherham in 1842.  It was followed by the parish church of St Marie in Sheffield (1850), now the cathedral of the Diocese of Hallam, and another large church, St Vincent’s (1853 onwards) was started in The Crofts, an overcrowded area north of the town centre where Irish Catholics settled after the Potato Famine.

Of these, only St Bede’s had a burial ground, until in 1862 the priest at St Vincent’s, Father Burke, purchased eight acres of steeply sloping land in the Rivelin Valley from the snuff-manufacturer Mr Wilson, whose family had also provided the land for the General Cemetery nearly thirty years before.

The cemetery, with a temporary chapel, was dedicated on Michaelmas Day, September 29th 1863.

The present chapel was built in 1877, financed by a gift of £2,000 from the Sheffield tailor and gents’ outfitter, George Harvey Foster, and designed by the father-and-son practice Matthew Ellison and Charles Hadfield.  This new chapel is 72 feet long and 22 feet wide, built in the Early English style.  It has an apsidal east end, a sixty-foot-high bellcote above the west door, and the south-west porch is embellished with a statue of St Michael slaying Satan as a dragon.

The interior, restored in 2005, is distinguished by the work of an impressive group of contemporary artists.  The marble and alabaster altar, with its figure of the dead Christ, is from the Cheltenham workshop of the sculptor Richard Lockwood Boulton. 

Further decorations were funded by a gift of £430 by the Foster family in 1884 – wall paintings by Charles Hadfield and Nathaniel Westlake, who also designed the west window, and the three east windows, designed by John Francis Bentley who later became the architect of Westminster Cathedral and manufactured by Nathaniel Westlake’s stained-glass company, Lavers & Westlake.

The two most prominent monuments in the cemetery stand above the family vaults of George Harvey Foster (1829-1894), and the department-store proprietor, John Walsh (d1905), respectively gothic and neo-Classical and constructed within a decade of each other. 

The sharp gradient makes exploring the cemetery a strenuous activity, and visitors are advised not to stray from paths because gravestones may be unstable.

Higher up the valley side are two more burial grounds, a very small Jewish cemetery and the Church of England Walkley Cemetery, both opened in 1860.

Chris Hobbs’ local-history website has a feature on Walkley Cemetery:  https://www.chrishobbs.com/sheffield/walkleycemetery.htm.

The Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (September 16th-20th 2021) tour includes a visit to St Michael’s Cemetery.  For further details of the tour please click here.

Old Dock

Old Dock, Liverpool

Quentin Hughes’ 1964 study of Liverpool’s architecture, Seaport, begins with the inimitable sentence, “The quality of Mersey is not strained”.

The book, reissued in 1993 but now out of print, is illustrated with atmospheric monochrome photographs taken just before the decline in the North and South Docks became terminal.

Nowadays, you can see where the great port started by peering through a porthole in the pavement of the glitzy shopping centre, Liverpool One, to glimpse part of the Old Dock, built by the pioneering civil engineer Thomas Steers (?1672-1750) between 1710 and 1716.

Steers’ career is shadowy, simply because the historical evidence is vague about his achievements.  He came to the north-west from Rotherhithe, and constructed the Mersey & Irwell Navigation (1721-25), the Newry Canal in Ireland (completed 1742) and much else, perhaps more than is now recorded.

In Liverpool Steers was commissioned to build the world’s first commercial wet dock, using lock gates to provide protection from the tides so that boats remained at a constant level for convenient loading and unloading.

He adapted the natural inlet on which the port had developed, building a substantial twenty-foot-high brick wall directly from the bedrock to enclose a 3½-acre stretch of water large enough for a hundred vessels.

The whole project was made possible because the borough corporation had bought the manorial rights from Lord Molyneux in 1672.

Costing £12,000 – twice Steers’ estimate – it was a huge gamble which paid off and laid the foundations for Liverpool’s dominance as a port that grew rich on the notorious triangular trade of cotton, rum, sugar, spices and slaves.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Old Dock became too small to be useful and was badly polluted by the sewage of the surrounding streets.  It was closed in 1826 and filled in.

On the site the architect John Foster Jnr (1786-1846) built his magnificent domed classical Custom House (1828-38) which was gutted in the 1941 Blitz and, regrettably, demolished soon after the end of the War: http://liverpoolremembrance.weebly.com/the-custom-house.html.

At the time of the Millennium the redevelopment of Liverpool One provided the opportunity to retrieve part of the site’s archaeology, so that visitors can see the literal foundations of the port on escorted guided tours arranged by the Maritime Museum:  https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/visit/old-dock.aspx.

The Old Dock tour is included in the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 7th-11th 2021) tourFor further details please click here.