Monthly Archives: November 2020

Rainbow’s End

Rainbow’s end

One of the images in the ‘Sunlight’ series of my greetings-card range is a photographic fluke.

It was taken through the window of a moving train sometime in 1977.  It exists as a 35mm colour slide, and has been gently buffed up by Photoshop.

The occasion was memorable.

In those days, most of my adult-education courses were based around transport history, and it was a good time to be teaching about trains.

Dr Beeching’s reshaping of Britain’s railways had been running for the past ten years, steam had gone, and a brave new world of high-speed intercity passenger services was on the horizon.

My classes in Derbyshire were often populated by retired railwaymen who could tell stories back to the 1930s, and sometimes by current rail employees who knew what was going on in the industry.

I had an invaluable contact in British Rail’s Sheffield office, a gentleman called George who was in charge of group travel and could pull all sorts of levers if I booked a dozen or more adult-ed students on a rail trip.

It was George who gave me access to the former Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras when it was most neglected – Grade I listed and nobody could think what to do with it.

When the spanking new High Speed Train (HST), later branded as Intercity 125, came on stream on the Great Western main line and the Cross Country route from the South West to the North East in 1977, George was able to provide us with tickets to travel on both lines on the same day, beginning on the Midland Main Line at Chesterfield (which was not then served by HSTs, though they came later).

We travelled south to St Pancras, hopped on the Underground to Paddington, sped down the Great Western to Bristol Temple Meads, and then returned all the way to Chesterfield.

It was somewhere on the last leg of the triangular journey, south of Birmingham, that I spotted the rainbow and lined it up with a passing cottage.

The HSTs were a new experience in travel, not only for their maximum speed of 125mph but for the air-conditioning and solid comfort of their Mark 3 carriages.  Many of them are still in service, despite the fact that until recently they still had slam doors and direct discharge of lavatories on to the track.

I’ve written elsewhere about the designer Sir Kenneth Grange’s influence on the shape of the production HST, and about the export of the design to Australia, where it’s known as the XPT.

The HST was supposed to be a hastily-contrived stand-in for the tilting Advanced Passenger Train, which was aborted by British Rail and its technology sold to Fiat Ferrovia, only to return to Britain as the Pendolino in 2010.

Meanwhile, the HST has given many years of yeoman service, and hasn’t yet outlived its usefulness.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.

Sam’s Space

Firth Park Methodist Church, Sheffield

I’ve remarked more than once that the northern suburbs of Sheffield are short of landmark buildings.

I deplored the demolition of St Hilda’s Parish Church, Shiregreen and the Ritz Cinema, Parson Cross, and I’ve written blog articles about the uncertain futures of St Cecilia’s Parish Church, Parson Cross, the Capitol Cinema, Sheffield Lane Top and the Timbertop pub, Shirecliffe.

I was delighted to read, in the Methodist Church periodical The Connexion (Summer 2020), that Firth Park Methodist Church has put its attractive and expensive building to good use to ensure its long-term survival.

The Grade-II listed building is an essay in Perpendicular Gothic style by the Sheffield architects Frank W Chapman (1869-1933) and John Mansell Jenkinson (1883-1965), built of red brick with ashlar dressings and a slate roof.  Its entrance front has a wide Perpendicular window, with twin turrets and a porch with twin entrance doors.  The sides of the nave are buttressed and its roof carries an octagonal flèche.  It cost £4,000.

The interior plan of the worship space was originally cruciform, with transepts and a chancel.

The foundation stone was laid on Saturday May 28th 1910, and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of that date mentioned that the building would accommodate a congregation of three hundred and the ancillary facilities included a church parlour, minister’s vestry, choir vestry and kitchen.

The church opened on May 11th 1911.  It was affiliated to the United Methodist Church until the 1932 amalgamation which created the modern Methodist Church.

I’ve been told that in the early 1960s a property developer offered the congregation a deal whereby in exchange for the corner site on Stubbin Lane and Sicey Avenue, a brand-new chapel would be incorporated into a proposed supermarket.

The Methodists turned down this offer and instead the unlovely Paragon Cinema (1934), fifty yards up Sicey Avenue, was replaced by a supermarket and bowling alley.

Maintaining the building became increasingly difficult in the decades that followed, and a suspended ceiling was installed circa 1980 to make the place easier to heat.

As the Anglican congregation at St Hilda’s declined, there was talk of amalgamating in order to use one building instead of two, but when eventually St Hilda’s closed in 2007 the remaining members transferred to the Anglican parish church of St James & St Christopher, Shiregreen.

The Methodist congregation continued to flourish, however, and nowadays includes people of Caribbean heritage and from a number of African nations, especially Ghana, and former refugee families from Thailand.  The former vestry now serves as a café and is used for Café Church.

To support its thriving programme of activities – youth groups, English as a Second Language groups, an entertainment group – the congregation visualises creating two separate spaces in the nave, and in February 2020 opened ‘Sam’s Space’, containing a substantial indoor soft play structure.  In the five weeks before the pandemic lockdown forced it to close, an encouraging number of visitors crossed the threshold.

Sam’s Space isn’t only for kids.  Rev Mark Goodhand’s article in The Connexion comments,–

It’s a meeting place for young children, parents, grandparents and carers.  It’s a space that outside of soft play sessions will be used for wider conversations – fellowship groups, local councillors’ surgeries and school curriculum work.  As the project has unfolded new opportunities for service have emerged.  We hope to be involved with mental health work by using an open area attached to our building to provide raised beds for gardening.  It’s a place where new expressions of worship will begin to be shaped by the community.  This is exciting!

Every church is, of course, essentially the people who meet.  The building is only bricks and mortar.

But it’s satisfying that – thanks to the vision of the Firth Park Methodists – the humdrum shopping centre of Firth Park will retain its only distinguished building.

For your tomorrow we gave our today

Fountains Hall, North Yorkshire: memorial to Elizabeth and Charles Vyner

Fountains Hall is a quirky Jacobean house, built into a steep hillside, probably to a design by Robert Smythson, on the edge of the precinct of the medieval Fountains Abbey.  Indeed, its stones came from the Abbey, plundered by the builder, the unlikeable Stephen Proctor, in the first decade of the seventeenth century. 

Periods of neglect in its long history kept it intact and charming.  In the late 1920s it was renovated by Commander Clare and Lady Doris Vyner and during the Second World War the house was used to accommodate evacuees.

The Vyners’ daughter Elizabeth joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service and died of lethargic encephalitis, or sleeping sickness, aged eighteen, on June 3rd 1942.  Her death reminds us that not all the victims of war die by enemy action, but for their loved ones the loss is as great and the grief no less hard to bear.

Elizabeth Vyner’s younger brother, Charles De Grey Vyner, served as a pilot in the Royal Naval Reserve, and was reported missing in action when his plane crashed into the sea off Rangoon on May 2nd 1945.  He was nineteen.

Word reached his family on May 12th.  After the euphoria of VE Day on the 8th there could hardly have been a more cruel blow.

After the War Elizabeth and Charles’ parents erected a memorial, poignantly placed above the main door of the Hall, a stained-glass window flanked by carved figures of brother and sister in uniform.  It was designed by John Seely and Paul Paget and was unveiled on April 9th 1953 by Elizabeth’s godmother, after whom she was named, HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The memorial is visible only to visitors leaving the house, unless on entering they reach the top of the stairs and turn. 

Its inscription reads, “When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.  From this their home, they went forth to war.”

Start of the Pennine Way

Edale, Derbyshire

Even though it’s popular with visitors, the Derbyshire village of Edale, tucked high in the valley of the River Noe, feels a long way out of the way.

It is referred to as “Aidale” in Domesday Book and under the Norman kings it became part of the Royal Forest of the Peak.  From the reign of King John the Noe Valley comprised five Royal Farms, or “booths”, based on settlements at Upper Booth, Barber Booth, Ollerbrook Booth, Nether Booth and Grindsbrook Booth.

After royal control gave place in Tudor times to individual tenements, Grindsbrook Booth became the location of an inn dating back to the seventeenth century and the site of the parish church of Holy Trinity. 

The first parish church here dated from 1633, but the present, third building was built in 1885-6, with a spire added four years later. 

Cattle farming gave place to sheep, and in the late eighteenth century the valley was enclosed with the gritstone dry stone walls that are characteristic of the Dark Peak.

The village itself is 820 feet above sea level, and the hills round about rise to over 2,000 feet.

Nevertheless, though transport in any direction was arduous, a cotton mill was built on the site of a corn mill and tannery half a mile from the village in 1795. 

Workers lived in a dormitory, on a site still known as Skinners Hall [https://www.cottageguide.co.uk/taylorscroft], and women workers came from Castleton, commuting on foot along the old coffin-trail over Hollins Cross. 

The mill operated until 1934, and the Landmark Trust restored and converted it to apartments in the 1970s.

The railway eventually made the place accessible in 1894, and houses for prosperous Victorian incomers stand among older vernacular cottages.

The Nag’s Head pub, a former barn, is the formal southern beginning of the Pennine Way.

There was a possibility, shortly after the Second World War, that all this would be swept away, when in 1949 the Derwent Valley Water Board proposed to flood the Noe Valley to make a reservoir the same size of Ladybower (completed in 1945) with a dam 127 feet high and 1,750 feet long.  The scheme would have involved burying the Dore-Chinley railway in a lengthy tunnel.

As an alternative suggestion, in the early 1950s the Board considered building a dam west of Castleton flooding the valley of the Odin Sitch below Mam Tor.

They then considered a series of schemes to raise the waters of the Upper Derwent Valley by a great dam which would submerge the existing dam at Derwent and leave only the towers of Howden Dam visible above the waters.

These schemes are described and illustrated in Brian Robertson’s book, Walls Across the Valley:  the building of Howden and Derwent Dams (Scarthin Books 1993), pp 194-205.

Instead, in the 1980s, the Board’s successor, Severn-Trent, began Carsington Reservoir, which after some tribulations opened in 1992.

The Derwent High Dam proposal remains on the table.  No-one nowadays seriously suggests flooding Edale.

The above image is available as a greetings card, price £2.95 for one or £11.95 for a pack of five, or as a notelet to order. For the entire range of Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times greetings cards, please click here.