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.

Atomic Bomb Dome

Hiroshima, Japan: Atomic Bomb Dome

My generation were the first to grow up in the shadow of nuclear war, and images of the devastation of the Japanese city Hiroshima were printed on our youthful imaginations. 

It’s perhaps understandable, though regrettable, that Hiroshima, destroyed by atomic bomb on August 6th 1945, has always gained attention in precedence over the port-city of Nagaski, which was attacked four days later.

When I was offered to opportunity to attend a conference in Tokyo in 2016, I asked for my return date to be deferred so that I could see something of Japan, and my first priority outside the capital was to travel to Hiroshima, now once again a thriving city with a present-day population of over a million.

The Atomic Bomb Dome [Genbaku Dōmu], which I’ve always wanted to see, is surprisingly modest, a three-storey exhibition hall and office building that survived because it was almost directly below the hypocentre, so that the walls withstood the downward blast.  Everyone in the building was, of course, vaporised.

What was a densely populated suburb is now a formally landscaped, very beautiful park, with a river channel running through it.  There are more individual memorials than it’s comfortable to take in.  I was particularly taken by the Peace Bell, a modernist cupola containing a Japanese bell which you’re invited to ring, and which resonates for well over a minute, proclaiming the hope of peace in the world.

I could hardly get near the Children’s Peace Monument, which commemorates Sadasko Sasaki, a schoolgirl survivor who succumbed to leukaemia, attributed to the bomb, at the age of twelve in 1955.  She was convinced that if she made a thousand origami cranes she would be cured.  In fact, she carried on making more than a thousand until she was too weak to continue, and the paper crane has become a symbol of the prayer for peace.  This and other monuments in the park are constantly embellished with coloured strings of cranes, some of them sent from all over the world.

The Peace Memorial Museum [http://hpmmuseum.jp/?lang=eng] disappointed me, entirely because it was impossibly crowded.  The exhibits and the information are, as you would expect, difficult to take in by their nature, but the scrum of school parties and adult tourists, many with children and pushchairs, some taking flash photographs, made me wish I could be there on a rainy November Monday afternoon to appreciate more sensitively the power of the place and the memory of the victims. 

I gather the Museum is to be greatly expanded, which might resolve this difficulty.  It’s a place that should be openly accessible to present and future generations, comparable to the better-managed 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

Barton bridges

Bridgewater Canal: Barton Aqueduct

It’s often forgotten that when James Brindley (1716-1772) surveyed his canal to carry coal from the Duke of Bridgewater’s mines at Worsley, he originally planned to build its terminus in Salford.

This was the route authorised by the first Bridgewater Canal Act of 1759.

Almost immediately, Brindley made the radical decision to take the canal across the River Irwell so that it could terminate at Castlefield in Manchester. 

This scheme made it practical to build an extension, longer than the original main line, to run parallel to the Mersey & Irwell Navigation towards Liverpool, but it depended on bridging the River Irwell with an aqueduct, carrying canal barges above an existing waterway, at Barton-upon-Irwell.

Despite the scepticism of other engineers and parliamentarians, and even though the first ingress of water nearly caused the collapse of one of the three arches, Brindley’s Barton Aqueduct proved to be practical when it opened in 1761,  and it became the wonder of the age.

All the great aqueducts the canal age stem from this modest-looking structure.

It was so solidly built that when it was demolished in 1893 to make way for the Manchester Ship Canal, it had to be dynamited:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barton_Aqueduct#/media/File:Barton_aqueduct.jpg.

Its replacement, the hydraulic Barton Swing Aqueduct (1894), is remarkable in its own way.

It was designed by the Ship Canal’s engineer, Edward Leader Williams (1828-1910), the designer of the Anderton Boat Lift (1875), and was constructed by the ironfounders Andrew Handyside & Co of Derby. 

Watertight gates block the canal and the tank that carries boats, as the bridge swings to lie parallel with the Ship Canal so that ocean-going vessels can pass.

The adjacent Barton Road Swing Bridge works in tandem with the aqueduct, and both are controlled from the four-storey brick valve house on the man-made island in the middle of the Ship Canal.

At one time the single-carriageway Barton road bridge was practically part of the Manchester ring road, and the traffic delays became notorious after the Second World War.

The traffic jams were relieved but not eliminated by the construction of the M60 Barton High Level Bridge (1960) to the west of the swing bridges.

Standing on the canal bank or the swing road bridge at Barton is a reminder of how far engineering has developed since the uneducated millwright James Brindley ventured to bridge the river with a canal in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Ferry up the Mersey

Manchester Ship Canal

The best birthday presents are inspired, and when my friend John and his family gave me a voucher for a Mersey Ferry cruise up the Manchester Ship Canal for my seventieth birthday they made possible a long-held ambition that I’d never got round to fulfilling:  https://www.merseyferries.co.uk/cruises/Manchester-Ship-Canal-Cruises/Pages/default.aspx.

The gift was enhanced by the fact that John agreed to join me.  No-one knows better how to compile a Marks & Spencer picnic.

Booking a Ferry Cruise takes persistence:  I lost count of how many times I was told, in an inimitable Scouse accent, that “it’s not on the system yet”.

Persistence pays.  I booked us on a cruise up the canal to Manchester.

I was tipped off that the smart advice was to sail from Seacombe and arrive at the terminal good and early to bag a decent seat.

John was told the exact opposite, that the boat started from Pier Head.

My source was correct, and we took a taxi to Seacombe so far ahead of time that we were treated to complimentary coffee left over from the commuters’ sailings, so that we were in position to march down the gangway, like Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go, and park ourselves on the upper deck, facing forward, with seat, a table and a window ahead.

We were advised to take a picnic because of the queues for food at the café-bars on each deck.  In fact, we took it in turns to fetch hot drinks whenever the queue was manageable.

It’s a fascinating experience to sail up the trench that was dug thirty-six miles up the Mersey valley from Eastham Locks to Salford in the early 1890s, and even more memorable to meet an ocean-going ship coming the other way.

Rising through huge locks in a sizeable boat that doesn’t touch the sides is disconcerting.  The Mersey ferries are around 150 feet long and have a beam forty feet or slightly more.  The widest MSC locks are eighty feet wide.

One of the enjoyable features of the trip was the way in which, like other canals, the Ship Canal route stitches together places that aren’t directly connected by road and rail routes.

From the start of the canal at Eastham Locks, past Ellesmere Port, the refineries at Stanlow and the Runcorn Gap with its road and rail bridges, the Ship Canal clings to the river bank.

As it approaches Warrington it dives through the town in a dead straight line that continues under the M62 Thelwall Viaduct, then weaves it way towards Irlam and beneath the M60 at Barton.

Shortly after the M60 viaduct it passes the two 1894 swing-bridges at Barton, one for the road and the other the historic replacement  for the even more historic James Brindley aqueduct (1791) that was sacrificed to make the Ship Canal possible.

Coals to Newcastle

Causey Arch, Co Durham
Causey Arch, Co Durham: reproduction wagon

I’ve known about the Causey Arch for as long as I’ve known anything about railway history.

It always appeared in the textbooks, often in unlikely-looking engravings, but was not much visited because until the 1980s it was neglected and not very accessible.

It’s an outstanding piece of industrial archaeology because it was, at the time it was built, 1725-26, easily the longest single-span bridge in Britain, 102 feet between the abutments and eighty feet above the Causey Burn.

It can also claim to be the world’s first railway bridge, carrying a wooden tramway conveying coal from Tanfield Colliery to the River Tyne 5½ miles away.

An earlier bridge had collapsed as soon as it was completed.  Indeed the stonemason of the existing arch, Ralph Wood, was so nervous about the strength of its replacement that he killed himself before it was completed.

A reproduction of one of the wagons is displayed at the site:  these wooden wagons, with wooden wheels running on wooden rails, were controlled by a disconcertingly basic wooden brake.

Friction sometimes caused the wheels and brakes to catch fire.

Wagons loaded with 2½ tons of coal rolled down the “main-way” grade by gravity, retarded by horses, which hauled them back to the pit empty up the opposite track, the “bye-way”.

Nine hundred wagons a day traversed the line – one every twenty seconds crossing this great masonry arch which seems to have had no parapet.

By the magnitude of the arch and the volume of its initial traffic we can judge how much money was to be made from Durham coal in the eighteenth century.

Its heyday was shortlived.  It declined after Tanfield Colliery caught fire in 1739.

Though it was listed grade I as early as 1950, it was neglected until the local council restored it and developed its surroundings in 1980.

Since the Tanfield Railway began regular services to the station beside the Arch in 1991, it has become an easy and popular focus for walks in the area.

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.