Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Keighley

St Anne’s Roman Catholic Parish Church, Keighley, West Yorkshire

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) began his career as an architect in the early 1830s, empowered by two events, the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829) and his own conversion to Catholicism in 1834, which led him to become the great pioneer of the Gothic Revival in the British Isles and across the world.

John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852) enlisted him to design Catholic churches, monasteries and schools, and Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) hired him to contribute detailed designs to the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster for which he was never in his lifetime accorded adequate credit.

In a short career lasting barely a decade Pugin directed his prodigious artistic talent to provide inexpensive church designs for impoverished congregations alongside opulent commissions for wealthy Catholic patrons.

He was capable of devising simple, dignified parish churches for as little as £3,000, yet when he had access to a generous budget – and when he was footing the bill himself – he spent lavishly and designed richly.

St Anne’s, Keighley is typical of his low-budget commissions, a modest nave with a short chancel and a belfry which fell down during construction and had to be rebuilt.  The current edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England:  Yorkshire West Riding – Leeds, Bradford and the North (Yale University Press 2009) points out that the simplicity of the lancet windows were “popular among less exacting architects”;  given the chance, Pugin would have insisted on tracery.

The Pevsner volume (p 353) shows an 1843 engraving of the building in its original form – modest, simple, elegant, and instantly recognisable as essentially Pugin.

However, by the end of the nineteenth century the congregation had outgrown the building and the Bradford architect Edward Simpson (1844-1937) turned the place on its axis and more than doubled its floor area in 1907.

Pugin had observed the tradition that worshippers should face east towards Jerusalem, but his chancel became the entrance, and at the west end Simpson added a florid new chancel and a pair of double transepts.  They are clearly by a different hand, yet Simpson shows respect for the original design.  This layout is practical, providing direct entry from North Street, and is visually harmonious.

The interior was extensively beautified in the period 1908-1915.  Pugin’s 1841 east window by Thomas Willement (1786-1871) remains above the entrance doors, and the original altar is now in the Chapel of Our Lady.  The main sanctuary has an imposing high altar and reredos, installed in 1915:  Taking Stock – Catholic Churches of England and Wales (taking-stock.org.uk).

It’s ironic that when a similar rearrangement was proposed at the former St Aidan’s, Small Heath, Birmingham, now All Saints’, in 1998, the Victorian Society strongly objected, until firmly told by the Chancellor of the Consistory Court that worship took precedence over antiquarianism.

St Anne’s amalgamated with the nearby parish of Our Lady Of Victories Keighley in 2016 and it’s apparent from the parish website that the congregation is thriving:  St Anne’s Catholic Church – Priest’s Welcome (stanneskeighley.org.uk).

The parish has a long tradition of welcoming strangers to its community – “…not only the Irish immigrants but later on the Italians, Poles, Slovenians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Latvians, Czechoslovakians, people from many African countries and most recently Indians from Kerela as well as many migrant workers from Eastern Europe” – and supports socially and economically disadvantaged members of the local community through its charity shop and at the Good Shepherd Centre:  St Anne’s Catholic Church – Good Shepherd Centre (stanneskeighley.org.uk).

Temple Street Methodist Church, Keighley

Temple Street Methodist Church, Keighley, West Yorkshire

Temple Street Methodist Church (1846) is indeed a temple celebrating the growth of Wesleyan Methodism in Keighley in the former West Riding of Yorkshire.

There had been Methodists in the town for just over a hundred years by the time it was built.  A journeyman shoemaker called John Wilkinson formed a small group to meet in his cottage for worship in 1742. 

The tiny congregation rapidly grew to over a hundred, and John Wesley (1703-1791) made his first visit to the town in 1746.  He returned in 1753, 1759 and 1772.  On his last visit, in April 1774, he preached to “our old, upright, loving brethren at Keighley”.

The first purpose-built preaching house opened in 1754 and was enlarged in 1764 and 1777.  It was superseded by the Eden Chapel in 1811, which became a Sunday School when the Temple Street chapel opened, designed to accommodate 1,600 people, in 1846.

At that time the façade looked out across an open space to North Street, the main road, but later its façade was hemmed in by the buildings of Russell Chambers.

This was not the only Methodist presence in Keighley.  The Primitive Methodists began a mission in 1821 and eventually extended to three circuits, and the Wesleyan Protestant Methodists built their Gothic church with its 125-foot spire, the tallest in the town, in c1863.  These were only the most prominent among a scattering of little chapels across the locality.

My friend John who grew up in Haworth in the 1960s remembers Temple Street for the Keighley Grammar School Founder’s Day services and the annual performances of Messiah which, in the local tradition, were in two parts, afternoon and evening, with community hymn-singing in between.  The Messiah events involved choirs of up to three hundred.  Sometimes extra chairs were needed to seat the congregation.

In a surprisingly short time at the end of the 1960s there followed a rapid decline, as the Christian population moved to the outlying suburbs and villages and an Asian population replaced them.  The Methodist congregation formed an ecumenical partnership with the parish church of St Andrew and the chapel was sold to the Borough Council for an intended redevelopment plan that was promptly abandoned when Keighley was transferred to the City of Bradford Metropolitan District in 1974.  In that year the Temple Street Chapel was listed Grade II.

The war-memorial stained-glass windows were transferred to the museum at nearby Cliffe Castle and the magnificent Foster & Andrews organ seems to have disappeared, as fine organs did and sometimes still do.

The oak war-memorial board also disappeared, but was reclaimed in remarkable circumstances in 2015:  Temple Street | Men of Worth.

Temple Street was sold in 1978 and became the Shahjalal Mosque, and remains after all a place of worship.

The prettiest bridge in Berlin

Oberbaumbrücke, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin

The Oberbaum Bridge [Oberbaumbrücke], which links two Berlin suburbs, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, across the River Spree, is engagingly weird. 

Lonely Planet describes it as “Berlin’s prettiest bridge”, while the Berlin Historical Walks website suggests “its strutting proud form reflects the confidence and swagger” of imperial Germany.

In fact, its chequered history touches every aspect of the growth and resilience of this fascinating city.

The crossing was established at the boundary of early eighteenth-century Berlin as part of a customs wall to collect tolls.  The name literally translates as “Upper beam bridge”, indicating the tree-trunk barrier that was lowered overnight to discourage smugglers.  There was a lower (ie, downstream) beam at Unterbaumstraße.

The original wooden bridge was replaced by the present brick, double-deck structure in 1894-96, to overcome a bottleneck for road vehicles and pedestrians and to accommodate elevated tracks for the city’s first subway trains.  Services on the U-bahn from Stralauer Tor on the eastern side of the bridge to Potsdamer Platz began in 1902.

To mask the bare structure the architect Otto Stahn (1859–1930) dressed it in the distinctive Brick Gothic style, with two entirely decorative towers flanking the central span, indicating that this had been a historic gate into the city.

In the final weeks of the Second World War the Wehrmacht blew up the central section in a vain attempt to impede the advancing Red Army, and Allied air raids damaged the Stralauer Tor station so severely that it was never rebuilt.

The Oberbaumbrücke came to symbolise the division of Berlin, first into four sectors administered by the Allies, and then into the two separate enclaves of East and West Berlin.

In the early post-war years West Berliners could exercise the right to travel across to the East, but East Berliners were strictly forbidden to set foot on the bridge, and the U-bahn service was cut back to Schlesisches Tor in West Berlin. 

The boundary between East and West was the western bank of the Spree, so the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 turned the river waters into no-man’s land. 

On October 5th 1961 25-year-old Udo Düllick got himself sacked by his East German Railways [Deutsche Reichsbahn] supervisor, took a taxi to the Oberbaumbrücke and tried to swim across the river to reunite with his older brother in West Germany.  The East German guards fired warning shots and then took direct aim.  West Berliners watching daren’t enter the water to rescue him for fear of being shot themselves. 

The East Germans failed to hit Düllick but he drowned and his body was recovered from the west bank the following day.  2,500 people attended his funeral.  He was the first, but by no means the last, to die in the waters of the Spree at this place.

A permanent arrangement to open the bridge for pedestrians was agreed in 1972, and three years later a formal emergency plan to rescue people – often children who climbed through gaps in the parapet – from the river waters.

The Oberbaumbrücke came to symbolise the sadness and separation of the city’s inhabitants.  The subway viaduct was partly dismantled and the ornamental towers were demolished in 1974.

The reunification of Germany in 1990 has been celebrated by the restoration of the crossing. 

The gap in the viaduct was filled by a tactful, elegant steel structure by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (b1951), and the distinctive towers were rebuilt.  The bridge reopened to pedestrians and motor traffic in 1994 on the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and the U-bahn service was restored to Warschauer Straße station the following year.

Now the Oberbaumbrüke is a celebrated tourist spot in its own right, enjoyed and loved by Berliners and foreigners alike.

The pedestrian walk beneath the U-bahn tracks is remarkable: it was designed as a prestige project by Otto Stahn in medieval style, with castellated towers, gothic arches, polychrome brick, heraldry – very St Pancras. 

Romantic garden with a theme park attached

Alton Towers Garden: Pagoda Fountain (1978)

The fifteenth and sixteenth Earls of Shrewsbury’s wonderland at Alton Towers is a sideshow to the Merlin Entertainments’ theme park and resort.  To the present operators’ credit, they’ve pumped some of their profits into restoring and maintaining the historic fabric, but visiting isn’t easy if you seek to be edified rather than exhilarated.

The fifteenth Earl (1753-1827) developed the romantic garden in an unwatered valley on his Alton estate from around 1814, repeatedly extending the original estate manager’s lodge to entertain his family and guests.  The house grew until his nephew and heir, the sixteenth Earl (1791-1852), occupied one of the largest country houses in England.

The engineering involved in creating the garden, including terracing and the digging of lakes supplied from a spring two miles away, was largely the work of Thomas Allason (1790-1852). 

Most of the buildings which are scattered about the gardens seem to be the work of Robert Abraham (1774-1850).  He is credited with the range of conservatories, their domes surmounted by earl’s coronets, and the cast-iron Gothic Temple, or Prospect Tower, which provides one of the most panoramic views of the whole composition. 

Abraham also produced the initial design for the Pagoda Fountain in 1827, with a stone base containing a gasometer, six storeys and no less than forty gas-lit Chinese lanterns. The completed structure, started after 1831 and fabricated by the Coalbrookdale Iron Company, is smaller (44ft), unlit, and entirely of cast-iron;  its seventy-foot plume of water remains the major spectacle of the garden.

Guide-books regularly attribute Robert Abraham’s design to a “To-Ho Pagoda in Canton”.  I ransacked Google and Wikipedia for an illustration without success, but I did find this:  Ta-Ho Pagoda Canton Temples Antique Chinese Architecture Engraving Pri – Ephemera Finds.

Among the other garden features to notice at Alton Towers are the Corkscrew Fountain and what is now known as the Swiss Cottage (1835), apparently originally designed by the Uttoxeter architect Thomas Fradgley (1802-1883) for the Earl’s blind Welsh harpist, Edward Jervis, who when not employed in the entrance hall of the house, provided musical accompaniment for promenades round the gardens.

The fifteenth Earl’s contribution to the beauty of Alton Towers is commemorated by his nephew’s iron monument, in the form of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, which stands at the entrance to the garden, containing a portrait bust and surmounted by the motto, “He made the desert smile.”

If all you want to do at Alton Towers is admire the historic house and gardens without being frightened silly, you can ignore the rides: the house is straight ahead and unmissable; the gardens are to the left.

The entire complex is open from mid-March to November and there are quieter times outside school holidays:  Theme Park Tickets, Passes & Discounts | Alton Towers Resort.

There is extensive amateur footage of both the house and the grounds at Alton Towers Ruins 2006 & 2014 (youtube.com).

Brinsley Headstocks

Brinsley Headstocks, Nottinghamshire (2017)

The Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire coalfield, like other British coalfields, has a mining heritage of which its inhabitants are justifiably proud.  The prosperity and power of the United Kingdom was, in the age of steam, almost entirely fuelled by the labour of the country’s coal-miners.

A mile away from the Nottinghamshire market town of Eastwood, the Brinsley Headstocks have long been a landmark from the days when the green fields of the Erewash valley yielded black wealth from below to power the Industrial Revolution.

The Headstocks deserve the overused adjective “iconic” because they’re distinctive and unique. 

To industrial archaeologists they’re precious as the only surviving example of tandem headstocks, by which two adjacent mine-shafts could be wound by one winding engine. 

To readers of English literature they’re treasured because the site is featured in the early fiction of the local writer D H Lawrence (1885-1930) in his short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911) and his novel Sons and Lovers (1913).

Lawrence certainly knew Brinsley Colliery, because his father Arthur worked there, and his grandfather Bert before him.  The colliery was still operational, though no longer drawing coal, when the 1960 film of Sons and Lovers was made, and the headstocks, painted an uncharacteristic shade of pale blue to show up in monochrome, are part of the movie’s background.

The colliery began as shallow workings in the early nineteenth century, and the deep second shaft was sunk in 1872.  The original headstocks were badly damaged in an explosion in 1883, and were either repaired or replaced by a pair from the nearby Willey Wood colliery which had closed in the late 1870s.

After it ceased producing coal in 1934 Brinsley Colliery was retained for ventilation and to provide underground access to neighbouring collieries at Moorgreen and Pye Hill, so when it was finally closed and sealed off in 1970 it presented an important example of untouched nineteenth-century mining practice, which the industrial archaeologist Alan Griffin detailed in ‘Brinsley Colliery:  a conflict of evidence’, Industrial Archaeology, vol 9, no 1 (February 1972), pp 28-47/100.

The above-ground buildings were demolished and the headstocks transported to the then new Coal Museum at Lound Hall near Retford.  When that museum closed in 1989 the Brinsley Headstocks were returned to their original location as the centrepiece of a wildlife reserve and picnic site that is maintained by the volunteer Friends of Brinsley Headstocks.

Problems have arisen because inspections by the local authority, Broxtowe Borough Council, revealed a serious physical danger to the visiting public.  The site was fenced off initially;  in September 2023 the winding wheels were removed to reduce the load on the timberwork, and in December the entire structure was dismantled and some of the timber chopped up.

This caused uproar in the local community, and the Friends were left uninformed of what had been done and why:  ‘Disgust’ in Nottinghamshire village as historic mining feature removed without consultation – Nottinghamshire Live (nottinghampost.com);  ‘It makes me want to cry’: anger over Brinsley Headstocks demolition | Nottinghamshire | The Guardian.

There is no need for this.  Keeping the local community in the dark is bound to generate more heat than light:  “Nobody’s informed us what was happening…This village isn’t Brinsley any more.”

In an age where communication has never been easier, yet the scope for misunderstanding through haste is abundant, it should be a priority to manage with care the relationship between local communities and the elected representatives who serve them.

I have no personal connection with Brinsley, but in my native Sheffield I continue to come across situations where amenities are threatened and the people who care about them feel they aren’t heard:  History repeats itself | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.  In some parts of the city you need only say “trees” to provoke a reaction.

Broxtowe Borough Council has proposed three strategies to restore the Headstocks site, two of which don’t seem at all satisfactory:  News (brinsleyheadstocks.org).  Before the councillors decide how to proceed, they need to ensure that their constituents feel that they’re being listened to.

When you need to get out of a hole, or a mine shaft, the first thing to do is stop digging.

History repeats itself

Norwood Hall, Sheffield (1976)

In my book Demolished Sheffield I used Norwood Hall as an example of how easily a valuable historic building can be lost when a determined owner wishes to be rid of it without regard to public opinion, forethought and common sense.

One of the earliest surviving buildings in the north of Sheffield, Norwood Hall was built in 1713 and for much of its history was occupied by the descendants of James Wheat, an eighteenth-century solicitor, until it was sold to Sheffield Corporation in 1916.  It passed two years later to the Diocese of Sheffield as a residence for the first Bishop, Hedley Burrows (1857-1940), and became known as Bishopsholme.

During the Second World War it was requisitioned and afterwards returned to the ownership of Sheffield City Council and listed Grade II in 1952.  Ultimately it became a social-care hostel until it closed in 1968, after which it was left empty and repeatedly vandalised. 

The City Architect at the time remarked that it didn’t “possess sufficient architectural merit to warrant its retention, and I am surprised that anyone should consider it does”.

When the proposed demolition became public knowledge in April 1969 the resulting controversy prompted to the formation of the Hallamshire Historic Buildings Society, which led a campaign accusing the Council of attempting to demolish the building by neglect.  

Two public enquiries, in February 1970 and December 1972, each concluded that the Hall was worth saving. The inspector at the second inquiry declared that the Council’s estimates of the cost of restoration were outlandish.

Despite these judgements, Sheffield City Council as guardian of health and safety overruled Sheffield City Council as protector of ancient buildings, and Norwood Hall was demolished as unsafe before dawn on June 6th 1976.

A housing estate now covers the site, which is remembered only in the street-names Bishopsholme Road and Burrows Drive.

Fifty years later, we have a parallel problem because the present-day City Council, however much it values the city’s heritage, simply hasn’t the resources to safeguard places of architectural and historic significance.

The auditorium of the Adelphi Cinema, listed Grade II, was stripped of its ornate interior plasterwork by a previous owner, and now belongs to the Council, which intends to restore it using ring-fenced Levelling Up funds.

The Old Town Hall, also listed Grade II, was never owned by the Council but was sold to a private developer early in this century, and has been left to rot ever since.  By 2007 it featured as one of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings, and in 2014 the Friends of the Old Town Hall group was established to promote its significance.  It’s now in such a state that it looks increasingly unlikely that it can be rescued.

The Abbeydale Picture House, appreciated and celebrated by the people who have enjoyed events there since 2005, is unsafe because the auditorium ceiling is in danger of collapse, and the current lessees have been denied grant aid to purchase the freehold.

The City Council has struggled for years to maintain essential services and no longer has the funds to support culture and the environment adequately.  Like other public bodies under siege, the Council has sometimes been its own worst enemy, most notoriously in the controversy over the culling of street trees in Sheffield between 2014 and 2018.

It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that the City Council, having purchased and neglected the Market Tavern on Exchange Street, eventually announced that the building had become dangerous and must be taken down, only to have to admit – in the face of evidence to the contrary from Hallamshire Historic Buildings and enterprising local journalists – that in fact it did not fall down by accident.

It’s understandable, in the face of a succession of scandals caused by the duplicity of elected members and paid officers at all levels of government across the UK, that people are increasingly cynical and distrustful about the lack of transparency in public life.

The result is that when a council commits an error it’s damned for concealing it and damned for admitting it.

There’s not much ordinary people can do to protect local buildings in distress, but we can make a loud noise in support of those who, by their voluntary, professional or political efforts are working against enormous odds to preserve the attractive and familiar environment that has been handed down to us.

This brave o’erhanging firmament

Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield: auditorium ceiling (2013)

The legal stalemate over the leaking roof of the Abbeydale Picture House threatens to bring down the ornate plaster ceiling of the auditorium.

A recent press-release from the lessee of the cinema, CADS [Creative Arts Development Space], stated that the building must be made weatherproof without delay, and the financial loss from the closure of the auditorium is becoming unsustainable:  The uncertain future of a century-old Sheffield landmark (sheffieldtribune.co.uk) [scroll to ‘The Big Story’].

Subsequently, the Theatres Trust has added the Abbeydale to its register of theatres at risk:  Theatre at Risk Abbeydale Picture House, Sheffield (theatrestrust.org.uk).

An alarming incident at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in London’s West End in 2013 [‘Apollo theatre collapse injures more than 80 people in London’s West End | London | The Guardian] injured over eighty theatregoers and raised concerns about health-and-safety issues with plaster ceilings in historic theatres across Britain.  The Society of London Theatres quickly established that at the time of the incident all the West End theatres were up to date with their safety inspection routines.  Further precautions led to a tightened, systematic routine of inspections:  No prosecutions over theatre roof collapse | Theatre | The Guardian.

A detailed examination of the damage showed that the Apollo ceiling was weakened by the deterioration of hessian ties, called ‘wads’, that anchored the plasterwork to the roof structure:  Apollo theatre ceiling collapse blamed on failure of old cloth ties | London | The Guardian.  Water ingress was apparently the basic problem, weakening the hessian and adding to the weight of the plasterwork.  There’s a partly redacted technical report on the Apollo collapse at Apollo-Theatre..pdf (abtt.org.uk).

There’s been no public statement to indicate exactly what is wrong with the Abbeydale Picture House roof, but it’s clear that if the ceiling collapsed its reinstatement would be costly and would delay plans for a full restoration.

In a recent blog-article I highlighted the successful restoration of Wingfield Station in Derbyshire after years of neglect.  This came about because of a combination of forces.  Local residents and the Amber Valley District Council worked with English Heritage and the not-for-profit Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust to put the station back in excellent order which will enable it to earn its keep in future.

Sheffield City Council has already played that card by channelling Levelling Up funds from central government to make the Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe suitable for a lessee’s occupation, but the Abbeydale Picture House is a different proposition.

Firstly, it’s much bigger than Wingfield Station and though it’s structurally complete its integrity is seriously threatened by the ceiling vulnerability.

Secondly, it’s not the only landmark building in the city that presents a major conservation challenge.  The Old Town Hall is older, more central, more complex, in far worse physical condition and extremely difficult to adapt to a practical future use.

Sheffield City Council is desperately short of money after years of budget cuts, and to finance non-essential services it’s forced to scavenge for ringfenced grants that can’t be spent on other priorities.

I spoke to someone who knows about such matters, and he said that the only solution was money – more money than ordinary individuals might raise in a hurry.

But the support of ordinary members of the public will help CADS, a not-for-profit organisation with a strong track record in repurposing redundant buildings for use in a variety of art forms.

And reminding local politicians that people care about landmark buildings like the Abbeydale wouldn’t go amiss.  The Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler, is at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.

Update: Within days of this article going online, on February 22nd 2024 CADS announced the immediate closure of the Abbeydale Picture House for lack of resources to make the auditorium safe, though they retain the tenancy agreement and hope to restore the building in the future: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-68371502.

Jane Austen’s House

Jane Austen’s House, Chawton, Hampshire

I’ve always wanted to visit the house in Chawton, near Alton in Hampshire, where the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) spent the last eight years of her life and finished the six novels that immortalised her name, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), together with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (both published posthumously in 1818).

Of course, the house doesn’t look like I imagined it.  The building had been a pub, the New Inn, which closed in 1787, apparently following the second of two murders on the premises, after which it was adapted as the bailiff’s residence by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight (1767-1852), who had inherited the Chawton estate.

In 1809 Edward moved his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters, Cassandra (1773-1845) and Jane, into the house.

Here Jane Austen quietly wrote her fiction, in between domestic duties, letter-writing, socialising and being Aunt Jane to an extensive troop of nephews and nieces.

The insight, irony and elegance of her fiction-writing places her in the first rank of English writers, and her surviving letters have the same wit and charm.

My favourite is the comment in a letter to Cassandra written in 1800:  “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne;  I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.”  I know the feeling.  (The complete letter can be found at I drank too much wine last night – Letters of Note.)

The house opened as a museum in 1949 and is a place of pilgrimage to admirers from all over the world.  One of the most precious items is the tiny twelve-sided writing table on which she worked.

It’s understandable that pre-booking is encouraged to prevent overcrowding of the tiny rooms, and the Museum website plays down the alternative of walking in: Plan Your Visit to Jane Austen’s House Jane Austen Museum | Hampshire Days Out Jane Austen’s House (janeaustens.house).

There is a phone-number, but the outgoing message offers no facility to speak to anyone at the Museum.  All the necessary information, we are told, is online. 

However, I discovered that if you hang on at the end of the message eventually someone might answer.

In fact, walk-ins are possible, but not encouraged:…

The Watercress Line

Mid-Hants Railway, Ropley Station, Hampshire

You might not think that such an insubstantial commodity as watercress would generate sufficient trade to keep a railway line busy for decades from 1865 until the middle of the twentieth century.

In fact, watercress thrives best in fast-flowing chalk streams, and it remains fresh after picking for only two or three days.

The Mid-Hants Railway opened in 1865 to provide a link between two important London & South Western Railway routes at Winchester and Alton. It also enabled Alresford on the Hampshire Downs to become the centre of the watercress trade in Britain.

The line had other purposes.  It was a useful alternative route for passenger services from London to Southampton and Portsmouth and as such, with its proximity to the militarised area of Salisbury Plain, it was strategically significant in both World Wars.

The Southern Railway, successor to the L&SWR, electrified the line from London Waterloo as far as Alton in 1937, severing through passenger services by obliging passengers to change trains to travel further west.  When the entire London-to-Southampton main line was electrified thirty years later, leaving the Alton service as a lengthy branch line, the Mid-Hants Railway practically lost its remaining importance.

After British Rail closed the service from Alton to Winchester in 1973, an enthusiast group bought the section between Alton and Alresford and developed it as a heritage railway, branded by its popular name, the Watercress Line, between 1975 and 1985.

It’s a popular tourist feature in a pretty area of Hampshire, catering for a broad clientele, from children crawling over a full-size climbing-frame mock-up of a steam locomotive to devotees of fine dining, paying a three-figure sum to glide through the countryside tickling their palates. 

There’s much to interest rail enthusiasts along the ten-mile route, and casual visitors can find amusement and refreshments at each of the four beautifully restored stations. 

Alresford is the best place to park a car;  Ropley has excellent viewing facilities for passing trains and rolling stock stabled in and around the workshops;  Medstead & Four Marks has an exhibition ‘Delivering the Goods’ about freight operations in the age of steam.

Best of all, if you’re a Londoner, a seventy-minute journey, running a half-hour service most of the week, will take you from Waterloo to Alton, where you simply cross the platform from a swish South Western Railway electric multiple unit to a rake of 1950s Mark I carriages in Southern malachite green, complete with buffet car, that transports you back seventy or more years in an instant.

For everything you need to know about the Watercress Line, go to Watercress Line Enjoy A Trip At The Watercress Line.

American Church Berlin

Luther Church, Schöneberg, Berlin, Germany

Public transport in Berlin has several layers. 

There are buses, though in two visits I’ve only ever boarded one.  Rail is faster and more comfortable – trams in the former East Berlin, alongside the U-Bahn (underground railway) and the S-Bahn (overground railway).  Some services duplicate each other’s routes in places, and I found it easier to rely on signage at stops and on vehicles than to try to interpret the incompatible maps.  Ticketing is simple:  the day ticket [tageskarte] offers the run of the system.

I like to take time in any big city simply to hop on a bus, tram or train and see where it goes.  Serendipity takes over at such a point. 

With a couple of hours to spare one afternoon I took a westbound U2 train, trusting that I’d see something interesting when it eventually surfaced outside the central area.  Sure enough, shortly before the train entered Bülowstraße station it passed close by a spectacular brick Gothic church. 

The line went underground shortly afterwards, so I left the train at Wittenbergplatz and backtracked.  Bülowstraße station is a fine Art Noveau structure dating from 1902, part of the city’s first U-bahn route, designed by Bruno Möhring (1863-1929). 

Train services were severed when the Berlin Wall was built, and subsequently the station opened in 1980 as a bazaar and music restaurant which became a vibrant centre for the city’s Turkish community.  The tracks within the trainshed were covered over, and for a few months a vintage streetcar shuttled along the viaduct between Bülowstraße station and a flea-market at Nollendorfplatz station.  The station reopened in 1993.

The tall spire of the church I’d spotted is immediately visible from the street outside the station, though the building itself is difficult to photograph because of the surrounding trees.

It was originally built as the Luther Church [Lutherkirche] (1894), a rich and complex design by Johannes Otzen (1839-1911).  It’s a cross between the Scandinavian Church in Liverpool and the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras. 

The external detail is of the highest quality, though it’s one spire short of a full set of turrets because of wartime bombing, and the interior, rebuilt in 1958-59, is simple and tasteful:  American Church in Berlin – Church in Berlin (foursquare.com)

The church is occupied by the American Church Berlin [https://www.americanchurchberlin.de].  Their pre-war building at Nollendorfplatz was destroyed in 1944, though a vestige survives as a monument. 

If ever I return to Berlin it’ll be at the top of my list to revisit, preferably in the morning when the sun will be better placed, and if possible in winter when the trees are bare.