Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Railway Echo No 8

My blog has been neglected for a few days because I have been locked away in the library wing at Ashley Towers trying to find a definitive answer to the question of what these structures are. A succession of girls climbed library ladders and scoured the shelves to bring me volume after volume of railway books with the relevant pages earmarked with old luggage labels, but to no avail. Just north of Hallaton in Leicestershire the trackbed of the old Market Harborough to Marefield Junction railway line crosses the fields, and in two adjacent meadows are these ramps leading down to stone basins filled with brackish water. Both are of substantial size, with parapets built of the classic blue engineering brick used on the nearby bridges and cattle creeps. The top structure is next to the embankment, the one above further out in a pasture. A farmer friend leans towards them being sheep washes (some springs on the Ordnance map are named thus), but one of my girl assistants is worried by this, saying that the traffic management of the sheep would be made easier if there were separate entrances and exits. They may of course be simply rather over-the-top water troughs utilising existing springs. Whatever they are, I believe the railway built them (in the late 1870s) for farmers deprived of land and watering facilities in the laying down of the trackbed. So, looks like another afternoon locked in the library with the girls.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

On the Verge

I haven't had a rant for a while. So sitting here looking out over sunlit green pastures with sheep walking from one field to another, swallows flitting from one phone wire to another and Postman Pat bringing me my latest e-bay purchase of Meccano green string (don't ask), I just felt I had to moan about something. And then bingo! This photograph is typical of the lanes around here, old drovers roads dropping down into the Welland Valley that have wide verges that in May suddenly cloud over with billows of white Cow Parsley. Or Cow Parsnip, Queen Anne's Lace, Keck or just Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). All of which means absolutely nothing to the local council, who as I blog have sent a man out on a tractor to mow it all down. And not only that, to poison the road edges with a weedkiller that leaves virulent yellow bands down the lanes like a badly-painted parking restriction. So why do they do this. It's that wretched Health & safety mentality again, the crass thought that it's only safe to drive down roads if there's 100% visibility. The same ignorant thinking that gives us the appalling excrescences of giant road signs and digital wagging fingers. Why don't councils realise that if motorists can't see round the corner they'll slow down. And if they don't it's their own stupid fault. Perhaps they should uproot all the hedges. And those trees are a distinct menace. In fact there's far more of a distraction and danger from running into the back of an unpredictable tractor and mower wandering about on the road edge. There. That's it. Back to looking at those sheep.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Sound Advice

Since I've been going on about the Sound Mirrors on the Denge Marsh in Kent, I thought I'd better put them up for scrutiny. The most memorable is the 30 foot diameter mirror, still with its microphone stand. Microphone? Is this a Hollywood Bowl-style amphitheatre, waiting for Sinatra to come on and croon across the shingle flatlands? No, this is an acoustic bowl constructed in concrete in the late 1920s in a series of experiments to find a away of foretelling the arrival of aircraft approaching across the English Channel. Next to this mirror is a 20 foot version, like a child next to its mother, and a colossal 200 foot wall which only has one other like it, and that's in Malta. Microphones at the acoustical centres were attached by leads to headphoned boffins hiding in concrete bunkers underneath. They are such a superb example of 'Dead Tech', a brief reaching out into the unknown for the defence of the realm. A narrow gauge railway was built to bring the materials across the shingle, and one can easily imagine top brass arriving for a demonstration in an Avro Andover at Lydd Airport next door. To a degree they worked, except they also picked-up shipping passing by the Ness and were quickly superceded by radar in 1932. But somehow I get the feeling they're still listening to everything going on, and not just the mewing of birds on the gravel pits that now surround them..

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Railway Light

A shrill whistle pierces the dazzling air, and a skein of smoke drifts between the bungalows and telephone wires stretched between weatherboarded shacks. Into view comes an express steam locomotive pulling a long rake of timber carriages between the clumps of sea kale and viper's bugloss. This is the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Light Railway, a 15" gauge mainline running over thirteen miles from Hythe to the Dungeness lighthouses. But this is not just another miniature seaside attraction, this is a living railway that runs a school special and was armoured during the last war, carrying supplies for the Pluto pipeline that transported fuel over to Northern France. The railway was the ambitious dream of two men: Captain Howey, millionaire landowner, and Count Louis Zborowski, the famous racing driver who drove the Mercedes 'Chitty Bang Bangs'. After an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Ravenglass & Eskdale railway they ordered two Pacific locomotives - Green Goddess and Northern Chief (seen here), but before they were delivered Zborowski was killed when he burrowed his Merc into a tree during the Italian Grand Prix. The locomotives' engineer Henry Greenly then came up with the Romney Marsh as a location, and the line, albeit at first just to New Romney, was opened on the 16th July 1927. There are fewer such delightful pleasures than travelling on the train for its three hour return trip from the Hythe terminus out to the end of the peninsular, particularly if you can get snuggled into the upholstered comforts of 'Clara', the licensed carriage named after Howey's wife. Steam, oil, beer and lighthouses. Does it really get much better?

Monday, 12 May 2008

England's Edge

And so to Dungeness in Kent. The green sheep-spotted Romney Marsh suddenly giving way to drifting shingle, sea kale and rusting winches. After a mile or so's trudge across hot stones and a dismantled Southern Railway line to photograph the 1930s concrete Sound Mirrors for Classic Constructs, the Ashley Caravan Serai moved south onto the peninsular proper. Here in the unique and, quite rightly, conserved area, everything changes from bleached bungalows and double yellow lines to bleached shacks and double helpings of Unmitigated England. Nothing looks permanent here, the shingle 'gardens' blurring into each other, weatherboarded dwellings trying unsuccessfully to hide the abandoned railway carriages at their heart, uncompromising plants clinging to the salt-swept pebbles. Everything ignoring the grey abstract of the nuclear power station humming on the shoreline. A 6,000 acre triangle of land formed by opposing currents of the English Channel, the light bounces off both stones and sea to turn it quite literally into the most brilliant place on the coast. And then up the Old Lighthouse to see it all from the gull's-eye view, striations of old sea banks and Union Flags fluttering at the backs of tarred sheds, the light railway steam locomotive simmering like a kettle that's escaped from the red-roofed cafe. And the Britannia pub with Shepherd Neame, smoked mackerels and Doctor Feelgood. I came down the steps and bought a novelty salt and pepper set modelled on the lighthouse, and then got into such a deep conversation with the curator about this being the setting for H.E.Bates' The Lighthouse that I left them on the counter. Anyway, a cyber seaside souvenir for the first to correctly identify the caravan. I honestly don't know myself, but, like everything else here, it's burnt like the hot shingle into my memory.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Coming Home

Since we are enjoying such beautiful weather, I just thought I'd share the cool of this local view with you all. It may be of particular benefit to some of my recent commentators who have apparently taken leave of themselves in the heat. This particular spot is without doubt one of my favourites, a little back lane that ascends sharply up and around Cranoe church. Up from the bend, two footpaths climb the even steeper Church Hill, and just out of this shot the green lane goes through an even darker tunnel where worn and overgrown brick steps lead precipitously up to the back of the church, built in the (almost) local stone. I often come down this lane at night, slowly, in case a badger is scurrying into the bank or a hare making off for the open fields, and in the early autumn the steep perspective here gives the full moon the look of an enormous poacher's lantern hanging up in the trees. I once used to say to companions on this road 'Look at this. You could be in Dorset. Or Devon. You'd never think you were in Leicestershire'. I have now realised what a fatuous remark this is. This is Leicestershire, and in fact very typical of the eastern side of the county. Sometimes the lesson to be learnt is that very often the grass simply isn't greener on the other side.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

A Bridge for Sergeant Pike

An afternoon in Cambridge is followed by a drive across Adventurer's Fen from Swaffham Prior to Upware and beyond. Names on signposts spell out the eccentricities and local flavours- 'Commercial End', 'Goosehall Farm, 'Lord's Ground Farm' (cheers carried on the wind as another wicket falls behind the barn). And then Dimmock's Cote and this fabulous concrete bridge over the River Cam before it joins with the Great Ouse, and across the fields from the remarkable Stretham Pumping Engine. Startlingly white in this green and yellow landscape, it is a refreshing curve amongst the fenland horizontals. Sometimes known as the Military Bridge, it will be well-known to anglers trudging with their maggots along the riverside path, but apart from that I could find little to tell you about it. I wanted to get closer to the riverside abutments to inspect what looked like some concrete heraldry, but was prevented from doing so by extremely marshy ground starred with seductive yellow king cups. Headline in the The Pike Fisher's Mercury: 'Blogger Disappears In Fenland Ouse'.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Underfoot 3

I have just had the extraordinary privilege of being let loose in Britain's finest restored Victorian pumping station at Papplewick in Nottinghamshire. Made very welcome, I was allowed to roam at will, on my own, through this simply astounding Temple of Water- James Watt beam engines, 3D gold freshwater fishes swimming through wrought iron weeds on cast iron columns, water lilies in stained glass. And out at the back under an open-sided shed a huge pile of nutty slack for the Gormenghast boilers. Coal was brought in past the red brick gothic superintendent's lodge and on to this weighbridge next to a green sentry box containing the dial. Of course the lettering caught my eye, one of those underfoot delights that we scuff with our shoes as we go about our business. Telephone service covers still saying 'GPO' , long lost electricity badges let into pavement hatches, manholes worthy of a church-style brass-rubbing. And so a 1945 'Pooley', that heavyweight name so redolent of rain-soaked coal yards, gasworks and dusty quarries. Still here in rural Notts, the non-slip steel grid gently filling up with leaves from the ornamental trees and neat hedges planted by the Victorian need to acknowledge the ideals of Cleanliness next to Godliness. Go and get steamed-up about it all on their next open day.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Silent Neighbour

Pounding down the A1 after my Goole Tower Fest, I had to swing off the carriageway to see how things were fairing for another sinister friend out on the fringes of Newark. When I first photographed this tower it was virtually the last remaining relic of the Balderton Mental Hospital (when we had such things), part of a development started in 1936 but not completed and opened until 1957. This was one of those landmarks spotted from a train that one looks up on an Ordnance map and then makes an architectural pilgrimage at a later date. Even on a sunny day this could still be a rural outpost of the Ministry of Truth or a location for a Dracula movie set in the thirties. In reality it's a chimney, and when I first saw it the dark bricks towered above the laundry block, which in itself was more like a large motorbike factory. Everywhere else was the usual dereliction of an abandoned site, but there were the tell-tale signs that Dev the Developer had been sniffing around. So now it's surrounded by a vast estate made up of the usual pastiches that Dev uses for 'executive' housing. I'm so glad it survived the onslaught and was conserved so that it can glower down over the barbeques and car washing in such an indomitable 'up yours' fashion.