29 December 2010

Phoenix Rising

Seventy years ago Herbert Mason, chief photographer for the Daily Mail, took what has become one of the iconic images of WWII. On 29 December 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped on London 120 tons of explosive and over 20,000 incendiary bombs. Eight of Wren's churches perished, and his great cathedral escaped only very narrowly. More than two dozen incendiaries fell on and about St Paul's. One temporarily lodged in the wooden trusses of the dome, and it was only when the bomb dropped onto the Stone Gallery that the cathedral was saved.

Mason took his photograph from the roof of the Mail's offices near Fleet Street, about half a mile from Wren's masterpiece. The image wasn't published for two days whilst the propagandists sought to determine its likely impact on morale. It has at times been suggested that it may have been doctored in the darkroom to darken the smoke of the very real fires, and thus emphasize the sense of a phoenix arising from the flames.

Montgomeryshire Morris in Meifod

On the hills high above Meifod lives Fran Leeman. Resting in her yard is a Morris FFK truck. The registration is NEP 587. The letter combination EP was the area identifier for Montgomeryshire, so it's close to its original home. In 1963 a year prefix was added to registration numbers; the truck was thus likely built in the three years to then. Under a cover is a straight-six Daimler in British racing green that had belonged to Fran's father, who had previously owned a Citroën SM, powered by a Maserati V6.

25 December 2010

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, designed by Thomas Telford and built under the supervision of canal engineer William Jessop, is the highest navigable aqueduct in the world. It is also the longest aqueduct in Britain, a Grade I listed monument, and a World Heritage Site. It carries the Llangollen Canal at a height of 126 feet over the River Dee, between Froncysyllte (of Male Voice Choir fame) at its southern end and Trevor at its northern.

18 hollow piers, built of finely dressed sandstone, with narrow joints of lime mortar into which was mixed ox blood, support arched cast-iron ribs, four for each of the 19 spans of 53 feet. Each rib, the internal pairs pierced and the external pairs solid, is made from three voussoirs. Atop these arches sits a cast-iron trough, 1,007 feet long, 11 feet 10 inches wide, and 5 feet 3 inches deep.

The plates of the trough's bed are not affixed to the arches, but lugs fit either side of the ribs to keep all steady. The trough's sides are formed of bolted flanged plates of cast iron, also voussoirs, but only so as to form a decorative feature. The joints between the plates were bedded with Welsh flannel, white lead and iron particles.

Commenced in July 1795, the aqueduct was opened only ten years later, having cost just £47,000 (about £3 million at today's prices - fantastically cheap). When construction was completed the trough was filled with water and left for six months to test for leaks. Not a drop was lost, and the aqueduct opened in November 1805.

A towpath is mounted to one side of the trough, with a railing along its length. There are mounting holes on the other side, but no railing was ever fitted. The water level is just six inches below the top edge of the trough. As steeplejack Fred Dibnah put it: "... even for somebody like me with a head for heights, it can be a bit unnerving, because it feels as though the barge you are on is going to float right off the edge." From this height and in the snow, even the sewerage farm below looks attractive.

But how does one pronounce Pontcysyllte? The BBC's Pronunciation Unit recommends "pont-kussuhl-tay."

18 December 2010

Le Drapeau Tricolore

About four inches of snow at home. It's interesting that, when referring to snowfall, the BBC still, rightly, uses the imperial system, especially given that it's otherwise capitulated to the use of metric units on so many fronts. We all still use gallons too: how many ever state the miles per litre that their car will manage?

14 December 2010

Cromer-wick Green

Over 38 feet tall to its rooftop, the windmill at Cromer is Hertfordshire's only surviving post mill. In a post mill the entire body (or buck), complete with all the grinding machinery inside, balances on a massive wooden post - in this case 18 feet tall and almost two feet square - which is itself supported by a timber trestle. Mounted above the access ladder is a fantail, which catches the wind. By means of iron wheels on a track that encircles the mill, the whole construction is thus automatically turned to enable the shuttered sails, 56 feet across, to face into the wind.

There has been a windmill here for over six centuries. The present one was built sometime between 1681 and 1720. In around 1860 it was blown over and rebuilt, but by the 1920s it had fallen into disrepair, wind-driven milling no longer being economic. By the end of that decade the mill had lost one sail and the other three had been removed. An appeal in 1967 enabled the mill to be saved, but it wasn't until 1998 that various grants enabled it to be restored to working order. The tax known as the National Lottery does have some benefits.

09 December 2010

Cockshutt, Then Sleap At Dusk

Cockshutt ROC post was decommissioned in 1968 and is now welded closed. The ingress of air and fallout has been improved by the cutting of ventilation slots in the access hatch.

Nearby Sleap, pronounced "Slape", is an operational airfield, utilised by Shropshire Aero Club. From 1943 to 1964 it was an RAF base, a satellite to RAF Tilstock. No. 81 operational training unit flew Whitley bombers here, at times at night. In early 1944 these were used to tow Horsa troop gliders on practice missions in advance of D-Day; and from November that year replaced with Wellingtons.

The club's bar and café, in the control tower, is named after Flt Lt Eric Lock DSO, DFC and Bar, born in Bayston Hill. Lock was the most successful British-born pilot of the Battle of Britain, during which he shot down 16½ enemy aircraft - one 'kill' was shared with another pilot.

06 December 2010

Bomere Heath ROC Post

A passing ex-BT engineer points out the location of this ROC post (YMGW passim). The posts were formed into clusters, and could communicate with each other, and with Group HQ, by means of a private circuit using a TeleTalk - shades of Orwell's 1984 telescreens. One post in each cluster was equipped with UHF radio, providing backup in the highly likely event of the telephone lines being taken out ... although presumably the aerial mast would have gone the same way. Bomere Heath was such a master post: there's an aerial connection point on the secondary ventilation shaft (above). Atop the primary ventilation shaft (below) is the circular mount for the ground zero indicator used to determine blast direction and elevation.

05 December 2010

"Check Your Oil, Sir?"

At Crickheath Wharf, near Llynclys, are a very large vintage petrol pump and an old oil cabinet. Both bear plenty of peeling coats of paint.

04 December 2010

Llanymynech ROC Post

The Royal Observer Corps (ROC) was formed in 1925, the role of its volunteers to identify enemy aircraft. In the 1950s the ROC was additionally charged with reporting on nuclear blasts. 1,563 underground posts were built throughout the UK, often at the same sites as the earlier aircraft identification, or Orlit, posts. Each post had an entrance shaft (top), giving access to two concrete-built rooms, one about 15 feet by 7 feet 6 inches, containing bunk beds, table, chairs and cupboard; and the other a chemical toilet. Ventilation was provided via louvred vents alongside the access shaft, and to a separate air shaft (below) giving on to the other end of the underground chamber.

Crude instrumentation provided for determination of the bearing and elevation of nuclear bursts, level of radiation, and mega-tonnage. The absurdity of nuclear civil defence is indicated all too strongly by these posts: the air vents would have allowed the ingress of radiation; and the telegraph poles and lines on which communications largely depended would have been flattened.

In 1968 more than half the posts were closed. The remaining posts, including this, were closed in 1991, with many of the sites sold off to mobile phone companies, to whom their positions on high ground made them desirable locations for masts. At this site above Llanymynech the brick-built observation post still contains the wooden mounting for the observation instrumentation and chart.

03 December 2010

You Shall Go To Ball

Near Maesbury is the hamlet of Ball, home to a pub with a name of which no-one seems to know the origin - The Original Ball. Just along the lane from the pub is the Bethesda Primitive Methodist Chapel, built in 1834, closed in the 1920s, and now derelict.

The Hoover Constellation was introduced in 1952, and discontinued in 1975. It 'floated' on its exhaust, like an hovercraft, with just enough lift to carry a small child, and thus to irritate the person trying to vacuum.

Further along Ball Lane is Ball Mill, which dates to between 1500 and 1700. A leat gives off the River Morda to drive an unusual arrangement of twin overshot wheels, in series. The mill is Grade II listed, but little information is available as to its history.

28 November 2010

Arrival of the Argonaut

Using a dually pickup, Stuart Connell shifts the Silver Streak Clipper (YMGW passim). He's assisted by his son Richard, who's a wheelwright, a highly skilled occupation. A quick initial clean serves to remove a number of small abandoned wasp or bee nests and what appear to be old termite homes. This is most decidedly going to be a long-term project. The floor has been newly boarded and the aluminium belly replaced, but among other things required are brake controls, wiring, plumbing, and a complete internal fit-out to provide storage, seating, sleeping, and cooking facilities. And that's before getting to the repair and polishing of the exterior.

27 November 2010

Tanat Valley

The Tanat Valley Light Railway opened in 1904. Operated by Cambrian Railways, the line ran from Gobowen, through Llynclys and Porthywaen, to Blodwell Junction. At Gobowen the line joined up with Cambrian's network; and at Blodwell with the erstwhile Potteries, Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway. At Llanddu Junction, part way along, a branch line headed off to the quarries at Nantmawr.

Railway ownership and operation around here was, and remains, complicated. Major rationalisation came on 1 January 1923, when all lines in the area became part of Great (God's) Western (Wonderful) Railways. 25 years later, to the day, came nationalisation. Through the 1950s and 1960s there were numerous closures in British Rail's Western Region. The line between Gobowen and Blodwell remained open, for quarry traffic, until 1988.

The Cambrian Railways Society holds a lease on the line. The track has never been lifted, so the Society has, in some respects, less of an uphill struggle than its cousin, the Cambrian Railways Trust, the latter looking to reinstate the line between Oswestry and Llanymynech. At St Michael's in Llanyblodwel the ladies cleaning the church for Christmas kindly provide a cuppa to the cold examiner of bosses.

25 November 2010

The Full Monty

Dominating the county town of what used to be Montgomeryshire, the castle, at least in its stone form, was commenced in 1223, with the inner ward and its gatehouse completed in just five years. The middle and outer wards were added in 1228. The castle was slighted in 1649 after falling into the hands of the Roundheads.

Montgomery is the oldest borough in Wales, and boasts a number of fine buildings from various periods, especially the Georgian. The Norman church, begun 1227, is home to both half a dozen or so misericords, and the lavish tomb of Richard and Magdalene Herbert, parents of the sixteenth-century poet and divine George Herbert.

The town is famous for the hardware store of R.H. Bunner and Son, which has traded since 1892. This is the sort of shop in which Ronnie Barker would have asked for "fork 'andles" and Ronnie Corbett would have fetched four candles. If you can't get it here, it doesn't exist.

On the B4385 to Bishops Castle are a couple of Gilbarco petrol pumps, one a T8 'Fat Lady' of the 1920s. Petrol was last four and three a gallon (about 21 pence for 4½ litres) in 1963, which is presumably when this fat lady last sang.

21 November 2010

RAF Rednal

Parent to nearby RAF Montford Bridge, the station at Rednal was operated for the same period, and by the same training unit. Its three runways, in the form of an almost equilateral triangle, were also used by the US Air Force to bring back to military hospitals in Shropshire, using Douglas Dakotas, soldiers wounded in Normandy.

The range of training exercises undertaken at Rednal - reconnaissance, cross-country, fast ascent and low flying, flying by instruments and in formation, bomber accompaniment and dogfight practice - resulted in a number of accidents. In 1977 the body of Pilot Officer Jean Noizet was recovered from his cockpit: during WWII he had crashed into nearby woods after collision with another Spitfire. The remains of his aircraft are in the museum at RAF Cosford.

The control tower is now the centrepiece of a paintballing arena; and a section of one of the runways is given over to a karting circuit. A nearby fortified farmhouse has three brick-faced pillbox embrasures. The various hangars and support buildings are in either agricultural or light industrial use. In one yard are stored an Austin K9 truck and a number of fairground rides.

19 November 2010

RAF Montford Bridge

RAF Montford Bridge was a satellite to the nearby, and significantly larger, RAF Rednal. It was operated between 1942 and 1945 as a fighter pilot training establishment, with No. 61 Operational Training Unit flying Spitfires and Mustang IIIs.

The watch office, the single storey to the left (top), was built in 1940. The adjoining two storey control tower was added in 1942, in all likelihood when the three runways of the airfield were laid. The flight office (below) seems at some later stage to have been reused by a skydiving club.

16 November 2010

National Memorial Arboretum

At 150 acres, the NMA is a small but important element of the National Forest. Work on the latter was commenced in 1990, the aim being to join up Needwood Forest in the west with Charnwood Forest in the east to provide a central England forest of 200 square miles in extent, with an average of 33% woodland cover. In just 20 years the percentage of cover has grown from 6% to 18%, with 7.8 million trees having been planted so far.

Near Alrewas and on the banks of the River Tame, the NMA commemorates all those service personnel killed in action, or as a result of terrorist activity, since 1945. Upon the five metre high Portland stone walls of the Armed Forces Memorial (top), designed by Liam O'Connor and dedicated in 2007, are engraved their names. Through a slit in the circular outer wall the sun shines at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In the centre of the memorial is a large bronze wreath, flanked with striking bronze sculptures by Ian Rank-Broadley.

The gardens and fledgling arboretum, laid out on land once quarried by Lafarge, who still quarry the adjoining land, are home to numerous individual and group memorials. Particularly striking is Shot at Dawn - 307 plain wooden poles, one for each soldier known to have been executed by British firing squads for 'cowardice,' ranged around Andrew DeComyn's marble statue (below). This represents 17-year-old Private Herbert Burden, executed for leaving his trench to reach the transport column and console a friend that had just lost a brother. In November 2006 the British Government finally pardoned all those shot at dawn. By implication, it apologised for their murder.

13 November 2010

Barmouth & 70mph Unicycling

Cut in two by the railway, Barmouth has two sides - the dramatic Snowdonian scenery against which it is presented, and the amusing tackiness of its centre. The town sits on the north side of the River Mawddach, crossed by the 900 yard long Barmouth Bridge, built 1867.

Carrying both the Cambrian Railway and pedestrians, the bridge was originally entirely of wood, with a lifting drawbridge section, to allow for the passage of tall ships, but this was replaced in 1901 with a steel swing section (above).

Amidst the dunes is a sculpted wooden head, akin to the moai statues of Easter Island. This appeared overnight in July this year, and is known locally as Kiki Dum Dum. There are a number of pleasant corners that provide that unmistakable sense that one is in a faded British resort. Visiting this one was a chap who happily exhibited the trip computer on his 36" wheel Nimbus unicycle - he'd hit a frightening 70mph on the hill down into Dolgellau!

07 November 2010

If It Ain't Broke, Fix It!

That in just four years the National Trust and its partners managed to bring back from near ruin the magnificent pile of Erddig calls to mind the oft-used phrase of a friend, "They did it because they didn't know it was supposed to be impossible."

Few things are more irritating than the cry that one shouldn't fix that which is not broken, that one should recognise the 'impossibility' of something, that one should be content with the satisfactory. This cry generally emanates from those who lack ambition, who fail to understand that breakthroughs result from personal involvement in unrelenting hard work, not from the preaching of slogans, or from the half-cocked application of barely understood 'magic fixes.'

Charles Babbage invented the speedometer and cowcatcher, pioneered dendrochronology, proposed the uniform charge postal service, and, with his difference engine (above), fathered the computer. As he had it: "Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible; if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple."

Long life to those that strive for lasting improvement, who extend themselves and sometimes fail, but try again; who risk and make mistakes, then seek to put these right. If only the pedestrian placemen, who mistake movement for action, who want merely to pick up their monthly pay cheques, would give way to the thoughtful, the ardent, and those with integrity. "This has been got out by a friend" - Ian Dury.

06 November 2010


Erddig, pronounced AIR-thig, was designed by Thomas Webb and built between 1684 and 1687. The wings were added in the 1720s, when the façade was faced with stone. This is quite severe, but provides a superb contrast to the rich Queen Anne brickwork of the rear of the building.

The house remained in the hands of the Yorke family from 1733 right through to 1973. The Yorkes were early adopters of self-sufficiency, and in many ways the most interesting aspect of Erddig is the extensive range of estates facilities. A steam engine drives a sawmill along with a mill designed to mix materials for brick-making and mortar production.

The extensive walled garden, sectioned by stunning avenues of pleached limes, is full of espaliered fruit trees. 173 varieties of apple are grown here. In the park, landscaped by William Eames between 1768 and 1789, is the 'Cup and Saucer,' which provides a fall of water from the Black Brook sufficient to drive an hydraulic ram pump that raises drinking water to the house.

The Yorkes also kept everything, so the National Trust acquired a house complete with its furniture, and coach houses boasting means of transport through the ages. Amongst these is the second Austin 12 seen recently (see Return to GBZ), this one a 1927 Tourer, and a 1907 Rover.