30 June 2010

If You Go Down to the Woods

Broxbourne Woods is Hertfordshire's only National Nature Reserve. As home to scarce wildlife, including 27 species of butterfly, it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The reserve, of 586 acres, is made up of four woods - Bencroft, Broxbourne, Hoddesdon Park and Wormley; the first two owned by the county council and the latter two by the Woodland Trust. The woods, about ten miles from Hertford, are described as ancient, but are (pre)-Roman tilled lands later re-colonised by trees. The numerous banks and ditches evidence past use as grazing land. The dominant trees are sessile oak and hornbeam, here at the most northerly extent of its natural range.

In the midst of Wormley Wood is a cast-iron coal post. About 250 to 260 of these were erected in 1861, marking the then boundaries of London, although the area designated by the posts has its origins in the mediaeval period. It was at these points that duty was levied on coal, wine and other commodities, which taxes contributed toward meeting the cost of key parts of London's infrastructure, including a number of the bridges over the Thames. In the seventeenth century the duties collected part-funded the re-building of London after the Great Fire.

About 200 posts remain. At first blush it seems odd that this Grade II listed post is in the middle of a wood, but our notions of what constitutes an highway are influenced by twentieth-century motorways. The track by which the post stands was the route by which Oliver Cromwell travelled to Ware to suppress a rebellion, so would have been recognised back then as a principal road.

23 June 2010

What, When & Ware V

Out in bloom along the New River (YMGW passim) are ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and field poppies (Papaver rhoeas). Hard by the nearby River Lea are the buildings of GlaxoSmithKline, the principal employer in Ware. One of these buildings was originally a factory belonging to Allen and Hanburys Ltd, a pharmaceutical manufacturer absorbed by GSK in 1958. The A&H factory had specialised in baby foods, malt products for invalids, and medicated pastilles; and was behind the asthma drug Ventolin. The factory has been sympathetically converted, although it's a shame that the London stock bricks of which it is constructed have been re-pointed such that the mortar is proud of the bricks.

Cave of a Cove

To the west of Nesscliffe Rock, Shropshire, is a cave cut in the red sandstone, the hideout of the late fifteenth-century/early sixteenth-century highwayman Humphrey Kynaston. There are two chambers, separated by a pillar carved from the live stone. Outlawed by King Henry VII in 1491, Kynaston lived in one chamber, the entrance to which is 35 feet up the cliff face, reached by stone steps; and kept his horse, Beelzebub, in the other. Into the pillar is engraved "H.K. 1594," but this cannot be by Kynaston's own hand, as he died 60 years earlier.

17 June 2010

Isettas Need Little Oil

From St Austell comes this tin 20 gallon oil dispenser, complete with brass pump and gradated wooden dipstick. Its function has preserved the dispenser extremely well, and it will look great when repainted, probably in a gold/bronze colour.

The previous owners have a BMW Isetta bubble car, currently being restored, their fifth. The Isetta was created in 1952 by Iso SpA, an Italian company ("Isetta" means Little Iso). The front, complete with steering wheel, hinges open to enable entry. Power came originally from a two-stroke scooter engine. BMW bought a licence, as did French and Brazilian companies, and re-engineered the car, powering it with a four-stroke motorcycle engine. Isetta of Great Britain took a sub-licence from BMW, and from 1957 built Isettas in Brighton, from where hailed this car.

13 June 2010

Kinnerley: Ammo, Arbour & Argoed

The Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway ran through Kinnerley until 1960. This, and the balance between centrality and remoteness, lay behind selection, during WWII, of the area around the village for a secret ammunition dump. The Royal Engineers built over 200 stores, of brick with roofs formed of concrete sleepers atop concrete pillars, covered with soil and turfed to camouflage and protect them.

Each store was served by a siding, which ran right through its centre. Huge sliding doors would be opened, the ammunition wagons shunted inside, the doors closed, and the cargo unloaded into the bays either side of the track. Kinnerley was declassified only in the mid-1950s. The storage sheds are impossible to photograph internally without a number of flash slave units, but Kinnerley also boasts a most unusual arbour in its playground, hexagonal in plan, oak uprights supporting a tiled roof, the whole supported on huge slabs of limestone on edge; and the remains of Argoed Hall, just outside the village.

10 June 2010

Fanhams Hall

Just outside Ware is Fanhams Hall, which started life as a Queen Anne house. It has passed through many hands, including, in the nineteenth century, those of local bankers and malters. One Lady Brockett resided at Fanhams after the death of her husband in 1934 and until her own in 1949. Perhaps as a salve for her grief she developed the splendid grounds. These are divided up into numerous spaces with hedges, wide herbaceous borders, walls (one of which features two almost circular entrances), and ironwork gates (one featuring a fireman and another a rabbit nibbling flowers), a surprise around each corner.

The Japanese Garden, complete with ornamental lakes, bridges, teahouse, miniature Fujiyama, and carefully-placed granite lanterns, was tended pre-WWII by gardeners who came each year from Japan for the purpose. An Austrian house is less successful - the cuckoo-clock style is difficult to appreciate. There is a lovely wisteria walk, just coming into flower, and a Queen Anne garden with fine brick paths.

Westminster Bank bought the hall in 1951, and sold it 20 years later to the Building Societies' Association, which used it as a training centre. In turn, in 1986, the BSA sold Fanhams to Sainsbury's, who used it for the same purpose. The hall is now an hotel.

06 June 2010

Ceiriog Engineering Feats

Chirk Aqueduct, built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1801, carries the 46 mile Llangollen Canal over the River Ceiriog. It's an impressive structure, 70 feet high and of ten spans. Beside it, also of ten principal spans but 30 feet higher, supposedly to demonstrate the supremacy of rail over water, is Henry Robertson's railway viaduct, completed in 1848. Beyond the aqueduct is Chirk Tunnel, 460 yards long and as black within as the hole of Calcutta. A basin and wharf lies between these two engineering marvels. The tunnel was demanded by the owners of Chirk Castle, the Myddeltons, who didn't want their views intruded upon by a canal embankment. There is a worn example of the Myddelton coat of arms on an old gate pier in the woods.

Lee or Lea?

Signs in Ware use both "Lea" and "Lee" to refer to the river. For a considerable part of its way this flows within the Lee Valley Park. The Environment Agency utilises "Lea" throughout the river's length. The canalised part is known as the Lee and Stort Navigation. It seems that "Lea" predominates upstream of Hertford, where, after Hertford Castle Weir, the river becomes a navigation.

Both spellings are used from Hertford to the Thames, so it was perhaps the use of "Lee" in the parliamentary act permitting the canalisation that caused the variation. To add to the confusion, where the the Lea/Lee meets the Thames it is known as Bow Creek. The take-off of water for New River (YMGW passim) lowered the natural water levels, demanding the installation of locks, including at Hardmead. Just east of this point there is some surprisingly interesting new residential development.