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.