29 August 2011

The Moustachioed Little Man

Some designs are just absolutely right. One product that marries superb, simple design and a perfectly suited material is the Bialetti Moka Express. Engineer Alfonso Bialetti worked in the French aluminium industry, and formed his own company in 1919. He acquired Luigi De Ponti's design for a coffeepot in 1933, and the design hasn't changed since.

Made in aluminium, not a material traditionally used for domestic items at the time, the pot was sold only locally, in Piedmont, until WWII, when the metal became scarce. Production took off after the war, and since 1953 the pot has carried a caricature by cartoonist Paolo Campani, supposedly of Alfonso's son - l'omino con i baffi. Perfect for 1950s Airstreams and vintage kin.

25 August 2011

The World's Best Library

The British Library is second only in scale to the Library of Congress, holding 14 million books and over 150 million items in total, in pretty much all written languages. It is the world's most important research library, with documents dating back to 2000 BC. As foremost of Britain's six legal deposit libraries, it must, by law, be provided with a copy of every British publication. This adds over three million items per year.

Until 1973, the British Library was a department of the British Museum, housed in the famous circular Reading Room (which now forms part of the museum's Great Court). In 1997 the library moved to purpose-built accommodation at St Pancras. This had been 15 years in the building, Prince Charles having laid the foundation stone in 1982 after seven years of planning and wrangling. Contrary to Charles's later rant, Colin St John Wilson's building is both spectacular and gorgeous, and is thus a lovely place to be.

Outside, the dark red brickwork echoes that of the nearby St Pancras Hotel, built by Sir George Gilbert Scott (grandfather to Sir Giles). The large plaza is broken up into various levels and areas, is very pleasant to sit in and admire the sheer quality of the execution, particularly the brickwork, and the pinkish-red metalwork, contrasted with black railings.

The interior is even better. The building is huge in scale - eleven reading rooms, four basement levels, over 200 miles of shelving, a highly efficient mechanical book-handling system, three exhibition galleries - but doesn't overwhelm. The building is centred around the King's Library, 60,000 volumes collected by George III, clearly not so mad after all; and given to the nation by George IV.

This is housed in a glass-walled tower, rising through six storeys, and is beautifully lit. The circulation areas of the library are fantastically generous, lending the building a feeling of openness. These are balanced by a variety of comfortable seating areas, non-reading room study areas, and a couple of quality cafés.

The best place to view it all from is the fifth floor gallery, from which one can look down through the atrium, see the King's Library at its heart and the magnificent main staircase. The detailing, including stair handrails wrapped in soft leather, is exquisite. Yes, it was late and over budget. It is likely, though, the best large public building in Britain for a good few hundred years.

24 August 2011

Sir Giles Gilbert Who?

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and his work deserve to be widely known, and properly appreciated. As previously documented by YMGW, Scott designed that British icon, the red K6 telephone box, and its older and bigger brother the K2. The K6s have generally been poorly cared for since British Telecom came into being, and many have been ripped out and melted down.

Scott's Battersea Power Station, actually two stations appearing to be a single building, the first built in the 1930s, was decommissioned in 1983, ever since when it has stood derelict. Despite being Europe's largest brick building and boasting a fine Art Deco interior, it has been left to rot. So Bankside Power Station, commenced in the late 1940s, completed in 1963, and closed in 1981, should be widely understood to be by Scott, having had over £130m lavished on it to provide a home, since 2000, for Tate Modern?

Tate Modern is home to some fine artists - Warhol, Rodin, Frampton, Picasso, Bacon, Kandinsky, Giacometti. And to much derivative and pointless dross, which many, mediating their experience through a camera lens and headset, are told is art and to admire it. Each artist has a monograph in the gallery's shop. Yet there is nothing on Scott's building or, indeed, any of Scott's architecture. A disgrace.

Bankside, last visited in early 1995 prior to removal of the generating plant, was redesigned by Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron. The turbine hall, a massive 500 feet long and 115 feet high, was retained as a largely empty void. The boiler house to its side was converted into the galleries, on three levels. A two-storey glass penthouse, 'the lightbeam,' runs the length of the building. Oddly, despite all the dramatic circulation space, service areas are cramped. But Scott's design is respected, and the galleries are very fine.

23 August 2011

Blue Fin Building, London

IPC Media's Blue Fin Building lies between Southwark Street and Bankside. It was designed by the practice of Allies and Morrison, based just down the road, which also designed the Royal Festival Hall New Building.

The building is named for the 2,000 blue aluminium fins of its façade. These, like brise-soleil, provide shade. Everything around takes on a blue tinge, including a phalanx of Boris Johnson's hire cycles outside.

21 August 2011

Métallurgique - Wacky Racer

The 21 October 1966 issue of the Weekend Telegraph magazine was given over to the Motor Show of that year and a retrospective of 70 years since repeal of the 1865 Locomotives Act - commonly known as the Red Flag Act. An article entitled "Bizarre Cars" featured a vehicle described as a Metallurgic. The relevant text from the article is below:

"Such a driver [of powerful cars] is Douglas Fitzpatrick who owns a remarkable 1907 Metallurgic. The car's engine is not original. A new one from an airship was fitted in 1910, giving the car a top speed of 120 m.p.h. - a lot faster than most cars built today. It gives Mr Fitzpatrick great pleasure to overtake sleek modern sports cars. In winter he hibernates this extraordinary machine on the Norfolk estate where he has lived since childhood, and turns to his other hobby, music."

(Photograph by John Marmaras)

The car features in a 1957 Pathé newsreel clip of a rally of veteran and vintage cars held at Beaulieu Abbey (thumbnail stills above). A web description of this clip states that the car is Belgian - it is, properly a Métallurgique 60/80 hp Maybach; and that Fitzpatrick, shown polishing, owned Sheringham Hall, on the North Norfolk coast - he didn't, but he did live there.

The car was regularly entered in the Brighton Speed Trials, driven by Fitzpatrick. Extant is a photograph of the car, wrongly identified as of 1912, participating in the 1959 trials. It is mentioned in Tony Gardiner's book The Brighton National Speed Trials as having been entered again in 1961. The car, numbered 202, also features in a cine film of the 1964 Brighton trials.

Rupert Lloyd Thomas, commenting on the 1964 footage, quotes from Motor Sport, October 1964, which gives the car's capacity as 21 litres. The same capacity is given for a car described by La Societe Anonyme des Automobiles Métallurgiques as a type AZ, with an airship engine, and based in England (above). This suggests that it is the same car, but Fitzpatrick's had a live axle final drive, not a side-chain. Perhaps this latter car is a Métallurgique Maybach with its more modest original 10 litre engine.

Where is the Fitzpatrick car now?

19 August 2011

Reclamation Yard

North Shropshire Reclamation Ltd, at Wackley near Burlton, north of Shrewsbury, is a cornucopia of reclaimed and antique items, in fantastic profusion.

Doors, windows, and stained glass. Special bricks, terracotta decorative pieces, and complete stone architraves.

Phone boxes, enamel signs, and vintage agricultural equipment. Sinks, baths, and toilets. Iron gutters, hoppers, and drainpipes.

Fireplaces, surrounds, and chimney pots. Doorknobs, locks, and taps. Benches, fountains, and statues.

Beams, panels, and pews. Troughs, slates, and cast iron staircases. Artillery wheels, gargoyles, and wall tiles.

Cartwheels, wagons, and ploughs. Victorian radiators, floor tiles, and lighting. Wall ties, balustrades, and cornices.

If you are looking for something required for a restoration, or simply to provide a 'talking point,' you will find it here. It's also a Mecca for those attracted by pattern.

11 August 2011

Japanese Mustang

Hometyre, a Shrewsbury-based business started in 2003, provides a fully mobile puncture repair, tyre replacement, and balancing service. It has been successfully franchised into many areas, and quality control and service quality remain second to none. Very highly recommended.

Owner Andy Lawrence is also the proud owner of a Toyota Celica Liftback ST2000. The Liftback was launched into the Japanese market in 1973, and export models appeared from 1976. It was commonly referred to as the Japanese Mustang, given such Ford Mustang styling cues as the tripartite rear lamps. The car has been superbly resprayed by Body Beautiful (Cars) Ltd of Bridgnorth.

09 August 2011

Folding Stuff

In the mid-1970s Andrew Ritchie, an engineer, radically improved the standard design for folding bicycles. The rear subframe and wheel of the Brompton folds down and beneath the central frame, enabling the bicycle to be compressed to less than two feet square. With the handlebars folded down, front wheel folded back, and nearside pedal folded up, it is under 11 inches wide, and weighs just 27 lbs. Once a shed (well, bedroom) wonder, and now recognised as an engineering marvel, the Brompton can be ready for action in 20 seconds.

08 August 2011

Mining Minerals in Minera II

Just down the road from where Minera's limestone was mined for lead and zinc ore, the same rock was quarried for lime. The Minera Lime Company was formed in 1852, and in 1865 built a Hoffman kiln, one of just three in Britain for burning lime, the others being at Langcliffe, Yorkshire, and at Llanymynech, on the English/Welsh border (YMGW passim). Although the works closed in 1972, quarrying continued until 1993, for roadstone.

Mining Minerals in Minera I

The carboniferous limestone outcrop that starts at Llanymynech passes through Minera, in North Wales. Although it is believed that the latter area was mined by the Romans, the first documentary evidence is from the early 14th-century.

Systematic work in search of galena (lead ore) and sphalerite (zinc ore) commenced in 1720, but Minera always suffered from severe problems with flooding. A Boulton and Watt pumping engine was installed in 1783, and by 1816 seven pumping engines were in operation.

However, cooperation between the various owners militated against effective dewatering, which was not achieved until the Minera Mining Company consolidated all leases in the area in 1849. Over the next two decades Minera became Britain's largest producer of galena and sphalerite.

The mine closed in 1914. At Meadow Shaft (1,200 feet) are preserved the engine house and chimney; and working dressing plant, including separator jigs and circular buddles (used to separate out fine ore particles). Rails, trucks, and lengths of iron pump pipe complete the picture.

07 August 2011

Welsh Banger Racing

On the floodplain of the River Vyrnwy at Meifod, Bron-Y-Maen Farm plays annual host to charity banger racing. There are a number of races, including non-contact, contact and a final demolition derby; and the event moves along at a good pace, with stranded cars quickly moved out of the way by tractors.

The little circuit, roughly marked out with the occasional large tyre, sees some pretty competitive action. It's sad, though, that many spectators seemed most interested in the possibility of a driver who had to be cut out of his car being seriously injured. Thankfully, he was reported to have only broken ribs and clavicle.

Just one complaint: parochialism. Commentator: "All the money raised goes to the air ambulance and local charities, not to some country the other side of the world that you can't even pronounce." A bit rich, with places such as Llangyniew nearby.

02 August 2011

Huglith & Westcott Mines

Huglith Mine, three miles south of Pontesbury, was worked in the early 19th century, initially in search of copper, up until the 1850s, when increasingly the prize was barytes. From 1910 to 1945, in various hands, an incredible 300,000 tons was extracted from Huglith.

One way into the Main Vein workings is via Badger Level (top and bottom photographs). At the vein, this splits into two passages. That on the right leads to a stope with a number of intermediate levels. That on the left leads to a winze that drops 110 feet to the main tramming level.

From 1925 the barytes was transported to Malehurst Mill, near Minsterley, by means of an aerial ropeway that marched across the hills on pylons. The footings for these can be found in the thick woodland that is home to numerous surface remains. In a nearby well-tended (and private) garden are remains of an engine and boiler house of Westcott Mine, also mined initially for copper and later for barytes.

01 August 2011

Tar Tunnel, Coalport

In 1797 William Reynolds, ironmaster, drove into the north bank of the River Severn what is now known as the tar tunnel, intended as an underground canal to link his Madeley coal mines to the river. When the bitumen was revealed the tunnel's purpose changed; collected in pools (below), the bitumen was taken out in wagons - 4,500 gallons per week at peak.

This was used to treat rope for the caulking of boats and, in a refined form, made into Betton's British Oil, sold as a remedy for rheumatism. The tunnel is understood to be about 1,200 yards long. The public are admitted to the first 100 yards, the point of the lamp looked back to at top, where there is a locked gate.

The tunnel is lined throughout most of its length, the bricks just one deep, remarkable given the shallowness of the arch, which widens in one part to enable wagons to pass each other. Beyond a solid flood barrier with metal hatch is a section of unlined tunnel. The floor here is particularly clayey, with oil floating atop the water. Bitumen extraction ended in the 1840s, and the tunnel was extended to drain a number of mines. The final section easily explored is in the form of a brick-lined conduit (above).