22 December 2011

Fab Prefabs

Herbert Austin built his car factory at Longbridge, Birmingham, in 1905. Initial production was 120 cars per year, but within a decade production had soared to 1,500 cars per year. The plant expanded accordingly, but when during WWI it was turned over to the manufacture of tanks and planes, it grew by a factor of ten.

To accommodate his workers close to the factory, in 1917 Austin bought land from Hawkesley Farm and, from Michigan, 500 prefabricated red cedar houses. One of the ships carrying the consignment was sunk on the crossing from the USA. The surviving prefabs, each 20' 6" wide and 35' 3" deep, were erected in a horseshoe pattern around a central spine, with brick semi-detached houses at intervals to act as firebreaks.

The whole estate, numbering 250 houses, was completed in just eleven months, and mature trees planted along the roads. The prefabs housed seven Austin workers each, and the brick semis twelve each. Originally licensed for just five years, now a conservation area, the estate is redolent of a different era.

12 December 2011

The Biarritz of Wales

Aberystwyth is quite a remote town. Cambrian Railways reached it in the 1860s, when it underwent a typical Victorian boom. There's a fine promenade, with the Aberystwyth Electric Cliff Railway (the UK's longest funicular railway) up Constitution Hill at one end, and the harbour at the other.

Otherwise, though, and despite having once been promoted as the Welsh Biarritz, Aber is rather down at heel. It is not a town of impressive sweeps, but has a number of interesting corners and details. Every bench along the promenade boasts curling snakes, and those within the castle stylised sphinxes.

The Royal Pier was one of Eugenius Birch's, opened in 1865 at an original length of 794 feet. Just 299 feet still stand, rather a sorry sight. Many modern pier operators seem to have an unerring ability to ruin the little that remains. Nostalgia is not what it used to be.

10 December 2011

RAF Tilstock

 RAF Tilstock was operational between September 1942 and March 1946. As 81 Operational Training Unit, originally under 93 Group Bomber Command, it provided training on Whitleys and Wellingtons.

In January 1944 Tilstock transferred to 38 (Airborne Forces) Group, providing special operations training and, in preparation for the D-Day invasions, Horsa glider training, using Stirlings as tugs.

Many of the 1940s buildings remain, including a labyrinthine single storey complex of interconnected small rooms. Mostly windowless, this has the feeling of a bunker, albeit above ground.

There are remnants of a ventilation system and, in one room, a communications frame. Literacy has clearly been a problem for some time (second photo). Outside this complex lies what looks like a belt for a stationary engine.

 A cluster of Nissen huts provides a feel for what it might have been like to be billeted here. In one stands, rather forlorn, a car waiting to have the depredations of the passing years polished out. It's understood to be a 1954 Sunbeam Talbot 90.

One runway is still used, for skydiving flights. The others were dug up and used as hardcore in the M54. The station's original control tower stands alone, boarded up. Just along the road from this, hard by abandoned Warren House, is what appears to be an air raid shelter.

08 December 2011

Pistyll, Whipped

"What shall I liken it to? I scarcely know, unless it is to an immense skein of silk agitated and disturbed by tempestuous blasts, or to the long tail of a grey courser at furious speed. I never saw water falling so gracefully, so much like thin, beautiful threads as here" - George Borrow, Wild Wales, 1862.

Pistyll Rhaeadr, near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, in the Berwyn Mountains, falls 240 feet in three stages. In full spate, and buffeted by high wind, the water is more powerful than graceful, flowing over the top of the natural arch that adorns the middle stage, and whipped into spray.