25 December 2012

Another Place

Made of solid cast iron, the 100 life-size sculptures that go to make up Another Place are from a mould of the body of the artist, Antony Gormley, famous for the Angel of the North, in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Mounted on foundations driven ten feet into the sand, they are spread along nearly two miles of Crosby beach, north of Liverpool.

The installation is over half a mile deep, yet all 100 sculptures are completely submerged at the very highest tides. The work, now permanently at Crosby, was previously displayed in Cuxhaven in Germany, Stavanger in Norway, and De Panne in Belgium, all coastal sites.

Gormley: "The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements, and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth's substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body, no hero, no ideal, just the industrially-reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet."

At the southern end of the beach stands the Seaforth Radar Tower, a 98 feet high grey hulk amidst modern wind turbines and mounds of rusting metal. Built in the 1960s to oversee entrance to the Mersey shipping channels, it was originally staffed 24 hours a day, but now feeds information to a remote monitoring station and is slated for demolition.

17 December 2012

Golf Bravo November Kilo Sierra

The Cessna 152 two-seater is, in essence, built to a design of half a century ago, based as it is on the Cessna 150, production of which commenced in 1958. The 152, introduced in 1977, has a largely aluminium airframe, permanently deployed tricycle landing gear, and an air-cooled Lycoming engine, the four horizontally opposed pistons of which develop about 110 horsepower.

Most were built in Wichita, Kansas. Production ended in 1985, about 7,500 having been turned out. By far the majority are dual control: the aircraft is widely used for training purposes, but is also ideal for short-haul personal flights. G-BNKS was built in 1979, and is based at Sleap Airfield, Shropshire.

20 November 2012

Ford's Pension Scheme


Ford’s Hospital, in Greyfriars Lane, Coventry, was founded by the merchant William Ford in 1509. The almshouses originally accommodated five men and one woman. In 1517 further endowments extended the provision to shelter for six couples.


One William Wigston provided a yet further endowment in 1529 to provide for another five couples. This makes Ford’s unusual, in that very many almshouses provide for twelve aged persons or couples. Over 500 years later, the almshouses still fulfil their original function.


Coventry was very heavily bombed during WWII, and on the night of 14 October 1940 the almshouses were hit by a single bomb that killed six residents, the warden, and a nurse. The building was severely damaged, one whole bay being destroyed, but restored 1951-53, using salvaged materials where possible.

15 November 2012

Llangollen Motor Museum

About a mile outside Llangollen is an eponymous motor museum that is a delightfully eclectic collection of about 60 cars, a greater number of motorbikes, and various petrol pumps, cans, enamel signs, automobile-related ephemera, pedal cars, vintage radios, and various curiosities.

Amongst the cars are the first production Gilbern GT, of 1961 (below), and a fine pair of Triumph Vitesses (top). Gilbern, 1959 to 1973, remains the only production car to have been made in Wales. Amongst the curiosities is what's reputed to be the oldest motor-drawn caravan in Britain, home-built in 1908 by an amateur artist for use on his painting trips.

10 November 2012

Enigma Variations

The Enigma machine, available on the open market from 1919 as a means for organisations such as banks to encipher confidential information, was not a commercial success, and was withdrawn from sale in 1933. By 1926 however it had been adapted by the German government for military purposes, initially for the Navy, but later for all three services, in progressively more advanced forms.

Enigma converted plain-text into cipher-text by means of letter key depressions closing switches, completing circuits, and lighting lamps, one for each letter of the alphabet. The enciphering was achieved by virtue of the circuits being completed through the medium of a plug-board and three (selected from five, from December 1938) rotors each with 26 contacts per side. The contacts were connected internally such that, as the rotors turned, the completed circuits were different for every key depression. The different electrical circuit configurations numbered 158,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Polish Intelligence made the first inroads into breaking Enigma-coded messages, and Bletchley Park first broke into German Enigma ciphers in January 1940. Manual techniques however were outstripped by increasingly complex German military set-up routines for the machines. Alan Turing, a brilliant Cambridge mathematician, set about developing a machine to work out the relevant rotor, ring, plug-board and message selections and settings that would not be thrown by further German operational changes.

The Bombe, named after an earlier Polish machine used in de-encryption called the Bomba, itself reputedly named after an ice-cream, was built in just nine months and ready by March 1940. The machine made use of a 'crib', a known correspondence between a piece of cipher-text and the original plain-text, worked out from study of stereotyped messages, for example those commencing, "Weather report." In essence, the Bombe, each vertical set of three drums representing an Enigma machine (top), 'tested' the menus that were plugged up on the back of the machine (above) to reflect the crib.

A rotor order was chosen and an input letter selected. The Bombe worked through each possible rotor set-up, stopping each time a logical partner letter to the input letter was found. The resultant partial keys were tested on a Typex machine, modified to replicate an Enigma, to see whether the cipher-text would produce segments of German plain-text. Gradually, the rotor settings would be determined, such that ultimately all messages using that day's key could be decoded. Each day, the process had to start again.

At Bletchley Park, central to all this activity, is a fully working reconstruction of a Bombe. Entirely electro-mechanical, the machine is essentially a massive system of relays, emulating the rotor systems of 36 Enigmas. The design was continually improved, and by 1945 216 machines of various types were in use in the UK. Run 24 hours a day, without downtime for maintenance despite their 350 lubrication points (third photograph), the Bombes were incredibly robust. And proved absolutely vital to the war effort.

05 November 2012

Lewes Bonfire 2012

Bonfire has its origins in the celebrations that take place across the land to mark the ‘exposure’ of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, although aspects of the event are likely grounded in Samhain, the Gaelic marking of the commencement of winter. It is now always held on 5 November, unless this is a Sunday, in which case it is advanced a day, but the roots of Bonfire lie in riotous events of no fixed point in the calendar.

These were suppressed by Oliver Cromwell, but reappeared upon the Restoration. The celebrations faded towards the end of the eighteenth century, yet grew once more in the 1820s. In 1847 the Riot Act was read to the bonfire boys, who were banished to Wallands Park, then outside the town. They returned to march through the town again in 1850, in response to a Papal Bull asserting the re-establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in England.

In order to preserve the ability to march in the town, the bonfire boys capitulated, and organised so as to control riotous behaviour. Lewes (now Borough) Bonfire Society and Cliffe Bonfire Society – Cliffe was then a separate borough – both formed in 1853. There are now seven Lewes bonfire societies, six of which process with flaming torches through the town on the same night.

Each society parades through its own quarter, and all bar Cliffe and South Street then march down the High Street. The five principal societies make, from wire and papier-mâché, a tableau reflecting topical dislikes, in most cases processed through the town before heading for destruction at the relevant bonfire and firework site. The societies return to their headquarters for bonfire prayers, broadsides against authority and current bogey-men.

Bonfire is a tradition, but a flexible one. Those parading wear either smuggler outfits – banded Guernseys, a different colour combination for each society, and white trousers – or ‘pioneer’ costumes, including Vikings and Moors for Cliffe, Zulus and Tudors for Borough. Since 1858 Bonfire has also commemorated the Lewes Martyrs, 17 Protestants burnt at the stake between 1555 and 1557. In more recent times its purpose has been extended to honour those killed in war, the processions halting at the town’s war memorial.

22 October 2012

Red House Glass Cone Museum

Once at the heart of the glass-making industry, surrounded by numerous cousins, the Grade II* listed glass cone in Wordsley, Stourbridge, is the only complete survivor in the area, and one of only four left in the United Kingdom. Brick-built, 90 feet high, and 60 feet across at its base, the cone was erected in 1790 by Richard Bradley and his brother-in-law George Ensell. 

The cone was used by Stuart Crystal until 1936. It was built originally, though, for the manufacture of window glass. This history is reflected in a pair of kiln-formed float glass curtains, by Robyn Smith and Robert Foxall Colley. The glass has been sand-blasted to form the pattern of lace curtains.

15 October 2012

The Floozie in the Jacuzzi

Victoria Square, Birmingham, has to one side the Council House, designed by Yeoville Thomason and completed in 1879 (above); and adjoining this the Town Hall of 1834 (below), actually a concert venue famous for its pipe organ, and designed by Joseph Hansom - he of the cabs - and Edward Welch.

When the square was pedestrianised in 1993 sculptor Dhruva Mistry won the international design competition for a central water feature. Weighing in at almost two tons, a fountain called The River dominates the upper pool. This is known locally as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi and, as currently, occasionally sports various articles of clothing.

07 October 2012

Redline It

The Gilbert & Barker Manufacturing Co. began making petrol pumps around 1902, and started using the brand name of Gilbarco in 1935. This pump has a Gilbarco nameplate, but is to the skeleton designs of a decade earlier. It's closest to a T-81 of the 1920s, but isn't one. The pump has been media-blasted and powder-coated, the hose treated with tyre shine, and the brass work stripped and sprayed with clear lacquer.

Redline was a brand of the Union Petroleum Products Co. Ltd, incorporated in London in 1914. Union was clearly a nationalistic choice of name: the German company of British Petroleum Ltd had largely controlled motor spirit distribution until its assets were seized at the start of WWI (YMGW passim). By 1927 Union had changed its name to the Redline Motor Spirit Co. Ltd. The arrowhead symbol was adopted around 1930, making it perfect for a G&B pump of the period. After WWII Redline was taken over by the Anglo-American Oil Co., which also owned G&B.

Historical footnote: Gilbarco is still going, as Gilbarco-Veeder-Root, which in all likelihood made the petrol pump from which the reader regularly fills up.

28 September 2012

The British Library - Volume II

The British Library is a building that repays a number of visits. Its design is rooted in the principles of the English Free School, developed in the mid-nineteenth century and noted for asymmetry. Transferred across the Atlantic, the style was progressed by Frank Lloyd Wright and others, who resisted the brutalism of Le Corbusier's architecture without ever being anything other than modernist.

Colin St John Wilson's building is in that mould, an overall simplicity rounded out by gorgeous details - portholes that look out from galleries onto the concourse below, stair handrails and door handles in brass and bound leather, a mixture of clean lines and organic forms.

Behind the Pale Blue Door

Located down a back alley in Dalston is a pale blue door which, knocked upon on fixed dates subsequent to a prior booking, opens into the Pale Blue Door, a pop-up restaurant in the house of artist and set-designer Tony Hornecker.

A mad and fantastic place, tiny tables are crammed in everywhere. The seats are of all descriptions, the lighting theatrical, gently illuminating a riot of what can only be described as stuff, none of which has been bought, suspended from the ceilings and the walls.

The crazy decor is best appreciated from the tables towards the door, as is the between-course transvestite entertainment. The tables on the mezzanine and in the bedroom are recommended only for those of maximum mobility, as access is by way of ladders.

21 September 2012

Ruthin Castle

As was common, Ruthin Castle started life in wooden form. It was rebuilt in red sandstone between 1277 and 1282 as part of Edward I's iron ring of fortresses, which included the castles of Caernarfon, Harlech and Conwy. Dafydd, the brother of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, held Ruthin on Edward's behalf, but proved a traitor.

Reginald de Grey recovered the castle from Dafydd, and the de Greys owned it through to 1402, when Owain Glyndŵr captured and ransomed Reginald de Grey. Ruthin was sold to the Crown in 1508, and remained crown property until sold by Charles I in 1632. In 1646 the castle was subjected to an eleven week siege and subsequently slighted by the Parliamentarians.

The modern 'castle' was built in 1826 within the mediaeval ruins. During the period that it was owned by the Cornwallis-Wests, Ruthin was enjoyed by the Prince of Wales (Bertie) and his mistresses various, including Lillie Langtry. From 1923 to 1950 the castle was home to a private hospital that specialised in obscure diseases. In the early 1960s it was converted into an hotel. The 19th-century portion houses comfortable public rooms and a good number of pleasantly grand bedrooms, the whole faded enough not to overwhelm.

The mediaeval remains provide for plenty of exploration - a spiral staircase (embrasure above) runs within the curtain wall between what would have been the inner and outer baileys. Walks around the grounds are likely to be in the company of the resident peacocks, of which there are a dozen or so.

Ruthin Gaol

Ruthin's first House of Correction was built in 1654, and would have incarcerated felons and the unemployed alike. The gaol was rebuilt in 1775 following the prison investigations of John Howard (as in the Howard League for Penal Reform), and by 1837 could hold 37 inmates. Following the Prisons Act 1865, a new wing on the Pentonville model was built to form, in 1878, HM Prison Ruthin.

The four-storey wing housed 100 prisoners. The gaol closed in 1916, when the prisoners were moved to HM Prison Shrewsbury, a scaled-up version of Ruthin, and still in use. Both look and feel much like HM Prison Slade, of television's Porridge. Our desire to seek to drive behaviour through punishment, despite all that we know about how only reward operates effectively to do so, seemingly remains as strong as in the seventeenth century.

Ruthin Town House

Nantclwyd House is understood to be the oldest timber-framed town house in Wales, dendrochronology having dated its earliest parts to circa 1435. It was enlarged in the Jacobean, Stuart and Georgian periods, passing through the hands of a number of affluent families, including the Wynnes. The house became a Victorian girls' school and an Edwardian rectory and judges' lodgings. Restored by Denbighshire County Council, there is a room in the style of each of the ages of the house. Simply beautiful.

10 September 2012

Pye in the Sky

Is it possible to watch live the Six O'Clock News on a 63-year-old Pye LV20 elevison? Acquire an Aurora standards converter, supply this with power of nine volts DC at 250 milliamps, and connect it to the video and audio outputs of a digibox or other transmission source. Make up a length of 75 ohm coaxial cable with an F-type radio frequency (RF) connection at the Aurora end, and connect the other end to a balun via a standard coax plug.

Solder two short lengths of insulated copper wire into a pair of wander plugs, crimp onto the other end of each wire a ring terminal, and screw these into the terminals of the balun. Push the wander plugs into the twin line antenna socket of the Pye, and power up this, the standards converter, and the source. Select the correct RF channel on the converter - in this case 61.75 MHz for the picture and 58.25 MHz for the sound. Answer: Yes. But beware the possibility of a live chassis.

04 September 2012

Odeon Front Radio

The AC-only Ekco RS3, introduced in August 1931, was the first wireless set to have station names marked on its dial. It benefited also from automatic waveband switching as the cursor is moved between the top and bottom halves of the tuning scale. The Bakelite cabinet, available in walnut or mahogany (pictured) was designed by J.K.White - this architectural style is known as 'cathedral' or 'Odeon front.'

Its sloped and stepped top, stepped-back sides (into which are recessed carry pockets - the radio weighs about 18 lbs), and pollarded willow tree design grille in anodised copper, are classic Art Deco, with a hint of Art Nouveau. The AC/DC SH25 of the following year used the same cabinet, as a factory fire had destroyed the new season's designs. It can be distinguished by the use of concentric knobs, necessary given that the RS3 cabinet didn't have enough holes for the controls.

07 August 2012

Kenilworth Castle

The royal chamberlain Geoffrey de Clinton built the keep at Kenilworth in the 1120s. King John added, in the early 1200s, an additional circuit of walls and a dam in order to provide the castle with a defensive lake. But it was John of Gaunt who developed Kenilworth into a palace, principally through constructing the great hall (above), between 1373 and 1380.

In 1563 the castle was given by Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabeth for Scottish readers) to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, quite possibly her lover but most certainly her favourite. Dudley lavished money on the palace, making it fit to receive his queen on her progresses through her realm. 

Leicester caused to be built a new gatehouse (above and below) to provide a grand arrival space. Although the interior was solidly Elizabethan, the exterior design echoed the style of a century earlier, and has about it shades of the castle at nearby Kirby Muxloe. The gatehouse is virtually intact.

Dudley also created what is now known as the Elizabethan Garden, for the queen's fourth sojourn at Kenilworth, in 1575. Of 19 days' duration, such a visit would have financially ruined a less-favoured member of the court. The garden was recreated in 2009, and includes a large wooden aviary (below).

After the Civil War, in 1650, the defensive parts of the castle were slighted. Sir Walter Scott was inspired by the resultant ruins to pen his 1821 novel, Kenilworth. Since 1984 the castle has been in the care of English Heritage, who have carefully restored key elements without making Disney-esque mistakes.

06 August 2012

More Myddle Muddle

North of Shrewsbury lies the village of Myddle. Nearby is Myddlewood Garage, which specialises in the repair and restoration of classic and vintage cars.

Currently under the garage's hands is a Morris Twelve-Four, commonly used in the mid-1930s as a taxi-cab. The proprietor, Peter Tanulak, has an interest in all things mechanical and vintage. He has a number of old petrol pumps, some complete with globes, which share the yard with a K6 red telephone box. Peter is also a pilot, has built his own biplane, which he keeps hangared at nearby Sleap airfield. Under construction in the workshop is an aerocar. Amongst the various goodies in the yard is an aero engine, doubtless awaiting a further project.