28 February 2012

Chirk Castle - Aged Oak

There grewe an aged tree on the greene,
A goodly Oake sometime had it bene,

With armes full strong and largely displayd,
But of their leaues they were disarayde:

The bodie bigge, and mightely pight,
Throughly rooted, and of wonderous hight:

Whilome had bene the king of the field,
And mochell mast to the husband did yielde,


And with his nuts larded many swine.
But now the gray mosse marred his rine,

His bared boughs were beaten with stormes,
His toppe was bald, and wasted with wormes, 

His honor decayed, his braunches sere.

Edmund Spenser, 1597: The Shepheardes Calendar - Februarie.

25 February 2012

Bush Mechanics

Based in London's Shepherds Bush for the first four years of the company’s life, Bush Radio was founded in 1932. The DAC90 was introduced in 1946 and marketed as a second set for households, much as smaller televisions are marketed today. Early sets had a cloth speaker grille, changed to expanded wire mesh in 1948.

The DAC90A, pictured, was released in 1950, with production continuing until 1955. Both the 90 and the 90A were also available in off-white urea formaldehyde. It’s a chunky design, 11 inches wide, nine inches high, and seven inches deep. Classic 1950s.

(Lower photograph by Esther Bubley)

24 February 2012

Wrested Back from Nature

Wrest Park, in Bedfordshire, is a secret garden on a monumental scale. The estate was home to the de Greys from the thirteenth century right through to 1917. The Manor House, completed in 1839, was designed in the eighteenth-century French style, by Thomas de Grey.

There were an immense 92 acres of formal gardens, inspired by those of Versailles, enclosed within seemingly endless walls, cornered by pavilions (top). Over the decades since 1917 the gardens have largely been lost. English Heritage gained control of the site in 2006, and in 2010 commenced a twenty year restoration programme.

In the garden, the initial focus is on the Rose, American and Italian gardens, the French parterre, and restoration of the miles of paths. There are also an orangery and a pavilion associated with a bowling green. For now, other than at weekends, all that can be seen is a vast, tantalising, enclosing wall.

20 February 2012

Jukebox Jive

Justus P. Sj√∂berg left Sweden for America, aged just 16, in 1887. In 1902 he formed J.P. Seeburg Co., an Anglicised form of his name, to make automated pianos. The company’s first jukebox, the eight-disc Audiophone, arrived in 1928. A decade later Seeburg, making use of translucent plastic panels, released the Symphonola, the first illuminated jukebox.

The Select-O-Matic, introduced in 1949, was revolutionary. It provided for the selection of 100 tracks from 50 records; and the 1950 Model B (this example owned and beautifully restored by Andi Blount) was the first jukebox to play 45rpm records (“singles”). One play for a nickel (5¢), two for a dime (10¢), and six for a quarter (25¢).

16 February 2012

Hawarden, Flintshire

William Ewart Gladstone, four-time Prime Minister, was a voracious reader, and collected books from his childhood. Whilst at Christ Church, Oxford, from which he took a double first in Classics and Mathematics, and another first in History, his collection grew apace.

Gladstone’s collection ultimately consisted of 32,000 volumes, of which the Grand Old Man read an incredible 22,000, a book a day, every day, for 60 years. In 1889 a pair of corrugated iron rooms, known as the Tin Tabernacle, was erected to house the library for public use – there is a famous photograph of Gladstone moving books from Hawarden Castle the half mile to their new home, using a wheelbarrow.

When Gladstone died in 1898 a public subscription funded the building in which the residential library is now housed, designed by John Douglas, and opened in 1902. The collection has grown to over 250,000 books, largely theology, history, philosophy, classics and literature.

The library, in front of which is the Gladstone Monument, intended for Dublin but refused by that city’s council, centres the village of Hawarden. For the bad is the House of Correction of the mid-eighteenth century (third photograph); for the good, Hawarden Park, entered via heavy wooden gates.

14 February 2012

An Ekco of Lost Style

Ekco, E(ric) K(irkham) Cole Ltd, manufacturer of radio and television sets, was founded in 1926. Its Bakelite cabinets were pressed by AEG, in Germany, but high import duties introduced in 1931 encouraged Ekco to invest in its own presses, under AEG control, at its Southend-on-Sea factory. To counter any notion that Bakelite cases were a poor substitute for wooden ones, Ekco had these designed by leading Art Deco and International Style architects.

These included Wells Coates (Isokon building, Hampstead) and Serge Chermayeff (De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea). The Ekco AC (alternating current) 85 of 1934 is said to have been designed in-house, but was either by, or heavily influenced by, Coates. It was available in mottled brown, as in this example, black and chromium, and a very rare ivory (just one known). Options were an AC/DC version (AD85), a battery version (B85) and a wooden stand. Art Deco radio at its best, enough to inspire extravagantly fast behaviour.

13 February 2012

Little Chef, the UK's Diner

Little Chef was started in 1958 by Sam Alper, sculptor and printmaking enthusiast, viticulturalist, and, like Airstream's Wally Byam, designer and booster of caravans. The first Little Chef was in Reading, Berkshire, modelled on diners seen by Alper in the USA. The chain ultimately grew to over 430 outlets. It passed through numerous hands, and by the mid-1970s was synonymous with dire food and terrible service; one stopped only if there really was no choice.

Chef Heston Blumenthal proved to be the company's saviour, introducing in 2009 both a new menu and a refit, starting with the outlet in Popham, Hampshire. The brand's mascot, Fat Charlie, was slimmed down, as was the chain, to about 115 outlets. That outside Shrewsbury is one of a dozen so far refurbished in line with Blumenthal's designs. Not quite an American diner, but a good UK simulacrum.

06 February 2012

Llyn Clywedog

Clywedog Dam, high above Llanidloes, was built between 1964 and 1967 to regulate the flow of water in the upper reaches of the River Severn. At the time of completion it was the tallest mass concrete buttress dam in Britain, standing an impressive 235 feet high.

752 feet long, the dam, which has a convex form facing upriver, retains 11,000 million gallons of water. The reservoir is six miles long, 212 feet deep at maximum fill, and has a surface area of 615 acres.

In support of the dam, 15 miles of road were constructed or relaid; two new bridges were built; and a subsidiary dam, the 40 foot high earthen-cored and stone-faced Bwlch y Gle, was constructed to prevent the reservoir spilling around the sides of Bryn y Fan hill.

Bryntail Mine, Powys

At the foot of Clywedog Dam are the remains of Bryntail mine, one of many in the area that started out with the winning of lead ore and, over time, moved onto the extraction of barytes. There were three principal shafts here, Murray, Western, and Gundry.

Most of the extant buildings are associated with Gundry Shaft, and are clearly but unobtrusively labelled, enabling one to easily follow the processes that would have been operated.

There are two waterwheel pits, extensive remains of the leats that would have fed water to these (top), a couple of cottages, stone-built ore bins, and numerous settling tanks, constructed from massive stone slabs bolted together (middle).

The Idle Buildings of St Idloes

Llanidloes is the first town on the River Severn, named for St Idloes, to whom the parish church is dedicated. A market charter was granted in 1289, but the town is at least four centuries older.  

There are a number of fine buildings, notably the Market Hall, but the town was famous for its surrounding lead and silver mines. The Llanidloes and Newtown Railway built a grand station here in 1864. When the L&NR was incorporated into Cambrian Railways, the line linked through to Cardiff, and was used extensively to move metal ores.

The end came in 1962 as part of the cuts recommended by Dr Richard Beeching. A number of railway buildings remain, a few now in use as the workshops and warehouses of a furniture upholstery business.