27 July 2012

More Canals Than Venice

Connecting Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the Black Country is a network of canals known as the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN). These once extended to about 160 miles, of which circa 100 miles remain navigable. 

Birmingham Canal, now known as the BCN Main Line, was the first to be built, 1768-1772, by James Brindley, linking the edge of the city, near to Gas Street Basin, with Aldersley, Wolverhampton, where there is a junction with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. 

Next came, in 1764, the Birmingham and Fazely Canal, linking the city to Tamworth. The companies that owned these two canals were immediately merged, and in 1794 the single company was renamed Birmingham Canal Navigations. 

Depending on which are counted, about 20 canals go to make up the BCN as it exists today. The area around the canals that link up near to Gas Street Basin has seen much improvement work in recent years. Thankfully, it has not been entirely gentrified.

Just visible from the canals is the new Library of Birmingham, under construction in Century Square. In 2013 this will replace the hideous concrete Central Library of 1974. It remains to be seen whether the striking design by Francine Houben, of the Dutch architectural practice Mecanoo, will be more durable.

25 July 2012

Royal Leamington Spa III

Developed as it was within a concentrated period of half a century or so - YMGW passim - Royal Leamington Spa's architecture generally has a consistent, quality, look and feel. Many of the largely cream-painted Georgian buildings are ornamented with ironwork railings and porches. Even later constructions, such as Mill Bridge, constructed in 1903, are mostly in keeping.

Stoneleigh Abbey Riverside

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, is built close to the River Avon. When ownership passed in 1996 to a charitable trust, funding was secured from English Heritage and other bodies to undertake various restoration works, including of bridges, locks and weirs.

Beside the river is a pump house, circa 1813, and, next to this, a brick-built well-head. The former is in Gothic Revival style, expensively built in ashlar, with moulded rain hoods above the windows, and houses its original waterwheel and a three-throw pump, likely used to drive water up to the house. This too can hopefully be restored.

In the nearby woods is a small pet cemetery, in which is a monument that is surely the product of a guilty conscience. The inscription reads: "Monarch. A favourite setter. Who was shot by accident September XXV. Anno Domini MDCCCXXXIX [1839]."

22 July 2012

The Full Monty

What is now known as the Montgomery Canal runs for 35 miles from its junction with the Llangollen Canal at Welsh Frankton, to Newtown in Powys. The canal was originally planned to run between Llanymynech and Newtown - it has never gone to Montgomery - and to be joined at the former with the Llanymynech Branch of the Ellesmere Canal. The 16 miles of the Eastern Branch of the Monty, between Llanymynech and Garthmyl, seven miles out of Newtown, were constructed by 1797.

The Western Branch, the last seven miles to Newtown, was built by a separate company, and completed in 1821. The Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company bought the Eastern Branch in 1847, and the western three years later, to form part of the Shropshire Union network. Accordingly, bridge numbers on what is now considered as the Montgomery Canal start at 71, with the bridges of the Llangollen Canal being split into two number sequences, east and west of Frankton Junction.

The canal, used primarily to transport lime, prospered by virtue of the fact that railways came late to the rural area through which it passes, but became increasingly run-down during the 1920s. It was disused from 1936, after a breach near the junction with the Llangollen Canal, and abandoned in 1944. It is very slowly being restored, through the efforts of volunteers who refuse to be awed by either the scale of the task or the sloth and blindness of local councils.

15 July 2012

Magic Voice

The Sonora Chime Company started out in New York City in 1908, making chiming bells for clocks. The company moved into phonographs, retaining its slogan "Clear as a Bell", and was reincorporated in 1913 as the Sonora Phonograph Company.

The subsidiary of Sonora SA France was started in 1932, in Puteaux, west of Paris. The VM1, the first Sonora known as La Voix Magique, was introduced in 1937. The black Bakelite cabinet of this example is in excellent condition, and the speaker cloth is original.

13 July 2012

Sequined Selfridges

Birmingham's Bullring shopping centre of 2003 is one more unimaginative retail development. But it's home to a stunning piece of landmark architecture, the Selfridges Building, designed by Czech architect Jan Kaplický, of Future Systems.

Construction commenced in 1999, and the building was completed in 2003, at a cost of £60 million. A steel framework supports a sinuously curved façade of sprayed concrete. Six storeys high, the building is dramatic without being overbearing. The treatment of the exterior was inspired by Paco Rabanne's sequined dresses.

On a background of International Klein Blue are mounted over 15,000 discs of spun aluminium, polished and anodised. Set out in horizontal rows of 282, each row with its own equalised spacing, the 24 inch discs emphasise the curves of the building, as does a wavelike plinth of stainless steel and glass.

There are few openings. One receives at the third storey the 120 foot-long and curved pedestrian bridge that joins the building to a multi-storey car park. The bridge is of steel box girder construction, supported by cable stays. The polycarbonate canopy rather lets the building down, as it's already discolouring.

08 July 2012

Ekco Festival

The Ekco A147 Festival was developed specifically for the Festival of Britain of 1951. Accordingly, its design was determinedly modern - sleek and pared-down. The cabinet is of glorious walnut, with a four-part urea formaldehyde speaker grille, emphasising that the radio provided for a quartet of pre-set stations. It was not otherwise tunable.

In 1951 the set cost 20 guineas, including tax, as advertised in The Trader. The cabinet of this example has been nicely refinished, although the EKCO lettering isn't, unfortunately, of the correct font or kerning. As can be seen from the twin lamp illumination, there's also some work to be done to align the tuning and the station indicator lamps.

03 July 2012

Stoneleigh, Warwickshire

About five miles north of Leamington Spa is the village of Stoneleigh, on the confluence of the River Avon and one of its tributaries, the Sowe. It could stand as the epitome of the English village - beautiful houses, some under thatch, and cared-for streets and greens.

There is, though, no village pub. Lord Leigh, of Stoneleigh Abbey, exercising his powers over his estate village, closed the local hostelry in the late nineteenth century, after one of his daughters was whistled by drunken cyclists.