25 December 2013

The Sweeney

Sweeney Mountain in Shropshire is, at only 620 feet above sea level, not a mountain.  However, a number of buildings taken back by nature are testament to the fact that when the weather's against one it can be cruel up here.

"Sweeney" may be a corruption of "swaney." The country house that is now the Sweeney Hall Hotel was, in an earlier incarnation, the property of one Thomas Baker, in 1649 granted a crest of arms featuring four swans' heads.

13 December 2013

Aberystwyth Harbour

Although Aberystwyth means Mouth of the Ystwyth, the river that actually runs through the town is the Rheidol. The Ystwyth, beside which there are a number of knocked-together sheds, flows under the bridge to the harbour pier and into Aberystwyth harbour, south-west of the town.

The harbour was for most of its life impeded by a large sandbar that extended into the estuary, and only small sloops and smacks, mostly herring boats, were able to operate. It was radically improved in the late 1830s, through construction of a stone quay and an adjoining stone pier (below).

The new harbour enabled larger boats to make port. Boat-building, largely of schooners, also developed in a small way, although within 30 years the expanding railways had significantly affected the trade. The last ship was built in 1881.

21 November 2013

Canvey Island Concrete

Just five miles east to west, three miles north to south, and of seven square miles, Canvey Island, in the Thames estuary, feels like a world of its own. The low-lying land is criss-crossed by creeks, and accessed by means of one of two bridges.

Settled since the Roman period, Canvey was first protected from the sea in the 1620s, the reclamation work, which conjoined a number of smaller islands, possibly undertaken by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden. The island was largely agricultural until the twentieth century, but in the 1930s became popular with Londoners wanting to take the air.

The International style Labworth Café, of reinforced concrete, was opened in 1933. This is the only building in the world designed solely by the famous engineer Ove Arup, who modelled it upon the bridge of RMS Queen Mary. Originally called the Canvey Island Café, this became known by the word "Labworth" painted in large letters on the inland side, the building constructed as it was on the Labworth Estate.

Canvey was inundated in 1953 by the North Sea flood, which claimed 58 lives, and between 1973 and 1982 gained 15 miles of upgraded and massive sea walls, running around 75% of the island. Construction of these buried the supporting piles of the Labworth, reducing it to two storeys.

The building only narrowly escaped demolition, but found a new lease of life in the late 1990s, having been Grade II listed in 1996. In 2001 the building was altered again, decidedly for the worse, when the shelters that had formed its wings, which originally had ship-like railings atop them, were enclosed.

During WWII a common weapon against shipping was the magnetic naval mine, often dropped by parachute. Although this was largely a redundant technology by the time of the Cold War, in 1963 the Admiralty built the Degaussing Range Station (below), known locally as the Canvey Loop.

In two loops of thick cable on the bed of the Thames a charge was induced by the magnetism of passing ships' hulls, which charge was detected at the station. Where the readings demanded this, the ships could then be degaussed. The station closed when the new seawall, the steel piles of which would have severed the cables, was constructed, although it was only declassified in 1993 - the equipment remains partially secret.

19 November 2013

Springfield Brewery, Wolverhampton

In about 1840, William Butler, a grocer by trade, started selling home-brewed beer to his fellow workers at Wolverhampton's Shrubbery Iron Works, where he was a shingler. Two years later, Butler left his job and became a full-time grocer and brewer. By 1848 he had built the Priestfield Brewery in the city.

The wells here began to run dry as demand increased, so Butler moved production to Springfield, which had a good water supply and was hard by both the canal and the railway, making for convenient transport of his beers. The Springfield Brewery was fully operational by 1874, and included maltings, a cooperage and stables.

The Great Western Railway ran a siding into the site, which expanded as did business. A new brewing tower was brought on stream in 1883. William died in 1893, when his son, also William Butler, pursued an aggressive strategy of acquiring rival breweries so as to increase Butler's number of tied houses. Both Bloxwich Brewery and Cannock Brewery were acquired in 1925, and Eley's in 1928.

This expansion continued into the 1950s, making Butler's one of the Midlands' largest brewers. It was itself incorporated into Mitchell's and Butler's in 1960, which in turn was taken over by Bass just a year later. Brewing ceased at the site in 1991, and the buildings were gutted by fire in 2004.

17 November 2013

Ekco & Animation

The Ekco AC86 was released in 1935, a year after the AC85 of which it was a restyle, the cabinet design undertaken by Serge Chermayeff. The set was available in both walnut (pictured) and black Bakelite, the latter with chromium detailing.

The AC86 could also be had in AC/DC (AD86), battery (B86) and export (SW86) versions. It is known to vintage radio enthusiasts as the 'Dougal'. When first bought, the set would have swallowed 13 guineas, about £820 in today's money, and three to four weeks' of the average wage of 1935. Quite how much LSD was ingested by the radio's namesake from The Magic Roundabout is not known.

The AW70 was released in 1939. It operated only on alternating current, but was available also in battery form (BAW71). By this point, immediately pre-war, Ekco was no longer producing black and chromium variants, although it did so again in 1945 with the A22.

The set's dial features the word "Aircraft" at 900 metres. A feature first introduced in 1934, this marked the frequency at which one could listen to traffic between airborne 'planes and the control tower at London Airport, Croydon, unthinkable in today's controlled world. It was presumably the AW70 that inspired the design of the alarm clock merchandise spin-off from Aardman Animations' 2000 film Chicken Run, being spirited away by Fetcher and Nick

09 November 2013

Broadwell Conduit Head, Shrewsbury

Hidden away in the woods of the Nobold area of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, are the remains of the sixteenth-century conduit head from which the town was supplied with water from 1556, right through to 1947.

The conduit head building, Grade II listed, is constructed of roughly-squared red sandstone, timber trusses to each gable, and plain tiles, and dates to about 1578. Inside is a single space, taken up with a brick-lined water tank.

Water was collected from nine wells in the immediate vicinity, seven of which can be easily located amongst the briars. The wells are accessed by a series of interconnected and covered boardwalks, tiled with shingles.

From the site, known as Broadwell, water was piped into town, originally in hollowed-out elm trunks, elm being resistant to decay when permanently wet. Five of the later outlets once associated with the system survive in the town.

Originally a licensed private enterprise, the facility was acquired by the town's corporation in 1878. On the same site is a later pumping house, of 1903, which was in the 1980s converted by Severn Trent Water into a visitor centre, now closed and vandalised. The council acquired the site in 2007, but has, of course, done nothing with it.

08 November 2013

Ekco & Sir Misha Black

Amongst the architect-designers engaged by Eric Kirkham Cole to design Ekco's Bakelite radio cabinets was (later Sir) Misha Black. Azerbaijan-born, Black came to England aged two. His design for Ekco's AC/DC UAW78 of 1937, pictured, evinces shades of Ellis, Clarke and Williams's 1932 Daily Express Building in Fleet Street, London, with its round corners in vitrolite and clear glass, an icon of Art Deco architecture. Original price £11.0s.6d. A battery version (BAW78) and an accumulator/vibrator version (BV78) were also available.

In 1943 Black founded, with Milner Gray, Design Research Unit, one of the first practices to address itself to architecture, industrial design, and graphics. DRU had significant involvement with the 1951 Festival of Britain. Black developed the external styling of British Rail's Class 71 electric (1958), and Class 52 diesel (1961) locomotives; and designed Westminster's street name signs (1968) and the iconic geometric orange, black, yellow and brown moquette used on London Transport seating (late 1978).

22 October 2013

The Grand Old Man's Trees

Although Hawarden Castle, Flintshire, the country home of quadruple nineteenth century prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, is not open to the public, some of the surrounding parkland is.

This is accessed via a wicket in a town centre set of gates that, to the casual observer, would appear not to provide ingress. The park is home to some fine specimen trees.

Into his eighties, part of Gladstone's exercise regime came in the form of walking the park, about which he would carry a heavy axe. If a tree could not be retained, it was Gladstone who felled it.

Gladstone: "We cut down that we may improve. We remove rottenness that we may restore health by letting in air and light. As a good Liberal, you ought to understand that."

20 October 2013

Beckmeter Petrol Pump

This Beckmeter Multi Mix pump was in rather poor condition when acquired. Although the wheels were beyond repair, the panels have been stripped, the missing parts of the top panel built up with car body filler and shaped to the correct form, and the whole painted. New rubbers and glass have been inserted, and the petrol and oil sight glasses replaced with stippled polycarbonate discs, such that the pump, wired into an external lighting circuit, can be illuminated in the dark.

17 October 2013

Aston Hall, Oswestry

Aston Hall was built by Robert Mylne, between 1789 and 1793, and may have been designed by James Wyatt, the architect of Fonthill Abbey. It is in Greek Revival style, and of sandstone ashlar. The Ionic pilasters appear to bow outwards.

The house originally had a cupola and octagonal lantern. Built as a country pile, Aston has been a hospital and a school, is now once more a private residence, set in a beautiful landscaped park that boasts a considerable lake. Even the dog kennels are wonderfully grand.

Iron Safari

Across the road from Aston Hall is the British Ironwork Centre, the renamed Black Country Metalworks. There's a very warm welcome here, customer service at its very best.

The site is home to a growing safari park of metal animal sculptures. The firm is currently engaged in making, for misdirectionist Uri Geller, a giant gorilla made from spoons. Should have been a one trick pony.

11 October 2013

Fiat Lux

Trade-marked BAT and featuring a bat with outstretched wings, this roadworks lantern was made in Beierfeld, in the German Democratic Republic, after 1948. BAT-branded lanterns were originally produced by Friedrich Stübgen, founded in 1843 in Erfurt, between 1936 and May 1945, when the Russians dismantled the factory and shipped it to Ukraine. The East Germans reused the brand. This 14 inch high paraffin (kerosene) lamp was once a ubiquitous sight at British roadworks, and likely the property of Shropshire, or possibly Surrey, County Council, as SCC is welded into the metal.

06 October 2013

Moulton - Bicycle Porn

Alex Moulton’s paternal great-grandfather, Stephen Moulton, founded in 1848, in Bradford on Avon, a company to exploit Goodyear’s rubber vulcanisation process, which he'd brought to England. This expanded to become Spencer Moulton, bought by Avon Rubber in 1955. A mechanical engineer, Alex worked for the erstwhile family firm, developing suspension systems. These were fitted to, amongst others, the iconic BMC (British Motor Corporation) Mini.

Taking a cue from the small wheels of this, and adding frame suspension, Moulton developed a bicycle with 16 inch wheels, which debuted in 1962. Raleigh, who had been approached as potential manufacturer, was uninterested, so Moulton built the bike himself in Bradford on Avon, later outsourcing to BMC in Kirby. In 1965 Raleigh developed the RSW-16 (Raleigh Small Wheels) as a competitor which, although much inferior, marginalised Moulton, who sold to Raleigh in 1967.

The last Raleigh Moulton was made in 1974. Moulton bought back his patents, and in 1983 launched the revolutionary AM Spaceframe. This was succeeded from 1992 by the APB (All Purpose Bicycle), built under licence by Pashley, in Stratford upon Avon, until 2005, when it was itself replaced by the TSR.

The pictured APB R18 has a separable spaceframe, Italmanubri Europa drop handlebars, and 20-inch wheels built on Pashley hubs and shod with Schwalbe Marathon Slicks. Go is by a Stronglight chainset with 56T and 44T rings, SRAM nine speed cassette, and Shimano Tiagra Derailleur mechanism, the 18 gears controlled via Shimano Dura-Ace bar end shifters. Stop is by Tektro brakes, governed by Dia-Compe levers.

29 September 2013

Satellite Television

At its Foot Cray factory, Kolster-Brandes made televisions alongside radios. Trading on its long association with Cunard, KB gave a number of its TV sets the name Royal Star. The 17-inch PVP20 model is a classic of 1950s colouration and Sputnik-inspired design -  lilac-grey wrap-around wood fibre cabinet, salmon mask, white urea formaldehyde controls, gold trim, and bright red feet. When first sold in 1958 the set cost £61 19s 0d including purchase tax.

19 September 2013

Vélo Moto Auto

The National Weapons Factory at Châtellerault, in the department of the Vienne, Poitou-Charentes, was established in 1819 to manufacture swords. It later made rifles, such as the Lebel type. The factory closed in 1968.

Housed in one of the former factory's buildings is Châtellerault Motor Museum, built around the personal collection of Bernard de Lassée. The collection includes a representative selection of early vélos, including hobby horses, penny-farthings, and safety bikes.

It moves through the history of the moto and the auto, and includes gorgeous examples of Panhards, Delahayes, Darracks, and, of course, Peugeots. There's a smattering of American cars, but it's the French weird and wonderful that catches the eye. Hautement recommandé.