Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Thames Barrier Information Centre

Thursday 1 October 2015

The Thames Barrier Information Centre
SE18 5NJ

This was not an easy place for me to get to, and the bizarre recommendations of TfL's inadequate Journey Planner did not help.  Why would I go via Caledonian Road, Kings' Cross and London Bridge, to North Greenwich and a bus, when Camden Road to Stratford, and Stratford to North Greenwich got me to the same bus (the 472, by the way) in 40 minutes instead of 90 minutes?  But I digress.

After all the gardens and royals of last week, and being on  my own, I decided the time had come for some heavy metal,  and you don't get much heavier than the Barrier

The car parks were empty, and the signage on some of the components long gone, but the Barrier itself was spectacular, and I walked for a little way along the Thames Path, admiring the views of the Barrier and also of the surrounding area. The Tate and Lyle factory is just here, resisting the assaults of the anti-sugar faction, and there was an attractive map to show you all the delights of the area.  Linda and I had of course been round here on various buses, as well as going to Woolwich to visit Firepower.

There is also a profile of the River along one of the walls here, showing the fall from Thames Head to the estuary: the river begins 105 metres above sea level.

Having got a real impression of just how big the whole thing is, I headed inside to the small Information Centre, which is under the cafe. The lady who took my (very modest) entrance fee mentioned that there was a school party in the place, but we ex-teachers don't mind other people's students, and these were perfectly civilised.

Around the walls is information about the whole length of the river, and an elegiac film of wild life, rippling water, fish and leisure activities.  The Environmental Agency is very keen for us to know that the river is actually very clean, though murky from the sediment stirred up by the currents, though I should not care to drink it myself. There is also information about tides and North Sea surges, as well as what happens to the rain which falls in Oxford and Reading. Then there is some history, about previous floods, notable the 1953 disaster. And Bazalgette and his embankments, which of course constrained the river upstream. A summary of climate change science and resulting water levels and flood risks fills another wall

We also learned about Charles Draper, the engineer whose clever idea the system was, though I could not discover whether this piece of paper really was his sketch of the idea, or an artist's version.

But the centrepiece of the exhibition is a working model. Two sheets of foil covered card rise as the tide comes in and the river is swollen with upstream rain; the hydraulic pistons pull and push the wheels into their upright position and lo, London is saved.  No-one said much about what happens to Thamesmead and Gravesend as a result, however.


The last ingredient in this very informative Information Centre is a film where one of the top men, in his hard hat and high visibility jacket shows us round the operations room and then down the tunnels which connect the 9 piers, and up onto  one of them to see the gates at close quarters.  He is accompanied by a cartoon character who provided diagrammatic explanations of the difficult bits. The stainless steel, though eye-stretchingly expensive at the time of construction, wears well, and continues to be beautiful.  What I did not know is that the inside of each of these compartments is lined with wood, in a positively cathedral-like vault.  We were told that each of the wheels weighs 3,300 tons, and that the cranes are needed to lift them for maintenance. There are emergency generators and back up systems of all kinds. I suppose the strangest thing is that they run water pipes to all 9 piers in case of fire, although you might think there would be enough water all round.  My only criticism is that when some science is mentioned, cathodic protection for example, the 'Scientist' is of course depicted as a male with a beard in a white coat.  It really is about time the Environment Agency mothballedits stereotyping department.

All in all, this is a London sight well worth a visit.  My only regret is that I didn't time my trip to coincide with one of the monthly test closures. You can find the dates for these on the website, which also has diagrams and many details. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Kew Palace

Kew Palace
Kew Gardens

Thursday 24 September 2015

Kew Palace is the last of our Historic Royal Palaces, given that we are not about to cross the Irish Sea, so we made our way to Kew Gardens, before our membership ran out, in order to take advantage of the modest discount offered by the Gardens to HRP card holders.  Kew was, as usual, beautiful and, as usual, blighted by the unbroken stream of noisy machines heading for Heathrow.

Linda and I decided to head for the Palace first, though pausing to admire the dark leaved dahlias and detouring to the waterlily house.  There was a friendly young man in waders doing a bit of pruning in the water, and he told us the name (ipomea) of the pretty pink flowers round the fence.  regrettably, this variety would not thrive out of doors in London.  We had not realised till he told us that the enormous lilies are grown from seed every year, nor that the leaves start life as a prickly ring; though we did know that they float courtesy of the air trapped in their spokes (which is where Paxton got the idea for the hollow steel columns which held up the crystal Palace)

But it was time to move on, with autumn beginning to colour Kew's maples, to reach our destination, Kew Palace.

People in an approximation of period costumes indicated the route through the house, and we started in a ground floor room with attractive linenfold panelling, with explanations about the domestic life which George III and his large family liked to enjoy at Kew. Next came the King's Library, embellished with paintings and embroideries by some of the princesses and description s of their daily activities.

The video sequence in the next room has Queen Charlotte talking about her life and fifteen (yes, fifteen) children, two of whom died young. Her first was born in 1762, and the 14th in 1777, then there was a brief gap before Amelia was born in 1783.  Her life is one of many reminders of how lucky modern Ist world women are:  she and her husband loved each other deeply, and pregnancy was the recurring result.

We also learned, in the next room, about George's father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, who died before he could inherit the throne. George III's accession at the age of 22 explain his long reign, beaten only by Victoria and the current Queen.

The dining room was laid out with what Linda calls National Trust food, including a dish of 'spinnage' and some handsome raised pies. There was a Chamber Organ from about 1730 in the room, a reminder that the whole of the family enjoyed music.

Upstairs took us to the Queen's boudoir, and Linda told me that 'bouder' means to sulk, although that is not the activity that one usually pictures in boudoirs.  It looked quite comfortable, though the playing cards, embroidery and spinning wheel were a reminder that life could be dull with servants doing all the household tasks.  The family spent long weeks and months here during the King's bouts of illness, to be out of the public eye. Imagine such a situation in the twitter-and-what's-app age.

The Queen's Drawing room is next door, with a fine double keyboard instrument taking pride of place.  In 1810, the marriages of two of the Princes were celebrated in this room, since the King was too ill to appear in public.

A corridor runs along the middle of the first floor from front to back of the house, lined with not very clean pictures of the Gardens made in the 1750s, but they did not delay us long and we continued our circuit with Princess Elizabeth's dressing room and bedroom.  Here the wall panelling had been peeled back to enable us to see the servants' stairs and door.  The Queen's bedroom,next door, was where she died in 1818 of dropsy (which we would now just call oedema, or water retention).

The next floor up once housed three more of the princesses, but is now left in a pretty unadorned state, with a room full of information about conservation, and the history of the palace since the days of George III and his family. There were also some interesting details about the servants who were employed, and facsimiles of account books, estate maps and other documents. This is also the room with the apparently obligatory chest of wigs and clothes to try on, Also on this floor is the flush lavatory.  Since it only 'flushed' into a holding tank, which still had to be emptied by the servants, one could argue that it was only a moderate improvement in domestic hygiene.  The unfinished rooms up here are adorned with quotations from the princesses and other observers about their life at Kew.  The top floor is not open to the public.  Perhaps one day they will set it up as servants' rooms, since presumably that would have been where members of the domestic staff were housed.

But there was plenty more for us to see, and we headed into the gardens, to study the various medicinal plants, growing with details of what they had been supposed to do in the past, and uses which had been found for them since.  Plants to protect against the plague did not seem likely to replace antibiotics any time soon, but explanations about the differing types of camomile, and of names like 'feverfew' and 'bedstraw' were very clear and interesting.

Then we moved on to the royal kitchens, set in their own vegetable gardens.  It seemed a pity that no-one was picking the runner beans, or doing anything with a lavish crop of late rhubarb.  The young man in period clothes who told us it was a health and safety issue was unconvincing....

Inside the building there were rooms for storage, with meat hooks in the ceilings and tables for food preparation.  We were also delighted to see the King's bath tub in one of the scullery-type rooms.  Apparently he took his bath here, across the courtyard and gardens from the palace, to save the servants the toil of carting gallons of hot water into the main building. He was clearly a considerate man, at least when he was in his right mind and not being tortured by his doctors

Upstairs were the offices of the Clerk of the Kitchen and his staff, where we were able to see the advertisements and business cards (or replicas thereof) of the businesses which suppled the kitchens.  There were also recipes and instructions about table setting and table service.  At one side of the handsome office was a decanter and wine glasses, and a the other the equipment for making cups of tea.  One could imagine that catering for all those Royals must have been quite a stressful business.  And there would be the additional strain of keeping a check on all the silver and other valuables, examples of which were in a store cupboard.

When it was time to head out, Linda and I walked through the Princess of Diana Conservatory, where we were more than a little surprised to see some sizeable lizards apparently waiting for someone to open a door and let them out of the tropics into a more temperate zone.  But we just strolled through the Palm house and left, as we had come, towards the station.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

London Fire Brigade Museum, Winchester House

94 Southwark Bridge Road
London SE1 0EG
Saturday September 18 2015

Two items of note:

-         -  Our plan for this week had been to visit the Anaesthetists’ Heritage Centre in Portland Place – we had checked earlier so were surprised to be met at the (very grand) door by an employee who told us the museum could not be visited due to a major flood – it had of course rained very heavily the day before. They kindly let us use their facilities and we went our separate ways on different errands.

-        -  Our  visit to the London Fire Brigade Museum took place as part of ‘Open House London’  and was in fact the last ever opportunity to visit this building. The developers take over on Monday  and the museum exhibits will move to the second HQ for the London Fire Brigade – the very Thirties LCC Building on the Albert Embankment – however the newly revamped museum will not open for  few years yet so this was truly a ‘last chance saloon’ sort of visit.

Fireman Sam clearly has a lot to answer for as many of the visitors were youngl children (mainly boys) boys with their fathers in tow clamouring to see the engines and able to try on the different period uniforms available in nearly every room. It was also noticeable that there were several ex-firemen among the visitors, showing their families what their lives used to be like.

This bit of land was originally part of the Bishop of Winchester’s estate, then variously a workhouse and a hat factory before becoming the HQ of the Metropolitan Fire brigade, a training ground and the residence of the first Chief Officer, the formidable Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, who happened to be a friend of the then Prince of Wales. No ‘blushing violet’ he as the rooms are well adorned with his portraits various, busts, and personal effects. To be fair he did run a ‘tight ship’ – an apt metaphor as he believed in recruiting ex-navy personnel on the grounds they were used to water, ladders discipline and working in shifts (watches) – and also had some innovative ideas.  To do him further credit he did innovate, introducing stand pipes and fire hydrants, and the use of the telegraph.
The ground floor rooms offer a lovely post-Georgian enfilade of office, small salon, reception and  two dining areas. The walls are all decorated with pictures of heroic firemen rescuing little children from devouring flames, and some of the cupboards have miniature replica engines showing that this has been a popular toy for ever.  Shaw’s  office even has a gilded balcony from which he could  survey the training area below, which bore a passing resemblance to a  parade ground. As well as giving the visitor an opportunity to admire the  d├ęcor, the rooms also provide a detailed history of fire fighting in London through the ages, starting with – yes – the Great Fire of 1666, when effectively there was no-one with the responsibility or skill to take on a major incident. As with any disaster even today there followed a raft of regulations and increased safety measures. So after 1666 brick building rather than wood became the order of the day, and those who could afford it invested in ‘fire insurance’. In turn the fire insurance companies, whose different ‘marks’ are displayed round the walls, employed their own firefighters, often recruited from the London Watermen . A bad fire in nearby Tooley Street in 1861 made the Insurance companies ask for the government to take over and the 1865 saw the Metropolitan Fire Act passed.  In 1889 the London County Council (LCC) took over and the vestiges of their emblem can still be seen in the current coat of arms. The pre-Second World War period saw further innovations: helmets cork lined rather than brass, some smoke and breathing apparatus,  and the final use of horses in 1921 – never mind ‘War Horse’ how well trained and brave must those horses have been to stand by and wait while the fires burnt.

The London Blitz is covered in some detail, as well it might be as the most testing period ever and one that meant the greatest loss of life for those fighting the bomb damage and incendiaries. (This museum explains the difference quite clearly)  The Auxiliary Fire Service was created which allowed women to join, though most seemed  to be desk and telephone jobs. 

The fireboats introduced in 1936 were used throughout and only phased out in 1971. This period is copiously illustrated   as some of the AFS volunteers were artists.  St Paul’s features  significantly in these pictures and of course in photos too – still largely black and white. Unsurprisingly,   during the war the red engines were painted utilitarian grey to avoid being spotted from the sky. Interesting too was the role of the messenger boys, aged just 16-18 and vital when communications were disrupted.
Post war national standards were set and the London Fire Brigade took on salvage work additionally.
By this time the visitor has climbed to the second floor of Winchester House – the stairs have a well preserved balustrade, which you need to hang on to as the steps get steeper.

Another loss of life at the Dudgeons Wharf fire led to proper HAZCHEM legislation and gradually the Fire Brigade evolved into the modern Fire & Rescue Service. Helping them in their ‘forensic’ role are the specially trained dogs who apparently can sniff out petrol or fire accelerant even when used sparingly or disguised. Still in use, we were told, in the ‘very modern fire service’ are the poles – which offer the safest (provided you wear gloves) quickest descent from one of the tower watch rooms.

More rigorous Health & Safety   legislation  - you just need to read about the causes of the King’s Cross Fire – stringent anti-Smoking, the ubiquitous smoke alarms and better training for the public have certainly reduced the incidence of house fires but of course industry, rescue and fire prevention are still key and while the London Fire Brigade do not quite have the legendary  status of the New York Service they are still very much part of the key emergency services in our 21st century city which must be alert to any  kind of incident.

And what of the buildings and site – much of it is Grade 1 listed so the alterations will be limited – but it is of course going to developers so will doubtless become another exclusive or gated community. When the Museum will re-open is as yet… unclear

Adjacent to the training ground in the ‘Appliance Bay’ you can see some of the more historic fire fighting equipment, beautifully polished. The Dennis  ‘Big Four’ machine, from the middle of the last century,  attracted much attention though what I really wanted to do was (no, not slide down the pole like Bridget jones) but ding the brass bell…highly polished of course. Presumably these machines will be ‘moth-balled’ until their new display space becomes available…

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Photographers' Gallery

The Photographers' Gallery
6-18 Ramillies St
W1F 7LW 

Thursday 10 September 2015

Why have we never been here before, Linda and I asked each other as we visited the three galleries of this remarkable space.  It could not be much easier to get to:  any westbound bus along Oxford Street has a stop called 'the Photographers' Gallery';  or you come up from Oxford Circus Underground, walk a few metres eastwards and plunge down the steps just by the big Boots.  And there you are.
Also, entry is free before noon!

The name on the building has the second 'L' reversed, and this provides the house style for a lot of the signage.

Photography of the exhibited works is not permitted, for copyright reasons, but the website has a nice lot of images.

There are two exhibitions currently.  On the first floor is 'Women, Children and Loitering Men,' photographs by Shirley Barker. Having studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, she was unable to get work at the (Manchester) Guardian because the trade Unions did not want female photographers. So she worked freelance, capturing the streets of Salford, Hulme and Manchester, as families lived and children played among the bomb damaged houses which had still not been demolished and replaced in the mid 1960s.  The pictures are extremely moving, because they are not posed or aimed at the heart strings, but recording what was there.  We saw children playing iin their gas masks, twenty years after they were all supposedly returned to the authorities; washing hanging across the streets; mothers sitting on their front steps as the children played among the rubble.

Up the stairs, each tread sponsored by some individual or organisation, and past the second floor which has the Archive and the Learning area, we came to the other exhibition.  A range of different photographers had focused on (modern)bands and venues.  And on the top floor there were photographs of fans, queuing for gigs or enjoying themselves.  Fore example, Lorena Turner had photographed a number of Michael Jackson impersonators;  William Coutts had a sequence of pictures of Trash Talk at the Camden Underworld.

Also on these floors it was possible to look out at the Soho Streets through wide and tall windows.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we enjoyed the Shirley Barker pictures most, since they date from our early adulthood.  But all the works were of interest and we shall certainly be back.

There is also a shop and a cafe, though sadly no postcards of the works currently on display:  only a beautiful but costly book!