Plenty of bridges

LONDON IS BLESSED with an abundance of open spaces where one can exercise and enjoy reasonably fresh air. In addition to parks, woods, the banks of the Thames, and squares with gardens, the towpaths alongside canals provide visually fascinating places to walk, run, or cycle. These canals  used to be important routes along which freight could be transported right across England before they were rendered practically redundant by the advent of the railways. Despite this, they have been maintained and give great pleasure to many people including my wife and me.

Today, the 6th of November 2020, we walked along a branch of the Grand Union Canal from Golborne Road (near Portobello Road), where I practised dentistry from 1994 until about 2001, to Paddington Basin, which only became accessible to casual visitors in about 2000, when it was redeveloped. We began our walk in Meanwhile Park at the base of Trellick Tower, a tall block of flats designed in brutalist style by Ernő Goldfinger and opened in 1972. The pleasant community park, created in 1976, runs alongside a short stretch of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, which was opened for use in 1801. We walked across the narrow park and onto the towpath. Although we have walked along this often, what attracted me this time in addition to the variety of barges and waterfowl was the variety of bridges that cross the canal and its towpath. I shall concentrate on these in this essay.

The first bridge we walked beneath is that carrying the Great Western Road over the canal. This is a cast-iron, single-arched bridge with the Union Tavern at its northern end. It looks like a Victorian design. Heading east, after walking beneath the sweeping curve of the Westway, an elevated motorway (the A40), the first bridge we encountered was that which carries the Harrow Road over the canal. This iron bridge with brick abutments is shorter than the previous one because the canal narrows temporarily as it passes beneath it.  A few yards east of this, there is another bridge that crosses the canal to reach an old, derelict building that must have been a factory in the past. The bridge, known as the ‘Pipe Bridge’, has a roof and is completely enclosed with translucent panelling. It looks as if it was built in the last few decades and leads from the factory to a solid brick wall which serves as its abutment on the south bank of the canal.

Four hundred yards east of the Pipe Bridge, after passing the green space around the Church of  St Mary Magdalene, we pass beneath a concrete footbridge with iron railings and decorative lamp posts that links Delamere Terrace and Lords Hill Road with Blomfield Road across the canal. The approach to the bridge from Delamere Terrace is an elegant helical ramp.  This fairly modern crossing is known as the ‘Ha’Penny Bridge’ (i.e. half penny).

The towpath runs south east and alongside Delamere Terrace and reaches the building that houses the Canal and River Trust, the former Toll House. This is next to another bridge, a delicate-looking cast-iron structure with masonry abutments topped with distinctive lamp stands. This carries Westbourne Terrace Road (laid out in the early 1850s) over a constricted section of the canal. East of this the canal enters a vast triangular expanse of water, the junction of three waterways: the Paddington Branch from west London, its continuation towards Paddington Station, and the Regents Canal that leads to Camden Town and further east.

The poet Robert Browning, who lived near to this junction area, or possibly Lord Byron, is credited with christening this district as ‘Little Venice’, the name by which it is known today (https://londoncanals.uk/2010/01/17/the-history-of-the-place-name-known-as-little-venice-and-the-facts-that-are-ignored/). With its willow trees, colourful barges, a wealth of waterfowl, and some floating refreshment outlets, Little Venice is a popular place for tourists both local and from further afield. The small island in the middle of the watery space, inhabited only by birdlife, is called Browning’s Island.

We leave Little Venice by walking south east along the next section of the Paddington Branch canal. Soon, we reach another bridge, an undistinguished structure that carries the Harrow Road over us and another short, constricted section of the canal. The next 450 yards of the towpath on the west side of the canal has been redeveloped recently and is lined with eateries both on the shore and on boats moored  alongside the shore.

After walking beneath a concrete bridge, the Westway Viaduct, carrying the Westway high above us, we soon reach a fascinating footbridge over the canal. The span across the water is approached by both curving staircases and spiral ramps. This suspension bridge is supported by cables fanning out from a tall pole on the eastern side of the canal. It is known as the ‘Harrow Road’ footbridge. Despite an extensive search of the Internet, I have not yet discovered who designed this structure, which is a visual delight in comparison with the next bridge we reach, an inelegant concrete span, which carries Bishops Bridge Road.

Shortly before the direction of the canal turns from south east to due east, we need to cross it over a curious looking modern footbridge that runs beneath what looks like a double wall of glass panels. This, the Station Bridge (Paddington Basin), leads from the east side of Paddington Station to a footpath leading to North Wharf Road. It was completed in 2004 by the Langlands and Bell partnership (www.langlandsandbell.com/work/).

Having crossed this distinctive bridge, we are now on the final stretch of this blind ending branch of the Paddington Arm of the canal. Next, we encounter another suspension footbridge with perforated metal panels along both sides of its footway over the water. This bridge leads to a car park next to a twentieth century block, part of St Mary’s Hospital. This is the Paddington Basin Footbridge designed by Sidell Gibson Architects.

A few yards further east, we cross a short blind-ended inlet by means of a short bridge known as The Rolling Bridge. Designed by the Thomas Heatherwick Studio and completed in 2005, this bridge curls up into a circle to allow boats to enter or leave the inlet. Routinely, this pointlessly complex yet interesting bridge is opened briefly at noon on Wednesdays and Fridays and at 2pm on Saturdays.

On Fridays at noon, or when necessary, the last bridge over the Paddington Arm, a few feet away from its eastern terminus, can be seen in action. At rest, the Fan Bridge (aka Merchant Square Bridge) looks unexceptional. However, when it is raised to allow passage of vessels it is extraordinary. As the bridge rises, it splits into sections resembling five blades of a pen knife when they are all opened, or a lady’s fan.  The bridge is twenty feet long, was designed by Knight Architects, and completed in 2014. We were lucky enough to see this bridge open and then to watch it closing. You can watch this happening on my video at https://youtu.be/UGQERbGo_jU .

Beyond the Fan Bridge, the canal ends abruptly. Trellick Tower, where we began our perambulation was a landmark in modern architecture when it was built. The Fan Bridge, constructed 42 years later, is another exciting development in design. In between the tower block and the unusual bridge, we passed beneath or over several canal crossings representing various points in the history of bridge design, many of them adding beauty to a lovely waterway that provides pleasure for many people.

Under pressure

THERE IS A LOVELY STRETCH of the railway from London Paddington to Devon and Cornwall. It is between Exeter and Newton Abbot. The train runs from Exeter along the western shore of the wide estuary of the River Exe, then along the seashore between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth (often between the base of cliffs and the sea), and finally turns inland to run along the shore of the broad River Teign to reach Newton Abbot. This scenic stretch of track helps make the trip to the far southwest extremely pleasant.

In August 2020, our friends in Torquay took us by car to Teignmouth and other points along this scenic rail route. It was fun to stand near the track and watch trains rushing past. One of the places we visited on that trip was the small village of Starcross, where a small passenger ferry crosses the Exe, carrying pedestrians, cyclists, the crew and their small dog to and from Exmouth. Near the Ferry embarkation point which is reached by crossing the railway via a footbridge, I spotted something quite surprising for this day and age of concerns about health and safety. A small gate (‘kissing gate’ variety) for pedestrians allows people to cross the tracks to reach the beach beyond them. This crossing is unguarded and permits folk to walk across two lines of track along which trains hurtle every few minutes. A sign exhorts those foolhardy enough to make use of this crossing to “Stop, Look, and Listen”.

Near the pier where one boards the ferry at Starcross, there is a brick building with white stone facings and a tall square brick tower. This edifice that has an industrial appearance stands close to the railway lines. In days gone by, it was a pumping station for a railway whose trains were propelled by compressed air, the so-called ‘Atmospheric Railway’.

The South Devon Atmospheric Railway, which followed the route taken by trains today, ran between Exeter and Plymouth. The construction of the westbound line from Exeter, The South Devon Railway, gained Parliamentary authorisation in mid-1844. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was the engineer in charge of constructing the South Devon Railway. Given the then current power of steam locomotives, he decided that they would not have sufficient strength to deal with some of the gradients along the route. He opted to use propulsion generated by gases under pressure – the atmospheric system.  One of the pioneers of atmospheric railways was the English engineer and politician Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda (1813 –1885), whose ideas influenced Brunel.

Trying to put it as simply as possible, here is how I understand that the atmospheric railway system worked. A cylindrical metal traction pipe was laid between the railway tracks. This pipe had a longitudinal slit facing upwards. The slit was sealed shut by leather flaps that kept the pipe airtight when it was filled with compressed air provided by a series of pumping stations along the line. The building we saw at Starcross was one of these units, whose engines could generate between 45 and 82 horsepower.

The pumps injected air into the slitted longitudinal iron pipes (20 inches in diameter), whose leather flaps prevented escape of the gas. The trains using the atmospheric system were pulled by specially designed traction cars. Each of these cars was attached to a piston that fitted snugly within the air pipes running along the track. The attachment of the piston to the traction car was fitted with a mechanism that opened the short section leather flap immediately beneath it. The compressed air exerted pressure on the end of the piston, causing it to move along the pipe. Being attached to the traction car, the motion of the piston caused the car to move along the tracks. As the traction car was attached to the carriages, they were pulled along by the air-propelled traction car. As soon as the traction car moved along the track, the part of the flap that had been open momentarily, then closed, and the next short section opened briefly. What I have described is an oversimplification that ignores how the system dealt with points, level crossings, etc.  More detail is available for those interested on various websites (e.g. https://railwaywondersoftheworld.com/atmospheric-railway.html and on Wikipedia).

This system of propulsion was able to propel trains at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, although this speed was rarely attained. It also allowed trains in the late 1840s to overcome gradients that would have been too challenging for the steam engines at that time. The system was abandoned in about 1848. The leather valves caused numerous problems. Air leakage was one of these. Throughout the year, the leather dried out and became too stiff for use.  In winter, frost also damaged their flexibility. Throughout the year, they provided food for rats, whose activities were detrimental to their efficient functioning. The rat story is oft quoted but WG Hoskins, author of the much-respected book “Devon” notes that the atmospheric railway:

“… was a complete failure mainly because of the decomposing action of water and iron on the vital leather component of the valves … In September 1848 the line was worked by locomotives and the ‘Atmospheric Caper’ was abandoned for good, after more than £400,000 of the company’s money had been wasted. Brunel had made a tremendous mistake …”

I wonder whether with today’s synthetic rubber the experiment could be repeated, thus creating a railway system that makes little use of diesel engines. I suppose that electrification of the line might be a more practical solution.

Today, the largest relics of the short-lived Atmospheric Railway are the well-built pumping stations such as the one next to Starcross Station and the ferry embarkation point. It was built in 1845 and designed by Brunel. It consists of two blocks and the tall, solid looking chimney (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1097684). In 1869, the east block, which used to house the boilers, was converted for use as a Wesleyan chapel, and served this purpose until 1950.  The west block used to house the beam engine that used to compress air. This block was later converted to an engine shed for housing steam locomotives until 1981, when it became home to a museum related to the Atmospheric Railway. In its heyday, the Atmospheric Railway was powered by 11 pumping stations, of which only four remain standing (Starcross, Totnes, Dawlish [not much left to see], and Torquay). There is one other souvenir of the ill-fated system at Starcross. This is a pub opposite the station. It is called ‘The Atmospheric Railway Inn’. Sadly, the covid19 pandemic has resulted in it deciding to remain closed for the foreseeable future.

I had never heard of the Atmospheric Railway until we visited our friends in Torquay. Had it not been for their suggestion that we took a trip across the River Exe on the ferry, I might never have noticed the former pumping station at Starcross and remained in ignorance of Brunel’s adventurous experiment in railway technology.

A river and a canal

THE GREAT BED of Ware is eleven feet long and ten feet wide. Constructed at the end of the 16th century, this four-poster bed dwarfs the modern king size bed (six and a half feet by five feet). The Great Bed was housed in various inns in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire until the early 1930s when it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A few days ago, we visited Ware, not expecting to see its Great Bed but for other reasons. One of these was that it is a small town not far from Perry Green where the Henry Moore Foundation is located. Another was to see the upper reaches of the River Lea and the point along it where water enters the New River.

 

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The Gauge House and the New River emerging from underneath it

The 42 mile long River Lea, a tributary of the River Thames, rises near Luton in the Chiltern Hills in Bedfordshire, flows through Hertfordshire, and then makes its way south through parts of  northeast then eastern Greater London, reaching the Thames at Bow Creek. The river flows through the centre of Ware. A short walk (1.3 miles) along the bank of the river westwards from Ware, brings one to the start of the New River, which is not actually a river. It a canal built to bring fresh water from the clean upper reaches of the Lea into London.

The history of the New River involves the London district of Islington, where the reservoir that used to collect water from the New River was located. To quote from something I wrote a couple of years ago (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/44/):

“At the triangular Islington Green, Essex Road branches off from Upper Street at an acute angle. At the apex of the triangle, there is a statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631) sculpted by John Thomas (1813–1862). He stands bare-footed, wearing a ruff and breeches, which stop short of his uncovered knees and lower legs. Below his plinth, two carved children sit or kneel with pitchers between their legs. Once, they issued water, but no longer. Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur, was the driving force behind the creation of the New River water supply project. The 38-mile-long canal, which he helped to finance, was constructed between 1608 and 1613 …”

Roseberry Avenue in London’s Islington is now best-known for the Saddlers Wells Theatre. However, one of its near neighbours was of great importance in connection with the New River. Quoting from my piece again:

“Across Roseberry Avenue, which flanks Spa Fields, there is a large brick building with white stone trimmings, now a block of flats. Completed in 1920, New River Head House was designed by Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board. Above two of its windows, there are carved inscriptions. One reads “Erected MDCXIII”, and the other “MDCCLXXXII”. These dates are 1623 and 1782 respectively, which are carved in archaic lettering. The inscribed stones must have been saved from an earlier building. The land on which the house stands was formerly the ‘New River Head’.

The New River, a canal constructed to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into London ended at the reservoir called ‘New River Head’. It was high enough above what was the city of London in the 17th century to allow the flow of water from it to be ‘powered’ by gravity alone (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol47/pp165-184). The brick-lined reservoir was constructed in 1623, when the first building at the reservoir, the ‘Water House’, was also built. The architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811), surveyor to the New River Company, repaired, enlarged, and refaced it in the 18th century. The refacing was done in 1782 … The old building, which had been enlarged many times, was demolished by 1915.”

Having seen the site of the destination of water carried by the New River, I was keen to see the point of its origin. Hence, our visit to Ware.

We parked near the centre of Ware in a car park (Burgage Lane) next to a footbridge that crosses the Lea. Then, we followed the riverside path after traversing the river. At first the path runs sinuously beneath trees that line both banks the stream. Their different coloured leaves are reflected in the water that ripples as waterfowl swim past. We met many other people enjoying their morning walks, but the path was never crowded.

After a short distance, the river flows around and between a network of islands and the path loses its lining of trees. Soon, there is open country on one side and on the other a series of modern industrial buildings partially hidden from view by occasional trees including lovely weeping willows. We reached the impressive weir of Ware. To enable boats to pass this hazardous waterfall, a lock exists. Ware Lock was first built in 1855 but looks as if it has been modernised since then.  Continuing west from the weir, we became aware of traffic noise as we approached the concrete bridge that carries the busy A10 dual-carriageway road over the river.

A third of a mile upstream from the road bridge, there is a tall brick house. It is not attractive and can be seen from afar in the flat landscape surrounding it. This building, The Gauge House, was built in 1856 to the design of William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), a son of Robert Mylne, who was involved with the terminal reservoir at New River Head in Islington (see above).  The building is constructed on an arch, a bridge that straddles the start of the New River at the point where water enters the canal from the River Lea. The ground floor of the building houses a mechanism for regulating the flow of water from the Lea into the New River. This is explained on the historicengland.org.uk website as follows:

“… [The] ground floor contains the gauge which measures the intake of water from the River Lee; it consists of 2 iron boats 5m long floating at Lee level which are joined by a chordal segmental iron beam 9m long, and the rise and fall with the level of the Lee controls the flow of water over the sluice which can be further adjusted by weights hung from the gate, the daily intake from the Lee being 22 1/2 million gallons.”

Another website, engineering-timelines.com, gives details of the predecessors of the Gauge House:

“At first, the flow from the river was monitored by a wooden ‘balance engine’ – a rocking beam-and-float device. It was later replaced with the Marble Gauge, built by Robert Mylne inside a Portland stone chest. Though now empty, this is still visible a little downstream.”

We were able to see the exterior of the Gauge House including the grille through which water leaves the Lea to flow under the building and that from which it flows from the House into the first stretch of the New River. The canal flows about 300 yards south before making a right angle beyond which it begins flowing east.  Having visited the London terminus of the New River and walked along attractive stretches of the canal lined by parkland in Canonbury, near Islington, I was very satisfied seeing where this historic waterway commences. We retraced our steps along the riverbank to Ware before driving to visit the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green.

Returning to the subject of beds, which is associated with the town of Ware, my mind leaps a quarter of the way around the world to Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In January 1994, we spent part of our honeymoon at St Margarets in Ooty, a guesthouse belonging to the ITC company. The room we occupied in this typical colonial style bungalow was huge. And it needed to be to accommodate the enormous bed that we occupied. This bed, whose width rivalled that of the Great Bed of Ware was not so long as the latter. Its sheets must have been specially made to fit this enormous bed.  Although there were only two of us sleeping in it, I think that that it would have been wide enough for four or five couples to sleep in it without it becoming overcrowded.

Both Ooty and Ware have their charms, but the latter is far more accessible from London especially in these times of restricted travel caused by the wholly unwanted presence of the Covid-19 microbe.