Riding high above London

DOLLIS BROOK IS one of the two main tributaries of the River Brent, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames, which it enters at Brentford. Dollis Brook rises near the A1 dual-carriageway at Mote End Farm and then flows southwards towards Brent Park, where it is joined by another stream, Mutton Brook. Both brooks are lined with pleasant green spaces containing footpaths that follow the streams. Thus, they are lovely green corridors providing much-needed rustic relief from the relentless built-up suburbia through which the streams flow.

Nether Street is road running west and downhill from Finchley Central Underground Station. After reaching a small roundabout, it continues as Dollis Road. The latter descends ever more steeply until it runs under a tall brick arch, part of the Dollis Brook Viaduct (also known as ‘The Mill Hill Viaduct’). The road runs beside a stretch of Dollis Brook, which at that location is only a few feet in width – rather a miserable little stream. However, the viaduct with its 13 arches, each with spans of 32 feet, traverses a veritable steep sided gorge, maybe created over time by the waters flowing in the humble Dollis Brook, or, more likely, by glacial drift (“Nature”, 9th of November 1871: http://www.nature.com/articles/005027c0.pdf). This amazing viaduct, a masterpiece of brickwork, carries Underground trains on a spur of the Northern Line running between Finchley Central and Mill Hill East stations.

Designed by John Fowler (1817-1898) and Walter Marr Brydone, who was Engineer-in-Chief for the Great Northern Railway (‘GNR’) from 1855-1861, the viaduct was constructed between 1863 and 1867, when the first train ran across it. The line that now carries Northern Line trains over the viaduct was originally built by the GNR, as was the viaduct. As trains traverse the viaduct, they are at one point 60 feet above the ground. This point must be close to where both Dollis Road and Dollis Brook pass beneath the arches,

We have often driven beneath the viaduct, but it was only in August 2021 that we decided to park near it and examine it as closely as we could. We had recently visited the impressive granite railway viaduct near Luxulyan in deepest Cornwall and been amazed by its grandeur. We had not expected to find a bridge in north London that is almost as awe-inspiring.  As I gazed upwards at its tall arches, I admired the Victorian bricklayers, who must have had to work at ever-increasingly dizzying heights as they constructed it. The viaduct is certainly a sight worth seeing, and whilst you are in the area, much pleasure can be gained by taking a stroll along the paths that run close to Dollis Brook.

Station with no trains

THERE ARE NO MORE trains running to the picturesque town of Clare in Suffolk. Between 1865 and 1967, trains running on the Stour Valley Line between Marks Tey (in Essex) and Shelford (in Cambridgeshire) stopped at Clare Station. In 1961, you could leave London’s Liverpool Street Station at 8.30 am and reach Clare at 10.44 am (www.disused-stations.org.uk/c/clare/).  

On a recent visit to Clare in August 2021, we decided to take a look at what remains of Clare Castle, which was built shortly after 1066 by Richard fitz Gilbert (1035-c1090), who took part in the Norman invasion of England (1066). To reach the remains of this structure, we walked across a large car park, at the far end of which is the attractive Clare Castle Country Park. The north side of the park is occupied by a tall conical mound, the motte of the former castle. On top of this, there is a short length of ruined, curved walling. Running east from the base of the motte, is a length of wall with one archway, presumably a wall that formed part of the castle’s bailey. These features are all that can be seen of the former castle. Exciting as this might be for historians, the park contains some other structures of historic interest. They are not as old as the castle, but fascinating, nevertheless.

Clare railway station

The Country Park contains the platforms, station buildings, and the goods shed of the former Clare Station. These have all been preserved well and employed as leisure facilities for visitors to the park. The main station buildings on platform 1 contain a waiting room with its old fireplace and ticket office. Built in 1865 to a standard design used in 30 Great Eastern Railway stations, this building now serves as an eatery and café. Across the grassy strip, where the tracks used to be laid, is platform 2, with its own waiting room, now used as a visitors’ centre and souvenir shop. A short distance away from the old platforms, the former goods shed still stands. With an old-fashioned goods crane outside it, the shed contains toilets and other facilities for visitors. Clare’s signal box no longer exists as it was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.

The line that used to run through Clare was closed in 1967 as part of a plan devised by Dr Richard Beeching (1913-1985), who became Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961. Beeching was instructed by the British Government to devise a plan to increase the efficiency of British Railways. This was eventually executed and involved the closure of many stations, including Clare, and of many miles of track, including the Stour Valley Line. The last passenger train to stop at Clare was on the 4th of March 1967. Although trains used the line for a short time after this, none ever stopped at Clare again.

A visit to Clare is worthwhile because it is small town with many historic buildings and an attractive parish church. We visited recently on a Saturday morning when a small street market was in full swing. The town has several shops selling antiques and a few cafés, apart from that in the former railway station. We had visited Clare several times before, but it was only on our latest visit that we came across the old railway buildings. In this period when there is great concern about global warming and ‘saving the planet’ seeing the station and its platforms reminds us that Beeching’s plan to close so many lines was short-sighted because a good network of mass rail transport could contribute to reducing the current dependence on road transport and might reduce pollution. Thinking back to the 1960s, the time of Beeching’s plan, I do not recall that there was much concern about the future of our planet in those days.

The most southern city in England

AN HOUR IN TRURO is hardly enough to get to know the county town of Cornwall well, but it is long enough to discover that the city’s centre is attractive and interesting. In 1876 the Diocese of Truro was founded and in the following year, it gained the status of ‘city’, making it the southernmost city in mainland Britain. Until the diocese was established, the county of Cornwall including the Scilly Isles and a couple of parishes in Devon were in the Diocese of Exeter. Given that the Christian faith was well established in this southwestern part of England at least 100 years before the first Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed, it was high time that Cornwall had its own diocese and archbishop.

Truro Cathedral

Between 1880 and 1910, a gothic revival cathedral designed by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) was constructed on the site of the 15th century parish church of St Mary. Parts of this old church were incorporated into the new cathedral and the top of its granite spire stands in a garden next to it. One of only three British cathedrals with three spires, Truro’s cathedral was the first new cathedral to be built in England after many centuries. Although a relatively recent structure compared with many of Britain’s other cathedrals, it is a fitting design for the mediaeval heart of the city with its narrow winding streets.

The name Truro might be derived from the Cornish words meaning ‘three rivers’ or ‘the settlement on the River Uro’. In any case, Truro has a river running through it, which helped stimulate the growth of the city’s prosperity. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the tin mining industry added to Truro’s wealth. Lemon Street, where we parked, is evidence of that; it looks like a Georgian street in Bath or some parts of London. The arrival of a direct railway line between the city and London in the 1860s provided a further boost to the city’s success. Earlier in mediaeval towns, Truro, which is inland and therefore difficult to reach by seaborne foreign invaders, became an important port. In addition, it was a stannary town, where revenue from the tin industry was collected, yet another source of the town’s wealth.

Our brief first visit to Truro (at the end of a long day out) has whetted my appetite for another lengthier exploration of the city, which at first sight seems to have many interesting features to excite tourists who have an interest in history.

What’s in a name?

THE NAME MOLESWORTH immediately recalls a naughty schoolboy who cannot spell properly.  Nigel Molesworth, a pupil in St Custards, a preparatory school, appears as a character in books by Geoffrey Willans (1911-1958) such as “Down with Skool”, “How to be Topp”, and “Whizz for Atomms”. However, for the Cornish town of Wadebridge, the name Molesworth has other significance.

One of the main shopping thoroughfares in Wadebridge is called Molesworth Street. The Town Hall was opened in 1888 by Sir Paul Molesworth (1821-1889). A pub called The Molesworth Hotel, a former coaching inn housed in a building that dates back to the 16th century, is located on the street named after Molesworth. The pub was only named as it is today in 1817. Previously, it had various names including The Fox, The King’s Arms, and The Fountain.

Wikipedia informs us that:

“The Molesworth, later Molesworth-St Aubyn Baronetcy, of Pencarrow near St Mabyn in Cornwall, is a title in the Baronetage of England. It was created on 19 July 1689 for Hender Molesworth.”

Hender Molesworth (c1638-1689) was a Governor of Jamaica from 1684 to 1687 and from 1688 to 1689. Pencarrow House is just under 4 miles southeast of Wadebridge. Each of the 2nd, 4th,6th, and 8th Baronets represented Cornwall or parts of the county in Parliament. The Molesworths were (are?) major landlords in the area around Wadebridge.

Sir William Molesworth, 8th Baronet (1810–1855), was the grandfather of Sir Paul, who opened the Town Hall in 1888. This edifice bears a weathervane in the form of a steam railway locomotive. After undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which lasted from 1828 to 1831, William made his way to Pencarrow, where he:

“…devoted time to establishing the Wadebridge-Bodmin Railway company. He engaged Hopkins the civil engineer to survey the land for the route with the prospectus for the formation of the Railway Company drawn up by Mr Woollcombe, from the family’s firm of solicitors.” (www.pencarrow.co.uk/story/sir-william-molesworth/)

This railway opened in 1834, was the first steam railway in Cornwall.  It continued in service until 1979. The tracks have been removed but some of Wadebridge’s station buildings have been preserved,

William became interested in radical politics. In 1832, he was elected Member for East Cornwall, and re-elected in 1835. As an MP, he:

“…had joined a group named the ‘Philosophical Radicals’ who advocated various reforms such as universal education, disestablishment of the church and universal suffrage.”

Between 1837 and 1841, William, having alienated his Cornish electorate, sat in the House of Commons, representing Leeds. After falling out with his Leeds constituents on account of his views on foreign policy, he retired to Pencarrow, where he dedicated his time to improving the gardens.

In 1844, William married a widow, an opera singer Andalusia (née Carstairs), who died in 1888. The year after his marriage, William was elected MP for London’s Southwark constituency, a seat he held until his death. Amongst his positions whilst representing Southwark, he was Secretary for The Colonies during the last few months of his life. He had wished to be buried in his grounds in Pencarrow, but instead he was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.

Sir William and his family are deeply involved in the history of Wadebridge and it is right that the Molesworth name is so prominent in the town. From now onwards when I hear or read the name Molesworth, a naughty schoolboy with spelling problems will not be the only thing that springs to mind.

Lola lived here briefly

ACTON IS NOT usually given high priority on the list of places that visitors to London might compile. However, this district in west London, once a borough in its own right between 1865 and 1965, now part of the Borough of Ealing, is not devoid of interest. After a visit to our dentist, whose surgery is close to Acton’s High Street, we took a look around the area. Churchfield Street, filled with small shops and various eateries, leads east to Acton Central Overground Station.

Opened in 1853 as ‘Acton’ station, it was first a stop on the North and South Western Junction Railway. In 1925, it was renamed ‘Acton Central’. The original 19th century railway building built in about 1876, a rather too grand edifice for such a humble station, has now been converted into a pub/restaurant, whose menu looks appetising. Crossing the tracks, we reach Acton Park, about which I will say more later.

The name ‘Acton’ might derive from Old English words meaning ‘oak town’. At the beginning of the 19th century, the parish of Acton was mostly agricultural land with a small population of about 1400 souls. Between 1861 and 1871, the population increased from about 4000 to about 8300, reflecting the urbanisation of the area. By the mid-1880s, it had reached about 12000. No doubt the accessibility of London via the railway helped increase the area’s attractiveness for people wishing to live in leafy suburbs within easy reach of their workplaces in the centre of the metropolis. Many of the streets near the station are lined with substantial, well built houses.

Acton Park is an attractive, municipal recreation area with lawns, trees, bushes, a café, a putting green, and other facilities including a ‘skate park’ and a children’s nursery. At the northern edge of the park opposite Goldsmiths Buildings, there stands a fine stone obelisk. This was moved to its present position in January 1904 from its original sight in the grounds of the now demolished Derwentwater House on Acton’s Horn Lane. It commemorates James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater (1679-1816). The date of his death is significant, as I will explain.

James was the son of the 2nd Earl (1655-1705) and Lady Mary Tudor (1673-1726), whose parents were King Charles II and one of his mistresses, the actress Mary ‘Moll’ Davis (c1648-1708). James was brought up in France in the court of the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), ‘The Old Pretender’, son of the Roman Catholic King James II of England, who was forced to leave England by the Protestant William of Orange. James Stuart, encouraged both by a desire to re-establish the line of James II on the English Throne and by the French monarchy, made various attempts to gain the Throne of England. One of these was in 1715, a year after the Protestant Hanoverian King George I had become crowned King of England.  In December 1715, The Old Pretender landed in Scotland, having sailed from France.

In 1709, James Radcliffe, whose memorial stands in Acton Park, sailed to England to visit his recently inherited estates in Cumberland and Northumberland.  In 1715, he joined the conspiracy to put his companion since childhood, The Old Pretender, on the Throne of England. A warrant for his arrest was issued, but at first he evaded capture by going into hiding. At the Battle of Preston (9th to 14th November 1715), when the Jacobite forces fighting for The Old Pretender were defeated, Radcliffe was arrested and taken to The Tower of London. After various attempts to reprieve him, he was executed in February 1716. His heart was taken to a convent in Paris, where it remains. The monument was erected by Radcliffe’s widow, Lady Derwentwater, who was living in Acton at the time of his execution. Her home, Derwentwater House, which can be seen marked on a detailed map produced in the early 1890s but not on one published in 1914, stood where Churchfield Road East meets Horn Lane, where today the newish shopping centre, ‘The Oaks’, now stands. Edward Walford, writing in 1883, noted in connection with the house:

“It is said that the iron gates at the end of the garden have never been opened since the day her lord last passed through them on his way to the Tower.”

Acton Park was created in 1888, mostly on land that had been owned by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Across the road from the park and opposite the obelisk, you will see the elegant Goldsmiths Almshouses. This building was erected in 1811 and enlarged in 1838. They were built on land left to the Goldsmiths Company by John Perryn, in whose memory one of Acton’s residential roads is named.

Tree-lined Goldsmiths Avenue is just 360 yards north of Acton Central Station. Number 78 used to be named ‘Tilak House’ in honour of the Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). In early May 1907, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a freedom fighter and father of the idea of ‘Hindutva’, an expression of Indian nationalism which underlies the political philosophy of India’s currently ruling BJP party, held a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 at this house. The house was then the home of Nitin Sen Dwarkadas, brother-in-law of another Indian patriot who lived in London, Shyamaji Krishnavarma (1850-1930). Today, there is no memorial to this event.

Other attractions that caught my eye in Acton include St Marys Church (established by 1228, but the current building dates from 1865-67) and its nearby peaceful rectangular cemetery on West Churchfield Road. The Old Town Hall with its accompanying municipal offices was built on the site of the former Berrymede Priory. Designed by the architects Raffles and Gridley, the town hall was built in 1908-10, and extended in 1939. Berrymead Priory, a dwelling, is commemorated by a thoroughfare named Berrymead Avenue, where our dentist practises. It was built on the grounds formerly occupied by William Savile, 2nd Marquess of Halifax (1665-1700), who died here. The priory must have been lovely. Walford noted that it was:

“… a picturesque Gothic edifice of the Strawberry Hill type, and occupied the centre of several acres of ground, which are planted with fine trees and evergreens.”

One of the priory’s better-known inhabitants was the novelist and politician Edward Bulmer (1803-1873), Lord Lytton, who lived there between 1835 and 1836. In 1849, the place was purchased by the wealthy cavalry officer George Drafford Heald, who lived here briefly with his wife, the glamorous Irish born actress and courtesan Lola Montez (1821-1861), one time mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria and also of the composer Franz Liszt, whom he had married in 1848. The Healds had to flee to France soon after their marriage, which contravened the terms of her divorce with a previous spouse. Lola and George’s marriage did not last long. However, the building named ‘Berrymead Priory’ lasted longer, until 1982 when it was demolished.

Our Lady of Lourdes, a small Roman Catholic Church built in 1902 in the Romanesque style, was designed by Edward Goldie (1856-1921), who built many other Catholic churches. This church is on the High Street close to another decorative public building, The Passmore Edwards Library, built in 1898-99 and designed by Maurice Bingham Adams (1849-1933) in what Nikolaus Pevsner describes as:

“… his typical rather bulging Baroque paraphrase of the accepted Tudor of the late Victorian decades.”

Adams also designed the Passmore Edwards Library in Shepherds Bush. There is more to Acton than I have described, but maybe what I have written might whet your appetite to explore a part of London that is somewhat off the tourist’s beaten track.

A tunnel, a bridge, and a round building

IF THE RAILWAY authorities did not prevent people from wandering along the track as many people do in India (for example), taking a photograph of an amazing construction at the base of London’s Primrose Hill would be simple. But, wisely, they do not encourage people to risk their lives on tracks that carry high speed trains from London’s Euston station to places north of it. The remarkable edifice to which I am referring is the eastern entrance to the Primrose Hill Tunnels that originally carried lines of the London and Birmingham Railway (‘L&BR’) underground between Primrose Hill Road in the east and Finchley Road in the west. Short of trespassing on the tracks, the best place to see the entrance is through the railings on the north side of King Henrys Road a few feet east of Primrose Hill Road.

The Roundhouse

The Primrose Hill tunnels were the first railway tunnels dug in London and some of the first in the United Kingdom (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1329904). The tunnels had to be built strong enough to withstand the weight of houses that were to be built above them. The land beneath which the trains pass is part of the Eton Estate (owned by Eton College). When the railway was being laid in the early 19th century, the Estate raised objections initially, worrying that running a railway through a deep cutting would reduce the saleability of the land, the Chalcot Estate owned by Eton, through which it ran. However:

“The L&BR bought off any possible College obstruction by agreeing to put the line in a tunnel through the Chalcots Estate. From an engineering viewpoint this was unnecessary as the rails were never more than 50 ft below the ground surface, and side slopes of 1 on 2 were specified initially. A tunnel had the merit of using no land, the surface being preserved for building …” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

Digging the tunnels was not without danger. Workmen got killed. When this happened, their bodies were taken at first to be laid out in a local hostelry, The Chalk Farm Tavern. This place in Regents Park Road was rebuilt in 1853-54 and its new building is now home to Lemonia, a popular Greek restaurant. So, next time you are enjoying a plate of tzatziki or a souvlaki, just remember that years ago there was a mortuary for railway navvies near your table.

Today, there are two tunnels commencing at Primrose Hill Road. The northern one, nearest Adelaide Road, was the first to be built, in 1837. The southern one, nearest King Henrys Road, was built about 40 years later. Part of Eton College Estate’s requirements of the L&BR was:

“… the mouth of the Tunnel at the eastern end shall be made good and finished with a substantial and ornamental facing of brickwork or masonry to the satisfaction of the Provost and College…” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

The portals at this end of the tunnel, which can just about be seen from King Henrys Road, are grand and impressive examples of neo-classical Italianate masonry. The northern portal, the first to be constructed, was designed by William H Budden, who was appointed as an office assistant to the L&BR in May 1834 (https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16826/1/Railway%20tunnels%20recovered%203.pdf). The newer southern portal is a replica of the earlier one.

The graffiti-covered iron railway bridge that is 530 yards east of the tunnel, quite close to the house on King Henrys Road once occupied by the Indian politician and lawyer Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), is easy to see, but far less attractive than the tunnels’ magnificent portals. Now a pedestrian and cycle bridge, it carries the northern section of Regents Park Road across the tracks. The present bridge, made of iron, was constructed in 1846 to replace an earlier one built in brick in 1839 (http://primrosehillhistory.org/?p=388). Until 1992, passengers could board and disembark from trains at a station at the northern end of the bridge. Opened in 1859, this station was named ‘Hampstead Road’, then ‘Chalk Farm’, and finally ‘Primrose Hill’.

Whereas the Primrose Hill Tunnel portals can only be glimpsed with great difficulty, the largely brick-built Roundhouse, a few yards south of Chalk Farm Underground Station, is impossible to miss. Located close to the railway tracks a few yards east of the Regents Park Road footbridge, this circular building was built as a railway locomotive shed in 1846-47. It was designed by Robert Benson Dockray (1811-1871), who had been an Assistant Engineer during the construction of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1835 (https://www.locallocalhistory.co.uk/ctown/p001/pages39-42.htm).  The building was made circular because in its centre there was a turntable for moving the locomotives that were stored on tracks radiating out from it.

In 1967, the then disused Roundhouse was converted into a huge theatre. From the 1970s onwards, I used to attend occasional performances there. Amongst these, I particularly recall a somewhat raunchy show put on by the Grande Magic Circus, a French company, and many years later, an incomprehensible performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream”, which was performed in a variety of Indian languages by a troupe of acrobatic gymnasts. In recent years, a sculpture by Antony Gormley has been placed on the roof of a modern annex of the Roundhouse.

Private functions are also held in the Roundhouse. On one occasion, we were invited to a bat-mitzvah held there. Drinks and canapés were served in the circular upper floor gallery that runs around the circular auditorium. I was extremely surprised when one of the other guests came up to me and after looking me up and down, said:

“You must be in the fashion business.”

For a moment I was flattered, then I wondered whether he had had one too many or was visually impaired.

The shrinking canal

USUALLY, I LOOK out of the window whenever I am travelling by train. During the 1980s, I often visited London from Kent by train, usually arriving at Victoria Station. The train crosses the River Thames on the Grosvenor Railway Bridge just before it reaches the platforms of Victoria Station. If you are looking out of the left side of the train whilst it is on the bridge, you can spot a building with a curious roof and ornate mansard windows, features that might make you think of nineteenth century Paris (France). For many decades, I have been meaning to investigate this building and today, the 14th of December 2020, whilst walking along the Thames embankment between Chelsea and the Tate Britain, I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

Western Pumping Station

The building with the convex curved roof, which has diagonally shaped tiling, overlapping like fish scales, and mansard windows, is the Western Pumping Station. This sewage pumping station was built in 1875 by William Webster (1819-1888) as part of London’s grand sewage system designed initially by Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), which was built mainly between 1865 and 1875. The tall square-based brick chimney next to the pumping station was once an outlet for the steam from the pumps. Now, it serves as a ‘stink pipe’ for exhausting fumes that build up in the sewer. It is 272 feet high. Writing in the 1880s, Edward Walford noted that the pumping station:

“… provides pumping power to lift the sewage and a part of the rainfall contributed by the district, together estimated at 38,000 gallons per minute, a height of eighteen feet in the Low Level Sewer, which extends from Pimlico to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, near Barking in Essex, The requisite power is obtained from four high-pressure condensing beam-engines of an aggregate of 360-horse power.”

The pumping station and its tall chimney stand between the railway tracks, east of it, and an inlet from the Thames, west of it. A narrow waterway passes from the Thames under Grosvenor Road. Then it moves ‘inland’ via a series of lock gates. This waterway and the dock into which it flows, a watery cul-de-sac surrounded by modern buildings, a rather sterile looking precinct supposed to entice property owners, who want to live in a waterside location, is called ‘Grosvenor Waterside’. The watery appendix sprouting off the Thames is all that remains of the Grosvenor Canal.

The canal was opened in 1824. It was built along the course of a tidal creek that led to a tide mill that pumped water to the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the lake in St James Park. A tide mill works by collecting tide water behind a dam with a sluice, and then allowing the tidal water to escape from it via a watermill as the tide goes out. Modern tidal-barrage electricity generators work that way.

The conversion of the creek to a canal was conceived by Robert Grosvenor (1767-1845), 1st Marquess of Westminster. The short canal, about three quarters of a mile in length, was mainly used for the transportation of coal to the neighbourhood through which it ran. Gradually, the canal was shortened as parts of it were filled in. By 1860, Victoria Station had been built over the Grosvenor Canal Basin.  More of the canal was filled in in about 1899 to build new railways tracks. This halved the remaining length of the canal. In 1925, even more of the waterway was covered over to allow the building of Westminster Council’s Ebury Bridge Estate. What remained of the canal was then used as a dock for loading barges with rubbish. The rump of the canal served this purpose until 1995. Five years later, the construction of the upmarket and rather sterile-looking Grosvenor Waterside housing development, which can bee seen today, began. This includes lock gates, mooring pontoons, and a working swing bridge, but boats are not seen within what remains of the former canal. It is a modern ‘folly’.

Most of the former Grosvenor Canal has disappeared for ever. This is quite unlike many of the so-called ‘Lost Rivers’ of London, which still exist but are hidden from view in underground conduits. One of these, the River Westbourne, flows out of its conduit and into the Thames 270 yards west of the former canal’s entrance, at the southern edge of the Ranelagh Gardens in which Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent Royal Hospital Chelsea stands.

I hardly ever travel by train to or from Victoria anymore, especially as we now tend to use our car. However, whenever I see the interesting roof of the pumping station and its mansard windows, I remember the days back in the early 1980s when I used to travel between the Medway Towns, where I worked as a dentist, and London, where most of my friends and family resided.

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.

Peter and Dora

I WAS STAYING IN BELGRADE with my friends Peter and his wife. Peter said to me that because it was just over the border from (the former) Yugoslavia and neither of us had been there before, we should make a short trip to Hungary. That way, we could ‘tick off’ another country as having been visited. I agreed to accompany him. This was in 1981 when Hungary was still in the Soviet bloc.

B BUDA pioneer PF GOOD

British people required a visa to enter Communist Hungary. The Hungarian embassy in Belgrade was in Krunska, a leafy street near the Hotel Slavija. I entered and filled in a form. One of the questions on it related to the colour of an applicant’s car. It gave several options like ‘red’, ‘blue, or ‘green’, and one translated from the Hungarian as ‘drab’. I suppose that ‘drab’ was a mistranslation of the Hungarian word for ‘grey’ (the Hungarian for ‘grey’ is ‘szürke’ and for ‘drab’ is ‘sárgásszürke’).   After filling the form, I walked to a counter by a small window in the wall. It was covered by an opaque green cloth curtain. I waited. After a few moments, the curtain was pulled open sharply by a lady behind it and the counter.  I handed her my passport and the application form. My passport was full of bits of paper that I wanted to preserve safely. The lady plucked these out of the passport and handed them to me, saying:

“This I do not need.”

I picked up my passport with its new multi-coloured Hungarian visa stamp a couple of days later.

Peter and I boarded an overnight train from Belgrade to Budapest. Very soon, Peter fell asleep. After passing the station of Subotica in northern Serbia (Vojvodina), we reached the Hungarian border station at Kelebia. The train halted at the floodlit station for a long time. Apart from a few men in uniform, the platforms were eerily empty. Hungarian border guards entered the train. They carried satchels with shoulder straps. Each satchel was fitted with a hinged wooden lid that served as a small desk. Peter was sleeping deeply when two border officials entered our compartment. It was with great difficulty that the three of us, the two officials and I, managed to get him to open his eyes. Once he was awake, the guards took our passports. They looked at our passport photographs and then at our faces, and then back at the photos, then at our faces, and so on. This procedure was repeated several times until they were satisfied that our ‘mugshots’ were true likenesses of Peter and me. Then, they placed each passport on to the little desks attached to their satchels and pounded them with rubber stamps.

Some years later, the late Arpad Szabo, a philosopher in Budapest and a good friend, told me what he did when he was travelling out of East Germany (the former DDR) by train. The border guards in that country were particularly tough and very thorough. They entered his compartment and began prodding and opening the passengers’ baggage. When they approached his bag, he told them:

“Be careful with my luggage: I am smuggling an East German out of your country.”

The guards failed to appreciate the humour.

We arrived in Budapest Keleti Station early in the morning with no idea where we were going to stay. Someone directed us to a small window in a booth in the station. It was an official agency for arranging accommodation in people’s homes. We registered and were handed a scrap of paper with the address of our hosts. Without knowing the layout of the city, we hailed a taxi, which drove us across one of the Danube bridges to Obuda, a suburb north of Buda. Our accommodation was with a couple, who lived in a flat high up in a modern tower block. They were friendly but spoke no English. Somehow, I managed to communicate with them my interest in folk music. They recommended a singer called Katalin Madarász and told me that there were good record shops in Vaci Utca (Vaci Street), a shopping street in central Pest.

We made our way to Vaci Utca, where we found the Anna Café. This eatery served the most delicious cakes and savoury snacks in the form of open sandwiches. We found the record shops that we had been told about and that afternoon I bought the first of many Hungarian folk and classical LPs that are still in my enormous collection. I ate a toasted sandwich in a Café named Martini. It was there that I was able to add the words ‘meleg szendvics’ (hot sandwich) to my minute knowledge of Hungarian, a language outside the Indo-European language family.

I fell in love with Budapest, with the unfamiliar (to me) vocabulary of the Hungarian language, the food, and the friendly people we met. Peter and I explored many things in the city including a visit to the Young Pioneers’ Railway that ran in the Buda Hills. This was run and operated smoothly by youngsters, mostly teenagers, dressed in uniform. We visited Szentendre, a village north of Obuda, the Hampstead of Budapest. Not only is this place picturesque, but also it has a significant community of people with Serbian ancestry as well as a Serbian Orthodox church.  

One evening, Peter wanted to visit a night club. In the early 1980s, Budapest seemed devoid of life after dark, but we found that the Hotel Astoria boasted a night club. This was entered through a discreet, almost hidden, street entrance and then up a staircase. We entered a darkened room full of people seated at tables. Soon, the cabaret, such as it was, began. The highlight of the rather unadventurous show was a magician performing tricks. The audience was subdued but showed its appreciation by genteel clapping.  The people seated around us did not look as if they were used to visiting night clubs; they looked dowdy and provincial. I am quite sure that what was on offer at the Astoria was not what Peter was hoping for.

I do not know whether Peter ever visited Budapest again, but I did often. My appetite for Hungary was truly whetted by my first brief visit. I made another trip the following year, but not before doing some careful ‘contact tracing’ as they say in the current pandemic crisis. I wanted to meet Hungarians in their homes.  One of my many contacts was supplied by my PhD supervisor’s wife, Margaret.

Margaret, gave me the contact details of Dora Sos.  Dora was trained as a chemist in Hungary. Just before WW2 started, her company sent her to the UK on a business trip. When the War broke out, she was stuck in Britain and detained as an ‘enemy alien’. Soon, she was released from internment because she was not regarded as being a threat to the security of the UK. She was sent to work in a chemical laboratory in the Slough Trading Estate, just west of London. There, she met and assisted Margaret in her work connected with extracting valuable elements from household and other metal goods donated for the war effort. Dora and Margaret became close friends. During her stay in Britain, Dora was given a British passport.

After the war, Dora returned to Budapest and began working in a laboratory there. Every now and then, the British embassy invited her and other holders of British passports to parties. One evening, she arrived at the embassy, but the Hungarian guards at its door prevented her from entering. She was arrested and her British passport confiscated. She was told never to visit the embassy again. This would have been during the harsh times, when Stalin was still alive and before the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Working in the laboratory soon became difficult and unpleasant. Every night, everything, all notebooks and other paperwork, had to be locked up. An atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion reigned. As Dora had lived in the West, she was regarded as being unreliable by the state. She left and became an interpreter: she was fluent in Hungarian, German, and English.

Some years later, restrictions eased a little in Hungary. Dora was permitted to visit Holland, which she did using her Hungarian passport. She made her way straight to the British Embassy at The Hague and told them about her British passport. After checking her story, the ambassador issued a replacement. He told Dora that in the future when she wanted to travel, she should travel somewhere with her Hungarian passport and then she could pick up her British passport at the British embassy at that place. And, when she was about to return to Hungary, she was to hand it into the nearest British embassy at the end of her trip. This worked well for her. A British passport was subject to far fewer visa requirements and travel restrictions than a Hungarian one.

By the time I first met Dora in her flat in Buda, she had stopped travelling abroad. In her seventies, she was still busy working as an interpreter. Because young Hungarians had to study Russian as a foreign language at school, few learnt German or English. This meant she was in high demand. At international technical conferences, she told me, she was able to make simultaneous translations for people speaking in German to those who only understood English and vice versa. It is not a common skill to be a three-way simultaneous translator.

Every time I visited Budapest, I used to spend time with Dora, usually in her flat. A chain smoker, she used to have frequent bouts of uncontrollable coughing.  She was a good cook. Her speciality was chicken paprika, which she served with home-made pasta, which she extruded through a perforated metal disc straight into a pot of boiling water.  I used to write to her before I arrived in Hungary, asking if there was anything she wanted from the West. Invariably, she asked for the latest editions of technical dictionaries, which she needed for her translation work. She did not ask for works of literature forbidden in Hungary, like the works of Solzhenitsyn. She enjoyed trying to smuggle those illicit books into her country after her occasional trips abroad.   She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary, the customs officials would ask her if she was carrying any ‘Solzhi’ in her baggage.

While writing this, I remembered a joke I was told in Hungary. Two policeman’s wives were discussing the flats where they lived. One said boastingly:

“We’ve got Persian carpets on our floors.”

The other said:

“We’ve got Rembrandts on our walls.”

To which the first replied:

“Gosh how awful. How do you kill them?”

Enough of that. There was little for the average Hungarian to laugh about living in Communist Hungary. I recall seeing a shop where foreign goods could be obtained with hard currency (US Dollars, UK Pounds, Deutschmarks, Swiss Francs, etc.). Crowds of Hungarians pressed their noses towards the shop’s windows, staring at things that they might never afford. These goods, which were otherwise unobtainable in Hungary, included tins of Coca Cola, imported alcohol, western cigarettes, and electronic equipment that was no longer the latest in the world outside the ‘Iron Curtain’.

For several years after the ending of Communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, I did not return to Hungary. In the late 1990s, after our daughter was born, we drove to Hungary and stayed with some young friends in Budapest. Under Communism, Pest, which to some extent resembles 19th century Paris, lacked the ‘buzz’ of a city like Paris or London. After the end of Soviet control of Hungary, Budapest sprung to life as if it had come out of a coma or recovered from a general anaesthetic.

I wanted to introduce my wife to Dora. I tried ringing the number I had for her a few times, but there was never an answer. So, one morning we took a tram to the place where Dora had her flat. We entered the building and used the ancient lift to reach Dora’s floor. Her front door opened onto a gallery overlooking an inner courtyard where rugs were hung on wooden stands and beaten by their owners to rid them of dust.  Dora’s name was no longer on the small plate next to the doorbell. I rang the bell. Nobody answered it. I never saw or heard from or of Dora again. Maybe, her chain smoking had finally got the better of her.

As for Peter, whose suggestion in Belgrade led to my love affair with Hungary, I lost contact with him for many years. About two years ago, we re-established contact via Facebook. Last year, after he and I had returned from our separate trips to India, we arranged to meet up again face to face. I was really looking forward to seeing this highly witty and intelligent friend of ours again. A few weeks before the rendezvous, he sent me an email telling me that he was unwell and that we would need to delay our meeting until he recovered. Sadly, he never did.

 

Picture shows Peter seated in the Young Pioneer’s Train at Buda