WHEN WE WERE IN the Western Cape of South Africa, I noticed
streams running alongside roads in rural farming areas. Occasional small channels
led off from them and into the fields of farms. At each junction of the main stream
and a side channel, there were small plates that could be used to temporarily dam the main stream to divert water
into the channel leading to the fields.
We are staying in Funchal, Madeira. Our guesthouse is high above
the city centre and the seafront on a road that leads down an extremely steep hill. On one side of the road there is a fast flowing
stream. Every now and then, there are metal plates that can be inserted into
slots on both sides of this stream to divert water into the property beside the
water. This is just like what I saw in rural South Africa. Perhaps I should not
be surprised by the similarity of the damming system, but I cannot recall having
noticed it anywhere else I have visited.
THE GRAND UNION canal, constructed from the late 1790s onwards, is an important artery of England’s canal network. Beginning at Brentford on the River Thames, it winds its way to Braunston and Birmingham. Along its way it meets other canals, some of which are designated ‘arms’. For example, the Paddington Arm joins the main canal at Bulls Bridge in west London and from there it makes its way eastwards to Paddington. Recently, we visited friends, who live in Northamptonshire, and they took us on a walk along another arm of the Grand Union, the Northampton Arm. This branch of the main canal begins near Gayton and Blisworth and runs to nearby Northampton, where it enters the River Nene, which flows eastwards towards The Wash, an enormous inlet of the North Sea.
Much of the Northampton Arm is very narrow, just wide enough for passage of a single narrow boat. At regular intervals, the arm widens to allow vessels travelling in opposite directions to pass each other. Though short in length, only 4.6 miles, the Northampton Arm has seventeen separate, hand-operated locks for vessels to negotiate. The twelve of these, a flight of locks, is 1123 yards from the Gayton junction with the main canal. These twelve locks are along a stretch of canal only nine tenths of a mile long. The northernmost lock, that nearest towards Northampton, is a few yards north of a bridge carrying the M1 motorway. The locks carry the water from a bit over 300 feet above sea level nearest Gayton down to less than about 225 feet, each lock capable of lifting or lowering a vessel over 6 feet on average. Nearer Gayton, there is an old swing bridge, rather like a castle’s drawbridge. Looking at old maps, it appears that there were several more of these along the arm, but we only spotted one in the stretch between Gayton and the M1.
The canal and its associated towpath pass beneath the motorway through a giant concrete arch, paraboloid in shape and reinforced with horizontal concrete beams. Lined with graffiti, both conventional and anarchic artwork, walking under the motorway is an eery, rather science fictional experience. In contrast to this brutalist concrete arch, several lovely brick, hump-backed bridges carry minor roads over the Arm
“Almost immediately the Arm began to carry a large volume of merchandise and stayed busy for over 100 years through to after the First World War. In the post war years coal, grain and timber were supplemented by goods needed for the show industry such as strawboards for packing as well as iron ingots for castings. After World War II the carriage of goods ceased as road competition strengthened.”
Now, the Arm is used by intrepid canal boat owners, who are not averse to too much manipulation of lock gates. On the sunny Saturday afternoon that we visited the lock flight, we only saw one narrow boat attempting to negotiate the flight of twelve locks. In contrast, at Gayton Junction, the main Grand Union Canal, from which the Arm branches off, was full of pleasure-seekers’ narrow boats and other craft.
Though hardly used for freight these days, the canal system provides much pleasure to visitors both afloat and on shore. Wandering along the towpaths, one cannot fail to be amazed when considering the engineering ingenuity of the canal builders that we can still see today, as well as the work that is done to keep these waterways usable so many years after they were constructed.
GRAIN CAN BE GROUND between two parallel circular stones, one of which was rotating. The grain was fed between the stones which broke it up to form flour. The rotation was usually powered by harnessing either the energy of wind (as in windmills) or of flowing water (as in watermills).
Many watermills are powered by water flowing in streams or rivers. At Woodbridge in Suffolk, a different system is employed. At high tide, the sea water enters a pond next to the water mill via a channel fitted with a one-way valve that allows water to enter the pond but not to leave it. The water that has accumulated in the pond can be released from it by a valve that allows the water to escape via a mill wheel fitted with paddles, rather like the paddle wheels on old-fashioned paddle steamers. The water flowing out of the pond causes the wheel to rotate. This rotation is transmitted to the grain grinding stones via a series of cogwheels. The mill at Woodbridge is an example of what is known as a ‘tide mill’.
There has been a mill on the site of the Woodbridge tide mill since the 12th century. There was some kind of tide mill on the spot since at least 1340. The present tide mill buildings have been standing since at least the beginning of the 19th century. It might well be the mill that was rebuilt in the 17th century.
Today, the tide mill is open to the public. It is still in working condition and used to produce flour. Visitors, including us, are shown the mill in action, subject to there being sufficient water stored in the pond. We were fortunate to see this remarkable piece of engineering in action.
UNLIKE IN HOLLAND, the landscape of England is often not flat. In the 18th century, a network of canals was constructed to carry freight between different places in England and its neighbouring countries. The routes of these canals almost always involved crossing hilly terrain. When a canal encounters a hill, it can sometimes be routed around it, or it can pass through a tunnel, or it can cross the incline by means of a lock or a series of locks. A series of locks can be separated by short stretches of the canal on level terrain, in which case it is called a ‘flight of locks’. A good example of this are the six locks on the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell in Middlesex. Alternatively, one lock can lead into the next in the series without an intermediate pool or stretch of water. When one lock leads into the next, and that leads into yet another one, this is called a ‘staircase’ of locks. A good example of this is on the Leicester Line (branch) of the Grand Union Canal at Foxton in Leicestershire.
The staircase at Foxton, which we visited recently, consists of two sets of five interconnecting locks separated by a pool where boats can queue whilst the staircase is occupied with other boats. Each of the ten locks are just broad enough to accommodate one traditional narrow boat. Locks work by raising or lowering boats by being filled or emptied of water respectively. When each of the locks at Foxton is emptied to lower a boat, the water released flows via a series of valves into a side pond. The water from a side pond is reused to fill the next lock down when a boat needs to be raised. This ingenious system means that little water is required to operate the staircases.
The staircase of locks at Foxton was constructed between 1810 and 1814. On average, if there are not queues of other boats, it takes about 45 minutes to ascend or descend the whole staircase of ten locks. In 1900, an alternative to the Foxton staircase was constructed. This was known as the Foxton Inclined Plane. The way this worked was as follows. A boat sailed into a water filled container, which was made watertight. This was then hauled up rails on an inclined ramp or lowered down it if it was descending. The motive power for this boat lift was provided by a mechanism powered by a steam engine, whose housing is now an interesting canal museum. This lift reduced to traverse time from 45 minutes to about ten minutes. There were two parallel lifts, so that when one boat was being hauled upward, another could be lowered simultaneously, rather like the counterweight in a lift in a building. This ingenious mechanism was abandoned in about 1911 and dismantled in 1926. Visitors to Foxton can see what remains of the inclined plane tracks.
A visit to Foxton Locks is highly worthwhile. It is not only fascinating from the viewpoint of the history of engineering. It is also an impressive visual treat. The volunteers who work at the locks helping both users of the canal and sightseers, like us, are both friendly and well-informed.
NEW END HOSPITAL in Hampstead village closed in 1986 and converted into luxury flats. It was opened in 1869 as a workhouse for impoverished folk and in 1931 it became a hospital specialising in endocrine diseases. In that year, a clinic devoted to treating thyroid disorders was established.
On Tuesday afternoons during the years 1968-1970, when I was preparing for university entrance examinations, I helped out in the thyroid department laboratories at New End Hospital.
The labs occupied the dank basement under the Victorian hospital. The outfit was directed by a formidably bright lady scientist. She was assisted by a small friendly team of scientists and technicians.
The first task assigned to me was to make the afternoon tea. I had never made tea before without using a tea bag and with the addition of milk (at home we drank tea without milk). What I served was universally abhorred. That first afternoon, I was given a lesson of how to prepare tea ‘properly’.
The lab I worked in was dedicated to diagnosing and treating thyroid patients with radioactive isotopes of Iodine. Patients were given radioactive iodine to ingest in the ward. Then, they were brought to what looked like a dental chair in our basement. A technician applied a Geiger counter probe to different parts of the patient’s body to determine the distribution of the iodine. From this, diagnostic information could be derived. Today, this manual technique has been replaced with automatic electronic body scanners.
After scanning, the by now radioactive patients were sent back to the ward. There, they waited for their radioactivity levels to drop to safe values or to await further administration of the isotope for therapeutic reasons. In both cases, these patients had to wait until they were no longer emitting harmful rays.
To assess the levels of radioactivity in the patients’ bodies, their urine was collected regularly and stored in brown glass Winchester bottles. These were brought down to be stored in the basement. Each bottle was regularly inserted into a lead covered cylindrical container containing Geiger counters. Apart from white lab coats, we wore no other protective garments. Often, I helped with this activity. Thinking back, I doubt modern Health and Safety would have sanctioned our working practices in that basement.
At school, I was learning computer programming, and enjoying it. We learnt the principles of programming and how to use them in the recently designed Basic computer language. When the thyroid laboratory bought a programmable desktop Olivetti calculating/computing machine, I was the first person in the lab who knew how to make it work, to programme it.
The lab needed to communicate with the matron in charge of the thyroid ward, but everyone feared her. So, whenever possible if the lab needed to send something to her, they waited for me to arrive on Tuesday afternoons. By some kind of luck, the terrifying matron treated me kindly. I found her to be agreeable but realised that she needed to be treated with ‘kid gloves’.
My experiences at the laboratory under New End Hospital were both fascinating and enjoyable. They were also influential because they instilled in me an interest in physiology, and particularly endocrinology. I am certain that had it not been for those Tuesday afternoons at New End, I might not have gone on to making a new beginning at University College London, studying physiology.
A wise old friend of mine, Margaret, told me that once when holidaying in rural Greece, she developed an excrutiating toothache. Wary of trusting her teeth to ‘any old dentist’, she decided to go into the nearest town and visiting the local bank manager. She reasoned that the bank manager probably consulted one of the better dentists in the town. So, she visited the manager’s dentist, and was not disappointed.
Once, Margaret told me how she chose a new washing machine. She asked the repairman, who came to service her machine, which models he had to repair most and which caused least trouble. Based on this information, she chose her new appliance.
A decade or more later, I decided to acquire a ‘smart phone’ to replace my unsmart device. The choice was broadly between an iPhone and an Android phone, such as a Samsung model.
Remembering my old friend, who had been dead for several years, I consulted the man who ran a mobile telephone repair shop near where I used to work. I asked him which kind of ‘phone he had to repair most often. Quick as a flash, he said:
When I asked him why, he replied that the screens on Samsung models needed replacing less often than those on Androids. That was enough for me to decide on buying a Samsung.
I have had several models of Samsung ‘smartphones’ since my first. Now, I am using an S8, which has a superb camera.
I am pleased I adopted Margaret’s method of decision making.
I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.
In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.
During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.
The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.
In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.
The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.
Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.
Today, 7th January 2020, we bought tickets for onwards bus journeys at Ahmedabad’s Geetamandir bus station. The young man at the ticket counter was an excellent salesman.
We stopped at the Raipur Gate, one of the several gates on the now demolished city wall. Only the gates remain as mementos of this wall.
Next to the gate, there were several spinning kite cord winders. They were preparing the cords that would be attached to the kites flown to celebrate the festival of Uttarayan (end of winter), which is celebrated all over Gujarat.
White thread is fed through a basin of coloured dye and then coated with finely ground glass and glue before being wound onto large spinning bobbins. The thread, when dried, is wound onto smaller bobbins that are sold to kite flyers. The ground glass is added to the thread so that kite flyers can use their kites to cut through the strings of other kites while they are airborne. The men making the threads were not Gujaratis, but from outside the state, from Bihar and UP, for example.
Ahmedabad now hosts an annual International Kite Festival.
The kites, made mostly of paper, are sold along a street leading away from the Raipur Gate. Kite flyers need to buy their kites and reels of thread (to attach to them) separately. We spotted numerous small stalls selling adhesive tape. One of the vendors of these explained that pne wraps this tape around fingers to stop them being injured by the very abrasive glass coated kite threads. Masks were also on sale. These are worn during the kite festival.
When we asked someone where we could watch the kites being flown, we were told: “In the air, up in the sky”. On further questioning, we were told, as if we were idiots, that the kites can be seen flying in the heavens.
Some years ago we visited Ahmedabad in late March. Even so long after Uttarayan, the branches of trees were filled with the remains of kites that had been caught in them.
When I first became aware of public telephone boxes – that would have been in the early 1960s – they operated as follows. The caller first inserted a suitable number of coins, and then dialled. If the call was answered, the caller had to press a button marked ‘A’ in order to continue the call. By pressing this button, the inserted coins moved into the cash box. If, on the other hand, the recipient of the call did not answer or was busy on another call, the caller had to press button ‘B’. By doing so, the inserted coins were returned.
The A and B call boxes were later replaced by another system. The caller dialled the number. If it was answered, the caller heard a series of beeps. At this point, the caller had to insert money in order to remain connected. Many years after this newer system was installed, my father used to yell down the ‘phone:
“Press button ‘A'”
He did this despite the fact that button ‘A’ no longer existed.
Today, with the advent of mobile telephones, mastering the intricacies of operating public telephone boxes has become almost unneccessary.