KEEN READERS OF NOVELS by Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) will have come across the name ‘Hitchin’ in several of her stories. For example, in “The Foundling”, Belinda sighs, and then says:
“She went to a place called Hitchin, but I don’t know where it is, and I only recall it because it sounds like kitchen, and I think that is very droll, don’t you, sir?”
She receives the reply:
“But Hitchin lies only a few miles from here! I daresay no more than six or seven, perhaps not as much! If you think you would like to visit this friend, I will take you there tomorrow! Do you know her direction?”
Later in the story, there are frequent mentions of Hitchin and a ‘Sun Inn’ in the town. There used to be an inn with that name on Sun Street, where currently, there is a Sun Hotel. In another novel, “The Reluctant Widow”, Hitchin is the name of the landlord of an inn, ‘The Bull’ in Wisborough Green, a village in West Sussex.
It is only in recent years that I have begun to read the wonderfully crafted historical novels by Heyer, but I was aware of Hitchin even as a young child. In those now far-off days, when I lived near Golders Green in north London, I was a collector of bus and train maps and an enthusiastic observer of buses. One of the buses that passed through Golders Green and along Finchley Road was the Green Line route number 716 that travelled all the way from Chertsey in southwest London to … you have probably guessed … Hitchin, far north of London in Hertfordshire. It was only today (11th of May 2021) that I finally got to visit Hitchin. I had read that it has a picturesque historic town centre and what we found surpassed all expectations.
A 7th century document states that Hitchin was the centre of the Hicce people, ‘hicce’ being Old English for ‘the people of the horse’. By 1086, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Hitchin was described as a ‘Royal Manor’. The town’s name is also associated with the River Hiz (pronounced ‘hitch’ by some), a short stretch of which flows in front of the eastern end of the centrally located St Mary’s Church, which is mostly 15th century with an 11th century tower. Later, the town thrived because of the wool trade; vellum and parchment making; tanning; rope-making; malting; and its coaching inns, such as that mentioned in Heyer’s novel. Hitchin was a staging post for coaches travelling between London and what road signs in the south of England call ‘The North’. The town is not far from the current A1 trunk road. Many of the inns have long since closed, but their picturesque buildings, most of which look mediaeval, or at least pre-Georgian, still stand and can often be identified by the large archways leading from the street into yards behind them. Grain trading was another important activity in the town. Its former Corn Exchange still stands in the Market Square, but its use is no longer what it was built for.
Despite the 20th century improvements in transport links to London, making Hitchin into a convenient place for commuters, the historic town centre contains a remarkably high number of old buildings lining its mediaeval street lay-out. These old throughfares surround the lovely, large Market Square, which like many towns and cities in mainland Europe, was filled with tables and chairs for people to enjoy refreshments from the many eateries that surround it. A covered arcade leads off the square and provides a weather-proof place for refreshments. Nearby, there is a modern market area with stalls with conical roofs. We were fortunate to have arrived on a day, Tuesday, when this market is working.
Our first impression of Hitchin was extremely favourable, but because we had planned to do so much more sightseeing that day, we did not spend nearly enough time there. We hope to revisit this place again soon. I can strongly recommend the Hitchin to anyone who wants to get a flavour of ‘Ye Olde England’ without having to travel too far from London.
NOTTING HILL GATE is a stretch of roadway, 670 yards long, that runs west from Bayswater Road to Holland Park Avenue. It is part of what was once a Roman Road that ran from London to places west and southwest of the city, passing through what is now Staines. The ‘gate’ in the street name refers to a tollgate that stood along it until about 1860. The gates of this barrier were placed so that there was no way of bypassing them via the few side roads that existed prior to the development of the area during the 19th century. I have no idea of how much was charged at this turnpike, but one might get a rough idea from a list of charges levied in early 18th century Wiltshire:
“1s. for a coach or wagon, 6d. for a cart, 1d. for a ridden or led horse, 10d. a score for cattle, and 5d. a score for sheep.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol4/pp254-271).
I became curious to learn where the Notting Hill gate was located. I found the answer in a book that I bought whilst browsing the shelves of a local charity shop.
According to Florence Gladstone and Ashley Barker, authors of “Notting Hill in bygone days” (published in 1924), a detailed history of the area, the tollgate known as ‘Notting Hill Gate’:
“… was the first of three successive turnpikes at this spot and crossed the road east of the site of the Metropolitan Station. It seems possible that the toll-keeper’s house occupied the corner where that station is set back from the road. The very interesting view of this gate by Paul Sandby, R.A., dated 1793 … faces west and apparently shows the end of Portobello Lane and the Coach and Horses Inn.”
This gives a clear description of where the turnpike (tollgate) was located, but today, the appearance of the area described has changed considerably.
To begin with, Portobello Lane no longer exists, at least not with that name. It most likely followed the course of the present Portobello Road and connected with Notting Hill Gate along the southern stretch of what is now Pembridge Road. On a map surveyed in 1863-65, Portobello Road is marked in its present position but the northern stretch of it that led through what were then open fields to Portobello Farm was then still called ‘Portobello Lane’.
Today, the Underground station, formerly the ‘Metropolitan Station, is not visible on the road as it can only be accessed by staircases leading down from the pavements to a subterranean ticket hall. The platforms of the Circle and District Lines are housed in what was part of the original station, which is set back from the road. These platforms were opened in 1868 and were accessed through a building set back from the road as can be seen on an extremely detailed (1:1056) map surveyed in 1895.
During the 18th century, The Coach and Horses Inn stood at number 108 Notting Hill Gate, a few feet west of Pembridge Road (formerly ‘Portobello Lane’), where today a recently opened branch of Marks and Spencer is doing good business.
The tollgate disappeared long ago, and so did much of Notting Hill Gate that would have been recognisable to the two authors of the book mentioned above. The most prominent survivor of pre-WW2 days is the Coronet, currently the home of the Print Room theatre organisation. Near it but clothed in a dull, modern (1960s) exterior is The Gate Cinema, whose well-conserved auditorium was constructed in 1911 within a building that had been a restaurant since 1861 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1385016). Most of the rest of the architecture lining Notting Hill Gate is mostly 20th century and/or aesthetically unpleasing.
I am not sure that what preceded the buildings that we see today was necessarily much better aesthetically, but we can get an idea from a short stretch of buildings, currently numbered 26 to 70, opposite the northern end of Church Street. These are mostly shops, whose ground floors stretch away from the road to join buildings with two or three storeys set back from the road. Judging by the architecture of the buildings above and behind these shops, they were probably already built by the end of the 19th century. A drawing created in 1912 by William Cleverley Alexander (1840-1916), who resided near Notting Hill Gate, shows some of these buildings looking remarkably like how they appear today. However, since he created his picture, the row of buildings has been changed by the construction of two banks, each with a neo-classical façade.
While I would not recommend visiting Notting Hill Gate for its own sake, it is the gateway to far more attractive sights such as Portobello Road, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, and Notting Hill of movie fame. And if you are thirsty, there are at least nine cafés within a paper cup’s throw away from the Underground station, and the number continues to increase.
EVERY SCHOOLDAY MORNING between 1965 and 1970, I boarded a single-decker, route 210 bus at Golders Green Station. First, we travelled up North End Road southwards to Jack Straws Castle, near Whitestone Pond. Then rounding the Hampstead war memorial, our direction changed from south to north-east as the bus travelled along the straight Spaniards Road, just a few yards more than half a mile in length. Invariably, the bus slowed down near the Spaniards Inn, where the road narrows because of the presence of a disused, historic tollhouse directly across the road from the inn. During my five years of travelling this route, I never wondered about the history of the Spaniards Inn, the tollhouse, and the area around them. Now, many years after leaving Highgate School, to which I was heading every morning on the 210, my interest in historical matters has been fired up, as has my desire to share that with anyone who has time to read what I write.
Spaniards Road and its eastern continuation beyond the tollhouse, Hampstead Lane, have long comprised an important route connecting Highgate and Hampstead. Spaniards Road, unlike Hampstead Lane, runs level without inclines or declivities. It runs along a ridge between the south and north facing slopes of Hampstead Heath. At its western end near the former Jack Straws Castle pub, it reaches the highest point in Hampstead, about 440 feet above sea level. At its eastern end by the Spaniards Inn, it is three feet lower. East of the inn, Hampstead Lane descends considerably and only begins to rise again within about three hundred yards of the centre of Highgate Village.
The tollhouse, the cause of an almost continuous traffic bottleneck, narrows the road width considerably so that it is only broad enough to admit one vehicle at a time. The tollhouse was built in the 18th century to collect tolls from those passing through the western entrance to the Estates of the Bishops of London, which they owned for almost 1400 years. Because of its tendency to slow the traffic, the idea of demolishing it or moving it a few yards from the road was mooted in the last century. The debate about shifting the tollhouse even reached the House of Lords, where on the 2nd of February 1966, Lord Lindgren (George Lindgren: 1900-1971) suggested:
“My Lords, to move this building two yards would, I think, be a tremendous waste of time, effort and labour. In actual fact, the lorries going by day by day remove the brick, and if we leave it long enough it will not be there.”
Luckily, the small building remains intact and although not particularly attractive, it adds to the charm of the area.
The Spaniards Inn, across the narrow stretch of road from the tollhouse, is believed to have been established in about 1585. It stands on the old boundary between Finchley and Hendon. Today, the Inn is in the Borough of Barnet and the tollhouse is in that of Camden. In former days, the inn marked the entrance to the Estates of the Bishops of London. The building that houses the inn is 17th century brickwork with some wooden weatherboarding, which is best viewed from the pub’s carpark. It is according to the historicengland.org.uk website:
“An altered building, but one that still has great character.”
The origin of the pub’s name is not known for certain. One suggestion is that the building was once owned by a family connected with the Spanish Embassy. Another is that at some stage, the house was taken by a Spaniard and converted to a house of entertainment. Edward Walford, writing in the 1880s, relates that whilst the Spanish Ambassador to King James I (ruler of England from 1603 to 1625) was residing there, he complained:
“…that he and his suite had not seen very much of the sun in England.”
The Spaniards Inn was the scene of an event during the Gordon Riots in mid-1780. The causes of the riots were several, but they included anti-Catholic sentiments following the passing of an act of Parliament passed in 1778, which ‘emancipated’ the Roman Catholics. At that time, Kenwood House, which is just east of the Spaniards Inn was one of the homes of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-1793), an important lawyer, reformer (his reforms included objections to slavery), and politician. He was Lord Chief Justice when the act was passed and just prior to the outbreak of rioting, he had treated a Catholic priest leniently in a court of justice. A group of rioters attacked and burned Mansfield’s home in Bloomsbury Square:
“The furniture, his fine library of books, invaluable manuscripts, containing his lordship’s notes on every important law case for near forty years past … were by the hands of these Goths committed to the flames; Lord and Lady Mansfield with difficulty eluded their rage, by making their escape through a back door … So great was the vengeance with which they menaced him, that, if report may be credited, they had brought a rope with them to have executed him: and his preservation may be properly termed providential.”
Not happy with burning down Mansfield’s London home and its owner’s escape from their clutches, rioters set off towards Kenwood where they planned to destroy his rural retreat. They made their way to the Spaniards Inn, which was then kept by a publican called Giles Thomas. This shrewd fellow was quick to assess the reason for the rabble’s arrival and being a man of quick thinking, he opened his house and his cellars to the mob, offering them unlimited refreshment before they continued to undertake their planned work of devastating Kenwood House. As soon as they began enjoying Thomas’s generous hospitality, the canny publican sent a messenger to a local barracks to raise a detachment of the Horse Guards. At the same time, he arranged for other rabble-rousers to be supplied with liberal amounts of strong ale from the cellars of Kenwood House. A Mr William Wetherell, who was on the spot, encouraged the rioters to adjourn to the Spaniards Inn. By the time that the military arrived, the rioters were in no fit state to either resist the soldiers or to carry out their planned attack on Mansfield’s residence, which was a good thing not only for Mansfield but also for posterity because by 1780, the house had already been worked on by the architect Robert Adam, who had made improvements of great artistic value.
The Spaniards Inn stands amongst a cluster of historic buildings. Its next-door neighbour is a plain building, Erskine House (also once known as ‘Evergreen Hill’). This stands on the site of an earlier house of the same name built in about 1788. It was the home of the lawyer and Whig politician Thomas Erskine (1750-1823), Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain between 1806 and 1807. By all accounts, he was a brilliant man. He was involved in many important trials. One of these that attracted me because of my interest in Indian history was during the impeachment proceedings (in 1785) against Warren Hastings after his time as Governor General of Bengal. Mr Stockdale, a publisher in Piccadilly, issued a pamphlet by John Logan which defended Hastings, and following that was tried for libel expressed against the chief opponents of Hastings, Charles Fox and Edmund Burke. Stockdale was defended successfully by Erskine in a case that helped to pave the way to the passing of the Libel Act 1792, which:
In addition to being involved in many other important cases, Erskine was an animal lover as well as a great wit. For example, when he saw a man on Hampstead Heath hitting his miserable-looking sickly horse violently, so Edward Walford recorded, he admonished the cruel fellow. The latter replied:
“Why, it’s my own; mayn’t I use it as I please?”
Hearing this, Erskine began beating the miscreant with his own stick. When the victim remonstrated and asked him to stop using his stick, Erskine, who could not suppress making a witty remark, said:
“Why, it’s my own; mayn’t I use it as I please?”
Erskine’s former home was located between the Spaniards Inn and a house, which still stands today, Heath End House, which was occupied by Sir William Parry (1790-1855), the Arctic explorer. The sign on its outer gate reads ‘Evergreen Hill’. Later, it was a home of Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936) and her husband Canon Samuel Barnett (1844-1913). Both were deeply involved with the creation of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Although I lived in the ‘highly desirable’ Suburb, I would have much preferred to have lived in the Barnett’s lovely house by the Spaniards Inn. Had I lived there in amongst that historic cluster of houses, maybe I would have walked to school instead of boarding the 210 bus in Golders Green.
LITTLE VENICE, near Paddington in London, is a picturesque spot with a large body of water where three waterways meet. The waterways are the part of the Grand Union canal system that links London with Birmingham. Two of the canals that meet at Little Venice are the two sections of the Grand Union Paddington Branch that links Paddington with Brentford. The third is the Regent’s Canal that links Little Venice with Limehouse Basin next to the Thames, 1.6 miles east of Tower Bridge. The body of water where these three waterways meet is triangular with an island in it. The waterways enter the large expanse of water at each of its three corners.
While the area hardly resembles the Italian island of Venice apart from the presence of water, some believe it might have been given its name, Little Venice, by a former local resident, the poet Robert Browning (1812-1889). Others question this, and believe that it was Lord Byron (1788-1824), who associated the name ‘Venice’ with the area (https://hydeparknow.uk/2017/11/11/browning-never-dreamt-up-little-venice/). Apparently, Byron compared the dirtiness of the canals in Venice with those in Paddington:
“There would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts.”
Whatever the origin of its name, Little Venice is now a lovely oasis, favoured by tourists, locals, and waterfowl.
The Regent’s Canal leaves the Little Venice triangle of water by passing beneath the bridge carrying Warwick Road and heads northeast for 475 yards. It is flanked by Blomfield Road, lined with fabulous mansions, on its north side, and Maida Avenue on its south side. Then it enters a 243-yard-long tunnel that begins beneath a café on the Maida Vale section of Edgeware Road, which follows the route of the Roman road, Watling Street. The canal emerges from the tunnel a few yards north east of the eastern end of Aberdeen Street. This street, which has few if any outstanding architectural features, was once the home of the bomber pilot Guy Gibson (1918-1944) who was awarded a Victoria Cross; he was the Leader of the Dambusters Raid in 1943.
The tunnel through which the Regent’s Canal flows is called the ‘Maida Hill Tunnel’. The tunnel was constructed between 1812 and 1816. There are no towpaths in the tunnel, which is narrower than the open-air sections of the canal at either end of it. Therefore, horses could not be used to drag the barges through this subterranean section of the canal. Instead, the barges had to be ‘legged’. Men lay on their backs on planks on top of the barge, and using their raised legs, they pressed their feet against the roof of the tunnel, ‘walked’ them along it, and thus propelled the vessel through the tunnel. This was not without its dangers. For example, in 1825 the planks supporting three men, who were working their way along the roof of the tunnel, accidentally slipped off the top of the barge. One man was seriously injured and the other two were killed.
Much water has flowed through the tunnel since then. Today, pleasure barges, powered by engines, still pass through it. One day, when the pandemic eases up and the weather is better, we hope to take one of the popular cruises from Little Venice to Camden Lock via the Maida Hill Tunnel.
HAD YOU VISITED GOLDERS GREEN in 1876, you would have arrived at: “… a little outlying cluster of cottages, with an inn, the White Swan, whose garden is in great favour with London holiday makers … from the village there are pleasant walks by lanes and footpaths …” So, wrote James Thorne in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”. Of these lanes, Hoop Lane still exists. The White Swan was in business until recently but has disappeared since I took a photograph of it about three years ago.. I do not think that I would recommend Golders Green as a holiday destination anymore. It is not unpleasant, but it is no longer rural and lacks the atmosphere of a resort. The poet and physician Mark Akenside (1721-1770), a friend of the politician Jeremiah Dyson (1722-1776), who had a house in Golders Green, and a frequent visitor to Dyson’s place, wrote, while recovering from an ailment:
“Thy verdant scenes, O Goulder’s Hill,
Once more I seek a languid guest;
With throbbing temples and with burden’d breast
Once more I climb thy steep aerial way,
O faithful cure of oft-returning ill …”
Another poet, now better known than Akenside, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote:
“I am not unfrequently a visitor on Hampstead Heath, and seldom pass by the entrance of Mr Dyson’s villa, on Golder’s Hill, close by, without thinking of the pleasures which Akenside often had there.”
In those far-off days visitors from London could either reach Golders Green by crossing the range of hills north of Hampstead on a road that follows the path of the present North End Road or, after 1835, when it was completed, by travelling along Finchley Road. The end of Golders Green’s existence as a rural outpost of London and its development as a residential suburb began in June 1907, when the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway (now part of the Underground’s Northern Line) opened the above-ground Golders Green Station.
My family used Golders Green Station on an almost daily basis. During my childhood, there were two ways of entering it. One way, which still exists, is from the large station forecourt, the local bus and coach station. The other way, which was closed at least 35 years ago, was from Finchley Road. An entrance beneath the railway bridge led to a long, covered walkway (see the illustration above) under an elaborate wooden structure, open to the outside air on most of its two sides. The husband of one of my father’s secretaries once remarked that the wooden canopy reminded him of structures he had seen in India. Having visited India myself, I now know what made him think of that. The walkway led to a ticket office, beyond which there was a corridor from which staircases provided access to the outdoor platforms. Our family favoured using the Finchley Road entrance because it was slightly closer to our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb than the other one next to the bus yard.
In the early 1960s, when I was still a young child, northbound Underground trains coming from the centre of London stopped on one of the two northbound tracks that ran through the station. In those days, the doors on both the left and right sides of the train opened in Golders Green. If the train entered on the left track, that closest to the bus yard side of the station, we used to leave the train by the right hand doors, which led to the platform whose access staircases were closest to the Finchley Road entrance. We did this almost like a reflex action, without thinking about it.
One day, after my father had taken me to spend time in town with him, probably at his workplace, the LSE, we returned to Golders Green by Underground. As usual, since the train had stopped at the platform closest to the bus yard, we waited for the opening of the doors on the right-hand side of the train. Standing facing these doors, we could hear the opening of the doors on the left-hand side. We waited and waited, and then the train began to continue its journey northwards towards the next station, Brent. We were astonished that ‘our’ doors had not opened. My father was mildly upset by this. We behaved like creatures of habit. I was really pleased because I had always wanted to travel beyond Golders Green Station to see what exciting scenery lay beyond it. It was not, I remember, the rural scenes that visitors in the 19th century and earlier would have enjoyed.
THE IRISH AUTHOR James Joyce (1882-1941), author of “Ulysses”, “The Dubliners” etc., lived at number 28B Campden Grove in Kensington in 1931. While living in this flat, he worked on his novel “Finnegans Wake” (published in 1939) and married his long-term companion and muse Nora Barnacle (1884-1951). A blue plaque, which I had never noticed before during the 28 years I have lived in the area, on the house records his stay in Kensington. Joyce was not keen on this dwelling. In 1932, he wrote to Harriet Weaver Shaw:
“’I never liked the flat much though I liked the gardens nearby. That grove is inhabited by mummies. Campden Grave, it should be called. London is not made for divided houses. The little sooty dwellings with their backs to the railway line etc etc are genuine; so is Portland Place. But houses like that were never built to be run on the continental system and as flats they are fakes.” (quoted in http://peterchrisp.blogspot.com/2019/05/campden-grave-james-joyce-in-london.html)
A few yards further west of Joyce’s temporary home, I spotted something else that I had not seen before and is relevant to what Joyce wrote.
The rear outer wall of number 1 Gordon Place is best viewed from near the end of Campden Grove just before it meets the northern end of Gordon Place. That rear wall is unusually shaped. Its windows are set into a concavely curved brickwork wall rather than the normal flat wall.
Today Gordon Place extends southwards, then briefly joins Pitt Street to run east for a few feet before making a right angle to continue southwards, crossing Holland Street and then ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac lined with luxuriant gardens. This has not always been its course. A map surveyed in 1865 shows Gordon Place as running between Campden Grove and Pitt Street. The section of today’s Gordon Place that runs south from Pitt Street to Holland Street was called ‘Vicarage Street’ and the cul-de-sac running south from Holland Street was then called ‘Orchard Street’. A map complied in 1896 reveals that Gordon Place was by then running along its present course. Vicarage Street had become renamed as part of ‘Gordon Place’.
Aerial views of the curved building, number 1 Gordon Place, show that its curved rear wall forms part of a deep opening that extends below the ground. Maps compiled from 1865 onwards show the presence of this hole and within it short stretches of railway tracks. The hole is a ventilation shaft for the Underground tracks, currently the Circle and District lines, that run just below the surface. Standing on Campden Grove close to the back of number 1 Gordon Place, one can hear trains clearly as they travel below the hole in the ground. How deep is the hole? The corner of Gordon Place and Campden Grove is 86 feet above sea level and High Street Kensington Station is at 43 feet above sea level. The railway lines do not slope too much between the ventilation shaft and the station. According to Transport for London, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, they descend by 12 feet (www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/70389/response/179967/attach/html/2/Station%20depths.xlsx.html). Using the information that we have, we can estimate the depth of the shaft to be at least 43 feet (i.e. 86-43 plus a little more because the rails are several feet below the surface).
The Metropolitan Railway that included the stretch of track between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington stations was laid before 1868, and from the 1865 map, it was already present before the date when the map was surveyed. According to a detailed history of the area (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp49-57), houses near the corner of Camden Grove and Gordon Place (and in other locations nearby) had to be rebuilt after the railway was constructed between 1865 and 1868. The 1865 map shows no house at the site of the present number 1 Gordon Place. This building with its concave curved rear wall appears on a map surveyed in 1896. It would seem that the developer who constructed number 1 did not want to waste any of his valuable plot; he constructed the rear of the building right up to the circular edge of the ventilation shaft.
So, now we have an explanation for the curiously curved wall and for Joyce’s comments about houses with their backs to railway lines. Some friends of ours own a house with an outer wall that forms part of another ventilation hole on the District and Circle lines. They told us that should they need to make repairs to the outside of the wall that overlooks the tracks, they would need to get special permission from the company that runs the Underground and that many precautions would be needed to protect the workmen and the trains running beneath them.
Life is often far from straightforward, but London is endlessly fascinating. James Joyce preferred Paris to London, where most of his books were published. I hope that it was not his experience with trains running close to where he lived in Campden Grove that influenced his preference.
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.
UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this earlier this year when we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three-hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber cab.
The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.
In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some of them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way. Maybe, that is because their metered fares are so reasonable for the passenger. Driving in Bombay’s traffic cannot be too much fun, especially if one is getting paid poorly to do so.
Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who prefer to avoid using urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.
Bangalore’s Ubers and Olas are unreliable. Often, they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app-linked car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.
Autorickshaws (‘tuk tuks’) are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore. Their plucky drivers can take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers, but they get you to your destination relatively quickly. I love the drivers’ sneaky tactics, but others do not. Once, I was travelling in an autorickshaw with two American ladies on a busy main road in the centre of Bangalore. They shrieked with terror as our vehicle sped adventurously between a bus and a heavy lorry that were rapidly moving close together.
One autorickshaw driver, whose command of English was good, told me that he had been a truck driver before driving the three-wheelers to earn his living. He explained that an autorickshaw driver needs to use all of his six senses and to ‘feel the traffic’ with his body. It is my observation that most drivers of these small fragile vehicles have lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. Yet, as they weave effortlessly and excitingly through the traffic, many of them chatter away on their mobile ‘phones.
Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will start by suggesingt an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling. Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.
Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will offer foreigners something like:
“Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.”
Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, etc.
Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. That is, at a shop that will offer the cabbie a commission or a gift when the passenger makes a purchase. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted, time-wasting detour for shopping.
On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.
Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share is the wording “No Refusal” painted on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stops to pick up a passenger, is not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.
Black Cab taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they can legally operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, but by no means always, cabbies comply.
Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present in London. While the ‘lockdown’ is in force, even in its present slightly diluted form, I feel sorry when I see an empty Black Cab with its ‘For Hire’ sign illuminated cruising the almost empty streets in the hope of finding a customer.
UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a potential customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this when earlier this year we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber.
The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.
In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some if them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way.
Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who avoid urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.
Bangalore Ubers and Olas are unreliable. Often they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app connected car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.
Autorickshaws are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore. Their plucky drivers are able to take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers but they get you to your destination relatively quickly.
Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will suggest an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling. Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.
Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will often foreigners something like: “Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.” Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, or …
Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted detour for shopping.
On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.
Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share in common is the wording “No Refusal” printed on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stop to pick up a passenger, are not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.
Taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they are allowed to operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, cabbies, but by no means always, comply.
Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present.
WE SHOULD NEVER have booked to travel on the 945 am Gujarat State Road Transport Company’s (GSRTC) bus from Ahmedabad to Mandvi in Kutch. The distance between the two towns is about 390 kilometres. According to Google maps, the journey should take seven hours by car. Allowing for stops en-route, a bus should take no more than an hour longer. The 945 bus from Ahmedabad took eleven and a quarter hours, with no more than a total of an hour stoppng at various bus stations along the way. Why, you may wonder, did our bus take so long despite the fact that we encountered no traffic traffic congestion at all and we were not involved in any accidents.
The first three hours of the journey, our bus travelled through small towns in the great plain of Gujarat that were far from the direct and shortest route. Many of these places, such as Lakhatar and Surendranagar contain stretches of largely intact historic city walls. After visiting these places in what was effectively a huge detour, we rejoined the direct highway at Dhranghadra. We had travelled a little under 100 kilometres from Ahmedabad in three hours.
At Surendranagar, the driver and conductor left the bus and were replaced by a new crew. The new driver spent more time chatting to the conductor who was sitting to his left and behind him. Most of the time, the driver had his head turned away from the road to see the conductor. He would take frequent brief glances at the road ahead in between his lengthier glances at the conductor. Despite this seeming lack of concentration on the road, he drove well, something that cannot be said of many of the other road users. Some of the overtaking I observed was just short of suicidal.
For a while, we drove along the very good 6 lane highway barely making any stops to pick up or drop off passengers. We had a ten minute break near Halvad, just long enough to buy some snacks and to use the toilets.
Soon after re-joining the motorway, the bus, which was moving quite fast, was overtaken by a Royal Enfield motorcycle. It was being driven by a young man and a largish lady was sitting side saddle behind him. The cyclist was sounding his horn repeatedly, more than necessary, and the lady was smiling sweetly at our bus. I thought that she was just having fun, but as the bike passed the front of our bus, it swerved in front of it. The bus slowed down and stopped and the smiling lady climbed on board and purchased a ticket. She told us that she had seen our bus leaving from Halvad and chased after it unsuccessfully. The young man had offered to take her on his bike and then chase after the bus that he wanted to catch.
We crossed over the Surajbari river bridge, and entered the former kingdom of Kutch, now part of the State of Gujarat. For several kilometres we drove through an estuarine area with acres of saltpans punctuated by tall white pyramids of freshly harvested sea salt. This area is one of India’s most important salt producers.
The highway, from which, amazingly, we had not yet deviated, was heavily used by large trucks. The flat countryside was filled with industrial plants, some quite large with chimneys belching clouds of smoke which were stirred up into interesting shapes by the strong prevailing wind.
As the sun began sinking into the hazy (polluted?) sky on the western horizon, we pulled into Gandidham. This city, established just after 1947, is built on land donated by the Maharao of Kutch, the last ruler of the Princely State of Kutch. The city became home to many Sindhi Hindus who had fled during the Partition from nearby Sindh when it became incorporated into the newly formed Pakistan. Gandidham is not far from the port of Kandla, about which you can learn much more from my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped”). I guessed that the heavy truck presence was because of the industrialisation of this part of Kutch and activities at Kandla.
It was at Kandla where we received information that made our hearts sink. The conductor told us that from Gandidham onwards, it was going to take us another three hours to reach Mandvi. Instead of taking a direct route, our bus had to visit numerous villages to drop off and pick up passengers. He explained that being a state run bus, this service is like a lifeline; it is almost the only way that people could travel between these places by public transport. We trundled through the darkness, stopping here and there. I felt sorry for the driver because many other road users travel along the unlit country roads either without lights or with only dim front lights switched on. Of course, cattle and other animals, who routinely share the road with human traffic, are completely without lighting.
All along our route, we saw animals on the road. Cattle and goats are routinely herded along or across roads of all sorts, even the high speed six lane highways. If my knowledge of ornithology was less rudimentary, I would have been able to describe the rich variety of birds that we saw along our route.
In the road lit up by the lights on our bus, I saw a dog which was lying dead at the side of the road. Another dog, maybe a companion of the dead one, was standing close by looking at it sadly or maybe disbelievingly. It was a tragic sight.
Some weeks earlier we were on a car in Hyderabad when I noticed that drivers were making sudden manoeuvres to avoid something lying in the middle of the road. It was a cat that had been knocked down. Lying on its side, its legs were moving frantically in the air as if it were trying to run away. This fleeting image of an animal in the throes of death affected me greatly. I can still see that poor creature in my mind’s eye.
Eventually, we crossed the River Rukmavati and drove along the riverside next to substantial remains of the impressive wall that used to surround the city of Mandvi. We disembarked at the almost deserted modern bus station. While we waited for the car that was going to collect us, a cow wandered past us investigating bits of rubbish on the floor, hoping to find something worth eating.
Though tiring and exceptionally lengthy, our bus journey through the flat countryside between Ahmedabad and Mandvi was far from dull. Our fellow passengers ranged from westernized Gujaratis in European style clothing to rustic looking folk: women wearing saris and salwar kameez, and men attired in very baggy trousers that resembled dhotis and turbans or headscarves. Mobile phones kept ringing and there were many loud conversations. Outside the bus, we saw many vignettes of small town and village life through the filthy windows of our trusty bus.
Next time we visit Kutch from Ahmedabad, we will follow the advice of our GSRTC bus conductor: “Go by private bus”.