Friday, 20 January 2017

Auber, fading underground wonder

Auber station, just behind the Paris Opera, serves the RER (local railway): you can catch a train from here to Disneyland. However, there's little magic and sparkle on view. 


The gloomy lighting, dated styling, and general air of mild decay belie this station's history. When it opened in 1971, it was one of the largest and most advanced underground stations in the world. If such size seems excessive for a single railway line with a maximum of thirty trains an hour, it's partly because tunnels also link the RER station to another, Haussmann-Saint Lazare, as well as three nearby Metro stations, and the mainline Saint Lazare station. However, the train hall and ticket hall themselves are enormous: the train hall is 225 metres long and 24 metres wide. There are 73 escalators, 15 lifts, and 4 km of tunnels.

Popular Science, August 1972

In 1972, Popular Science was enthusiastic about 'one of three stations operating to date in a visionary new super-subway system.' It enthused about this 'veritable subterranean cathedral' with its cutting-edge technology: 
I bought a ticket at a remarkable vending machine whose mini-computer does most of the thinking for harassed travellers. The RER network is pictorially represented with push-buttons; another 10-button row selects ticket categories - single, return, etc. After you push two buttons, the mini-computer calculates the fare and displays it with electronic digital readouts. You then drop coins in the appropriate slots or insert a 10-franc note in a scanner. The machine prints your ticket on a blank card with magnetic coding carrying up to 60 bits of information.
Popular Science, August 1972: ticket machine, Auber

The interior didn't rely on its scale for effect. It also had some eye-catching features, particularly the 'igloo domes' which housed shops, a bank, and a travel agency. They are long gone, sadly.

Popular Science, August 1972: ticket barriers and igloo domes

The difficulties of building such a large underground space below central Paris can be imagined. After all, sewers, a Metro line, the historical Opera building, and some of Paris' most prestigious department stores are immediately above. To make matters worse, the ground here is particularly wet - and indeed, it's water ingress which accounts for much of the dank, stained appearance of the station today. The station of the future has lost its shine.


I was taking the RER to some rather more beautiful examples of innovative engineering: the former Menier Chocolate Factory at Noisiel, with its extraordinary mill.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Breton chapel


Small chapels are liberally scattered around Brittany; many villages have several. They are testament not only to the importance of faith in the region's history but also to the relative isolation of many small communities in the days before modern transport infrastructure. Many also incorporate pre-Christian beliefs about the healing powers of springs or stones: Brittany is thus famous for its abundance of healing saints, many not recognised by Rome.

The modest parish of Ereac in the Cotes d'Armor had 900 inhabitants at the end of the eighteenth century, and 1,500 at its peak in 1890. Nonetheless, it has two chapels - plus a third destroyed in the early nineteenth century and a fourth lost in the 1870s - in addition to its parish church. This one is the Chapelle des Rothouers, consecrated in 1858 and flanked by two Japanese cedars. It replaced an earlier one completed in 1768, which had stood a little to the south and fell into ruin following the French Revolution. (There may even have been an earlier one standing before that.)

The chapel used to have a statue, Our Lady of Rothouers, which has now been moved to the church. The statue in front of the door is a more recent work by a local artist. Francis Guinard was born in a nearby village and studied art in Rennes before moving to Paris in 1931; shortly after he returned to live in the area, his granite statue of Mary and child was placed here to mark the chapel's centenary in 1958.

The site also housed a miraculous fountain - these, too, are common in Brittany. It has largely dried up and disappeared, however. 

It may not be especially historical or exciting in its own right, then, but the Chapelle des Rothouers tells an important story all the same. It is one of thousands such chapels which were a central part of Breton life and a link with its land and ancient past, and which remain a central part of its social and physical landscape today.



Friday, 13 January 2017

Ghost signs (127): Moorgate Station

Moorgate Station is being stripped and retiled, and for the most part the walls are strangely bare - with an intriguing exception. By the ticket barriers for the Stevenage trains, among the tiles and signs, a painted advertisement from the past peeks out. 


We can make out some words: 'The National Building Society', and a hint of 'founded' at the bottom. It's apt: the National Building Society was based in Moorgate. It had been founded in 1849, as the National Freehold Land and Building Society, by three Liberal MPs; by 1944, when it merged with Abbey Road to form the Abbey National, it was the sixth largest British building society. 


Mutual building societies, owned by their members, began in the late eighteenth century; they boomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but legislative changes saw most of them become limited companies in the 1990s. The first building society to demutualise, the Abbey National became a bank in 1989. Now, the Abbey National is also gone, submerged into Santander. And this little bit of history may soon go, too - but for the moment, it offers a glimpse of this important strand of our financial past.



Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Engineers' Art Nouveau

 

Almost a century after they were established, TJ Boulting & Sons adorned their new premises with richly-coloured, Art Nouveau signs. The elegant colours and flowing forms seem ill-matched to a business as prosaic as a 'range and stove manufactory', 'sanitary and hot water engineers', and 'gas & electrical engineers'. Ornamental Passions, in taking a look at ornamentation beyond the mosaics, suggests that this was the showroom rather than the manufactory. 


The signs date the firm's foundation to 1808; back then, it was known as 'John Boulting & Son' (John name of its founder and next two owners). Only in 1879 did it become TJ Boulting & Sons, when Thomas John - former partner of the third John - took it over. It seems that Thomas's son Percy was the driving force between these new premises; in his twenties when they were built, and possibly with some architectural training, he was eager to see them in the latest style. 


The building is the work of Herbert Fuller-Clark, also responsible for the Art Nouveau delight that is the Black Friar pub.The Boultings apparently occupied their premises until the 1960s. Today, the premises house an art and photography publisher, Trolley Books, and their gallery - which has, very nicely, kept the name TJ Boulting




Friday, 6 January 2017

Remember the Poor's Box

Before the National Health Service ensured free medical treatment for all, the sick were often dependent upon charity. The wealthy hospital of St Bartholemew's in Smithfield had Crown endowments given when Henry VIII refounded it after the Dissolution, as well as various bequests to fund its work, but public giving to help the impoverished was also encouraged.

Wealthier philanthropists could subscribe to bodies such as Deptford's Kent Dispensary, giving relatively large amounts of money in return for the ability to recommend patients. Those of less commitment or more slender means could simply put money into a hospital poor box. Such boxes had a history at least as old as Bart's Hospital's refoundation: legislation of 1536 required them to be placed in every church, and their use soon spread to other places including hospitals. Charitable donations to the poor were encouraged by both church and state.


Some of the finest survivals are still in situ, in the Henry VIII Gate of St Bartholomew's Hospital. These red boxes, bearing the message 'Remember the Poor's Box', are believed to date from the early nineteenth century. 



Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Ghost signs (126): Gosta Green

One frosty morning, walking across the campus of Birmingham's Aston University, I nearly slipped over as this ghost sign distracted my attention from the icy ground. Loss of dignity aside, what a great start to the day! 


The sign is on the end wall of the Gosta Green pub, and clearly pre-dates the windows as well as the name sign now partly obscuring it.Enough remains visible for us to make out the words 'Holt Brewery Co Ltd - Brewers of ... Malt Ales & Stouts, Importers of Wines...' Flickr comes to our rescue here: an earlier photo shows that the missing word is 'Pure Malt Ales'.


Not to be confused with Holt's of Manchester (still brewing today), the Holt Brewery Company was founded in Aston in 1887, taking over Henry Fulford's brewery. They continued to acquire other breweries, as well as 250 pubs, but were themselves taken over by Ansells in 1934. Its logo, a red squirrel, survived in Ansells' beer labels. 


Along with this ghost sign, another intriguing trace left by the brewery is its black book of 'habitual drunkards', discussed on Wayward Women. History can survive in unexpected ways!



Saturday, 31 December 2016

Review of the year

It's that time again: as a new year arrives, we take a look back at the most popular posts of 2016.  

Top five of the year

Archaeology certainly caught our attention: at five is a near-secret piece of Roman history, the undeservedly little-known Billingsgate Roman Baths. (If you haven't seen them yet, look out for tours in 2017.) By contrast, it was a little bit of speculation on the archaeology of the future that took fourth place. 


In third is a Paris urinal - the city's last Vespasienne. It's not glamorous, but it's an intriguing piece of social history complete with prison walls and urine taxes. 


Both the most popular posts visited hidden Tube locations. Second place goes to the ghost platforms of Charing Cross Underground station, closed when the Jubilee Line ceased calling here in 1999. 


And the most popular post of 2016 was a look at the extraordinary underground 'museum' of posters below Euston Station. Who could resist the appeal of this colourful snapshot of 1962, its films, fashion, and trains? 


All-time top five


In fifth place is the Middlesex Hospital Chapel, seen from the top of BT Tower when it was a lonely island in a sea of mud awaiting development. That post really needs to be read alongside the more recent update, showing the beautifully restored interior. (We won't mention the renaming of the chapel by the developers.)


A trip to Chichester gives us the fourth most popular post, on Shippams of sandwich paste fame. Their wishbone clock is a far more appealing piece of the past than the third-place entry, an example of facadism which is among London's ugliest


The Paris catacombs - whose popularity may come largely from image searches for skulls - have dropped into second place this year. First place now goes to a post for which I (or at least, my lungs) suffered: a walk through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. I wasn't breaking any rules, but the tunnel really isn't pedestrian-friendly, so I'm glad people are making a virtual visit instead!


Happy reading, and a happy new year to you all!



Wednesday, 28 December 2016

London's smallest museum?


 
On Strand is one of London's very smallest museums - and its gift shop is larger than its exhibition! This is the Twining's shop, which has been here for three centuries, and celebrates its long history with a museum display at the back. 


In 1706, Thomas Twining bought a coffee house on Devereux Court, on the corner with the Strand. Competition between these fashionable social establishments was fierce; as they tried to distinguish themselves, some did rather better than others. Famously, Hogarth's father opened a coffee house in St John's Gate whose gimmick was that only Latin could be spoken: it failed. Twining's approach was almost as risky, but worked - he took on Tom's Coffee House and made it famous for tea. 


The drink had been introduced to Britain just 60 years before Twining set up in business on his own, and was still expensive and heavily taxed. Nonetheless, it was popular with aristocratic customers who could buy leaves to take away, as well as the beverage to drink on site, and soon the trade in dry tea made up most of his business. He expanded it, occupying three houses on the Strand by 1717, forming the shop that is still there today. Within a few decades, Twining's were selling tea to royalty and exporting it to America. By the end of the century, Thomas' son Richard had successfully lobbied the government to reduce tea taxes. 


This history is captured in several display cases, which feature documents, pictures and packaging as well as tea paraphernalia. Entry is free, and you can also enjoy the building including the famous Coade-stone figures on its facade. And there's an impressive selection of tea on sale if you want a flavorsome souvenir. 




Thursday, 22 December 2016

Adieu, Banbury North


A few months ago, Banbury North Signal Box was a crucial part of the railway network as well as a landmark for train passengers. Now, it's boarded up and awaiting demolition. However, I was fortunate enough to visit on 2 October, the last day before its contents were removed and preparations for demolition began. 


A flight of steps led up to a large, window-lined room overlooking the tracks. The long row of levers were the heart of the operation, moving wires and rods via the frame relay below to reach semaphore signals and points up to 350 yards away. 



The red-handled ones moved the signals; the blue ones locked and unlocked the points, while the black levers moved the points. 


We can read a story of decline in the white handles: these indicated levers no longer in use. 

 
That limited physical range meant a significant number of boxes had to be scattered around the system: here, there was one the other side of the station at Banbury South. The two boxes could communicate by sending signals using bells. 


Despite the size of the box and number of levers - not to mention the complexity of the network - it was designed to be operated by one person. 

This was busy and demanding work; but in quieter moments, there was a stove, armchair and later even a kitchen area to provide some comfort. These amenities are as varied in age and style as the machinery alongside them.



The manual, lever-operated signal system has been replaced by an automated system controlled from a Regional Operating Centre. The semaphore signals are gone, with LED signals in their place. The century-old signal boxes (Banbury North was built in 1901) are obsolete.


The Banbury South box is already gone - it was demolished within hours of going out of service. The controversy this caused informed how Network Rail dealt with its sibling. Calls for preservation were unsuccessful, and there is little choice but to remove the old signal box: it is too close to the tracks for public access to be an option in future. 


However, equipment was removed for spares, for heritage sites, and for the local museum; timbers will be recycled and window frames saved. And for eight weeks, the signal box was opened for tours: a chance for the public (over 3,500 of us) to say a final farewell.
















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