And indeed sir ’tis true sir

If you go into the waiting room on platform 6 at Derby railway station you will see a large colourful display board. It was placed there by Derby College, and recounts how the college has restored the old railway roundhouse and associated buildings to the east of the station and converted them for use as college buildings. It is worth quoting from the board at length (emphasis in the original):

THE ROUNDHOUSE: Breathing New Life into Derby’s Historic Railway Quarter

Open to the Public

You don’t have to enrol as a student to visit The Roundhouse Campus. Derby College extends a warm welcome to all at The Roundhouse where you can enjoy the cafe and social facilities, take part in special events and guided visits…

This iconic building now has a new lease of life as part of Derby College and will bring lasting benefits to the people of Derby. The Roundhouse is open as a visitor centre and social hub where people can discover more about Derby’s proud industrial heritage with iconic and interactive images and information…

The site… focuses on The Roundhouse which is the social hub of the site – open to students and the general public.

Now that surely is a tempting thought for one interested in railways and cityscapes. But it’s lies, all lies. Leave the station on the east side with a view to visiting the Roundhouse and you will find it closed off by an ugly steel security fence which obscures the view of the complex and ruins the perspective of the variegated buildings, preventing proper appreciation even from outside of the architecture of this large piece of Derby’s history. The only entrance even to the courtyard is through a staffed hutment, and entry is only permitted to those who can show college ID or state definite business. This sealed fortress brings no wider benefit whatever to the people of Derby. And the students, who could have mingled with the public at the college and courtesy of the college, are kept apart from the society in which they should be mingling and taking their place as citizens.

If I find this policy detestable, as I do, I recognise that it is not altogether the college’s fault. The problem is the unsatisfactory state of the law, which continues to regard 16 and 17 year olds as children when they no longer are, and so in need of protection from a threat which does not exist; and this is one of many ways in which we are nowadays officially encouraged not to trust each other, to the detriment of civil society. But if this must be the policy the college has no business showing publicity saying in as many words that the college is open to the public when it is not. Yet the display board remains, extolling the college’s openness and public spirit, “And if you had been in Derby / You’d have seen it as well as I”.


The University of Leeds and a wasting disease of the heart

Perhaps the finest perk I have ever had is that, as a graduate of the University of Leeds, I am entitled to a ticket for the university library for no more than the payment of a small annual fee.  This is more than just a great privilege: I simply could not have carried out much of the scholarship I have without this access to one of the country’s largest research collections.  So I was dismayed this autumn to find that the library has had its budget cut, and that the cut has been applied by having the Brotherton library, where the main collections in the arts and humanities are kept, bring its weekday closing time forward from midnight to 20.30.


University budgets may have to be reduced but I wonder why it is the library that suffers.  It should surely be at the heart of a university.  It is a device for independent working – the chief way university is supposed to differ from school.  It is a place to explore any subject.  My tutor at Leeds told me early on that you did not come to university only to take a degree in your subject.  Throughout my formal education I never felt constrained by a syllabus, and as an undergraduate I spontaneously explored many subjects.  As well as my degree subject of linguistics I borrowed books in English, education, politics and music amongst others.  And even in your own degree subject you are likely to have special interests and find unexpected delights in the library that your lecturers don’t mention.


I find it difficult to believe, even with the advance of technology, that books are no longer in fashion with the young as tools of study and enlightenment: all complaints of this kind tend to be exaggerated.  And whether or not it is true the university ought to be, as it surely is, urging books on undergraduates.  The main reason why I won’t use Twitter is that first thoughts ought to be refined before they go public.  Extensive, careful exploration of a subject such as a library affords helps this process, helps bring a view and analysis of a subject that is as good as it can be for the time being.  (The books in the library have, one hopes, been created this way by their authors.)


That is why I feel dismay that it is library hours that have been chosen to be cut.  It is true that the university’s other libraries, the Edward Boyle (sciences and social sciences), the Health Sciences library (medicine and allied subjects) and the Laidlaw (undergraduate collections) have had their hours preserved.  But undergraduates, if they are to delight in their studies and to have some feel for the frontiers of knowledge, should be moving beyond the main undergraduate collections and should not have their ability to do so restricted.  And the arts and humanities of all disciplines rely most on libraries for research.  Why is it they that have suffered?

Put your litter in a Lister bin

Lister litter bin

Some decades ago – certainly in my youth – probably the most common type of litter bin to be found in parks was this design by Lister of Dursley, Gloucestershire. These bins consisted of wooden slats arranged conically, with a metal bin painted red or green inside, and were to my mind a classic of industrial design because they mingled the industrial with the bucolic in perfect proportions. (The rarer green-painted bin tilted the look towards the bucolic.) They were thus able to take their place neatly in the urban park scene, contributing to its aesthetics even while fulfilling their necessary but unlovely function.

It is a pity, therefore, that the design is no longer used. Today most litter bins seem to be made entirely of fibreglass, which does not lend itself to the bucolic, even the urban-park bucolic. Amid the greenery of a park it is conspicuous for the wrong reason. It is also all too easily set on fire; and there can be few things uglier than burnt-out fibreglass.

So let us keep alive the memory of the Lister bins. Let us remember what is possible in the design of everyday things. The bins are hard to find now, but if they are history let it be recorded history.

What is it about queens and roads?

Millicent Bell, in her notes to the Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, tells us that Bayswater station, on the Circle Line of the London Underground, and Queensway station on the Central Line, were both formerly called Queen’s Road. (Both stations stand in what is today Queensway.) According to Douglas Rose’s The London Underground: a Diagrammatic History Bayswater was opened by the Metropolitan Railway as Bayswater in 1868, renamed Bayswater (Queen’s Road) and Westbourne Grove in 1922 – after Henry James’s time – and reverted to plain Bayswater in 1933. Queensway station was indeed opened as Queen’s Road in 1900 and renamed in 1946. It is a name which seems to have caused trouble for railway authorities.

When British Rail were eradicating the last of the totem station signs (a subject I have discussed before) one of the stations to get this attention was Queen’s Road Battersea. According to Dave Brennand’s exhaustive documentation of British Railways Totem Station Signs (1991) the three words of the station name were arranged in two lines in the central section of the totem, and as was customary in capitals. About 1980 the totems were replaced by black on white Gill Sans upper and lower case saying simply Queen’s Road – no Battersea. Within months these signs were themselves replaced by new ones saying Queenstown Road, with Battersea in much smaller letters underneath.

Now Queenstown Road had long been the name of the road: it was shown as such in my parents’ Atlas of Greater London, which was published before 1960 since it did not show our road which was built in that year. So was the road ever just Queen’s Road? It had in any case been Queenstown Road long enough that British Rail should either have changed the name of the station when the totems were replaced or should boldly have kept the discrepancy: there can be no excuse for the waste of two changes of sign within a few months.

The current signs, put up by South West Trains, say only Queenstown Road – once again Battersea is omitted. This does mean that the station cannot be confused with the nearby Battersea Park station, but it would be helpful to know which district it serves. (It would anyway be difficult to confuse one station with Battersea last and one with Battersea first.) And today the booking hall at Queenstown Road is got up in a reproduction of the green and cream of the former Southern Railway, from which those who remember can catch a faint ironic mockery of the relentless replacement of totems over three decades ago.

Picture yourself on a Northern coach tour in 1962



I bought this brochure in a junk shop for 10p some years ago. Northern General ran bus services in Tyneside and north Durham, but it also had a private hire and tours department. Since the brochure was issued its title has acquired a double meaning. There is the original one: consider that you might take a Northern coach tour in 1962 – perhaps you actually will? And there is the new one for today: what would it have been like to take a Northern coach tour over half a century ago?

The sense of time was very different. In those pre-motorway days a coach travelling from Newcastle to Torquay for a week’s tour of Devon was obliged to make an overnight stop in Leicester. A 15-day tour to Vienna and the Danube began with a journey down the Great North Road, including a lunch stop at Doncaster, to Deal, and a night spent there before the sea crossing. This then had to be done in reverse on the return journey: overnight in Deal, lunch in Welwyn Garden City and high tea in Doncaster. Tours to the Scottish highlands required overnight halts in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Still, these journeys themselves seem almost to have been billed as sightseeing tours. A tour to Bournemouth and the Isle of Wight, for example, used different routes for the outward and return journeys. Going out: Darlington, Boroughbridge, Wetherby, Doncaster (lunch), Ollerton Nottingham (overnight) Leicester, Market Harborough, Northampton, Towcester, Oxford (lunch), Abingdon, Newbury, Whitchurch, Winchester, Southampton, Lyndhurst, Bournemouth. Coming home: Salisbury, Amesbury, Marlborough, Lechlade, Burford, Stow on the Wold (lunch), Warwick, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham (overnight), Ollerton, Bawtry, Thorne, Selby, York (lunch), Easingwold, Northallerton, Darlington (high tea), Newcastle. No doubt, with many by-passes yet to be built, they passed through the centre of many of these towns. And sometimes at least they stopped. On another tour of the Highlands the route between Dunbar and Perth included “South Queensferry (Forth Bridge)” and “Linlithgow (Palace)”.

Names, turns of phrase and everyday mundanities which could hardly then have been noticed as characteristic now re-create the flavour of the age. There is the very name Northern General Transport Company, and those of the other companies which provided booking and enquiry offices for the tours: Tynemouth and District Transport Co., Wakefield’s Motors, Tyneside Tramways and Tramroads Co., The Sunderland District Omnibus Co. These are straightforwardly descriptive rather than the short but over-manicured brand names of today. Local newsagents were used as booking agencies. Northern General’s telephone number was advertised as having “6 Lines”. Telephone numbers for hotels show that some consolidation of exchanges was taking place – that of the Grosvenor Court in Margate was Thanet 22442 – but there were still many small local exchanges (“Windsor – White Hart Hotel, Tel. 521”), some tiny ones (Monmouth – King’s Head Hotel, Tel. 17”) and one, on Valentia Island, Ireland, positively minute: “Royal Hotel, Tel. 7”. Of travel insurance we are told that it is “really worth-while [nowadays it would be a harder sell] to arrange these insurances [who now uses insurance as a countable noun, and in the plural?]”. The booking conditions say sternly, “a flat suitcase is essential”. With the popularity of rucksacks and holdalls this would surely now be impossible to enforce, and I suspect then reflected the general use of suitcases rather than any real necessity.

A tour to Norway sailed from Tyne Commission Quay, North Shields, which is the location of today’s Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal and which reflects the modern tendency, as at London, Rotterdam and Bremen, for ports to move down river, some way from their cities. On the other hand a tour to Denmark sailed from Newcastle Quayside, No. 11 Wharf: the traditional city port still existed.

All photographs are in black and white, including one of the Valley Gardens in Harrogate, whose floral displays surely clamour for colour. Another shows a prosperous-looking Morecambe Promenade, with well-kept buildings and gardens, and crowds of people such as Morecambe no longer attracts. The British holidaymaking tradition here seems undisturbed. But it soon would be. Air travel appears in this brochure at the margins, and to a reader of today presents itself as something by then established but still out of the ordinary. There is a tour to the Isle of Man by air, while the tour to Norway has an air-travel alternative, with the same itinerary in Norway itself as for those going by sea. On both these tours the flight is from Newcastle airport, referred to in the old-fashioned way by its actual location of Woolsington. But an air tour to Ostend involved an overnight journey via the Great North Road to Southend for the short flight. The company simply seems to have wanted people to enjoy the novelty of a flight; once the journey to the south had been made it would have been as easy to cross by sea to Ostend, as indeed several of the tours which went further into continental Europe did.

In 1962, it seems, many older practices were right in the middle of ceding to new. This is easy to see now; how easy was it to see then? Old and new are both in evidence here. If many people remarked the new arrivals, it would perhaps have taken more perception to see that some familiar things were on their way out.

Weaver Conjunction

Weaver Navigation and Hartford BridgeMy picture shows the River Weaver Navigation at Hartford, Cheshire, where the Navigation is perhaps at its most bucolic. I have caught it, moreover, in its autumnal colours. But in the background is Hartford Bridge, built by Cheshire County Council in 1939, whose utilitarian design and bright blue paint might seem incongruous. It might seem to spoil the view. But I suggest that that view would not be special without it. What makes the scene is the balance of the natural and the artificial. Up close the bridge has the brute beauty of pure engineering:Hartford Bridge from below Hartford Bridge frm aboveit is the girders and the concrete that impress themselves on us. In the distant view the severity of the bridge is softened by the water and foliage; but at the same time the water and foliage are counterpointed by the bridge.

Human activity inevitably imposes artifice on a landscape. We tend to exalt the countryside – there, we say, is ‘nature’ – but houses and street furniture are not fundamentally different in villages from in towns and cities. And though, as I said above, this is probably the Weaver at its most bucolic, this section, the Vale Royal Cut, is in fact one of several artificial sections, variously straightened, provided with locks or bypassing the river proper altogether. The Navigation was created to meet the requirements of industry; and the work on it began relatively early in the eighteenth century, some time before the canal age and the apotheosis of industry.

Hartford Bridge symbolises what a river navigation is – an essentially industrial thing – and it asserts that character even in such a sylvan setting as this. It is the tension between these two opposites which makes the scene uniquely delightful.

Outer London West Middlesex; Outer London South Herts and North Middlesex; Outer London South West Essex; Outer London North West Kent; Outer London North East Surrey

I recently completed the London Loop, the circular path which runs around the edge of Greater London.  (My title is taken from the telephone directories which between them once covered that area.)  A surprise of the Loop is how much it contrasts with the Capital Ring, which I have written about previously.  The London Loop is much less urban than the Capital Ring – inevitably and by design, for its purpose is to exploit the countryside which has been preserved on London’s fringes, while the Ring is an inner suburban walk.  But unlike the Ring the Loop seems detached from the districts it passes through.

My chief memory of Enfield, for example, is the distant views of Trent Park and Forty Hall from among the fields.  Teddington is represented by the residential streets at its western end, Hounslow by the Heath rather than the town, Hayes (Middlesex) by the Grand Union Canal towpath.  Chingford impinged only as the very edge of the built-up area as it touches Epping Forest which otherwise predominates.  At Stanmore I had a strange sense of passing through and not passing through, as the signs and the map told me that was where I was, but I was certainly not at the centre.  I saw the centres of Uxbridge and Elstree only because those places are at the ends of sections of the Loop, so I deviated from the route proper to or from their railway stations at the beginning or end of a day’s walk; and the centre of Barnet only because I made a detour to find somewhere for lunch.  Chigwell is perhaps an intermediate case in that you only encounter the modern centre – the railway station and shops – when getting to and from the route of the Loop, but the latter does take you past the King’s Head, a half-timbered inn which was depicted on a poster painted by Fred Taylor in 1914 for the London Underground to encourage excursions to Chigwell.  Only at Rainham (Essex), Erith, Old Bexley, Ewell and especially the market place and river front of Kingston did I have a sense of passing through a town; it is not the predominant sense of the route even at most towns it encounters.  The Capital Ring gives the opposite sensation even at its greenest.

In short the Loop, considered as a London walk, has a nebulous quality.  Rather than giving a hold on the capital it is more an affair of west Middlesex, south Herts, south west Essex etc.  And perhaps this was what was intended.  Modern London has these places as part of its complex character, and the London Loop brings this aspect into focus.  If we consider it and the Capital Ring together we have a beguiling picture of London, because of the contrast and tension between them.

Another reflection is perhaps more central to the concerns of this blog.  The route of the Loop is well signposted, it is shown on maps and there is a written description, with strip maps, in the guidebook by David Sharp and Colin Saunders.  But all this does not mean you are always certain of the way.  Sometimes, for example, the route I took through a wood did not follow the official path all the way.  Sometimes I took a detour for some other reason.  For example beside the River Crane at Hatton Cross large puddles, the residue of floods, had made the bank impassable, so I had to take instead to nearby streets.

Detours such as this are excusable.  Surely no one can have completed any long distance path without at least one, which implies some elasticity about those paths’ routes.  So a path such as the Loop will in time become a variety of oral tradition: the bounds of acceptable deviation from the official route will be established by custom and, like oral traditions such as songs, verse and stories, will vary over time.  The course of the London Loop exists, will exist and will have existed in both the official marked route and in the deviations from it commonly used.  In so many aspects of existence there is the official record and there is the way things are done in practice.  We have to investigate both if we are to establish historical truth.