Category Archives: Buildings and architecture

That’ll show the Cnut.

ImageBy God, it’s been a long time since last I posted here. The reasons are complicated – suffice it to say that I think we’ve heard the last of Baron von Hamstern. So, back to posting stuff about London!

There are various nursery rhymes on the subject of London and its characters. One of the most boring is surely ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’ The lyrics you’re probably familiar with are,

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down

Falling down

Falling down

London Bridge is falling down,

My Fair Lady

I mean, there are other verses, but that’s what everyone remembers. In all honesty, you’re not missing much if you don’t know the rest. But did you know that it’s based on a true story?

Oh yes. First, a little background. Now, as you’re no doubt aware, the unbelievably boring bridge that we now call London Bridge is far from the first by that name.ImageThe present bridge replaces one that was built in 1831 (which is now based in Lake Havasu, Arizona, as per this photo). The 1831 bridge replaced a medieval bridge which lasted for hundreds of years in varying states of disrepair. Indeed, the fact that it was falling to bits in the 17th century helped save Southwark from the Great Fire – collapsed buildings on the bridge formed a firebreak.

Image

Old London Bridge. If you look closely, you can see the heads on spikes, which were a popular tourist attraction. You had to make your own entertainment in those days.

So, case closed, right? The medieval bridge, or Old London Bridge as it’s popularly known, was basically all about the falling down. That rhyme could have come from almost any time in its history.

Could have, but didn’t. No, it seems the rhyme dates from even further back from that.

We need to go right back to the 11th century for the origin. At this time, London was under the rule of the Danish King Cnut, a man who was permanently one misprint from disaster. Cnut had conquered England and exiled King Aethelred the Unready, who didn’t see that one coming for obvious reasons.

While Aethelred was in Normandy, plotting his bloody vengeance, he formed an alliance with King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Olaf sailed his troops up the Thames to meet Cnut’s forces in London. The forces were arranged on either side of the river, with a substantial proportion of them based on the wooden bridge that was then known as London Bridge.

Fortunately, Olaf, unlike Aethelred, was ready for this, and had a cunning plan. He simply hitched his ships to the bridge supports and ordered his men to haul away. The bridge collapsed, killing the troops on the bridge and dividing Cnut’s forces. London was retaken, and the event was commemorated in an epic which begins,

London Bridge is fallen down.

Gold is won, and bright renown.

Shields resounding,

War-horns sounding,

Hild is shouting in the din!

Arrows singing,

Mail-coats ringing,

Odin makes our Olaf win!

This is commonly given as the origin of the nursery rhyme. Admittedly Cnut took London back a couple of years later, but nobody’s writing any nursery rhymes about him. Probably because of the aforementioned misprint issue.

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The Leaning Tower of Westminster

So anyway, one of the significant stories this week revolving around Our Fair City is the discovery that Big Ben is, in fact, leaning. Some reacted with indifference, some with curiosity, those angry guys you see in the Wetherspoon’s at 2pm with a clenched fist of triumph. Some pointed out that technically Big Ben isn’t leaning, because the clock tower isn’t actually called that.

I have to admit, Big Ben (I am going to call it that, pedantry be damned) is not a landmark I feel any great affection for. That might be partly because I used to work opposite it, so it was just another part of my daily routine. I’m also not a huge fan of the architecture, which to my eye is just a bit too “busy,” if you know what I mean. Still, I’m not going to deny that it’s a significant part of our skyline and we’d all miss it if it was gone. After all, how would you establish that characters from American movies had arrived in Britain if not for a shot of Big Ben and a couple of bars of ‘Rule Britannia?’ Not easily, that’s for sure.

The clock tower was completed on 10th April 1858, part of Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament. The Gothic style being very much in fashion then, that was the architecture plumped for by the Powers that Be. The clock tower at the end was farmed out to Augustus Pugin, who you may see on the left there. Pugin was a noted architect of the Gothic style, and when not busy designing spooky buildings, he supplemented his income by looting from shipwrecks (I am not making this up).

After completing his design, he went mad, probably as a result of syphilis, and died in 1852. Students of architecture will note that this is a surefire way to ensure that your building includes lots of non-Euclidian geometry and possibly summons the Elder Gods, but there has been no sign of that thus far. It would certainly liven up the parliamentary debates.

As I said at the start, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower, but the big bell, the one that sounds the bongs. The official name for the bell is the rather less interesting “Great Bell” (how long did it take you to come up with the name for that, guys?). It was originally cast in Yorkshire and brought down to London by water, its size nearly wrecking the boat carrying it. On arrival, the bell was found to be defective. It was melted down and recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, from whence most of London’s bells originate. The method used to cast “Big Ben II” was an unusual method of casting, unique at the time and now used for bells all around the world. Oddly enough, Big Ben is actually cracked, resulting in its very distinctive tone. I’m sure a campanologist could tell us more.

The origin of the nickname is disputed. The official story has it that it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Royal Commissioner for Works at the time of the tower’s construction. Another has it that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxer of the time who was himself nicknamed “Big Ben.”

The clock is famed for its accuracy. However, should the necessity arise, it is possible to adjust the swing of the pendulum and thus change the time. On top of the pendulum is a little stack of old pennies. By removing or adding a penny, the speed of the pendulum is changed. You’d expect something a bit more hi-tech, or at least legal tender, but I suppose it’s worked this long.

The most recent news, to return to the start of this entry, is that the tower is actually leaning. In fact, this is not particularly new news, and I’m not sure why it should particularly come to prominence now. Thanks to all the many different tunnels dug under Westminster since 1858, the ground isn’t as firm as once it was, and so a degree of lean is to be expected. Wake me if it actually falls.

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I get a roundel

Now here’s a London icon for ya.

This is the old London Underground roundel. If you’ve spent any time at all in the city, you’ve come across it. Hell, these days it’s practically a symbol of the city itself.

It’s one of those designs that’s just so simple and effective that you find yourself thinking, “Golly gee, anyone could have come up with that.” I mean, red circle, blue bar, the word “UNDERGROUND,” hardly rocket science amirite?

Actually, it’s been a long evolutionary process to get this far. The roundel, or “bullseye” or “target” as it used to be known (maybe these earlier titles are seen as too confrontational in the modern age?) is believed to date back ultimately to the 19th century. The London General Omnibus Company’s logo consisted of a spoked wheel with a crossbar (see above right).

In those days, simplicity doesn’t appear to have been a thing that corporate image-makers did, and for a long time the Underground railways (not that London Underground existed as a unified concept back then) went for more elaborate symbols. The one on the left, for instance, was used in 1908 by London Underground Electric Railways, the direct ancestor of the modern Underground system. You can see elements of the roundel concept in this, but it lacks a certain “oomph” to my mind.

The true London Underground roundel appeared that very same year as a handy and eyecatching means of identifying stations belonging to London Underground Electric Railways (or “The Combine,” as it was nicknamed). The original roundels consisted of a red circle with a blue bar across it, and you can still see these at a few locations – Ealing Broadway springs to mind. As stations featured colourful advertising and complex tiling schemes (to enable illiterate travellers to identify their destination), the sign had to stand out.

The next big development for the roundel took place a few years later, in 1917. This was during the reign of Frank Pick as the Combine’s Publicity Manager. Pick, as I’ve mentioned in other entries, basically set the design standards that London Underground follows to this day. Part of this was the introduction of the Johnston typeface in which all Underground-produced written material is written. Edward Johnston, who devised the typeface (duh) also redesigned the roundel to work with his new alphabet.

This roundel was in use during the Underground’s greatest period of expansion, and consequently architect Charles Holden used it extensively in his station designs. He even came up with a rather natty 3D version, as well as a stained glass variant.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, more changes were afoot. In 1933, all of London’s Underground lines, together with all of its bus companies, tramlines and coach services, were united under the London Passenger Transport Board – better known to you and me as London Transport. Variants of the Roundel were introduced across the board to emphasise the unity of the transport network.

In 1947, the roundel was reworked again. Following the Second World War, the prevailing design aesthetic was far simpler – partly due to Austerity period economy measures. To this end, Harold Hutchison (then Publicity Manager) eliminated the dashes above and below the word “UNDERGROUND.” This is basically the version still in use to this day.

In recent years, the scope of its use has expanded even further, with variants being devised for the DLR, Overground, riverboats, Dial-a-Ride and even streets.

In fact, its (unauthorised) use has spread yet further afield. On the left you can see it in use on the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, which is a narrow gauge steam railway in India (not yet covered by Oyster). It even crops up in fiction – the subway in the film Dark City uses it, and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, the dwarfish rune for a mine is… a circle with a line across it.

You can dis the Tube all you like (I know I do), but there’s one thing you can’t deny – when they come up with a good design, they really come up with a good design.

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The Infernal Tower

There have been some interesting proposals for London buildings over the years, from the Pyramid of Death to the scheme to rebuild the Crystal Palace so that it stood on its end. Perhaps the most significant landmark-that-never-was was the Wembley Tower.

It all started with the old Metropolitan Railway. Being a commercial enterprise, the directors of this company were naturally keen to make as much money as humanly possible. In the 1880s, though, they were already making quite a lot of money. What is a railway tycoon to do under such circumstances? If you were Edward Watkin, Chairman of the company, you simply create more traffic by making London bigger.

The idea was simple. Buy land out in the sticks where it’s cheap, miles away from London. Build a railway to it, build some houses on it and bam! You got yourself a suburb, mister. Sell the houses, there’s a goldmine for ya. You’d be amazed how much of London basically didn’t exist until people did this. Put it this way – until the 1860s, Kensington was considered to be a rural village.

Watkin was a man who liked to think big. For instance, his ultimate plan for the Metropolitan was to run trains up to Manchester and down to Paris (I forget how that one turned out). When he looked upon the route of his railway, he decided that what his grand plan needed was a selling point. Some sort of focus that would draw people to the area (and, let’s not forget, drive up the land values).

In 1889, the latest wonder of the world was the Eiffel Tower. Watkin came to the conclusion that what we needed in London was something similarly troubling to Freud, only more so. Possible sites included High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road, but eventually it was decided to purchase a 280-acre site at Wembley and develop that. Former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone asked questions in Parliament on behalf of Watkin and was told by the committee that “although the atmosphere of London may not be so favourable to extensive views as Paris, the view would be incomparably superior.” Suck-ups.

Having been given the go-ahead, the Metropolitan Tower Committee was formed in 1890 to decide on the form this tower would take. Many exciting designs were proposed. I think my favourite was one based on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’m no structural engineer, but I can’t help wondering how wise it would have been to build something like the Leaning Tower, only much taller. I also like the one about the “colony of aerial vegetarians.” Gustave Eiffel himself was even approached and did initially show some interest, only to decline later on patriotic grounds (he probably heard that dis about the views in Paris).

As it happened, the final design was very similar to the Eiffel Tower, only 320 metres taller. Work started in 189e and in 1896 the park around the tower’s base was opened to the public. The tower had only reached its first stage, but hopes were high even if the structure wasn’t.

Yet already problems were being encountered – the year before, the new Chairman of the Metropolitan, John Bell, had already been convinced the whole thing was a white elephant. It turned out that the foundations couldn’t quite support all that weight on just four legs (the original design called for eight). The biggest issue of all, though, was money. It turned out that not everyone was as enthusiastic as the Parliamentary committee, and very few were willing to invest. The park itself was not the major tourist attraction Watkin had hoped for, and work ground to a halt.

In fact, the tower ended up having a detrimental effect on the Metropolitan Railway. At this time, the Great Central Railway used the Met lines to get into London, a costly move. With the construction of the Tower, the Great Central was able to say (and I’m paraphrasing here y’understand), “Oh hey, that’s cool, with all that extra traffic you’ll be getting from the Tower you won’t be able to run our little trains so we’rebuildingourownlineintoLondonbyenow,” and promptly rushed off to Marylebone.

The Tower also had something of a domino effect on Watkin’s other schemes – it was very clear, as the mostly-incomplete tower rusted away, that Watkin had maybe lost his golden touch, and so investment in his grand scheme to run trains to Paris dried up as well. The ugly monument gained such unflattering nicknames as “the London Stump” and, the name by which it is perhaps best known today, “Watkin’s Folly.”

The enterprise went bust in 1899, in 1901 Watkin himself passed away and in 1902 the whole thing was declared a health and safety hazard and closed down. In 1907 the remains were blown up and sold for scrap. Yet Watkin’s scheme was not entirely in vain – in the 1920s, when the organisers of the British Empire Exhibition were looking for somewhere to build their stadium, they discovered there was a perfectly peachy-keen area of flat ground at Wembley…

… and the rest, they say, is history.

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Give my regards to Broad Street

As regular readers will know, I’m fascinated by abandoned railway stations. Almost as fascinating, though, are the dilapidated ones, the ones that haven’t changed since some time in the early 1980s, shabby, echoey and grubby. Trains are few and far between, as are passengers. I don’t know why I love them so much, maybe it’s because such places feel undisturbed, like I have some sort of privileged access to them. Or maybe it’s just because I’m unbelievably strange and perverted.

For these reasons and more, I wish I’d had the opportunity to visit the terminus at Broad Street. Poor, poor Broad Street. If the London termini were people, Broad Street would be a pitiful drunk sitting in a bar telling everyone how he “used to be somebody.”

It started out so well. Broad Street was originally built by the cumbersomely-named East & West India Docks & Birmingham Junction Railway. The aim of this company was, as its name suggests, basically to make its fortune transporting goods from the Docklands to the London & Birmingham Railway. In this, it succeeded admirably. An early amendment was to change its name to the snappier “North London Railway.”

Commuter traffic was initially a secondary consideration for the NLR – they ran passenger trains fo’ sho’, but this was more of a “we might as well” measure than anything else.  To the surprise of the company directors, though, it turned out that their passenger trains into Fenchurch Street (run by arrangement with the London and Blackwall Railway, who owned that terminus) were very popular indeed. This despite the fact that the NLR took a ridiculously circuitous route around London before reaching Fenchurch Street, no less than 44 miles.

It was therefore decided that the NLR could afford to take a gamble on getting more direct access to the City. Particularly since the London and North Western Railway (of which the aforementioned London & Birmingham Railway was now part) offered to stump up much of the cost in exchange for use of such an extension.  The LNWR also supplied a designer, their own engineer, William Baker. The site of the new terminus was to be at the end of a branch from Kingsland, on the junction of Liverpool Street and Broad Street.

Construction was not without its difficulties. Building through crowded East London necessitated the demolition of many crowded streets – the NLR undertook to provide a cheap workers’ train from Dalston, but those forced out decided they’d rather walk and just moved to the neighbouring streets, making them yet more crowded. Excavation revealed some sort of medieval mass grave whose origins were not known – one theory had it that, as one of Bedlam’s several incarnations was nearby, this had been where its dead were buried.

Nevertheless, in 1865 the station opened. Alan A. Jackson describes the architectural style as “really rather horrid,” which I think is perhaps going a bit too far. The Illustrated London News was more charitable, describing the style as “mixed Italian.” Perhaps it is a bit over-elaborate for the size of the terminus. Oddly, we don’t know who the architect was – presumably William Baker had assistance, but from whom is unrecorded.

One ingenious feature to make the most of the very expensive land was to build the goods depot requested by the LNWR under the station, with wagons lowered by a hydraulic lift. As a result, whatever architectural merits the station may have lacked, it was undeniably an efficient use of space, taking up a mere 2½ acres in total.

The NLR nicknamed the station its “happy afterthought,” for it was immediately popular with commuters and rapidly became the third-busiest terminus in London. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one train a minute left the station, serving such varied destinations as Richmond, Chalk Farm, Bow, Watford, Kingston, High Barnet, Kew, Potters Bar, Mansion House, Kensington Olympia and even Birmingham.

Unfortunately, this prosperity was not to last. As it turned out, the success of Broad Street was largely based on the fact that it had a monopoly on fast commuter trains. As the Tube, tram and bus networks expanded, so people turned to those instead. The NLR desperately advertised their service as “the open-air route,” but no one fell for it.

In 1911, when passenger numbers reached their lowest since the station’s opening, the LNWR decided that electrification was in order – as has been mentioned before, this was seen as terribly clean and modern. This did seem to slow the decline considerably, but services never entirely recovered.

During the Second World War, many of the East London stations were severely damaged by enemy action, and it was decided after the end of the conflict that it wasn’t worth fixing them up again. The service to Poplar (which was rather unPoplar with passengers) was cut altogether. Broad Street itself had been hit, and again, it was not considered worth repairing.

The main station building was abandoned altogether in the 1950s and replaced by a couple of smaller buildings on the concourse. Traffic at this stage was so poor that only two staff were needed for the entire terminus.

In 1963 British Railways declared their intention to close the place altogether, but were thwarted by local opinion. Instead, BR carried out what is known in railway circles as “closure by stealth,” i.e. not officially closing the station but instead making the station so useless as to render it undesirable to keep open. To this end, services were diverted or cut altogether and maintenance was cut to the bare minimum. Part of the overall roof was removed in 1967 which, as you can see above left, gave the station a half-complete look. By the 1980s, only one platform was needed to accommodate the pathetically small number of passengers. Demolition of the rest began in 1985 and final closure came in 1986.

Although the North London Railway mostly survives as part of the Overground and Docklands Light Railways, nothing remains of old Broad Street. The Broadgate Estate was built on top of it, so it couldn’t be reopened even if anyone wanted to (and they don’t).

And it showed such promise.

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Getting Cross

Seeing the new Harry Potter film (it turns out Voldemort and Tom Riddle are the same person) has inspired me to continue my thrilling series on the termini of London with King’s Cross.

Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, King’s Cross is now probably the most famous railway station in London. Although, as I believe I said before, it rather irritates me that in the films, they decided to use St Pancras for the external shots instead. I don’t know, maybe they just felt that King’s Cross didn’t look stereotypically British enough, or just not sufficiently magical.

I know you’re not supposed to, but I actually prefer the architecture of King’s Cross to its Gothic neighbour. Its Italianate simplicity has a kind of casual dignity, a kind of unfussy impressiveness, like it’s cool and it doesn’t even need to try. Granted, these days it’s a little spoilt by that municipal bus shelter thing British Rail saw fit to graft on to its front, but that’s due to be demolished, so thank God for the triumph of common sense.

The station was designed by Lewis Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway, a company whose name alone inspires. It was opened in 1852, and the simplicity of the design was actually a deliberate measure to save money. The whole station, including the Great Northern Hotel, cost less than the frontage alone at Euston Station, a snip at £123,000 for the biggest station in London at the time.

The only conspicuous ornamentation was on the clock tower, which had been on display at the Great Exhibition the previous year. For some reason it has four faces, even though one is never visible due to the fact that there’s a bloody great train shed in the way. The clock also used to have three bells for sounding the hour, but these were removed in 1947. It’s also worth noting that it never agreed with the clock at St Pancras, which must have made for some interesting scenes among last-minute passengers.

As time went on, the original station was found wanting – pity the poor signalman, who had to juggle local services, goods trains, expresses to Scotland and, from the 1860s, Metropolitan Railway trains (which had to come in backwards). At peak times there was so much traffic that it could take up to half an hour to cover the half a mile to Holloway. Extra platforms were added and, in 1875, a whole new station. This was known as “Kings Cross Main Line (Local Station),” but is now the suburban platforms. This, fans of the Harry Potter books should note, is where Platforms 9 and 10 can be found. Legend also has it that this is the site of Boudicca’s grave, although scholars refer to this theory as “bollocks.”

In 1878, the Metropolitan got its own platforms (or, as they were known then, “Kings Cross (Suburban),” which is of course not confusing in the slightest), which were notorious among train drivers for being very difficult to start from – the tunnel leading out was smoky in steam days and the track was steeply graded and sharply curved, and condensation made the rails slippery. Some poor egg was stationed in the tunnel to drop sand on the rails every time a train went by. In 1932, one train actually slipped backwards without the driver realising until it bumped into the locomotive behind.

Various other alterations followed over the years, but I suspect they would be of zero interest to anyone other than my fellow geeks, so I’ll spare you for now.

The station has always been associated with speed and the romance thereof. In the late 19th century, they were one of the starting points for the Races to the North, when the East and West Coast railways competed to see who could provide the fastest service to Scotland (an unfortunate side effect of which was that passengers often ended up in Aberdeen at around 4am).

During the twentieth century, the luxurious expresses of the London and North Eastern Railway departed from King’s Cross. Most famous of these was the non-stop Flying Scotsman, but one should not forget the streamlined splendour of the Silver Jubilee, the Coronation or the Queen of Scots.

This art deco opulence was slightly marred in 1934 by the discovery of a gruesome crime – a disembodied pair of legs were found in the left luggage office. The crime was never solved, and the only lead police had was that the legs fitted a torso found in the luggage office at Brighton. This can only mean one thing – if a man can carry half a woman on the Underground across London without being noticed, there is no excuse for those tourists who make a massive hash of simply carrying a suitcase.

The station sustained some damage during World War II and was taken over by British Railways in 1948 who, as they so loved to do, ran the place into the ground. One notable event during the 1950s was the station’s prominent role in The Ladykillers, about which I have written before.

A plan was drawn up in the Sixties to extensively modernise the station with a new extension. This never came to pass. but based upon the contemporary account by Alan A. Jackson that I have in front of me, it would basically have been like what we got, only bigger and worse. The horrible extension that was actually built appeared in 1972.

The station saw a number of accidents over its lifetime, mostly caused by the aforementioned steep gradients, but the King’s Cross fire of 18th November 1987 was something else entirely. A discarded match or cigarette set fire to forty years’ worth of accumulated debris under one of the escalators in the Underground station. As a result of a hitherto unknown phenomenon called “the trench effect,” and the drafts caused by trains moving through the tunnels down below, this resulted in a conflagration that claimed the lives of thirty-one people. Subsequent to this, fire safety precautions on the Tube were drastically overhauled and smoking was banned altogether.

1997 saw the station achieve worldwide fame with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which Harry famously takes the Hogwarts Express from Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters (although, as I’ve said before, it seems possible that J. K. Rowling was thinking of a different station altogether). In tribute to this, half a luggage trolley is stuck into the wall near the suburban platforms. There is no Platform 9¾ for us Muggles, alas, but as of 2010 there is a Platform 0, which frankly I find a little sinister.

I’ll say one thing for the modern railway, they have finally figured out that maybe a nice, user-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing station is what people want, and in 2005 plans were announced to restore the station. It was decided that nothing could be better than the 1972 extension, and therefore they are replacing it with nothing – it’s being demolished and turned into a plaza. The older buildings are being cleaned and patched up and a new, modern (in a good way) concourse is being put up to the west of the station.

The future is looking bright for Cubitt’s creation. All in all, it’s not been a bad life for an economy terminus.

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The Need for Speed

It just so happened that last night Yr. Humble Chronicler was presented with an opportunity to have dinner at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. Such exalted circles I move in. The RAC may be familiar to you as a breakdown service. In fact, this is a spin-off of the main organisation, which is a gentleman’s club started to campaign for motorists’ interests.

The dinner for which I managed to wangle an invite was ‘Land Speed Legends,’ themed – as you might guess – around the Land Speed Record. The guest speakers were Don Wales, of the Campbell record-breaking dynasty, and Richard Noble, responsible for the successful Thrust record attempts in the 1980s and 90s.

Despite not being much of a petrolhead myself, and not even remotely a follower of motorsport, I do take an interest in the Land Speed Record. I think it might be because it’s one of the last remnants of that spirit of exploration that died out some time in the second half of the 20th century. With the globe mapped out and with humanity having got as far as the moon, there seem to be so few boundaries left to cross.

I think it’s also one of the few areas of engineering in which Britain still excels – decades of underinvestment have left us with an engineering industry that’s great for cutting-edge, high-end, one-off-type stuff, but not so much on the mass production side. It’s quite heartening to know that there are certain areas in which we can still fly the flag.

So therefore, I was rather looking forward to the evening. The RAC is a rather old-school club, not the sort of scummy place I normally hang around in, but I think I managed to avoid making a fool out of myself. What helped was the fact that most of the members are petrolheads, and car folk tend to be very friendly in my experience.

The decor was rather sumptuous in an early-twentieth-century way with, predictably, lots of paintings depicting motor sport. To my surprise, the lobby featured the electric car Bluebird (the latest in a long line of vehicles by that name) in which Don Wales intends to go for the record for an electrically-powered vehicle. With environmentalism a hot topic as ever, the pursuit of excellence in alternatives to petrol propulsion is to be lauded. Wales currently holds the record for a steam-driven vehicle and, er, a lawnmower. Seeing the Bluebird parked inthe foyer of a gentlemen’s club took me particularly aback, given the fuss my flatmates make when I park my car in the living room.

Dinner was utterly exquisite – I’ve noticed that often these places fall down when it comes to the food itself, but I have never had such fine duck in all my born days. That’s not some sort of 18th century euphemism, but it sounds like it could be.

After indulging freely in food and wine, Messrs Wales and Noble gave their talks. Andy Green, driver of the supersonic Thrust SSC that took the record back in 1997,  was also supposed to be in attendance but was unable to make it due to being an actual fighter pilot. Nevertheless, the talk was very interesting indeed if you are into that sort of thing, and I am.

Noble explained the Bloodhound SSC project to build the first car to go at over 1000 miles per hour (concept picture seen right). He described the difficulties faced in its design and some of the interesting findings they’ve made concerning the behaviour of vehicles at those kinds of speeds. Despite the best computer simulations available, this really is virgin territory – the smallest of factors can have dramatic effects on the final run. The value of these projects, quite apart from the fact that they are excellent promotion for British engineering, lies in the practical applications of these findings – today’s pioneering technology is that which we take for granted tomorrow.

Speaking personally, I hope the Bloodhound succeeds because, well, it’s pretty cool. And I was drunk on free wine when they pitched it.

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