steampunk days out
In the past few weeks I have posted several articles about
the sites to be seen near Portsmouth, but what of that fine city itself? The
VSF visitor will find that the Historic Dockyard offers an excellent way to
spend at least full day.
Portsmouth is home to the Royal Navy. For centuries this has
been the most important British naval base. Warships have left here to defeat
the Navys of Spain, France, The Dutch, Germany, Russia and more recently Argentina. In times of peace ships have sailed to explore the seas of the Earth, suppress piracy and the slave trade and generally support and expand
For the background details we stay at the Holiday Inn
Express on Gunwharf Quays. The adjacent shopping area provides nearly unlimited
choices as to meals. The hotel has a fairly standard free continental
breakfast, but for a full day of site seeing and adventure something much more
substantial is usually required.
The Historic Dockyard is a very short walk away from the
hotel. The walk itself is interesting, especially for those of us from
landlocked areas. The train station is right there, as is the ferry dock. The
seafront has survived for centuries in a recognizable format. It is humbling to
think that Nelson and his Band of Brothers, Fisher, Jellicoe and Cunningham have
walked those same cobbles and passed those same doors. How many generations of
Jack Tars have walked or marched down those streets? How many wives and
children have looked out over the Solent from this point for their loved-ones’
Since I first visited the Historic Dockyard in the early
1990s things have changed. The entranceway is now much nicer. A large glassed
building holds the ticket lines. Merchandizing starts here with some very nice
guide books for the historic ships and the museums within the dockyard. The Historic
Dockyard costs 21.50. This includes unlimited visits to HMS Warrior, Mary Rose,
The National Naval Museum and Action Stations, as well as one harbor tour and a
guided tour through HMS Victory. For an extra 2 two pounds you can get The Big
Ticket. In addition to the Historic Dockyard this includes the water taxi to
Gosport, and the two museums there, Explosion! And the Submarine Museum. There
are several car parks within walking distance of the dockyard. Both trains and
ferries are also within walking distance, so travelling to the dockyard could
not be much easier.
The Historic Dockyard has a lot to see and do. In addition
to Warrior and Victory, Mary Rose is also on site and so is the Great War
Monitor M33. There are also numerous small craft and boats, some from
the Victorian period. There are many exhibits in the preserved buildings and
the grounds. Food and shopping are also available on site. I recommend getting
to the gates just as they open and reserve an entire day. Easily half a day could
be spent on Warrior alone and Victory requires about 90 minutes. Although the
Mary Rose ship hall is closed for another year or so its museum is still open.
Add to this the various Royal Navy museum exhibits, including the Trafalgar
Experience and the M33 and it is easy to see how a whole day can slip away
Let’s start with HMS Warrior http://www.hmswarrior.org/. She
is the epitome of the Royal Navy in the mid Victorian. She was built in answer to ironclads being
constructed in France, and she and her sister ship HMS Black Prince surpassed the French vessels in every way.
Built with an iron hull rather than using wooden construction with iron plating
bolted on the exterior she was the most advanced warship in the world when
launched. Her only failing was her battery of Armstrong breechloaders, which
were a poor design that caused no end of trouble in service. The failure of the
110 pounders was to cause the Royal Navy to abandon breech loading ordnance for
almost 20 years.
Warrior survived because of her strong construction and use
for many decades as an oiling pier. Between 1979 and 1987 she was rescued and
restored for use as a museum ship at Portsmouth. She currently is afloat and
looks amazing! She was the first of her kind and the last to exist. The care
and dedication of her restoration and subsequent upkeep are obvious on even a
cursory inspection. One of the first impressions is of size. Although rated as
a frigate Warrior appears to be huge, she is still long and sleek and looks
ready to steam out and use her shattering broadsides against the enemies of the
crown. The staff keeps her brightwork polished and the decks cleaned. For the
most part the guns are fiberglass reproductions but until you actually touch
them it is very hard to tell. The weather deck and gun deck are well restored
and it seems that every time we come onboard there is more of the ship open for
exploration. The senior officers’ cabins are a stark contrast to those of the
ordinary seamen. The galley for the crew is a study in black iron and bright
The life aboard ship is very well represented by both the
restored spaces and the interpreters. We watched a very interesting small arms
drill the last time we were aboard. While in the boiler room I had a long
discussion with the chief engineer and was fascinated with the things I hadn’t
heard before. The stoke hold was huge but must have been cramped and crowded
when a full black gang was working to feed all the boilers.
After spending a couple of hours touring warrior from keel
to masthead (well not all that range) it was on to Victory. I’ve been on
Victory 4 times. The first our tour guide was a gentleman named Terry (easy for
me to remember!). He was an active duty Royal Navy petty officer. At that time,
since Victory is still a commissioned warship, her crew was active duty sailors.
He was about to retire, but the manning was about to change to retirees. The
most recent time we had the same tour guide, and he was about to retire again.
He of course didn’t recall our previous meeting but I found it very strange
Victory herself is wonderful. I always wonder how much of
her is original and how much has been replaced over the centuries. She is not
afloat but is still in commission, making her the vessel in commission for the
longest time, as well as the world’s oldest. She survived the worst Napoleon
could throw at her, and Hitler’s airmen almost finished what the French Navy
had started, with bombs landing close aboard during the Second World War. One
of the most amazing things is to compare Warrior and Victory. The technology
that spawned Victory evolved fairly slowly over several centuries and
culminated in the great ships of the line of the 1820s. These were little
different from Victory. By 1860 Warrior arrives melding revolutionary
technologies of construction, protection, armament and propulsion into a fusion
that was radically different, and orders of magnitude more powerful, then what
had come only a few decades before. Had the two fleets existed at the same time it would not have been impossible for
Warrior and her sister ship Black Prince to have engaged the entire Franco
Spanish Fleet present at Trafalgar and done great destruction against that force,
perhaps with little risk to themselves (their only weakness would have been the
110 pdrs). I wonder if anyone has ever games this type of engagement., and if so what the results were.
Just how little the naval technology had changed in the
centuries prior to Warrior can been seen in the third historic ship preserved
at Portsmouth, Mary Rose. This was Henry the VIII’s great ship and sank within
sight of the harbor in 1545 after 33 years of hard service in several of the
Tudor period wars. She was located in 1971 and her salvage began in 1982. A
special building has been constructed to house the wreck in climate controlled
conditions, since if her ancient timbers dried out they would decay very
rapidly. Over the years they have been impregnated with special solutions to
preserve them. For a couple of our visits it was very hard to get any idea of
what the ship was like due to the thick fog of chemicals being sprayed over the
ship (and over the observation glass as well). When we last visited though
things were much more clear and the outlines of the hull had become clearly
visible. The Mary Rose Museum has excellent models and graphics of the ship
though, as well as many well interpreted artifacts found at the wreck site. I
admit that the first couple of times I viewed Mary Rose I wasn’t impressed but
last time I could see what all the hub bub was about. The ship is currently
undergoing an upgrade in her hall and will be closed for several more months.
Things should be even more clear after that is completed.
There is a fourth historic ship at the dockyards. She gets
very little attention, which is sad, as she was a hard fighting craft and is
also the last of her kind. In WW1 the Royal Navy needed cheap, expendable
shallow draft vessels that could carry heavy ordnance and offer fire support to
the shore operations. They built a large number of such vessels, which they
called Monitors. M33 is one of a series of “small monitors” Unlike their bigger
sisters, which mounted guns of between 12 inch and 18 inch caliber the small
monitors carried weapons of between 6 inch and 9.2 inch. M33 iin particular mounts two 6 inch guns.
She served with honor off the Turkish coast supporting the ill fated operations
there by the ANZAC forces. After the war she also saw combat against the Reds
in Northern Russia. After surviving in a
variety of role she was sold in 1984 and in time came to be owned by the
Hampshire County Council. They have worked hard on her restoration and she
currently sits in drydock, looking sharp in a dazzle camouflage scheme.
I believe this is long enough. I’ll cover the museums, food
and shops next week!
What is more Steampunk than riding on an airship? Riding on an airship as it travels over some of the most historic Victorian buildings in the United States, that’s what! I had that experience this weekend as New Technology met old dreams over St Louis, Missouri.
Rebirth of the Zeppelin Airship
In middle school I wrote a research paper on rigid airships. It was the beginning of a lifelong love for, and interest in, Lighter than Air (LTA) craft and technologies.
For decades I followed the trials and tribulations of the various proponents of the technology as they tried to renew interest in LTA and produce designs that would be economically viable in the realities of the late twentieth century and now into the twenty-first. It was a long and uphill road. Ten years ago the Zeppelin was reborn in Germany. Zeppelin began building NT (for New Technology) ships http://www.zeppelinflug.de/seiten/E/default.htm. They have so far produced three vessel. One flies out of Germany, the second flew out of Japan for several years and in 2008 the third ship was built and sold to Airship Ventures http://www.airshipventures.com/ out of California. It was loaded aboard a ship and sailed to Texas and then flown to Sunnyvale California to be based out of Moffet Field. This was the USS Macon’s homeport before she crashed off Point Sur. Named Eureka to honor her home state’s motto she is a marvel of modern technologies mated to the most venerable of all human flight methods.
Eureka was built by ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co KG a modern day descendant of Count Zeppelin’s original company. For many decades a trust fund set aside for Lighter than Air craft had been slowly growing. By 1988 it was large enough to provide funding for a research craft and initial studies on the technological feasibility of rigid framed airships using advanced methods and materials was begun. By 1991 proof of concept models were showing great promise and work begins in earnest for development of 75 meter (246 feet) long craft. In 1997 the first of the Zeppelin NT craft has its maiden flight before a crowd of 30,000 onlookers. It has been almost 60 years since Friedrichshafen has seen a new airship take to the sky. Since then the company has begun serial production of these 246 foot long craft. Three have been built and additional ships are on order. This spring Goodyear has rejuvenated its long standing relationship with companies bearing the Zeppelin name and heritage by ordering three Zeppelin NT ships to replace its aging fleet of blimps.
These new craft make use of the great technological advances during that time. The frame is of carbon fiber and aluminum, the envelope serves as both external skin and gas cell, using a three layer sandwich of advanced materials. The cockpit is ultramodern, looking like something from a jet fighter, with almost all instruments being computer displays. Controls are fly by wire and the pilot uses a joystick rather than wheels or yokes. The use of computers, improved instrumentation and fly by wire controls allows a single pilot to operate the airship, rather than the larger number of crewmen needed during the classical age of airships. The use of a single pilot did rob me of one thing I had particularly looked forward to. Lars, a highly skilled Zeppelin pilot from Germany, did not give the traditional command of Up Ship! This was my single disappointed of the entire experience though, so I can well live with it.
One of the greatest improvements is in propulsion. The last classical Zeppelins LZ 130 and 131 both used diesel engines mounted in external pods. The propellers were fixed bladed and the pods could only apply thrust directly forwards or backwards. The US Navy’s two largest rigids ZRS4 Akron and ZRS 5 Macon had both been fitted with engines housed within the hull and propellers on outriggers that allowed for the airscrews to be swiveled. Macon was also fitted with variable pitch propellers as well. Variable pitch propellers allow the angle the propleeor blades “bite” the air to be changed. If the pitch is totally reversed the engine can continue to run in the same direction and so can the spinning propeller blade but the force is now directed in the opposite direction. This allows much more rapid deceleration. The combination of swiveling propellers and variable pitch blades allowed tremendous flexibility in how the thrust was directed and how quickly an engine could change from forward to reverse thrust. The 784 foot long Macon was able to rise vertically, like a helicopter. The new ships are even more capable in this ability. They have three engines. The two forward engines each drive a single airscrew capable of 120 degrees of play, and fully variable pitch to the propellers. The aft engine drives a propeller on the centerline axis of the ship and a side thrusting rotor as well. The ship can use vertical thrust to take off even when in a somewhat heavy condition. The variable pitch allows the props to push a light ship down towards the ground for a landing. This allows the engines to do the work that previously had to be done by dropping ballast or valving precious lifting gas.
Finding a Flight
As I said I had watched Airship Ventures success in California with great enjoyment. While looking ov er their web page I found that the usually west coast based airship was making a national tour of the U.S. and would be flying out of St. Louis Downtown Airport. I was lucky enough to get a reservation for a flight on Friday August 19th. After a week of anticipation, which I shared with my coworkers and anyone else that couldn’t escape from me in the few second it took me to bring up the subject I drove from work to Cahokia, Illinois. This small town is the location of the airport hosting Airship Ventures flights while in St Louis. As I took the small side streets that led to the airport gate I turned a corner and there it was! The first time in my life I saw a real honest to gosh Zeppelin! I had seen a blimp before but Oh-My-God a Zeppelin! It was amazing. I stopped and shot a couple of pictures of the ship on her mobile mast.
St Louis Downtown Airport is small but has a big history http://www.stlouisdowntownairport.com/history.htm. First opened in 1929 the field was once the home to some of Curtiss Wright’s operations. Now it serves as home to a number of charter services. There is also a small air museum, the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum http://www.airandspacemuseum.org/.
This highlights the varied aviation history of St. Louis. Curtiss-Wright, McDonnell, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Ozark Airlines and TWA were all part of the aviation heritage of St. Louis. The museum is small but has some very nice exhibits. It is located in one of the old Curtiss Wright hangers. I found the museum while I waited for my preflight check-in time (I had arrived very early). This also gave me a chance to look over the Farmers Airship. She was there by the fence and I shot a number of pictures of her graceful shape as she windsocked around her truck-mounted mast. Several other enthusiasts were there as well looking Eureka over as she gently rotated with the changing breeze. Her very simple ground handling arrangements contrast with the so much more complex methods used in the 1920s and 30s with such things as high masts, vast ground crews, railcars to hold down tail fins and huge mooring out circles located near enormous hangers. The Eureka travels around the country light, a ground crew of twenty or so and a handful of vehicles. The most important is the truck mounted mast system. This allows mooring in any grass field large enough to allow the 246 foot long ship to get in and out and to swing with the wind. Compared to the efforts to ground handle the big ships during the airships’ first heyday it is simplicity itself.
A very disappointing Friday!
After looking over the ship from afar (thanks to TSA’s regulations against being out on the field) and a visit to the museum I drove around the fence to the Jet Aviation terminal. If this is any indication of the facilities used by Airship Ventures I can only say bravo. The lounge was really comfortable. The ground crewmembers could not have been more enthusiastic. They were amazingly friendly and they knew they are part of the coolest aerial endeavor in decades. The two flight attendants Karen and Jen were very knowledgeable and both exhibited real interest in Eureka and LTA history. Jen’s favorite ship was Graf Zeppelin LZ 127. Her discussion of the differences between Graf Zeppelin’s around the world flight in 1929 and the current tour of Eureka was detailed and insightful.
Friday afternoon was hot with about 2/10 cloud cover. I was slated for the second flight of the day. The first set of passengers got their preflight briefing and the van took them off to the ship. We stood and watched them from the windows. We watched them sit in the van for a long time. We watched the van come back. The hydraulic sensor in the tail propeller unit failed and needed to be replaced. This required accessing the assembly, which was over twenty feet above the ground. This necessitated the cancelation of several flights, including mine. The ground crews were extremely capable in rescheduling us on to flights later. I was rescheduled for Sunday morning.
A Dinner to restore my spirits
To drown my disappointment I met my wife at The Scottish Arms http://www.thescottisharms.com/ in St Louis City. This establishment serves excellent food and has a huge selection of single malt scotches. We selected a meal of all appetizers, scotch eggs, haggis fritters, puff pastries, a cheese plate and a very nice lamb terrine. Since we were both driving we skipped the scotch (so maybe drown is the wrong word). As always the food was excellent. We’ve been going to this restaurant since it first opened and have enjoyed many of the great items off their menu. The tin ceiling, vast amounts of polished wood and Scottish décor give a Victorian and Old World charge to the place. Service is good and prices are reasonable, although not cheap.
Sunday, Sunday! SUNDAY!
Saturday seemed to go on forever. Because I had waited since I was but a wee lad one more day shouldn’t have been more than I could handle. I was almost too excited to sleep. I woke well before the alarm. Off we went, again arriving well before the time we were required to be there. Good thing to. It turned out my flight was at 10AM rather than 11. Even better the 10 AM flight was 1 hour instead of 30 minutes. We got our preflight briefing and the van took us out to the ship. This time we lifted without a hitch. Eureka seemed to jump upwards with a smooth and pleasant acceleration. It wasn’t anything like any other aircraft I’ve ever been in. Not the powerful takeoff of a jet or the laborious thrashing of a helicopter. It seemed effortless, if it was like anything it was like an elevator, an amazing glass elevator that offered stunning and changing views as it climbed skyward. In less than two minutes Jen told us we were free to move about the cabin. If the previous day had moved with glacial slowness the next hour was one of the fastest I have ever experienced. We flew north and west making for the St Louis downtown area. We quickly reached our cruising altitude of between 1000 and 1400 feet and cross the Mississippi. I’ve flown over the area many times approaching Lambert in commercial jets and in a helicopter (piloted by the late Alan Barklage, one of the greatest aviators to ever fly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsBv5SIICIY). None of those experiences can hold a candle to riding in a Zeppelin.
The ship is nearly without vibration and even with its windows open (try THAT in a jet airliner) is extremely quiet. I wondered if the passengers moving about the cabin would affect the trim but it didn’t appear to. The ride was smooth and steady. Stately would be a good term. There were a couple of bumps, but they seemed so less annoying than turbulence in a fixed wing aircraft does. We rushed around the cabin enjoying my home town from an entirely new vantage. Lars, the pilot, guided his ship and its excited cargo of eager site seers all across the bright August sky.
With great precision he flew us in front of the Gateway Arch http://www.stlouisarch.com/experience/the-gateway-arch/ so that our shadow was within the arch and the shadow of the arch. This made for a great photo opportunity. The path was perfect and he centered the ships shadow right between the legs of the arch.
Eads Bridge http://bridgepros.com/projects/eads/ the first bridge to cross the Mississippi below its confluence with the Missouri River was right below us. Its graceful steel arches still span the “Father of Waters” More than 135 years after they were completed. This is one of the most famous bridges in the United States and holds a place equal to some of Brunel’s greatest works. Its three arches each span more than 500 feet and the total length of 6,442 feet was the longest in the world at the time of completion. The great piers were driven all the way to bedrock at a terrible toll to the workers as they faced “caisson disease”, which we now know as decompression sickness. Fifteen workers died and numerous others were injured by the then poorly understood condition. The bridge still stands as a lasting tribute to its designer and to the men who labored under such dangerous conditions to complete his vision.
From there we drove north and west. Below the whole city was laid out like an amazing scale model. The huge water works, originally dating from just before the 1904 World’s Fair glittered bright blue in the late morning sunlight http://www.stlwater.com/history2.php.
Also part of the St Louis City water system were a number of water towers. Three of them still stand http://www.builtstlouis.net/watertowers/watertowers1.html and we passed over the two most northern ones, the Bissell and the White Towers. We got excellent view of these structures, which encase standpipes used to regulate water pressure in the steam driven system of the late 19th century. Only seven such towers still exist in the United States and three of them are in St Louis! The view from above is stunning.
Union Station completed in 1894 was at one time the largest railway station in the world http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Station_(St._Louis). Its tower and red tile roof still dominate Market Street. After a period of decay and abandonment (during which time it served at a set for Escape from New York). Now a shopping and entertainment center with an attached hotel the vast train sheds no longer see the daily arrivals and departures. The station was enlarged to handle the massive influx of passengers for the 1904 World’s Fair.
There are many relics of the Fair visible from the Zeppelin. Recently refurbished is the main reflecting basin. Located at the base of “Art Hill” http://www.forestparkforever.org/ this is one of the largest bodies water in the park. It shone brightly in the summer sun as we flew over it.
We landed safely but all too soon. Debarking was interesting. We didn’t moor to the mast but were in flight with the wheels touching the ground. Two new passengers would embark, making the ship heavier and two of us that had completed their flight would debark. In this way the ship never became lighter or more buoyant than she had been when we touched down, so no gas had to be valved. I do not believe that any of the ships from the 20’s or 30’s could have achieved this level of control so close to the ground. It was absolutely stunning when compared to the many stories of ships being damaged while being walked out a hanger or before they could be fully moored in a mooring out circle. It just shows the amazing progress that has been made in airship technology. It seems like a small thing but vastly increases the safety and usefulness of these new ships. It will prevent damage during landings and preserve valuable helium, which will not need to be valved off for landings.
Airship Ventures Company and Crew
I have only great things to say about the experience and in particular about the wonderful people who work for Airship Ventures. Their handling of the flight cancellation on Friday was polite and pleasant. Almost every commercial airline could learn a valuable lesson in customer service from how they dealt with the issue. I was rebooked on the Sunday flight rapidly. The employees all truly believe in what they are doing and the technology they represent and it is obvious from the moment you meet them. Their excitement is visible and contagious.
The flights cost from $299.00 plus tax for half an hour and go up from there. Longer flights are more expensive. When flying out of their home State they offer flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. These are 6 to 10 hours long and include catering. The price tag of $1500.00 per seat is certainly not inexpensive but for what would be a once in a lifetime experience has more than a little appeal to any Zeppelin enthusiast. It might take us a long time to save up that sort of money for a vacation but I can see that as the perfect tenth anniversary gift (isn’t the tenth one the Helium anniversary?).
In summing up my experience I think the most telling thing I can write is this. I waited 36 years to ride on a Zeppelin. The experience was everything I had dreamed it would be and more. Years of built up expectations were exceeded in every way. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. If you get the chance take a flight.
Now I covered a number of things in Clifton already. How can there be more? Certainly such an unheralded place cannot contain more points of interest for the Steampunk enthusiast? This is not so, and Clifton will reveal some of its other hidden Victorian treasures this week.
First let us finish up with the Avon Gorge Hotel. After enjoying a good night’s sleep-which was occasionally interrupted to catch views of the bridge illuminated with electric lights at night we trooped down to have breakfast. I am not usually a fan of hotel breakfast buffets but in this case the food was above average both in quality and in variety. The sausages in particular were quite nice, although I found the bacon to be a bit over cooled.
Enough with that, what else does Clifton have to show us? First is the Bristol Zoo http://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/. This excellent zoo and garden dates back 175 years so was founded firmly in the Victorian. It contains both botanical and zoological specimens amid a lovely landscaped setting. Some of the buildings appear to date from the Victorian, but none of the animal enclosures offer the unhealthy effects that the tiny cages of the period would have. Adults pay the interesting sum of 12.72 for one year’s worth of entry. There are family memberships as well. The 175th anniversary of the zoo has been greeted with a historical look back. On the web there are several resources http://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/wow-history and a book has been published looking back at the zoo’s evolution to its current form. The many period photographs are quite valuable for the Victorian scholar or writer. How could a novel with Victorian children be complete without a visit to the zoo, and that visit would certainly include a camel or elephant ride. https://picasaweb.google.com/BristolZooGdns/1800sBristolZooHistoricalPhotos#5576531998529808722
Since HQC deals with a world that never was and one of the key fictional events was The Hive War anything about insects is of interest to me. One of the things I’ve woven into the HQC mythology is the statue of stag beetles at the zoo. Certainly this was a memorial to those who fought and died in that terrible conflict. I have wondered in the artist, in that fictional setting, was castigated for his taste in subject, showing the alien invaders rather than their human victims and foes.
So where else to go in Clifton? We’ll stop in one more area and have done., but first lunch. We were directed by the friendly and knowledgeable hotel staff to the Richmond pub. This served the best Sunday Roast we had on the trip. The setting was nice and the staff congenial. The cider on tap was excellent. We highly recommend this establishment.
Now I have kept you waiting long enough, where else do I recommend you see before leaving Clifton? This might be a bit of a surprise, I’m going to send you into a shopping arcade http://www.cliftonarcade.co.uk/.
This is no ordinary arcade. It was built in the 1870s and is a lovely Italianate structure. The interior is wonderful with a glass roof and a rosette at the far nave. The shops are an interesting mix or antiques and craft stores. Outside is a nice looking café (at which we did not eat, although the smell was enticing). We did purchase some excellent cheeses at the Arch House Deli http://www.archhousedeli.com/. Next door to them is a great vegetable shop Clifton Fruits and Veg http://www.regtheveg.co.uk/. These are excellent places to pick up some really nice food, to enjoy of an evening, in any of the parks nearby (what could be better than a bottle of wine and some nice cheeses and fresh fruit while looking over the gorge and bridge, this is about a ten minute walk away).
And with that mental Iand digital) picture I will bid farewell to you until next week
We’ve stayed at Clifton three times. We always stay at the Avon Gorge Hotel, which is located just downhill from the Clifton Suspension Bridge (much more about this amazing structure below). The Avon Gorge Hotel is a bit pricey. It’s usually the most expensive place we stay, so we consider it a guilty pleasure. The rooms are excellent. They have high ceilings huge bathrooms and heated towel racks. We’ve been really lucky and had bridge views on both our last visits. The photo below was the view of the sun setting through the bridge, taken from our room’s window. So how amazing is that?
The hotel has a restaurant and an attached pub, and the food in both is surprisingly good. The breakfast is served buffet style and is surprisingly good for that. Good breakfasts are critically important for a explorer!
And there is a lot to explore in Clifton. Let’s start with the immediate vicinity of the hotel http://www.theavongorge.com/. The hotel started out as a Victorian Era spa using the hot springs found at the base of the cliff ay Hot Wells. In the 1890s the new spa hotel was constructed, as was the Clifton Rocks Railway, and the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydropathic Institute. These three ventures went hand in hand and were generally developed by George Newnes. The hot water was pumped up from below and the Rocks Railway provided a transportation link between the tramway in the river valley and the fashionable Clifton Heights area. Of the spa very little is left. On the river side of the hotel there is a huge chimney which is the most visible remnant of the laundry. Its different color easily stands out from the lighter colored main building.
The Clifton Rocks Railway is a funicular railway, meaning that each set of cars in the paired railways as a counterweight to the other. In the Clifton example there are four tracks, set on a gradient of 1 in 2 in tunnels inside the cliff. When one car in each pair goes up, the other comes down. Balancing was done by pumping water into and letting it drain out of reservoirs in the bottoms of the cars. The tunnels are 450 feet long and rise 240 vertical feet from the lower station to the upper. The railway was opened on March 11, 1893 and served into the 1930s. During WW2 the tunnels served both as a bomb shelter and as a secret location for a BBC transmitter and studio. Today the railway is being interpreted by a volunteer group that hopes to restore the railway http://www.cliftonrocksrailway.org.uk/.
On infrequent dates they offer open days of the railway tunnels. The short tour, which gives limited access to the upper station, requires about 45 minutes and has no charge. They do ask for donations and sell a number of interesting booklets about the railway and the area. They also have a DVD of the site. We were extremely lucky to find the railway open for investigation when we were dragging our luggage up from the Avon Gorge Hotel’s free card park. The guide was very knowledgeable and it was exciting to learn more about the unsuspected history of the nondescript upper station. We had walked by the subsurface building many times when staying in Clifton and always wondered what it was.
They also do a guided tour of much more of the site. These must be booked in advance. Please see their web site for additional details.
Another underground location, but one well up slope from the Rocks Railway is a series of caves located beneath the Clifton Observatory which houses a Camera Obscura. The collocation of a tower and the deep caves gives the opportunity for the visitor to climb an unholy number of steps. The lower tunnels are quite low and required care when traversing them. They open out to a fissure in the rock that gives a tremendous view of the gorge from partway up the cliff wall. The Camera and caverns require a small fee or around 2 pounds and require about an hour for each. The views from both the cave on the cliff wall and the top of the tower (which had originally been built as a windmill) are spectacular. For best effect pick a sunny day, cameras obscura (or is that camera obscuras?) do not function well on cloudy days. The tower is an excellent location from which to shoot photos of Brunel’s famous bridge.
I’ve waited long enough before discussing the Clifton Suspension Bridge http://www.cliftonbridge.org.uk/. The Bridge is the symbol of the city of Bristol and is famous from numerous photographs and images dating back over 150 years. A small visitor center and gift shop is located at the northern approach to the bridge. From this location guided tours are available. We arrived late in the day and only caught the end of the last tour of the day, but the guide seemed well versed in the lore of both Brunel and bridges. I picked up a number of souvenirs from the visitor center. Walking across the bridge is free, but driving across does cost a modest toll. It is more than worth it to get to use this great triumph of Victorian technology. Begun by Brunel in the 1830s it was not completed until after his death, as a tribute to him by his fellow civil engineers. The story of its design and construction are complex and I could not do them just here. Suffice to say that this is one of the most well balanced and sublime structures in the world and that something this lovely still performs its original function so many years after it was designed and built is a tribute to British engineering and particularly to Brunel himself. There are many locations around the bridge which give stupendous views. Treat yourself to a good long time here. Don’t be in haste. If you look long enough you will notice the purposeful asymmetries of the towers, designed in direct refutation to the Georgian mandates from which the Victorians broke free.
Finish up with a dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in Clifton. We can recommend at least three of them. Fishers is a seafood house which had excellent fare. Brunel’s Raj is (as you can guess from the name) an Indian restaurant and is quite passable and if you are in the mood for Italian try Strada. These all served excellent food at reasonable prices and are a quick walk from the bridge and hotel.
More on Clifton next week, as I said it offered more than I can discuss in a single installment.
This Steampunk Day Out is less of a full day and more of an afternoon or morning. It is a trip back in time, either to the mid 1850s or to a time many millions of years before that. It all depends upon how one looks at it.
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are located in Crystal Palace Park in South London. It can be reached by the Overground’s East London Line branch. The train station is just a short walk from the park and a helpful sign gives easy directions to the sculptures. Admission is free and the park is open to dark. In addition to the dinosaurs the park has a café and a museum dedicated to the Crystal Palace. Due to the time of our visit we were unable to visit either of them. We did get to spend over an hour and a half with the concrete animals and their island homes.
Between 1852 and 1854 sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, under the technical direction of Richard Owens made a series of life-sized models of ancient animals. These were placed in what was believed to be an accurate landscape of small ponds and swamps in the shadow of the famous Crystal Palace at its new South London location at Sydenham Hill. Famously, Hawkins held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the Iguanodon, one of the largest animals. The animals themselves dated from three periods of prehistory. The most ancient fauna represented dates back to the Paleozoic. The more famous dinosaurs of the Mesozoic are the middle period and the giant mammals of the Cenozoic round out the collection.
That these sculptures have survived so long can only to attributed to a series of happy accidents. Although they were extremely well received both by scientists and the public when first unveiled (think of the reaction to the first Jurassic Park movie and you’ll have some idea of the frenzy around the sculptures) they were rapidly overtaken by events. By the 1890s the dinosaur sculptures had been overtaken by additional research and discovery. Scientists began to decry their inaccuracies. Around them London itself changed. The Crystal Palace itself was destroyed by fire in the 1930s. Brunel’s twin water towers were demolished to prevent their use by Nazi bombers in the Second World War. The dinosaurs weathered all those events over the years. However the petty pace of decay and corruption did not pass them by. By the end of the twentieth century the concrete creatures were in sad shape. Luckily the historical value of the sculptures was recognized and the remaining animals were saved. Some have disappeared in the intervening century and a half and have been replaced with fiberglass replicas.
The restoration, completed for most of the animals by the early years of the 21st century was well done. By our visit in 2010 they animals were in need of a coat of paint. The photos on the BBC panoramic site (link included below) show the creatures in much brighter hues than our visit found. That being said the park is lovely and the paths clean and smooth. We were there in mid May but found very few people out and about. The winding of the trails further isolated us from the other visitors. They also allow for the “discovery” of the groups of sculptures. The animals are in various groups throughout the area of the ponds. There is a web based audio tour as well as a number of well written signs. The history of the sculptures is well documented.
Of the many places I’ve visited in the UK this is one of my favorites. If we go back there again it will be with picnic lunches and more than a couple of hours to spend. The rest of the park needs exploring! For folks in the area a promenade wearing Steampunk garb would be an amazing photo op!
For more information check the links below