hqc_downloads_btn hqc_links_btn hqc_model_btn


Steampunk Days Out-St Charles Main Street

We hadn’t done one of these in a long time and the weather today seemed perfect. St Charles is just a few miles down Highway 70 from us so off we went. http://www.historicstcharles.com/about-us/history/main-street/

The area dates originally from the mid 1700s. It was the first capital of the State of Missouri. There were many buildings that date from the nineteenth century. The architecture includes many widow walks, towers, a lot of decorative ironwork. The streets are brick as is much of sidewalk. One block down flows the Missouri River. Ignore the casino and take a look at the old train station and the rebuilt boat hose. The Lewis and Clark expedition set off from this location and replicas of their boats are in the boat house.

Old Mainstreet has a number of shops, some trendy and others that deal in a variety of things, such as antiques. There are a number of really decent antique stores and vintage clothing stores which can supply a lot of garb and accessories to costumers.

The buildings are worth seeing. The street is a historic preservation district. No buildings can be changed. For a period a computer consulting company was purchasing properties on the street. Although there was some dissatisfaction with a computer firm displacing the more normal residents but they did an excellent job in restoring and preserving buildings.

It could take several hours to walk the street and look at all the buildings. Some were originally riverside warehouses, homes to wealthy boat owners or served a variety of industrial and service functions. Some are small cottages others are fairly large structures. Most  are brick, while others are local limestone. Wood was also used in many of them. A number of tall towers gave their owners excellent views up and down the river.

The area has been used for numerous period photograph sessions as well as at least one made for TV Movie (Standing in for Mark Twain’s Hannibal).

One of the greatest things about St Charles Mainstreet is the food. I’ll recommend several places Eros is a wonderful Greek restuarant. We had a remarkable lunch there. My lamb chili was amazing and our appetizers were great.

We weren’t down there for dinner but we can suggest Mother-in-Law House http://www.motherinlawhouse.com/. The food is great and the Victorian surroundings are lovely. The period house is decorated with exactly the type of wall paper and fixtures one would expect. When you have dinner there make certain you try the carrots that the hostess will bring to your table. The steaks are good but the fried chicken has never failed to reach the highest standards!

The building is alleged to be haunted, as are many of the buildings on the street. A good friend of ours Michael Henry runs a very entertaining Ghost Tour after dark. http://www.stcharlesghosts.com/ His tour comes highly recommended. As a long time area resident he has a vast knowledge of the history of the district. His book is available in the tourist center

We spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the street. http://www.figueros.com/ is a shop that sells coffee and all the hot sauces known to man. We also dropped into The English Shop, which has a wide range of products from the UK http://www.theenglishshoponline.com/home.html. Finally we stopped for dessert at The Little O Soda Shop. This is a new place on the Street, a traditional old fashion soda fountain. The picture below is my wife’s orange marshmallow soda. We tried their cream soda, the soda pictured below and two of their malts. I had a wonderful caramel malt and Shannon had a strawberry marshmallow one. Both were perfect!





Steampunk Days Out-Historic Ships at Portsmouth


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
the Empire.

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!

Steampunk Days Out, Riding an Airship!

Eureka on her Morring Mast

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.

This is the house in which I wrote my middle school paper. I never dreamed all those years ago I would see it from a real Zeppelin!

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.

Technological Advances
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.

Complex tail rotor assemply aids in Eureka's amazing agility

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.

Eureka as I first saw her!

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/.

Reminders of the airports history

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.

Right on Target

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

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.

The reflecting basin located below the Art Museum

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.

The Bissell and the White Water Towers

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's Clock Tower

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.

Eureka in her element!

Steampunk Days Out-Fort Nelson

By popular request I will now describe another excellent museum in the United Kingdom.

Fort Nelson (http://www.royalarmouries.org/visit-us/fort-nelson) is located near Portsmouth and is part of the landward defenses of that Naval Base. The ring of fortresses, built in the 1860s under the direction of the Prime Minister Lord Palmerston consisted of a number of large permanent works. Fort Nelson has been preserved and converted into an artillery museum. It contains the Royal Armourie’s artillery collection. Both naval and military weapons are on display here. The weapons represent ancient pre gun powder engines to weapons of the 21st century. The museum and its car park are both free of charge, although certain special events or exhibits require the purchase of a ticket.

The fort can be a little tough to get to. It is located a good drive from Portsmouth itself, but can be reached by bus. There is little in the way of hotels or eaters nearby. When we are in Portsmouth we generally stay at the Holiday Inn on Gunwarf Quay. This is a modern soulless edifice without any character or charm. The continental breakfast is not terribly exciting. Rooms are adequate. The sole two redeeming features of the hotel are it huge car park and it location within walking distance of many of the great things in Portsmouth. I’ll talk more about the other Steampunk joys of Portsmouth and Gosport later.

We drove from the Holiday Inn to Fort Nelson. We’ve been to the fort twice. Both times we got there either before the museum opened or just as they opened. The car park is located across a B road from the museum entrance. Be careful crossing but the car park itself has an excellent view of Portsmouth Habour. The ring of forts were on the ridge of high ground around the port, facing outwards, defending the Royal Navy’s most important facilities from land attack by an Army. When built the threat was France or Russia. The forts were, of course, never tested by combat and have been called Palmerston’s Follies. They were built to protect several naval bases, Chatham, Plymouth and most specifically Portsmouth and Gosport. Several of the forts have become museums, Nelson at Portsmouth Brockhurst at Gosport and Crownhill at Plymouth are open for visitors.

Fort Nelson is not only a showplace of the period military architecture but also has a huge number of exhibits in the art of the artillerist and gun founder.

Outside the entrance to the fort are two large pieces of ordnance. One is a 20th century 14 inch gun, as used aboard battleships of the King George V class and as counter-bombardment weapons at Dover (guns Winnie and Pooh). Of much more interest to the Victorian historian is one of two of Mallet’s great mortars. These 36 inch weapons were built to reduce the Russian fortress of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. They were not completed in time for action and somehow both have managed to survive into the 21st century (the other is at Woolwich). The amazing size of the ball fired by these is driven home by the pyramid of shot sitting next to the weapon. In the alternate history of Hive, Queen and Country these weapons were used during the Chritsmas Day Assault on the Devon Hive and their massive shells collapsed many of the galleries in the alien nest.

The fort is entered through the original gate and visitors are directed into a gift shop. The Palmerston Forts Society (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/) produces a number of interpretive documents including a series call “The Solent Papers” (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/publications.php) that detail forts in the Portsmouth/Gosport area. In addition some of their other small booklets are on ordnance (including very useful ones on Brennan Torpedoes and Mallet Mortars. I’ve picked up most of the society’s publications and have not been unhappy with any of them. In terms of British Victorian era fortifications and ordnance these are well worth adding to your personal library.

The artillery collection includes a large number of really interesting guns. They date from the beginning of gunpowder artillery to the Gulf War. There are a number of weapons of particular interest to VSF fans. These include a number of decorative guns cast in the shape of dragons or other animals. These are from nations that fought against the British Empire in the 19th century. Also from such a country is the Bira machine gun from Nepal. This is a local version of the Gardner Gun.

Also used in the Victorian are several period field guns displayed in the main gun hall. A Hotchkiss Rotating cannon on a field carriage is there (see picture above)They also have a few sections of something much more modern but still with a Victorian bent. Verne would have understood the Iraqi Super Gun. A far lesser weapon served to inspire his novel about shooting men to the moon.

The fort itself has a number of weapons from the era, including a 110 pdr Armstrong Breech Loading Rifle. This weapon was one of the first generation of breech-loading weapons developed in the aftermath of the Crimean War. The Armstrong breech system was a failure. It was complex and fragile. The 110 pdr at Fort Nelson is on a garrison carriage in a Haxo Casemate. The carriage is an excellent reproduction. The knowledgeable staff was able to fully explain this interesting weapon and the casemate designed to protect it. The Portsdown Artillery Volunteers provide a cadre of talented re-enactors to the forts (http://www.victorianforts.co.uk/arming.htm).

There are a number of 64 pdr Rifled Muzzle Loaders which were converted from smoothbore 32 pdrs. These tend to be mounted on open barbettes. All these weapons are designed to fire across the outside surfaces of the fortified areas and sweep the cleared slopes.

Another type of defensive structure called a caponier contains a number of 32 pdr smoothbores that have been drilled out to make them into breechloaders. These are mounted to cover the ditch with rapid close range fire using large canister rounds.
The museum, like so many in the UK has a serviceable tea shop.
Fort Nelson is good for at least half a day. If there are special events in progress it may require far longer. Enjoy the views of Portsmouth, enjoy the history of the fort but mostly revel in the ancient traditions of the artillerist and the art of the gun founders.

Steampunk Days Out-Clifton Part II

Clifton. The Avon Gorge Hotel

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.

Memorial to the Hive War?

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/.

A view down the Arcade

Nave of the Clifton Arcade

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).

A view of the fine foods available at the Arch

And with that mental Iand digital) picture I will bid farewell to you until next week


Steampunk Days Out-Chatham Historic Dockyard

In this the second “Steampunk Day Out” we go to the location billed as your BIG DAY OUT: The Historic Dockyard at Chatham. Chatham is an interesting city from a Steampunk point of view. Not only is the Historic Dockyard available but also the Royal Engineers Museum and Fort Amherst (more on the first in another post) can provide interesting ways to spend several hours.
I came to Chatham on Brit Rail from London. The ride was quick and easy, with no transfers. It took less than an hour of effortless comfort to get there. The train station is located a good long walk from the Dockyard. The route takes you past the city center and a very large shopping center. The city center offers a number of shops including the ever useful 99 Pence store (I stopped and got snacks). The walk also passes Fort Amherst, which looked very interesting and at which I hoped to stop when returning to the train station. That plan was put to rest by the extent of the Dockyard’s exhibits and attractions.
Again we’ll start with the basic details. Adult admission is 15.50, which entitles unlimited visits for an entire year. This price includes the entire site and all ships (except the Paddle Steamer, see more on that below) and galleries. There are a few special events during the year that require a separate admission. See the dockyard’s website http://www.thedockyard.co.uk/Home for additional information on these events. The museum has a huge FREE car park.
Even though I spent all day there I did not see everything on the site. There are three historic vessels and seven galleries, as well as a shop and a nice café. In addition the existence of the World Ship Society bookstore came as a dangerous surprise to my credit card. It was a good thing I had brought an empty rucksack with me.
Of the three ships I boarded two but was only able to really examine HMS Gannet, a partially restored Victorian gunboat. HMS Cavalier, a WW2 destroyer was overrun with a school group which made getting around difficult, and caused me to curtail my visit. I wisely boarded Gannet early before the school groups arrived. She had an interesting life as an active Royal Navy vessel and then served on as a boys’ school for many years. She is being restored to her 1887 condition, when she sailed the Red Sea putting down the slave trade in those waters. She was originally built between 1877 and 1879 as one of the Osprey class screw and sail powered composite gunboats. She was originally armed with 7 inch Armstrong breechloaders and 64 pdr RMLs. The Armstrongs were replaced with 5 inch breechloaders. There are both 5 inch and 64 pdr guns on the ship now. The 64 pdrs are replicas. The barrels look good but the carriage sides seem far too light weight. They give a good impression of what that type of gun looked like. In addition a pair of nice replica 1 inch Nordenfeldt guns are on the ship’s fo’c’s’le.
The docents are very knowledgeable. Their discussion of the role of a Victorian Gunboat and her Captain as representatives of the Imperial government was described in depth. The need for a large Captain’s cabin, in which he could impress local rulers or negotiate regional understandings was brought out. Although much of the vessel has not been restored Gannet is one of a kind, the last of her kind. Standing on her decks allows a person a good idea of the type of vessel that served the British Empire so well for so long. Gannet and her sisters put the “Gunboat” in Gunboat diplomacy.
As I said HMS Cavalier is a WW2 destroyer. She was built in 1944 and served until 1972. Although not period to Steampunk she is still a lovely warship. One set of weapons aboard her that at least look like something the Victorians might have dreamed up are her Squid Anti Submarine Warfare weapons. Designed to fire salvoes of large depth bombs at underwater targets these three tubed weapons may look crude but were state of the art when first mounted.
I did not have time or inclination to explore the submarine HMS Ocelot.
I did look through most of the galleries at the dockyard. The first I saw was the Victorian Ropery. This was an excellent living history display, perhaps history is the wrong word, since the ropery still makes rope on a commercial scale for use. The interpreter was playing the role of one of the female employees who made rope in the late Victorian. After she summarily dealt with a number of disruptive children she proved extremely interesting and knowledgeable. The tour of the building starts on the lower level and the initial lecture and demonstrations give no hint of the space waiting above. The rope walk itself is immense, both wide and hugely long. Numerous ropes were in various stages of production. The Victorian era technology is still in full use and produces both traditional fiber rope as well as more modern materials for commercial sale. It is amazing to think that this system, many hundreds of years old in this building which is, itself well over 100 years old, is still an ideal method for the production of something so useful as rope is great (especially for the Luddite in me)
Right next to the ropery is the World Ship Society bookstore. Luckily for me they don’t send books from the shop via the post. The WSS publishes a large number of interesting titles on both merchant and naval vessels. They also have a very large selection of used books as well. I spent about 45 minutes in the shop and picked up a half dozen useful volumes. I highly recommend dropping in to the shop, even though the dockyard itself has so much to offer.
From the ropery I made contact with the staff of the dockyard. They were extremely friendly and accommodating. With their permission I was able to re-board Gannet to take some close-up pictures of here machineguns which were in an off limits area on the fo’c’s’le. It is always a pleasure to meet with museum staffers that love what they do and where they work. The staff at the Dockyard has a clear appreciation for their mission and the resources under their care.
One of the most wonderful parts of the dockyard is the collection of ships from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. These models are an amazing cross section of the best of the model-maker’s art. As a wargamer I can only drool in envy at the mere thought of putting such amazing models on the game table. Of course a 1/48 scale model of a 1890 battleship would require a HUGE table just for that model. The amazing detail on the builder’s models is simply stunning. Since these models were used as sales tools amongst other things they are exact replicas down to the most minute fittings. The boat storage is complete and correct. Even the coppering punts are there. The gun mounts are highly detailed, searchlights, range finders, navigational instruments are all presents. The brightwork is highly polished and the wooden decks look like the crews have just finished with them. One of the most interesting models was a smaller one of the ship built specifically to bring an obelisk back from Egypt. I found the model and the story of the ship to be interesting (and it is certainly Victorian). By coincidence I found a book on Cleopatra’s Needles and how they came to Paris, New York and London. When a museum exhibit has the power to interest a viewer to seek additional information that exhibit has done its job to the fullest extent!
There is a museum dedicated to the Royal Dockyard and the ships it built there. The history dates from the Armada to the Falklands War. The exhibits are excellent and of the same quality as the rest of the site.
Further along there is a child play area that has a number of small dockyard locomotives. The emphasis here was on the play area, but the locomotives were in great shape, and some were in the midst of repair work. This gave a good opportunity to see some of the normally hidden inner workings of these devices.
The Dockyard bills its covered dock as The Big Space and this is another part of the site that lives up to the hype. A wooden roof over a space large enough to build a Napoleonic era three deck ship of the line would be impressive all by itself. Take that space and fill it with steam engines, lifeboats, a train, the large exhibits from the Royal Engineers Museum and a host of other very very cool items and you really have something! The space might look familiar to folks, since it was used in Sherlock Holmes for the fight scene with the giant French guy that results in the loss of a battleship. The construction of the roof alone is worth a very detailed examination. Beware of the pigeons though, they are legion.
There is an additional vessel associated with the Dockyard the Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle www.pskc.freeserve.co.uk. She is a working steam paddle steamer and for an additional fee you can travel down the Medway. She was not steaming the day I was there.
There are a couple of other museums on site, including The Kent Police Museum and the The Royal Navy Auxiliary Service Museum.
To top things off I had a very nice fish and chips at the Wheelwright’s Restaurant. I liked the heavy wooden tables and the rest of the décor. I generally find that museums in the UK take on-site catering to an entirely different place than do ones in the USA.( I still have very bad feelings about having no choice but a McDonalds at the otherwise stunning Udvar Hazy aviation museum). This was no exception. The meal added to the experience rather than being a place to get the kids a burger so they won’t complain.
I whimped out and took a bus back to the train station and headed back into London. It required all day to even cover the parts of the dockyard I did see. I completely skipped the submarine and the Wooden Walls exhibits and spent a bare minimum amount of time on HMS Cavalier and still was there basically on site from open to close.
This is another site I can fully endorse for anyone interested in Steampunk or Maritime history. Plan for a full day