Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

fen-dwellers, reed cutting, lotting fen, the fens, fenland

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a vast natural area of marshes and swamps much lower that the chalk and limestone uplands that surround them. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths.

To make the land more productive so as to feed a rapidly growing population, the Fens were drained over many centuries. This transformed Fenland from a natural wilderness into miles of intensive farmland with most of the land lying below sea level. It has been described by Ian Rotherham in his book The Lost Fens (2013), as the ‘greatest single ecological catastrophe that ever occurred in England’. Today only four pockets of the original fens survive. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land much more susceptible to flooding as a result of the rise in sea levels caused by climate change.

A Potted Natural History

Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh or salt water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.

Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It measured 3.5 miles by 2.5 miles, it covered  3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.

Early Inhabitants

medieval map of the fens, fen meres, fen islands, the wash, artificial river channels

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans.

After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.

The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.

By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.


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The Queen made a surprise visit on Tuesday to Bond Street tube station in London to be told that Crossrail is going to be named after her: the Elizabeth line.

One shouldn’t comment on how women are dressed, we should be listening to what they say, but an exception must surely be made here. Her Majesty’s colour-co-ordination was spot on. Crossrail purple, sorry Elizabeth line purple, has been deliberately chosen so as to match the Queen’s outfit (though I think the Queen’s attire is closer to lilac).

The colour purple has been associated with power and wealth going back to the Roman emperors, it’s status stemming from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it. Queen Elizabeth I forbad anyone except close members of the royal family to wear it. Did Transport for London have to ask the Queen’s permission I wonder?

Crossrail by the way is a £14.8bn east-west underground line, the central London section of which will open in December 2018, with a fleet of new 200-metre-long trains. Amazingly the project is so far on time and on budget.

orange army, her majesty the queen, hi-vis jacket, crossrail, elizabeth line, london underground, purple plaque

The Orange Army is out in force, many of them with seats in the circle. The Queen looks genuinely delighted as one would. But why are the top brass not wearing their hi-vis jackets? Lots of women in the front row, but they didn’t get to give the Queen her purple roundel plaque.

But Elizabeth, that’s four syllables. Though that’s the same as the Victoria line and the Piccadilly line, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, it’s a bit clunky. For instance, you don’t say ‘I’ll take the underground’, you say ‘I’ll take the tube’.

Mmmm, I can’t think what Londoners might call the new line?

Crossrail has been called Crossrail for the past five years so it’s going to be some time before people start calling it something else. And what happens when Crossrail 2 is built. That’s something to keep you awake at night; the ‘Charles line’ or the ‘William line’.

her majesty the queen, mike brown london transport, buckingham palace, bomb shelter, crossrail, elizabeth line, london underground

Queen (Her Majesty). The Victoria line goes right under my house [Buckingham Palace]. But there’s a kink in it to avoid our bomb shelters. I opened that line you know, in 1968.
Mike Brown (London Transport Commissioner). Yes Ma’am. A bit before my time, that’s the year I was born


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large hadron collider, cms detector, cern

This is the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector which analysed the data for the Higgs boson discovery in 2012. It is one of four separate detectors on the LHC ring. At 12,500 tonnes, it is the heaviest, containing twice as much metal as the Eiffel Tower.

The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.

But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.

The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.

large hadron collider, accelerator ring, beam pipe, cern

The ring encloses two vacuumed ‘beam-pipes’ along which the protons travel in opposite directions at a speed of 11,000 revolutions of the ring per second before being made to intersect at four locations, at each of which there is a massive particle detector.

Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?

It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!

anatoli bugorski, proton beam, large hadron collider, u-70 synchrotron

The beam burnt a hole from the back of Bugorski’s head, through his skull and brain, and exited just beside his left nostril. And the Russian machine had only one hundredth the power of the LHC

Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.

Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity. (more…)

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calvert, varsity line, great central railway, east-west rail, hs2, high speed line

This little used railway line near Calvert in Buckinghamshire, is a vestige of the Varsity Line that used to run between Oxford and Cambridge. The Great Central Railway between London, Nottingham and Sheffield also used to cross over this line just before the road bridge, but that line was also closed and dismantled. But by 2017, the old Varsity track will be replaced by the East-West rail line between Oxford and Bedford, and by 2026, at this spot, HS2 will be diving under the new line and along the route of the Great Central Railway.

This is a very ordinary picture of a railway line near the village of Calvert in Buckinghamshire looking west towards Bicester in Oxfordshire. The line is used only by freight trains, currently one a day, carrying containerised household waste from Bath and Bristol, known as the ‘Avon Binliner’, to the nearby landfill site at Calvert, one of the largest in the country. This single track is all that remains of the once double tracked Oxford to Bletchley railway that was constructed by the Buckinghamshire Railway Company and which opened on 1 October 1850. The line later formed part of a cross-country line from Oxford via Bletchley and Bedford, to Cambridge, which came to be known as the Varsity Line. Although not listed in the original Beeching report, the line was closed to passengers at the end of 1967 with much of the line mothballed, though not dismantled.

The reinstatement of the line was first promoted by the East West Rail Consortium of local authorities and businesses in 1995, but this was rejected by the Strategic Rail Authority in 2001. Efforts to have the line re-opened continued for the next ten years, with innumerable reports prepared and cost-benefit surveys carried out.

east west rail link, varsity line, claydon

The East-West Rail Consortium organised a site visit in October 2012 to a mothballed section of the former Varsity Line near Claydon, Buckinghamshire. This followed the government’s announcement that East-West rail link scheme would go ahead.

In November 2011 however, the Government announced that the western section from Oxford to Bedford was to be constructed as part of a strategic rail link, East-West Rail (EWR). This would run between the electrified Great Western, West Coast and Midland main lines, including the mothballed section between Claydon, just west of Calvert, and Newton Longville, near Bletchley. The new line, which would be twin tracked, and capable of speeds of 90 to 100 mph, will cost £400, with electrification, and completion is expected in 2017. In five years time then, the view of the line as above will be gone. But this is not the only change that is going to happen at this spot.


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This giant hole constructed of stone goes somewhere.

Have you any idea what it’s for and where it is?

Here is the bigger picture with the answers.

And here is another view.

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