Archive for the ‘Superlatives’ Category

What are the furthest points north, south, east and west in Britain? Are they worth a visit? How easy are they to get to? In the first of four posts, I go to the northern-most point in Britain. And as getting there is quite a challenge in itself, I won’t tell you where it is straightaway.

ms hjaltland, ms hrossey, northlink ferries, shetland isles

Although the MS Hjaltland and the MS Hrossey are each 7,434 tonnes, the Shetland Islands Council is looking at the need for larger ships with more capacity and which would be better able to withstand the frequently choppy waters of the North Sea.

You can start by getting a train to Aberdeen which is on the north-east coast of Scotland. If you happen to live in Penzance in Cornwall at the other end of Britain you could catch the 08.28 train which will get you into Aberdeen at 21.55, a distance of 722 miles. Incidentally this is the longest single train journey in Britain. Southbound you don’t have to change, but northbound you have to change at Edinburgh. At Aberdeen you board the overnight ferry to Lerwick, capital town of the Shetland Isles. The ship will either be the MS Hjaltland or the MS Hrossey of NorthLink Ferries, each being 7,434 tonnes. The ferry sails at 19.00 (17.00 if the ferry goes via the Orkney Isles) and docks in Lerwick at 07.30 the next morning. It’s 224 miles (or 195 nautical miles). But to make sure of a good nights sleep, there are modern ensuite cabins or comfy reclining sleeper beds.

If you’re in a hurry though, there’s a choice of three or four flights a day from Aberdeen airport, five miles north-west of the city, to Sumburgh airport, 20 miles south of Lerwick, and the flight takes an hour and a quarter.

Lerwick is 600 miles almost due north of London as the crow flies. Bergen in Norway is 223 miles due east and is closer to Lerwick than Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, which is 301 miles south. The Arctic Circle is 400 miles further north. Owing to its northerly location, Lerwick, which has a population of 7,500, gets only 5 hours and 49 minutes of daylight at the winter solstice. In contrast, daylight lasts 18 hours and 55 minutes at the summer solstice. For a period of time in the summer, the nights never get completely dark with dark blue elements remaining in the sky.

shetland islands, archipelago, lerwick, unst

The Shetland archipelago forms part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. Of the 100 or so islands of Shetland, 16 islands are inhabited.

Next you have to get to Unst, the furthermost north island of the Shetlands and which has a population of 652. This involves two car ferry crossings, one of 20 minutes from Toft on Mainland (the name of Shetland’s largest island) to Ulsta on the island of Yell, then a 10 minute ferry from Gutcher on Yell to Belmont on Unst. The 55 miles by road and ferry takes about two and half hours, but there’s no quicker way. There was an airport on Unst, at Baltasound, the main settlement on the island, but this was mothballed in 1996 when flights to the offshore oil rigs were centred on an airport on Mainland. Baltasound is home to the most northerly Meteorological Office weather station in the United Kingdom, as well as the most northerly Post Office.

From the ferry at Belmont it’s a 12 mile drive north on the A968 through Baltasound to Haroldswick, the Viking centre of Unst and home to the Unst Heritage Centre, Valhalla Brewery, and Shetland Distillery Company, and then north-west on the B9086 to Burrafirth and Hermaness. The road is now single track with passing places. The B9086 ends at Burrafirth but a minor road continues to the car park and visitor centre for the Hermaness National Nature Reserve (NNR). The visitor centre is in the former shore station for the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse (see below).

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eric winkle brown, university air unit, edinburgh, naval test pilot

Young Eric Brown, aged 18, in the uniform of the University Air Unit at Edinburgh where he learned to fly.

No one ever had to say ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, but how test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown survived 50 years of flying is remarkable. The only Allied pilot to fly the Komet, a Nazi rocket-powered death trap of an aircraft, he said it was ‘like being in charge of a runaway train’. Captain Brown, born in 1919 in Leith, Scotland, died last Sunday, 21 February, aged 97.

Brown’s claim to unsought fame was that he flew 487 different types of aircraft and made 2,407 aircraft carrier landings, both world records that will never be repeated. He was the most decorated pilot in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The newspapers have been rightly generous in their praise of Captain Brown, the Telegraph and the Independent being just two. Here are the highlights of his spectacular flying career.

Brown’s father, Robert, had served in the First World War as a balloon observer and pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Brown said that he first flew in a bi-plane at the age of eight whilst sitting in his father’s lap. While still at school in Edinburgh, Brown accompanied his father to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His father’s RFC background led to them to meeting the boastful Hermann Göring, the chief of the newly-formed Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force), and Ernst Udet, a senior Luftwaffe officer, both First World War aces. Udet took the young Brown for a flight and declared that Brown had the temperament of a fighter pilot and that he must learn to fly.

At the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, Brown, a fluent German speaker, was an exchange teacher in Munich. He was arrested by the SS and briefly imprisoned, but was escorted in his MG sports car to the Swiss border. Back in Britain, he applied to join the RAF bu concluded that ‘there was no rush for my services’. So instead Brown enlisted in the FAA, the branch of the Royal Navy that operates naval aircraft.

eric winkle brown, naval test pilot, fleet air arm, second world war

Brown (dark uniform) with fellow test pilots in the 1940s.

After training, his combat flying began in 1941 as a fighter pilot flying off HMS Audacity, the world’s first auxiliary carrier (a captured and then converted German banana boat) protecting Clydeside-Gibraltar convoys. There were no below-deck hangers so the six aircraft had to stay on the deck. Brown received his first decoration, the DSC, for his bravery and skill in defending a convoy during a heavy and sustained air attack by enemy aircraft. On 21 December 1941 the Audacity was torpedoed by a U-boat whilst escorting convoy OG76. Brown was one of the only two aircrew who survived.

In 1942, he was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough where he became chief naval test pilot in 1944, flying up to seven allied aircraft a day, including the Soviet MiG-15. One test was for Brown to dive a propeller-engined Spitfire at a staggering Mach reading of 0.86 (more than 600mph). Brown performed the first landing on a carrier of a twin-engined aircraft, a Sea Mosquito, on HMS Indefatigable in March 1944, and the world’s first landing of a jet aircraft, a de Havilland Sea Vampire, on the HMS Ocean in December 1945.

eric winkle brown, me163, komet, naval test pilot, second world war

A Messerschmitt ME163 Komet of the type flown by Brown. The first test flight of the ME163 was in July 1944. It had a phenomenal rate of climb and speed. With only a few minutes flight duration, and with highly inflammable propellants, it was a very dangerous plane to fly. Brown wrote of his flight ‘there was so much to get wrong and virtually no escape route’.

Ten days after the German surrender in May 1945, Brown was at an airfield in Schleswig-Holstein in north-west Germany testing the ‘Komet’, the rocket-powered fighter Messerschmitt 163, the only rocket aircraft ever to have been operational. The Nazis had begun deploying the plane during the last year of the war. Brown was completely fascinated by the tiny and lethally dangerous plane. Only RAE pilots were exempt from flying the planes, but only for a time, and Brown took his chance, despite the reservations of the German ground crew. Once the fuel in the plane had been used up, Brown glided the plane back to the airfield.

In April 1945, Brown, on account of his fluent German, was asked to help with translation at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Allied interrogations of Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the commandant of the camp and his assistant. Brown later wrote ‘Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine’, adding that Grese was ‘the worst human being I have ever met’.

Brown also interviewed many Germans including Hermann Göring, Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel, the aircraft designers. But the interviews were brief, his part was limited to aviation matters, due to the need to begin the Nuremburg Trials. He was present at the interrogation of Heinrich Himmler, head of the entire Nazi police force including the Gestapo, who, under forged papers, had called himself Henrich Hitzinger.

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ShippeaHillUpdateWhat does Shippea Hill, a remote railway station in Cambridgeshire, have in common with Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo, Japan? It’s all a question of busyness. Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and is used by 1.26 billion passengers each year, whereas at Shippea Hill there is not much going on. In Europe, the busiest station according to recent analysis by the Independent newspaper, which takes account of metro or underground users as well, is Waterloo in London with 200 million passengers a year, followed by the Gare du Nord in Paris with 180 million users a year. So what about the least busy railway stations?

shinjuku railway station, world's busiest station

No photo can do justice to Shinjuku Railway Station, the world’s busiest transport hub with its 11 separate railway lines, 36 platforms and 200 entrances. Here is a pedestrian crossing to just one of those entrances.

World-wide figures for the quietest stations are not available, nor are there any for Europe. But according to the figures for 2014-15 released on 15 December by the UK Office of Rail and Road, there are ten stations on the national rail network that have fewer than 100 passengers a year. By comparison, Shinjuku has 12 million times more users.

The Least Busy Railway Stations

The ten least busy stations in Britain during 2014-15, in decreasing order of the number of users, are

10 Breich in West Lothian, Scotland (with 92 passengers)

9 Elston & Orston in Nottinghamshire, England (88)

8 Buckenham in Norfolk, England(88)

7 Golf Street in the town of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland(86)

6 Pilning in Gloucestershire, England (68)

5 Barry Links west of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (60)

4 Reddish South in Stockport, Lancashire (54)

3 Tees-side Airport near Darlington, County Durham (32)

2 Coombe Junction serving the villages of Coombe and Lamellion, near Liskeard, Cornwall (26)

1 Shippea Hill serving the hamlets of Shippea Hill and Prickwillow in Cambridgeshire (with 22 passengers)

The reason for these very low levels of patronage is usually the small number of trains that actually stop at these stations. Take Tees-side Airport. You would expect a station apparently serving an airport to have tens of thousands of users a year. Despite the name, the station is a fifteen-minute walk from the airport, so accessibility is a major factor in its lack of usage. The other is that only two trains stop at the station each week, both on a Sunday: the eastbound Northern service 11.14 Darlington to Hartlepool, and the westbound 12.35 Hartlepool to Darlington. Sadly campaigns to highlight the poor rail service at the station, and to persuade rail authorities to move the station 500 metres closer to the airport terminal, have so far been unsuccessful.

shippea hill station, railway map, ely, norwich, east anglia, the wash

Shippea Hill is marked on this railway map with Ely to the west and Norwich to the east. Most of the land to the north of Cambridge is the Fens, which drain into the square area of sea to the north, which is called the Wash.

Why did Shippea Hill however attract just 22 passengers from April 2014 to March 2015? Firstly only one train a day going eastwards towards Norwich actually stops there, the 07.28 which runs from Cambridge via Ely to Norwich (07.25 on a Saturday), and then not on a Sunday. Going westwards there is just one train a week, on a Saturday, the 19.27 that runs from Norwich to Cambridge. The service then is almost non-existent. Shippea Hill is also a request stop, so passengers must inform the driver or conductor if they want to get off, or put their hand out as they stand on the station to alert the driver that they want to get on.

On a weekday over 30 passenger trains, including an East Midlands hourly 125 service between Norwich and Liverpool, pass through Shippea Hill each way so the route itself is a busy one. But why don’t more trains stop there? The simple answer is that it is a remote location where very few people live.

Where is Shippea Hill?

shippea hill mapShippea Hill railway station lies in the east of Cambridgeshire, with the Suffolk border 200 yards to the east, and a triple border with Norfolk a little further to the north-east. The station is on the Breckland Line that runs between Ely in the west and Norwich in the east. The station was opened in July 1845 by the Eastern Counties Railway as Mildenhall Road, the road that crosses the railway next to the station, though Mildenhall itself is eight miles away.

In 1885, with the opening of a separate railway from Cambridge to Mildenhall, the name of the station was changed to Burnt Fen, the name of the surrounding area. Finally in 1905 the current name was adopted. The only settlements are farms, and the nearest hamlet of Prickwillow is four and a half miles away by road. The name Shippea Hill seems odd as being in The Fens, the area is very flat and much of the land around the station is about one metre below sea level as a result of the draining of the fens. It is therefore very likely to be the only station in the world with ‘hill’ in its name that is below sea level.

shippea hill farm, burnt fen, frederick hiam, new covent garden market, new spitalfields market

Shippea Hill Farm © Evelyn Simak / Creative Commons Licence

Shippea Hill Farm (photo left) is a mile and a half to the west of the station (see map above), and stands on slightly higher ground 5 metres high but it is still surrounded by land at sea level. It is one of the few areas within Burnt Fen which rises above sea level, hence the ‘hill’. Potatoes are the main crop today, and the farm is owned by Frederick Hiam Ltd. Fresh produce is still delivered daily to Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets in London.

There are farms that are nearer to the station than Shippea Hill Farm, though they may no longer have lived-in farmhouses. One of the nearest is Bulldog Bridge Farm, less than a mile away to the west along the A1101 to Littleport. Bulldog Bridge, which crosses Engine Drain, is back along the road towards the station. Might Bulldog Bridge have been a more appropriate name for the station?

The Fens, also known as Fenland, cover an area of 1,500 sq miles in eastern England, and they were drained in the 18th century leading so that most of the area lies at sea level or just above. Read more about this here. Incidentally the lowest point in Britain, at 2.75 metres (9.5 ft) below sea level, is also in the Fens at Holme Fen. The land is very fertile and it continues to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps that work continuously. In the 17th century however the land was described as being all above sea level so perhaps Shippea Hill was a more significant hill then.

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greater spotted woodpecker, drumming noise, woodland

The loud call or distinctive ‘drumming’ display of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker, particularly in Spring, ensures that woodlands are not free of noise.

If you were asked where the quietest place in Britain was, what would be your answer? You might say it all depends. Where there is least noise? Where there are no sounds of human activity? Are caves or disused mines included? But what about the weather; it can be noisy anywhere. The wind, the rain, and storms. And the sea is not silent, with the slamming of the waves against the cliffs. Neither is wildlife quiet, especially the screeching and chirping of birds. If you allow for the sounds of nature and look for places far away from human activity, then there must be hundreds of places in the highlands of Scotland that would qualify, and the same goes for a lesser number of places in mid-Wales, RAF training flights allowing. No, the quietest place must be all about remoteness from the racket made by us humans, and that must include flight paths of civil aircraft. If the highlands of Scotland and much of mid-Wales are excepted, then finding the quietest spot in crowded England might be more of a challenge.

anechoic chamber, salford university, quietest room

The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, a room within a room built on rubber springs, is lined from floor to ceiling with soft foam wedges which absorb any vibrations in the air.

The quietest place ought also to be somewhere that can be visited, that isn’t private or unduly dangerous. So the further reaches of the many cave systems or abandoned mines in Britain should be discounted. And deadly silent man-made places such as the University of Salford’s ‘anechoic’ chamber (meaning non-reflective of sound), which is so quiet that you can hear the sound of your blood circulating in your head, or the quiet room at the British Standard Institute laboratories in Hemel Hempstead, where apparently fire alarms are tested; these places surely don’t qualify.

Mapping Tranquility

In March 2005, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a report Mapping Tranquility that sought to define and identify not the quietest places, which as discussed above, are not what they seem, but the places which were the most tranquil. England was divided into 500m by 500m squares and each square was given a tranquillity score, based on 44 different factors which add to or detract from people’s feelings of tranquillity. It was hoped that this ambitious project would help safeguard the English countryside from future development. The top ten factors that people said represented tranquillity were:

1. Seeing a natural landscape
2. Hearing birdsong
3. Hearing peace and quiet
4. Seeing natural looking woodland
5. Seeing the stars at night
6. Seeing streams
7. Seeing the sea
8. Hearing natural sounds
9. Hearing wildlife
10. Hearing running water

As a result of the survey, the CPRE in 2006 created a national tranquillity map based on the 500m by 500m squares, and they said that the most tranquil place in England was in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. But the exact spot was kept secret, to keep it tranquil.

You can download the tranquillity map here, and see what else the CPRE has to say about tranquil places here.

The Most Tranquil Place

kielder mires, quietest place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is a map of the approximate location of the Kielder Mires National Nature Reserve, in which, somewhere, lies the ‘quietest place in England’. © Ordnance Survey

However since then, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics Engineering from the same Salford University, and a presenter of many popular science documentaries on television and radio, has gone to England’s most tranquil spot. The CPRE told Professor Cox which 500m by 500m square in the Kielder Forest had been identified as the spot, and he went there, trekking along forester’s tracks and wading through a mile and a half of peat bog.

In January 2014, the most tranquil place in England was described as a hillock in the Kielder Mires, two hours walking distance from the nearest human settlement, a Victorian grouse shooting lodge, and ten miles from the village of Gisland. As well as its distance from human habitation, the distance of the place from flight paths, was a key factor in making it the most tranquil spot.

The Kielder Mires 

bellcrag flow, border mires, peatland, most tranquil place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is Bellcrag Flow, one of the border mires in the southern part of Kielder Forest, typical of what you might see in the ‘most tranquil place in England’. Border Mires are areas of peatland up to 10 metres deep which have developed on the site of shallow lakes since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. © Les Hull / Creative Commons Licence

The Kielder Mires are formed of two deep peat mires known as Grain Heads Moss and Coom Rigg Moss. The mires are part of a collection of more than 50 recognised peat bodies known as the Border Mires which are mostly located within the boundaries of Kielder Forest. These blanket mires are rare globally, as they have been largely destroyed by plantations, drainage and grazing. The mires in Kielder are acidic, low-nutrient environments fed entirely by rain and provide refuge for rare species such as tall bog sedge, lichens and sphagnum mosses. Less is known about the natural fauna, although the area is rich in invertebrates and merlins, Britain’s smallest birds of prey, breed on the edge of the plantations. For these reasons the Kielder Mires been designated as a National Nature Reserves (NNR), a Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), and a Ramsar site, that is wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty signed in 1971.

So Professor Cox became the first person to knowingly visit this most peaceful spot, though humans must have struggled through the mires unknowingly many times over the last 10,000 or more years. Later, Cox wrote in his book Sonic Wonderland – A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, that ‘I had previously thought of asking the CPRE if I could publish the location of the quietest place, but I realised this would be a bad idea’.

But in the 1950s, something was going on less than six miles away that had the potential to shatter the peace of the Kielder Mires.

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bbc, alexandra palace, london, television, transmitter mast

The first public television programmed transmissions in the world were sent from the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace in north London. A picture of the transmitter mast would appear at the start of the day’s programmes which were introduced with the words ‘This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace’. Well into the 1950s, the news was introduced by stirring music, Girls in Grey by Charles Williams, and the words ‘BBC News & Newsreel’ revolving around the top of the mast.

On 1 September 1939, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premier, was the last television programme to be broadcast by the BBC before the service was suspended due to the imminent outbreak of the Second World War. There were fears that the single VHF transmitter at Alexandra Palace would serve as a direction-finder for enemy aircraft approaching London. Also, there were only about 20,000 viewing families in London and the Home Counties of the regular ‘high-definition’ service with 405 lines that had been first launched on 2 November 1936, and it was a luxury the nation could not afford.

When I was born on 13 January 1946, it was only eight months since the end of the Second World War in Europe. The previous November, David Lean’s film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard was released, and on the last day of 1945, Britain received its first shipment of bananas since the outbreak of war. Four days after I was born, the first meeting of the United Nations Security Council was held in London; a month later the American dance craze, the Jitterbug, swept Britain; and in early March, Winston Churchill delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech warning of the Soviet Union’s intention to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the west.

Even if my parents had not otherwise been occupied, they wouldn’t have been thinking about what was on the TV that night as television broadcasts were not resumed until 7 June 1946. One of the first programmes that was then shown, it is hard to believe, was the same Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1939. There again, my parents didn’t get a television until the late 1950s. But I can remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 on a tiny rented set with a 9″ screen in a crowded upstairs room at my aunt and uncle’s house in Earlsfield, south-west London.

radio rentals radio, bakelite, bush television, coronation, bbc

Left: a typical Radio Rentals set from the 1950s with a Bakelite cabinet. Right: a 1950 Bush black and white television set, model TV22, with a 9″ screen and again with a Bakelite body. There was only one channel, the BBC. This was the set from which millions of people watched the coronation in 1953. It was sold at a price between £36-2-6d (£36.12 in decimal currency) and £42 guineas or £44-2-0d (£44.10), about two month’s pay for the average worker.

So if they hadn’t been busy dealing with me or my older brother, they might have sat down to listen to the ‘wireless’. The BBC had been broadcasting on radio, though only in the London area, since November 1922, so by 1946 there must have been a good choice of programmes to listen to. So what was on, and how can I find out?

Luckily, the BBC has just launched a test version of an online searchable archive of the listings that appeared in the Radio Times from 1923 to 2009, which you read about here.

It’s called the BBC Genome Project. 4,469 back copies of the Radio Times have been scanned using optical character recognition software (OCR). The archive is still in its early stages as inevitably many scanning errors have crept into the data, and members of the public are being asked to let the BBC know of these errors, as well as changes to the advertised schedules that would obviously not have appeared in the Radio Times. Nonetheless it is an amazing resource for serious research, to check obscure facts for a quiz, or like me to find out what was on, on a notable date in the past.

Incidentally a genome is the genetic material of an organism, which is encoded in DNA, or in some cases in RNA, and the Human Genome Project is the huge international scientific research project with the goal of mapping all of the genes of the human genome. The BBC says it chose the name because the corporation likened each of its programmes to ‘tiny pieces of BBC DNA’ that will form a ‘data spine’ once reassembled in the archive. I think the BBC use of the word genome is misplaced. Anyway back to the 13 January 1946.

Here is the link to the archive. At the bottom of the page under ‘Browse the issue archive’, you are asked to either ‘Choose a year’ or ‘Choose a decade’. The latter option didn’t work for me so having selected the year 1946, I then selected issue 1163 dated 11 January, the London edition. The contents of this issue then appear, and I see that on 13 January, there are two stations, the BBC Home Service Basic and the Light Programme.

radio times, alexandra palace, transmitter mast, princess elizabeth, queen elizabeth, aircraft carrier eagle

Left: this cover of the Radio Times from 23 October 1936 shows the new transmitter at Alexandra Palace. Right: this black and white cover from 17 March 1946, with the sub-title ‘The Journal of the BBC’, still shows the effects of post-war austerity. The top photograph is of HRH The Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, who was due to attend the launch of the new aircraft carrier, Eagle, in Belfast.

The Home Service provided news, serious drama, discussion, classical music etc, and the Light Programme arose from the wartime success of the BBC Forces and General Forces Programmes and provided light entertainment such as popular drama, comedy, bandshows etc. The Third Programme, predominately classical music, wasn’t broadcast until September 1946. In September 1967, the Home Service became the current Radio 4, the Third Programme became Radio 3, the Light Programme was re-branded as Radio 2, and a new radio channel, Radio1, was added.

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In a corridor adjacent to the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford in England, is an electric bell that has been ringing almost continuously since it was first displayed in 1840.

OxfordElectricBell1The Oxford Electric Bell, also called the Clarendon Dry Pile, was an experimental electric bell when it was first set up. It consists of two brass half-spheres or bells, each positioned beneath a dry pile battery, with a metal sphere, about 4mm in diameter, suspended between the piles, acting as a ‘clapper’. The sphere moves the very short distance between the bells by electrostatic force. As the sphere touches one bell, it is charged by the pile, is electrostatically repelled, and is attracted to the other bell. On touching the other bell, the process repeats itself.

Whilst a high voltage is required to create the motion, only a miniscule amount of charge is carried from one bell to the other, which is why the piles have been able to last since the apparatus was set up. 

OxfordElectricBell2It is not known for sure what the piles are made of – they may be Zamboni piles which are made of alternate layers of metal foil and paper coated with manganese dioxide – but they were coated with molten sulphur to insulate them and to reduce the effects of atmospheric moisture.

clarendon laboratory, oxford university, physics

The original Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford (photo taken in 1894) was the first purpose-built physics laboratory in the country. The building, much enlarged, is now incorporated into the Department of Earth Sciences.

The bell was apparently made by Watkin and Hill, instrument makers, of London, and purchased by the Rev Robert Walker, Reader in Experimental Philosophy (the name by which physics was known at Oxford) at the university from 1839 to 1860, and Professor of Physics from 1860 to 1865. It bears a label in his handwriting ‘Set up in 1840’.

The Oxford Electric Bell does not demonstrate perpetual motion as the bell will eventually stop when the dry piles are depleted of charge, if the clapper does not wear out first. It has now been ringing almost continuously for 175 years apart from occasional short interruptions caused by high humidity. A double-thick glass bell jar muffles the ringing sound, so the bell is inaudible. There is a video of the bell here.

The bell has rung about 10 billion times and is considered to be the longest running experiment ever. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the ‘world’s most durable battery’.

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centre of great britain, centre of united kingdom

If uou click on this map of the United Kingdom, you can see two small pink circles which, very roughly, mark the centre of Great Britain (including its 401 islands) and the centre of England.

If someone asked you where the centre of Great Britain was or for that matter where the centre of England was, would you know? Or more to the point would you care? The centre of Britain must obviously be further north than the centre of England, as Britain includes Scotland, of which there is quite a lot. And the centre of Britain is likely to be further west than the centre of England because of Wales.

Northern Ireland is not included in the centre of Great Britain as the country we are part of is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is Great Britain doesn’t include  Northern Ireland. Well to add to the other obscure geographical posts that I have written previously, here are some answers.

centre of britain, dunsop bridge, millstone grit, whitendale hanging stones

The weathered stones of an outcrop of Millstone Grit called Whitendale Hanging Stones north of Dunsop Bridge. The wooden post marks the exact centre of Great Britain.
© Tom Howard/Creative Commons Licence

The nearest village to the geographical centre of Britain (including its 401 islands) was officially recognised by the Ordnance Survey in 1992 as being Dunsop Bridge in the Forest of Bowland near Clitheroe in Lancashire. However in 2002, the Ordnance Survey calculated that the exact point is at Whitendale Hanging Stones (grid reference SD 64188 56541), near Brennand Farm, 4½ miles north of Dunsop Bridge. The measurement calculates the point at which a two-dimensional object – think of a cardboard cut-out of Great Britain – would balance horizontally on the head of a theoretical pin, that is its centre of gravity.

centre of britain, dunsop bridge, phone box

The plaque in the BT phone box in Dunsop Bridge that marks the centre of Great Britain.

BT also installed its 100,000th payphone at Dunsop Bridge (not by coincidence surely?) and included a plaque to explain its significance. The plaque reads ‘You are calling from the BT payphone that marks the centre of Great Britain.’ The telephone box was unveiled by the explorer and writer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

The geographical centre of England was calculated by the Ordnance Survey in 2002, again by finding the centre point of the two-dimensional shape made by England. It is in a field close to Lindley Hall Farm near Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire (grid reference SP 36373 96143).

centre of england, lindley hall farm

A post next to a hedge in a field of Lindley Hall Farm near Fenny Drayton points to the exact centre of England.

In June 2013, a 6ft high ‘monument’ made from a railway sleeper was erected on the side of the field with a sign pointing to the exact point, 492ft into the field. According to a BBC report at the time, the owner of the farm, Stephen Farmer, said it could become a tourist attraction in future, explaining that ‘It’s a position on the map, the same as Land’s End [and] John O’Groats. People go to see their marks and have their photos taken so I think it wants to be known to the public, where it is.’ As the field and the path to it are privately owned, Mr Farmer will presumably have to allow public access to the monument if he wants to put it on the map. Incidentally Dunsop Bridge is roughly 95 miles north-north-west of Fenny Drayton.

Some people argue that the furthest point from the sea should be considered the centre of Britain. The Ordnance Survey has found this point is just east of Church Flatts Farm, about a mile south-east of Coton-in-the-Elms, Derbyshire. Haltwhistle in Northumberland also claims, less convincingly, to be the centre of Britain based around it being on the mid-point of the longest line of longitude (the vertical line) on the mainland of Britain. The town even has a Centre of Britain Hotel!

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