Archive for the ‘Superlatives’ Category

It’s been a while since my last post but something I’ve been working on has turned out to be a much bigger task than expected. In the meantime, a walking trip to the Eden Valley in the north of England last June with outdoors mate Patrick had many highlights.

drybeck hallThe fertile Eden Valley lies between the Lake District in the west and the northern Pennines in the east. We stayed at Drybeck Hall in the middle of farming country west of Appleby-in-Westmorland. It’s a Grade 2* farmhouse built in 1679 when Charles II was monarch and fighting with Parliament. Drybeck Hall lies in the eastern half of now defunct Westmorland, a sparsely inhabited historic county that has its origins in the 12th century, and which was absorbed into Cumbria in 1974.

We did three circular walks. There’s no detailed instructions but a small map of each walk (click on it to zoom) is included to give you a rough idea of the route.

Day One – Great Rundale Tarn & High Cup Nick

great rundale tarn & high cup nick walk map

The starting point of this clockwise walk was the village of Dufton nestling below the western edge of the Pennines, three miles north of Appleby. The 268-mile long Pennine Way passes through this attractive village which dates from the 14th century. With a youth hostel and several campsites, it’s a popular stopping off point for walkers. From here the Pennine Way goes north to Cross Fell and Alston, and east in a dog-leg to Teesdale. Dufton was a centre for lead mining, and the Quaker-owned London Lead Company which mined here between 1821 and 1873, provided housing, a school, a library and installed piped water. Before setting out we had tea at the Post Box Pantry in the village.

barytes, lead drift mine, dufton fell, dufton pike, rundale beck, threlkeld side

It’s a slow climb up the track towards Dufton Fell, past cone-like Dufton Pike, alongside Rundale Beck, and through the steep limestone walls of Threlkeld Side. All around were the remains of the lead miner’s drift mines, their smelting kilns, spillways, and spoil hummocks. Barytes (barium sulphate, a source of the metal barium) was also mined here in the late 1800s, and the dumps were worked for minerals in the 1980s.

great rundale tarn, tarn sike

Once onto the moors, there was a weather-beaten stone-built ‘shooting box’ at 2,224 feet, the highest point on our walk. It offers little relief from the wind for our short tea break, though the sun is out. Heading east along a stream bed we skirt Great Rundale Tarn, and follow its outlet, Tarn Sike, for several miles.

maize beck, maizebeck scar, tarn sike,

Many tributaries join the stream from the north. The path is hard to find and the stream has to be criss-crossed repeatedly. In wet weather the moor around Tarn Sike would be a soggy peaty mess. I don’t think we saw anybody, it was a remote spot. Tarn Sike turns south-east and eventually joins Maize Beck which becomes an unexpected trench-like gorge, Maizebeck Scar.

After a short distance Maize Beck turns again and flows north-east for four miles before joining the River Tees, which eventually flows into the North Sea, near to Cauldron Snout. The source of the Tees is to the north on Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines. But less than 500 yards away on High Cup Plain, a stream flows in the opposite direction over High Cup Nick and down to the River Eden, which flows into the Solway Firth on the west coast. High Cup Plain is a watershed between the east and west of England.

A sturdy all-weather bridge spans the scar, and an indistinct path crosses High Cup Plain towards High Cup Nick to the south-west. The map indicates there are ‘areas of shake holes’ on the plain. These are steep-sided, often conical, depressions in the ground formed through the collapse of the soil into rain-eroded cavities in the underlying limestone. The smaller ones are overgrown and hard to spot so we take care.

hadrian’s wall, great whin sill, high cup nick, high cup gill, u-shaped valley

High Cup Nick is a notch at the apex of the spectacular U-shaped glaciated valley of High Cup Gill. The horseshoe-shaped rim around the top end of the valley is formed of erosion resistant grey-blue crags of dolerite that are part of the Great Whin Sill. The sill was a tabular intrusion of igneous rock up to 70 metres thick that occurred across much of northern England some 295 million years ago. Hadrian’s Wall was built on exposures of the Great Whin Sill. At High Cup Nick the sill is exposed to dramatic effect, the dolerite having formed columns as the molten rock cooled and shrank.

The way back to Dufton is along the northern escarpment of the steeply sided valley of High Cup Gill. The track, called Narrow Gate, is on the Pennine Way, and it was indeed quite narrow in parts so again care was needed. Lower down, the well-worn and wide path passes through endless fields, but it is hard going. The Stag Inn in Dufton, which overlooks the village green and which was built in 1703, is a welcome sight.

Our walk was 9.7 miles long, the total ascent was 2,210 feet, and it took us the best part of six hours. The walk was taken from the Cicerone Guide Walking in Cumbria’s Eden Valley.

Day Two – Smardale Gillcrosby garrett

Five miles south-east cross-country from Drybeck Hall is the village of Crosby Garrett, the starting point of this anti-clockwise walk. An imposing railway viaduct passes over the southern edges of the village. I later discover that this is the renowned Settle to Carlisle railway, that the viaduct is 55 feet high, and that the village’s railway station closed in 1952.

smardale gill walk map

It’s raining as we leave the village under the viaduct on a short no-through-road heading south. After five minutes we leave the track and start a gradual climb across Crosby Garrett Fell. The directions for the walk quotes paths becoming fainter, gullies disappearing, and the need to keep going in the same direction over tussocky ground.

Unfortunately a mist descended and we lost whatever path we were supposed to be on. When the mist eventually lifted there was a great view of the Howgill Fells to the south, but it took some guesswork to locate where we were on the southern flanks of the fell. We unexpectedly cross over Wainwright’s 190-mile Coast to Coast Walk on a part of the fell called Begin Hill.

We found a path that took us off the fells and down to a new wooden gate at Severalls Gill. Crossing the footpath east-west was the cutting of a dismantled railway (photo below left). The rain eased a little and we had a damp but welcome tea break. Old railways make for easy and usually interesting walking so we set off eastwards full of expectation.

ravenstonedale, scandal beck, smardale bridge, wainwright coast to coast

The valley formed by Scandal Beck comes in from the south, and down below from the railway track, a packhorse bridge, Smardale Bridge (photo right) crossed the stream. What was striking was that this 18th century bridge (or 15th century depending on your source) just carried a bridleway; the nearest road is a mile away in Ravenstonedale. It was as if nothing had changed in a few hundred years. Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk also crosses over this bridge and heads up east away from the valley to Kirkby Stephen.

A county road once crossed this bridge and there was once an inn close-by, the Scotch Ale House, for drovers bringing their livestock south from Scotland to markets in England. It is reputed that at the time of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, plotters supporting the Stuarts against the Hanoverians met at the ale house. On the surrounding hillsides are the remains of Romano-British settlements, medieval strip lynchets, man-made rabbit warrens called pillow mounds (known locally as Giant’s Graves), as well as disused quarries.

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Back in 1962, Dixon of Dock Green had been a regular staple police programme on Saturday night television for nine years. In it PC George Dixon, played by Jack Warner portrayed the archetypal local bobby. But the series was criticised for being too cosy, predictable, and unrealistic. Then along came a new police drama with gritty realistic stories that changed all that, a BBC series that ran for 801 episodes, Z-Cars.

bbc, z-cars,colin welland, joseph brady, brian blessed, james ellis, john slaterThe series was located in the fictional town of Newtown based on Kirkby in Lancashire (later Merseyside), and the name Z-Cars relates to an imaginary Z Division of the local constabulary. The two patrol cars that featured in the programme were Z Victor 1 and Z Victor 2 and their call sign into the control centre was ‘Z Victor 1 (or 2) to BD’, BD being the code in Lancashire for the radio controller.

The series was not named after the Ford Zephyr cars used in the programme, though the Zephyr was used as a standard patrol car by the Lancashire Constabulary.

The theme tune to Z Cars was based on an old Liverpool sea shanty, Johnny Todd, which you can listen to here. . Compare this with the theme to the TV programme here  The theme was later adopted by Everton Football Club as its official anthem.

Of the 801 episodes that were broadcast between January 1962 and September 1978, only about 40% of them have survived. The original series was one of the last British television dramas to be screened as a live production. The episodes up to 1970 were made in black and white. There is more information about the series here.

When the first run ended in 1965, two of the detectives Det Chief Insp Barlow, played by Stratford Johns, and Det Sgt Watt, played by Frank Windsor, were spun into a separate series Softly, Softly.

But the most remarkable fact about the series was the number of actors that appeared in the series. It became a right of passage for budding actors, many of whom became household names and well-known actors. Around 1,400 actors appeared over the 16 years that the series was broadcast (there were 1467 characters in total).

Here are the names of some of the actors, together with photos of a few of them that you may recognise.

More than 100 Episodes (13 actors)

James Ellis Sgt Lynch 627 episodes, 1962-1978
John Slater Det Sgt Stone 421 episodes, 1967-1974
Douglas Fielding PC Quilley 340 episodes, 1969-1978
Bernard Holley PC Newcombe 277 episodes, 1967-1971
Ian Cullen PC Skinner 220 episodes, 1969-1975
Derek Waring Det Insp Goss 216 episodes, 1969-1973
Joseph Brady PC Weir 178 episodes, 1962-1978
Jennie Goossens BD Girl 146 episodes, 1967-1971
Paul Angelis PC Bannerman 130 episodes, 1967-1969
Frank Windsor Det Sgt Watt 129 episodes, 1962-1978
Stratford Johns Det Chief Insp Barlow 126 episodes, 1962-1965
Brian Blessed PC Smith 115 episodes, 1962-1978
Robert Keegan Sgt Blackitt 109 episodes, 1962-1965
arthur lowe, bernard hepton, brian blessed, brian wilde, christopher timothy, z-cars

Arthur Lowe, Bernard Hepton, Brian Blessed, Brian Wilde, & Christopher Timothy

25 to 99 Episodes (29 actors)

Colin Welland PC Graham 88 episodes, 1962-1978
David Daker PC Culshaw 84 episodes, 1967-1977
Terence Edmond PC Sweet 78 episodes, 1962-1964
Stephen Yardley PC May 68 episodes, 1965-1978
John Woodvine Det Insp Witty 64 episodes, 1963-1969
Allan O’Keefe PC Render 63 episodes, 1971-1978
Ron Davies PC Roach 60 episodes, 1962-1969
John Collin Det Sgt Haggar 57 episodes, 1962-1978
Geoffrey Whitehead PC Baker 51 episodes, 1964-1975
Pauline Taylor WPC Parkin 50 episodes, 1967-1971
John Swindells PC Bowman 45 episodes, 1965-1973
Joss Ackland Det Insp Todd 42 episodes, 1964-1968
Pat Gorman PC Knowles 41 episodes, 1967-1978
Michael Forrest Det Con Hicks 39 episodes, 1962-1970
Jack Carr PC Covill 39 episodes, 1971-1972
Constance Carling WPC 38 episodes, 1969-1978
Jeremy Kemp PC Steele 35 episodes, 1962-1978
John Barrie Det Insp Hudson 34 episodes, 1962-1968
Barry Lowe PC Horrocks 33 episodes, 1964-1977
Leonard Williams Sgt Twentyman 31 episodes, 1962
Sebastian Breaks PC Tate 30 episodes, 1967-1970
Geoffrey Hayes Det Con Scatliff 29 episodes, 1969-1974
John Wreford PC Jackson 29 episodes, 1967-1968
David Jackson Det Con Braithwaite 27 episodes, 1965-1978
Patrick Milner PC 26 episodes, 1964-1978
Ray Lonnen Det Insp Moffat 27 episodes, 1970-1977
Lynn Furlong WPC Stacey 25 episodes, 1962-1977
Brian Grellis Det Sgt Bowker 25 episodes, 1967-1978
Paul Stewart Sgt Chubb 25 episodes, 1974-1978
colin welland, davy jones, dudley foster, frank windsor, fulton mackay, z-cars

Colin Welland, Davy Jones, Dudley Foster, Frank Windsor & Fulton Mackay

24 to 10 Episodes (12 actors)

Virginia Stride Dudley Foster Harry Towb
Stephanie Turner John Challis Ronald Leigh-Hunt
Donald Gee Kate Allitt Alethea Charlton
Lynn Farleigh Leslie Sands Barry Keegan
geoffrey palmer, george sewell, glenda jackson, james ellis, john laurie, z-cars

Geoffrey Palmer, George Sewell, Glenda Jackson, James Ellis & John Laurie

Five to Nine Episodes (25 actors)

Diana Coupland Windsor Davies Dudley Sutton
Frederick Jaeger Michael Balfour Susan Jameson
George Sewell Claire Nielson Cyril Shaps
Nicholas Smith Jo Rowbottom Fulton Mackay
Bernard Kay Reginald Marsh John Nettleton
Jack Smethurst William Gaunt Sydney Tafler
Leonard Rossiter Bryan Pringle Bernard Hepton
Garfield Morgan Leslie Dwyer
John Stratton Lynda La Plante
john thaw, judi dench, kate o'mara, leonard rossiter, lesley judd, z-cars

John Thaw, Judi Dench, Kate O’Mara, Leonard Rossiter & Lesley Judd

Three or Four Episodes (46 actors)

Sam Kydd Lynda Bellingham Colette O’Neil
Glyn Houston Anthony Valentine Kenneth Cope
Trevor Bannister Davy Jones William Lucas
Norman Rossington Judy Parfitt Richard Pearson
Bernard Archard Yootha Joyce Brian Cant
John Thaw Angela Douglas Luan Peters
Patrick Troughton Ray Brooks Gillian Raine
Sheila White Dermot Kelly Jack Wild
Kate O’Mara Geoffrey Bayldon Liz Gebhardt
Jon Finch Hylda Baker Paul Darrow
Edward Judd Nerys Hughes Paula Wilcox
Anne Stallybrass John Sharp Patricia Brake
George Baker Brian Wilde Elisabeth Sladen
Philip Madoc Petra Markham Philip Jackson
Sharon Duce Peter Purves
Anita Carey Godfrey Quigley
lynda bellingham, martin shaw, mollie sugden, patsy kensit, paul eddington, z-cars

Lynda Bellingham, Martin Shaw, Mollie Sugden, Patsy Kensit & Paul Eddington

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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, Greater Manchester (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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