Sunday, 27 September 2009


Here stands your correspondent, having just extended his perfectly shod feet on to a Parisian platform, courtesy of Edwardian Eurostar. An impeccably gloved hand raises his hat in salute to the City of Light. The arched eyebrows and a certain quiver in the tips of the moustache indicative of the intense powers of observation that distinguish the true flâneur. Note the hand stitching on the custom-made laptop bag and the magnificent lapels on the overcoat. It’s the perfect image of a man of distinction from the great Age of Steam anticipating all the illicit pleasures of city life. It’s just after 4pm and time to find the Salon de Thé. Tomorrow we depart for Paris and Milan in search of adventure. We may be a hundred years too late.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Still Waters

A little sulphurous hydrotherapy in the Auvergne with a postcard trip to Vichy to enjoy the marble and ceramic splendour of la Source Lucas. The restorative effect of the malodorous and obnoxious waters dispensed here has been the basis of the local economy for over 200 years. Continuing the watery theme, the two images below come from a recent trip to Clevedon, a town where generous provision was made for the thirsty visitor just so long as the pavement was kept dry.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Liberty, Peace and Plenty

Most of the traffic that exits the M25 at Junction 17 passes by the ancient country lane that leads to Heronsgate. Those who venture on to Long Lane will find that in less than a quarter of a mile they will pass the site of the first Chartist settlement, planned and developed by Feargus O’Connor in 1846-47. There’s no better place to observe the dreams and aspirations of the Victorian working class smothered by suburban affluence. The dream was that working men and their families could exchange the tyranny of factory labour in the great industrial cities for a life of self-sufficiency on the green and fertile acres of rural Hertfordshire.

O’Connor bought the land (named it O’Connorville) and divided it into 35 plots of between 2 and 4 acres. A single cottage was to be constructed on each plot and the tenancies were allocated by ballot. The intention was that the conscientious application of spade husbandry would win sufficient produce from the soil to enable the honest workingman to support himself and his family. Fifteen single storey cottages and ten pairs of semi-detached two storey dwellings were built and ready for occupation in 1847. Lanes of 9 feet in width were laid out on a grid and for the avoidance of homesickness, named after the great industrial centres the settlers had left behind – Bradford, Stockport, Halifax and Nottingham.

The great agricultural adventure got off to an uncertain start. The weather was unkind and the settlers, more used to the factory floor, struggled with a lack of experience. In an impressive demonstration of the universal truth that governments will always find it easier to fund the regulation of benefits than to fund the benefits themselves, an inspector was appointed by the Poor Law Commissioners to ascertain whether the settlement was likely to become a burden on the local parish rates. After a good nose around he happily named and shamed the fledgling community as a failure. As O’Connor became entangled in a web of legal complications followed by bankruptcy and mental illness, matters began to unravel at Heronsgate. There was a rapid turnover in tenancies and the settlers began to pursue other lines of work to make ends meet. O’Connor’s National Land Company was compulsorily wound up and in 1860 the plots were auctioned off. Only a tiny minority of the original settlers remained.

Gentrification began in the 1880s when the addition of extensions to many of the cottages combined with demolition of others and their replacement by larger dwellings more suited to the generous plots, attracted the professional classes to the area. The arrival of the Metropolitan Railway at nearby Chorleywood accelerated the process as a daily commute to Baker Street and the City became possible. Croquet lawns, stables and servant accommodation soon covered the Chartist acres to be followed later by the tennis courts and swimming pools that can still be seen today. Remarkably, in amongst this a dwindling band continued to cultivate the land, the last such enterprise, a chicken farm, closing in the late 1950s.

The verdant residential character of the area was fully established during the 1980s and recent decades of material prosperity have enhanced the sense of exclusivity that prevails. The surrounding woodland seems to absorb most of the noise pollution from the M25 although it’s a surprise that Iain Sinclair did not include it in the itinerary for his London Orbital exploration. Distinguished former residents include Clement Attlee, who lived here during the last war and Kim Philby, who was resident in the early 1950s, prior to the accusation that he was the infamous third man. Almost all this information comes from Ian Foster’s excellent book (Heronsgate, 1999), acquired on a visit to the highly recommended Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty that stands on the opposite side of Long Lane in outright denial of the Chartist ideal of temperance.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Crossing Seine and Loire

A small selection of vintage postcard views of the gondolas on two of France’s most notable transporter bridges, in Nantes and Rouen. These wonderfully fragile contraptions conveyed passengers and vehicles across the rivers Loire and Seine respectively. Their transpontine voyages were supported by some very serious engineering steel. Horse power rules the roads in these images with only a single, primitive motor vehicle to be seen. In the fashion of the times, each card features an impressive gallery of exclusively male characters in a variety of nonchalant poses exercising the basic human right to stand and stare. The French army destroyed the Rouen bridge in 1940 to inconvenience the advancing German troops. The bridge in Nantes survived until 1958 when it was demolished. Rochefort is the only remaining place in France where this method of transport can still be enjoyed and while the bridge in Newport remains out of action, Middlesbrough has the only working example in the UK.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Walking on Water

This ferrous vision of loveliness is Clevedon Pier, advancing nimbly into the silvery waters of the Bristol Channel. It’s a splendidly anachronistic structure that has survived into the present thanks to the efforts of dedicated preservationists over several decades. Commercial activity is confined to a compact souvenir shop through which visitors must enter the pier and a diminutive café on the upper level of the pagoda that operates in peak-season. The rest is pure architectural and engineering escapism. Like transporter bridges, piers can insinuate themselves into our affections by the simple business of elevating us into a place from where we can look down without fear on the chill and hostile waters below. The boardwalk on Clevedon Pier offers clear and frequent glimpses of the turbulence beneath our feet. The pagoda at the pier-head is a delight, resembling the kind of Victorian ornamental fantasy that seems to haunt the collective imagination of the Japanese animation fraternity. In the hands of these artists the pier would be instantly extended into the upper atmosphere in a rising sequence of baroque swirls, there to engage in mortal combat with a platinum plated super-sized puffer fish. Despite the engineering excellence, a pier is no match for the power of the sea on a long-term basis. Piers also seem suspiciously susceptible to fire damage. So visit and explore while you can – it won’t be here for ever.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 30, Gotthard Express

The Alpine snowfields have been defined by the delicate application of watercolour. The same precision has been applied to describe the forested slopes of the foothills. The locomotive appears timeless, frozen and monumental. The complexities of the pipe work and valve gear are revealed in all their detail and the boiler casing gleams in the soft light. A column of steam escapes from the safety valve into the chill penumbral air as the train eases to a standstill. The driver’s watchful eyes are shaded by the brim of his hat. The clarity of physical detail is surrounded by an envelope of almost infinite atmospheric softness. A century has passed since the passage of this train was recorded. The passengers are long since deceased but the mythology of the train endures as the dispassionate conveyor of equal parts of misery and pleasure. The joys and excitement of travel and the wretchedness of forced migration coexist in the collective narrative of rail transport. Dreams of freedom and adventure entwined with the nightmares of dislocation and extinction.