engineering

Open House London Weekend 2015

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I swear to you, one of these years Open House London weekend will not be a bust.  I will book everything that requires booking well in advance, and get to everything else super early before queues form (well, that’s not likely, since I’ll never be an early riser), and carefully plot out the whole weekend so I can see as many things as possible.  And I’ll post about it right after it happens, instead of a month later. However, this is not that year.  In typical Open London fashion, everything went a bit awry.  Unlike last year, when I only managed to book Pope’s Grotto because I was supposed to be a steward at the Geffrye Museum, until being informed at the very last minute that my services would not be required, I didn’t book anything this year because I knew my boyfriend and I would be going to America at some point around the end of September, and I wasn’t sure we’d be around for Open House Weekend.  As it turned out, we didn’t leave until the week after, which meant I was free to attend but had nothing lined up (and all the really good stuff requires pre-booking).  And we had to prepare for our upcoming trip, so we really only had one day to venture around, which ended up being more like half a day after running a few errands and detouring to Maltby Street for overpriced doughnuts.  Bearing all that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I thus only managed to visit two places: the Brunel Museum, and the Thames River Police Museum in Wapping.

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The Brunel Museum was perhaps not the wisest choice, as the whole point of Open House is to visit things that aren’t normally open to the public, and the Brunel Museum is, but in my defence, the Grand Entrance Hall is only open at lunchtime normally, and there is usually a small admission fee, so at least it was free and we could show up at any old time and still get to see the former hall.  (Plus most of the other stuff that is part of Open London is architecture based, which is not my bag at all, so cut me some slack.)

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The Brunel Museum is pretty tiny, but it does satisfactorily give biographical information on both Isambard Kingdom, and his father Marc, who was the one commissioned to build the Thames Tunnel in the first place (a 19 year old Isambard acted as supervisor).  It also tells the story of how the Thames Tunnel came to be (there needed to be another way of crossing the Thames, other than London Bridge, but instead of building over the river, hell, why not tunnel under it? Such was the brilliance of Marc Brunel, and really, he laid the groundwork for the London Underground and pretty much every subway system that was to follow), and what it was ultimately used for (it wasn’t practical to build a means of getting horses or carts down there, so it was primarily a pedestrian walkway, until it was converted into a tunnel for trains, which it still is today).

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The best part was of course the souvenirs that you used to be able to buy down the tunnel.  You see, there was an ancient (well, medieval) rule in London that stated pedestrians could only be charged a penny to cross a toll bridge, which may have been fine in 1200-something, but was not so great in the 19th century, especially after the Brunels and their investors plowed the equivalent of millions of pounds into building it.  So they had to think of ways to raise more money, and one of those ways was by selling souvenirs featuring the tunnel in all its glory (they also had fairs down there, and a whole shopping arcade.  It seriously looked unbelievably awesome back in the day).  Fortunately, the Brunel Museum has carried on that tradition, and although the modern souvenirs were not as kick-ass (I was not able to get a stereoscopic card of the tunnel, or a piece of Staffordshire pottery), I did still manage to spend all the admission fee I saved by visiting on Open Weekend on some postcards and a bookmark, because who doesn’t want a bookmark showing both Brunels and a view of the tunnel?!

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And then we went inside the tunnel, or the sad portion that is left, which is not ideal for claustrophobics or acrophobics, both of which I am to some degree, but not so severely that I couldn’t manage.  You have to crawl through an unpleasant half-doorway (though I hear they are in the process of building a full-size one) and then climb down some shaky scaffolding to get inside.  I should definitely not have been wearing flats with nothing grippy on the bottom, but I survived.  Unlike some of the workmen constructing the tunnel when it suddenly flooded.  The man who did survive was young Isambard himself, who had his legs crushed by falling beams, got knocked unconscious, yet still managed to float up to the top as the water rose, where he was pulled to safety and resumed supervising the construction a day later from a mattress on a boat in the Thames, since he couldn’t use his legs for some time afterwards.   We heard this story, and several others, whilst we were inside the former entrance hall (which is just a black pit, with none of its former grandeur, more’s the pity), all of which were discussed inside the museum as well, with varying degrees of detail.

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I’ve been fascinated by the Thames Tunnel for a while, so it was neat to get to see the one remaining piece people are actually allowed inside, but it did make me sad about all the bits of Victorian London that have been lost (although some of them, like workhouses and prisons, are probably gone for the best).  Well, it’s not really the only remaining piece, because the tunnels are still in use, as I said earlier, and you can see them if you take the Overground to Wapping (you just can’t really get a look at them whilst you’re passing through them).  There’s a plaque about the tunnel in Rotherhithe station, and then when you get to Wapping, you can see the old tunnels from the end of the platform, just, you know, mind the tracks.  This was convenient, as the River Police Museum was in Wapping, right (actually left) down the street from the station.

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Visiting the Thames River Police Museum was more in keeping with the spirit of Open London, in that this is the only time of the year it’s open, being housed in a working police station.  You wouldn’t be able to spot it from the road; fortunately, there were big Open Weekend banners hanging up all over the place, and the man at the gate was only too eager to welcome us inside.  Although the room it’s housed in is not that big, there was actually more content than I was expecting, as it’s packed pretty full.  However, there were not very many detailed captions, so it didn’t take that long to see it all.

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I managed to strike up a conversation with the curator (or maybe he was just a volunteer) when he pointed out some minie balls to me, which somehow led to me telling him how Stonewall Jackson died (don’t ask, I guess people who have a fondness for historical trivia somehow manage to sense kindred spirits), and he told me that the museum is in a former carpenter’s workshop, and pointed out the trapdoor in the floor where parts would be winched up.  The back door was open, and offered an excellent view of the Thames, where you could contemplate the various river disasters discussed in the museum taking place.  He also told me a story about how drunken sailors in a pub in Wapping used to be given a length of clothesline to pass out over, and then were charged for the privilege; apparently one of the model ships in the museum was made by a sailor who did just that and neglected to pay…feeling guilty about it, he made a fine model and gave it to the owner of the pub, who obviously eventually donated it here.

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I can’t lie, the main reason I wanted to visit the River Police Museum was because Lucy “Bloody” Worsley (my nickname for her, because it seems she’s always on the TV.  As in, “ugh, it’s Lucy bloody Worsley again!”) mentioned it on her A Very British Murder programme (and in the book, but Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder is far more comprehensive, so I wouldn’t recommend Worsley’s).  The brutal murder of a family by a mystery killer took place in Wapping in the early 19th century (interesting because the murder was never definitively solved, and the maid just happened to be out of the house at the time of the murders, which no one seems to have found suspicious), and the museum was meant to have some objects relating to it.  Unfortunately, all I was able to find was a print showing the alleged murderer’s corpse being paraded through the streets (as far as I can remember, his initials were found on the murder weapon (I think it was some sort of hammer), so he was arrested, and when he killed himself in prison, was assumed to be guilty (despite never having gone to trial), so locals decided to haul his corpse through the streets so people could pelt it with things); the curator/volunteer was busy talking to someone else by this point, and I was too shy to interrupt, so I never found out if there was something else I missed.

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I’m happy I’ve finally gotten to see this museum, but it was mainly policey type stuff and river stuff, rather than grisly murders (you know, the sort of thing you I want from a police museum), so it wasn’t really what I was hoping for.  I probably wouldn’t bother going back, but at least I can tick it off the list.  Well, this year’s Open House Weekend was about as successful as most (perhaps more so, since we headed up to Shoreditch to get pizza from Voodoo Ray’s afterwards.  I’ve said it before, but as much as I hate Shoreditch, I love Voodoo Ray’s pizza.  I could do without the loud-ass terrible music they’re always blasting in there, but I can suffer through it for the sake of the pie), but I will try harder next year, assuming I’m not attempting to volunteer at it again or back visiting America, as I often seem to be at this time of year (what can I say, I like fall foliage and apple cider doughnuts).  The best part was probably getting to explore bits of London I hadn’t really seen before; despite living here for seven years, I’d never been to Rotherhithe or Wapping, so that was something.  And I discovered a random cat statue near the Brunel Museum (see below) so that was also a treat.

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London: Crossness Pumping Station

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If you’ve done any kind of reading on Victorian Britain, especially on cholera, the Great Stink, or Bazalgette, you’ll have heard of the Crossness Pumping Station.  Officially opened in 1865 by Bertie, the (then) Prince of Wales, Crossness was one of two main pumping stations (the other being Abbey Mills) for the new London sewer system, and was rumoured to have a splendid interior with cast iron detailing.  Therefore, when I heard Crossness was having one of its rare opening days last weekend, you couldn’t have kept me away.

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By necessity, Crossness is located pretty far out in East London, near Bexley, I believe, and down a random road of an industrial area.  As you can see, even the exterior is impressive, and the whole complex was immense.  Admission was £5, and this is another one of those place where you must bring cash!  We never seem to have any for some reason, but the nice man at the admissions desk allowed us to pay after our visit via bank transfer, rather than having to drive all the way back into town to try to track down a cash machine, which was very much appreciated.  This is also a place where you must wear the obligatory hardhat (I seem to visit a lot of those lately) which is provided for you, and Crossness goes one further and requires flat shoes, probably because of all the gratings (does anyone really try to tramp around an industrial building in stilettos?  I suppose they must, or the rule wouldn’t exist.).

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There’s no getting around the fact that this place is basically Steampunk heaven.  Giant steam-powered, noisy machinery, gorgeous Victorian architecture, and volunteers dressed in period costume all contribute to make it so, yet most of the visitors were older people.  I don’t really get the whole Steampunk thing (why does the past have to involve time travel and random gears and goggles?  Can’t we just appreciate the past for what it was?) but the atmosphere in here was admittedly fantastic.  Crossness’s website refers to it as a “cathedral on the marsh,” and it don’t think they’re far off; it is like an amazing shrine to Victorian ingenuity.

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Before I go any further, I should perhaps explain how the pumping station worked, at least as far as I was able to understand it from the signage scattered around.  Essentially, all the sewage of London flowed out through the sewers as far as Crossness, where it was pumped up (hence the name) into a reservoir, and then held until the Thames was at high tide, when it would be released out to the sea.  Now, bear in mind that the waste wasn’t treated in any way, so tonnes of raw sewage were just being dumped in the sea, but better out than in, right?  At least the Thames wasn’t quite so stinky anymore.  Obviously, although they have the machinery up and running on open days, it’s not really doing anything, but it still looks cool.

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One of my favourite observations on Crossness is something I read once in regard to the opening luncheon with the future Edward VII.  There’s a picture of all the men in attendance in their top hats, as was the style at the time, and then another one of them all sitting down to lunch in the Engine House, sans hats.  The author very sensibly wondered what had happened to all the top hats in the interval, and as I can attest, there really isn’t a good storage place in there, especially if the station was operational.  Maybe they set up special tables somewhere?  I wish I could remember what book this was from; Inventing the Victorians is my best guess, but I read so many damn books about the Victorians, it’s hard to say, though if anyone else knows, please comment!  Anyway, this anecdote is an interlude to allow me to cram more pictures in this post, since this place was awesome looking, and I’ve had a real dearth of pictures on here lately.

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One of the things I’ve enjoyed about starting this blog (besides visiting the museums, obviously), is all the connections I’m starting to see between the various places I visit.  For example, the above tiles had a sign explaining that they were made in Jackfield, which was exciting to me since I was just at the Jackfield Tile Museum a few weeks ago.  I’ve always gone to a lot of museums, but since I’ve been blogging about them, I’ve been visiting at least two new places every week.  I know England isn’t that big, but seeing how all these little random places are somehow interconnected is fascinating to me. And, the above tiles look eerily similar to the tiles on my doorstep, so now I’m thinking those might be Jackfield tiles too.  My, such excitement!  It doesn’t take much, sadly enough.

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Getting back to the actual Crossness experience (after that lengthy detour), you are just left to wander around up and down various sets of stairs that lead down to basements and up to a massive loft area.  There are volunteers stationed throughout who seemed happy to answer questions, and there are enough signs to get a general idea of how the machinery worked. It’s not an actual museum, and only half of it is restored, so it’s more of a chance to gawp at some excellent Victorian machinery than anything (and this is coming from someone with no mechanical sense whatsoever, so it must be good).

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That said, there were still a few neat little displays which perfectly appealed to my love of scatalogical humour.  The above obese Bart Simpson style rag-on-a-stick was part of a larger sampling of material people used as toilet paper throughout history, including hemp (lovely and soft), and corncobs (unless you want piles, I’d avoid them).  There was also a small case of chamber pots, some background information on the Great Stink and the creation of the pumping station, and a collection of other steam powered objects, including a teapot waterfall.  It wasn’t a huge amount of stuff, but everything was nicely labelled.

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I think you can probably tell that I definitely enjoyed this trip to Crossness.  It was incredible to be able to see something that was so instrumental to the sanitation of Victorian London, and indeed, something I’d read so much about prior to visiting.  Their next open day is 23 June, and I recommend planning a visit if you haven’t already been.  Not to sound too cheesy and cliched, but it really was like getting to experience an authentic piece of history, in a way that visiting something like a living history museum just isn’t (even though I stand by my love for Blists Hill!).

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Random shot of the Thames Barrier which we stopped at since we were quite near it, but I can’t comment on the visitor’s centre as it was already shut. Still fits into the theme of the post though, I think.

4/5 for the Crossness Pumping Centre.  It’s not a museum, but it’s definitely a curious destination.