27 June 2016

UK Weapons of Mass Destruction

One of the normally inaccessible features of the Rhydymwyn Valley Works, developed by ICI in 1939 to manufacture and store mustard gas, is the tunnel system. Three tunnels (central one in bottom photo) were driven about 600 feet into the side of the valley, through limestone, and connected by four cross-tunnels, the stores (below). The system was designed to enable the storage of 3,120 tons of mustard gas, both Runcol and Pyro.

The site's production facilities were closed at the end of the war, when most of the UK's chemical weapons stocks were simply dumped at sea. But the country's then 'strategic reserve' of mustard gas remained stored in the Rhydymwyn tunnel facility until its destruction in 1958-60.

The store was ventilated by means of two huge extractor fans, at the top of the chimneys at the ends of each of the north and south tunnels. Air was drawn into the tunnels, deflected into a void above a mild steel ceiling throughout the storage areas, down through vents in this, and drawn out through grille-covered floor ducts, and up the chimneys. The steel ceiling was carried on concrete corbels.

19 June 2016

Borderlands Rare Vintage Tin

The Clwyd Veteran and Vintage Machinery Show, held annually, throws up some real rarities amongst its shows of cars, commercial vehicles, bicycles and motorbikes, steam and stationary engines, tractors and horticultural machinery. The Lotus Europa (above) was a mid-engined GT, built in Hethel, Norfolk, between 1966 and 1975.

Karrier, part of Clayton and Co. of Huddersfield, started making small commercial vehicles in about 1907, and later moved into manufacturing buses and trolley-buses. It was bought by Commer, part of the Rootes Group, in 1934, itself acquired by Chrysler in 1967, who dropped the brand. This Karrier Bantam was a coal lorry.

NSU, an abbreviation of the company's home town of Neckarsulm, was founded in 1873. It was acquired by Volkswagen in 1969, and merged with Auto Union, who owned the Audi brand - the company name changed to Audi in 1985. The last NSU-badged car was the Ro80, with a twin-rotor Wankel engine and a semi-automatic vacuum transmission, built from 1967 to 1977.

Clan was formed in Washington, Co. Durham, in 1971, by a team of ex-Lotus engineers; and closed in 1973. It re-emerged as Clan Cars in the early 1980s, based in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. In 1985 it released the Clan Clover, with an Alfa Romeo powertrain. The company failed anew in 1987, having built only 26 Clovers.

31 May 2016

Blackpool Tower - Highs and Lows

Blackpool Tower is Lancashire's answer to, and was inspired by, the Eiffel Tower. It was designed by Lancashire architects James Maxwell and Charles Tuke. Heenan and Froude of Worcester, structural engineers, both supplied and built the tower proper. Architects draw, engineers build.

Unlike its Parisian cousin, Blackpool Tower is not free-standing. Its base is surrounded by a monumental building that occupies 54,400 square feet, constructed from more than five million Accrington bricks. The tower proper is formed of 2,493 tons of steel and 93 tons of cast iron, hydraulically riveted together.

The foundation stone was laid in September 1891, and the tower opened in May 1894. 518 feet tall, the tower was inadequately painted during its early years. As a consequence between 1921 and 1924 all the steel-work had to be replaced.

The tower closed during WWII, and the crow's-nest was removed in 1940 to allow for the installation of a radar array, the station known as RAF Tower. Normal service resumed in 1946. The two hydraulic lifts were replaced in 1956-57 by electrically-driven ones. They were replaced again in 1991, and carry one up 315 feet.

A walk-on glass floor to the sea-facing side of the enclosed observation deck, over 380 feet up, was installed in 1998. Two open decks above this are accessible by means of stairways. Not accessible to the public are the 563 steps from the top of the brick building to the tower top, used by the maintenance teams, which coat the tower in nine tons of paint each time it's repainted.

Sadly, it is impossible to simply ascend the tower to appreciate the engineering. The only way up is to purchase an extortionately-priced 'experience', involving endless schmaltz and a pointless '4D' cinema show. These can both be bypassed if one insists, but the queues, disorganisation, bored staff pushing gift shop tat, and rip-off entry fee cannot. The tower is Grade I listed, and deserves much better.

15 May 2016

Rochefort Transporter Bridge

Frenchman Ferdinand Arnodin, with Spaniard Alberto de Palacio, was the patentee holder for the first transporter bridge design brought to realisation, just outside of Bilbao, Spain. Five transporter bridges were built in France, more than in any other country: at Brest (relocated from Bizerta, Tunisia), Marseille, Nantes, Rochefort, and Rouen; with a sixth commenced at Bordeaux but never completed. All were designed by Arnodin. Only the Rochefort bridge remains to France.

Crossing the Charente River, construction of the 700 ton all-steel Rochefort Transporter Bridge commenced in March 1898 and was completed in July 1900. The towers, marked with Arnodin's name on each of the 16 shoes, stand 217 feet high, and the bridge has an overall length of 574 feet, with a main span of 459 feet. The boom is 26 feet wide and 164 feet above water level. The suspension cables terminate in massive anchorages (below).

The gondola, 46 feet long and 38 feet wide, was originally moved under steam power, with electric motors taking over in 1927. It could carry 14 tons - either nine horse-drawn carriages plus 50 pedestrians, or 200 pedestrians alone. The crossing took four minutes. The boom was rebuilt in 1933-34, when the gondola was uprated to carry 26 tons. The latter was dynamited in 1944.

The bridge was abandoned in February 1967 upon opening of a nearby vertical lift bridge, itself demolished in 1991 after opening of the Martrou viaduct road bridge (in background of first photo). Funds were put aside in 1975 for the bridge's demolition, but it was declared an historic monument in April 1976, and refurbished between 1990 and 1994.

The bridge is normally open in the summer months for use by pedestrians and cyclists. At the time of writing it has been closed for a predicted three year period, to replace the boom with one constructed more closely in accord with Arnodin's original design, at an estimated cost of £15.2 million. There is a good museum on the Échillais (Martrou) side of the river.

10 April 2016

April Fools' Car Show 2016

The fourth  April Fools' Car Show, held at Canal Central, Maesbury Marsh, Shropshire, was the largest yet. It attracted over 80 cars, two dozen motorbikes, a clutch of tractors, a Stanley steam car, stationary engines, and three traction engines. Unusual items included a lovely 1972 Citroën Ami 8 Break.

The show winner was John Watson's immaculate 1910 Buick, complete with Selden patent licence plate. (Selden had never built a single example, but in 1895 was granted a US Patent for the automobile, much to the ire of Henry Ford.)  Runner-up was Syd Brode's gorgeous 1950 3.5 litre Jaguar Mk V.

31 March 2016

Bilbao - Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, part of the wider Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's clutch of museums, was designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Funded by the Basque government, and built beside the River Nervión by Ferrovial of Madrid, it opened in October 1997, on time and on budget.

The interior boasts about 120,000 square feet of exhibition space, in 19 galleries ranged around an impressive central atrium. Ten of these are orthogonal in shape, with an external finish of stone. Nine are of irregular form, with an external cladding of titanium panels.

30 March 2016

Bilbao - Ascensor de Begoña

In the heart of Bilbao's Casco Viejo, the Old Town, is a monumental and incongruous concrete structure that looks like it might be more at home overlooking a Soviet gulag.

It is in fact the Ascensor de Begoña, a set of elevators that takes one up to Park Etxebarri and the 16th-century basilica. The fare is €0.45 per trip, paid to the unfortunate elevator jockey who spends all day stuck in a lift.