Nov
04
2013
0

Fordlandia

Fordlandia! Where civilisation conquers the wild and untamed heart of the great Amazon rainforest. A city forged in adversity, the triumph of will and the product of the daring imagination of Henry Ford. This is America’s new frontier; a wilderness transformed by technology, labour and innovation into the prosperous hub of the world’s rubber production.

To some it was a daring vision, a glimpse of the future from one of America’s, heck, the world’s most farsighted industrialists. To others it was another sign that the wheels were metaphorically and perhaps literally coming off a once great car-producing giant.

Fordlandia (WT-shared) Amitevron at wts wikivoyage [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The United States of America is a vast country, stretching from sea to shining sea, its land richly endowed with iron ore, coal, oil, timber and rich pasture. From these natural resources she has at her disposal all the elements for the wonder of the twentieth century – the automobile. Steel, wood panelling and leather were all sourced from home – a relentless flow of goods entering Detroit and other factory towns to be turned into cars, vans and lorries.

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Written by Ian Curry in: Economics,Geography,History,Society |
Sep
11
2013
0

The Duke of Sutherland’s Railway

Few things were more powerful than a Victorian-era duke. They shaped empires, armies, estates and cities and had a particular interest in the development of the railway network. For some, this was manifested in vehement opposition. For others, it was a promise of further riches and easier access to pleasures in both the capital and countryside. Few peers have influenced the development of a railway quite as definitively as the Duke of Sutherland, for whom we have largely to thank the northern most reaches of the British network. 

After reaching the epic grandeur of the Scottish highlands, Scotland’s north-east peters away gently towards the coast. Tain, Dornoch, Golspie, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick are sandwiched between the sea to the east and desolate mountains to the west. Vital communications are provided by the A9 and the evocatively named Far North Railway.

Sutherland is wildly, stunningly beautiful but hardly profitable terrain for the railways Donald Bain [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Far North Railway links Inverness with Thurso and Wick at the very northerly tip of Britain. The leisurely journey covers over 120 miles in 3 hours 45 minutes (to Thurso) or 4 hours 15 minutes (to Wick).  The route is at first coastal before diving into the highlands to stop at Culrain and Lairg and then turning sharply westward to head back towards the sea.

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Written by Ian Curry in: British History,History,Society,Transportation | Tags: ,
Jul
12
2013
0

Once in Saint David’s City

The City of St Davids lies in the south-west corner of St Davids Peninsula surrounded by some of the most stunning Pembrokeshire coastlines and countryside. It is easily the UK’s smallest city by population: home to 1,797  in the 2001 census. The next smallest, St Asaph, is also a Welsh cathedral city but has nearly twice as many residents. Over the border, Wells is a bustling metropolis of 10,406 in comparison. So how is a place that would struggle to justify being called a town labelled a city?

The approach to St Davids is distinctly rural, a quiet road winding through rough, sheep studded fields. Suddenly, to the side of the road a large and seemingly new sign proclaims “Welcome – City of St Davids – Britain’s smallest City”. Its twin towns are then given as Naas in Ireland, Orléat in France and Matsieng in Lesotho. All of this is, of course, rendered in English and Welsh, with a warm “Croeso – Dinas Tyddewi” given to the Cymry.

Welcome to St Davids - own work

The divide between country and town is minimal – fields give way to a handful of bungalow lined streets until, seconds later, you are in the middle of the city. The word ‘city’, with its connotations of heaving masses, hustle and bustle, bright lights and dark alleys in particularly unsuited for St Davids. There are certainly people walking around its two main streets, but they could be counted in tens rather than thousands.

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Jun
25
2013
0

Who owns the UK?

Who owns the UK? This is a perennial favourite for newspaper articles and has spawned a series of books. There is no simple answer as wealth can be measured in different ways: cash, shares, GDP and, most tantalisingly of all, land.

Land has always been an emotive issue and, even when the vast majority of people no longer work in primary industries, it continues to generate interest, debate and concern. Peasants’ revolts, riots over enclosure and the Luddite movement have given way to conservation areas, local amenity societies and ‘not in my back yard’ pressure groups.

Who owns the UK? Physical map of the British Isles By MarieStockholm (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, back to the original question; who owns the UK? And how has ownership changed over the last century. To answer this, I’m taking ownership of land as the measure. Millions of acres, hectares and square miles of rolling, arable, pastoral, mountainous and forested land. There is no direct correlation with wealth in this list; owning vast tracts of Highland Scotland can, in terms of value, equal a single block of central London real estate.

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Mar
13
2013
0

A two pound piece

The British £2 is one of the most striking coins in circulation. As well as being the only mainstream bimetallic coin in the UK, it is wider and heavier than any other. With its golden edge and silver centre, it has become the coin of choice to commemorate events, people and institutions of national significance.

The current series of the £2 coin was launched on 15 June 1998 with the Royal Mint issuing millions for general circulation. A review of coinage carried out in 1994 had suggested the need for a new, higher denomination coin than the pound. The four-year gap between suggestion and introduction demonstrates the seriousness with which the government and Royal Mint took the task of designing a suitable new coin.

The front and reverse designs for the British £2 coin (standard version)

The Royal Mint consulted a wide range of groups, from the RNIB to channel the concerns of people with limited or no sight to the vending machine industry. Age Concern was consulted to ensure that the coin was designed to limit any confusion from the elderly and the general public were invited to express their opinions and concerns.

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Mar
06
2013
2

First places of devotion

Amongst Britain’s diverse population are adherents of all of the world’s major faiths. Religious devotion often requires a place of worship: churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and gurdwaras. A reference to the first purpose built mosque in the UK made me wonder when each of these religious buildings were first erected in Britain.

Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys is now into its fourth series on BBC Two. It continues to provide a rich harvest of facts and blog ideas to be reaped from Portillo’s deliciously awkward interviews. This week I saw him journey through Woking and visit the UK’s first purpose-built mosque – the Shah Jahan mosque. It made me wonder where other firsts might be for the major faiths followed in Britain.

Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking - the UK's first purpose built mosque - By RHaworth (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

With good timing, the Office for National Statistics had released a first cut of the 2011 census data, providing an overview of the demographic composition of the nation. The most common religions followed were (in order of number of adherents) Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism.

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Mar
01
2013
2

Coining the home nations

If you are reading this in the UK, have a look at the change in your pocket. One side features a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the other continues the monarchical theme by displaying one of an array of heraldic badges, devices and national icons. Changing over the years, the choice of these designs tells us something of the importance of giving equal weight to the constituent countries (England and Scotland), principality (Wales) and province (Northern Ireland) of the United Kingdom.

Since 2008, the coins issued by the Royal Mint have featured the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, either whole (on the £1 coin) or in parts that make up an image of the whole when brought together. There are also special issues for both the £1 and £2 coin (the £2 coin will be featured in a forthcoming post).

The Royal Shield reverse designs, introduced in 2008

The pre-2008 coins carried a much more interesting array of designs. The back of the pound coin had a number of designs, providing a feast of symbols to satisfy each of the component parts of the union. The 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008 issues featured a slightly amended version of the royal coat of arms used today. But in the intervening years a more regional approach was taken.

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Feb
13
2013
0

Living in London luxury

How did Britain’s elite live in the capital once their great London houses had become either uneconomic to run or had been sold off to pay off debts and estate taxes? They would find comfort and a home away from home in a cluster of distinctly upper crust hotels that catered to their every whim.

Put yourselves, just for a whimsical moment, into the shoes of England’s aristocratic elite in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Landed families were struggling to maintain their main historic estates, with their country piles seeming increasingly out-dated and expensive to run. And what to do with the London residence? Hardly used outside of the social season and, even then, a distinctly uneconomic way to spend time in the capital.

What could the ‘squeezed upper’ do? There were, of course, plenty of guesthouses, inns and lodgings available throughout London, but these were hardly suitable for the titled. Could they downsize? Perhaps take advantage of the railways and move into the suburbs? Maybe a few did take these options, but the majority availed themselves of a new development: London’s luxury hotels.

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Feb
08
2013
0

The original HS2

The London and Birmingham Railway, opened in 1838, was the Victorian equivalent of HS2. In fact, it was far more transformative than its twenty-first century successor – horses, carts, carriages and canals gave way to steam powered locomotion at speeds that radically changed the British economy, society and people. This engineering wonder heralded the start of the modern age and was built in less than five years.

Last week, the government announced its proposed route for the new high speed railway link north of London. The line will split into a Y shape, with the western spur heading through Crewe, Manchester Airport and ending up in Manchester. The eastern side will stop at an East Midlands parkway (to serve Derby and Nottingham), Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre (to the chagrin of Sheffield City Council and its Chamber of Commerce) and Leeds.

Construction of the first stage of High Speed Two (“HS2”) from London to Birmingham will start in 2017 and open in 2026. The second phase, as outlined above, is intended for completion in 2032. Britain will therefore have the start of a high-speed rail network just in time for the 200th anniversary of regular passenger railway services heralded by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

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Feb
04
2013
0

Ambergris – floating gold

Ambergris is a rare and precious gift from the ocean. It is a waxy substance found floating on the sea or sometimes washed up on a beach. For hundreds of years it was a vital ingredient in producing perfumes; it is a natural fixative that ensures sweet fragrances linger long after they are dabbed to the skin. But it can be described another way: the indigestible parts of squid mixed with intestinal faeces excreted or vomited by sperm whales into the ocean.

Last week, a large slab of ambergris was found washed up on the beach at Morecambe, Lancashire. It is an usual discovery, but not unprecedented: last year, a young boy found a massive hunk of Ambergris on a beach in Dorset. Such a lucky discovery has been described as akin to finding gold but, in reality, it is much more valuable than that: the Lancashire lump is valued at up to £100,000 and the Dorset dollop at just over £39,000. Unsurprisingly, it has been labelled as ‘floating gold’, and it is literally a treasure for beach combers.

So what is ambergris? The Oxford Reference Encyclopaedia describes it as: “Musky, waxy solid formed in the intestine of a sperm whale. It is used in perfumes as a fixative for the scent.” No one would suspect an ultimate use in the perfume industry for fresh ambergris. When regurgitated or defecated, it retains a foul odour combining rotting fish and faeces. It is only after a lengthy aging process (taking ten to twenty years) that it acquires the sweet, musky smell that makes combining it with perfumes possible.

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