Sunday, 21 February 2016

Who nose?

There is almost always something unusual to see in London, if you are on foot, are reasonably observant, and are in the right mood. Sometimes, the things worth seeing are large and obvious, like a film shoot (which always makes me childishly excited) or a statue; other times, the things are small, like an unobtrusive sign pointing towards a "Roman Bath" (as may be seen on Surrey Street), or a brass plaque set into a wall or pavement. Regular readers may already have an idea that I enjoy spotting blue (and other coloured) plaques, commemorating the home or workplace of famous people from history.

On Admiralty Arch, between The Mall and Trafalgar Square, is a particularly small object of interest, and it's one that is often overlooked by passers by. Attached to a wall on the northernmost arch is the nose you can see above. It looks as if it is made of bronze, but I understand that it is made of plaster of Paris and polymer, and it is attached to the wall about eight feet from the ground. I cannot recall how or when I first became aware of it; I might have read something somewhere and gone looking for it, or I might have just spotted it, as a slightly incongruous protuberance on a large public building and landmark.

However I came to find it, I like that it is there. Apparently, it was placed there in 1997, along with around 34 others in various locations around the city, by artist Rick Buckley ( as part of a campaign against the "Big Brother" society. According to an Evening Standard article in 2011, approximately ten of Buckley's noses remain, including in front of Quo Vadis, a restaurant and private club in Soho, and somewhere outside St Pancras Station.

An odd thing about the noses, which only now occurs to me, is that - possibly because they are of such a mundane object, the human nose - one may be aware of them, but then forget about them when they are out of sight. I have a vague feeling that I have seen the St Pancras Nose which, from the photos I have seen on the web, appears to be a clay red colour, to blend in with the bricks to which it is attached, but I am not absolutely certain. There's something pleasing, however, about a work of art that retains a slightly covert character; although they are not hidden, you will only find them if you seek them out, or discover them by accident, and either way, if you do come across one, I challenge you not to raise a smile.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Steam work

The mighty steam engines that surround the enormous turntable in the Great Hall of the National Railway Museum in York can take away the breath away. Partly, it's the fact that several of the engines gathered here (and the engines on display change, from time to time) are not just the fun little steam engines from most remaining steam railways, but are the enormous giants of steam history - Mallard, the Duchess of Hamilton, the Evening Star. These steam engines are at once beautiful and physically imposing, like mighty wild animals that have - just about - been tamed.

I first visited the National Railway Museum around thirty years ago and, whilst I think I have retained a vague sense ever since of the presence of the engines, for some reason the place was not entirely familiar when I went back recently. Doubtless, this unfamiliarity may have had something to do with a change in displays, and in museums in general, over the intervening three decades, but as I walked around these shining testaments to engineering, it dawned on me that I was experiencing them from an entirely different level to last time. Aged around seven or eight, I was probably a couple of feet shorter than today, and the engines around me must have been even more vertiginous and awe inspiring than they are now.

Visiting today, one doesn't need to remember what the experience of viewing these machines was like as a child, however, because there's something immensely childlike about being allowed to be in close proximity to such vast objects. I realise that plenty of people find great joy and fulfilment in watching modern trains go by, and I am certainly not going to mock trainspotters; the fact remains, however, that, by and large, modern trains don't manage to capture the same sense of excitement, of sheer raw almost animal power, as their ancestors.

The old trains, in comparison, along with the obvious mechanics that make them go - steam pipes, pistons, cylinders, crank shafts - they can also be almost heartbreakingly beautiful; the Duchess of Hamilton (the red train in the picture, above, designed by William Stanier) is "streamlined", meaning that she hides her boiler and pipes beneath a curved red ballgown of immense elegance; Mallard (the blue train, above, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley) is a stylish and graceful curve that one can easily imagine carving a path through the night air, art deco clouds billowing in its wake.

The other thing that makes these objects so fascinating, so enigmatic and worthy of attention, is the knowledge that, when they run, they are genuinely alive, in a way that diesel and electric trains just aren't. Steam engines (in the UK, at any rate) rely on the burning of coal - and lots of it - to heat the water to make the stream that drives the pistons that turns the wheels. This belly of fire, like a dragon's, relies in turn on the hard manual work of a fireman (and it does usually appear to have been a man's job) physically shovelling coal - tons of coal - into the firebox.

Today, standing in the cab of the Mallard, it's hard to imagine how it must have felt when engine was at full speed (it still holds the world speed record for a steam engine, which it reached on 3 July 1938, of 126 mph (203 km/h)). The heat, the roar of the engine, the fire and the wind, and the smoke and dust from the coal are almost unimaginable, but time spent among these mighty beasts is the closest many of us are likely to get to what must nevertheless have been a thrill.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Feeling a bit King's Cross

King's Cross station in London has changed a lot in recent years. For the longest time, passengers were disgorged from the underground station into a grimy, frequently rainy, forecourt under a sprawling, utilitarian, and deeply unlovely awning. Pedestrians were squeezed between a wall of dull glass-fronted kiosks and the busy Euston Road. Inside the station, passengers huddled together, in a crowded and confused space before the train tracks, hoping to catch sight of their train listing on the display boards. There were few seats to be had, and the whole experience was, on the whole, pretty dismal and depressing.

Britain's railways, dating back to their early days, contain examples of some spectacular engineering and architecture. Following the decline of (and massive underinvestment in) the railways in the 1960s, however, the nation's railways and their buildings felt for many years like a coma patient in terminal decline (pun half-intended). Stations became grimy utilitarian spaces, where they had once been glorious statements of an expanding nation's self-confidence, and it felt like there would be no reversal of the relentlessly downwards spiral.

Then something happened, in relation to Kings Cross, at any rate. Between 2005 and 2007, a £500 million restoration plan was put in place, the old mess of buildings in front of the station was done away with and, on 19 March 2012, the new - glorious - station concourse, shown above, was opened to the public. It occupies a space to the left of the old station and, with its organic-looking vaulted roof, new shops and a mezzanine floor with restaurants, it now feels as if passengers are welcome to the station rather than, as was the case before, a regrettable inconvenience.

I arrived at the station early for my train, and wandered around the new concourse, utterly entranced. It does perhaps, speak volumes for the previous standard of railway travel in Great Britain, that a decent location warrants surprise and pleasure, but be that as it may, I found myself delighted. I pottered around the large airy space, marvelling at how sensitively the new merged with the old, each enhancing the other.

The original station offices, which I cannot recall at all from the old station, have now been repurposed (or, perhaps, returned to their original, logical, purpose) as ticket offices and shops, and the original yellow London brick buildings feel, if it is not too fanciful, to have a restored sense of pride. I was pleased, but not entirely surprised, to discover that in 2013 the restoration project had been awarded a European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award.

King's Cross is known to millions of Harry Potter fans across the world as the location of Platform 9 3/4, and the Harry Potter Store to one side feels appropriate, as does the luggage trolley disappearing into the brick wall. When I was there, a long queue of fans was waiting to have their photo taken, Hogwarts scarves flying, pretending to be about to join the Hogwarts Express. Elsewhere to my childish delight, a falconer was flying his hawk around the space to deter pigeons, and the station felt - as I like to imagine it might have felt when it was first built - like a vibrant and exciting place to start a journey.