Not bad for ‘just a small island’

It was back in September 2013 that a Russian spokesperson is reputed to have commented about the UK, “. . . just a small island … no one pays any attention to them“. Actually more than 6200 islands, although only 267 are permanently inhabited.

team gbHowever, based on Team GB’s success at Rio2016 perhaps we are not so ‘small’ after all. After winning a record haul of medals (more than won at our home London Olympics in 2012) British athletes from all competitions can hold their heads proudly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not particularly interested in the increasingly over-enthusiastic [nationalistic] commentaries and responses that accompany any gold medal success—whether for Team GB or any other country. Too much unfurling and waving of flags for my liking. A vexillologist’s paradise nevertheless.

In many ways, I wish it were possible for competitors to participate as individuals, not under their national flags. Nevertheless, I do accept that it’s this aspect that attracts public attention and increases interest in the Games.

And all this celebration of rankings. So what if Team GB came second in the medal list, even better than China? Better we should ask whether our athletes acquitted themselves in their respective competitions. After all, since 1997 there has been a massive investment in elite sport, primarily with support to UK Sport from the National Lottery, and that has permitted athletes to concentrate 100% (or almost so) on their sports.

Team GB’s 374 athletes participated in 201 events over 31 of the 39 Olympic sports (this classification taken from the official Rio2016 website). And they came away with medals in 22 of those sports, for a total of 67 medals, of which 27 were gold!

rio medals

It’s interesting to note that although most sports were split into men’s and women’s events, there were three sports with a mixed event (badminton, sailing, and tennis), one event was entirely mixed, men and women competing against each other (equestrian), and two events (synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics) entirely for women.

The Olympics is an interesting mix of sports, disciplines and events. Personally, I do not agree with either tennis or golf being Olympic sports, even though Team GB came away with gold medals in both men’s events. For many Olympians, the games held every four years are what they train and aim for.  They are the focus of all their goals and dreams. Yes, there are World Championships, and regional ones (like the European Championships) and the Commonwealth Games, held at regular cycles. But the Olympics are something special. You only have to witness the reaction of successful athletes to winning a medal, especially if it’s gold, to appreciate just what participating in the Olympic Games means. A week after winning at Rio, Andy Murray was participating in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio where he was defeated in the final by Marin Cilic of Croatia. This was just another tournament on the ATP Tour and, it seems, the Olympic Games were squeezed into his busy schedule. The same can be said for golf. Gold medal winner Justin Rose will no doubt be off playing another tournament somewhere on the professional golf circuit. Notwithstanding the above, I did appreciate the commitment of both Murray and Rose in competing in the Games, and what it meant to win. I just happen to believe that other sports are more worthy of inclusion. I cannot understand why squash has never become an Olympic sport. But we do have sport climbing to look forward to in Tokyo.

One hundred and twenty-nine British athletes won a medal (individual and team). But what is particularly remarkable is that nine Olympic champions from London2012 successfully defended their titles (or double champions in the case of track cyclist Laura Trott and long-distance runner Mo Farah, or triple champion in the case of track cyclist Jason Kenny). The men’s four in rowing retained the title for the fifth successive Olympics (though not with the same team members!), cyclists in three Olympics, and sailors in the Finn class in five. The BBC Sport Rio 2016 website tells the full story.

So, well done to Team GB athletes—and all Olympians—successful or not in terms of medals won. Many personal best times, etc. were surpassed. In swimming and cycling, Team GB athletes also broke world records.

Of course there were the various controversies. Boxing was not without its usual crop of ‘bad’ decisions. I guess that will always be the case in sports that are judged rather than measured (fastest, longest, highest, etc.). Should Team GB’s 4 x 400 m team have been disqualified? There was no visual evidence to fall back on—just the word of a judge. Conspiracy theories abound, because Team GB’s disqualification elevated the Brazilian quartet into the final. Does it really matter? That’s how the decision was called.

Disagree and appeal. Accept. Move on.

211px-2016_Summer_Olympics_logo.svgBut let’s also celebrate, in particular, the many fine examples of the spirit of the Olympics. Rafaela Silva, the gold medal winning judoka from Rio’s City of God favela. The Singaporean swimmer, Joseph Schooling, who defeated Michael Phelps in the 100 m butterfly to win his country’s first gold medal. Fiji winning their first ever medal, gold, in the Rugby Seevens. The Philippines silver medallist in weightlifting, Hidilyn Diaz. But also, who can forget Michael Phelps winning his 23rd gold medal?

But perhaps the epitome of the Olympic sportsmanship shone forth in the women’s 5000 m heats, when Nikki Hamblin from New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino from the USA fell and helped each other to finish the race. Both were reinstated in the final, but D’Agostino was unable to compete. Hamblin did run, but came last, hobbling over the line obviously still suffering from the injury picked up during the heats.

It was, of course, disappointing to see so many empty seats at most of the Olympic venues. Rio residents didn’t appear to embrace the Olympics as was the case in London, because of the cost of tickets presumably, but also because many of the sports simply do not have a following in Brazil. This was in stark contrast to London 2012 when it was impossible to get hold tickets. This does not bode well for the Paralympics that begin in two weeks.

Who will forget, however, the majesty and magnificence of the Rio de Janeiro backdrop to many of the events, in particular the TV shots over the Christ the Redeemer statue to the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa) far below where the rowing and canoe events were held.

The view of Lagoa from the Christ the Redeemer statue, where the rowing and canoe events were held.

With the Sugar Loaf always in view, the long stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Rio had it all. And despite the political and economic shocks that Brazil faced, the Rio Olympics seem to have been a great success. Was the athletics program debased because of the absence of the Russian athletes? Probably not, especially if their clean status could not be guaranteed. The Russian Federation was well-represented in other sports, and won its fair share of gold medals.

I’ve not heard of many—if any—actual doping incidents, although the organisation of the anti-doping organization has apparently not been held in high regard. Some examples of doping may yet come to light.

So, we move on to Tokyo 2020. Will Super Mario still be in office?

Apartments fit for a King – Bolsover Castle

20160817 012 Bolsover CastleBolsover Castle stands proudly over the northeast Derbyshire landscape, a prominent feature on the eastern skyline as one travels along the M1 motorway. It is owned and managed by English Heritage, and is just a few miles north of Hardwick Hall that we visited in 2015 almost exactly a year ago.

The histories of Bolsover Castle and Hardwick Hall are intertwined.

So who built Bolsover Castle? Standing on the site of a medieval castle, the castle we see today dates from the early decades of the 17th century. It was the vision of Charles Cavendish and his son William.

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20160817 050 Bolsover Castle

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William was married twice.

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William’s wives: Elizabeth Bassett (L) and Margaret Lucas (R).

Although one part of the castle was demolished (slighted) by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil Wars, the Little Castle and its exquisite interior decoration has survived until today (although with some restoration by English Heritage).

The Little Castle

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The Fountain Garden, the Walled Walk, the the Riding School Range in the distance, and the demolished Terrace Range on the right.

Seen better days – the Terrace Range
The Terrace Range is now in ruins, but when it was originally built it must have been spectacular, not only for the grandeur of the building itself, but also for the views over the Derbyshire landscape.

The heyday of Bolsover Castle did not last long.

20160817 048 (2) Bolsover CastlE

20160817 048 (3) Bolsover Castle

The Ante Room
Just inside the main entrance, and to the left, of the Little Castle is the small Ante Room, with wonderful wood panelling and wall paintings.

The Hall
The next room is the main hall, with fine vaulted ceilings, a large stone fireplace, and more paintings high on the walls.

The Pillar Parlour
Beyond the Hall, and on the left before climbing the stone stairs to the first floor, is the Pillar Parlour. This is one the finest rooms in the castle. It has, like many rooms in the Little Castle, a fine marble fireplace with insets of black marble, a common theme throughout the building.

The Star Chamber
On the first floor is the Star Chamber, named after the beautiful light blue ceiling decorated with gold stars. The tapestries hanging from the walls are not original, but have been installed to show what the room might have looked like four centuries ago. Again there is a fine white and black marble fireplace, and exquisite paintings on the wood panelling.

The Marble Closet
Just off the Star Chamber is the Marble Closet, furnished in black and white marble, with more wall decoration.

The Heaven Closet
This one of the most beautiful rooms in the building, so called because there is a figure of Christ is the center of the ceiling paining. It was completed in 1619.

The Elysium Closet
Decorated in a Greek style, this small room off William’s bedroom, has a theme that is quite the opposite of the Heaven Closet.

The Lantern and top floor rooms
On the top floor, underneath a cupola, is a series of rooms leading off this central feature. It must have been a place where residents and guests met because of the way that daylight floods down to highlight the golden walls.

The Kitchens
There are several rooms in the basement, kitchens and storage rooms, that must have always been busy to satisfy the culinary need of the residents upstairs.

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The Fountain Garden
Outside the Fountain Garden is dominated by a statue of Venus, and the planting reflects plants that would have been available during the 17th century. The Walled Walk provides great views over the garden.

The Riding School Range
Just through the main gateway to the castle, and to the left, is along 17th century building with a riding school. It’s possible to climb to the top floor and see the intricate and splendid wood beams holding up the roof.

We have passed Bolsover Castle so many times when we travel up to Newcastle upon Tyne to visit our younger daughter Philippa and family. It was a day trip of more than 180 miles, but well worth it.

In Bolsover there is just a small car park close to the castle entrance, that was already full when we arrived. Just a little further on, and through a rather discreet entrance is another overflow car park – not signposted at all – where you can park free of charge on what must have once been part of the castle terrace.





Dyrham Park: a tale of two architects

20160812 154 Dyrham Park

A few miles north of Bath, and to the east of Bristol, Dyrham Park is a National Trust property that was built in the late 17th century on the site of a former Tudor manor house.

20160812 123 Dyrham ParkIt was the creation of William Blathwayt, a senior civil servant who rose to become Secretary at War among other posts. After leaving government he served as a Member of Parliament for a number of years before he died in 1717.

Completed by 1704, Dyrham Park is an interesting combination of architectural features because it was designed by two architects, the west wing by Samuel Hauduroy, a Huguenot, and showing distinct French influences, and the east by William Talman, who also designed Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Hanbury Hall close to where I live in Worcestershire. Parts of a pre-existing Tudor mansion at Dryham were demolished as the two wings of this house were completed.

William Blathwayt married heiress Mary Wynter in 1686 whose family owned the Tudor mansion at Dryham. Mary died in 1691, leaving William with three children, and she never saw the building of the house we see today.

From the outside, this is a magnificent building in quite an extraordinary setting.

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The view from the east facing front door.

The estate lies to the west of the A46 (that connects Bath and Stroud), and the car park is close to the entrance. There’s a shuttle bus to the house (which I was very grateful for yesterday) or you can walk down a winding and rather steep road to the house, or across the park. It’s remarkable because Dyrham lies at the bottom of a valley, almost in an amphitheatre, surrounded by the most magnificent mature trees. From up above in the car park you would have no idea what lies over the brow of the hill. And looking at early drawings of the site, and seeing the park today, you have to wonder at the imagination of the creators of estates such as Dyrham, for they would obviously never live to see their creations as they had planned them.

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It was the home of the Blathwayt family until the 1950s; however, Dyrham Park has been owned by the National Trust since the 1960s. Last year there was a major project to repair the roof and make the property water-tight once again. There is only access to rooms on the ground floor, but there are plans, budget permitting, to restore the house to its former glory. Most of the rooms do not have furniture, although there is a selection of oil paintings on display in many.

Unlike many houses we have visited, the Orangery is connected to the left side of the house (to the south on the east facing wing).

But, stripped of their interior decor finery, your attention is drawn to many of the fine features that exemplify 17th and early 18th century design: the fireplaces, the doors and their beautiful hardwood frames, and the two magnificent staircases. A couple of pieces of information caught my eye during our visit: the house was constructed from local materials in the main, but finished off using imported woods from around the world, marbles from Italy, and slates from Cornwall. Also, it seems that Blathwayt financed the construction of the house from his own resources rather than borrowing the money. He thus left his estate unencumbered by debts on his death.

Outside, there are quite small landscaped gardens leading down to two pools, and original 17th century iron gates at the far (west) end, and in need of some TLC.

St Peter’s Church is much older than the 17th century house, and has a beautiful stone tile roof. Actually three roofs, for the central nave and side aisles. William Blathwayt is buried in the churchyard.

Above the church are ‘Mr Blathwayt’s Lost Terraces’, now mostly overgrown.



20160812 052 Dyrham Park

Next to the terraces lies the deer park and, with advice from other visitors to Dyrham yesterday, we tracked down the large herd of fallow deer that was resting nearby.

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20160812 082 Dyrham Park

Dyrham Park is on a trajectory to former glory. We look forward to visiting again in a couple of years once further restoration has been completed, and more rooms (fully furnished) are once again open to the public. And hopefully by then I’ll be able to take full advantage of the walking opportunities through the park once my leg is fully healed.


Homes fit for a king (or queen): one slighted, the other opulent . . .

Corfe Castle, standing on a conical hill in gap in the chalk Purbeck Hills, commands a stunning view north over the rolling hills of Dorset, and guards access to the Isle of Purbeck to the south. Today it is a glorious ruin.

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20160705 036 Corfe Castle

Looking north over the rolling Dorset landscape.

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South towards the village of Corfe and the Isle of Purbeck.

It was built by William I (The Conqueror) in the 11th century, underwent significant changes during the following two centuries, and remained a royal possession until the reign of Elizabeth. She sold it in 1572, and it was later purchased by Sir John Bankes in 1635. And it is through the Bankes family that the histories of Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy House, some 18 miles to the north, are linked.

During the English Civil War, Lady Mary Bankes led the defence of Corfe Castle when attacked by Parliamentarian forces. Corfe was one of the last bastions of royalist support in southern England. Lady Mary was permitted to leave the castle unharmed, but it was soon demolished by the Parliamentarians (yet another castle slighted), and these have proudly dominated the landscape ever since. Corfe Castle is now owned and managed by the National Trust.

So, what is the link with Kingston Lacy House? Having been turfed out of Corfe Castle, the family moved north to their estates near Wimborne Minster and built this sumptuous country house, rather modest but very attractive on the outside. However, what an Aladdin’s Cave inside! It must be surely among the top three of all National Trust properties in terms of the treasures on display. One of the National Trust’s ‘jewels in the crown’.

20160610 001 Kingston Lacy

Construction of Kingston Lacy House began after 1663; the family had regained its prosperity when Charles II was restored to the throne. Rather than reconstruct Corfe Castle, Sir Ralph Bankes, the eldest son, chose to construct a family home on their estates near Wimborne Minster. What is particularly interesting is that the Bankes family occupied Kingston Lacy House continually from the late 17th century until 1981, when the house and its fabulous contents were bequeathed to the National Trust.

The entrance hall and stairs are solid marble. Statues of Sir John and Lady Mary Bankes can be seen on the first floor landing (alongside one of King Charles I). There are large windows looking out over the parterre, and the stairway leads up to some magnificent (but rather gory) paintings of hunting scenes. The plaster ceiling and paintings are magnificent.

But it’s in the sitting room, the library and other salons that the magnificence of Kingston Lacy House is shown off to its ultimate best. The walls are adorned with paintings by the Old Master including Van Dyck. The ceilings are decorated in the most opulent manner.

On the top floor are the nursery rooms, but even here are opulent paintings depicting the whole family originally from Corfe Castle (including those children already deceased—with angel wings), a painting of the Circumcision of Christ, and bedrooms under the eaves painted like tents.

Even the servants’ dining hall has old paintings!

Outside there are extensive gardens and parkland—a real pleasure to explore.

There’s so much to see at Kingston Lacy House that it’s definitely worth a second visit if we are ever back in that part of Dorset. It’s a veritable feast for the eyes.

We visited both properties during our summer break in the New Forest. Our eldest grandson Callum (who is from Minnesota) told us that he wanted to see a castle during his holiday over here in England. His disappointment was evident when he first saw the ruin. “That’s not a castle,” he exclaimed. But it wasn’t long before he and his sister and two cousins, Zoë, Elvis and Felix were having a whale of a time exploring the whole site, and dressing up in medieval costumes.

‘A banker by hobby . . . a gardener by profession’

Along the banks of the Beaulieu River, just across from Buckler’s Hard in Hampshire, and just a few miles south of Beaulieu itself, Exbury Gardens were the inspiration of one of the scions of the Rothschild family, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. Created in the 1920s and covering more than 81 hectares (200 acres), Exbury Gardens were laid out to house Rothschild’s famous collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, including more than 1000 hybrids that he developed.


We visited at the beginning of July along with Hannah and Philippa and their families while on holiday in the New Forest.

20160711 244 New Forest holiday

Of course, most of the rhododendrons had flowered by then, and the display earlier in the year must have been truly spectacular.

But there are still plenty of lovely things to see: one of the largest rock gardens in Europe, lakes and water gardens, havens of tranquillity throughout the gardens, and slightly more formal herbaceous beds close to the house (which is not open to the public). There is one part of the garden that is only accessible by a narrow gauge steam train.

I never cease to be inspired by the originators of gardens and parkland, and the visions they had centuries ago or more recently as they planted trees that they never expected to see grow to maturity. They have, through their visions, left much of beauty for posterity.


Here a henge, there a henge . . .

On 2 July we set off from home just before 10 am, heading south towards the New Forest in Hampshire, where we stayed for a week with our daughters Hannah and Philippa and their families.

The trip south was about 143 miles, on the route we took. That was south on the M5 motorway, over the Cotswolds to Swindon, then on south via Salisbury to our destination.

We broke our journey at Avebury in Wiltshire, a World Heritage Site, a dozen miles south of Swindon.

Avebury has two attractions: Avebury Henge and stone circles, and Avebury Manor, once the home of Alexander Keiller (of the marmalade family) who spent many years in the 1930s discovering the archaeology of this ancient Neolithic site.

aerial-avebury (eng-heritage)

Avebury village and stone circle.

There is something enchanting about stone circles and , lost in the mists of time, it’s hard to imagine why and how ancient Neolithic people erected these thousands of years ago.

Entering Avebury you certainly do not get an impression of just how big the earthworks are. It’s only when you are on the ground, and see the massive ditches (the henges) that the full impact of their construction—by hand—using the most rudimentary of tools like antlers, really hits you. Of course there are other henges in the vicinity: Stonehenge and Woodhenge, to name just a couple. But this Wiltshire landscape for some reason is an area of considerable Neolithic activity. Due to my current disability, and not wanting to spend too much time walking over uneven surfaces, we did not explore the henge and stone circle as much as I would have wanted.

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20160702 005 Avebury

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Avebury Manor is a 16th century building, that was restored by Keiller. But in 2011 its refurbishment was the subject of the BBC TV series The Manor Reborn, by a group of experts in collaboration with the National Trust. There is no consistent theme throughout the manor’s decoration, each room representing a different period in its history. It’s an interesting concept, but from my perspective this doesn’t allow a visitor satisfactorily to develop a solid impression of the house and its worth. There’s no doubt that it is a beautiful building in a rural setting. I thought the mishmash of historical themes was inappropriate and it would have been better to have chosen a single era for its decoration. nevertheless I do recognise that the BBC’s and experts’ involvement in this way have probably helped save the building in a better state for the future.

Almost 500 years and 21 monarchs later . . .

Yes, almost 500 years and 21 monarchs, not counting the Commonwealth (1649-1660) under Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard, nor the joint monarchy of William III and Mary II as two.

Built between 1539 and 1540, during the reign of Tudor monarch Henry VIII, Calshot Castle has proudly guarded the approaches to Southampton Water in southern England under almost continual occupation since then.

20160709 062 Calshot Castle

The south face of Calshot Castle, with an 18th century extension on the left.

Situated at the tip of Calshot Spit it commands a view over The Solent towards the Isle of Wight to the south, and north along Southampton Water that leads to one of England’s premier and ancient ports.

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Looking across The Solent to the Isle of Wight.

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Looking north up Southampton Water towards the Port of Southampton.

Of course it has undergone several modifications during the intervening centuries, but from the basement to the roof it’s still possible to see some of the earliest Tudor constructions. It last saw active service during the Second World War, and anti-aircraft guns were mounted on the roof. Calshot Castle is now in the care of English Heritage. We visited there during our recent holiday in Hampshire. It was quite windy the day we headed along Calshot Spit. I thought that perhaps we would spend at most 30 minutes looking round the castle. We must have been there for almost two hours. Calshot Castle is fascinating, and its history just oozes from the fabric of the building.

The Royal Air Force maintained an air station there for many decades, and it was the site for seaplane and flying boat operations. There’s an interesting museum in the castle detailing this. Calshot was also the site for the 1929 Schneider Trophy air race. Today, the original hangars have been given a new lease of life as a recreation center. A lifeboat station and coastguard tower have also been constructed alongside the castle.

A new railway station for Bromsgrove (updated 5 October 2018)

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It has taken about three years or more to complete, but finally, on 12 July 2016, Bromsgrove’s new railway station in northeast Worcestershire opened for business as the first train pulled in, on time, at 6:21 am.

Bromsgrove station opens

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So, 176 years after the first station opened on what was then the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, Bromsgrove has a new station worthy of the 21st century, and managed by London Midland.

Bromsgrove station in 1960, looking south to where the new railway station has been constructed.

Bromsgrove’s one platform station in 1981.

Bromsgrove station in 2012, looking north up the Lickey Incline, taken from the down line platform.

As with many infrastructure projects nowadays it seems, there have been several delays in completing this project. The station should have opened by Autumn 2015. Built on the site of the old carriage works, hidden signalling cables and a previously unmapped culvert required extensive additional engineering works to resolve these issues. In addition, hundreds of tonnes of oil-contaminated soil had to be removed from the site.

Now Bromsgrove proudly boasts of a modern, four platform station provided with lift access to all platforms, a ticket office, bicycle store, toilets, and parking for over 300 cars (payable by the day, week, month or annually). Regular bus services will connect the station with the town center over a mile away.

The new station replaces a two platform facility that was upgraded from a single platform (on the up line, towards Birmingham New Street) in the mid-1980s. Until then, trains on the down line (towards Worcester) were diverted on to the up line for the short period necessary to disembark and take on new passengers. Not the most convenient situation, as you can imagine, and one that led to serious traffic restrictions on this busy main line connecting the West Midlands with the south west (Gloucester, Bristol, South Wales, and beyond).

The station is about half a mile from my home, but I rarely used the train when I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s. Even though the trains from Bromsgrove to Birmingham stopped at only one other station: University (right in the heart of the University of Birmingham campus, essentially).

The old station, at the foot of the famous Lickey Incline could accommodate trains with only three carriages. The new station has the length for six carriage trains, and once the electrification of the line has been extended from Barnt Green at the top of the Incline to Bromsgrove, a schedule of four or more trains per hour can be accommodated. Not only will stopping trains park on one of the platform branch platforms, thus permitting express through trains to keep to their schedule, but electric trains will be able to tackle the Lickey Incline faster from a standing start¹, unlike today’s diesel trains that chug up the Incline somewhat sedately.

The final platform branch line will not open until October this year, and new signalling installed. The mainline will be closed for two weeks. The final branch could not be laid until the old station closed as the curve into the fourth platform has to begin from where the old down line platform was located. Work has already begun, the old station platforms demolished, and the rails already laid ready to link into the main line later this year.

Update (November 2016)
The track laying and realignment are now complete, and new signalling has been installed. We just wait for the electrification of the line to Bromsgrove, which should be completed by this time next year.

Much to my surprise, the new main down does in fact diverge from the old main down through the new Platform 4. You can see where that track was about to be laid in the photos above. And here is the track layout today. The old station was situated immediately below the bridge from where this photo was taken, looking south to the new station.


South of the station, looking north to the station, you can see the new track layout, with the new through down on the right.




A down express passing at speed through the new Platform 4 loop

Just south of the station, and on the left of this photo is a small siding for ‘bankers’—locomotives that add power to freight trains waiting to climb the Lickey Incline. They sit at the rear and gives a well-deserved push. Here’s a video from YouTube that illustrates what I mean (before the new station was built and track layout changed. However, this freight train was waiting on the freight loop that has been realigned in the recent work).

Also, the freight loop, that passes through Platform 1, is on the left.



Update (5 October 2018)
Electrification finally came to Bromsgrove at the end of July 2018. There had been serious delays, and Bromsgrove commuters were becoming increasingly angry about the delays to their promised new services.

But the overhead wires were finally installed and went live at the end of May to permit testing of the new installations and driver training before the implementation of the new services. Over the next few weeks, empty trains passed between Birmingham and Bromsgrove.

Bromsgrove is now served by West Midlands Railway, and there are five trains an hour into Birmingham New Street at peak times. Some are Class 323 electric units on the Cross City Line (that now connects Bromsgrove with Lichfield to the north of Birmingham), others are the same old diesel-powered Class 170 units that connect Bromsgrove with Birmingham and Hereford.

As I mentioned earlier in this story when I posted it in August 2016, it was expected that the new electric units would power up the Lickey Incline faster¹ than the diesel ones. Two minutes faster in fact! That might not seem much, but with additional platforms at Bromsgrove to accommodate waiting trains, and faster trains clearing the Lickey Incline sooner, the through expresses are not affected, and more trains per hour can be run. Well, someone filmed the difference between the Class 323 and Class 170 trains; here is the video:




Light of foot, nimble of finger . . .

Luke Lightfoot. Never heard of him? Neither had I until just over a couple of weeks ago when we visited the National Trust’s Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, south of Buckingham, east of Bicester.

20160719 110 Claydon House

20160719 112 Claydon House

Claydon House is close to two other National Trust properties, Waddesdon Manor and Stowe, perhaps more illustrious, and probably they receive far more visitors.

So how does Claydon compare? I think that anyone who visits Claydon House will come away with a sense of wonder of what 18th century master carver and stonemason Luke Lightfoot achieved for his employer, Ralph 2nd Earl Verney who rebuilt the family ancestral home between 1757 and 1771. The Verney family still occupies the red brick wings of the house.

The building standing today is just part of what was originally planned, and at least one wing was demolished. Although the exterior of the building is often described as austere, I think it has a charming symmetry and simplicity.

The interiors however, are something else—a riot of rococo wood carving of the very highest standard. Perhaps the most exquisite examples of 18th century carving to be seen anywhere in the country.

Luke Lightfoot, born in London in 1722, is somewhat of a mystery. Here’s what the National Trust has to say about him: Luke Lightfoot was a brilliant and talented stonemason and carver, but not an architect. However, Sir Ralph Verney engaged him as such at Claydon where Lightfoot used his skills to make impressive carvings, most notably in the north hall here at Claydon. He was a very talented carver but not a very trustworthy one and he swindled away a lot of Sir Ralph’s money before being dismissed. 

Most of the work done by Luke survives today, including the painted wooden carvings in the Chinese Room. All of the wood was painted white, which is believed to be because it was all carved in pine which comes in many shades and discolours over time. Due to the preserving coat of paint you can still see the unique and amazing craftsmanship of the carvings today.

The main entrance of the house leads into the Saloon, a beautifully proportioned room decorated in blue and white. You can’t fail to be impressed by the ceiling decoration, or the papier mâché reliefs high up on the walls.

But it’s in the North Hall that some of Lightfoot’s best carving is to be seen.

In the library there is equally fine carving high on the walls, but the ceiling was completed by Joseph Rose.

The Grand Staircase is in a class of its own. Can there be a finer example in England?

In the Pink Parlor, the door lintels are surmounted by other carvings depicting Aesop’s Fables, and the ceiling of the Great Red Room immediately above has some impressive ‘domes’.

Florence Nightingale was the sister of the second wife, Parthenope, of Sir Henry Verney (1801-1894), and she visited Claydon many times. On the second floor is the bedroom she used. Next door is the Gothic Room in which the only decoration that is not made of wood is the marble fireplace. Can you imagine such carving?

Next to the Gothic Room is the Chinese Room, where the rococo decoration has ‘exploded’. And more impressive ‘domes’ in the Paper Room.

Close by the house, no more than 50 m away is the Church of All Saints, with many memorials to the Verney family, and especially one to Sir Edmund Verney, Standard Bearer to King Charles I, who was killed at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642.

Don’t miss Claydon. You won’t be disappointed.

I have only shown photos here of the decoration and architectural features, and I’m grateful to the National Trust for giving me permission for photography in the house. Photography is not normally permitted, and certainly not of any of the Verney family personal effects such as masterpiece paintings and furniture. In the Salon there’s an impressive Van Dyck painting of Charles I for example, and throughout the house there are many more examples of such quality.

Claydon House is not the easiest National Trust property to find. Thankfully we had detailed Ordnance Survey maps to guide us there; signage leaves something to be desired. Road signs petered out in several places, and I did overhear other patrons mentioning this to staff on arrival. That’s something the National Trust needs to improve upon, not just here at Claydon but elsewhere around the country.

I can’t finish this particular blog post without a mention of the volunteers at Claydon, some of the friendliest and most informative we have come across in all our National Trust visits.

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Colombia . . .

Not quite the ‘Road to Rio . . .’
I have just returned from one of the most hectic work trips I have taken in a very long time. I had meetings in three countries: Peru, Colombia, and Mexico in just over 6½ days.

And then, of course, there were four days of travel, from Birmingham to Lima (via Amsterdam), Lima to Cali (Colombia), then on to Mexico City, and back home (again via Amsterdam). That’s some going. Fortunately the two long-haul flights (BHX-AMS-LIM and MEX-AMS-BHX) were in business class on KLM. Even so the journeys from Lima to Cali (direct, on Avianca) and Cali to Mexico (via Panama City, on COPA) were 12 hours and 11 hours door-to-door, respectively, the former taking so long because we were delayed by more than 5 hours.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am leading the evaluation of the program to oversee the genebank collections in eleven of the CGIAR centers (known as the Genebanks CRP). Together with my team colleague, Marisé Borja, we met with the genebank managers at the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, in Cali), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, in Texcoco near Mexico City).

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A drop of cognac.

It all started on Sunday 24 July, when I headed off to Birmingham Airport at 04:30 for a 6 o’clock flight to Amsterdam. Not really having slept well the night before, I can’t say I was in the best shape for flying half way round the world. I had a four hour stopover in Amsterdam, and managed to make myself more or less comfortable in the KLM lounge before boarding my Boeing 777-300 Lima flight sometime after noon. There’s not a lot to do on a long flight across the Atlantic except eat, drink and (try to) sleep. I mainly did the first two.

It never ceases to impress me just how vast South America is. Once we crossed the coast of Venezuela and headed south over the east of Colombia and northern Peru we must have flown for about three hours over rain forest as far as you could see. I wish I’d taken a few pictures of the interesting topography of abandoned river beds and oxbow lakes showing through all that dense vegetation. At one point we flew over a huge river, and there, on its banks, was a city, with an airport to the west. I checked later on Google Maps, and I reckon it must have been Iquitos in northern Peru on the banks of the Amazon. Over 2000 miles from the Atlantic, ocean going ships can sail all the way to Iquitos. I once visited Iquitos in about 1988 in search of cocoa trees, and we crossed the Amazon (about two miles wide at this point) in a small motorboat.

Then the majestic Andes came into view, and after crossing these we began our long descent into Lima, with impressive views of the mountains all the way and, nearer Lima, the coastal fogs that creep in off the Pacific Ocean and cling to the foothills of the Andes.

We landed on schedule at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima around 18:00 (midnight UK time) so I had been travelling almost 20 hours since leaving home. I was quickly through Immigration and Customs, using the Preferencial (Priority) line reserved for folks needing special assistance. My walking stick certainly gives me the edge these days on airlines these days.

Unfortunately, the taxi that had been arranged to take me to my hotel, El Condado, in the Lima district of Miraflores (where Steph and I lived in the 1970s) was a no-show. But I quickly hired another through one of the official taxi agencies inside the airport (necessary because of the various scams perpetrated by the cowboy taxi drivers outside the terminal) at half the price of the pre-arranged taxi.

After a quick shower, I met up with old friends and former colleagues at CIP, Dr Roger Rowe and his wife Norma. I first joined CIP in January 1973, and Roger joined in July that same year as CIP’s first head of Breeding & Genetics. He was my first boss!

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They were in the bar, and we enjoyed several hours of reminiscences, and a couple of pisco sours (my first in almost two decades), and a ‘lite bite’ in the restaurant. It must have been almost 11 pm before I settled into bed. That was Sunday done and dusted. The work began the following morning.

All things potatoes . . . and more
I haven’t been to CIP since the 1990s. Given the tight schedule of meetings arranged for us, I didn’t get to see much more than the genebank and dining room.

CIP has a genebank collection of wild and cultivated potatoes (>4700 samples or accessions, most from the Andes of Peru), wild and cultivated sweet potatoes (>6400, Ipomoea spp.), and Andean roots and tubers (>1450) such as ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

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Native potato varieties.

Although potatoes are grown annually at the CIP experiment station at Huancayo, some six or more hours by road east of Lima, at over 10,000 feet in the Mantaro Valley, and sweet potatoes multiplied in greenhouses at CIP’s coastal headquarters at La Molina, the collections are maintained as in vitro cultures and, for potatoes at least, in cryopreservation at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The in vitro collections are safety duplicated at other sites in Peru, with Embrapa in Brazil, and botanical seeds are safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

With a disease pressure from the many diseases that affect potato in its center of origin—fungal, bacterial, and particularly viruses—germplasm may only be sent out of the country if it has been declared free of these diseases. That requires growth in aseptic culture and treatments to eradicate viruses. It’s quite an operation. And the distribution does not even take into account all the hoops that everyone has to jump through to comply with local and international regulations for the exchange of germplasm.

The in vitro culture facilities at CIP are rather impressive. When I worked at CIP more than 40 years ago, in vitro culture was really in its infancy. Today, its application is almost industrial in scale.

Our host at CIP was Dr David Ellis, genebank manager, but we also met with several of the collection curators and managers.

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L to R: Ivan Manrique (Andean roots and tubers), Alberto Salas (consultant, wild potatoes), Marisé Borja (evaluation team), me, René Gómez (Senior Curator), David Ellis.

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Alberto Salas, now in his 70s, worked as assistant to Peruvian potato expert Prof. Carlos Ochoa. Alberto’s wealth of knowledge about wild potatoes is enormous. I’ve known Alberto since 1973, and he is one of the most humble and kind persons I have ever met.

Prior to our tour of the genebank, René Gómez and Fanny Vargas of the herbarium had found some specimens that I had made during my studies in Lima during 1973 and 1974. I was also able to confirm how the six digit germplasm numbering system with the prefix ’70’ had been introduced and related to earlier designations.

It was great to see how the support from the Genebanks CRP has brought about so many changes at CIP.

Lima has changed so much over the past couple of decades. It has spread horizontally and upwards. So many cars! In the district of Miraflores where we used to live, the whole area has been refurbished and become even smarter. So many boutiques and boutique restaurants. My only culinary regret is that the famous restaurant La Rosa Nautica, on a pier over the Pacific Ocean closed down about two months ago. It served great seafood and the most amazing pisco sours.

All too soon our two days in Lima were over. Next stop: Cali, Colombia.

Heading to the Cauca Valley . . . 
Our Avianca flight to Cali (an Embraer 190, operated by TACA Peru) left on time at 10:25. Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seat belt sign, and I headed to the toilet at the front of the aircraft, having been turned away from the one at the rear. Strange, I thought. I wasn’t allowed to use the one at the front either. It seems that both refused to flush. The captain decided to return to Lima, but as we still almost a full load of fuel, he had to burn of the excess so we could land safely. So, at cruising altitude and as we descended, he lowered the undercarriage and flaps to create drag which meant he had to apply more power to the engines to keep us flying, thereby burning more fuel. Down and down we went, circling all the time, for over an hour! We could have made it to Cali in the time it took us to return to Lima. We could have all sat there with legs crossed, I guess.

Once back on the ground, engineers assessed the situation and determined they could fix the sensor fault in about a couple of hours. We were taken back to the terminal for lunch, and around 15:30 we took off again, without further incident.

But as we waited at the departure gate for a bus to the aircraft, there was some impromptu entertainment by a group of musicians.

Unfortunately because of our late arrival in Cali, we missed an important meeting with the CIAT DG, who was not available the following days we were there.

CIAT was established in 1967, and is preparing for its 5oth anniversary next year.