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July 30 2012

Brunel's Great Western railway given preservation head of steam

English Heritage lists or upgrades status of dozens of bridges, tunnels and other structures along 'god's wonderful railway'

Dozens of bridges, tunnels, viaducts and station buildings that were part of the original Great Western railway are being listed or upgraded to ensure their preservation.

Begun in 1836 and dubbed "god's wonderful railway", the structures are testament to the genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer who Kenneth Brannagh played in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday.

One of the newly listed structures is Box tunnel in Wiltshire which was, according to railway legend, deliberately aligned by Brunel so the rising sun would shine through it every year on 9 April, his birthday. In the 20th century the tunnel was linked by secret lines and tunnels to a complex of military stores and shelters, burrowed into a hill already honeycombed with old quarry works.

The line, which brought trains thundering across England, from London to Bristol and later on into Wales – originally on the huge wheels of Brunel's broad gauge which gave a smoother ride but was more expensive and was eventually abandoned – was regarded as a marvel from the start. Brunel, typically, had a hand in everything from surveying the route to designing decorative ironwork for the stations.

Turner's famous 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed shows a locomotive crossing the Thames over Brunel's Maidenhead bridge, which is believed to have the longest and flattest brick arches ever built, and is being upgraded to the highest Grade I, an honour shared by only 5% of listed buildings.

The portals to other tunnels – as grand as entrances to mansions or the Roman arches Brunel sometimes consciously evoked – Fox's Wood, Saltford, Chipping Sodbury and the Severn tunnel are also being listed. So are the ventilation shafts at Chipping Sodbury – essential in the age of steam in a two-and-a-half-mile tunnel, and topped with battlements to make them look prettier from the nearby Badminton estate.

The modest footbridge at Sydney Gardens in Bath, recently identified as the last of Brunel's cast-iron bridges on the railway, is upgraded to Grade II*, along with the tunnel portals at St Anne's in Bristol and the Twerton Wood near Bath.

"It is just such a masterpiece by the mighty Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a railway project of international importance," said Emily Gee, head of listing at English Heritage. "It is highly engineered, and yet he maintains such a respect for the landscape and history of the places he takes it to."

The heritage minister, John Penrose, said: "Our railways and the historic buildings that go along with them are a wonderful and emotive part of our national heritage, symbolising for many of us a sense of romance, history and adventure. And nowhere more so, perhaps, than on the Great Western railway."

The listings and upgrades of one station – the modest stone building on the island platform at Swindon – four viaducts 12 tunnel structures and 26 bridges including the wonderfully named triple arched Silly bridge in Oxfordshire, almost double the number of listed structures on the line. Railway history enthusiasts hope the entire Great Western railway will eventually become a world heritage site, but so far the government has not formally proposed it to Unesco.

Those listed were chosen from more than 500 buildings and structures considered in extensive consultations between English Heritage, Network Rail, local authorities and railway and engineering history groups. The decision was taken against listing three stations, Maidenhead, Taplow and Newbury, and four bridges because they have been extensively altered or rebuilt.


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June 08 2012

There's a strange beauty to the Hoo peninsula. Is this any place for an airport? | Ian Jack

Along with birds and their habitat, the hidden traces of Hoo peninsula's previous eras of industry will be buried by railways and runways

I'm not sure I fully understand the term "psychogeography". To me, it means the exploration of an unlikely place or a hidden aspect of a place, and whenever I hear it I think of Sunday walks in my childhood, when we would follow an overgrown and neglected path and sometimes scrape away the turf to discover a square stone with bolt holes drilled through it. As beetles hurried this way and that across its surface, my older brother would explain that the stone had once held an iron rail and that the path had once been a wagon-way, built in the 18th century to take coal from the Fife pits to a harbour on the Forth.As nobody else seemed to know or care about these facts, I felt I was sharing a historical secret. There were several of them close by: dark, deep ponds that had once been quarries; a ruined slipway built to take seaplanes; steel rings that had tethered barrage balloons; an abandoned railway tunnel where bats flew. Like a great many people in what was at that time an industrial country, I grew up in a landscape that was interestingly pockmarked with successive eras of exploitation, and all of it so commonplace that beyond a mention of its origins, Watt's engine or Crompton's spinning mule, it never found a place in the history books.

Almost all of that Fife landscape has now been buried without ceremony by motorways and housing estates, but equivalents can be found elsewhere, none of them grander and stranger than that part of Kent known as the Hoo peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames and which, if Norman Foster and Boris Johnson have their way, could become the most vital stretch of land in Britain. As the location of Foster's proposed Thames Hub, the Hoo peninsula will be paved with new railways and docks and the four-runway airport with which Johnson wants to replace overcrowded Heathrow. A new Thames barrier will generate electricity from the currents and tide. Passengers who land there will take ongoing flights and containers ongoing trains.

The scheme is so ambitious – Foster says it requires us "to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears" – that estimating the cost beyond dozens of billions is pointless. Nevertheless, David Cameron has included it among the options to be considered when the government decides how the UK can continue to provide a hub airport for Europe: pledges to the voters of west London having ruled out Heathrow's expansion.

If Hoo were chosen, which isn't unlikely, the question then becomes: what would be destroyed to make way for it? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, as usual, the quickest and simplest answer – the wetland habitats of visiting species – but beyond that the losses are less definable, and not so easy to raise a fuss over. Since Dickens's day, the creeks and marshes of Hoo have had a bleak form of celebrity as the spot where Pip first met Magwitch, and where prison hulks (Magwitch had just escaped from one of them) could be occasionally glimpsed through the mist on the Medway. In fact, the countryside is prettier and hillier than you expect. On a hot day last week, workers from Poland and Bulgaria were spreading straw across fields of strawberries while the knapped flint of Hoo's several 13th-century churches shone in the sun. There is also a 14th-century castle owned by Jools Holland and a workaday marina, about as far from Cowes in its social atmosphere as it's possible to get.

The main impression is of tremendous utility. Power lines sag west towards London to take electricity from the power stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, whose chimneys stand solid against the sky. A diesel rumbles along a single-track freight line with a train of containers from the dock near the peninsula's tip. And beside this present activity lies the evidence of older industries come and gone. A good guide will point out the hollows in the tidal reaches that were dug out in the 19th century when Medway mud was loaded into sailing barges by labourers called "muddies", taken to kilns and mixed with chalk to provide the London building boom with cement. What he needn't point out are the barges, which rot as nicely shaped timbers where the highest tide has left them and are in their way picturesque.

This is also a place of blighted ambition. The railway, for instance, was built for a glamorous purpose it only briefly fulfilled. Trains would take cross-Channel passengers to a pier with a hotel attached called Port Victoria, where they could catch steamers to Belgium and cut a few minutes from journey times offered by rival companies. But only Victoria, the monarch, found much use for it and long before the second world war the Hoo line had become a little-used byway. It last saw a passenger 50 years ago. Port Victoria has been buried under oil pipelines and mud.

Then on Hoo's northerly coast, there is Allhallows-on-Sea, the Ozymandias of seaside resorts. Developed by the Southern Railway, which built a branch to it in the 1930s, Allhallows was intended to have 5,000 houses, several hotels, a zoo and Britain's largest swimming pool with a wave-making machine. Then the war intervened. Postwar Londoners failed to return as holidaymakers and the railway closed. Today a big, echoing 1930s pub, the British Pilot, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, beyond which is a park of holiday chalets and a sea wall with views across the estuary to Southend. Retired couples spend their summers there and winters in Goa or Cyprus, dividing the money released by the sale of their old homes between a chalet in Allhallows and a flat in the sun. "We don't do cold," says a tanned woman in her 60s, talking of these annual switches; while another wonders what will happen if her husband dies before her and she, a non-driver, is left alone in this inaccessible place.

Would it matter to the world beyond, other than to birds and ornithologists too, if Hoo became a giant airport and dock, clustered with warehouses, freight yards and car parks? It looks no more than a fitting next step for a peninsula that has for centuries been so ruthlessly used. Really, unless you live there, would you care?

And yet something important will go: wreckage, the traces of a previous era that have no official curator and are therefore delightful to find. High up one of Hoo's creeks sits a motorised barge, built in 1915 and long defunct, but still cared for by her last skipper, Cliff Pace, who turns the pages of his old logbook smiling at what he and his barge once achieved. "We took 3,237 bags of prunes from Albert Dock to Whitstable … 5,385 cartons of corned beef from the Victoria Dock to Stroud … 163 bundles of pick-axe handles from West India Dock to Otterham Quay." Even in the 1970s, the estuary was busy with lighters and lightermen – lovely times, says Mr Pace, but all gone. I look at his entries in the logbook and feel, just for a second, the same sensation of discovery that came when a carpet of moss was peeled from a square stone, the beetles scattered and my brother said, "Look…"


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May 29 2012

'It really took me aback' - Jonathan Edwards meets train wreck likeness

• Train operator commissions sculpture of British Olympic hero
• Sculpture of Edwards made entirely from used train parts

The triple jump world record-holder Jonathan Edwards has unveiled a life-size sculpture of himself – made entirely from used train parts.

The special moment when Edwards paraded a Union flag after winning gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics is recalled in brake pads, springs, seat frames and bolts, among the 150 components from diesel and electric trains. Weighing 770lb, the sculpture took two weeks to build, with all parts sourced from East Coast's engineering depots across the UK.

After the great reveal on the new western concourse at London's King's Cross station, Edwards said: "The sculpture is very striking and really took me aback when I first saw it. It's incredible to think it was possible to create such a structure from old bits of train, but it has been crafted brilliantly."

The gleaming tribute by Ptolemy Elrington was commissioned by the East Coast train operator. It will be displayed at key stations along the East Coast main line with the aim of raising awareness of rail travel to London this summer.

These include York station from 30 May to 3 June and York's National Railway Museum from 4 to 10 June. It heads to Leeds station (12-15 June), Newcastle station (19-25 June) and Edinburgh's Waverley station (26June-4 July).


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November 18 2010

Crossrail designs go with the flow

British architects and engineers have shaped calm, elegant and free-flowing spaces for the capital's 2018 east-west rail link

Sudden demolitions. Unexpected views of central London opened up as if someone has taken a giant tin opener to the city's skyline. The disappearance of much loved venues, including the London Astoria on Charing Cross Road. Heated arguments over the compulsory purchase of properties along the route. A fear, even, that anthrax and bubonic plague might be released from mass 16th-century graves under Smithfield.

These urban dramas and revelations prove that, at long last, Crossrail – the £16bn mainline railway linking far-flung east and west London suburbs through four miles of tunnels between Paddington and Farringdon – is finally on its metalled march.

Today, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and Theresa Villiers, the transport minister, unveiled the designs of the eight new stations that will serve Crossrail and its 200 million future passengers each year from 2018, on a service that promises a 10-coach, air-conditioned train every two and a half minutes. As Crossrail was first announced in 1989, passengers will have waited just 29 years for their first train to arrive.

The mayor, the minister, Crossrail and its owner, Transport for London, are determined that this bold new venture will be nothing less than impressive. And efficient. "As Crossrail moves from the drawing board to reality," said Johnson today at the New London Architecture gallery, "we can see the breathtaking benefits it will bring to our city, and I'm thrilled Londoners can finally see the designs of the world-class stations we will construct. When complete, they will run east to west in a solid backbone of quality infrastructure and style."

The style of the stations, by British architects and engineers with a solid track record – among them Norman Foster, Allies and Morrison and John McAslan – appears to be sober, robust and calmly elegant. Whether in the booking offices, concourses or platforms of Paddington, Tottenham Court Road or Farringdon, every effort appears to have been made to shape generous and free-flowing spaces designed to cope with future demand. The lessons of the high-quality Jubilee line extension between Westminster and Stratford have been learned. Flow is all.

The simple finishes of the stations – concrete, aluminium, steel, glass, recessed and diffused lighting, a minimal palette of colours – reflect a belief that these structure are engineering-led and designed for optimum efficiency. The architecture of each – drawing daylight from streets above wherever possible – is free from fashion or whimsy. The sheer number of passengers passing through these spacious stations will provide more than enough noise, people and colour.

Crossrail's computer-generated images, however, show the eight central stations peopled by just a few relaxed, nattily dressed travellers who look as if they might be boarding the Orient Express rather than a commuter train to Heathrow, Shenfield, Abbey Wood or Maidenhead.

"London has a glorious railway design history," said Villiers, "that ranges from the Brunel-designed Paddington station, through Charles Holden's Tube stations of the 1920s and 30s to the revival of St Pancras International. Crossrail intends to build on this design legacy and create cost-effective stations fit for the 21st century while regenerating local communities."

After so very long, Londoners will expect trains to run on time, allowing only, perhaps, for the wrong sort of disease – bubonic plague – if not the wrong strand of design on the line.


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June 23 2010

Battersea power station fires up for London stock market listing

• Irish owners refinance and want to list the project on Aim
See our gallery of previous redevelopment plans

The troubled owners of Battersea power station have unveiled plans to float the building on the stock exchange in the latest in a string of attempts to redevelop the derelict London landmark.

Despite numerous plans for the 40-acre site, it has stood empty for more than a quarter of a century while the rest of the Thames waterfront around it has undergone huge change.

Now Irish property group Real Estate Opportunities (REO), which bought the Battersea site in 2006 for £400m, wants to spin it off and possibly float it on London's Alternative Investment Market (Aim). It is also looking for a partner to take a 50% stake in the project and provide the financial firepower.

REO has been hit hard by the Irish property slump. It reported an underlying loss before tax of nearly £1bn for the 14 months to 28 February, reflecting an £811m drop in the valuation of its property portfolio.

The firm has drawn up a shortlist of possible investors after being approached by a number of international real estate groups, private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds from around the world, including the Middle East.

REO hopes to get permission to redevelop the site in September after submitting the largest ever planning application made in central London, in terms of financial value, last autumn. If it gets the go-ahead, the site's value is expected to soar from the current valuation of £388m.

"It's an opportunity to turn the power station into a cultural icon for London," said Robert Tincknell, who runs REO's parent firm, Treasury Holdings. "A year ago, people were saying 'it's not going to happen'. That's changed enormously over the last 12 months, with the planning permission having gone in and the support we have [from the London mayor, Boris Johnson, English Heritage and Wandsworth Council]." The Conservatives launched their election manifesto at the power station in April.

Treasury Holdings was forced to tear up its plans for the imposing building, one of London's most recognisable landmarks, and start again after Johnson decided that a proposed tower would ruin the view from Waterloo Bridge to the Palace of Westminster. The original plan, drawn up by the New York-based architect Rafael Viñoly, included a futuristic 300m glass funnel and atrium, rising from an enormous transparent dome.

Viñoly and Treasury Holdings came up with a new blueprint a year ago that is capped at a height of 60m, as stipulated by the mayor. It includes 3,700 homes, office space, shops, restaurants and leisure facilities, at a cost of £4.5bn. Treasury Holdings also hopes to co-fund an extension of London Underground's Northern Line to the site.

The high cost means the company needs a partner – "someone who can bring big financial strength to it to make sure it happens," said Tincknell. Building work could start at the end of 2011.

When the power station was decommissioned in 1983, its then owners, the Central Electricity Generating Board, wanted to tear down the building and replace it with housing, but it had been given a Grade II listing in 1980. For developers, the real prize is the land around it; most have little interest in its heritage status.

REO said today it had negotiated new lending terms for Battersea with Lloyds Banking Group and Nama – Ireland's "bad bank" – which means its existing bank facility will be extended and all outstanding breaches waived.


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March 15 2010

Raising the Euston Arch

Plans to redevelop the London station could include the resurrection of its much-missed Doric gateway. Let's hope so

Could it happen? Might the wondrous Euston Arch, so wrongfully demolished in 1962, return to front the new "super-terminus" planned to send a future generation of 250mph trains scything from London to Birmingham in 49 minutes – and beyond to Merseyside, Manchester and Glasgow? It is just possible.

A magnificent Greek Revival propylaeum, or monumental gateway, the Euston Arch was designed by Philip Hardwick, architect of Birmingham's Curzon Street Station, Euston's twin, and erected in 1838. Its wilful demolition was probably the greatest single act of civic and cultural barbarism in Britain between the end of the second world war and the Beatles' first LP.

The Conservative government had decided that Britain should be seen as a country finally emerging from the eras of steam, smokestack industry, Victorian values and austerity. In came the M1, high-rise council flats, fin-tailed family Morrises, pop groups and Midland Red express coaches from Birmingham to London. Out went the Euston Arch.

The 72-ft-high Doric gateway had been a brilliant conceit. It fronted the equally impressive Great Hall of the London terminus, built originally for Britain's first long-distance – or trunk – railway, the London and Birmingham. Such early railways saw themselves as the industrial-age inheritors of ancient Greek and Roman values, although they were determined to outstrip these lauded cultures in sheer daring, grandeur and engineering prowess. The London and Birmingham would be the successor to the famous Roman roads; and what better way to nod respectfully to the ancients than to have trains running from a neo-classical terminus?

By a quirk of history, permission to demolish the Euston Arch was given by Harold Macmillan, the Tory prime minister who had been quite the classical scholar in his youth. While wounded and waiting for a stretcher to rescue him from a trench during the first world war, he passed the time reading Aeschylus in the original Greek. Neo-Greek architecture, however, clearly meant nothing to him, except in representing the age of steam that had to go as Britain tried its comic worst to become a modern nation.

How attitudes have changed. Today, Dan Cruickshank, founder of the Euston Arch Trust, says: "What better way to mark High Speed 2 [the proposed London to Birmingham line] than restoring this spectacular monument as a landmark gateway to the new Euston. The architectural drama of the arch would be the perfect match for the excitement of the 250mph trains."

"The perfect match": the very latest in 21st-century railway technology married to the classical poetry of 19th-century Greek revival architecture. This match would have seemed illogical and wrong to Macmillan's generation of out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new modernisers. Today, though, the successful and hugely popular renovation of St Pancras station, just down the road from Euston, has proved how well the worlds of magnanimous and dreamlike Victorian architecture work with the age of the super-fast train.

With luck, the arch will soon be fronting a brand new Euston station, replacing the dreary, communist Europe-style steel box that weaseled its way here to coincide with the arrival of the latest (and excellent) blue-and-white electric InterCity expresses of the mid-1960s. Few, I feel, will mourn the passing of this glum, air-terminal design, one in which trains themselves are invisible and there is nowhere to sit to wait for them.

Architects have yet to be chosen for the new terminus, although the property developer British Land, hoping for the gig, has been working with Foreign Office Architects (recently disbanded) and Allies and Morrison on the project. Illustrations revealed a couple of years ago showed a station looking like a cross between Heathrow Terminal 5 and London's Westfield shopping centre. A railway station, however, should be a railway station, and hopefully the architectural ambition of the future terminus will live up to both the drama of the £30bn 250mph High Speed 2 [High Speed 1 runs from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel] and that of the Euston Arch itself.

Meanwhile, the architect Terry Farrell, recently appointed architectural advisor to the mayor of London, has been drawing up a compelling plan to transform London's seedy and dismal Euston Road into a handsome avenue worthy of the new Euston and the revived St Pancras stations.

As for the arch: this is to be rebuilt, at an estimated cost of £10m, with rooms in its ample attic and basement to be fashioned into bars and galleries. Lifts secreted into the end walls will carry visitors up and down Hardwick's Doric tour-de-force.

I have no idea where Gordon Brown or David Cameron stand on architecture, ancient or modern, but I hope they will give every encouragement to a project that might just be one of the finest adventures in urban planning, design, engineering and conservation – all working together – that Britain has witnessed since Macmillan and his ruthless fellow modernisers condemned the much-missed arch nearly 50 years ago.


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