Death of a Landmark

Gardiners Corner Fire 2To most firefighters, calls to incidents have a tendency to become routine. An incident may be life-changing to the individuals involved in them particularly if it something like a fire in their own home, but after a few years service, firefighters tend to view such things as “Just another job”.

Occasionally and incident will occur that will forever stick in ones mind and  I was involved  in once such incident in 1972. Early one evening my fire station at Plaistow received a call not to go to a fire but to go to Poplar Fire Station instead. This was because that particular fire stations appliances, (fire engines), including those of other surrounding fire stations had already been called and detained at an incident. This left the area temporarily denuded of fire cover and that was the purpose of the appliance I was driving going to another station to cater for the deficiency.

Our route took us over Canning Town Bridge to East India Dock Road. It was clear from the amount of radio traffic that the incident, a fire at a large and well-known department store named Gardiners was becoming bigger by the minute.

Long before our arrival at Poplar Fire Station we heard a priority message being sent by the Officer-in-charge of the incident requesting many more fire appliances to deal with the fast growing incident. Within a few seconds of that message being sent my own fire appliance received a message to go direct to the incident instead.

Our destination was Gardiners Department store located on the junction of Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road..Even when we were still some way from the incident it was possible to see the flames engulfing this large building consisting of a ground and five upper floors. We parked some distance from the building to allow for our fire appliance not getting damaged in the event the building collapsed which seemed a real possibility.

Gardiners Corner FireAt  large incidents a Control Unit is always set up at where oncoming appliances book-in and crews are detailed to specific tasks.There was a lot of background noise as well from the noise of the inferno from the burning store and the sounds on numerous two-tone horns from many other fire appliances also arriving at the incident from far afield. My own crew was initial detailed to run out and man two jets of water from a position on the opposite of Whitechapel High Street onto the store. Clear instructions were also issued not to get any closer to the store due to the danger of the building collapsing. Our jets of water however were only a temporary holding measure akin to to using a pea-shooter on a leviathan. Other specialist equipment know as Radial Branches had also been ordered.and we were waiting their arrival.

A Radial Branch is like a huge water cannon with an outlet several inches wide. The recoil from these jets are too high for an individual to hold so they are held between to steel guides mounted on a heavy base plate. A small winch and cable is also fitted to allow the angle of the jet of water to changed by lowering or raising it. The volume of water output by these branches is so great it requires two separate pumping appliances to feed them. There are also vanes built around a central hole on the inside of the outlet of these branches. The vanes create three swirling columns of water around a central water core which stops the water jet breaking up and allows it to reach much greater distances. The best way to describe the power of these jets is to imagine hitting a wall with a heavy sledge-hammer. With the hammer the force of the impact only lasts for a moment as the sledge-hammer makes contact. With a radial branch that force is constant.

The store was surrounded with about six of these radial branches after which time there was little more that could be done other than playing a vast volume of water onto the fire. The front of the store which was triangular in shape was surmounted. by a towering three sided stone and concrete clock tower. A discernable and growing lean could be seen on the clock tower until it reached the point of no return and hundreds of tons of masonry toppled backwards into the store crashing through all five floors with a tremendous noise. Once that had happened the fire started to gradually subside leaving just the outer shell of this once grand building.

In the meantime the surrounding area had become like a mini-lake with the water run-off from the store. The London Transport underground station Aldgate East has several entrances near to this incident and the flood doors to the station had to be closed and underground trains were not allowed to stop at the station.

It is incidents like this that firefighters always remember.

The store was originally built in the 1870’s and specialised in military uniforms, Scottish and children’s clothing, For many years the store was simply known as “The Scotch House” which was proudly proclaimed by a huge sign at the front of the building. Over the years the sign disappeared and the store became known as Gardiners Corner due to it’s prominent position. Gardiners Corner also became a landmark name appearing on bus route signs. For a building that lasted a century and which was demolished without trace over forty years ago, the name still lives on as a landmark. I doubt if the original Mr Gardiner could have foreseen his name becoming immortalised in such a way.

Gardiners Corner 1906

Gardiners Corner in 1906

June 2014 – A Village Affair

Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Abbas Giant

There can be little doubt that the Summer months provide a rich backdrop to outdoor activities throughout England. Most of this activity s not centred around the more grandiose sporting event like Ascot Week which tends to cater for the well heeled and shod but in the variety of village events. Fetes, dog shows, gymkhanas and a host of other local festivities which normally take place during the months of June and July.

Living close to the Somerset/Dorset border it is inevitable I will frequently venture into my bordering county. Yesterday I went to one such event in the village of Cerne Abbas in Dorset located in the Cerne Valley.

The Cerne Valley nestled in the Dorset Downs is a narrow winding, lush green valley running directly north of Dorchester towards the ancient town of Sherborne. The head of the valley being near the village of Middlemarsh and is steeped in history despite its relatively sparse population. At one time settled by the Vikings during the Dark Ages. in AD 987 a great Benedictine Abbey was established in the valley around which grew the pretty village of Cerne Abbas.

Cerne Abbas is something of a chocolate box picture village attracting coachloads of tourists in the days prior to mass car ownership. It is also famous for the figure of the Cerne Giant cut into the adjacent steep chalk hillside. There is much speculation as to the age of the giant as to whether it is Celtic, Roman or much later in origin. Whatever the truth there can be little doubt that this huge warlike figure brandishing a club was designed as a fertility symbol. Local stories still abound of young maidens wishing to ensure a future family visiting this icon on mid-summer’s day.

It was also mid-summer’s day that I visited Cerne Abbas for its annual open gardens exhibition. Except for access to a free car park, the village is closed to through traffic for the day allowing visitors to safely wander the streets. Residents of 29 properties within the village threw open their gardens to public view with the local church of St Mary providing a cream teas on the lawn service. One modest fee secured access to all gardens and monies raised are used in local good causes. Many of the buildings are heritage listed to protect both the buildings and the village from untoward development. The spire of the church dominates the local landscape..

Accompanied with a group of friends, my wife and I found it a pleasant is not slightly tiring afternoon wandering other peoples gardens. It was a good way of gaining ideas and inspiration for what may be possible in ones own garden.

On returning to friends who live close to the Cerne Valley to enjoy an evening barbeque, silently like some leviathan from a Space Odyssey, the billowing canopy of a hot-air balloon suddenly and unexpectedly came drifting across the tree tops. You never know what you are going to see next in the country.

I have added some views of the village and gardens below.

 

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Not just a Penny

One PennySometimes authors suffer from a lack of inspiration known as Writers Block. It’s a position where a mental block on new ideas arises. Fortunately I have never found myself in that position, only the problem of sometimes finding time to write. To me the world is full of inspirational subjects just waiting to be picked up and mulled around in the mind before being translated into words.

One such subject came completely “out of the blue” the other evening when I pulled a hanky from my pocket. Along with the hanky came a penny coin embroiled in its folds and which fell to the ground with the lightest of sounds. As I stooped to retrieve the penny the thought popped into my head, I wonder what the life story of this penny is?

Thought and  reasoning is a strange process that seems to work at the speed of light. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind I realised attached to this penny was a tale so vast, it stretched all the way back to Big Bang and the creation of the Universe. It is amazing how a vast concept can fill our minds in a fraction of a second but it can take a lengthy period of time to even verbally express them to others.

Piggy BankMy first though was to examine the penny a little closer and I saw the year 1980 stamped on it meaning the coin was minted 34 years ago and had been in circulation ever since. How many people have owned and used this coin in all that time? It is an impossible question to answer but potentially it could be millions. It may have been in my possession several times without my even knowing it. It might also have been silently sitting in a child’s piggy bank for a long time or many other peoples pockets or purses. The penny will have visited many homes, all the time unconsciously unobserved by its temporary owners or perhaps joined many of its companions in slot machines or shop tills from time to time.Who knows? it could even have travelled abroad many times as loose change in the pocket of a tourist. Whatever the potentially far and numerous journeys of this coin, it has travelled free and unnoticed and it still is only worth a penny.

Although the face value of my coin may only be worth a penny, it does make one wonder how many times it has been used in purchases. If it had been used say one million times in the last 34 years, this one coin would have purchased £10,000 worth of goods and services. On the face of things that seems impossible until one considers that monetary systems are essentially gyratory with the same money constantly circulating around the system from person to person, shop to shop or bank to bank. That alone throws up even more concepts of how coinage became a convenient common denominator to replace bartering systems. A banking system to control the circulation of money. Legal systems to ensure money maintained its value by making counterfeiting illegal and  that wrong doers were punished. Systems of government and trade including taxation. Even monarchs have fought and died, Empires grown and fallen all because of the value represented by coinage yet this single coin is still only worth a penny.

When my penny was newly minted it had a bright and shiny copper appearance but this quickly tarnished to its current dull brown appearance through the effects of oxidization. So even in its appearance my penny has a story to tell about chemistry..

Moltem metalBeing minted in 1980, my penny is made of bronze created from a mixture of copper, zinc and tin. Since 1992, copper-plated steel has been used instead. This is where the formidable story of my penny coin expands even further. Each of the composite elements of this coin originally had to be mined, each metal coming from different parts of the globe. Not only was each metal mined, but all had to be refined, and transported before being molten and blended together to create the new metal alloy of bronze.The metal ores themselves needed to be discovered first so just the creation of my penny coin required utilisation of exploration, mining, refining, transportation, the science of metallurgy and finally the craft of minting just to come into being. It’s a mind-boggling though that one day the value of my coin may go towards financing all of the above to produce even further coinage. However my single coin is still only worth a penny.

The story of our various metal ores that make up my penny does not start with them being mined from the ground, that is only the beginning of their more recent adventures, nor does it start with these ores being buried in the ground for a millennia. The stories of these metals goes back to the creation of the universe before they even existed as metal.

UniverseHow the universe was created is as yet unknown but the beginning has been dubbed “Big Bang” whatever its cause. At the time of creation atomic particles formed only  the simplest of atoms which where hydrogen and helium with miniscule trace amounts of everything else. All this would have happened in complete darkness as stars which provide light simply did not exist at this time. Although there are various estimates, for about the first 200 million years of the universes existence, everything was in darkness with nothing else other than vast gaseous clouds of hydrogen and helium.

As lightweight as we consider these gases, never-the-less all atoms have weight and slowly these clouds of gas were drawn together by their natural gravitational forces until they began to condense into huge balls of gas. As these balls of gas grew ever larger ever growing gravitational forces caused them to compress. Matter that is being compressed starts to give off heat in exactly the same way air in a bicycle pump gets hot when compressed. This mixture of heat and intense pressure eventually caused the process of atomic fusion to begin and the first stars began to appear in the universe shedding light to the previously dark cosmos.

Even these early stars bursting into existence did not create the molecules for the metals of my penny, it is only millions of years later when a star eventually runs out of fuel does this process rapidly happen. As a star burns it transforms its hydrogen into helium. Once a stars burns through all its hydrogen, it fuses the helium into carbon and then into nitrogen, oxygen, neon, and sodium, and then into silicon and sulphur, and then into iron, nickel, cobalt and copper. Depending on the size of the star, it rapidly contracts in its last moments throwing all this matter like an expanding shell to drift throughout the universe.This newly created matter will continue to drift through the cosmos until again under the effects of gravity it is condensed again either into new stars or into planets which will circulate those stars.

So when that penny fell from my pocket, the real story behind my initial though of “its only a penny” has touched on many aspects of our lives stretching all the way back to the creation of the universe.I cannot help but feel I have touched on but a few of those subjects and omitted many more.

Just to briefly recap the “life story” of my penny. It has been involved Big Bang, Star formation, celestial transformation, exploration, mining, refining, transportation, metallurgy, minting, chemistry, commerce, trade and banking, governance, law making and empire building to name but a few.So much from one small coin and its value still only remains a penny.

Whoever said “A penny for your thoughts”?

A fireman never dies but slowly ……………..

Fireman Sam4I sadly learned recently an old colleague of mine named Jim O’Halloron  had passed away. I first met Jim when I joined the County Borough of West Ham Fire Brigade in 1964. Jim like myself was a firefighter throughout his life and probably one of the funniest people I ever met. In 1965 when the Greater London Council (GLC) was created, West Ham Fire Brigade was absorbed into the new Greater London Fire Brigade (LFB) where we remained for the remainder of our long careers.

Jim was a very likeable person and always quick witted with something of a sardonic outlook on life, but his observations would always bring everyone in a room close to tears with laughter.

One of Jim’s ambitions was to write a book at some time in the future of his fire brigade experiences, and this he finally achieved after retirement with his hilarious book “Arson Around” which took a somewhat irreverent look at life in the fire service.

Jim was a life long supporter of West Ham Football Club, so much so, that as can be seen from the picture below, he even had his coffin painted in their colours. As also can been seen, Jim was so highly regarded, he was given a fitting  and very appropriate send-off.

I shall miss Jim and this article is a small personal tribute to a wonderful man.

Jim Funeral

May, May, May

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA  Today bore witness to Mother Natures remarkable annual transformation from Spring into Summer. Today my wife and I travelled to the City of Southampton for no other reason than we did not know the place very well and simply wanted to see it.

We left in the morning with a thick heavy clinging mist carpeting the landscape and on our return journey everything had turned a vivid lush green as leaves on just about every variety of tree burst out into the world in proclamation that Summer has arrived.

Signs that Summer was fast approaching have been apparent all week. Swallows have already arrived following their long migratory flight from South Africa, Cowslip in hedgerows and verges have grown from nothing into a tall forest of delicate white flower in less than a week. Gardeners will have not failed to notice that additional spurt in the growth of grass of the last few days. All in all  it is as if Mother Nature has been lining her troops up for a grand parade to announce the last chilly tendrils of Winter have finally lost their grip.

Although officially Summer does not start until June, nature has a way of disregarding artificial dates, nature has its own timetable irrespective of political diktat.

In modern society  as we busily scurry to and fro, we may not take too much notice on the passing of another day but certainly to our ancestors it was a day for fun, frolics and festivities. Many traditional May Day activities have however withstood the ravages of time and are still celebrated today in the UK even though they may be viewed as rather quaint by foreign visitors.

Morris DancersDancing around the May Pole the origins of which are buried in symbolic fertility at a time of year romance between young people figured highly. A young girl is usually crowned the May Queen at such events with a floral headdress.

English folk dancing performed by Morris dancers or Morris Men splendidly bedecked in floral hats and jangling bells.

Padstow in Cornwall has its own unique day long festival featuring the Obby Horse pronounced locally as the “Obby Oss” draped like a skirt from the shoulders of a local resident.. The town is ablaze with colour from early Spring plants and flowers as celebrations carry-on throughout the day. The origins of these activities have long been lost in antiquity but it is speculated that they may be pre-Christian.

Internationally the 1st May is considered “The Workers Day” frequently accompanied by parades, gatherings and speeches. The day was also used by some governments to profess their military prowess. Each year during the period term the Cold War the former USSR preceded the workers celebrations with militaristic parades of troops and weapons of mass destruction. Such parades used to be used as something of a political thermometer to gauge the current state of tension between the worlds super-powers.

As for myself, I view May Day as something of a precursor hopefully pointing the way to long pleasant days of summer warmth and outdoor activities.

 

The Life of a Road

Every time we leave our homes we travel along them, be it by foot or by public or private transport. We use them for going to work, for travelling home, going shopping or for leisure. Sometimes we pause to admire the architecture of the buildings that line them but all to frequently, we overlook the road itself. Questions of why the road is there in the first place, how it developed or why a given road follows the line that it does? Like arteries, roads provide the vital lifeblood to every country and every community.

Most of our ancient roads started their life as foot tracks, wending their way normally by the easiest geographic route avoiding where possible hills, streams and rivers. With the progression of time and usage these tracks naturally widened into paths and primitive roads. Characteristically settlements began to appear along the lines of roads particularly where two or more roads intersected.

Map 1777 Chapman & Andre-2

1777 map of Essex by Chapman and Andre

The Roman Invasion of Britain brought the first proper road building programme to  Britain. With strategically placed strongholds throughout the country, good connecting roads became essential, being able to bear the weight of chariots, carts and marching legions. With a road network ensuring the rapid movement of troops, it was possible for the Romans to ensure their military governance of Britain.  Roman roads were built in the most direct line possible and the line of these ancient roads still exist in todays road network.

After the Romans left Britain little was done to the road system for hundreds of years but the routes the Romans established between locations continued to exist. Many areas of the country languished in something of a forgotten backwater, well-off the main road system and apart from a few small settlements considered of little worthy use.

One such area stretching north from the banks of the River Thames eventually became the boroughs of West Ham and East Ham before combining into the London Borough of Newham in 1965.

Much of this area to the south was marshland. The northern part of this area was more firmer land but contained little except the main eastern section of the Roman road from London which divided at Stratford. One branch leading into Essex and the Roman settlement at Colchester and the other towards Norfolk and further north, the settlement at Peterborough.

Until the 18th century, London remained a relatively small place consisting of the two separate cities of London and Westminster. This all changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution when major British cities began to rapidly expand. As they grew so did the need for commerce which in turn meant the demand for more shipping and docks increased. The original London Docks were centred around the River Thames near the Tower of London. As London grew eastwards more docks appeared in the area of Millwall known as the Isle of Dogs. Ships at this time were still under sail and it was said that sailing by tacking to and fro into the wind around the congested river by Greenwich added another day to reach the Port of London.

The eastern growth of London along the River Thames was held in check at the then boundaries of the counties of Middlesex and Essex by the River Lea where no bridge existed. In 1809 an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the building of a bridge across the River Lea and the construction of a new road from the bridge to Barking where there was an ancient abbey.

As can be seen from the 1777 map of Essex by Chapman and Andre, Point A was the location of the new bridge and the roadway to Barking was constructed avoiding as much marshland as possible. The new road to Barking, (The Barking Road), connected with what is now Balaam Street, (point B), leading from the village of Plaistow, to Greengate Street, (Point C)), also leading from Plaistow, to Green Street, (Point D), and then on to the settlement at East Ham, later became High St North, (Point E), and the North Circular Road around London, before going direct to Barking across the River Roding at Point F.

As London continued to grow, the great potential of using the new bridge and road to construct newer and larger docks on the empty land on the north bank of the River Thames quickly became apparent. There were also profits to be made from this venture by shortening by at least a day the time it took ships to sail into the heart of London to unload their goods. Industry was quick to see the potential of the new route too and shipbuilding and industrial works quickly spread and lined the north bank of the Thames which became known as Silvertown.

The first of the new docks, (The Victoria), opened in 1855. This coupled with the burgeoning riverside industries created an insatiable demand for labour and in the area north of the new dock, cheap and often shoddy housing was rapidly built to accommodate the new workforce. This is how the areas of Canning Town and Custom House came into existence.

A new population also creates the need for shops, markets and leisure facilities. It was not long before the Barking Road originally constructed as a linking road, became a major shopping centre along most of its length and the hitherto vacant land between the old Roman Road, (Stratford High Street and Romford Road), and also south of the new Barking Road quickly became a dense housing infill.

To many residents the Barking Road and surrounding areas feel as if they have always been there although in historical terms they are relatively young. The Barking Road I know particularly well as I was based for many years at a local fire station which covered most of it’s length.

As for the future, the well known adage goes, “Nothing is forever”, and that is now starting to prove true for the Barking Road and its environs. Already the effects of gentrification are now being felt in the area of Canning Town with the building of high rise and high price residential apartments.Canning Town once seen as something of a deprived and run down area is now starting to be seen as a desirable living area by the Yuppie generation. Unfortunately as the process of gentrification brings new people and new money to an area, it usually has the effect of displacing existing communities through financial pressures.

It feels as if an existing community with all its social history is but like a grain of sand, soon to be swamped and washed away by the incoming tide of time.

Geoff Martin a long time local resident to the area has created a historical video photo montage of the Barking Road stretching back over one hundred years. It is perhaps one of the few ways of preserving the memories and history of this vibrant area.

It can be seen from the modern Google street map below how even the Barking Road has been by-passed by a newer road from Canning Town Bridge leading to quicker access of the  long vanished wilds of Essex.

I wonder if those Parliamentarians in 1809 could have envisioned what they started when the passed the act for a new Canning Town Bridge?

Map Barking Road -02

Modern map of Newham and the Barking Road Complements of Google Street Maps

Is a European Referendum really a Myth?

Broken European FlagWith the May European Elections fast approaching, all the main traditional political parties have finally been forced to nail their colours to the mast and declare where they stand on the question of the UK’s future in Europe. Most would have preferred to remain silent on the issue but an up-swell in public feeling and a new kid on the block in the form of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have made continued indifference and silence impossible.

The choices on offer can be analysed as falling into three groups.

An outright NO referendum;

A maybe but only if referendum

A straight forward Yes/No or In/Out Referendum.

The Labour Leader has now clearly associated himself with the No referendum choice irrelevant what his own party members may think. He did attempt moderate this stark non-choice, some might say mask by adding there would only be a referendum if there was a transfer of more powers from London to Brussels but believed this was unlikely.

The “maybe” choice is either based on the outcome of a renegotiated terms of EU membership which is unlikely to happen in any depth if at all, by the Conservative Party or a “significant” transfer of power from London to Brussels stance by the Lib/Dem Party.

An immediate In/Out referendum following the next general election with the decision to remain in the EU being decided by the People rather than politicians.

The No referendum stance is quite clear. It is the same as assuming the majority of the people had voted Yes to stay in the EU had there been one. As there has never been a public decision on whether the UK should be part of anything other that an economic trading group in Europe in 1975, it cannot be seen as anything else other than enforced European Union by political diktat alone. This is essentially what happened in 1992 when significant UK powers were devolved to Europe under the Maastricht Treaty. Politicians fearful of a public backlash from a referendum which a treaty made more likely bent over backwards in an attempt to find ways at preventing a damaging referendum and finally found a loop-hole in calling the treaty more of an accord than anything else. A No referendum is the same as politicians alone deciding that the public cannot be trusted to vote the right way.

The maybe choice is really something of a political lawyers paradise in deciding what is a significant transfer of powers or whether a few possible concessions are enough to determine a referendum should or should not be held. Under these conditions the likelihood of a referendum when coloured by political smoke and mirrors arguments is dubious.

The In/Out referendum offered by UKIP is the only clear-cut choice being offered to the public by politicians for the first time.

All of the choices have even then to be tempered by which political party or coalition forms the next Government and at the moment there is no real discernable groundswell one way or the other in favour of one particular party or another.

Considering the EU has now grown to the size of an empire, not created by civil unrest or military conquest or even public decision but by political manipulation, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds. We have already seen direct involvement by the EU on sovereign countries in terms of laws and even budgets to a degree. Although not mentioned on anyone’s agenda at the moment, I can eventually fear the creation of an EU army, a EU Health Service and education system and so on. On a day to day basis real power is wielded by a system of unelected commissioners and a unelected president.

Monolithic empires created from so many countries with a multitude of diversity amongst their peoples with their own internal customs and beliefs inevitably become susceptible to growing internal discontent as one rule fits all policies are imposed on them. The spectacularly rapid breakup of the U.S.S.R. is the most recent historical evidence of that. It is not difficult to foresee  that happening to a future EU.

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