19 September, 2016

new red sandstone

My home town of Penrith is a small, unremarkable market town, save for one notable feature: the stone used in the construction of both public and residential buildings, especially during the nineteenth century. This is Penrith sandstone, a desert sandstone laid down during the Permian period of Earth’s history (299 to 251 million years ago), when much of what is now Western Europe was covered by deserts. This formation is known to geologists as the New Red Sandstone, in contrast to the Old Red Sandstone of the earlier Devonian period (416 to 358 million years ago).

The rounded shape of individual quartz (silica) grains in the rock indicates that they had originally been blown around by the wind, which confirms it as a desert sandstone. The cement that now holds the grains of sand together is also silica, deposited from solution in groundwater, and it is likely that the softer sandstones are deficient in this cement.

The prominent hill to the east of the town (‘the Beacon’) is part of a narrow sandstone ridge that runs approximately north–south. Several long-disused quarries can be found around this hill, but the sandstone here is quite soft, and it is likely that the sandstone used for building in Penrith came from quarries further east, where the rock is much harder.

The following photograph shows a typical street scene in one of the town’s nineteenth-century residential areas, although the main thrust of this post is to highlight some of the more interesting public buildings.

There are several grand nineteenth-century mansions in the so-called ‘new streets’ area of Penrith, although I would be surprised if any have not now been converted into flats. The next two photographs are of Fernleigh at the bottom of Lowther Street. Although it isn’t strictly speaking a public building, I’ve included it because it was built by master builder Alf Grisenthwaite, who happens to have been my great grandfather.

Note that the stone blocks along the street frontage have been cut by machine (‘dressed stone’), which means that the surface of the wall is smooth, but as the second photo shows, the side walls are conventional masonry in which individual blocks were hewn by hand and are of varying sizes.

Although all of Penrith’s extant churches are sandstone, I made a deliberate decision not to include any of them here, although Christ Church is featured in Mythical Kings. However, the next photograph is of the former Congregational Church in Duke Street, which was rebuilt by Alf Grisenthwaite in 1865 on the site of the old Beckside Chapel. It was closed in the 1980s because of dwindling congregations and has since been converted into flats.

Another former public building that is now flats is shown in the next photograph. It is the former Church of England girls’ primary school on Drovers Lane, which closed in the 1970s. It was built in 1858. The equivalent boys’ school, further along the same road, was demolished in the 1970s.

Moving into the centre of town, the next two photographs show the former Martin’s Bank building in Market Square, now occupied by Barclays. The first photo shows the front elevation, while the second is a view of the rear of the building. The first two floors are occupied by the bank, but the top floor is residential.

The next photograph shows the former National Westminster Bank building in King Street. When NatWest moved a few metres up the street, the Trustee Savings Bank (TSB) took over. However, the TSB moved out when it amalgamated with Lloyds Bank, and the building currently appears to be empty. The upper floors were formerly offices, but they may originally have been residential premises, judging by the balconies on the first floor.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like puzzles, so I’ve decided not to identify the building in the next photograph because I think that it should be possible to guess its purpose without further clues.

Finally, I couldn’t compile a list of the most interesting sandstone buildings in Penrith without including a picture of Penrith Castle, which was built in the fourteenth century and is now a ruin (it was used as a convenient source of building stone for many years). A lot of the sandstone used for the main walls is quite soft, leading me to conjecture that it was sourced from quarries on the Beacon.

The castle’s most famous occupant was the Duke of Gloucester, a decade or so before he became King Richard III. Richard also had a house in the mediaeval town centre, which gave rise in later years to one of Penrith’s most enduring legends: that there is a secret passage between the castle and the house. Needless to say, the existence of this passage has never been proved.

22 August, 2016

a bridge too far

“I want to go somewhere!” exclaimed Paula early one morning recently.

I thought for a few moments before coming up with an idea. Chester. I’d never visited the city, but I was aware of its history, which dates back to Roman times, and I’d seen plenty of photographs. It looked interesting. And it wasn’t too far away.

Within the hour, we were on the next train south, and three hours later we’d arrived in Chester. The city’s railway station is some distance from the city centre, but the route between the two is well signposted, so we decided to have a look round before finding somewhere to stay for the night. The obvious place to start was a walk along the city walls, which are almost intact and which provide excellent views of the city’s other attractions:

This is a picture of Bridge Gate, which leads to a fourteenth-century bridge over the River Dee. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of this bridge, for reasons that will be explained later. Anyway, having circumnavigated the city walls, we walked back towards the station to look for overnight accommodation. I’d noticed, as we walked between the station and the city centre, that we passed over a canal—the Shropshire Union Canal—and, having found somewhere to stay, I thought that a walk along the canal towpath might prove interesting. And I assumed that we’d eventually reach the river.

However, I’d begun to have doubts about this assumption by the time we’d reached the third lock on the canal. Surely, I thought, we shouldn’t be going uphill to reach the river. This is a picture of one of these locks, looking back the way we’d come. The white house on the right is the lock-keeper’s cottage (operating locks on England’s canal system is a full-time job):

Nevertheless, we continued along the towpath because it was quiet and peaceful, and there was quite a lot to see, including this moorhen:

The next three photos are of successive bridges over the canal. In each case, we climbed up onto the bridge to see where, if anywhere, it might lead. The answer, in each case, was nowhere, but I did note that there was a road sign at the entrance to each bridge advising motorists who aspired to cross that this was a ‘weak bridge’. Indeed, the hump on one bridge was so pronounced that deep grooves had been gouged out of the crest of the hump by vehicles that didn’t have sufficient clearance to negotiate the bridge safely.

We eventually returned the way we’d come. Had we gone the other way at the beginning, we would have passed directly below the city walls:

When we did finally reach the river, I took these two photos of Grosvenor Bridge, which at the time of its completion in 1832 was the longest masonry arch in the world. It remains the longest masonry arch in Britain:

Having mentioned my failure to take a photo of the Old Dee Bridge earlier, I can now reflect on the reason. It’s easy to throw a few things into a bag at short notice, but it isn’t possible to ensure that one’s camera is fully charged. Having taken a few photos of Grosvenor Bridge, we continued upstream towards the Old Dee Bridge, but my camera battery was by then completely flat.

06 July, 2016


The British Labour Party is facing a serious existential crisis following the referendum on EU membership and its acrimonious aftermath. I am reminded immediately of the strife unleashed in the party by its drift leftwards in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which led to the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) by the so-called ‘gang of four’ in 1981. These four leading members of the party were especially angered by the decision to include unilateral nuclear disarmament and a desire to leave the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union (EU)) in the party’s manifesto for the next general election, which was described at the time as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Another similarity with the current situation is that both leaders emerged from the left wing of the party. But Michael Foot was trounced in the general election of 1983, and, based on what I’ve seen, I believe that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn has absolutely no chance of winning the next general election, whenever it is held. Despite having massive support among the party’s grassroots members, Corbyn has no obvious leadership qualities, and I’ve never known a political leader who was so utterly devoid of charisma.

Corbyn is clearly a man of principle—before becoming leader, he voted against the party line in the House of Commons hundreds of times—but I base my assessment of the man not on what he does but on what he says. For example, in November last year, he described the attacks in Paris by members of Daesh as ‘immoral’. He wasn’t wrong, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder why he chose to use such an insipid adjective when many stronger words were available to him (e.g. barbaric, heinous, horrendous). He was at it again in the recent referendum campaign, in which the only thing I heard him say in favour of remaining in the EU related to ‘protecting workers’ rights’. And his refusal to share a platform with Remain campaigners from other parties did not mark him as a man of principle; it merely made him look like an idiot. Overall, his contribution to the debate was decidedly wishy-washy, and his apparent lack of enthusiasm was a serious error of judgement.

He failed to grasp that the principal area of concern for most traditional Labour voters was immigration from other EU countries. And he appears not to have been aware that in neglecting this concern, he was effectively surrendering at least part of this vote to another party, one that was geared-up and ready to step in as the party of choice for working-class voters: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Had Corbyn been prepared to make an effort to reassure such voters, it is likely that the UK, as a whole, would have voted to remain in the EU.

At first glance, it would appear that a right-wing party representing the working class is an anomaly, but there is a lesson from history here: Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts (i.e. Fascists) enjoyed considerable support in the East End of London—and probably in the poorer areas of other major cities—during the depression of the 1930s. UKIP may not be as overtly racist as the Blackshirts, who were, after all, modelled on the Blackshirts of Benito Mussolini’s Italy, but a strain of xenophobia is an integral part of the party’s ethos.

On the day following the referendum, I listened to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4. For anyone not familiar with this program, which has been running since 1948, it involves four leading politicians, who have been invited onto the show to answer questions from the audience while a chairman tries to maintain order. On this occasion, there was only ever going to be one topic of conversation: the result of the referendum. Naturally, two members of the panel had advocated remaining in the EU in the referendum campaign, while two had campaigned to leave. One of the latter was MEP Steven Woolfe, and from his very first contribution I thought I was listening to a member of the British National Party, a fringe organization that would have been better named the British Nazi Party. Woolfe continually hurled class-based insults at the other members of the panel, whom he characterized as middle-class and out of touch with the electorate. That would chime strongly with the attitudes of many of his target voters.

Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Paul Nuttall, deputy leader of UKIP. At one point, after Nuttall had talked about targeting traditional Labour voters, the interviewer asked whether this meant moving the party to the left. Nuttall’s response was succinct—and disarmingly honest.

“Not at all,” he said.

So could it happen? Is the Labour Party on the point of fading into obscurity? There is historical precedent. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the old Liberal Party was the party of choice for working-class voters. And this continued into the twentieth century, but it was then slowly supplanted by the Labour Party, which had been formed in 1900. The last wholly Liberal government came to an end in 1915, although the last Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd-George, continued in office until 1922 as head of a wartime coalition. The party then faded into obscurity, returning only a handful of MPs in the second half of the twentieth century until its fortunes revived slightly following merger with the SDP in 1988.

There is another parallel with the present from the early days of the Labour Party. Its founder, Keir Hardy, suggested that Lithuanian migrant workers in Scottish coal mines had filthy habits, they ate garlic that they fried in oil filched from streetlamps, and they were carriers of the Black Death, comments that would have been more likely to chime with working-class voters of the time than visions of a socialist utopia, as it also seems to have done in the recent referendum.

The Labour Party formed a short-lived minority government in 1924 and another from 1929 to 1931, although it had to wait until 1945 to form a majority government. It last won a general election in 2005. However, the party does not have an automatic right to be either in government or the main opposition party. UKIP may have seemed like a single-issue party that has now achieved its raison d’ĂȘtre, but it is highly unlikely to disband, and I suspect that it is already drawing up its manifesto for the next general election, one that will appeal to working-class voters. It received around 4,000,000 votes in elections for the European Parliament in 2013, and it could easily double that total in the next general election if Jeremy Corbin remains leader of the Labour Party. These are worrying times.

01 July, 2016

photographic abstraction #19

There is one new motif in this collection of abstract photographs, used in Distortion and Over the Hills and Far Away. The latter is the first monochrome image to be featured in this series. Electric Storm is actually a photograph of spilt paint that has been diluted by running water, while Mapping the Desert and The Icing on the Cake are both photos of stained walls, although both are unlike any other images in the series that use this motif. Although Sheep May Safely Graze comes from the same source as Surface of the Moon in Photographic Abstraction #18, I still think that nobody will guess what that source is, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

The darker lines in the following picture appear to have been bent out of shape, hence the title:


If the paint photographed in the next image had been a different colour, I’d have had to come up with a different title:

electric storm

The next photo reminds me of a dusty old map on which there appears to be writing that I can’t quite read:

mapping the desert

The following image was originally a colour photograph, until I discovered that it took on a more dramatic appearance when reduced to black and white:

over the hills and far away

The vaguely ovine shapes on a green background immediately suggested to me the title of a well-known aria from JS Bach’s cantata #208, although I’d be the first to admit that there is nothing musical about this image:

sheep may safely graze

The last image is an example of efflorescence—dissolved salts being re-deposited as the dampness in a wall slowly evaporates:

the icing on the cake

recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #15
Photographic Abstraction #16
Photographic Abstraction #17