Packing Without Panicking

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

The photo above was taken many years ago in the main railway station in Lucerne, Switzerland, just after Mary and I had arrived from Chiasso. Mary looks as though she is waiting for me to help her with our luggage! During my travels, I have rarely taken photos that included luggage, but since the topic of packing that luggage is the subject of this post, it seems appropriate here.

As I’ve mentioned before, my parents were anything but “seasoned travelers”, so I grew up with very little experience of packing suitcases. I really didn’t pack a suitcase myself until I went away to university for the first time. As I recounted in an earlier post, I quickly learned some hard lessons about what or what not to pack!

However, those lessons didn’t really solve the problem of how to remember to pack everything that I would actually need, and how to avoid forgetting some vital item.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Forget That!

To be honest, I didn’t usually “panic” about packing, but there was a low-level anxiety. Whenever I had to pack a suitcase, even for an overnight stay, there was always a nagging worry that I was forgetting something important.

Usually, my fears turned out to be unfounded, but on one occasion I did forget something vital.

During 1986, I had to fly from London to Munich, just on a one-day trip, to attend a job interview. As I was parking my car at Heathrow Airport, I suddenly realized to my horror that I had left my passport at home! There wasn’t time to drive back home to get it, so I decided that I had no choice but to go to the checkin terminal, and ask about my options.

My flight was with British Airways, and unfortunately this was to be my first experience of misleading information provided by that airline (but not the last). The checkin agent was adamant that there was no way I’d be allowed into West Germany without my passport, and that the immigration authorities there would simply send me straight back to Britain. Taking the flight would simply be a waste of time, she claimed.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t cancel my ticket at that point, so it seemed that I had nothing further to lose by taking the flight to Munich. When I arrived in Munich, it turned out that what I had been told by the British Airways representative had been completely false! When I explained my predicament, the German immigration officer laughed, and assured me that this situation occurred every day. He told me that they could simply issue me with a temporary Reisepass, which would allow me into the country just for the day, and which I would surrender on leaving.

That was what I did, and, apart from a few additional delays answering extra questions, it was really no problem at all. There wasn’t even a fee to pay!

Inspiration: Make a List

Despite the unexpectedly happy resolution of that situation, I continued to wonder whether there might be some way for me to guarantee that I would not forget some vital item when packing. As I grew older and traveled more frequently, the significance of the problem increased.

Eventually, I was inspired to find a solution by the activities of my friend Adam Wilt, who is shown below (on the left), with me and Mary, at an SMPTE video broadcast some time during the 1990s.

Broadcasting an SMPTE Meeting

Broadcasting an SMPTE Meeting

Adam provided videography services at many events, and he always brought all his own equipment with him. That included a wide variety of small-but-critical items, such as cables and adapters. Obviously it was important for him to avoid leaving some item behind at the end of every shoot. I couldn’t help noticing that, when packing his kit, he created a handwritten list, ticking off every item as he packed it, and then ticking off every item again as he repacked after the event.

It immediately dawned on me that here was the solution to my packing worries! If I just made a list of everything that I needed to pack, then I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting anything. It seemed like a great idea, but then, of course, how would I ensure that the list itself was complete?

I realized that if I created my list on a computer, as a word processor file, then not only would I avoid having to rewrite it for every journey, but I’d also be able to improve the list after each trip, adding or removing items as travel conditions changed. (For example, years ago my list included phone cables and adapters for dial-up internet connections in hotels, but none of that is necessary now!)

I created my list more than 20 years ago, and I’ve used edited versions of it for every trip since then. I sub-divided the list to make packing even easier, splitting off, for example, items needed only for international travel, and (after 9/11) items that could or could not be carried onto aircraft.

Mary traveling in style!

Mary traveling in style!

The photo above illustrates the pleasures of care-free travel. Mary was relaxing in an airbed seat, on a flight back to the US from London, having carefully included her crafting items in her carry-on baggage, so she could work on her projects during the flight. For my part, I could enjoy the flight, without having to worry about having forgotten some vital item.

Many thanks to Adam Wilt for the inspiration that permanently solved my problem!

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

Mary with the Luggage, Luzern Bahnhof

Are You Being Served?

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

The photo above, which I took in 1981, shows Bloomsbury Square, London, following a seasonal snowfall. At the time that I took the photo, I was working part-time at Selfridges, a well-known department store on nearby Oxford Street.

In previous posts, I’ve described how I moved to London in October 1981, to begin my studies for an Electronic Engineering degree at Imperial College.

In Britain, each undergraduate academic year is divided into three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. There’s a short Christmas break between the Autumn and Spring terms, and another Easter break between the Spring and Summer terms. Typically, during the short breaks, young students return home to their parents, and take the time off.

My family situation, however, was somewhat different. My father had died in 1979, and my mother was struggling to support herself, so I did not feel that I could just go back and expect her to support me as well. Instead, I decided that I would try to stay in London and obtain temporary work during the short breaks. I found that it was possible to stay in my student accommodations during the breaks if I paid additional rent.

Finding suitable work turned out to be relatively easy, but, in retrospect, I have come to doubt that the job choices I made were for the best.

The Scarborough Pattern

During my schooldays, I had become accustomed to seeking work in menial jobs during the school holidays. In a seaside resort like Scarborough, that usually meant working as a waiter in a hotel or café, or perhaps as a shop assistant. Even if I had had the skills to do more sophisticated work at that age, such work was probably not available in that town anyway.

Thus, when I found myself becoming a student again, this time in London, I fell into the mindset of seeking out types of temporary work that were similar to those that I’d done in Scarborough.

That was a mistake; I should have searched for jobs that would have made better use of my special skills, and would probably have paid better. I was in the very unusual situation of having just worked fulltime in accounting for 2 years prior to starting my studies. Surely, in a world financial center such as London, I could have obtained some temporary work in that field!

The only good aspect of these menial jobs was that the experiences have left me with a cache of anecdotes about the events that occurred.

Mister Selfridge

Prior to the Christmas break for my first academic year in London, I applied to Selfridges Department Store for a sales assistant position, and was accepted.

As a teenager growing up during the 1970s, I was very familiar with the popular (but low-brow) situation comedy series Are You Being Served?, which actually ran on the BBC from 1972 through 1985. The show was set in a fictitious London store called Grace Brothers, but, as I was to discover, the staff uniform of Grace Brothers was strangely similar to that of Selfridges.

More recently, Selfridges has gained worldwide fame as a result of the television series Mister Selfridge, which portrays the early history of the business. Although the TV series used specially-built sets to depict the store, many of these seemed very accurate, and reminded me of the rooms and corridors within the huge building.

The illustration below is an advertisement that Selfridges ran in a 1964 book about London boroughs.

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

Advertisement for Selfridges, 1964

There are many stories to tell of surprising and amusing incidents that I experienced while working at Selfridges (and also at Harrods, during one break), or in some cases heard about from other employees, but there isn’t room to tell all of them in this article. Between Christmas 1981 and Spring 1983, I worked in several different Selfridges departments, including luggage, gifts, and finally electronics.

The Electronics Department

In this article, I’ll jump ahead to what turned out to be my final stint as a part-time employee at Selfridges. During the Spring of 1983, I worked Saturdays-only in the Electronics Department in the Oxford Street store.

Now, surely, this department was ideal for me. After all, I was an undergraduate EE student, so now I would be able to bring that knowledge directly to bear in helping Selfridges’ customers. While that turned out to be true, I discovered later that my special skills were not received in a similar light by the department’s regular staff. Although the store hired many students as part-time workers, there was also a substantial staff of full-time employees, whose entire career was wrapped up in their work there.

One Saturday, I was standing at the counter in the Electronics Department when I was approached by an apparently exasperated customer. He explained to me that he wanted to power an item of equipment from a 12V car battery. He knew the maximum current that the battery could supply, but didn’t know whether the battery could supply sufficient power for the equipment.

I explained to him the simple equation relating electrical power to voltage and current (W = VI) that I’d learned during my O-level Physics classes at school. We were able to determine that his battery would be able to supply more than sufficient power for the equipment.

After we’d finished performing the calculation, the customer had a question for me:

“How come I’ve asked this question of every assistant in this department, and you’re the only one who could tell me?”

I responded, truthfully, that it was probably because I was the only undergraduate electrical engineering student working in the department.

I thought nothing more of the incident, which seemed at the time to be just another of the usual daily problems that arose, and which I had successfully handled. My Saturdays-only employment terminated by mutual consent, and as far as I was aware, there was nothing but goodwill between myself and my employer.

The Assistant Who Knew Too Much

When I subsequently applied for re-employment during Christmas 1983, I received the following surprising and mystifying response:

Rejection!

Rejection!

I can only believe that, unbeknown to me until then, my unusual expertise in electronics had ruffled some feathers somewhere among the store’s fulltime staff. The content of the letter is strangely brusque and unhelpful; it’s obviously a form letter, personalized with my name and address, but not the date!

Unfortunately, there are no photos of me working at Selfridges (or at any of the other London locations where I did temporary work). However, the photo below was taken at about the same time that I was doing those Saturday stints at Selfridges, and just after I had produced a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard at the Imperial College TV Studio.

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard

Me (left) following a video interview with Sir Cliff Richard, 1983

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

In retrospect, then, I have come to believe that working in those menial jobs was a mistake, and I recommend others in a similar situation to think very seriously before committing to such work.

The issue isn’t simply that you’ll be wasting your time and skills, and perhaps accepting lower compensation than necessary in return. There’s also the problem that your superior skills are likely to cause resentment among others, who in some cases may go to considerable lengths to combat what they see as your “unfair advantage”.

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Bloomsbury Square, London, in Snow, 1981

Do We Need A White Christmas?

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

The photo above was taken by my father during the severe winter of 1962-63, and shows me using our coal shovel to “help” clear snow from our front garden in Scarborough. Today marks the Winter Solstice here, so it seems like a good moment to reflect on something that many people seem to hope for at this time of year.

As the photo above demonstrates, some of my earliest memories of this time of year were associated with snow. This was largely because the winter depicted in the image was the coldest in Britain since 1895, a record which has still not been broken in the part of the country in which I was living.

As a result of that experience, as I grew up, I tended to assume that Christmases should be snowy, and I was most disappointed in later years when there was not only no snow on Christmas Day, but it was actually even sunny!

As I grew more mature, of course, I realized that my expectation was not particularly reasonable, and that it had in fact been instilled by episodes of weather that were anomalous, coupled with myths about what Christmas was supposed to be like.

Last weekend, I attended a “Holiday Soundtracks” concert by Michael Berkowitz at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa where we heard, once again and as we do every year, melodies proclaiming the desirability of a “White Christmas”. The photo below shows a view of the concert.

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Holiday Soundtracks, Santa Rosa

In a pre-show discussion, Berkowitz himself pointed out the irony of a “Christmas” show being presented by a Jewish conductor, and indeed several of the writers of those famous songs were also Jewish.

The origin of my own childhood views about snowy holidays are obvious to me, but the concert led me once again to consider why so many other people should also want this end-of-year festival to be “white”, that is, to have snow on the ground.

A Northern European Tradition

Presumably the source of the association of the Yuletide festival with snow was that most of its traditions originated in Northern Europe, where there was usually snow at this time of year.

Later, in North America, many of the regions that were settled earliest by European peoples also experienced snowy winters, so those traditions continued.

In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, it’s Summer at this time of year, so the idea of a “White Christmas” makes little sense in many places. However, even in Australia, there are high-altitude ski resorts where you can experience snow in mid-summer if you really want to, as described in this article.

Maintaining the Myths

Many blame the media for propagating the myth of the desirability of a snowy holiday, as in this Boston Globe article. There is also the ever-popular Santa Claus myth, which includes the idea of his living at the North Pole.

When I discovered the truth about “Father Christmas”, after my mother admitted it to me when I was about 8 years old, I was actually quite angry that she had conspired with my father to deceive me for so long!

Snow in London

After leaving my home town, I attended university in London, and lived there for several years. The climate in London is only slightly milder than that in Northern England, so of course it also snows in London during the winter.

I took the photo below, of the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, during my first winter as a London student.

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Albert Memorial, London, in Snow, 1981

There’s no question that it’s a pretty scene, but getting around in the city after a snowstorm wasn’t necessarily any fun. The snow quickly turned to dirty slush, which would often then refreeze overnight, creating black ice the following morning. Travel became unusually difficult and dangerous.

As I’ve said so many times since then, it’s great to be able to look at a snowy landscape, as long as you don’t have to go anywhere in it!

Snow in California

If anyone had asked me before I came here whether it snows in California, I may well have replied “No”, but I’d have been very wrong. At the higher elevations in the state, such as the Sierra Nevada, it snows every winter. In the lowland elevations where I live, however, it almost never snows. For example, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula for about 20 years, and during that time it only snowed once at our house (and only very lightly), although we could sometimes see snow on the surrounding peaks.

The elevation of land in California ranges from sea level to about 14,000 feet above sea level, so the state has a corresponding variety of climates. Contrast that with the highest elevation in Britain, at about 4,400 feet, which is the peak of a mountain (Ben Nevis), while the whole of Lake Tahoe in California lies at 6,225 feet.

Thus, if I were to decide now that I would like a “White Christmas”, all I have to do is to get in my car and drive up to the Sierras. It’s nice to feel that, although I don’t need snow for the holiday, I have the option of it if I choose!

The photo below shows a typical local California view, taken near Cotati, on the occasion of the Winter Solstice in 2014. There’s mist over the hills, but no snow anywhere nearby.

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Winter Solstice, Cotati, California

Let It Go

If you happen to live somewhere that does not have snow at this time of year, then perhaps it will help to realize that its desirability is actually just a myth, and that there are actually definite benefits to a holiday without such weather!

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Shoveling Snow: Winter 1962-63

Centenary of the Great War Armistice

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

The photo above, which I took during an early visit to London, shows the RAF memorial church of St Clement Danes. The building was completely destroyed during the Second World War, and fully restored in 1958, to act as a war memorial for the Air Force.

As most people are probably aware, today (11th November 2018) marks the centenary of the end of the First World War (known earlier as the Great War). There has been and continues to be much debate about the causes of that devastating war, and the issue will probably never be completely settled. What does seem clear is that, in those days, many European nations saw warfare as a satisfactory way to resolve disputes or gain territory, and had created detailed plans defining exactly whom they were going to attack and how. Their autocratic leaders were really just “spoiling for a fight”, and were supremely (but mistakenly) confident that they could win a swift, decisive victory.

It seems clear now that, if the conflict hadn’t been sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by a Yugoslav nationalist, then some other equally parochial incident would have served as the trigger.

The situation was made more volatile by the nationalistic attitudes of the general populations, who tended to see war as a spectator sport. Many were quite prepared to sit happily on the sidelines and cheer as their “team” slogged it out with the opposition. Warfare had usually been conducted that way for centuries, but all that was to change as the Great War turned into “total war”, involving substantial portions of the civilian populations.

The Invasion of Leeds?

Of course, I’m not nearly old enough to have lived through the First World War, let alone remember anything about it. However, my father was 5 years old when the war began in 1914, and he did have some memories of the time.

His family lived in Leeds, Yorkshire, which is some 60 miles from the coast of the North Sea, and thus was not likely to be in any direct danger from enemy action. Nonetheless, my father’s mother was apparently certain of an immediate German invasion, and insisted upon placing sandbags around the house on the outbreak of war! Apparently, even then, not everyone believed that the war would take place on faraway fields.

Raid on Scarborough

My home town of Scarborough became a flashpoint during the First World War, after being subjected to a German naval raid during December 1914. That attack was characterized as a brazen assault on civilians (and it’s difficult to see how it could have served much other purpose), and had the presumably-unintended consequence of offering a major propaganda opportunity for the Allied nations.

During the bombardment, Scarborough’s lighthouse was one of many buildings that were hit and damaged, but it was subsequently repaired, as shown in my photo below.

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

Scarborough Lighthouse, 2007

British illustrator Frank Patterson, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my professional web site, normally avoided propaganda-style artwork. Apparently, however, he was so incensed by the attack on Scarborough that he produced the illustration below, showing a thunderous Kaiser glowering at the town from over the horizon.

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

Scarborough from the Moors, 1914. Copyright Frank Patterson

A Changed World

Whatever its actual causes and motivations, there can be no doubt that the First World War changed the course of history very significantly, and not only in terms of international relations and territorial dominance.

The war essentially spelled the end of the colonial empires created by European powers during the preceding few centuries. Admittedly, some empires (such as the British and French) clung on for a few more decades, but the new order of affairs was already being set up at the end of the First War.

On the social level, agreements made during the War led to women eventually obtaining the right to vote in several countries, such as Britain. From the modern perspective, it seems astonishing that such a development took so long, and no sane, educated person would now suggest that women should not have such a right.

The First World War was undoubtedly a disaster of immense proportions, but some social good did eventually come of it.

St Clement Danes Church, London

St Clement Danes Church, London

Leaving Home

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

I took the photo above in Coventry (West Midlands) in 1979, depicting an interesting contrast of ancient and modern. The building on the right is what remains of the Whitefriars Monastery, which has survived because it became Coventry’s workhouse during the nineteenth century.

On the left, next to the monastic remains, the city’s elevated Inner Ring Road sails past, with a modern office tower in the background. Ironically, since I took the photo, the modern tower seems to have been demolished, while the ancient Whitefriars building looks just the same now as it did then.

I first left my parents’ home in Scarborough, to live independently in Coventry, almost exactly forty years ago today, during the first week of October 1978, and the scene shown above was just one of many extraordinary sights that greeted me after I arrived in a new city.

A Memorable Day

For most of us, the day when we leave our parents’ home and start living independently is likely to be a memorable one. That was certainly true for me, although it was an event that I’d somewhat feared until it actually happened.

When I did finally make the move, I found it to be wonderful. A whole new world seemed to open up for me, and I never wanted to return to living with my parents!

To College or Not

For those who go on from school to university, their first experience of independent living is likely to be as undergraduates in college “dorms” (halls of residence). However, back in the 1970s, when I reached that age, only about 10% of Britain’s young people went on from school to university, so that experience was available only to a minority. (The situation is drastically different now.)

In those days, there were no universities in our home town of Scarborough, so, for me, going to college would inevitably involve living somewhere else. The nearest universities were in York and Hull, but even those were not sufficiently close to allow daily commuting.

The Stay-at-Home Who Didn’t

As my younger brother and I were growing up, it seemed that I was usually the “stay-at-home”, whereas he seemed to be the more “adventurous” one, who was thought to be more likely to leave.

The idea that I might one day “go away to university” was first suggested to me by my mother when I was about 8 years old. I really didn’t like the sound of that, to the extent that she had to assure me, explaining that, when my father went away to Teacher Training College, he had really enjoyed the experience. (She failed to add that, when my father went away to that college, he was about 40 years old!)

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

The photo above shows (left-right) my mother, our dog Meg, my brother and me, staying at home!

Artificial Limitations

In 1977, I was preparing to sit my Advanced-Level examinations, and it was time to start thinking seriously about what I would do after leaving school. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that I would continue my education at a university. Personally, I wasn’t so sure, and in any case, what would I study and where?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, thanks to poor career advice, I decided to apply for Civil Engineering degree courses. (With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, that decision seems even more ludicrous!) Some universities offered a more general Engineering Science degree, in which you could opt for a Civil Engineering specialty before graduation.

I interviewed at and received offers from four universities, and, on the basis of my experience during the interviews, I eventually decided to accept an offer from the University of Warwick (located in Coventry).

I was the first in my family even to apply to a university, so I had absolutely no guidance as to how to choose between the offers. I seem to remember that my final decision was made on the basis of the landscape in each campus, which is actually quite a poor basis for making such an important decision!

I still hadn’t really grasped the fact that I had committed to moving nearly 200 miles away in the near future. However, as the date of the first term drew closer, I warmed to the idea of getting away from the depressing environment in Scarborough.

Expanded Horizons

During the first weekend of October 1978, my parents drove me to the Halls of Residence at Warwick University, helped me get my suitcases into my room, then left me to it.

Any sense of trepidation that I experienced at that moment soon evaporated, as I began to discover the new freedom of independent living!

Of course, the fact that most of my fellow students were experiencing the same epiphany was tremendously helpful, because we could “compare notes” regarding the best places to shop or hang out. Very few of us could afford cars, so we were mostly reliant on public transport. Fortunately, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE—which we referred to as “Wumpity”) and the Midland Red company provided comprehensive bus services, so we were able to get to most places that we needed to visit. Even so, bus travel wasn’t necessarily always pleasant, as illustrated by my view below of Coventry’s Pool Meadow Bus Station one snowy winter morning.

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

For longer journeys, British Rail offered “Student Railcards” that provided a 50% discount on standard fares, making rail travel quite cheap.

An Exciting City

Before I began living there, all that I really knew about Coventry was that it had famously been “blitzed” during World War II, which had destroyed much of the city center. By the time that I arrived there, most of the bombed sites had been redeveloped, and the central area presented a pleasant, neat and modern appearance, as shown below in my view of Broadgate Square from the tower of the bombed-out cathedral.

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Although British industry was already in decline in those days, Coventry was nonetheless still very much an engineering center (which was largely what had made it such a tempting target for the Luftwaffe).

Many local engineering companies gave professional presentations on their newest developments, and as a student, I received invitations to those. For me as an aspiring engineer and transport enthusiast, it was very exciting to be able to go along and listen to discussions of new vehicles and other technical advances! For example, one evening the commercial vehicle manufacturer Metro-Cammell Weymann gave a presentation on their new Metrobus in the Hotel Leofric (on the right in the photo above), and I went along not only for the talk, but also for the free “wine and cheese”!

Clipped Wings

Sadly, as I’ve related in previous posts, my first year at Warwick did not go well academically, largely because of the traumatic events that were occurring in our family at around that time. (I even visited the University’s Student Counselor, in the hope that she would have sympathy for my situation and offer me some kind of “deferment”, but she clearly had no interest in such things.) I was forced to drop out of the course at the end of that year, which at the time seemed like a disaster (but as things turned out, was for the best).

Knowing that I was going to have to leave university lodgings, I made some effort in Spring 1979 to try to find a job in Coventry, but received very negative responses. (Later, such attitudes would not have deterred me, but I was too inexperienced at that time to persevere.) Thus, it seemed that I had no choice but to return to my mother’s home in Scarborough (my father having died in April 1979).

A Commitment to Leaving

As related in an earlier post, I ended up obtaining an office job in Scarborough and living with my mother there for about 18 months, before returning to university, this time further away—in London—but with ultimate success.

Despite my “false start”, my mind was made up from those first few weeks in Coventry, that, whatever it took, I would move away from Scarborough and forge my own independent life.

Of course, I still had no desire at that time to move to another continent, which I in fact did within 10 years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea that ultimately led to my being here, now, was planted on the day that I left home.

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

The Last Day of Steam at Agecroft

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Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

The image above shows two steam locomotives that, on the day that I photographed them, were just being retired from active commercial service. On the basis of that description, you might think that this must have occurred some time during the 1940s or 1950s, but I’m not that old! In fact the date of the photo is Saturday, 12 September, 1981.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, during the summers I spent as an apprentice at Ferranti in Manchester, I was always on the lookout for interesting local places to visit at the weekends. These days, of course, such places are easy to locate—you just do a web search—but back then it was more difficult and more haphazard.

At some point during my first summer in Manchester, I must have spotted a notice somewhere advertising the Last Day of Steam at Agecroft Power Station. I didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to visit places that were not well-served by public transport. Fortunately though, as I learned from my A-Z street map, the power station was in Pendlebury, not too far from where I was living in Middleton, so I went along on the advertised day to see what was happening.

The map excerpt below, which is from a later 1992 edition of a Manchester street atlas, shows the location of the power station, near a railway line and a canal (for deliveries), and the River Irwell (for cooling water). The nearby Agecroft Colliery was the source for the station’s coal. The general appearance of the power station is shown in this BBC photo.

AgecroftPS1992Map

A Coal-Based Operation

As is well known (in the UK at least), British Rail had phased out steam traction in 1968, but that change didn’t apply to other users of steam locomotives in Britain. The locomotives at the power station were owned by the nationalized Central Electricity Generating Board, and, since the station was itself coal-fired, it made some sense to keep the locomotives in operation for as long as possible.

Three locomotives were being retired that day, and were giving joy rides to the public, as shown in these photos. They had all been built by the famous firm Robert Stephenson & Co., in 1948, so by steam locomotive standards, they were still relatively new. Locomotive No. 1 was painted red, and Locomotive No. 2 was blue. Those locomotives are both visible in the heading photo.

Locomotive No. 3 was painted green, and is shown steaming in my photo below.

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Last Day of Steam: Locomotive 3

My photo below shows a more general view of the Power Station, with Locomotive No. 2 hauling joyriders in a set of yellow carriages.

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Joy Rides at the Power Station, 1981

Unfortunately, my photographs are all somewhat too dark, so it’s difficult to see the locomotives well in them. The sky that day was very showery, so lighting conditions were changing rapidly, and my camera had only manual controls. Such concepts as High-Dynamic Range photography were unknown to me in those days, and in any case not available with the equipment that I had.

Fortunately, someone else called Dave Dixon took much better photographs of the same event, and has made them publicly available on Flickr here.

What’s Left Of It All

Not surprisingly, following their withdrawal from CEGB service, all 3 steam locomotives were bought for preservation, so they all still exist. The same cannot be said for any part of Agecroft Power Station itself, which was closed in 1993, and demolished in 1994. The entire site was redeveloped and is now the location of a prison.

My presence at that historic event was very much a matter of chance. It was another of many Manchester locations that I visited, but which have now completely vanished.

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

London’s Post Office Tower: My First & Only Visit

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

At the age of eleven, I produced the illustration above for the cover of a “London Study” that we were required to write and illustrate at school. The study was created in connection with our school visit to the capital city, which had taken place in May 1971, just before I drew the cover.

As you may expect (given my interests), my cover drawing emphasized modes of transport. Additionally, I chose as the centerpiece a striking modern building to which we had paid a surprise visit during the trip, and which had substantially impressed me. Little did I know at that time that it would probably be my only opportunity ever to visit that iconic building.

The building in my drawing was the recently-built Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower). Even before that first visit to London, I was well aware of the existence of that structure, which was feted as a prime example of Britain’s dedication to the anticipated “White Heat of Technology”. In addition to its role as an elevated mount for microwave antennas, the Tower offered public viewing galleries providing spectacular views over Central London. There was also the famous revolving restaurant, leased to Butlin’s, the famous operator of down-market holiday camps.

The Tower and its restaurant began to feature prominently in the pop culture of the time. An early “starring” role was in the comedy movie Smashing Time, where, during a party in the revolving restaurant, the rotation mechanism supposedly goes out of control, resulting in a power blackout all over London.

In the more mundane reality of 1971, our school class arrived in London and settled into a rather seedy hotel in Russell Square. One evening, our teacher surprised us by announcing an addition to our itinerary. We would be visiting the public viewing galleries of the Post Office Tower, to watch the sun go down over London, and the lights come on! Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though we had no inkling that that would be our only-ever chance to do that.

There were actually several public viewing gallery floors, some of which featured glazing, while others were exposed to the elements, except for metal safety grilles. Fortunately, the weather during the evening that we visited was not exceptionally windy!

Concretopia

I’m currently reading the book Concretopia, by John Grindrod, which provides a fascinating history of Britain’s postwar architectural projects, both public and private.

Cover of Concretopia Book

One chapter of the book is dedicated to what was originally called the Museum Radio Tower (referring to the nearby British Museum). It provides detailed descriptions of the decisions that led to the construction of the tower, and reveals that at least one floor is still filled with the original 1960s-era communications technology.

Due to subsequent changes both in communications technology and British government policies regarding state involvement in such industries, much of the original function for which the Tower was built has now been rendered obsolete or moved elsewhere, leaving the building as something of a huge museum piece (ironically, in view of its original name).

The Once-and-Only Visit

In October 1971, a few months after my school class visit, a bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower Restaurant. Initially it was assumed that the IRA was responsible, but in fact the attack was accomplished by an anarchist group.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, but it drew attention to the security vulnerabilities created by allowing public access to the Tower. The result was that the public viewing galleries were immediately closed down, never to be reopened, and Butlins’ Top of the Tower restaurant was informed that its lease would not be renewed after that expired in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Tower continued to appear in the media as an instantly recognizable icon. At around the same time, it was supposedly attacked by a particularly unlikely monster—Kitten Kong [link plays video]—in the British TV comedy series The Goodies.

My younger brother took the same school trip to London two years after me, but it was already too late; the Tower’s public viewing galleries were closed, so he never got to see the London twilight from that unique vantage point.

The Unexpected Technologist

On that first visit to London in 1971, I had no notion that I personally would ever be a participant in the kind of exciting technological innovation signified by the Tower. In my family’s view, such advances were just something that “people like us” observed and marveled at, from a remote state of consumer ignorance.

I never anticipated, therefore, that I would return to London as an adult only ten years later, to begin my Electronics degree studies at Imperial College, University of London. I had to visit the University’s administration buildings in Bloomsbury to obtain my ID and other information, and there was that familiar building again, still looming over the area. (The University Senate House is also famous for its architectural style, but I’ll discuss that in a future post!)

My 1982 photo below, taken during my undergraduate days, offers an ancient-and-modern architectural contrast, showing the top of the Tower from a point near the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury.

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

The Museum Tower

The photo below shows the Tower again, during a visit in 2010, now with its “BT” logo prominently on display. Externally, the tower looks little different from its appearance as built, and, given that it’s now a “listed building”, that is unlikely to change much in future.

BT Tower, 2010

BT Tower, 2010

For me, the Post Office Tower stands as a memorial to the optimistic aspirations of Britain’s forays into the “White Heat of Technology”. It seems that, unfortunately, the country’s “Natural Luddites” (which C P Snow claimed were dominant in the social and political elite) won the day after all.

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971