Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Last Adventure

If restoring a ship like the SS Great Britain is too large a task, how about building a steam engine from scratch?

My favourite Top Gear episode is the "1949" race from London and Edinburgh between an XK120 Jaguar, Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle and a steam engine. Later, I was amazed to learn that the steam engine Jeremy Clarkson rode in was only a year old. A one year old steam engine, not lovingly restored from rusting iron but built from original blueprints! Her name is Tornado.

When I was planning my expedition to the UK, I found that Tornado was running from Liverpool St Station to Norwich and back a couple of days before I was due to fly home. The trip had already involved planes, trains, Triumphs, boats, so why not a steam train as well?

Our departure from Liverpool St could best be described as controlled chaos, with passengers vying for platform room with spectators. Once in the right carriages and settled, we watched as billows of steam and smoke wafted up, becoming trapped under the vaulted, Victorian roof of the station. No one seemed to mind though, apart from the pigeons. And then, after relayed whistles and the slamming of carriage doors, Tornado woke up. She let out a series of shrieks, shuddered and began to move. We all had our heads out the windows to watch the platform and bystanders slide past, and listened to the chuffs, hisses and mechanical snufflings as she pulled away and slowly gathered pace.

And so, on a bright Spring morning in late May, we set out across Essex and Norfolk. All along the route - about 280 miles! - people were standing at stations, level crossings, overbridges, in back yards and on ladders. Thousands of people, drawn by the magic of steam, waving and taking photos from the most obscure spots. Onboard, the ride was beautifully smooth, and she sat at about 70mph for longs stretches. Apart from the steam whistle, a quiet chuffing was the only reminder that we were being pulled by a machine fired by coal and not electricity. Errr, until I stuck my head out the window and got a face full of soot while trying to photograph the big green monster!

We were greeted at Norwich train station by crowds wanting to see Tornado on her first trip to the city. After slipping past the police and barricades, we wandered off into the town centre for a late lunch. I found a delightful if worryingly named pub called "The Murderer's Arms", and set about testing the local ales. They passed. After a wander around town and a ten-minute tour of Norwich Castle, it was back to the train for the return journey.

Even as the sun set over green fields, the train was waved on by clusters of onlookers. Eventually the sun set, and we pulled into Liverpool St around nine o'clock.

Sunset on the way back to London

The engine crew after a day in the cab

Liverpool Station, resting.

The Peppercorn locos were named after their designer, Arthur Peppercorn. Forty nine were built in 1948-49, but the age of diesel rendered them redundant, and the last, 60145 'Saint Mungo', was melted down in 1966. However, the blueprints were saved, and the project to recreate a missing link in the history of British steam started in 1990. 60163 Tornado, named after the RAF jets, was completed in 2008.

The A1 Locomotive trust is at

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Ultimate Restoration

The idea of restoring cars has always appealed to me. Finding an abandoned, unloved car (preferably in a dry, dusty barn, without much rust please), towing it home, taking it apart, replacing the worn out parts and putting it back on the road with a shiny new paint job and new interior. The satisfaction of rebuilding something from an earlier era, feeling it come alive again and moving under your hands.

Imagine, then, the amount of work in taking a ship that's lain on its side on a windswept South Atlantic coastline for over thirty years, patching the rust holes and cracks in its hull, towing it across the Atlantic on a barge, and finally floating it up the river it first sailed down more than a hundred and twenty years before. And then setting about restoring it to its former glory.

In short, that's the story of Brunel's SS Great Britain.

Launched in 1843, the Great Britain is famous for several things. The largest ship in the world when launched, the first iron-hulled, propellor-drive steamship, she was a marvel of the Victoria era, and sent at least one owner bankrupt as engineers tweaked her design. She sailed 32 times around the world in forty years, carried thousands of settlers to Australia before ending her sailing days in the Falklands. As amazing as that history is - and consider that the economic life of modern ships is about 20 years - it's her second life that impressed me far more.

After 40 years as a floating warehouse in Port Stanley, the Great Britain was eventually beached in 1937. Holes were knocked in her hull to ensure she didn't float away, and there she lay until 1970. Then, a British salvage team repaired her hull, floated her onto a pontoon barge and towed her back to her home port of Bristol. There, she was returned to the water and floated up the Avon to the dry dock she was built in, 126 years before.

At first, the salvage team planned to restore the ship to her original, 1843 specification. However, over time the plans changed, and today's emphasis is on preserving what was left in 1970, with partial restoration of some crew and passenger areas. As you walk around her hull in the dry dock, you can see the holes knocked in the hull in 1937, fibreglass patches applied in 1970, and repairs carried out over her long life. The air of the dock is dehumidified to prevent further rust, and a glass roof seals the hull off from the sky.

Inside, you get a sense of what it must have been like to sail in her. Many of the state rooms, kitchen, cabins, storage spaces and public areas have been recreated. You can smell the tar on deck and food cooking below, and watch a replica of her first engine turning lazily.

She'll never sail again, but I think Brunel would be pleased at how his creation is being looked after, 167 years on.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Coalbrookdale, near Birmingham, is where the Industrial Revolution started. In 1709, Abraham Darby built an iron smelter which used coke from coal, rather than wood char. He wasn't the first to attempt this, but previous attempts to use coal failed, possibly because a good coking coal has specific characteristics - volatile matter, sulphur content, rank, swell and so on - and earlier attempts had used the wrong sort of coal. Coalbrookdale's coal was the right sort.

Darby died in 1717, but the process was refined throughout the 18th century. Previously iron had been expensive, as wood char manufacture was labour intensive and required a lot of wood to smelt a small amount of iron. The adoption of coal, however, meant that iron could be produced in large quantities. What followed were railroads, steam power, large factories and the growth of major population centres. Coalbrookdale became a town of workers' cottages, clanking railroads, coal smoke and the night time glow of furnaces and forges that never cooled.

"Coalbrookdale by Night", by Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1801

As a demonstration of the uses of iron, Darby's grandson Abraham Darby III built an iron bridge across the river Severn at Coalbrookdale. Finished in 1779, it was a marvel of the age, and a demonstration of Britain's burgeoning engineering prowess.

On the way back to Telford after Prescott, Roy made a quick diversion to Ironbridge Gorge and showed me what a centre of industry looks like a century after the fires have gone out. The river's clean, flowing slowly between green banks, and the old workers' houses and coach inns have become cafes and trendy restaurants. On a warm Sunday afternoon, Coalbrookdale was a green and brick, post-industrial haven.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Prescott Hillclimb

Maybe the highlight of the whole UK trip was the 'Standard Triumph Marque Day' at the Bugatti Club's Prescott Hillclimb. I figured that the best way to attend was either to stay in a town nearby and hire a car (and hide it around the corner), or find a Triumph with a spare seat and beg a ride. As it happened, Roy Lacey from Club Triumph invited me to ride along in his Mk1 GT6 on the customary GT6 convoy, or "Royvoy". Score! I met Roy and another GT6 owner, Tim (bestquality03) the night before for a BBQ. Tim's Mk3 is Mallard, a colour I was thinking of using, and I wanted to see what it looked like in the metal. Very nice, as it turns out.

Tim's Mallard GT6 Mk3

The Royvoy left Telford around 7am, collecting assorted GT6s as we headed south to Prescott. The weather was beautiful, roads almost empty and we were able to set a fast pace. Up until this point most of my trips in the UK had been by train, so my impression of England had been a country of back yards, vegetable gardens, allotments and jumble piles. Now I got to see the public faces of towns and villages. And England on a sunny, quiet Sunday morning was idyllic. Green fields, trees hanging over the roads, and rural roads winding between stone walls, all made for a great drive. Triumphs really were built for trips like that.

The Royvoy at a meeting point

Hugh Nicols and his graphic GT.

Roy got me to navigate to several rendezvous points. This was brave considering I had to figure out his GPS on the fly, work out road terminology (A & B roads for instance) and divine the intentions of town planners. Despite a few mis-directions, we managed to meet everyone, and then to find Prescott itself, nestled in rolling hills and accessed by a bewildering array of narrow rural roads.

Follow the leader

There must have been several hundred Triumphs at Prescott, and the queues while we were directed to a car park gave everyone a few worried moments as temperatures rose. We saw 95C at one point, and a nearby saloon registered its displeasure by boiling over. As my GT6 will have to cope with much higher temperatures, I made a note to think seriously about cooling!

Bruce's GT6 convertible

The format of the hillclimb itself was simple. After a briefing, we queued up for the first of two runs allocated to each car. Marshals send the cars up at about 30 second intervals. The runs weren't timed, as this was expressly not a competitive event. This didn't mean that most people didn't give it the beans, and for most of the day the hillside rang to the distinctive sounds of 4, 6 and 8 cylinder Triumphs. Later on, sitting under a tree, we marvelled at how different even the 6 cylinder Triumphs - GT6s, Vitesses, TRs and saloons - sounded from each other. A supercharged Stag had maybe the most distinctive engine note, a singing V8 with the whistle of a supercharger as it accelerated out of the hairpin.

A Stag V8 with EFI, supercharger, and a marvellous soundtrack.

Roy waiting for his second run up the hill, as seen from Tim's GT6.

I spent a lot of time wandering around, looking at trade stalls such as Rimmer Brothers and Maynard Engine Reconditoners, talking to a people I recognised from the Club Triumph and Sideways fora, and going for a brief demonstration ride with Gareth Thomas in a Spitfire whose engine he built for a customer. His engines stay together, I'll give him that.

Gareth Thomas

At the end of a truly memorable day, the Telford contingent of the Royvoy headed north again. We stopped for a quick pint at a pub we'd spotted on the way down, managed to lose Hugh on the way, and Roy showed me around Coalbrookdale (very geological) before dropping me off at my hotel.

All that's a long-winded account of a great day in the life, and yet feels like a quick skim of the highlights. The English Triumph enthusiasts are very lucky, to have each other to lend a hand and advice, lots of great events like Prescott to attend, and some great roads to drive on a Sunday morning. Thanks especially to Roy and Jules for making me feel welcome, a yummy BBQ and a trip to remember.

A proper racing interior - John Davies' Vitesse

A pretty TR3A

A pre-war Dolomite

Jigsaw racing's ADU 1B, a recreated works Spitfire.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


We bade farewell to Skye on an overcast, grey day. This time we used the Skye Bridge, rather than the ferry at Glenelg. The concrete bridge was apparently designed to imitate the arching form of seagulls' wings, but I was a bit disappointed - thirty seconds and you're back on the mainland. As convenient as the bridge no doubt is to locals, crossing the narrow strait by ferry felt a much more auspicious way of travelling.

Not far up the long arm of Loch Alsh is the famous castle, Eilean Donan. Its long history is summarised here: Needless to say, the castle has changed many times since the first fortifications were built in the thirteenth century. The current incarnation is the result of a twenty-year restoration completed in 1932. Like Castle Stalker, Eilean Donan featured in some exterior shots of Highlander - there's a photo of a scene with Christopher Lambert in one bedroom!

Our next stop on the road back to Edinburgh was the Thomas Telford bridge at Invermoriston.

This was one of the few chances we had to walk in a forest. I've been in lots of different types of forests, from thick and dark New Zealand bush, resin-scented pine plantations, Australian tropical jungles to dryland savannah. The open, light Scottish deciduous forest, with light green leaves and beams of sunlight picking out a path through the leaf litter, was one of the prettiest.

Lunch was in Fort Augustus, at the head of Loch Ness. We'd just sat down to bowls of steaming Cullen Skink (smoked fish chowder, no lizards) when an RAF Tornado flew over. It looked to be at treetop level but was probably about 200 feet off the deck. Something different for the hordes of tourists, anyway.

Last stop was at the Falls of Bruar. The "Walk Highlands" website calls it a strenuous walk ( err not really. But it is pretty. Plantations of ash and fir were planted at the suggestion of Robbie Burns, and the falls are crossed by a stone bridge that fits into the landscape so well that it fooled the geologist for a second or two.

And so ended our trip to Scotland. I want to return one day, to see more of the west coast, the bits of Skye that were shrouded in cloud, the Outer Hebrides and Orkney. In the meantime, it was south to England again, for the next (and most anticipated) part of the holiday.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


A common saying is Scotland is that if you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes. For most of my time in Scotland this was true, we saw everything from driving rain to beautiful blue skies, often only a few minutes apart. Skye was an exception to this, as it was cloudy almost the whole time we were there. I can say that I've seen the bottom 300 feet of Skye, but I'll have to go back to see the rest.

Waiting for the ferry at Glenelg, looking across towards Skye.

The mists added an air of mystery though. Shapes half-seen loomed over the road, like giants ready to snatch us away. One highlight was the Fairy Glen near Uig. For the geologists, it's an ancient landslide, since remodelled by glaciation. For the romantics, it's the home of fairies. Both generous and capricious, they can steal you away or grant wishes.

The Fairy Glen contains the remains of several buildings and stone walls. On a cold, misty morning it was easy to believe that the crofters had been stolen away to the land of the fairies, where a century passes in a day. If they come back, they'll get a surprise!

Near the Fairy Glen, we visited a restored Black House, an example of the buildings farmers lived in for centuries. The walls are dry stone, packed with earth, the roof is thatch and the floor bare earth. On a cold and damp day, warmed only by a peat fire burning in the middle of the room, the house showed how hard life must have been for farmers on the edge of the world.

In contrast to the Black House, we stayed in the thoroughly warm and welcoming town of Portree. If you're going, I can recommend the Caledonian Hotel. Portree has a nice combination of rustic charm, good pubs and very nice restaurants. I felt a bit shabby in one! Even the fish and chips were superb, sitting on a stone wall overlooking the harbour.

I've posted this picture before, but without an explanation. Kilt Rock, north of Portree, is an early Tertiary dolerite sill intruding Jurassic sediments. Like Staffa it has columnar jointing due to slow cooling, which gives it a kilt-like appearance.