Tag Archives: research

A flat festival tonic for Britain | Owen Hatherley | Comment is free | The Guardian

The Festival of Britain was a “tonic for the nation” in the last age of austerity, a series of events in London (with a touring exhibition), intended to usher in a new world of modernity and abundance – often with a socialist slant. The Skylon and its demolished nearby structures – the Dome of Discovery, Sea and Ships, Power and Production or the Telekinema – or the Royal Festival Hall, the survivor, symbolised the embattled optimism of the postwar Labour government; a road not travelled politically as much as architecturally. Its buildings, influenced by Swedish Modernism, imagined Britain as a northern European social democratic country, not a mid-Atlantic one. A place comfortable with modern architecture, modernity and material production, rather than the Americanised, deindustrialised mess we put up with. It was as much a monument of the era as the NHS, universal benefits or nationalised industries, and faced a similar fate.

It is ironic that the festival is being revived under the coalition, as the original buildings – save for the more permanent Festival Hall – were wantonly smashed when the Tories miraculously won the 1951 election, despite Labour winning a still unprecedented 49% of the popular vote. Churchill called it “three-dimensional socialist propaganda” – and it was. Yet there’s a deeper reason for the two to coincide.

My historical research interests are wide and varied, and I’ve always been interested in the Festival of Britain. My father had the guide book, which enthralled me as a child. I still have it here. Best Beloved went to the exhibition, too. Milton Keynes — the village, not the new town — won an award for being pretty during the wider national festivities of 1951. I am too young by a good 20 years to have been there.

The fact the 60th anniversary is being held at all is a measure of the impact the original festival had at the time. What is worrying is how inept the revival looks like it will be.

Merry Christmas!

Ah, Christmas. The season of gluttony and debt. Once a religious festival, now just a glorification of consumerism.

That’s been my jaundiced opinion of the festive season for some years now. I outgrew the schmaltz and fake snow, the forced happiness and tawdry tinsel some time ago, but then I don’t have children. Christmas is really a time for the little ones, before the magic gets tarnished by the reality.

Disliking the overly commercialised aspects of Christmas doesn’t stop me being fascinated by it. Where do all those “traditional” elements spring from? Why are some pre-Christian traditions still stubbornly followed, some 200 centuries after the events supposedly commemorated this time of the year? Then again, there are some superstitions and traditions that have fallen by the wayside. There’s more to Christmas than the goose getting fat and plum pudding.

The Christmas festival of today is a confection chiefly cooked up by the Victorians, with a fair measure of early 20th century Americana thrown in. However, the roots of what is essentially a midwinter festival go back an awful lot further than that.


In the beginning

On the shortest day of the year, a little after sunrise, a sunbeam begins its journey along the stone passageway of probably the most impressive prehistoric structure in Europe. Even though the passage of Newgrange, a spectacular monument that sits on a ridge overlooking the River Boyne, north of Dublin, is slightly twisted, eventually the sun reaches about 25m to the far end. The beam touches the front edge of a stone basin, which is set below intricate carvings of spirals and solar discs. The soft light illuminates the basin, thought to be the inner sanctum of the tomb, where the cremated remains of ancestors may have been placed, for about a quarter of an hour. Then the sunlight retreats and darkness returns. This event is repeated for a week or so either side of the winter solstice, then leaving the stone basin in the chamber in darkness for the rest of the year.

Newgrange is about 5000 years old, older than Stonehenge by some centuries. I think we can safely assume the careful observation that lets the winter solstice sunlight touch the resting place of the ancestors predates the monument’s construction by some time. Indeed, it is now thought that Stonehenge also has stones set specifically to observe the winter solstice sunset, as well as the more obvious and famous midsummer sunrise. Observing, following, venerating the change of the seasons is deeply rooted in humankind.

Particular emphasis seems to have been given to those seasonal changes when the nights began to get shorter, and the weather would get better again. The symbolism of death and rebirth was not wasted on the ancients. When you could never be certain you or your family would make it through the winter alive, marking important points in the calendar, and making offerings to ancestors or gods to help you through the remaining dark days to spring, could be crucial.

Marking the midwinter point, therefore, is deeply ingrained in our civilisation. So deep that many of the customs and traditions have managed to survive a millennium and more of Christianity. It also seems the original Christian observances were eventually shifted to closer match the deeply ingrained winter festivals in date. December 25 as a day of celebration can apparently be traced back to the Romans, for example. It is said December 25 was the culmination of either the feast of Saturnalia or possibly Dies Natalis Solus Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun). Saturnalia, it seems, is responsible for the festive merrymaking and giving of gifts, and the Roman new year has left us with decorations and acts of charity.

Whose birthday is it?

Christ’s birth date is not given in the New Testament. According to some scholars, Jesus was conceived around the time of the spring equinox, which popularised the date for his birth as December 25 in the AD 220s. Despite this, celebrating birthdays, even of gods, was rather frowned upon, so it seems Christmas was not a feast at this time.

Early Christians celebrated the birth of Christ as part of Epiphany, which falls on January 6 in the Gregorian calendar. This really emphasised the baptism of Christ. It wasn’t until the revival of Catholicism towards the end of the 4th century that Christmas itself began to be promoted. Even so, Epiphany continued to be the more important celebration.

Orthodox Christians still use the old Julian calendar to place Christmas. This is why they appear to be kicking off their Christmas Day celebrations on January 6, the day when we in the west are pulling all the decorations down and looking forward to the rest of January in gloom.

Christmas Day itself became more prominent after various monarchs decided to hold their coronations on December 25, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror being just two.

It took until the Middle Ages for Christmas to really take flight. It’s around the 12th century the idea of Advent occurs, which eventually gave us the Twelve Days of Christmas, December 25 to January 5. Advent marks the first day of the liturgical year, starting on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day, which is why your Advent calendar tends to cover the whole of December, although in 2010 Advent started on November 27…

Eventually, all the feasting and merrymaking became so lavish and elaborate that puritan Protestants began to strongly condemn the celebration as a Catholic invention. Following the Parliamentarian victory over Charles I during the English Civil War, the new Puritan rulers, seeking to remove the remaining Pagan elements of Christmas, banned the celebration in 1647, despite protests and folk openly continuing to celebrate.

The ban was ended in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy. However, by 1820 some writers worried that Christmas was dying out. Authors began to look back to earlier times, such as the Tudors, when the season was full of celebration. Efforts were made to revive the traditions of Christmas, helped no end by Charles Dickens publishing A Christmas Carol in 1843. If our modern Christmas has a beginning, the tale of Scrooge and the three spirits of Christmas must surely be one of the prime candidates.

So much to tell

Rather than get side-tracked by all the religious kerfuffle surrounding Christmas, let’s take a quick look at the other traditions that mark Christmas in the modern world. I will cover some in more detail in future posts.

From pre-Christian times, we get the use of evergreen plants to decorate our homes. Holly, ivy and mistletoe all had mystical significance, as I mentioned earlier. Christianity has added further layers to decorating homes with evergreen plants, but that can wait for another time.

While decorating trees is a long-established tradition in parts of northern Europe, it only really became fashionable in Britain after it was introduced to royal family celebrations by Prince Albert in the 1830s. Now, it’s big business, as are Christmas cards, another Victorian innovation made possible by a reliable and inexpensive postal service. The tradition of pulling crackers is another Victorian invention.

The Yule log is a northern European tradition, albeit a remnant of the original Pagan celebration. The fire used to burn the log is always started from a remnant of the log that burned during the previous year’s festivities, and the log should burn for twelve days. Nowadays, a Yule log is frequently a cake or pastry of some kind.

Let’s not, of course, forget Father Christmas, Santa Klaus, or St Nicholas. St Nick is the patron saint of Christmas Day, and had a reputation for the giving of secret gifts. Santa comes to Britain via the Dutch Sinterklaas, a soupçon of Nordic pantheon, and a hefty dose of 19th century Americana. Santa, his history and evolution, is worthy of an entire essay of his own!

The modern Christmas is a complex beast. It mixes ancient traditions with modern habits. It’s evolved from a celebration of the turning of the year into a something of a commercialised monster: it’s been calculated that about a quarter of all personal spending over a year happens around Christmas. I am planning a short series of articles about specific features of the season, so watch this space.

Whatever you think of it, and whoever you plan to spend it with, have a very merry Christmas!


This article was first published at x404.co.uk.


BBC News – Cosmos may show echoes of events before Big Bang

Evidence of events that happened before the Big Bang can be seen in the glow of microwave radiation that fills the Universe, scientists have asserted.

Renowned cosmologist Roger Penrose said that analysis of this cosmic microwave background showed echoes of previous Big Bang-like events.

The events appear as “rings” around galaxy clusters in which the variation in the background is unusually low.

The ideas within it support a theory developed by Professor Penrose – knighted in 1994 for his services to science – that upends the widely-held “inflationary theory”.

Interesting stuff.

Change happens

As a railway modeller, I spend a good deal of time studying photos. Many are in published history books, so my only source is a photo someone took in the 1940s or 1950s. If I’m lucky, someone else may have taken images at a similar place, so I can begin to build a picture of what it is I’m attempting to reconstruct.

Change is inevitable. Familiar places change, almost imperceptibly, over many years. Someone familiar with their home town as a child – like me, for example – but who has lived away for several decades, finds the old landmarks gone, and the familiar become strange and alien.

We’re currently working on creating a scale model of Wolverton Station as it was in about 1960. We want to make it as accurate as we can, so we’ve spent ages poring over photos of the period between 1955 and 1960. We’ve found gaps in our knowledge, we’ve acquired plans and maps, and generally we’re having a fine old time researching for the model. Older images often yield vital clues, too.

We also have photos taken in the 1980s and 1990s of the area. Best Beloved lived in the area in his formative years, and you’d think he would have reasonably clear recollections of the station since he used it frequently. However, memory is fallible, as we’ve discovered. Facts that are quite clear to Best Beloved turn out to be wrong when you’re on the ground – much to his surprise, it has to be said.

While the Wolverton we’re recreating is no longer there, there’s enough of the basic infrastructure and surrounding ground to help us complete our picture. We paid a swift visit to Wolverton a short while ago, and spent a few hours walking around the Grand Union Canal, and around other parts which haven’t changed significantly in five decades. It was great fun, and educational, because I now have a much better idea of where things are – or were – in relation to each other.

Even in a short space of time, however, Wolverton Station changed beyond recognition. In the 1980s, the station building on the road bridge was still intact.


A short time after that photo was taken, the building had been demolished.


And today, you’d never even know it might have been there.


Happily, because we’d been able to take images of the area over the period during which the station was demolished, we have been able to fill in gaps that other sources have left. It’s pretty likely that many of the residents of the Wolverton area would have been unaware of such changes over the time, because it happens so slowly. I do believe that if we had been living in the area, we would have been able to fill many of the gaps in our knowledge, and to provide a fuller history of the area for future generations.

(Ironically, the demolition of the station building yielded useful information about the structure that supported it, information we may never have been able to spot if the building had still remained intact.)

This very morning, I was studying a photo taken in 1962. A week before I had been standing on the very spot the photographer had used. I’d studied the photo before, but only this morning had I noted an important fact. Looking across the Grand Union Canal to the railway, in 1962 there was no towpath on the opposite bank. Today, there is a towpath – in fact, it’s even marked clearly on the 1938 Ordnance Survey map! Yet, in 1962, not far on from the period we’re trying to research and recreate in a model, that towpath is quite obviously not there. This has also raised tangential questions about how the path crossed the canal at two places with no obvious remains or record of bridges…

I lived and worked in Maidstone for a period in the late 1980s. At that time, there were still vestiges of an industrial heritage in the town. The gasworks, while disused, was still there. A large sweet factory still worked in the town, and there were still the remains of paper mills and so on along the river. That’s all gone now. Large DIY outlets and shopping centres have sprung up, and anyone under the age of 20 will never even be aware that such features existed before they were born.

Another example: I live close to the M2. It was built in the early 1960s as a four-lane dual carriageway. It was slow, winding its way laboriously up the Nashenden valley. Over a period of five or more years, the entire motorway was rebuilt. It’s now eight-lane dual carriageway, with sweeping junctions and new viaducts across the Medway valley. I can’t even remember how the original junctions worked, yet I drove around them countless times in the past.

Which is kind of my point in this Sunday morning ramble. It’s easy to poke fun at people who take an interest in their locality, who note change, or record it by camera. However, without such people recording the ordinary, mundane story of our environment, great chunks of shared history would be missing. We would quite happily have modelled a towpath alongside the Grand Union Canal at Wolverton, but for the fact I noticed something different in a photograph of somewhere that has changed almost out of recognition in the past 50 years.

How not to shoot a panorama!


We’ve been away for a couple of days this past weekend, doing some on-the-ground research and surveying for our Wolverton station model. There were a couple of times where it made sense to swing the camera about and take in the wider field of view, to give something of a better sense of the place.

This example is not one of the best I’ve ever done. I’m not making excuses when I say it was shot landscape (should’ve been portrait ideally), handheld (should’ve used a tripod), with varying exposure and shutter speed settings (should’ve used manual). If I had been properly serious, I should have also used the DSLR with the 10mm wide angle lens, and got sky and ground shots to fill the blanks.

Still, Photoshop made a fair fist of what I fed it. The field of view is over 180 degrees in all. The method of stitching I selected is really better suited to making interactive panoramas, but I’m happy with the slightly quirky perspectives.

Wolverton – death of a station


Following up on the last post about our researches into Wolverton Station, here’s a set of images taken over something like a 10 year period, documenting the decline and fall of a grand old Victorian railway station.

Click the photo or the Flickr link to see the rest of the set.

I should add we ordered a copy of the 1938 1:2500 Ordnance Survey of the area today. Hopefully, it will give us some important dimensional information.

Schemes and things

I love planning. I love all the research and investigation required to make something. Best Beloved and I are currently engaged in a project to build a scale model of Wolverton railway station c.1960. We’ve been doing this on and off for the past couple of decades, but what’s given us a fresh impetus is a complete change of scale.


We’ve jumped from 7mm:1ft (O Gauge) to 2mm:1ft (N Gauge).

Why? Now, there’s a good question. Most people seem to migrate up from smaller scales. We’re doing the exact opposite!

One reason is we have the space to do the model justice at the smaller scale. Over the past two or three years, we’ve been trying to shoehorn a Wolverton-a-like at 7mm scale into a shed, but it would only ever be a pale shadow of the real thing – an impression at best. Sadly, health issues have meant Best Beloved hasn’t been able to continue with the model, which had already had a good deal of track laid, so we’ve been working out what sensible alternatives we might be able to do.

We could have considered a 4mm (00) scale model, but we’ve both been quite taken by the level of detail and quality of running of the latest crop of N gauge British outline locos and rolling stock. While new stock is still quite expensive, it’s still a darned sight cheaper than 7mm! The 2mm Scale Association is a lively and helpful organisation, with plenty of parts and kits to help us complete our plans – and Best Beloved joined them a while ago.

So, we’ve spent the past week or so having an inordinate amount of fun thumbing through our library, enlarging and scribbling on OS maps, and trying not to be too literal with our Modellers’ Licences. We’ve had some fantastic discussions about what we want to achieve, and what we can realistically leave out and still leave a recognisable model.

We’ve come down to this scheme: to recreate a 2mm working layout of Wolverton Station, with the four main lines of the West Coast Main Line route running through, plus the platform and associated trackwork for the Newport Pagnell branch. The Grand Union Canal snakes its way through the scene. The carriage and wagon works paint shops, Old Lifting Shop, and Sewing and Trimming Shops, along with a selectively compressed version of the Wolverton Park sports ground, will form the backdrop. A little selective compression at each end of the layout will bring the Old Wolverton Road bridge (known as “The Oh! Tunnel”) and the Newport Pagnell branch junction into the ends of the scene, which hopefully will span about four metres in length. We’ve settled on our usual preferred period of 1959 to 1961, so we get a range of steam- and diesel-hauled trains, and it’s before the added complication of the 25kV overhead line equipment that was installed during the 1960s.

We’re both getting very enthused. It’s helped pull Best Beloved out of depression about his health, which is a good thing. It’s given us an excuse to offload many of the kits and stuff we’ve acquired over the past few years in both 4 and 7mm – which works both as a clutter clearance and fund-raising exercise. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the construction phase, too.

I’m going to document progress, once we start in earnest, with a new blog. I’ll let you know when I set it up.