On Diversion: To Kingston (upon Hull)

Yesterday I went to Kingston upon Hull.

Hull is the UK’s City of Culture this year and I was really happy to see so many great cultural activities and trails, venues and events advertised. My positive impression of the city was possibly influenced by the glorious sunshine – albeit also a little windy – and the fact I was off work for a day! Whoop! (Though arguably, the day was nothing other than a bus man’s holiday [a phrase which Wikipedia says dates back to 1893, a mind-blowing surprise to me as it seems so ‘modern’!]).

Bus operations in the city seemed to be run by Stagecoach with their distinctive blue and orange swiggly livery and East Yorkshire buses with what looked like vintage branding livery of cream and maroon. I saw lots of them about because I had buses on the brain.

I found myself in Queen Victoria Square and confronted by the giant artwork ‘Blade’ – a huge wind turbine blade, 75m long, produced by the local Siemens factory. I then walked along the marina, through cobbled streets and pedestrian ways of the Old Town, passed Holy Trinity Church and industrial buildings. I loved seeing all the statues of local people including poet Philip Larkin at the station, passing the Town Hall and Sessions Courts, along the High Street. The Museum of Clubbing was closed but I found myself in the Museums Quarter with an hour or two to spend. This was very enjoyable and I managed to quickly whizz around the Hull and East Riding Museum (highlights being the Roman mosaics and glassware and a giant ancient wooden boat), the Streetlife Museum (more below) and the Wilberforce Museum (which is a beautiful house telling the horrifying story of slavery and how social and political action has fought against the still prevailing trade in human life).

Treats for my next trip: the Fish Trail and the Ale Trail, hopefully with some friends.

Streetlife Museum of Transport

This museum recreates the streets of Hull from the 1940s, with associated shops and vehicles. There are examples of an ice cream van, a Regal III bus in dark blue livery, tramcars and road vehicles dating back 200 years including a rare three-wheeler Hackney Carriage. I particularly enjoyed seeing inside an old fashioned cycling shop and also how a railway signal box operated. It was fun to be surrounded by shop frontages, signage, streetlights and vehicles. Visitors ranged in age from pre-school to retirement age and it seemed to be engaging for all. It was quite refreshing to not be bombarded with huge amounts of signage and information panels and a major success for me was the opportunity to just enjoy the environment and learn from looking at the actual objects. Another display I particularly enjoyed was the recreation of Hull Museum’s first Director’s office in the entrance way, complete with a rather grizzly item – his waste paper bin made of an elephant’s foot!

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P.S. Last night I delivered a talk about Saxon Kingston – Kingston so called because it was a royal estate, much like Kingston upon Hull (though that wasn’t named Kingston until 13th century)! I’ve decided I should start collecting ‘Kingstons’ and am happily looking for a benefactor to send me to Canada and/or Jamaica. Applicants need only comment in the section below and I will carefully consider your proposal! HA HA HA.

 

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Roads and Road Transport History Association

The Roads and Road Transport History Association, let’s call it RRTHA for short, is something I’ve been involved with for a few years now. It is an association of people interested in researching historical and contemporary developments in all things road transport. I’ve met some wonderful people through the Association all with a particular passion – or a few – who are welcoming, supportive and non-judgemental, characteristics all too lacking in much of day-to-day life.

We meet twice a year for a conference and are always eager to give researchers an opportunity to speak at the conference or publish in our quarterly journal so do visit http://www.rrtha.org.uk/ if you’d like to get involved. The other thing that RRTHA does is publish books. At our meeting in Coventry a few weeks ago I purchased the Companion to Road Passenger Transport. A work of over a decade, involving contributions from 157 people to create a compendium of 850 names/articles involved in the development of road passenger transport in the last two hundred years in Great Britain, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It’s a really good introduction for students and people interested in getting more involved in research, with lots of texts referenced and an extensive range of subjects to learn more about. It’s also got a summary in French and German.

Autumn Conference, 2016

This was held at Coventry Transport Museum on Saturday 29th October. I decided to travel on the day and was super impressed to get from my door to the museum’s in about 2.5hours. We had a number of speakers: Roger Torode talked about writing his book on the privatisation of London’s buses, Rod Ashley spoke about nostalgia and motoring (particularly interesting was the dilemma of utility value v. pleasure and ideas surrounding social responsibility), Martin Higginson spoke about bus liveries and heritage branding of companies and Richard Wallace shared lots of information on buses in East Kent. A day well spent.

Roger’s talk was particularly interesting to me and I noted the following:

  • Very intrigued by the formation of 8 bus districts in the late 1970s (with very beautiful logos which I can’t find on the internet, further proof that it is not the source of all knowledge!).
  • The militaristic nature of London Transport pre-privatisation with huge hierarchical separation, poor performance, unreliability and a low expectation culture; unions held a lot of sway which made scheduling buses incredibly difficult. How to incentivise good performance in the public sector?
  • Lack of political consensus surrounding the issue of transport in the UK context. How do we work toward political consensus on such an importance issue?
  • Red was kept as a unifying colour for buses, in part to make privatisation of the buses(11 different companies in 1988) less obvious, and therefore more palatable to the public
  • Tendering works in the London context but only because the service is still within a publicly owned and coordinated network, i.e. regulated; it favours big companies due to short contracts and has delivered a more reliable service overall

Bus to Nowhere

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This rather forlorn figure sits outside the Tate Modern on Southbank. It makes me feel really sad, because someone has decided to make a bin look like a bus. But then they’ve made the front of the bus face a lamppost. This bus is a Bus to Nowhere. Why do this?!  N.B. beginning to think I have an unhealthy emotional relationship with buses, this just doesn’t seem right!

 

Coventry Transport Museum

The leaflet says “transport yourself somewhere different” and that’s what I did this weekend, visiting Coventry Transport Museum as part of my trip to the Midlands and back up to the Toon for Easter.

Coventry, much maligned, is really worth visiting if you want to understand how cars have changed British cityscapes for better and for worse. It is also in my experience full of very friendly people who like what they like, and want you to be you, which is really nice. As well as the Transport Museum, I also visited the Herbert Art Gallery, museum and local history centre, only arriving 20 minutes before closing time. Along with the Cathedral, these three are the main tourist attractions of the ‘Phoenix City’.

What follows is an account of my experience at the Transport Museum and also a bit about the history of the town presented there.

History of Coventry told through Transport

From ribbon weaving, timepiece manufacture and a small sewing machine industry, to cycles and finally cars, Coventry is clearly full of engineers, makers and practical problem solvers, people who can think stuff up and then make it with their own hands. The museum tells this story through a chronological presentation and by dividing the available space into ‘zones’ such as zone 02: “A new motor industry 1900-1914”.

On entry, it smells beautifully like engine oil, produced by the tractors in the temporary exhibition, but perhaps off-putting for cafe goers. It took me back to sometime in my dad’s garage where he was messing around with engine bits from his Coventry made 1959 Alvis saloon, happy and nostalgic.

There is a big ramp and stairway up to the entrance desk and then you are straight into the first ‘zone’. I learnt how Coventry used to make silk ribbons from 1700 to 1860s, which employed half the town. By the 1850s, watch-making and some sewing machine manufacture were the primary industries. I learnt this from a number of key industrialists who speak to you as you go by and are quite attractively illustrated. There are also videos throughout the museum which explain the wider changes taking place, narrated by one female voice and presented very clearly.

The first transport themed display is a timeline of bicycle development which became Coventry’s main source of employment in the second half of the 19th century. The first British bicycles were based on the French ‘velocipede’, but called Hobby Horses after the children’s toy because you moved them much in the same way, i.e. by shoving off the ground with your feet. Between 1868 and 1895, Coventry became the cycling capital of the world, with 30 factories at the end of the  period, employing skilled engineers. Between 1870 and 1885, the front wheel of the cycle increased in size towards what we call the Penny Farthing. This was primarily for athletic young men because it was all about speed and required physical strength to control. A whole raft of other machines were invented for less athletic men and for women including the 1881 Singer Challenge Tricycle which had space at the back for women’s billowing gowns, later developed into the Safety Bicycle with dropped frame, guards, gears, brakes and comfortable saddles for men and women. My favourite bit was the explanation and debate about Rational Dress which allowed women to wear practical knickerbockers instead of dresses to cycle in and was debated at the Museum (and in the 1880s) by men writing letters to newspapers. You can hear two opposing views with the best quote being: “If practical female dress is developed from cycling, I’m all for it”.

After the cycling boom, at the turn of the 20th century, Coventry became the centre for the motorcar industry. I really enjoyed the 1910 ‘Trip to London’ installation which saw the train, car, motor bike, pedal cycle and horse and cart race for the capital and arrive in that order. I found my favorite vehicle – the green 1913 Swift Cyclecar which was a hybrid of car and motor bike, lighter and cheaper than many of its contemporaries. Swift were one of 20 car manufacturers in Coventry at that time making a quarter of all British cars, the need for skilled workforce driving up the town’s population before World War One and producing lighter cars intended for mass consumption. There is then a small display about how these factories contributed to the war effort and what sort of things they made from ammunitions to knapsacks.

After the First World War, the production line principle reduced the need for skilled labour, leading to cheaper products and over 2 million private cars on the road by 1939. There is an explanation of how the shape of cars changed to reflect the art deco style, and you can design your own with tracing paper and light box templates provided. Some of the cars were simply enormous!

During the Second World War, there were 9 ‘shadow’ factories, called so because they were set up by the national government pre-war copying existing factory production lines. I played a game of ‘spot the enemy aircraft’ and got 8 out of 10 (unfortunately, accidentally shooting down two friendly craft, but one was a Spitfire so I don’t feel too guilty – long live the Hawker Hurricane!). The presence of so many factories made Coventry a prime target of the Luftwaffe and led to the destruction of most of the medieval town during bombing in 1940 (and particular the night of 14th November). There is a section of the gallery where you can go through the ‘Blitz Experience’.

Coventry’s medieval street pattern was considered too narrow for modern use even before the war. At that time, the City had the highest car ownership in Britain and roads were being widened through demolition. After World War Two, the city had to decide whether to rebuild as was or take the opportunity to try something new. It was re-planned  using modernist architecture principles by city architect, Donald Gibson. The idea was to encircle the new town centre, with its high-rise blocks and central retail precincts with a primary ring road for motor cars. The museum presents the debate of history versus progress, restoration versus innovation, comparing with the German city of Dresden which has rebuilt its historic fabric after destruction during Allied raids and subsequent Communist rule and blocky architecture. The ring road really is divisive, I hate having to negotiate crossing underneath it to get into the centre of town, but also really appreciate being able to walk everywhere within the centre, and personally quite like the shopping precincts. To create this architecture, it must have been an incredibly optimistic time in the 1950s, when they thought that things would always get better, unable to predict they cycle of recessions we have since experienced, which has left Coventry and many other city centres around Britain with a perpetual half-finished feeling. You can vote for rebuilding or the future at the Museum.

Peak car production was between 1962 and 1964. Fast-forward to the 1980s and you can experience what it was like during the closures of Coventry’s car factories due to recession (Between 1974 to 1982, British employment fell by 27%, Coventry’s by 46%). There is a picket line, which calls out “scum, don’t you cross the line!” as you do so. There is also a reconstruction of the board room of Peugeot Company where you can listen to the debates between managers and the union representatives of the workers. This was the last car factory to close in 2006. The friendly woman explains how the prosperity of Coventry was far too dependent on this one industry, how communication broke down between union leaders and managers, leading eventually to the demise of the industry as wages sky rocketed, production slowed and the quality and development of the product stalled.

The Museum is massive. I was pretty tired by the time I reached a general gallery showcasing a variety of vehicles from funeral hearses to caravans and police cars. There is also a collection of dinky toys (the TIATSA model world). Upstairs includes a section on future technologies e.g. environmental design, aerodynamic innovations, plus the Jaguar interactive experience and Coventry Champions section. Back down a pokey stairwell to the supersonic machines section – it’s all very sci-fi and quite scary to me – giant land speeders with a pay to ride experience. I wasn’t much interested in these galleries.

As the Museum’s leaflet points out, it “isn’t just for transport enthusiasts; it’s for storytellers and escapists; speed freaks and thrill seekers; history buffs and culture vultures”. All in all, it really is successful at proving that transport history is actually social history and worth all of us paying a little bit more attention to. Worth a visit if you can.

On diversion… (44/44A from Newcastle to Dinnington)

As a slight diversion from all things 213, I thought it might be fun to tell you about buses in Newcastle.

Buses in Newcastle are not as good as buses in London. When I lived in Newcastle (which I did for 19ish years on and off), I avoided buses. In fact, I only used them because my boyfriend always lived away from the Metro system we have here, first in a little place called Dinnington and then in the east end of the city, Heaton. (As a second aside, the Metro is super cute with only 2 lines!). I’m sad to say that nearly all buses in Newcastle smell of McDonald’s chips. The other main problem is, they don’t tell you anything once you get on the bus, so if you don’t know where you are going you have to do a guess-timate of where to get off or hope your driver is friendly. This makes bus travel a bit of a hazard, and I only get them up here because my folks won’t put me on their car insurance (a sensible decision, I am blonde and occasionally very ditzy)

The Dinnington bus is run by Arriva. It used to be a 45, but now it’s a 44 or a 44A. It used to run every quarter of an hour, going to half hourly after 7pm. Now it’s half hourly, with one an hour after 7pm. This isn’t good. It also costs £2.20 for a single trip from where I lived to Dinningston, £2.70 from the centre of town. There isn’t an Oyster card system so you have to have cash. They are quite empty, and because they move faster than London buses (less congestion), they are noisy! They do however come in fun colours, Arriva’s buses are turquoise-ish and cream usually, but I also boarded a red ‘United’ double decker this time, which is apparently a modern bus, repainted in celebration of 100 years of the company. Another bus has a huge painted zip on the side, half in red, half in Arriva’s modern colours. You can find out more here: http://www.arrivabus.co.uk/100-years-of-service/ which also tells you about a cool school project to collect stories and poems from the bus. And shamelessly, I’ve nicked the photo from http://northeastbusnews.wordpress.com/.

This is my favourite poem, by Daniel, aged 8:

The Bus Poem
Buses are comfy
Buses are great
Buses are fantastic
Buses are the best
Buses are big
Buses are cool
Buses are warm
Buses are lush
Buses are spectacular

I have also been on a 10A from Ryton to Newcastle run by GoNorthEast (the northern version of Go Ahead London who run the 213 route). They come every 20 minutes even late at night and the driver let me change a tenner with him so that was good, even if the ticket cost over £2.50.

Did you know that Britain (excluding London) is the only country in the world with an entirely privatised / deregulated bus service? More to come on that once I’ve read up a bit.