Tuesday, October 25

Faster than the speed of sound

The internet is a wonderful tool for pursuing one’s passions and interests, no matter how obscure or eclectic the subject matter. I vividly recall experiencing this capability for perhaps the first time in 1997. At the time ThrustSSC, a British built and funded venture, was attempting to break the land speed record. I logged on almost daily to follow its record breaking efforts at Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. The SSC suffix stands for Supersonic Car, as its designer, Richard Noble, had set his sights on creating the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier.

On October 14, 1997, the jet-powered vehicle set a new land speed record, averaging a speed of 1,228 km/h or 763 mph. It also became the first car to officially break the sound barrier, a feat that it ultimately repeated twice. The 16.5 metre long car certainly looked the part, powered by two massive jet engines that sat on either side of the driver’s cockpit. The entire assembly weighed in a hefty 10.5 tons.

It came as no surprise to learn that the car’s engines had come from a Royal Air Force F-4 Phantom jet fighter. It was also surprise that its driver, Andy Green, was also a former RAF pilot. Incredibly the entire venture was the dream, Richard Noble, who at the time was also the current land speed record holder. He’d set his own record in 1983 in a car he’d designed called Thrust 2. This earlier vehicle was powered by only one jet engine, but still was able to reach a bone-jarring speed of 1,019.468 km/h or 633.468 mph. That’s right, fourteen years on, ThrustSSC broke the land speed record by more than 200 km/h.

Today, both record-breaking vehicles are on display in the Coventry Transport Museum, located just over an hour north of London. The museum’s location reflects the fact that Coventry was once home to Britain’s car industry. At one time almost every British motoring brand including Jaguar, Mini and Leyland was based here. It was also home to Sir Frank Wittle, a British jet engine pioneer whose acheivement include the invention of the rotary engine.  His statue stands gaxing skyward in the town centre.  Sadly, most of Coventry's assembly plants have long since closed, making thousands unemployed over several decades. The city is still strugging to recover from the swift deapture of its primary industry.

Last Saturday, I made a spontaneous decision to catch a train to Coventry and see ThrustSSC and Thrust 2 for myself. The journey north was relatively straight forward. The express train from Euston Station made only one stop before arriving in Coventry. Stepping out of the station it was immediately clear that I’d left London far behind and was now in the nation’s industrial heartland. The inner city’s architecture was rather austere and just a little dilapidated. I later learnt that it was heavy bombed during the war and thus reflected the limitations of a struggling post-war economy.

In fact, in the centre of town lie the ruins of Coventry’s once magnificent cathedral. On the night of 14 November 1940, the city was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. The 14th Century Cathedral burned along with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices. Today, only it stone walls and the restored bell tower remain standing. The ruins stretch 425 feet from end to end, while bell tower’s spire rises an impressive 294 feet into the air.

Despite, its destruction the site is still inspiring, if only because it offers a unique sense an average cathedral’s massive scale. The scale is typically is lost in a complete building because the interior is always interrupted by internal pillars and walls. At Coventry, these impediments are missing and thus the building entire surface area is clearly visible. With your line of sight uninterrupted it’s hard not to stand in awe of the medieval builders responsible for its design and construction.

Should I confess I was almost more impressed by the cathedral’s ruins than by finally seeing Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC?

Wednesday, October 19

The beauty of history

I've just spent a memorable weekend exploring Ironbridge, arguably the home of the Industrial Revolution, and the picturesque Dee River valley in Northern Wales. Look for a couple of posts shortly. What's with the radio telescope you ask? That's the Lovell Telescope at the Jordell Bank Observatory, east of Liverpool. I noticed it was within an hour's drive of my weekend destination and so I made a detour to see it for myself

At the time of its completion in 1957, the current 76.2 metre dish was the world's largest steerable antenna. It was activated just weeks before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This meant that it became of few instruments in the West able to accurately track the satellite's orbit around the earth using radar.


Llangollen is another iconic place I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s a small, picturesque village in Northern Wales, located just a few miles from the English border. My initial interest was provoked by images of the stunning Pontcysyllte Aqueduct built a few miles from town. This impressive structure is a slender cast iron tough that carries the Llangollen Canal across the Dee River valley. The aqueduct is 316 metres long, rising almost 39 metres above the surrounding valley.

It was built by the great civil engineer, Thomas Telford, in 1805. Telford was also responsible for construction of the Llangollen canal, built to feed water from the River Dee to the Shropshire Union Canal. If that wasn’t enough, Telford also modernised the ancient road from London to Hollyhead in Northeast Wales that passes through Llangollen, known today as the A5 highway.

For many reasons Garry and I never quite made it to Llangollen while we were living in the UK. As a result, since returning to Australia I’ve made it a personal ambition to actually get there. Last weekend, this goal was finally achieved when I rented a car and drove north while in London for business. I’m glad I made the effort. Llangollen turned out to be one of the prettiest, most memorable locations I’ve ever visited in the UK. Much of the original village has been carefully preserved, sitting on the banks of a truly picturesque river, each half linked by an equally impressive stone arch bridge.

Aside from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Llangollen is also famous for its lovingly restored steam railway that runs through the Dee Valley. The original rail track arrived in the town in 1862 and operated until 1968. Since its closure more than seven miles of track between Llangollen and the nearby village of Carrog have been carefully restored by a volunteer society of rail enthusiasts. The society runs steam train rides several times. On Sunday I caught the first train of the day to Carrog and back.

It was a wonderful adventure. A large crowd gathered on the restored Victorian rail platform to watch the train pull up in a cloud of steam and smoke. Once the engine was coupled to a set of restored carriages we slowly departed to the rhythmic sounds of a chugging engine and clattering wheels. The river valley was picture perfect. Sheep scattered as we passed and I felt a sense of history in my hair as I hung out of the window watching the train round each bend.

Upon returning to Llangollen I wandered along the town’s riverwalk and through its narrow, winding streets. Mid-afternoon I joined a tour that drove a small of us to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct where we boarded canal boat, crossed the aqueduct and then along the Llangollen canal back to town. The tour took roughly two hours, passing through yet more postcard perfect scenery. The view is made all the more memorable by the canal’s unusual location, sitting high up on the side of the valley.

If that wasn’t enough, even my hotel room offered an unusual treat. I stayed at the Hand Hotel. It was originally a 17th Century coaching inn that backed on to the grounds of the Church of St Collen. Collen is popular Welsh saint who reputed retired to Llangollen after murdering a local man-eating giantess. My room was on second floor, with a window that offered a classic view of the church itself. Llangollen’s name is derived from this church. In Welsh Llan means enclosure and thus the town’s name literally translates as Collen’s enclosure. The current stone building was begun in the 13th Century, but later remodelled in 1864-67.

Even better, over breakfast, my table offered a scenic view across the Dee River valley to an isolated hill overlooking the town. On the hill’s crest the ruins of Castell Dinas Bram, a castle built in 1260, are clearly visible. I’d encourage anyone to visit Llangollen if they get the chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

More than thirty years ago I completed a school project on bridges. I recall being fascinated by the different construction methods used to span all manner of obstacles. I think this was moment that my love for civil engineering was born.  Today, I’m still fascinated by these remarkable feats of engineering; as more than one post in this blog will testify. Over the years, one bridge in particular has always captured my imagination; the Iron Bridge spanning the River Severn near Telford, England. Eveb the village it links is fondly called Ironbridge. Last weekend, while based in London for work, I hired a car and drove north to finally see the bridge for myself.

This structure is the world’s first cast iron bridge; possibly the world’s first large scale bridge span built entirely from metal. Upon completion in 1779 it heralded the arrival of an entirely new, significantly stronger, building material; one the ultimately built the modern age. Previously, only wood and stone had been available for large-scale construction. Within decades, other pioneering iron milestones including steamships, skyscrapers and large-scale industrial factories were emerging across the industrialised world.

All these milestones can be traced directly back to the actions of one man, Abraham Darby. In 1709 he first smelted iron using coke instead of wood-based charcoal. Coke, prepared from coal, was more plentiful than wood, thus enabling iron to be manufactured cheaply, in unprecedented volume. He lived in Coalbrookdale, a village located in valley less than a mile from the site of the Iron Bridge. The company he founded later went on to smelt iron for the first Iron Bridge, then built first steam locomotive for Richard Trevithick in 1803.

 Darby’s original iron furnace has been carefully preserved as part of the town’s fascinating Museum of Iron. The brick structure is largely intact despite centuries of weathering and neglect. Today, its crumbling remains are protected by a stunning triangular glass atrium. Exploring this structure was a surreal experience. As I looked into its bulbous interior I struggled to comprehend that one of the Industrial Revolution’s defining moments happened right here.

I feel a similar sense of awe and pioneering majesty standing under the iron lattice of the Iron Bridge. It’s a remarkably elegant and graceful structure as its design and construction was based on established carpentry techniques. This meant that each member of its frame was cast separately, and fastened using mortise and tenon, and dovetail joints. The bridge comprises more than 800 iron castings of 12 basic types, many of which were carefully customised to fit the final structure.

Its main arch span stretches 30.5 metres across the River Severn. At its highest point, the span provides 18 metres of clearance below. Smaller stone arches link the main span to the opposing river banks. When first completed, a toll was charged for its use. The original toll house still stands today on the edge of its southern approach. Vehicular traffic was barred from bridge in 1934, but it remains in use for pedestrians. Interestingly, a toll was still charged for pedestrians up until 1950. Today, you can cross the bridge for free, as well as wander scenic paths laid alongside and underneath it span.

Monday, October 17

Rena hits home

It’s been heart-breaking in recent days to watch an environment disaster unfolding along the coast of Mount Manguanui in New Zealand. The beachside city where my parents live has seen its pristine white sand beaches fouled by oil and debris from Rena, a container ship, that ran around on Astrolabe reef. The reef, roughly 20 kms offshore, was first marked on maps by early European explorers more than three hundred years ago, so its location is well known. Naturally questions are being raised as to how a modern ship ran into such a outcrop, at 17 knots , in broad daylight on a relatively calm sea.

Within days of running aground rough seas hit the region, stressing the vessel to the point that frightening large cracks have appeared along its midsection. The swell also left it leaning at a precarious angle, resulting in the loss of 88 containers so far, 30 of which are currently unaccounted for. This tally is expected to rise as more foul weather descends on the area.

For days now I’ve watched photo after photo published of a beach littered with cargo from burst containers (which include frozen meat patties and animal skins). Most distressing is the realisation that these images were shot from the beach metres from my parent’s home. This is the same beach that Garry and I were frolicking on as recently as January this year. Regular readers may recall we made good use of our jetlag one morning to venture down to the shore to watch the sun rise.

The opening image on this post was captured by Katie Cox earlier this week and published by the New Zealand Herald.  The other images are also taken from the Herald's files.  It's grim stuff.

Monday, October 3

Hooray for Hollywood

We finished our Southwest USA road trip with a three-day stopover in Los Angeles. While I’ve stopped in LA many times over the years, this was Garry’s first proper visit. Of course it wouldn’t be a California vacation without a hire car to get around. To make things as authentic as possible I splashed out and booked a convertible. However, we saved a fortune on our hotel by cashing in some credit card loyalty points. It ultimately cost us US$30/day and was located next to a large Westfield shopping mall. This pleased Garry no end as he was keen to make the most of end-of-Summer clothing sales.

Our first evening in LA was taken up by a visit to a local coin-operated launderette. After two weeks on the road we were both running short of clean clothes. It made for a novel evening as we hung out with dozens of the other people doing their laundry. At times it felt like a scene from a movie which was rather apt considering Hollywood was a few short miles away.

The following morning we drove down the freeway and through palm fringed streets to the La Brea tar pits. I’d visited the area back in December 2009. However this time the water table was much lower making the naturally seeping tar and petro-chemical fumes far more prominent. I was also delighted to find the main fossil excavation pit open for viewing. It’s fascinating to peer into the excavated pit’s gloomy depth and spot fossils still sitting in the black ooze.

Our next step was Hollywood Boulevard. This allowed us to see the famous Hollywood sign, admire memorial stars embedded on the sidewalk and go searching for the footprints of famous actors outside Grumman’s Chinese Theatre. The recognizable names are everywhere from Frank Sinatra to the Marilyn Munro. Even Kermit the Frog has his own memorial star.

Our second full day in town was devoted to shopping. I took Garry to the best shopping mall in town, the Beverly Centre, where we both shopped until our arms groaned under the weight. Our final day in town was then spent visiting Santa Monica beach to see its famous amusement pier, stand at the west terminus of Route 66 (you may recall we visited a popular section of the highway in Winslow, Arizona) and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the sun.

All too soon it was time to tackle the rush hour traffic, collect our luggage and make our way to the airport. Garry ensured our vacation ended on a high note by securing an points upgrade to First Class on Qantas’ uber-comfortable Airbus A380. Hooray for Hollywood.