Nelson Gate, Sproxton


It seems to be a month for gates. When I walked the Cleveland Way from Helmsley last year, I didn’t realised that I was only a couple of miles away from one of the oldest Trafalgar memorials, erected at the gates to Duncombe Park in 1806. So, heading back to the coast, I took the chance to take a very scenic route from York to Scarborough and pay a visit to the gate, as well as a second visit to Helmsley when it was likely to be a bit less overrun with tourists.

The main entrance is beside Helmsley Castle, so this is a ‘back gate’, with a little lodge, and the road running away straight at first, although further on it winds through the grounds.

Gate and lodge

The stonework of the gate has decayed badly over the years, and the front part of the pillars has recently been replaced.

Nelson Gate

The gate is inscribed with the date, 1806, and a dedication:

To the memory of Lord Viscount Nelson and the unparalleled gallant achievements of the British Navy

Nelson Gate inscription

The gate was unlocked, so I slipped through to see if there was an inscription on the back, not really expecting one.

This side is more poetical, inscribed:

Lamented Hero!
O price his conquering country grieved to pay
O dear bought glories of Trafalgar’s Day!

Reverse inscription



Siegestor, Munich


I really only passed through Munich, on my way home from a trip to an Austrian Christmas market for once (before I can never go anywhere again), but while I was there I wandered off in the pouring rain to look at the Siegestor, a monument to the Bavarian forces who fought against Napoleon, in the days when what is now Germany was still a collection of smaller states.

The monument sits at the end of Ludwigstrasse, a great boulevard which leads out from the city centre lined with various important buildings – it’s all very plain and very imposing, something like the equivalent of late Georgian, and although the Bavarian state library and record office are still there, along with university and court buildings, it’s all a bit empty and bleak.


The monument is in the form of a triumphal arch, with Bavarian lions on the top.


Beneath the inscription are carved panels showing battle scenes.

Battle scenes

The monument was badly damaged during WW2, and deliberately only partially restored – the reverse side is blank, with a new inscription reading ‘Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace’.

The reverse

Collingwood Society – The Boats that Collingwood knew

December’s Collingwood Society talk looked at ships’ boats and the uses they were put to – a very interesting talk, and I’ll have to keep my notes to hand in the future to help figure out what Jack Aubrey is up to!

The introduction to the talk was a bit of context, showing that both Collingwood and Nelson owed their first promotions to skill with small boats – Collingwood at the battle of Bunker Hill, organising the boats which supplied the troops and brought out the wounded, and Nelson in using a boat to go aboard a prize which his first lieutenant had though could not be taken.

After that, there was an overview of the types and uses of boats – the main three boats, the launch, cutter and gig, survived into Victorian times, although the allocation of these boats to individual ships varied with time and the preferences of captains.

The boats were used in several way – for basic logistical manoeuvres such as laying out anchors, towing the ship, and transporting crew and stores; in attack and defense for cutting out ships, patrolling, and transporting troops for amphibious operations; and for a variety of specific uses – communications between ships, lifesaving, and for exploration and surveying, another useful route to promotion.

The launch was about the size of a single decker bus, and was a versatile boat – the largest and most practical of the boats usually used. It could be rigged, but was usually rowed, and like the cutter was rowed double banked – with two rowers sitting side by side.

The cutter was a later development of the barge, and its smaller relation the pinnace – higher status boats, longer and narrower than the launch.

Cutters were traditionally clinker built – with overlapping planks – although the naval dockyards began to turn out carvel built cutters with planks laid edge to edge. These were more seaworthy boats than the earlier barges, with higher sides and oarports instead of thole pins – cutters usually had six oars, but smaller four oar cutters were known as jollyboats.

The gig was a later development than the others – very narrow, fast, and with a round bottom to make it easier to row – unlike the other types, it was rowed single banked, with the oarsmen sitting in single file and the oars alternately to either side. This was the captain’s private boat, and some captains would have boats – or costumes for the oarsmen – to their own design.

Several standout examples of the uses of boats were mentioned during the talk – the use of boats to bring in troops at Quebec in 1759, the survival of the crew and passengers of the mail packet Lady Hobart in the ships’s boats for eight days after the ship was wrecked, and of course Bligh’s famous 3000 mile journey in Bounty‘s launch, as well as a sadder story, of the wreck of HMS Guardian on an iceberg in 1789, where those who stayed with the ship eventually came safely to land, while almost all of those who left in the boats were lost (a story which seems to be the seed of Desolation Island, although I don’t remember coming across it before).

Only one ship’s boat from the period survives, and it is French – found in Bantry Bay after the abortive French landing in Ireland in December 1796 in support of the United Irishmen, and kept in a boathouse there for nearly 200 years. Eventually it was given to the national museum, and then to the new Maritime Museum, and has recently undergone a lot of conservation work, although the original structure is basically intact.

The boat probably came from the fleet’s flagship and served as the admiral’s barge – it had been originally built as a rowing boat, but later adapted for rigging. More than 70 replicas have now been built by youth groups from an assortment of countries, and the boats are used for races and gatherings.

Falkirk and the Dundas family


I have a kind of list of things to go and have a look at if I’m ever in a certain place, and so when I found myself in Falkirk I went to have a look by the old parish church for the grave of Sir Lawrence Dundas, grandfather of the ‘real’ George Heneage Dundas, whose original home (although he bought houses all over the place) was at the Kerse, now in – or underneath – Grangemouth.

It’s not really a grave, I discovered, but a family mausoleum, originally standing in the churchyard, but joined on to the main building since the church was rebuilt in 1811.

Church and mausoleum
Dundas mausoleum

It’s a fairly impressive little building, but there’s nothing there to say what it is or who it’s for, apart from the Dundas family crest above the door – apparently the memorial plaques have even been stolen from the coffins inside!

Dundas family crest

The graveyard was cleared in the 1960s, presumably as the town centre grew more and more closely around it, and only a few major graves were left, but some fragments from other stones have been set into the ground.

Gravestone fragments

I had really gone to Falkirk to go out to the Kelpies and start walking along the Forth and Clyde canal (of which more another day), but although I had meant to start walking from the lock right by the Kelpies, I found that the extension along the river towards Grangemouth had been marked as the Charlotte Dundas trail, and couldn’t resist that.

Charlotte Dundas trail

The Charlotte Dundas was one of the very first steam powered ships – probably the first practical design – and the trials took place on the canal here or on the adjacent stretch of river.

Sir Lawrence Dundas was a major shareholder in the canal, but didn’t live to see it completed, and it was his son Thomas, the first Lord Dundas, who became involved with the steamship experiments, and named the boat after his daughter (GHD’s sister).

The boat was certainly used on the canal later on, but there were concerns that the banks would be damaged, and the ship ended up rotting away by one of the locks.

Charlotte Dundas

This part of the canal runs side by side with the river, which also looks a bit like a canal here, having been greatly rerouted and tamed by various industrial works. Earlier on they didn’t run so close together, but the original line of the canal was built over to provide road access to the Grangemouth docks.

River Carron and the new canal

It’s not that there’s anything historic to actually see along the trail, but the information was well done – about the canal, and the history of Grangemouth, and steam power, and the boat itself.

Steam as a method of power was not at all new by this stage – the first Newcomen pumping engines were nearly 100 years old, and it was more than 20 years since Watt had invented a way for his improved engine to produce rotary motion, removing the need for water on site to power industrial machines. But steam as a method of propulsion was still new, although Symington had made experiments with both boats and carriages 10 years earlier, using his own improved version of Watt’s engine.

Boat plan

It was obviously a great event locally, in any case, because the coat of arms of the town of Grangemouth includes a picture of the boat!

Grangemouth coat of arms

Telford in northern Wales


About a month or so ago now, I made a flying visit to north Wales – one castle, a handful of hills, and two Telford bridges.

Unlike Scotland, which was being opened up at least partly for its own benefit, Telford’s works in Wales were primarily concerned with access to Ireland, after the union of 1801 – with rapid movement and communication between London and Dublin suddenly far more important, and Holyhead the main port for Dublin, a good road link across north Wales suddenly became essential.

The main achievement of the route was the bridge across the Menai Straits, the first suspension bridge to be designed for traffic, and on an entirely new scale (although it did take so long to build that the much smaller Union Bridge, a few miles upstream from Berwick, became the first suspension bridge to open to traffic, although it was started later).

My first stop in Wales was Conwy, and so I started with the smaller and slightly later bridge there, now closed to traffic, and flanked on one side by Stephenson’s railway bridge, enclosed in a box, and on the other by the modern road bridge – this has always been an obvious crossing point, and the first bridge replaced an old ferry.

Three bridges

The bridge looks a bit like a little castle itself – its towers, and the towers of the later railway bridge, were built to echo the towers of the castle, which overlooks the river crossing.

Castellated tower

The chains of the bridge are actually anchored into the castle walls on the Conwy side.

Anchored in the castle

The bridge still has its original iron suspension chains, four layers of links, although cables were added in 1903 to strengthen them.

Iron chains

Although the bridge is beautiful, it was these chains which really struck me, suddenly startlingly real. These days we’re used to things which do their job without apparent effort – maybe metal ropes, or maybe no obvious supports. But these chains are clearly from the early days of using metal, and someone has thought carefully about how large a piece could be cast, and how they could be joined, and how many would be needed to take the weight, and there’s a real sense of force about it.


The design of the main Menai Straits bridge was dictated by the setting – with strong currents and a shifting bed, building the piers for a more traditional bridge would have been very difficult, and it was also necessary to leave the space, and the height, for tall ships to pass through the straits. But it was a real leap forward in construction – the concept wasn’t new, but earlier suspension bridges had been small pedestrian ones, and this was the longest bridge span in the world when it was built.

Menai Straits bridge

The chains on both sides are anchored in tunnels driven deep into the ground, but on the mainland side they also run through the tollhouse – tolls were charged for crossing the bridge until 1940.

Menai bridge tollhouse

A plaque on the tollhouse (or two plaques, one in English and one in Welsh) describes the bridge as an ‘international historic civil engineering landmark’, which seems fair enough.

Civil engineering landmark

Telford’s name as engineer is carved into the tower of the bridge itself, although I don’t know when the carving was done.

Telford plaque

One of the piers is built on a little rocky island, but the others stand in the water.

Stone piers

The original iron chains were replaced by steel cables in 1938 – getting the cables into place was the biggest challenge of the original construction, with cables run up to the towers on either side, and the central sections then floated into place below and raised by a team of 150 men.

New cables

The bridge is a local landmark, of course – the pub at the far side has the bridge on its sign, although the pub on the mainly side is slightly bizarrely called The Antelope!

Bridge Inn

Down at the waterside is a building which predates the bridge, and which was once the ferry house for one of the boats crossing the water.

Old ferry house

Collingwood Society AGM 2018

More Collingwood Society last week, with the AGM – nothing very much to report, except that the 2019 programme is more or less complete.

The battle of Cape St. Vincent in January, the March lecture on the Franklin expedition, as we knew – then the use of trees in shipbuilding, the history of HMS Calliope (the latest incarnation being the local RNR unit), a possible summer visit to Sunderland, justice in the Georgian navy, Nelson’s funeral, and Hardy to finish off the year. A bit of a mix!

I think the quiz following was slightly less… esoteric than last year – I managed a very respectable third place (the two ahead of me were seriously knowledgeable) by getting half the available marks, but there were still a few things in there that I’d known once, or might have remembered on a different day. Good fun, anyway.

Collingwood Society – Pickle Night

The Collingwood Society tried a new experiment this year, a Pickle Night, which as far as I can tell is mostly an excuse for getting drunk – nominally it’s a commemoration of the arrival of the Pickle in England with the news of the victory at Trafalgar.

It was held in the main room at Trinity House, which made a lovely setting, and the food was really good. And everyone had to dress up – most people had just gone in stripy tops as sailors, but a few had made a real effort (and apparently we rather baffled the Tesco across the street, as people kept popping over!). And there were various bits of silliness through the night, a thing where the table had to all gather round a small model cannon and shout BANG, and sea cadets come to teach the hornpipe, and other odds and ‘turns’ from each table, and other odds and ends of games and forfeits for going wrong.

It was a very enjoyable evening, but it did seem to be mostly aimed at people who knew each other already, which of course a lot of people did from other local groups – there were none of the team challenges or things that you tend to do if you’re trying to mix people from different backgrounds, and really no chance to interact with people from other tables at all – and the forfeits were more often fines than anything other people could laugh at, as well as sometimes being for things people had done in another context. So maybe not quite as social as it could have been, for a social event, but still good fun.

Book of the Month: October – James Hutton

James Hutton : The father of modern geology
Donald B. McIntyre and Alan McKirdy

I seem to be having a geology fit at the moment – I came across this book in the library catalogue while looking for a different bit of geological history, and then found when I went to get it that it wasn’t really a proper book, just the flat kind full of pictures – but that was a good thing, both because I was behind with my reading, and because the pictures are very informative.

The book was published by the National Museum and Dynamic Earth, and is more about Hutton’s ideas than his life, but I’m certainly not complaining about that.

Hutton started off in a world still believed to be about 6000 years old – which was probably not as silly a belief as it sounds now, because if you don’t know of anything happening earlier, you don’t need to leave time for it. However, Hutton’s great achievement was to show that things which seemed inexplicable became perfectly reasonable if you just allow enough time for them to occur.

Hutton began by developing an interest in chemistry while studying at the University of Edinburgh in his teens, discovering a new process for producing sal ammoniac, used in various industries, and went on to study medicine in Paris and Leiden. Returning to Scotland, he settled on a family farm, giving up medicine and taking to agriculture as a science. It was from an agricultural point of view that he first seems to have taken an interest in the ground, touring England, and later parts of the continent, to study farming methods, and becoming interested in geological features along the way.

Later tours of Scotland were more deliberately geological, and brought him a strong practical knowledge of the rocks to be found in various places which was very important to him later on when developing and proving his theories.

Hutton’s real strength seems to have been his ability to use rocks as experiments which had already taken place – in the same way a chemist might predict that a particular reaction would occur, and test it to see, Hutton would come to believe that a certain event had occurred, and that the result would show in a certain kind of place or kind of rock – at which point his knowledge of where to find the different types would come into play.

It had long been recognised that rocks wore away, and even that soil was formed from the remnants of rocks, but without a method of renewal this was only the decay of the earth towards its eventual end. Hutton came to believe that most of the rocks he had seen were formed from layers of sand and gravel produced by the wearing away of older rocks, and made solid by heat from within the earth, which also distorted and transformed them. (This great heat within the earth, somehow burning without oxygen, was needed to produce effects seen on the surface, but something which he was very aware could not be directly observed – its effects could only be predicted and checked for confirmation.)

One of the pieces of confirmation for this theory was the presence of igneous intrusions, rocks which had cut through earlier regular strata while in a molten state and solidified there, and could be easily traced because they often wore away much more slowly than the surrounding rocks. A related interest was in granite, often believed at the time to be the oldest rock in existence. Hutton believed it to be relatively young, and formed from a molten state, and knew that this could be tested – if veins of granite could be found intruding into other rocks, then the other rocks had been there first. To demonstrate this, he would have to use his wide knowledge of rock types to find a place where granite and another rock came in close contact, which he found in Glen Tilt.

After this, he came across a junction of greywacke and sandstone in the Borders, originally at Jedburgh, where the underlying stone had been deformed and worn away before the upper layers were deposited – something which would simply take a great deal of time. It was the search for a clearer example of this which took him to Siccar Point.

A trip to Greenwich


My first main aim in London was to go on one of the Painted ceiling tours at Greenwich before they ended – a more naval experience than it might appear, because the painted hall was originally intended as a dining room for the sailors of the hospital – but it took so long to finish that they had got used to eating in the undercroft and refused to move up to a great draughty hall (or maybe they didn’t want dozens of peculiar allegorical figures looking down on them while they ate  – I’m not sure I would.

Before going up to the ceiling the tour started at this wall, depicting the new Hanoverian dynasty – according to the guide, the idea was that whatever you might think of George I himself, here presented in idealised fashion, the fact that he already had not just sons but grandsons was a guarantee of stability, lacking through the religious and other struggles of the later Tudors and Stuarts.

Hanoverian dynasty

The slightly earlier ceiling is an enormous representation of the ‘Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny’, with William and Mary at the centre – in true baroque fashion anything that can possibly be crammed in is, so that it’s full of figures both real and symbolic and bits of imagery.

From up on the platform, of course, you don’t get the overall effect – it’s the details that are interesting, like the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed with his assistant in this corner.

Flamsteed and assistant

The paper they’re holding gives the date of a solar eclipse which was still in the future when the ceiling was painted – a piece of magic intended to strike awe into French and other foreign visitors.

Eclipse prediction

The dark circle, however, is varnish covering the signature of a later restorer – these have been found all over the ceiling, including on Queen Mary’s chest!

There is a bit of a seafaring theme to the ceiling, whether to please the sailors or just to mark the importance of naval power, with ships at each end – a Spanish galleon at one, and a British man of war at the other. (This is really a picture that they’d put up to let you get the whole impression, beecase you didn’t get much idea of the ships from directly under them.)

British ship

I decided that I just had time to nip into the maritime museum – I’m not very sure what this lot are up to, an easter egg hunt, maybe!

Sidney Smith at the left, Saumarez at the front, Pellew at the back, and then someone who doesn’t really belong, I think Robert Peel’s son, at the right.

Naval heroes pointing

A rather battered looking Nelson was standing on a small column, but I forgot to find out why when I went back to the ground floor.

A battered Nelson

I just slipped in to look at Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar – I do need to go back some time and do Greenwich properly, because it’s a very long time since I have.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Outside I found myslf unexpectedly walking through a graveyard, and past a monument to several governors of the hospital, including Hood and Hardy.

Greenwich cemetery memorial

Trafalgar Day 2018


I enjoyed last year’s Trafalgar Day adventures, but it was nice to be back at Tynemouth, on my way home from Wales.


And since I got back to Edinburgh in daylight, which doesn’t always happen, I wandered along to see the flags on the Nelson monument, although I didn’t climb the hill (having climbed enough hills already).