Anniversary Break

We might never have been very good at keeping track of the exact date our relationship began in Edinburgh twelve years ago, but that doesn’t stop Ruth and I from celebrating it, often with a trip away very-approximately in the summer. This year, we marked the occasion with a return to Scotland, cycling our way around and between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Dan and Ruth, windswept and wet, aboard the Glenlee in Glasgow.
We got rained on quite a lot, early in our trip, but that didn’t slow our exploration.

Northwards #

Even sharing a lightweight conventional bike and a powerful e-bike, travelling under your own steam makes you pack lightly. We were able to get everything we needed – including packing for the diversity of weather we’d been told to expect – in a couple of pannier bags and a backpack, and pedalled our way down to Oxford Parkway station to start our journey.

Dan and Ruth drink Desperados on Oxford Parkway Railway Station.
And because we’re oh-so-classy when we go on an anniversary break, I brought a four-pack for us to drink while we waited for the train.

In anticipation of our trip and as a gift to me, Ruth had arranged for tickets on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Glasgow and returning from Edinburgh to London to bookend our adventure. A previous sleeper train ticket she’d purchased, for Robin as part of Challenge Robin II, had lead to enormous difficulties when the train got cancelled… but how often can sleeper trains get cancelled, anyway?

Digital display board: "Passengers for the Caledonian Sleeper service tonight departing at 23:30 are being advised that the Glasgow portio [sic] of this service has been cancelled. For further information please see staff on"
Well this can’t be good.
Turns out… more-often than you’d think. We cycled across London and got to Euston Station just in time to order dinner and pour a glass of wine before we received an email to let us know that our train had been cancelled.

Station staff advised us that instead of a nice fast train full of beds they’d arranged for a grotty slow bus full of disappointment. It took quite a bit of standing-around and waiting to speak to the right people before anybody could even confirm that we’d be able to stow our bikes on the bus, without which our plans would have been completely scuppered. Not a great start!

Dan with a bag of snacks and shit from the train crew.
Hey look, a bag full of apologies in the form of snacks.

Eight uncomfortable hours of tedious motorway (and the opportunity to wave at Oxford as we went back past it) and two service stations later, we finally reached Glasgow.

View from the bus to Glasgow.
2-4-6-8, ain’t never too late.

Glasgow #

Despite being tired and in spite of the threatening stormclouds gathering above, we pushed on with our plans to explore Glasgow. We opted to put our trust into random exploration – aided by responses to weirdly-phrased questions to Google Assistant about what we should see or do – to deliver us serendipitous discoveries, and this plan worked well for us. Glasgow’s network of cycle paths and routes seems to be effectively-managed and sprawls across the city, and getting around was incredibly easy (although it’s hilly enough that I found plenty of opportunities to require the lowest gears my bike could offer).

Glasgow Necropolis
Nothing else yet being open in Glasgow, we started our journey where many tens of thousands of Victorian-era Glaswegians finished theirs.

We kicked off by marvelling at the extravagance of the memorials at Glasgow Necropolis, a sprawling 19th-century cemetery covering an entire hill near the city’s cathedral. Especially towards the top of the hill the crypts and monuments give the impression that the dead were competing as to who could leave the most-conspicuous marker behind, but there are gems of subtler and more-attractive Gothic architecture to be seen, too. Finding a convenient nearby geocache completed the experience.

Gravestone of William Miller, author of Wee Willie Winkie
I learned that Wee Willie Winkie wasn’t the anonymously-authored folk rhyme that I’d assumed but was written by a man called William Miller. Who knew?

Pushing on, we headed downriver in search of further adventure… and breakfast. The latter was provided by the delightful Meat Up Deli, who make a spectacularly-good omelette. There, in the shadow of Partick Station, Ruth expressed surprise at the prevalence of railway stations in Glasgow; she, like many folks, hadn’t known that Glasgow is served by an underground train network, But I too would get to learn things I hadn’t known about the subway at our next destination.

Dan and Ruth cycle alongside the Clyde.
The River Clyde is served by an excellent cycle path and runs through the former industrial heart of the city.

We visited the Riverside Museum, whose exhibitions are dedicated to the history of transport and industry, with a strong local focus. It’s a terrifically-engaging museum which does a better-than-usual job of bringing history to life through carefully-constructed experiences. We spent much of the time remarking on how much the kids would love it… but then remembering that the fact that we were able to enjoy stopping and read the interpretative signage and not just have to sprint around after the tiny terrors was mostly thanks to their absence! It’s worth visiting twice, if we find ourselves up here in future with the little tykes.

Dan aboard a restored "Coronation" tram
“Coronation” Tram #1173 was worth a visit, but – as my smile shows – huge tram-fan Ruth had made me board a lot of restored trams by this point. And yes, observant reader: I am still wearing yesterday’s t-shirt, having been so-far unable to find somewhere sensible to change since the motorway journey.

It’s also where I learned something new about the Glasgow Subway: its original implementation – in effect until 1935 – was cable-driven! A steam engine on the South side of the circular network drove a pair of cables – one clockwise, one anticlockwise, each 6½ miles long – around the loop, between the tracks. To start the train, a driver would pull a lever which would cause a clamp to “grab” the continuously-running cable (gently, to prevent jerking forwards!); to stop, he’d release the clamp and apply the brakes. This solution resulted in mechanically-simple subway trains: the system’s similar to that used for some of the surviving parts of San Franciso’s original tram network.

Dan sits aboard a replica of an original Glasgow subway train.
We noticed “no spitting” signs all over all of the replica public transport at the museum. Turns out Glasgow had perhaps the worst tuberculosis outbreak in the UK, so encouraging people to keep their fluids to themselves was a big deal.

Equally impressive as the Riverside Museum is The Tall Ship accompanying it, comprising the barque Glenlee converted into a floating museum about itself and about the maritime history of its age.

Dan at the wheel of the Glenlee
I tried my hand at being helmsman of the Glenlee, but the staff wouldn’t let me unmoor her from the dock so we didn’t get very far. Also, I have no idea how to sail a ship. I can capsize a windsurfer; that’s got to be similar, right?

This, again, was an incredibly well-managed bit of culture, with virtually the entire ship accessible to visitors, right down into the hold and engine room, and with a great amount of effort put into producing an engaging experience supported by a mixture of interactive replicas (Ruth particularly enjoyed loading cargo into a hoist, which I’m pretty sure was designed for children), video, audio, historical sets, contemporary accounts, and all the workings of a real, functional sailing vessel.

Ruth rings the bell on the Glenlee
Plus, you can ring the ship’s bell!

After lunch at the museum’s cafe, we doubled-back along the dockside to a distillery we’d spotted on the way past. The Clydeside Distillery is a relative newcomer to the world of whisky – starting in 2017, their first casks are still several years’ aging away from being ready for consumption, but that’s not stopping them from performing tours covering the history of their building (it’s an old pumphouse that used to operate the swingbridge over the now-filled-in Queen’s Dock) and distillery, cumulating in a whisky tasting session (although not yet including their own single malt, of course).

Copper stills of the Clydeside Distillery.
“Still” working on the finished product.

This was the first time Ruth and I had attended a professionally-organised whisky-tasting together since 2012, when we did so not once but twice in the same week. Fortunately, it turns out that we hadn’t forgotten how to drink whisky; we’d both kept our hand in in the meantime. <hic> Oh, and we got to keep our tasting-glasses as souvenirs, which was a nice touch.

Dan at the whisky tasting.
I’m getting… vanilla… I’m getting honey. I’m getting a light smokiness… I’m getting…. I’m getting drunk.

Forth & Clyde Canal #

Thus far we’d been lucky that the rain had mostly held-off, at least while we’d been outdoors. But as we wrapped up in Glasgow and began our cycle ride down the towpath of the Forth & Clyde Canal, the weather turned quickly through bleak to ugly to downright atrocious. The amber flood warning we’d been given gave way to what forecasters and the media called a “weather bomb”: an hours-long torrential downpour that limited visibility and soaked everything left out in it.

You know: things like us.

Map showing route from Clydeside Distillery to Kincaid House.
Our journey from Glasgow took us along the Forth & Clyde Canal towpath to Milton of Campsie, near Kirkintilloch. Download GPX tracklog.

Our bags held up against the storm, thankfully, but despite an allegedly-waterproof covering Ruth and I both got thoroughly drenched. By the time we reached our destination of Kincaid House Hotel we were both exhausted (not helped by a lack of sleep the previous night during our rail-replacement-bus journey) and soaking wet right through to our skin. My boots squelched with every step as we shuffled uncomfortably like drowned rats into a hotel foyer way too-fancy for bedraggled waifs like us.

Clothes and shoes on a radiator.
I don’t have any photos from this leg of the journey because it was too wet to use a camera. Just imagine a picture of me underwater and you’ll get the idea. Instead, then, here’s a photo of my boots drying on a radiator.

We didn’t even have the energy to make it down to dinner, instead having room service delivered to the room while we took turns at warming up with the help of a piping hot bath. If I can sing the praises of Kincaid House in just one way, though, it’s that the food provided by room service was absolutely on-par with what I’d expect from their restaurant: none of the half-hearted approach I’ve experienced elsewhere to guests who happen to be too knackered (and in my case: lacking appropriate footwear that’s not filled with water) to drag themselves to a meal.

Kircaid House Hotel
When we finally got to see it outside of the pouring rain, it turns out that the hotel was quite pretty. Our room is in the top right (including a nook extending into the turret). If you look closely you’ll see that the third, fifth, and seventh windows on the upper floor are fake: they cover areas that have since their original construction been converted to en suite bathrooms.

Our second day of cycling was to be our longest, covering the 87½ km (54½ mile) stretch of riverside and towpath between Milton of Campsie and our next night’s accommodation on the South side of Edinburgh. We were wonderfully relieved to discover that the previous day’s epic dump of rain had used-up the clouds’ supply in a single day and the forecast was far more agreeable: cycling 55 miles during a downpour did not sound like a fun idea for either of us!

Map showing route from Kincaid House to 94DR.
The longest day’s cycling of our trip had intimidated me right from the planning stage, but a steady pace – and an improvement in the weather – put it well within our grasp. Download GPX tracklog.

Kicking off by following the Strathkelvin Railway Path, Ruth and I were able to enjoy verdant countryside alongside a beautiful brook. The signs of the area’s industrial past are increasingly well-concealed – a rotting fence made of old railway sleepers here; the remains of a long-dead stone bridge there – and nature has reclaimed the land dividing this former-railway-now-cycleway from the farmland surrounding it. Stopping briefly for another geocache we made good progress down to Barleybank where we were able to rejoin the canal towpath.

Ruth on the Strathkelvin Railway Path
Our day’s journey began following Glazert Water towards its confluence with the River Kelvin. It’s really quite pretty around here.

This is where we began to appreciate the real beauty of the Scottish lowlands. I’m a big fan of a mountain, but there’s also a real charm to the rolling wet countryside of the Lanarkshire valleys. The Forth & Clyde towpath is wonderfully maintained – perhaps even better than the canal itself, which is suffering in patches from a bloom of spring reeds – and makes for easy cycling.

Broad Burn and Wood Burn, in the Kelvin Valley.
Downstream from Kilsyth the Kelvin is fed by a crisscrossing network of burns rolling down the hills and through a marsh.

Outside of moorings at the odd village we’d pass, we saw no boats along most of the inland parts of the Forth & Clyde canal. We didn’t see many joggers, or dog-walkers, or indeed anybody for long stretches.

Ruth rides alongside the Forth & Clyde canal.
The sun climbed into the sky and we found ourselves alone on the towpath for miles at a time.

The canal was also teeming with wildlife. We had to circumnavigate a swarm of frogs, spotted varied waterfowl including a heron who’d decided that atop a footbridge was the perfect place to stand and a siskin that made itself scarce as soon as it spotted us, and saw evidence of water voles in the vicinity. The rushes and woodland all around but especially on the non-towpath side of the canal seemed especially popular with the local fauna as a place broadly left alone by humans.

Swans and cygnets
We only had a few seconds to take pictures of this swan family before the parents put themselves between us and the cygnets and started moving more-aggressively towards us.

The canal meanders peacefully, flat and lock-free, around the contours of the Kelvin valley all the way up to the end of the river. There, it drops through Wyndford Lock into the valley of Bonny Water, from which the rivers flow into the Forth. From a hydrogeological perspective, this is the half-way point between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Wyndford Lock
We stopped for a moment to look at Wyndford Lock, where a Scottish Canals worker was using the gates to adjust the water levels following the previous day’s floods.

Seven years ago, I got the chance to visit the Falkirk Wheel, but Ruth had never been so we took the opportunity to visit again. The Wheel is a very unusual design of boat lift: a pair of counterbalanced rotating arms swap places to move entire sections of the canal from the lower to upper level, and vice-versa. It’s significantly faster to navigate than a flight of locks (indeed, there used to be a massive flight of eleven locks a little way to the East, until they were filled in and replaced with parts of the Wester Hailes estate of Falkirk), wastes no water, and – because it’s always in a state of balance – uses next to no energy to operate: the hydraulics which push it oppose only air resistance and friction.

Dan and Ruth at the Falkirk Wheel
A photo can’t really do justice to the size of the Falkirk Wheel: by the time you’re close enough to appreciate what it is, you’re too close to fit it into frame.

So naturally, we took a boat ride up and down the wheel, recharged our batteries (metaphorically; the e-bike’s battery would get a top-up later in the day) at the visitor centre cafe, and enjoyed listening-in to conversations to hear the “oh, I get it” moments of people – mostly from parts of the world without a significant operating canal network, in their defence – learning how a pound lock works for the first time. It’s a “lucky 10,000” thing.

View towards Grangemouth from the top of the Falkirk Wheel
Looking East from the top of the Falkirk Wheel we could make out Grangemouth, the Kelpies, and – in the distance – Edinburgh: our destination!

Pressing on, we cycled up the hill. We felt a bit cheated, given that we’d just been up and down pedal-free on the boat tour, and this back-and-forth manoeuvrer confused my GPSr – which was already having difficulty with our insistence on sticking to the towpath despite all the road-based “shortcuts” it was suggesting – no end!

Rough Castle Tunnel
The first of our afternoon tunnels began right at the top of the Falkirk Wheel. Echo… cho… ho… o…

Union Canal #

From the top of the Wheel we passed through Rough Castle Tunnel and up onto the towpath of the Union Canal. This took us right underneath the remains of the Antonine Wall, the lesser-known sibling of Hadrian’s Wall and the absolute furthest extent, albeit short-lived, of the Roman Empire on this island. (It only took the Romans eight years to realise that holding back the Caledonian Confederacy was a lot harder work than their replacement plan: giving most of what is now Southern Scotland to the Brythonic Celts and making the defence of the Northern border into their problem.)

Dan cycling the Union Canal.
The Union Canal is higher, narrower, and windier than the Forth & Clyde.

A particular joy of this section of waterway was the Falkirk Tunnel, a very long tunnel broad enough that the towpath follows through it, comprised of a mixture of hewn rock and masonry arches and very variable in height (during construction, unstable parts of what would have been the ceiling had to be dug away, making it far roomier than most narrowboat canal tunnels).

Entrance to the Falkirk Tunnel
Don’t be fooled by the green light: this tunnel is unmanaged and the light is alternating between red and green to tell boaters to use their own damn common sense.

Wet, cold, slippery, narrow, and cobblestoned for the benefit of the horses that no-longer pull boats through this passage, we needed to dismount and push our bikes through. This proved especially challenging when we met other cyclists coming in the other direction, especially as our e-bike (as the designated “cargo bike”) was configured in what we came to lovingly call “fat ass” configuration: with pannier bags sticking out widely and awkwardly on both sides.

Water pours in through the ceiling of the Falkirk Tunnel through a combination of man-made (ventilation) and eroded shafts.

This is probably the oldest tunnel in Scotland, known with certainty to predate any of the nation’s railway tunnels. The handrail was added far later (obviously, as it would interfere with the reins of a horse), as were the mounted electric lights. As such, this must have been a genuinely challenging navigation hazard for the horse-drawn narrowboats it was built to accommodate!

Dan and Ruth in the Falkirk Tunnel (edited: redeye removed)
I had a few tries at getting a photo of the pair of us where neither of us looked silly, but failed. So here’s one where only Ruth looks silly (albeit clearly delighted at where she is).

On the other side the canal passes over mighty aqueducts spanning a series of wooded valleys, and also providing us with yet another geocaching opportunity. We were very selective about our geocache stops on this trip; there were so many candidates but we needed to make progress to ensure that we made it to Edinburgh in good time.

We took lunch and shandy at Bridge 49 where we also bought a painting depicting one of the bridges on the Union Canal and negotiated with the proprietor an arrangement to post it to us (as we certainly didn’t have space for it in our bags!), continuing a family tradition of us buying art from and of places we take holidays to. They let us recharge our batteries (literal this time: we plugged the e-bike in to ensure it’d have enough charge to make it the rest of the way without excessive rationing of power). Eventually, our bodies and bikes refuelled, we pressed on into the afternoon.

River Almond viewed from the Union Canal aqueduct that spans it (edited: removed aeroplane)
One aqueduct spanned the River Almond, which Three Ringers might recognise by its Gaelic name, Amain.

For all that we might scoff at the overly-ornate, sometimes gaudy architecture of the Victorian era – like the often-ostentatious monuments of the Necropolis we visited early in our adventure – it’s still awe-inspiring to see their engineering ingenuity. When you stand on a 200-year-old aqueduct that’s still standing, still functional, and still objectively beautiful, it’s easy to draw unflattering comparisons to the things we build today in our short-term-thinking, “throwaway” culture. Even the design of the Falkirk Wheel’s, whose fate is directly linked to these duocentenarian marvels, only called for a 120-year lifespan. How old is your house? How long can your car be kept functioning? Long-term thinking has given way to short-term solutions, and I’m not convinced that it’s for the better.

Dan looks over the edge of the Almond Aqueduct
Like the Falkirk Wheel, it’s hard to convey the scale of these aqueducts in pictures, especially those taken on their span! They’re especially impressive when you remember that they were built over two centuries ago, without the benefits of many modern facilities.

Eventually, and one further (especially sneaky) geocache later, a total of around 66 “canal miles”, one monsoon, and one sleep from the Glasgow station where we dismounted our bus, we reached the end of the Union Canal in Edinburgh.

Dan and Ruth at the Edinburgh basin of the Union Canal
The end of the canal!

Edinburgh #

There we checked in to the highly-recommendable 94DR guest house where our host Paul and his dog Molly demonstrated their ability to instantly-befriend just-about anybody.

Ruth sits in awe of a bowl of gin cocktail.
We figured that a “sharer” cocktail at the Salisbury Arms would be about the right amount for two people, but were pleasantly (?) surprised when what turned up was a punchbowl.

We went out for food and drinks at a local gastropub, and took a brief amble part-way up Arthur’s Seat (but not too far… we had just cycled fifty-something miles), of which our hotel room enjoyed a wonderful view, and went to bed.

Dan at 94DR
For some reason I felt the need to look like I was performing some kind of interpretive dance while presenting our hotel room at 94DR to Ruth.

The following morning we cycled out to Craigmillar Castle: Edinburgh’s other castle, and a fantastic (and surprisingly-intact) example of late medieval castle-building.

Map showing journeys around Edinburgh.
We covered about 20km (12½ miles) while exploring Edinburgh, but at least it was punctuated by lots of activities. Download GPX tracklog.

This place is a sprawling warren of chambers and dungeons with a wonderful and complicated history. I feel almost ashamed to not have even known that it existed before now: I’ve been to Edinburgh enough times that I feel like I ought to have visited, and I’m glad that I’ve finally had the chance to discover and explore it.

Ruth explores Craigmillar Castle
Does this picture give you Knightmare vibes? It gives me Knightmare vibes. “Take three steps forwards… it’s okay, there’s nothing to fall off of.”

Edinburgh’s a remarkable city: it feels like it gives way swiftly, but not abruptly, to the surrounding countryside, and – thanks to the hills and forests – once you’re outside of suburbia you could easily forget how close you are to Scotland’s capital.

Ruth and Dan atop Craigmillar Castle
From atop Craigmillar Castle it was hard to imagine a time at which there’d have been little but moorland and fields spanning the league between there and the capital.

In addition to a wonderful touch with history and a virtual geocache, Craigmillar Castle also provided with a delightful route back to the city centre. “The Innocent Railway” – an 1830s stretch of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway which retained a tradition of horse-drawn carriages long after they’d gone out of fashion elsewhere – once connected Craigmillar to Holyrood Park Road along the edge of what is now Bawsinch and Duddington Nature Reserve, and has long since been converted into a cycleway.

Ruth cycles through the former railway tunnel of The Innocent Railway.
The 520-metre long Innocent Tunnel may have been the first public railway tunnel in Britain. Since 1994, it’s been a cycle path.

Making the most of our time in the city, we hit up a spa (that Ruth had secretly booked as a surprise for me) in the afternoon followed by an escape room – The Tesla Cube – in the evening. The former involved a relaxing soak, a stress-busting massage, and a chill lounge in a rooftop pool. The latter undid all of the good of this by comprising of us running around frantically barking updates at one another and eventually rocking the week’s highscore for the game. Turns out we make a pretty good pair at escape rooms.

Dan and Ruth pretend to be asleep while holding a sign that says that they solved The Tesla Cube escape room in 32 mintues and 22 seconds.
If we look pretty tired at this point, it’s because we are. (Fun fact, my phone insisted that we ought to take this picture again because, as it said “somebody blinked”.)

Southwards #

After a light dinner at the excellent vegan cafe Holy Cow (who somehow sell a banana bread that is vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free: by the time you add no eggs, dairy, flour or sugar, isn’t banana bread just a mashed banana?) and a quick trip to buy some supplies, we rode to Waverley Station to find out if we’d at least be able to get a sleeper train home and hoping for not-another-bus.

Holy Cow Edinburgh
I had their kidney-bean burger. It was delicious.

We got a train this time, at least, but the journey wasn’t without its (unnecessary) stresses. We were allowed past the check-in gates and to queue to load our bikes into their designated storage space but only after waiting for this to become available (for some reason it wasn’t immediately, even though the door was open and crew were standing there) were we told that our tickets needed to be taken back to the check-in gates (which had now developed a queue of their own) and something done to them before they could be accepted. Then they reprogrammed the train’s digital displays incorrectly, so we boarded coach B but then it turned into coach E once we were inside, leading to confused passengers trying to take one another’s rooms… it later turned back into coach B, which apparently reset the digital locks on everybody’s doors so some passengers who’d already put their luggage into a room now found that they weren’t allowed into that room…

Caledonian Sleeper in Edinburgh
We were surprised to discover that our sleeper from Edinburgh to London had the same crew as the one we’d not been able to get to Glasgow earlier in the week. So they got to hear us complain at them for a second time, albeit for different reasons.

…all of which tied-up the crew and prevented them from dealing with deeper issues like the fact that the room we’d been allocated (a room with twin bunks) wasn’t what we’d paid for (a double room). And so once their seemingly-skeleton crew had solved all of their initial technical problems they still needed to go back and rearrange us and several other customers in a sliding-puzzle-game into one another’s rooms in order to give everybody what they’d actually booked in the first place.

In conclusion: a combination of bad signage, technical troubles, and understaffing made our train journey South only slightly less stressful than our bus journey North had been. I’ve sort-of been put off sleeper trains.

Caledonian Sleeper room
The room itself, once we finally got it, was reasonable, although it was reminiscent of time spent in small camper vans where using one piece of furniture first means folding away a different piece of furniture.

After a reasonable night’s sleep – certainly better than a bus! – we arrived in London, ate some breakfast, took a brief cycle around Regent’s Park, and then found our way to Marylebone to catch a train home.

Bikes packed onto the train back to Oxford.
Getting our bikes onto the train back to Oxford from London was, amazingly, easier than getting them onto the sleeper train on which we’d specifically booked a space for them.

All in all it was a spectacular and highly-memorable adventure, illustrative of the joy of leaving planning to good-luck, the perseverance of wet cyclists, the ingenuity of Victorian engineers, the beauty of the Scottish lowlands, the cycle-friendliness of Glasgow, and – sadly – the sheer incompetence of the operators of sleeper trains.

A++, would celebrate our love this way again.

Mystery Pipe

A puzzle that the steam locomotive enthusiasts among you (you’re out there, right?) might stand a chance at solving:

The picture below is of “6040”, the last steam locomotive to be built for the Department of Railways New South Wales in Australia. She was in service as a coal/goods transporter from 1957 through 1967 before the increase in the use of diesel on the railways lead to the death of steam. She was eventually rescued and displayed by the New South Wales Railway Museum, which is where the photo was taken. There, starting from her 50th birthday, a team of volunteers have been restoring her. But that’s perhaps not the thing that’s most-unusual about her, or her class (AD60).

New South Wales Government Railways' AD60-class "6040", with mystery pipes highlighted
New South Wales Government Railways’ AD60-class “6040”, with mystery pipes highlighted

I’ve highlighted on the photo a feature that you’ve probably never seen before, even if you’re of an inclination to go “Ooh, a steam loco: I’mma have a closer look at that!”. What you’re seeing is an open pipe (with a funnel-like protrusion at one end) connecting the area behind the leading wheels to the cab. What’s it for? Have a think about it as you read the rest of this post, and see if you can come up with the answer before I tell you the answer.

AD60 "6012" under steam.
AD60 “6012”, seen in this 1950s photo, had not yet been fitted with the “mystery pipes”, which were added later.

These pipes weren’t initially fitted to “6040” nor to any of her 41 sisters: they were added later, once the need for them became apparent.

If you’re thinking “ventilation”, you’d be wrong, but I can see why you’d make that guess: the AD60 is an extremely long locomotive, and sometimes long steam locomotives experience ventilation problems when going through tunnels. Indeed, this was a concern for the AD60 and some were fitted with ventilation pipes, but these carried air from the front of the engine back to the cab, not from down near the wheels like this mystery pipe would. However, the pipe does connect through to the cab…

AD60 "6029"
“City of Canberra”/”6029”, restored to functionality (seen here in 2015), either never had or wasn’t refitted during restoration with the mystery pipes.

It’s worth taking a moment though to consider why this is such a long locomotive, though: you may have noticed that it exhibits a rather unusual shape! The AD60 is a Garratt locomotive, an uncommon articulated design which places a single (usually relatively-large) boiler straddled in-between two steam engines. Articulating a locomotive allows a longer design to safely take corners that were only rated for shorter vehicles (which can be important if your network rolled out narrow-gauge everywhere to begin with, or if you put too many curves onto a mountain railway). Garratt (and other articulated steam) locos are a fascinating concept however you look at them, but I’m going to try harder than usual to stay on-topic today.

OpenTTD slope building
Just go around the mountain! (Around and around and around…) Oh damn, I’ve gone off topic and now I’m thinking about OpenTTD.

And by the time you’re articulating a locomotive anyway, engineer Herbert William Garratt reasoned, you might as well give it a huge boiler and two engines and give it the kind of power output you’d normally expect from double-heading your train. And it pretty-much worked, too! Garratt-type articulated steam locomotives proved very popular in Africa, where some of the most-powerful ones constructed remained in service until 1980, mountainous parts of Asia, and – to a lesser extent – in Australia.

Illustration of a garratt locomotive
Each of the forward and rear engine bogies in a Garratt design pivots independently; the boiler and cab are suspended between them.

Indeed: it’s the combination of length of this loco and its two (loud) engines that necessitated the addition of the “mystery pipe”. Can you work out what it is, yet? One final clue before I give the game away – it’s a safety feature.

While you think about that, I direct your attention to this photo of the Я-class (of which only one was ever built), which shows you what happens then the Soviet Union thought “Da, we have to be having one of these ‘Garratt’ steam engines with the bending… but we have also to be making it much bigger than those capitalist dogs would.” What a monster!

Page 116 of the Minutes of Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Volume 1
Minutes of the meeting at which Cowper demonstrated his invention (click through for full text via Google Books).

In the 1840s, engineer Edward Alfred Cowper (who’d later go on to design the famous single-arch roof of Birmingham New Street station which lasted until its redevelopment in the 1960s) invented a device called the railway detonator. A detonator is a small explosive charge that can be attached to a railway line and which will explode when a train drives over it. The original idea – and still one in which they’re used to this day – is that if a train breaks down or otherwise has to come to a halt in foggy conditions, they can be placed on the track behind. If another train comes along, the driver will hear the distinctive “bangs” of the detonators which will warn them to put on the brakes and stop, and so avoid a collision with the stopped train ahead.

They’re the grown-up equivalent of those things kids used to be able to buy that went bang when you threw them on the ground (or, in a great example of why kids shouldn’t be allowed to buy them, at least in the case of a childhood friend of mine, detonated them by biting them!).

But when your cab is behind not only the (long) boiler and (even longer and very loud) articulated engine of an AD60, there’s a very real risk that you won’t hear a detonator, triggered by the front wheels of your loco. Your 264-tonnes of locomotive plus the weight of the entire train behind you can sail on through a trio of detonators and not even hear the warning (though you’re probably likely to hear the bang that comes later, when you catch up with the obstruction ahead).

Detonator on railway track
I heard pop-pop on the railway! (The very fact that I call it that tells you that I’m not ready.)

The mystery tubes on the AD60 were added to address this problem: they’re a noise-carrier! Connecting the area right behind the leading wheels to the drivers’ cab via a long tube makes the driver more-able to hear what’s happening on the rails, specifically so that they can hear if the engine begins to roll over a detonator. That’s a crazy bit of engineering, right? Installing a tube along most of the length of a locomotive just to carry the sound of the wheels (and anything they collide with) to the driver’s cab seems like a bizarre step, but having already-constructed the vehicle in a way that introduced that potential safety problem, it was the simplest and lowest-cost retrofitting.

In other news: this is what happens when I finish the last exam I anticipate sitting in a long while, this week (I know I’ve said that before, last time I was in the position of finishing a final-exam-before-a-dissertation). Clearly my brain chooses to celebrate not having to learn what I was studying for a bit by taking a break to learn something completely different.

Underground and Overground in the City of London

Despite being only a short journey away (made even shorter by the new railway station that appeared near by house last year), I rarely find myself in London. But once in a while a week comes along when I feel like I’m there all the time.

British Rail branded poster from an abandoned tunnel under Euston Station, circa 1960s.
Bargain travel to London from the station around the corner! Don’t think this poster is up-to-date, though.

On Friday of last week, Ruth, JTA and I took one of the London Transport Museum‘s Hidden London tours. Back in 2011 we took a tour of Aldwych Tube Station, probably the most well-known of the London Underground’s disused stations, and it was fantastic, so we were very excited to be returning for another of their events. This time around, we were visiting Euston Station.

Our tour group gathers around the corner from Euston Station.
Stylish hi-vis jackets for everybody!

But wait, you might-well say: Euston station isn’t hidden nor disused! And you’d be right. But Euston’s got a long and convoluted history, and it used to consist of not one but three stations: the mainline station and two independent underground stations run by competing operators. The stations all gradually got connected with tunnels, and then with a whole different set of tunnels as part of the redevelopment in advance of the station’s reopening in 1968. But to this day, there’s still a whole network of tunnels underneath Euston station, inaccessible to the public, that are either disused or else used only as storage, air vents, or cable runs.

Disused lift shaft under Euston Station.
This lift shaft used to transport passengers between what are now the Northern and Victoria lines. Now it’s just a big hole.

A particular highlight was getting to walk through the ventilation shaft that draws all of the hot air out of the Victoria Line platforms. When you stand and wait for your train you don’t tend to think about the network of tunnels that snake around the one you’re in, hidden just beyond the grills in the ceiling or through the doors at the end of the platforms. I shot a video (below) from the shaft, periodically looking down on the trains pulling in and out below us.

No sooner were we back than I was away again. Last Saturday, I made my way back to London to visit Twitter’s UK headquarters in Soho to help the fantastic Code First: Girls team to make some improvements to the way they organise and deliver their Javascript, Python and Ruby curricula. I first came across Code First: Girls through Beverley, one of Three Rings‘ volunteers who happens to work for them, and I’ve become a fan of their work. Unfortunatley my calendar’s too packed to be able to volunteer as one of their instructors (which I totally would if it weren’t for work, and study, and existing volunteering, and things), but I thought this would be a good opportunity to be helpful while I had a nominally-“spare” day.

The coffee lounge on the administration/marketing floor of Twitter's offices in Soho.
Twitter’s offices, by the way, are exactly as beautiful as you’d hope that they might be.

Our host tried to win me over on the merits of working for Twitter (they’re recruiting heavily in the UK, right now), and you know what – if I were inclined towards a commute as far as London (and I didn’t love the work I do so much) – I’d totally give that a go. And not just because I enjoyed telling an iPad what I wanted to drink and then having it dispensed minutes later by a magical automated hot-and-cold-running-drinks tap nearby.

Twitter's reception with its "tweet wall" sculpture.
I’m not sure I ‘get’ the idea of a sculpture of tweets, though. Wouldn’t a “live display” have been more-thematic?

And that’s not even all of it. This coming Thursday, I’m back in London again, this time to meet representatives from a couple of charities who’re looking at rolling out Three Rings. In short: having a direct line to London on my doorstep turns out to be pretty useful.

View through vents from ventilation shafts above Victoria Line platforms, Euston tube station

In May 2016 I was lucky enough to get to take a tour through the disused/non-public tunnels underneath Euston Station in London. The whole experience was fantastic, but a particular highlight was getting to stand in a ventilation shaft directly above the Victoria Line platforms, where this video was taken. Travelling the underground, it’s easy to be unaware of the network of tunnels around the ones you’re in, bringing air and electricity from the surface.

Also available on YouTube.

TIL that in 1970, British Rail patented the design of fusion-powered interstellar spaceship

This link was originally posted to /r/todayilearned. See more things from Dan's Reddit account.

British Rail flying saucer

The British Rail flying saucer, officially known simply as space vehicle, was a proposed spacecraft designed by Charles Osmond Frederick.

Purpose

The flying saucer originally started as a proposal for a lifting platform. However, the project was revised and edited, and by the time the patent was filed had become a large passenger craft for interplanetary travel.

Design

The craft was to be powered by nuclear fusion, using laser beams to produce pulses of nuclear energy in a generator in the centre of the craft, at a rate of over 1000 Hz to prevent resonance, which could damage the vehicle. The pulses of energy would then have been transferred out of a nozzle into a series of radial electrodes running along the underside of the craft, which would have converted the energy into electricity that would then pass into a ring of powerful electromagnets (the patent describes using superconductors if possible). These magnets would accelerate subatomic particles emitted by the fusion reaction, providing lift and thrust. This general design was used in several fusion rocket studies.

A layer of thick metal running above the fusion reactor would have acted as a shield to protect the passengers above from the radiation emitted from the core of the reactor. The entire vehicle would be piloted in such a way that the acceleration and deceleration of the craft would have simulated gravity in zero gravity conditions.

A patent application was filed by Jensen and Son on behalf of British Rail on 11 December 1970 and granted on 21 March 1973.

The patent lapsed in 1976 due to non-payment of renewal fees.

Media attention

The patent first came to the attention of the media when it was featured in The Guardian on 31 May 1978, in a story by Adrian Hope of the New Scientist magazine. There was a further mention in The Daily Telegraph on 11 July 1982, during the silly season. The Railway Magazine mentioned it in its May 1996 issue, saying that the passengers would have been “fried” anyway.

When the patent was rediscovered in 2006, it gained widespread publicity in the British press. A group of nuclear scientists examined the designs and declared them to be unworkable, expensive and very inefficient. Michel van Baal of the European Space Agency claimed “I have had a look at the plans, and they don’t look very serious to me at all”, adding that many of the technologies used in the craft, such as nuclear fusion and high temperature superconductors, had not yet been discovered, while Colin Pillinger, the scientist in charge of the Beagle 2 probe, was quoted as saying “If I hadn’t seen the documents I wouldn’t have believed it”.

Wikipedia

The Danville Public Service Announcement

I don’t visit Facebook often. In fact, I usually only log on once or twice a month to clear out the billions of requests to install applications (and block those applications) that people don’t seem to have noticed that I never accept, or to check up on a mis-placed phone number or e-mail address for some infrequently-contacted friend. But in any case, I’m not up-to-date with what’s commonplace on Facebook any more. But this unusual bulge in my list of friends amused me for a moment:

That’s four friends, in a row, who all set their “statuses” to something resembling the lyrics of a well-known song. Kieran may well be the colour of the wind, of course, but he’s still a ginger. I’m not in a position to comment on Owen’s body odour, and I’m doubtful that Adam is the one and only (although it’s genuinely possbile that there’s nobody he’s rather be). And Gareth’s apathy is… well, pretty much standard.

But it doesn’t seem so regular that a block of people adjacent to one another on my seemingly-randomly-sorted (I assume there’s some kind of clever hashing going on at the back-end for speed, or something) would all independently (none of them know one another, to the best of my knowledge) choose to have their statuses inspired by songs. Nobody else on my friends list is demonstrating this.

Perhaps I’m seeing patterns where they don’t exist, like seeing the face of Jesus in a balding dog’s back, or something. Just thought I’d share.

It’s been a busy week or so. Last Wednesday I went out to the first night of the Ship & Castle‘s real ale festival with Penny and Ele, on account of the fact that (a) Yay! Dozens of cask-conditioned beers! and (b) I hadn’t seen much of either of them for an aeon or two. The pub was completely packed, but that didn’t stop us from sampling a good selection of the beers and ciders on offer. Once one became available, I stole a stool to sit on.

Now it seems that some strange wizard must have enchanted that stool on some previous visit to the pub, with a mysterious spell of popularity, because it suddenly appeared that every fucker in the pub wanted to talk to me. The folks I knew (one or two more turned up), the folks I barely knew (“I’m sorry, but I can’t remember how I’m supposed to know you?” territory)… even strangers seemed to know who I was or, failing that, want to. Two people said “hey, you’re that guy with the blog,” as if that in some way cuts it down in this town (abnib disagrees). One woman waved as if I’d known her for years but I can’t place a name to her face. Another chap – his flirtatiousness outdone only by his drunkeness – almost coerced a blush out of me with a particularly charming compliment. And it just kept on going, and going…

When the pub finally kicked us out (and we’d added Lizzie to our party), we hunted for another pub but without success, and so we scooped up beer and wine and took the party to the living room of The Cottage, where we talked all kinds of bollocks, drinking and listening to music – and joined for awhile by Tom, who came in looking drunk and stained with ash, drank half a bottle of beer, urinated in the back yard, and left again – until it was getting close to 4am and I thought it really ought to be time for bed, considering my planned early start at work the following morning. How Penny survived (she started work even earlier) I haven’t a clue.

A major difference between being in your late twenties and being in your early twenties, in my experience, is not one of having less energy for a late night (or early morning) of drinking, but one of responsibility. As a 27-year-old, I’m quite aware that I can still survive an all-night party (although it’s getting harder!). But when somebody spontaneously suggests something like “Let’s stay up and party and watch the sun rise,” instead of saying “Yeah!” I say, “Hmm… I’ve got work in the morning… maybe…” It’s easy to be made aware of this distinction when you’re in a student town, as I am, and it’s easy to be made to feel even older than I am. On the other hand, it helps to give every opportunity to pretend I’m less aged than I actually am.

So then Thursday was the anticipated long day at work, followed by a quick dinner before a rush up to the Arts Centre to see Steeleye Span, on JTA‘s recommendation. Steeleye Span are a “proper” folk rock band: y’know, they’ve had every single member replaced at some point or another and still keep the same name, like Theseus’s ship, and they’ve written songs that they don’t play any more, but that other folk bands do. That kind of definition. They were pretty good – a reasonable selection of songs from the usual slightly saucy and sometimes unintelligble varieties that they’re known for, and a particularly strong finish to the concert with a rousing sing-along rendition of All Around My Hat (which, I later discovered, they played as an encore the last time my dad saw them, about a decade or more ago – I guess that’s the third characteristic of a “proper” folk rock band: that your parents have seen them perform, too).

By now, I was getting to a point where I was tired enough to not be making much sense any more when I talked (as if I ever do), and I slept well, although not for long, because I had to make an even earlier start at work on Friday morning to make sure I got everything I needed to get done done before travelling up North in the evening.

So yeah: Friday evening we travelled up to Preston and had pizza with my folks, and then on Saturday morning I found myself taking my sister Becky‘s place in the BT Swimathon. She’d been suffering from a lung infection for a week or more, now, and had to pull out, so – despite having barely swum at all for several years – I pulled on my trunks and a swimming cap and contributed 1750m to the team effort. And then dragged my body out of the pool just in time for Claire and I to rush off to Formby for her godmother’s funeral, which is what we’d actually come up to the North-West to do.

Oh yeah, and I got a medal, which I’ve been wearing ever since.

I can’t say much about Claire’s godmother’s funeral, because I only met her once, and then only briefly. Her husband – she’d been married for 52 years; they’d been teenage sweethearts – was quite obviously finding her death difficult, yet still managed to deliver a beautiful and moving eulogy for his dear departed wife. Apart from the religosity of the service (not to my taste, but I suppose it wasn’t really there for me anyway) it was very good, and the church building was packed – this was obviously a popular woman.

Her body seems to be going “on tour”: she’s having a second service – the actual funeral – in Norfolk today. I wonder if it’ll be as full. Not many people get two funerals. Perhaps the popularity will wane after the first. On the other hand, you might get groupies… seems to be what Claire’s doing, as she’s down in Norfolk now and presumably went to the second funeral, too.

Later, we found ourselves in Manchester. We’d hoped to go guitar-shopping (Claire’s looking for a new one), but ended up there just barely in time to eat some noodles and go to meet my family, and each of my sister’s boyfriends, at the Odeon IMAX cinema to see Shine A Light, the Rolling Stones concert film/documentary. The film was… better than I would have expected, and the resolution of the IMAX filmstock really showed during long pans and high-detail closeups on the band in concert, although I wasn’t particularly impressed with the editing: too many cuts, too much crossing the line, and (on a huge screen) almost nauseating thanks to the bumps and bounces the cameras made. It was also a little too-much concert and not-enough documentary, perhaps because the band have never really interviewed very well. In one old BBC clip, Keith Richards is asked what has brought the band it’s initial success, and he simply shrugs. In another – in the early 1970s – Mick Jagger‘s only answer about the band’s future is “I think we’ve got at least another year left.”

A few games of Mario Party 8 with my family later (one of which, amazingly, my mum won!), and we were back on the road. Claire dropped me off at Birmingham New Street station so I could catch a train back to Aberystwyth, as I needed to be back at work this morning, and she carried on to Norfolk to visit her dad and to attend the other half of her godmother’s funeral.

My journey back to Aberystywth was pretty horrendous. Trains are cancelled between Shrewsbury and Aber right now, and replaced with a bus service, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a less pleasant bus journey in my life. Five-seats wide, I was squished into falling half-off my uncomfortable seat even sat next to somebody as small as Matt P (who I’d happened to bump into on the journey). There was barely any knee-room, and the air conditioning only had two settings, neither of which was particually pleasant but for reasons of completely different extremes.

We finally got back to Aber just in time to join in at Geek Night, where Ruth, Penny, and Rory were just finishing a game of Carcassonne. JTA arrived, too, and the six of us played the largest game of Settlers of Catan I’ve ever played. We also managed to have a couple of games of Hypercube Hop, Ruth’s dad’s first board game published under his new Brane Games label. For those of you that missed it, I’m sure there’ll be an opportunity to give it a go at some future Geek Night.

Then today I posed for topless photos for Ele. But that’s another story and I’ve got to go and eat dinner so I’ll leave it at that.

Off To Malawi!

I’m off to Malawi!

I’ve found my bus ticket (stupid train strikes), my passport (stupid immigration laws), my juggling balls (stupid… no, wait… juggling is good)… I guess I’m ready to go.

Contrary to my assumption that my bus would be leaving from the bus station, it’s apparently leaving from Plascrug… which is… somewhere… hmm…

Anyway, y’all, take care, have fun without me, blah blah blah, be thinking of you. Will try to update this blog (or at least phone-in an update that can be appended as a comment) while I’m on the road. And sorry I couldn’t get Product ‘X’ working better than it does before I left.

Hugz & kittenz;

Cool Thing Of The Day

Cool And Interesting Thing Of The Day To Do At The University Of Wales, Aberystwyth, #52:

Ride a train through water several feet deep, at 5mph, after the station at Dovey Junction becomes flooded, and, using traditional Welsh logic, it is decided that it makes far more sense to plough through it (making waves, for God’s sake!) than have to organise buses all day. Blurrgghh!

The ‘cool and interesting things’ were originally published to a location at which my “friends back home” could read them, during the first few months of my time at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which I started in September 1999. It proved to be particularly popular, and so now it is immortalised through the medium of my weblog.