June 01, 2020

The Gray Monk's Library

Enter the Gray Monk's Library.

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March 11, 2009

Urban myths

A rather rude comment recently posted to this blog (Interestingly to a post it did not relate to at all!) by someone called Jeff provided a link to the Snopes site. It flags up the fact that the "Stella Awards" I posted as a bit of fun a few weeks back are all, in fact, urban legends. Reading the Snopes item though reveals that there have been a number of very similar attempts to abuse the legal process and these have fueled a debate on the whole question of the sort of civil process that fuels the sort of legends these have become. That was really the reason I posted these, both because they are funny - stupidity on this level should be a certifiable mental illness - and because I am one of those who does believe that the litigatious age we live in has gone far to far and needs to be reined in. The fear of being sued for some minor oversight or accident caused by someone refusing to accept responsibility for their own safety, is stifling business and a whole range of activities.

As the Snopes entry makes clear, there is some ground for this, since in the most vexatious cases (Such as the man who sued a city library service after his 80 pound dog was injured when it tried to attack the library's 12 pound cat!) it often means months of stress while the lawyers rake in the money and at least two court appearances. It is cases like that, and the burglar in the UK (In West London) who was awarded compensation under Health and Safety legislation after he fell through a skylight in the course of trying to break and enter a house he was trying to rob) that convince me that the law does need amending and that the role of a jury in such cases is questionable.

The commenter Jeff obviously considers himself above criticism since his comment directly accuses me of lying and spreading lies. I note that he does not himself keep a blog, so I am not able to reciprocate at some point on his site and no doubt he is one of those lovely people who spends all his time looking for people he can demonstrate his inadequacy to by being insulting. He reminded me of a commenter on the BBC News website who goes by the name of "fyafighter" who's comments tend to run along the lines of "never mind the facts, believe the spin as long as its Labour Spin." Should Jeff happen this way again, thanks for the link, obviously you hadn't read all of it yourself. Now do yourself a favour, get a life and a sense of humour. Oh, and your grammar needs work too.

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March 10, 2009

Global care

Our sermon sessions for Lent are focused on mankinds use of the earth, its resources and our care for its creatures and our fellow travellers. So far we have had two extremely interesting sermons, the first focused on HIV/AIDS and its impact. Interestingly a teenager in the discussion group post service, commented that the focus in our schools has shifted away from this scourge and now is lumped in with "STD's". A lot of time and effort is spent on warning of the dangers of Clamydia, which is carried by uncircumcised boys and can cause sterility in girls and may be a trigger for cervical cancer. The discussion group was surprised by this, but acknowledged that as far as the media, and therefore the political agenda is concerned, HIV/AIDS is seen as "old news", in curable and therefore not a vote getter. Woman's health IS seen as a vote getter and the news media love anything that scares people. HIV/AIDS is still seen as a "Gay Problem" so it is pushed aside - after all, if it can't be cured, no one can claim credit for providing a cure. A pity that this exposes our young people to something potentially much more deadly than any of the diseases they do get taught.

The discussion also exposed the culture now pervading the "youff culture" our agnostic multi-cultural and anti-moral society where it has become, for many youngsters, a badge of honour to "get laid" and even more - for some girls - to get pregnant as soon as possible. Nothing in the present sex education curriculum seems to be aimed at addressing this and the risks these young people face.

This Sunday we looked at the whole issue surrounding climate change and how our use of the planet might be affecting it. Before anyone asks "what has this to do with the Bible?" I would have to say that the preacher used texts from Genesis and from Revelations to flag up that, as Christians, we hold the earth in trust as tenants rather than "owners" and that, as tenants, our "lease" requires us to care for the planet and its creatures. The discussion afterward was again enlivened by the views of the young people present. Over and over they made the point that they are tired of the "climate change" mantra in the press and politics since it is one out of many factors and these young people are not stupid, they have spotted that the scientists don't agree, don't really know, and the media is exploiting people's fears. I was impressed as they knew a great deal more about the problems than many of the older folk who tend to believe what they read in the papers or hear on the TV. The discussion was lively and very informative.

The next sermon will focus on health and welfare and the sharing of these with those living in developing nations and in poverty. I suspect that the discussion will be very interesting indeed. I look forward to it with a keen sense of anticipation.

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March 08, 2009

Early civilisation?

The report on the excavations in Turkey of a site at Gobleki of standing circles of carved stone megaliths is rocking a few boats in the world of archeology, not least because the site predates any known "civilisation" by around 8,000 years. It dates to a period when mankind was supposedly still knapping flint and driving wooly mammoths over cliffs to kill them. If the dating given of 12,000 BC is correct it is difficult to see how anyone can still argue that human civilisation sprang full blown and technical, into being only 5,000 years ago around 3,000 BC in the Nile Delta.

The megaliths are not as crude as those at Stonhenge (Around 1500BC) and are covered in delicate carvings of hunting scenes, animals and people. It suggests that whoever carved them had both the tools and the knowledge to do it - which again suggests that they were a bit more than simple hunter gatherers.

One way or another it will be interesting to see how this develops.

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March 03, 2009

Nocturnal visitor

Came home last night to find that I have a new garden resident. THis full grown hedgehog was rooting around in the grass, obviously hunting. It froze when I leaned closer to look, but obviously didn't feel threatened enough to go for the rolled up state.

My new resident hedgehog checks my small compost pile - looking for earthworms, slugs and any other delicacy.

They are curious little animals and their gait when in motion always makes me think of a wind-up toy. Anyway, this little resident is welcome and if it keeps the slugs and snails down for me - bonus!

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February 25, 2009

Exciting sailing

Another little "blast from the past" to contemplate. The boat in the picture below is a "Sharpie" sail ID letter "C" and they were big, solid boats - 24 feet long, around 6 feet in the beam and carried a lot of sail for their size. The three man crew worked hard to race them and the one in the picture, named "Panga" was one of the crack boats I learned to sail in - though almost always as a pre-teen and early 'teen - in milder weather than that in the photograph. Starting off as Centre Hand your job was to manage the "sheets" that controlled the spinaker and the centreboard tackle which raised and lowered it. The Forehand was the trapeze artist who's quick movemnt of his weight while attached to the masthead by a long wire and bos'un's chair style harness kept you upright as the boat beat to windward or - as here - planed on a broad reach.

Pnaga on a reach.jpg
Panga and her crew lift to the plane on a broad reach in the entrance to East London Harbour with a strong South Easterly blowing straight up the harbour!

The Sharpie Class were built of 5/8ths Oak planking on oak frames forming a "hard chine" hull. The deck covered the fore and after ends completely with a long narrow cockpit along the centre line. A heavy steel centre board could be raised and lowered using a double set of pulleys to give the necessary mechanical advantage and, unlike modern hulls, the "board" had to be raised to about one quarter its full draft when on a reach. A sister of Pang, the national champion boat for five years running, named Excalibur (Sail Number C 52) once overtook a motor cruiser towing a skier. And she wasn't reaching at the time, she was lying close to the wind on a "beat" to windward!

Note to the 'elf 'n safey mobsters - no one wore life jackets and there were features on these boats that could take your head off, slice through a finger or trap you in a capsize and yet, no one ever lost a finger, a hand, drowned or was injured in them.

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February 21, 2009


This last week saw me visiting Plymouth - a city with which my family have many connections down the centuries, possibly even among the Pilgrim Fathers since there were a number of Gloucestershire Coxes among the Quakers who decamped to the New World from this famous harbour. In reality there are two harbours, the ancient commercial harbour to the East of the Hoe and the Royal Naval Dockyard to the West. Mind you, as ever here, the age of the Naval Dockyard is hardly "modern", though the docks and facilities there are certainly among the latest anywhere. It is now much reduced from the days when the Navy was a world force, though it is still home to several of the Fleet's major ships and the port where many of the nuclear submarine Fleet have their maintenance and their home.

Drake's Island sits like a cork in the neck of a bottle and guards the entrance to the River Tamar and the approach to the Naval Dockyard.

Plymouth suffered badly in the second world war and seems to have suffered badly in the post war reconstruction. That said, it still retains a character which is surely unique and the redevelopment of some of the old docks, such as the King William Victualling Yards are slowly rebuilding it. It still has its naval presence and the Royal Marines still occuppy Stonehouse Barracks, things my father would recall, but it is a very much reduced presence, something the present government seems hell bent on reducing to nothing.

The deep water channel up the Tamar past Drake's Island. The RN Dockyard is further upstream and this is the entrance to the approach. The other side of this river is Cornwall or Kernow as some now insist on calling it.

One does wonder what Sir Francis and the many famous and sometimes infamous Admirals who have called this their home port would think of it now. One hopes they would regard it with at least affection.

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February 08, 2009

Something different

I just felt like something different on the blog today. I could have put up some more snow pictures, I could even have commented on some of the political folly around, but instead I picked this from my father's photo album.

HMS Vanguard departing Cape Town 1947.jpg
HMS Vanguard entering Cape Town Harbour in 1947. The Royal Standard can be seen on her main mast.

The last British Battleship to be built and completed, she also proved to be the finest sea keeper ever, able to fight her main and secondary armament in a hurricane. Civil Service deceit, political chicancery and the growth of the "peacenik", "better Red than dead" campaign so ably funded and supported by the former Soviet Bloc saw to it that our armed forces have been degraded and reduced to the point that we can no longer supply aircover to our troops on the ground and our fleet has been reduced to a Coast Defence unit.

The Vanguard may have been vulnerable to air attack, but only if she had no air defence and no air cover, her fifteen inch guns could send a 1 ton projectile almost 30 miles and her armour would have meant anyone attempting to hit her with any ordinary missile would have done little damage if it hit her side or deck armour. Now we have to listen to Civil Servants and politicians mouthing the garbage that one modern frigate packs more punch than a fleet of ships like Vanguard. You only believe that garbage if you also think that one ship can do everything a fleet can.

Now our government can't even see the need to build the two aircraft carriers they have finally ordered - but promptly postponed - when we really need four to maintain our defences. Oh, and the other four "Darings" they cancelled so they could give themselves a pay rise.

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January 12, 2009

A walk in the Wald - the pictures!

The Taunus foothills above Bliebenstadt and Hahn are a wonderful area to walk, even in temperatures well below freezing. Ice sheets fill the ruts in the paths and roads and the sun glints off frost in some areas and misses it altogether in others. The pictures give a small snapshot of the walk.

Young growth at the forest edge - in summer this is a thick carpet of green beneath the shade of the mix of trees.

A woodpecker hammering away at a tree sounded almost like a small jack hammer at work with his "Tok-tok-tok-tok ..."

An access road into the trees used by walkers and the forestry staff. The forest has a mix of beech, pine and several other species. It is also home to wild boar and deer.

Forest Lodge.JPG
A small lodge built of heavy logs and looking rather cosy - a nice supply of cut firewood at one side suggesting it is in regular use.

A vista through a section of the forest damaged last year by a tremendous storm. Every valley seems to have its hamlet.

Then it was only around three miles back to Mausi's house and coffee and a repast of biscuits, cake and cheescake. Just the thing after a long walk in the cold!

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January 03, 2009


Yesterdays trip to Würzburg was interesting. It is not the first time I have visited this ancient city, but the last visit was confined to the Marienberg Castle. This time we went straight into the old city and undertook a guided tour of the Residence, the former home of the Furst Bischofs (Prince Bishops) of Würzburg. The Marienberg was established by the missionary Bishop Kilian in the 8th Century and, after his murder, his successors were permitted to fortify their mission. Under Charles the Great (or Karl der Grosse - Carolus Princeps in Latin) the stability his rule brought allowed the establishment of the city and the flourishing of trade across this area. Franconia became a prosperous Duchy and the church spread its influence. The Emperor Barbarossa chose to be married in Würzburg and the Bishop evidently made a good impression - so was appointed as the Duke or Herzog, combining the secular power with his spiritual charge.

His successors consolidated this power successfully and the Marienburg became a truly "Feste Burg", translated as "Mighty Fortress". By 1740 however, the Furst Bischof had decided that a more splendid palace would be appropriate for his diplomatic and governmental role and so The Residence was commissioned in the heart of the city. It is a building of superlatives, the building is a splendid expression of the Baroque, a great U shaped structure with an entrance hall large enough for a visitor to be driven inside in his coach and to dismount out of the weather. The painted fresco ceilings are stunning, the colours as bright and fresh as the day they were painted, having survived the bombing of March 1945, itself a tribute to the architect and the builders. These are largely the work of an Italian artist and include elements that are 3D - itself an amazing achievement.

In other rooms - though the term "room" is hardly applicable to a chamber of these dimensions - one is treated to the most amazing stucco work, again the creation of a single artist from Italy who created each and every piece by hand and so there are no two pieces identical. All in all it took several years simply to decorate the building, and the actual construction lasted almost twenty-five. One of the ingenius tricks of the architect was to incorporate an existing chapel into the West wing in such a manner that there is no major alteration to either the chapel or the twinning of the exterior of this range with its identical range on the other wing. As soon as I can I will publish some pictures I managed to take which will, hopefully, show the overall beauty effectively. Wandering through the rooms one finds the Mirror Room stunning - all the more so because it has been faithfully recreated from photographs and fragments that survived the bombing. Elsewhere the custodians had managed to dismantle the treasured interiors and remove them to safety, but the attempt to dismantle and remove the mirror room's contents failed and the room was a casualty in the fire that followed the intensive bombing. In 1979 the decision was taken to recreate the "lost" room and the result is not only faithful to the original it is an exact creation using the same techniques and processes that had created the original. This is where I part company completely with the insistence of English Heritage and their advisors who insist on preserving semi-destroyed stonework and paintings which could be better retrieved and preserved by faithfully restoring them to original condition.

Continuing our wander in the cold we found the Dom, the building is a pair of churches, one currently closed for repair and restoration and the other, as far as I could work out, older, now fully restored with even the Baroque Stucco decoration again faithfully recreated from sketches and photographs. The care and attention given to every detail is evident everywhere, even in those churches where the work has obviously stopped due to lack of funds. One magnificent example os the beutifully restored Marien Kapelle in the Markt. The building is a magnificent example of the Perpendicular architecture, rising tall and narrow above the market place with it's stone vault beautifully restored and decorated at the East End. New statues occupy niches and plinths on the pillars on the nave and the partially burned figure of Joseph retrieved from the wreckage occupies a small chapel beneath the tower as a reminder of the destruction caused in that one fateful night in March 1945.

Perhaps the German's are better able to appreciate what was destroyed in their recreations and restorations, I can't help feeling that we could do better for some of our treasured heritage by restoring it properly instead of trying to lock in into some kind of "time capsule" which generally makes it impossible to maintain properly or use it effectively and efficiently in todays world. Personally I feel the Germans have the right approach and English Heritage should be stripped of its power to block sensible and appropriate restoration of ancient buildings.

And now its time to batten down the hatches for a cold night - the weather forecast is for -8*C and snow tonight dropping to -20*C on Tuesday - by which time I shall be home again, no doubt to Madam Paddy's delight.

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December 30, 2008

Fascinating museum

Today Mausi took me to a museum that is both fun and fascinating - the Teknische Museum in Speyer. It occupies a site that was once the home of the Speyer Garrison, flattened in WW2 and since partly restored and new structures erected to create a museum which celebrates the technical advances of the last two hundred-ish years. Naturally much of it is 20th Century, but the Wilhelmshaus section includes an amazing collection of mechanical music making equipment (No photographs allowed unfortunately) and a collection of dolls, toys and uniforms that is quite amazing.

The main section of the museum holds a mix of aircraft, cars, trucks, fire engines, locomotives and industrial machinery, most of it in working condition and tokens, bought at the ticket counter, allow you to set many of the exhibits in motion so you can see it working. The main collection is also home to three "player" show ground or "Cafe" organs that play a range of Jazz, traditional dance music or children's "Fair Ground" music. Again, a token gets it playing and if you think they're little protable jobs, you'd be wrong - these are big, lusty, permanent installations that fill the hall with their sound.

Prize exhibit is the Russian Space Shuttle. It never flew into space but it was flown in test flights and still has the jet engine pods mounted on it. The exhibition of the space exploration effort includes a full exhibition on the USA's efforts culminating with the lunar landings and continuing into the ISS. I must confess that the ESA effort with the Ariane 4 and 5 rockets made me feel proud - until I realised that the UK isn't part of that effort and I remembered that our wonderful government of w*nkers consider that the space race is too costly. In short they'd have to spend less on themselves and their layabout constituents.

Outside is a collection of aircraft and a U-boat, albeit a modern one, all of which are displayed so that you can go into them and see the controls for yourself. The centrepiece of that has to be the huge Antonov cargo carrier, but there is a fully equipped 747 for you to clamber through as well!

A long day, but a good one - and there will be some piccies later, when I can downlaod them and scale them to the blog!

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December 23, 2008

How do you "Heave too"?

A question from New Zealand to my post on ships and sailing a few days ago has flagged up a need to explain some of the terminology. The act of "heaving too" is the motion or action that the ship and crew go through to achieve a stopped condition without anchoring. In this state the English language then says it is "Hove too" - but that can be blamed on Dr Samuel Johnson and subsequent grammarians!

It is a fairly simple process to "Heave too". The ship is brought as close to the wind as she can "lie" without being "in irons" and then the sails on the main mast are hauled round so that they catch the wind on the wrong side. The forces of wind trying to drive the ship forward on two masts and backward on the third stops the ship in the water and holds her in position. On a ship with a single mast the usual procedure is to "back" the headsails or "jibs" with the helm hard up to windward. It has the same effect - trying to turn the ship through the wind while the headsails are trying to turn her away from it brings the ship to a standstill. Most of the old style "Square Riggers" could beat to windward but seldom could "lie" closer to the wind than around thirty degrees to the direction of the wind itself. Modern yachts can lie within 10 degrees of the wind and sometimes even closer than that.

A ship is "in irons" when she "misses stays" and "hangs" head to wind in a turn (Known as a "tack") through the eye of the wind and has insufficient forward movement for the rudder to have any effect. With all her sails "aback" she will usually try to go backwards - often with disasterous results as the rudder is useless in that situation and the strain on the masts and rigging can result in a dismasting. Bringing the ship back under control without a disaster from that situation takes a lot of skill and effort - and plenty of "sea room" to sort oneself out in. A ship getting into irons with a shore under her lee is in dead trouble - she'll be ashore and wrecked before her crew can even get an anchor ready to drop it. The old "square riggers" needed a lot of momentum as they went into a turn through the wind (In other words to windward) to avoid the danger of falling into irons and quite often it was more practical to gybe the ship or "wear" it by turning the bow away from the wind and changing direction by keeping the wind astern as you turned. This manoeuvre also has its dangers as there is a risk of losing control as wind and sea both begin to work together and the helmsman needs to be quite skillful in keeping the ship under control as the turn is accomplished. In a badly handled Gybe a ship can be dismasted if a backstay fails or allows too much movement in a mast as she goes round. The Big J's were the "Maxi Yachts" of the 1890 - 1930 period and they were renowned for that problem - in fact they actually had two men whose sole job aboard was to control the backstay tension in a gybe.

A hard life and a skilled one, another of the "lost" arts perhaps.

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December 19, 2008

Sailing questions

A couple of people who have read my books have asked about some of the terms I use in relation to ships and sailing - particularly the older types. so here are a couple of pictures which may help. The first is a painting of a rather famous fishing 'smack' - a small handy craft capable of putting to sea after fish (Bigger versions would be labelled 'trawlers') and very seaworthy. Their relatively shallow draught meant they could be beached or at least allowed to "dry out" on a mudbank at low tide. In my first book, Harry and Ferghal rig a cargo hulk (barge) to cross from an island to the mainland and this is the rig they use. It is relatively simple, and can be handled by a small crew quite easily.

de19-001Gimp.jpg The gaff cutter rigged Hyacinth seen in her fastets point of sailing, a broad 'reach' with the wind on her quarter and her sails adjusted to give the maximum power.

Out of Time makes reference to a seventy-four gun ship of the line, HMS Spartan and to a frigate HMS Rajahstan. The next picture shows the frigate HMS Indefatigable (40 guns) 'hove too' off St Mawes in 1795. The number of "guns" given are those mounted on her "gun decks" - the line of gunports seen in the picture as black squares. Her "rate" of 40 guns is the thirteen guns on each side that made up her main battery and the rest on her quarterdeck and Fo'c's'le. It didn't include the "smashers" or Carronades carried on her fo'c's'le. These short barrelled and short range weapons fired large hollow caste iron balls filled with shrapnel which burst on impact - and you may imagine what that did inside a crowded gundeck. The French rightly feared the British carronade and HMS Victory's 68 Pdr forward carronades may well have decided the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar with their first shot.

de19-003Gimp.jpg HMS Indefatigable hove too to await despatches or a pilot. Note that the sails on the "middle" or Main Mast are "backed" while the others are still trying to drive the ship forward. In effect the counter effort stops the ship and holds her in position.

The entry port can be seen in the ships "bulwarks" the raised "Wall" (The origin of "Gunwales" - literally "Gun Wall" on a ship) running around the upper deck and the "gangways" are a walkway built along the top of these and linking the Quarterdeck to the Fo'c's'le at the bow. Nettings running around the ship at this level were stuffed with the rolled up hammocks used by the seamen during the day and also served to protect the crew from musket fire, shrapnel and splinters in battle. The "Heads" or crew toilets were located on a platform just above the decorative "beakhead" at the bow of the ship and in rough weather their use would have been a wet and rather unpleasant experience on a ship like this.

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December 05, 2008


Just got back from a trip into Pembrokeshire to look at a burned out truck. It was clear but cold as I did the necessary and now I have a load of pictures, some information and a lot of questions ...

The truck was towing a full load of petrol and diesel - 40,000 litres - when it caught fire on Monday on the motorway. Fortunately for everyone all the safety systems on the trailer worked and the fire and rescue service were on the scene quickly. The truck-tractor unit will not be hauling any more loads, but now to figure out why.

And now - all I need is some sleep!

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December 03, 2008

The Golden Man

One of the most fascinating things I discovered on my visit to Almaty was the story of finding the "Golden Man". Those who read the National Geographic regularly will recall an article on the finding of an ancient burial mound in Kazakhstan around four or five years ago. The actual find had been made some years before and caused quite a stir in the world of archaeology at the time. The burial mound, when opened, contained the remains of a man, aged about 37 at the time of death, and dressed in the most amazing suit made entriely out of small gold plates, each about 1.5 inches, by 2.5 and 'stitched' together at the corners. It may once have been backed by a linen or even leather lining. In the grave with this golden warrior was a composite bow, a quiver full of beautifully made arrows and his personal weapons. Other grave goods made up a rich haul for the archaeologists and the this tomb is said to have been as rich or possibly richer find than that of Tutenkhamun's tomb in Egypt.

What made it even more exciting was the fact that it was at least 3,000 years old.

A statuette of the "Golden Man" presented to the Monk after the conference. He clutches his composite bow, his quiver is slung on his back and he stands upon a winged leopard. His golden suit is represented by the chequered hatching of his jacket. The tall hat is a forerunner of the hats still worn by the "Khan" or Chief of the tribesmen.

I didn't get to see the museum in which all the finds from this amazing tomb are displayed, perhaps one day I will, but there can be no doubt that the Kazakh people are inordinately, and rightly, proud of their rich heritage. This is an area which for thousands of years has been home to nomadic tribes who have given the world some amazing things - the composite bow is one such item - and who have left remarkably little trace of their occupation other than the numerous burial mounds which dot the landscape in certain areas. Almaty is built in an area with a very large number of the oldest mounds and not all have been fully examined.

So much to see - and so little time.

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November 30, 2008

Almaty views

The view from my hotel room in Almaty wasn't particularly great as it looked east and not south. Still, even if it had looked in the right direction it wouldn't have given me the view I got by looking out of my window as there was another building and trees blocking the front!

Early morning view from my window in Almaty, the sun strikes the peaks just south of the city.

The mountains are about twenty minutes drive from the hotel and the drive is a precipitate one in terms of the climb. The city is at an altitude of about 900 meetres, but Medeo, the Ice Stadium in the mountains is at around 2,500 metres and there is a ski resort at Shymbulak above the Medeo "Dam" which is at 3,500 metres. You can watch the temperature fall as the car climbs into the mountains - it was 11*C in Almaty when we started and -3*C at Shymbulak. In distance terms, the two points are around 10 kilometres apart.

The peaks seen from below the Medeo "Dam" - which there to hold back snow, not water!

Spectacular scenery and really worth the effort to visit - but the road is definitely not for the inexperienced or the faint hearted. Kazakh drivers apart, you do need 4x4 power and a very steady driving style. There is a lot of ice on the road despite ploughing, and much of it is hairpin bends as you climb a long way in a short distance. As I said, not for the faint hearted.

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November 22, 2008

To the East

The Monk is off travelling again. This time to Almaty in Kazakhstan which he has been informed is a bit cold at this time of the year. Not surprisingly one supposes as it is on the uplands at the back of the Himalaya mountain chain and on the Chinese border, though in Kazakhstan, once part of the former USSR.

It is a lengthy flight even with Almaty being seven and a half hours ahead of the UK, and he is due to arrive there at 06.35 local time on Sunday morning having left Heathrow at 17.15 today! Even with the time changes that's a long flight! Coming back is even longer for he leaves Almaty at 13.15 and returns via Astana (The new capital of Kazakhstan - Almaty was, but the capital moved!) and Frankfurt am Main.

There are apparently a number of very interesting things around Almaty and the Monk hopes to get to see at least one or two of them. He also thinks he'll be the first member of his bloodline to visit that region for around 40,000 years!

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November 15, 2008

The sound of life

A post on Da Goddess, currently being managed by a friend of hers while seh recovers from her surgery, set me thinking. Perhaps the answer to the Dawkins coterie is simply this - send them out into the wild places of the earth without all their material possessions and comfortable surroundings and put them in touch with the real world, the world that is revealed in the stillness of a desert night as the fire dies slowly and the blaze of stars across the heavens is almost dazzling. It is then that you begin to hear the slow pulse of the planet and the universe it is a part of - the "music of the spheres" or perhaps of life itself.

Take a look at the sentiments in this post at Da Goddess.

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October 30, 2008

Music of the Stars?

Astronomers do have fun it seems, a group of them have succeeded in recording "music" generated by a group of stars similar to our own sun. The BBC Science site has an extensive article on this phenomenon and recordings of the sound the stars produce as they pulsate. Apparently the differences in the sounds created by each star is due to the differences in size, age and chemical composition.

Listening to our own sun making its 'music' I was put rather forcibly in mind of a very large organ pipe, sounding very slowly - or possibly even of a very deep sounding calliope.

The more we learn, the more we discover we have to learn to understand.

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October 27, 2008

The power of nature

I could not resist posting these spectacular photos, sadly not my own, but from a friend in South Africa. I will happily post the credits for them when I find out which of the people who sent them to me actually took them. They were taken a few days ago during a violent storm over the City of Durban. The photographer captured some spectacular shots as storm moved in on his position and the clouds tower upwards in super cells that reach the stratosphere. We now know thatsuch lightning bolts are two way, the upper end striking into the Ionosphere creating spectacular displays visible from space.

A super bolt strikes the sea, lighting up the adjacent super cell - which I have to say looks for all the world like a serious fire plume.

Lightning lights up the cell from within.

A change of underwear for the photographer may be required as the lightning finds a target bare yards from the picture taker!

Spectacular? Yes, and a reminder of the power of forces we can still barely explain or understand.

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October 17, 2008

Crazy patterns

Glass reacts to sudden cooling in a very odd way. As anyone who has placed a hot Pyrex dish on a wet spot on a sink will tell you - it immediately breaks or shatters. Most people don't know that there are a number of differences between window glass, Pyrex and - for example bottles and drinking glasses. Window glass is created using a silica sand and soda ash mix, bottles and drinking glasses, plates, etc., are another form of soda glass but usually with metal salts added to colour it or give it special properties. Borosilicate glass (Pyrex) is the most heat resistant, but there are limits to what you can do to it even so.

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This artists representation of a crazed surface on a piece of window glass was created for me from a photograph.

As I have said in a previous post, glass cannot transmit heat easily so uneven heating or cooling will result in it cracking. The effect seen in this picture is the result of small drops of water striking the surface of a very hot piece of glass. The water drops cause the surface to shrink, breaking the surface tension which holds it together and causing a "crazing" of small fractures across the surface, many less than a milimetre in depth. Larger drops of water cause the "flaking" seen in this picture and these have edges that rival the sharpest razor blade.

Well, you did know I was an anorak on this subject!

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October 14, 2008

Roman Marine Patrols

As I have previously written on this blog, the Maritime Museum in Mainz houses a collection of reconstructed Roman ships, two full-size replicas of two fast patrol craft forming the centre-piece. The picture below is of the weapon mounted in the bow of the larger one, a sort of automatic bolt firing ballista, the sort of thing that would spoil any invader's day. The iron tipped "bolts" were fed in from above, each descending in turn as the operators cranked the mechanism. As the drawstring reached its full draw, a trip mechanism allowed an bolt to fall into the firing groove and the action then tripped a release allowing the bolt to be discharged and the cycle started again.

The Roman version of a machine gun, mounted on a fast patrol boat in the Maritime Museum in Mainz.

These fast patrol boats were stationed at intervals along the Rhine and swept back and forth making sure the "barbarians" to the North didn't cross. All this came to nought in 407 AD when the Rhine froze during a severe winter and an estimated 100,000 barbarians swept into the Empire. Famine and destruction followed and the Empire began to crumble rapidly. By 410 AD Alaric, King of the Visigoths, reached Rome itself and sacked it.

Sometimes technology alone is not enough.

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October 06, 2008

Destructive power

Another of my many photos taken during 'burns' for training, this one looking down the 'throat' of the fire into the burning room. The 'tunnel' in the flames and smoke is caused by the fire drawing in air. As with my pictures of the broken glass, there is a certain beauty in the patterns created by the flames and in the smoke itself - giving a sense of the Biblical concept of the beguiling beauty said to be manifested by the Devil.

Flames frame the door opening as the contents of this small room are engulfed in fire.

Now fully developed, the fire shows its rage.

Fire and water, mutual enemies in our world are in fact the most destructive forces known to man, yet there is a terrible beauty in the flames of a truly awful fire and in the raging waters of a flood. Of the two, I personally think that fire is the greater enemy. But then I would, wouldn't I?

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September 29, 2008

Caught in the act!

At the moment my garden is full of spider webs, the little devils are busy building them across ever gap including the front door and I have to dissuade them every morning as I make my way out to one thing or another. Even cutting the grass or trimming the hedge means displacing a number of webs and getting them to move out of range of the mower or the hedge trimmers.

The common Garden Spider according to my book, industriously building a web between my rose bushes and the hedge - a large undertaking!

As everyone else seems to have pretty pictures of the webs, I thought I'd try contributing one of the builder. Not the most attractive customer I've ever encountered, but certainly determined and efficient little devils - and their webs are certainly strong. Getting them off you is quite something when you walk into one unexpectedly!

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September 26, 2008

Of shoes and ships and .....

My posting of a painting yesterday made me wonder where I'd hidden other pictures of ships and sure enough I find I have them tucked into the computer all over the place. The one shown here is of the tug in the painting and shows off her size and her pedigree lines quite nicely. She and her sister, Wolraad Woltemade, are long and rather lean with very clean 'entry' lines at the bow. They have a very high turn of speed - important when you operate on "Lloyds Open Form" which stipulates a "No cure; No pay" operation. The first tug to the casualty that can get the Captain to sign the form and accept the tug's assistance, gets the contract. There are no prizes for getting there second.

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The Salvage Tug "John Ross" entering Grand Harbour, Valetta in Malta some years ago. The picture was sent to me by a friend who happened to catch her entering the port.

Once you have a line on the casualty, you have to get the victim to safety - or you don't get paid. So now you not only need the speed to get there, but now you have to have the gear and the power to drag it out of danger and into safety. Often in the most appalling weather and in heavy seas. So you need a tug that is seaworthy, powerful and fast when she needs to be.

This pair have twin engines, but a single screw. The propeller is a variable pitch mounted inside a "Kort Nozzle" which increases the power by creating a "jet" effect. Twin rudders make her very manoeuvrable, allowing a turning circle that makes the ship heel steeply if used at high speed. The twin engines can be used singly or in tandem with both driving into the single gearbox. In addition there are a range of generators which provide electric power for winches, lights, flood lights and the huge derrick mounted on the mainmast. The "Bollard" Pull - the measure of a tugs power is reckoned as 150 tons pull, which is very high by any standards but enormous when measured against the usual 20 - 30 tons for a large harbour tug.

Her bow thrusters - which allow the Captain to swing the bow from side to side with the ship almost stationary in the water develop 800 shp which is the equivalent of most small tugs in the average ports total main engine output. These salvage tugs are in another league altogether, as are the men that operate them.

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September 25, 2008

Power and waves

One of my hobbies, when I have the time, is to daub in acrylics. The picture below hangs in my study and is one of my earliest experiments in this medium. I'd like to think I've managed to get a lot better at it as I have developed the brush technique and the paint mixtures. Sadly I haven't had time to paint for quite some time so this is a nostalgia trip for the moment!

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My painting, based on a photograph, of the 3,700 gross ton Salvage Tug "John Ross" at sea in the Great Southern Ocean.

Who knows, one day I might get round to writing a story based on these tugs. But that presupposes that the current flood of very time consuming but not very well paying work will ease up and let me have the time to do it. Ships and seascapes fascinate me so I have a stack of ideas and sketches of things I'd like to paint one day. The operative word being "one day".

One of my sketches awaiting further development. It shows a large "launch" under sail with a second under tow with the Sydney harbour's famous Heads as a background.

The sketch is one I did to illustrate a short story which seemed to need a picture. Hopefully I will one day be able to render it properly onto a canvas and do it properly. Hi ho - Porcine aviators are cleared for take-off too.

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September 23, 2008

Flying aerosols

If you've ever wondered why the airlines refuse to allow you to carry any aerosol tin aboard a flight, these pictures should give an explanation. These are pressurised and use Butane gas as a propellent - they previously used Halons, but these are now banned - and some aerosols also contain a flammable liquid as a base for whatever the cannister contains. Deoderants usually have an alcohol base while others, such as insecticides often have paraffin.

The fireball created by a bursting aerosol cannister.

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A pair of aerosol cannisters, one of which created the fireball in the previous picture.

Because they are pressurised they can explode if the aircraft's cabin depressurises at high altitude or if stored in an unpressurised hold. The bang can be powerful enough to do considerable damage.

In a fire they can be propelled considerable distances and do a lot of damage on the way. I have seen cupboards blown off walls and windows smashed, but perhaps the most spectacular was one that punched a neat hole straight through a plaster board ceiling and set fire to the roof space above.

A bit of fire safety in the home advice. Check where you are storing all your aerosols and put them somewhere low down and well screened from the early heat of a fire - definitely not on top of cupboards or in high level shelves!

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September 18, 2008

Beauty in destruction

Broken glass can tell a number of stories to the investigator - if they know what they are looking at. Glass is a strange material, technically it is a super-cooled liquid at normal temperatures. It is also a very poor conductor of heat or cold and when subjected to heat from a fire, the heat is distributed unevenly and eventually breaks the glass. Normally the edges of glass broken in a fire by heat will have smooth shiny edges and artistic wavy curves along the break. Occassionally though, something else happens - then you see some interesting marks and the picture here is one such.

Uneven heating in the window caused this glass to break under the stress created by different parts of the glass trying to do different things at the same time.

OK, so I'm an anorak when it comes to looking at things like this. But you have to admit that it is interestingly beautiful - a fern leaf in the glass created by forces we still do not entirely understand. Fascinating.

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September 08, 2008

Privileged views

Sometimes one gets a chance to take a picture that is unusual. Today I had that chance and managed, unfortunately not with my best camera, to get these shots from one of my "unsafe" positions in the Abbey. It is also one of the most interesting views you can find in the building.

The Milton Organ seen from the window ledge in the North Transept. The four pillars forming the frame of the organ and view of the choir support the huge Norman tower.

A vertical view of the Grove Organ This view is obtained from the clerestory on the East of the North Transept..

As I said, rather privileged views not available to many -except those of us who care for the building and its furnishings. Anyone know where we can lay hands on a £1 million or so? The Grove desperately needs to be rebuilt and restored.

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September 06, 2008

Spectacular seas

Cape Town lies in Table Bay, which, contrary to popular misconceptions, is north and west facing. Storms from the South and East generally don't affect the shipping or the bay waterfront that badly, however, when a storm comes sweeping in from the west or north it is a different matter as the picture below demonstrates. This is shot on the seafront at Mouille Point, the western arm of Table Bay itself, and the pavement is usually a good twenty feet above the sea level.

Sea foam is flung into the air and over the roadway on Cape Town's Mouille Point in the storm that swept across the Southern and Eastern Cape coast.

Cape Town is on the Atlantic side of the Cape Peninsula, a fact you soon discover when you try swimming at any of the western beaches. That water is COLD. The water temperatures on the other side of the Peninsula, in the Indian Ocean are at least 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer.

The main road along the front to Sea Point awash during the storm. As a small child my parents used to bring me to the park near here (Which was also covered in foam) to play.

These storms are infrequent this far north, they generally sweep through the Great Southern Ocean along the belt of the Fortieth Parallel (Cape Town is around 33* 55' South) in what is known, with good reason, as the Roaring Forties. Every few years though, the air streams slip north and the result is these spectacular storms. So far there have been no reports of ships in trouble as a result (None I have heard anyway!) and the conditions produced in this weather on the continental shelf produce seas known locally as "Cape Milestones" - essentially a rogue sea that is double normal height and has a huge hole in the ocean behind it. This is a ship killer of a sea and has seen the destruction of a number of tankers, buk carriers and even the passenger liner Waratah in the early twentieth century.

It lends meaning to the old adage "God help sailors on nights like this!"

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August 31, 2008

A mechanical nightmare ....

Arrived at the Abbey last evening to take the Office and found the place in turmoil - the Mighty Milton was misbehaving badly! Something had jammed and the result was that only one of its four manuals could be played - and none of the couplers were working ......... And only half an hour to the service and a visiting choir and organist to boot.

A quick look inside the beast at the back of the console revealed the problem - or part of it. Somehow five keys had become jammed. Middle C on the Pedal and the Pedal "piston" coupler for the Swell to Great seemed to have got themselves interlocked. Inexplicably so had Middle C, C#, D and D# on the Solo Organ! These linkages are quite delicate, so having established that they could not be freed easily I had the Organ Builder/Tuner called out. He duly arrived at 1900 and it took almost forty five minutes for him to find out what was causing the problem and then to get at the problems and unjam them. It seems that the four keys on the Solo had managed to "jump" their restraining nuts, while the Pedal had somehow been trapped by the Coupler. Now the mystery is how it happened!

The Milton Organ's Console. With 4,611 speaking pipes arranged on 84 Speaking Stops it can be a beast, yet it isn't as heavy an action as might be thought. The Action is a "Tracker" mechanism with the keys on each of the five "Manuals" linked to the pipe valves by levers. THe Uppermost Manual is the Solo and Apse Organ, beneath it is the Swell, and then the Great Organ with the Choir Organ the lowest of the Manuals played with the hands. The Fifth Manual is the Pedal Organ played with the feet.

The "Tracker" linkages at the back of the manuals console. The jammed notes were in the middle of this interesting collection ....

In case you thought access was easy - the pipes on the left are part of the Swell Organ's "Clarina" - a "reed" stop, and there is only ten inches between them and the "Tracker" rack. Bumping one or moving it can throw the entire rank out of tune or render it unplayable.

Just in case you were wondering - the Pedal "Manual" contains forty-eight keys and the feet are also used to operate the array of "pistons" which couple and uncouple the different sections of the organ and change the "Stops". The three large pedals control shutters on parts of the organ which allow some sections to be quietened or made louder.

At least, once everything was restored to normal, a quick test run (Neither I nor the Organ Builder can play the thing!) simply playing scales on each "Manual" in turn showed that everything is functioning again as it should. Until we encounter the next challenge. I await the complaints on the absence of the Loop for hearing aids. We have everything else back at work - just the Loop defies explanation.

And this morning we were treated to a Virtuoso performance by Carleton, as usual making it look so easy as he thundered his way through a complicated suite by Vidor. How I wish I could actually play any musical instrument - but the organ most of all. Sadly I am musically illiterate when it comes to reading music and have absolutely no musical talent at all for any instrument. All I can do is sit back and listen - and just occassionally, have a hand in fixing the instrument so that the music can flow. I guess my reward was in listening to Carleton as he played this magnificent instrument. Guess I'll just have to be content with that.

Well, no one can ever say the job of Church Warden is a dull one.....

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August 28, 2008

Berlin is always worth a visit

Early this summer Mausi had to go to Berlin again on business. But luckily this time she had a whole afternoon to herself to be spent as she liked. Mausi decided to pay the so called "Museum Island" in Berlin a visit.

It is a little island within the river Spree that cuts right through Berlin and contains a number of museums that are under restauration at present. Among them is the famous Pergamon Museum and also the Berlin Cathedral. The Cathedral took a direct hit through the roof during WW II in 1944. Between 1961 and 1989, when Berlin was divided by the Berlin wall, the museum island belonged to East Berlin. It took as long as 1975 until the East German Government allowed any reconstruction work on the church financed with money from West Germany, of course. And then only on the condition that parts of Cathedral had to be torn down first, never to be rebuild.

Western Entrance into Berlin Cathedral

In 1993 reconstruction work was finally finished and the church was consecrated again. It is a very impressive building. The foundation were laid in 1894 by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Cathedral were to serve as the Central Protestant Church in Germany, his own personal church and as a burial ground for the Hohenzollern family of which he was a member. In 1905 the building was finished and dubbed "The Emperor's Cathedral".

Interior of Berlin Cathedral with the Organ, Pulpit and Altar (from left to right)

Berlin Cathedral is not built in the traditional form of a cross but was designed as a central space in the shape of an irregular octagon surrounded by columns. There is room for 1619 visitors to be seated in oak pews. Standing inside the church the effect is stunning with the ceiling so high above you.

Wilhelm II wanted his Cathedral to be seen not only as a church but also as a demonstration of the newly acquired political influence and importance of the German Empire. This double purpose is expressed by statues of the four Reformers Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon and Calvin on pillars along the Eastern side of the church and four Dukes, sympathetic to the Reformation, on pillars along the Western side. All Reformers are holding a bible, all Dukes are depicted with their swords.

The Sauer Organ with Philipp the Magnanimus on the left and the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli on the right

The Organ is a truly magnificent instrument. It was the largest organ ever built by the organ makers Wilhelm Sauer in Frankfurt/Oder. It has 7269 pipes, 113 registers, four manuals and one pedals. She is said to have the same tonal characteristics as a symphony orchestra. Mausi has bought a CD of an organ concert in Berlin Cathedral and she can confirm every word of the previous sentence. It is a magnificent recording.

Chancel of Berlin Cathedral

Another highlight inside Berlin Cathedral is the Chancel. The Windows are magnificent and only illuminated by natural light. When the sunlight shines through them they glow in a very warm and comforting light. The most striking feature in front of that is the gilt screen in front of them which shows the 12 Apostles.

There is a lot more to be seen inside and outside the Cathedral and it certainly requires several visits to take it all in. Mausi is looking forward to her next stay in Berlin - the Cathedral will definitely be on the agenda again.

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June 27, 2008

Multi-tasking a Myth?

It seems that it may well be. It doesn't necessarily mean getting more done and may mean getting less done even more inefficiently, There is a full explanation of this over at Skipjack's Blog in an item entitled The Myth of Multitasking.

He has kindly reproduced a lengthy article which quotes a number of sources in the world of psycology and makes for a very interesting read. I heartily recommend it to you.

Certainly it contains a great deal that confirms my own view that the "Multitasking" society in which we live is not as efficient as it is claimed to be, simply because, in order to "do more with less" we have just found ways to take short cuts so we can complete things and meet the targets set in the Accountant's Ivory Tower or the Boardrooms even more rarified atmosphere. Doing more doesn't mean actually achieving more - it usually means that we get a lot of half jobs done and frequently have to go back again and again to fix up and patch up what was botched the first time round.

As I said, read the article and you'll see what I'm yammering on about. Now. where's my next task .....

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June 03, 2008

Historic house

Near Richmond stands a beautiful Georgian House, once the home of the Clay family, who, in their heyday owned all the land between the present house and Richmond - a long drive by car, never mind on horseback. The last, and perhaps the most interesting, member of this family's male line died in 1903 and the house stood empty and derelict for many years until the 1960's when the then Governor of Kentucky's wife managed to persuade those in power (and its owners) to preserve it. The house now stands in a park reserve owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and has been lovingly restored, even some of the original furniture having been recovered.

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White Hall, the home of Cassius Clay. No, not the boxer turned Muslim.

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The Kitchen, larder and Ice House were all detached from the main house.

The last occupant, one Cassius Clay, provided assistance to runaway slaves during the run-up to the Civil War - despite being himself a slave owner! As one of my friends described it, he managed to epitomise the tradition of Kentucky Hypocricy - the art of keeping a foot in both camps..... I think perhaps this is a harsh description, but he does seem to have been a colourful character. He is reputed to have kept the Sheriff at bay with a loaded cannon on at least one occassion and refused to allow his estate to be searched for runaways. It seems that his wealth ensured that prosecution wasn't an option for the Sheriff!

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Thankfully someone had the sense to preserve this fascinating piece of America's past.

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June 01, 2008

Abraham Lincoln's birthplace

I had not known that Abraham Lincoln, generally considered the greatest President the US has known, was born in Kentucky. Like most non-US citizens, I suspect, I knew he had come from Illinois to the White House and never gave his birthplace or his family's circumstances a second thought. As it was he was born near a place called Hodgensville (Originally Hodgen's Mill) on Sinking Spring Farm. He was born in a single room log cabin in February 1818 and a replica of the cabin is preserved inside a massive stone structure celebrating this fact.

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The Lincoln Memorial building which encloses the replica log cabin.

The farm itself was not the family home for long. By the age of seven the family had moved to another north of Hodgensville and then, before he was ten, to Indiana and then Illinois. The roiginal farm is now a National Park centred on the Sinking Spring and the Memorial cabin. These cabins are small - sixteen feet deep by eighteen wide - a size probably dictated by the size of tree log that could be handled by one or two men. The floor was compacted earth and the chinks between the logs were sealed with clay. The fire place at one end of the house was deep and stone built, providing cooking and heating for the family.

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The Sinking Spring itself, probably much the same as it was in Linclon's time except that it is now approached by means of stairs and enclosed by supporting walls.

Contemplating the cabin and the other information provided at this place, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that Abraham Lincoln is probably the only man in the history of the USA to rise from such humble beginnings (his father was all but illiterate and his mother was) to become head of his nation. I can certainly find no other President who has achieved this, almost every subsequent President - and certainly all his predecessors - came from landed wealthy famillies and could not be classed as "self-made" men.

A remarkable man in every sense of the word.

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May 31, 2008

Calliopes and other wonders .....

Having now reduced the size of the picture file I can publish this shot of the Calliope on the Belle of Louisville. For all its compact appearance it can make its presence heard! As described in yesterday's post, it comprises thirty-two steam whistles connected via valves to the boilers. It is played from a small keyboard located just aft of the Captain's quarters on the Texas Deck.

The steam Calliope on the "Belle of Louisville's" Pilot House Deck.

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Seen from ahead the "Belle" makes an impressive sight. Note the triple steam whistle above her Pilot House.

The steam boats may now be reduced to curiosities on the rivers, but that doesn't mean that the rivers are any less busy as major transport arterials. In the next picture a single "push-tug" can be seen propelling loaded fuel barges upstream. The load was twelve barges lashed three abreast and four groups long - imagine what a fleet of road tankers would be needed to move the same quantity of refined product by road.

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The Ohio River is still a major part of the transport network of this area - in this case petroleum spirit in tanker barges.

I simply have to find a way to travel these rivers by boat!

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May 30, 2008


One of the many fascinating things we encountered on our travels was a classic Mississippi Steamboat, the Belle of Louisville. The Belle is not quite a hundred years old and has had a chequered career, but she is now lovingly preserved on the Ohio where she no doubt still thrills onlookers and passengers alike. Mounted on her Uppermost deck, above the "Texas Deck" and aft of the "Pilot House" is something one doesn't often see these days - a steam Calliope. This is a small organ blown by steam, the 32 "whistles" each sounding a harmonic note. Mind you, with a Calliope, "harmonic" can be relative - and it also depends on how close you are to it. These things can be heard quite clearly at distances above a mile!

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Seen from aft, the "Belle of Louisville" lies at her mooring in Port of Louisburg. Astern of her is the small screw riverboat "Spirit of Jefferson" and ahead of her is the preserved "Lifeboat Station Number 10". The Calliope can be seen just forward of the searchlight mounting.

The Belle is powered by twin horizontal steam compound engines with steam supplied by three low pressure boilers mounted forward of the engines. The decks carry names evolved on these boats and probably alien to their seagoing cousins, though some do overlap. The lowest deck - the one directly covering the hull is called the Main Deck and accomodates the engines, boilers and originally the cargo space at the forward end. The next is called the Boiler Deck and is where the main passenger accomodation is located (Sometimes the boilers were mounted here as well to avoid water reacing the firebox). The next deck upward has two names. The outer part which is not covered is called the "Hurricane Deck" as it is exposed to the elements, the inner part which is covered, is the "Texas Deck" and is where the officers quarters are located. Uppermost if the Pilot Deck where the Pilot House can be seen.

Originally the Calliope had to be played from directly below the instrument on a keyboard fitted with brass "keys" operating the steam valves. The player reportedly wore asbestos gloves! It is now played by means of an electronic keyboard mounted just behind the Captain's quarters on the Texas Deck. No doubt ear defenders are provided for those on board. One can only wonder at what it's use does to the steam pressures on the boilers. Most engineers I have known go purple with rage if the "Deck Mob" play fast and loose with their precious steam by playing silly buggers with the ship's steam horns.

The triple boilers take their water directly from the river when they need topping up, something most steamships avoid because it can foul the boiler tubes, however these boilers are fitted with a "mud drum" into which the sediment settles and from which it can be ejected at intervals. Further up river, at Cincinnatti another of these old time river boats is still operating. The Delta Queen is slightly younger than the Belle but has a wooden hull which is now causing a few headaches. The two boats meet once a year for a race which must be something to see.

Perhaps I'll get to see it on my next visit - and perhaps a ride on either the "Belle" or the "Delta Queen" to boot!

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May 14, 2008

Romanian Churches

The Romanian Church is Orthodox and stands distinctively among the Orthodox family of churches. Its icons tend to be very Byzantine in concept and rendition and its churches too, differ slightly from their Russian and Greek counterparts. The exteriors are decorated almost as much as the interior and it is very good to see that these, like the rest of the nations heritage, are now slowly being restored to their former glory.

The church of Saint Nicholas, built in the 18th Century by a wealthy prince and his wife. Two chairs (Chairs are not normally provided in Orthodox churches!) stand on either side of the Iconostasis Screen, facing it, for the Royal couple.

Romania was the last bastion of Christianity in Europe, standing between the advancing Turks under their Ottoman rulers until Wallachia - the country between the northern provinces and the border south of Bucharest - was conquered by the Turks in the 17th Century. Strenuous efforts by the conquerors to convert the populace to Islam failed and the Turks were driven out again by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 18th Century. Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania remained under the Hapsburgs until 1840 when Romania, then comprising Wallachia, Moldavia and part of Transylvania came into being under their first King since the Turkish invasions. But I digress. In the next picture a small and rather interesting little church is shown.

Built in 1722 it was rebuilt in 1812 and again in 1845 - sadly the interior was also repainted by a contemporary artist in the later rebuilding completely obliterating the work of a very important artist which adorned the walls. Attempts to restore that earlier work had to be abandoned when it was realised that the later work has been rendered in a manner which has destroyed the original. Fortunately 'cartoons' and sketches of the original work do exist, so all is not completely lost.

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This little church is very popular for weddings - three while I tried to get some pictures. Built in 1722 it stands of a stone plinth and is built of bricks. The interior is dark since there are few windows, but richly decorated.

The twin turrets and their internal domes are typical of the period, the windows let light into the nave from above. The overall effect is quite pleasant and certainly relaxing.

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May 12, 2008

Bucharest - city of surprises

Bucharest is a fascinating city. It has a long and interesting history and has seen many ups and downs in the course of its development. Being built on a major earthquake fault it suffers serious damage from time to time, the last major quake taking place in 1983. The architecture is a strange mixture of French Third Empire, Austro-Hungarian, Germanic and Balkan. And then there is the hideous 1950 - 1989 Communist "functional" architecture. Wandering around this city reveals surprises at almost every turn. There is a huge amount of work to be done to repair and renovate some of the gems of its heritage, but that work has started - and where it has been done, it is stunning.

Every street has its surprises - like this gem from the late nineteenth century surrounded by later "Empire" structures. Not the "sixties" tower behind it!

Sometimes the renovation is controversial. The example in the next picture will, I'm sure, have all our "heritage" gurus foaming at the mouth and reaching for their smelling salts - but, considering that the building was considered to be so badly degraded it could not be saved, the architect has, I think, made a good stab at saving at least the appearance of the original. Elsewhere, of course, the originals are being preserved and restored and the city has some real gems to be proud of.

I had to look twice at this building to see what had been done. The outer facades were preserved and the use of glass in the superstructure almost deceives you into thinking it is a building standing behind the original.

The classical buildings in the French Third Empire style also incorporate features which stamp them as "Romanian" and the city's Opera House is reputed to be the finest of its type anywhere. Interiors often put the Baroque period to shame and certainly the little Romanian Orthodox churches scattered everywhere are gems of their kind.

The grand facade of the Opera House, recently fully restored.

The city has the potential to become a "must see" for tourism and it will certainly repay any visitor even now.

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May 07, 2008

Persian dining out ....

On my last day in Tehran I had the fun of being taken out to dinner in a traditional Persian restuarant. While I'm at it and for the record, "Iran" is the Farsee or Persian word for the country of the Persians. And "Pars" is Farsee for Persian ....

As I have mentioned before, the Persians take hospitality seriously. The guest is sacred and it takes the Biblical duty of hospitality to its fullest extent. Not only that, but the guest is under an obligation as well - to honour his host and respect their traditions and rights. Something I think our Western culture sometimes fails to appreciate and which we could do worse than try to recapture. In a traditional setting you dine in a tent, on a raised platform and preferably near running water.

Tent Dining2.JPG
My hosts at pains to ensure I am comfortable - and I have to say that they spared no effort.

Dinner comprises of several courses accompanied by tea, coffee or soft drinks and I would have to say that I found this just as pleasant as I would have with a glass of wine.

Tent dining3.JPG
Breaking and sharing bread, an important element of any meal with a guest. A strong reminder of the origins of some of our Christian traditions.

The main course depends upon where you are from in Iran. Some, from the Caspian sea provinces, prefer fish - and it certainly looks and tastes excellent, Others, from the central regions prefer kebabs, and again the variety, the preparation and the presentation varies between regions. One constant - rice. Rice with everything!

Ten Dining tucking in.JPG
Naser (Left) is from the North and chose fish, Kazem (Right) is from the West and chose a very spicy mix of meat and vegetables - which he ate between taking photographs.

Dining is also a leisurely affair, there is no pressure to hurry and the food is cooked to order. A little over two hours sped by while we enjoyed our company and our food.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:39 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 06, 2008

Bucharest Conference

I am heading for Bucharest for the next few days - normal service will no doubt resume once I get back from there. My paper is reproduced below in the extended post for those who wish to see what it is all about. Essentially, the world has become a place where many nations feel that their prestige (and sometimes their economic circumstances) need to be shown off in building the tallets, most innovative or most exciting building going.

It intrigues me that the list of the world's tallest buildings and projected buildings seems to be a tour of those nations which were formerly communist or are in the developing world. Worringly, many of these nations have no fire services equipped or trained to deal with fires in such structures - and even more worryingly, many of these structures incorporate materials which will ensure that any fire, when it inevitably occurs, will spread through the building like a powder trail.

Hopefully this conference will help alert the Eastern European nations at least to the dangers.

High Rise fire protection.
A case for joined up solutions

A paper prepared for the Conference Fire Safety of High Rise Buildings
7th to 10th May 2008
Bucharest, Romania
Patrick G Cox


There is generally no accepted definition of a “High Rise” building. Some Countries such as the UK originally based their definition on the height of the longest ladder in use by fire and rescue services, but it has never been shown to be a truly practical determination since it is based on the assumption that, on any building below this height, it is possible to fight a fire in the building using ladders pitched from the street or the ground alongside it. An argument could be made for a reduction of this height to 18 metres since fire services no longer carry ladders of fifty feet (15 metres) length and cannot “extend” these by adding a single 10 feet (3 metre) ladder to the head. For firefighting purposes, a high rise building can be considered to be one containing floors at such a height, position or design that external firefighting and rescue operations may not be feasible or practicable.

The current trend to build taller and taller buildings presents many challenges for the designer, the developer and the safety engineer. There are many reasons why tall buildings are attractive to developers, not least that they offer a very good return on investment if the developer is able to maximise the land use in a prime location such as a city centre. However, modern construction systems, structural materials, internal arrangement and linings coupled with population loading and use of the building create many problems to be solved by the fire safety specialist. Not least is the problem of fire spread upwards through such a structure via the face of the building, expansion joints, service ducts, air-conditioning ducts and other shafts. Once the fire begins to spread above the storey of origin it rapidly becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the fire fighters to prevent it continuing all the way to the uppermost storey.

In 1908 the then Chief of the New York Fire Department declared that the race to build ever taller buildings in his city would soon result in a situation in which lives would be lost because his department could not reach the fire floor with effective water streams or ladders. Fortunately he was listened to by those in authority and the legislature began to look seriously at the problems and many of the solutions they determined are still valid – but not always followed. As the events of September the 11th showed in New York, some things simply cannot be designed for. However, it must be said that the structural fire protection and safety systems performed well enough in extraordinary circumstances there to significantly reduce the actual loss of life.

Several questions must be addressed in designing a modern high-rise structure for safe use, not least the consideration which must be given to access and facilities for fire fighters. A number of recent projects have shown that there are severe limits to what can be expected of fire fighters entering these structures to fight fires, yet, the majority of regulations framed for fire protection and life safety are based on data that is sixty or more years old and of questionable value in buildings where the materials used as linings, furnishings and fixtures may be synthetic or composites with a high proportion of synthetic materials added.

Fire fighters now wear protective clothing which provides far greater thermal protection than was possible a generation ago. While this affords better thermal insulation for the wearer it is balanced by retaining the wearer’s body heat as it is generated by exertion, thus raising the wearer’s core body temperature. At the same time, changes in design and in the materials involved in the fires the fire fighter must confront have resulted in fires that are faster in development and in thermal output. Better understanding of the effects of heat and dehydration on fire fighters has driven a re-evaluation of fire fighting tactics in many countries, yet the legislation regulating building standards still permits reduction in protection of a given structure in some circumstances where, if consideration had been given to the contents and use, it might not have been considered appropriate to do so.

High rise structures are the future built environment, however, what is needed is a careful reappraisal of the entire suite of building regulations governing such structures and the data which underpins them. Only by applying the most up to date information and addressing the issues this raises can we ensure a safe environment for the future.

Construction methods and problems

As one moves around the globe one discovers that structures, especially high rise structures, tend to be constructed in a number of different ways. Some are constructed in steel and glass, some in concrete and some in a mixture of both. Technically, reading the UK Building Regulations or the Scottish Technical Standards, it is possible to gain approval for an all timber structure of over ten storeys – a high rise structure. Fortunately perhaps, it would be prohibitively expensive to build one.

Inevitably the use of curtain wall structures results in a gap between floor slab and curtain. This is recognised and there are many different methods for protecting these gaps. Unfortunately it is often the case that other services may be overlaid on the gap and the closure and, in some cases, compromise it. Ventilation systems require the provision of ducts and plenums and these, in turn, present several challenges in addressing the fire protection of compartments and floors. The extensive use of electronic equipment in modern buildings requires the provision of far more cabling than was the case one or two generations ago, and the cable insulation introduces a fire load that is often overlooked as it is often concealed in voids or plastic ducts.

While a structure may, at first glance, appear to be a Class A (UK classification) or a Type I or II (NFPA 220 Classification) structure, essentially a “non-combustible” building, the internal fittings and furnishings will almost certainly change that to a lower rating in real terms. The use of dry linings and partitions introduces other hazards as well, including formaldehyde and several other toxic chemicals which are released in the event of a fire. This was the case in Sao Paulo in the 1960’s when the Joelma building, structurally concrete and steel, was almost entirely gutted by fire with a high loss of life – due almost entirely to the internal linings and furnishings. It is worth noting too that the fire severely damaged the concrete and steel structure and proved impossible to fight from the outside of the building or from street level.

Protected shafts and stairs are now recognised as a necessity in high rise buildings, but, again, there are different approaches to the provision of the protection. It has to be recognised that lobbied approaches to stairs and lifts take up valuable, to the developer, letable floor area. Typically, a lobbied 1 metre wide staircase occupies roughly 16m2 of floor area. Unsurprisingly therefore, there is always pressure to reduce the number of staircases required for means of escape. This, in turn raises another question for high rise designers – can the lifts be incorporated into the means of escape, and if so, how? Again, this means that the lifts have to become a part of a “protected” zone and measures have to be in place to ensure that this cannot be compromised or the power to the lifts fail. Then there is the question of lifts “sharing” shafts and using a “parking” system to allow loading and unloading while another lift car bypasses the “parked” unit. Some use is also made of “double-decker” cars in some very tall structures and these present further challenges for the fire protection engineer.

Modern services require the provision of ducts and service shafts which may form flues and provide channels for the spread of fire between floors and compartments. Again, these can be protected, but what is less well regulated is the maintenance of the protection during the life of the structure. The fact that it was provided on completion does not necessarily mean it will still be in place a few months or years later. In similar vein, modern high rise buildings almost invariably make use of suspended ceilings to permit the housing of services and the fitting of lighting systems. Raised floors, intended to provide a service area for computer cables and other services beneath a “working” floor provides yet another “hidden” space. These create large voids and care is required to ensure that these do not compromise the fire protection and other safety systems.

Every shaft, duct or staircase needs to be protected, and atria need special attention as all these features can rapidly become a flue in a fire, spreading the heat, smoke and ultimately flames upward.

Innovative construction

Sometimes it seems that each new high-rise project is setting out to “out innovate” the previous one. Each new mega project, such as the giant sail structure in Dubai, requires creative and innovative use of materials to achieve the strength and stability necessary. Necessarily this means that much of the structural framework will be “in tension” and any failure within a major element of the structure could trigger a catastrophic failure of the entire structure. An example is the 9/11 collapse, triggered by the failure of the external fastenings supporting the floor slabs above the fire and impact area.

Large atria connecting the ground floor to several – and in some cases all – storeys require very careful planning as they can very easily become the means by which a fire can overwhelm the buildings defences. Atria now feature in many very large buildings and in some extend the full height of the structure providing both light and ventilation to areas and floors which may well be difficult to service in other ways.

Nor should we overlook the “innovation” using fabric materials as internal ceilings, decorative blinds and screen and other “features” decorative or otherwise. The use of aluminium and light metal alloys in structures presents a number of problems for fire protection while solving several for the structural engineer. “All glass” curtain walling, while not “innovative” in today’s constructions, may well be coupled, as in the Lloyds Underwriters building in London, with an external load bearing frame and services such as ducting, lifts, stairways and heating.

The desire to go higher and to combine this with very large open public spaces presents a number of challenges for fire protection and requires a very thorough appraisal of the likely fire load and the most effective means to deal with it. In short, innovative designs frequently require a very flexible and innovative approach to fire protection. The advent of “super high rise” structures calls into question all the current thinking on evacuation systems. Compartmentation, active fire fighting systems and fire engineered systems for evacuation are no longer “nice to have” but vital components of a much more complex solution to occupant safety.

Modern materials

Modern construction materials embrace a number of “new” materials which were not in common use at the time the data on which the majority of current modern Building Regulations are based. In the UK, much reference is made to “Post War Building Studies, however, much of this data was collected and collated in the period 1920 – 1939 and is based on fires involving timber, natural fibres and limited plastics. Since the 1960’s the trend has been to make greater use of plastics and other materials including wood chip, compressed fibres and other “boards” in both furniture and structural elements. Aluminium curtain walling systems introduced for high rise structures are known to fail once flame impinges on them and can result in large sheets of glass being released to fall into the street below.

Steel provides a great deal of structural strength in construction on a weight/strength basis, but this is rapidly lost if the steel is exposed to fire and reaches temperatures above 6000C, a relatively low temperature in most fires. Concrete overcomes some of that problem, but relies on steel “rebars” embedded within the concrete to provide stability and strength in tension. Provided the steel is buried to a suitable depth (generally considered to be not less than 25mm) in the concrete, it will maintain its integrity and strength for longer than steel. However, once heated, it may spall explosively if subjected to a sudden thermal shock such as sudden rapid cooling due to fire fighting. Pre-stressed concrete “planks” also provide a lightweight alternative to poured floor slabs and more recently the use of lightweight “profiled” steel forms covered by several centimetres of concrete provide another light solution to the creation of tall buildings.

Many modern boards used in internal linings, partitions or finishing include resins and plasticizers. Typically “melamine” is a trade name for a type of “chipboard” finished with a plastic coating which is both durable and washable. While not easily ignited, it will burn fiercely and emit toxic fumes and products due to the fact that the board making process makes use of formaldehyde to prevent fungal and insect attack on the board. PVC based plastics produce toxic and corrosive products when burned and burn fiercely giving a very high thermal output weight for weight.

Passive fire protection

Passive fire protection is provided by the installation of fire rated doors, the closure of openings in walls required to provide compartmentation, enclosure of ducts, plenums and the subdivision of any voids. It seeks to confine any fire to the compartment or area of origin and to restrict spread either laterally or vertically through a building. A very wide range of methods are available and include coatings for steel structural members to prevent direct flame impingement on the member, intumescent materials in the form of collars to fit round pipes, closing devices for fitting inside ducts and “curtains” to prevent lateral spread of smoke and heat in voids.

The effectiveness of passive fire protection depends firstly upon how well it has been installed but is then very dependent upon being maintained correctly throughout its life. A typical example is that of the “fire resisting door” which, installed in the correctly rated frame and with the approved door furniture, is capable of withstanding a fire for a rated period. However, if the door is damaged, by the removal of the smoke seal, or through being wedged open against its closing device and warps, the integrity of the door will be compromised and may not prevent the passage of fire. Likewise, a wall constructed correctly to a fire resisting standard may be compromised by a plumber or electrician cutting a hole through which to pass a pipe or cable, and then failing to seal the opening with the appropriate fire rated sealant.

Regulation and Fire Protection Requirements

Most national jurisdictions have established Building Regulations, Standards for Construction and Codes of Practice for fire protection. These will incorporate requirements for the safety of occupants, the structural protection of the building, for stability of structures, for drainage and such matters as heating, lighting and ventilation. Most address a wide range of buildings and more and more commonly allow the use of standards or codes from a different jurisdiction if “equivalence” can be proved. What must never be forgotten in dealing with any Building Code is that it is NOT a maximum standard, but a MINIMUM.

High-rise structures present the designer and fire safety specialist with several challenges in this regard since most require the use of “fire engineering” to address all the requirements for life safety. The balance between building to minimum tolerances and strengths structurally can impose a need to design the fire protection systems to a higher standard in order to achieve the level of protection required.

Means of Escape requirements

The modern requirements for the provision of “means of escape” (Egress in American Codes) have their origins in studies done in a number of countries in the 19th Century. It was established that a travel distance of one hundred feet in an unprotected escape route was the maximum distance any person could expect to negotiate safely in the time between becoming aware of the fire and their attempting to escape. It was further found that this is affected by the persons training, or lack of, ambulatory ability and conditioned responses. The width of exits was also studied and it was found that a width equivalent to a width of a man’s shoulders was the absolute minimum and that a width roughly equal to four men abreast was the maximum.

Subsequent studies have shown that these figures can be translated into reality and further studies have focussed on the human behavioural aspects of escape from danger. In high-rise structures this means that a great deal of thought needs to be given to the position of the escape stairs or – if it is intended (as in the Petronas Towers and more recent structures in Taiwan) that the lifts be considered part of the means of escape – the position of and availability of lifts.

Thinking behind risers and water supplies

In general, most codes, regulations and standards require that any building over eighteen metres be provided with a “riser or fire main” (In the US Codes a “Standpipe”) internally installed in the staircases with outlets for fire fighting at each floor. In the UK in buildings up to sixty metres this may be “dry”, that is, not connected to a permanent water supply, and provided with an inlet allowing the fire appliance pump to supply water directly to the riser when needed. Over sixty metres fire mains are generally required to be “wet” and left permanently charged to speed extinguishing operations. The idea was that in smaller buildings a fire hose could be laid up the fire service ladder and the fire fought through the windows or from the exterior. In taller buildings mechanical turntable ladders could also provide an exterior attack to the fire from outside the building. Beyond the reach of this equipment and subject to the nature of the exterior envelope of the buildings fire fighters are dependent upon entering the building to fight the fire from the staircase.

The UK regulations, up until 2006, required a maximum pressure of 4- 5 bar at the outlet for wet risers installed in buildings in the UK. In the case of dry fire mains the pressure available at the outlet of the fire main is dependent upon the choice of firefighting branch, diameter of hose used and the charging pressure for the fire main. This was sufficient pressure for the equipment in use until 1960, however, since then, buildings and the materials in them have changed dramatically and so has fire fighting equipment and procedures. The regulations have not; however, BS 9990: 2006 has introduced new requirements which go some way to addressing these concerns.

Access for fire fighting

High-rise buildings in particular present a number of challenges with regard to access for fire fighting or rescue. Podium type buildings, with the lower storeys projecting some distance from the base of the “tower” section, generally preclude the use of any high-reach appliance such as an Hydraulic Platform, Turntable Ladder or the newer hybrids. UK building regulations require access to an entry point for a pump appliance within eighteen metres of the building, this to allow the connection of fire hose to any inlet connections for risers or for tanks supplying the risers. The requirement generally also requires a “line of sight” to enable the pump operator to see the entrance and the connection points so that they are aware at all times of the state of operations.

Where the buildings stands away from public thoroughfares there may also be a need to provide for “hard standing” on the access surfaces so that appliances of up to sixteen tons can be operated safely. Again, this requires a made-up surface to provide a safe operating environment for the fire appliances and their crews while the emergency is dealt with.

Sprinklers, ventilation and fire detection

Currently in the UK, any building over thirty metres in height must be fitted with a sprinkler system and this is reflected in many other national codes. This is again related to the early studies which found that the time consumed in reaching the fire floor, if it was above this height, and in laying out fire hose coupled with the effort required, meant that fire fighting was generally fairly restricted.

Ventilation, or “climate control”, systems fitted to provide occupant comfort may also be used to control the movement of smoke or to extract it from the fire floor. Consideration needs to be given to the interaction of these systems and the sprinklers and to the circulation of smoke to uninvolved floors and compartments by the system. The experience of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas highlighted the need to ensure that any such system does not ingest and circulate the smoke from one area into an otherwise protected area.

Fire detection systems have an important, if not vital, part in the protection of any high-rise structure. A properly designed fire detection system can give sufficiently early warning of a fire to allow the occupants to escape and to alert the fire services, allowing them to respond early. Such a system forms a vital part of any “fire engineered solution” and is the control device which actuates smoke curtains in malls or atria, switches HVAC systems to extraction mode and opens vents. It can also “pre-action” a sprinkler system and close fire doors or open doors locked for security purposes. As with every such system however, maintenance is essential to reliable operation.

Physiological constraints on fire fighters

Better protective clothing for fire fighters has led many to think that this means that the fire fighter is now able to penetrate further into a building and enter compartments where the temperatures were previously non-survivable. Nothing could be further from the truth, as has been demonstrated by a comprehensive study carried out in the United Kingdom by the Fire and Resilience Directorate’s Research and Statistics Division, under the broad title of Building Disaster Assessment Group. A team of scientists and fire officers carried out wide ranging research into a number of aspects of modern building fires, protective clothing and fire fighting equipment. Their findings may be accessed online through the Department of Communities and Local Government website.

Building Disaster Assessment Group (BDAG) Reports

The BDAG team looked at several actual incidents including Collection and Analysis of Emergency Services Data Relating to the Evacuation of the World Trade Centre Towers of 11 September 2001” (Galea E R and Dixon A J P University of Greenwich), “Physiological Assessment of Fire Fighting, Search and Rescue in the Built Environment” (Optimal Performance Ltd; Dec 2004 for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) and Effect of Reduced Pressures on performance of firefighting branches in tall buildings – Aspects of High Rise Firefighting (Hunt and Roberts, December 2004 Office of the Deputy Prime Minister). These reports highlighted a number of matters which have a serious impact on High Rise structures, not least being: -

• Evacuation and life safety of occupants,
• Access and penetration limits for fire fighting,
• Maintenance of systems and integrity of fire resisting elements,
• Management of fire risk and introduction of hazards,
• The dynamic nature of fire risk and fire and life safety in any built environment,
• Interdependence of “passive” and “active” fire protection,
• The speed of fire development and heat output for modern synthetic materials have changed fire behaviour in modern offices and other buildings, and
• The physiological demands on fire fighters impairs performance,

Among the most important findings highlighted in these reports is the physiological strain placed upon fire fighters during fire fighting and search and rescue activity in any structure. The better protection afforded by the latest personal protective clothing can create a sense of false security and lead to fire fighters penetrating further into a building under conditions that are beyond safe exposure limits. It was found that, when coupled with already raised heart rates and body temperature due to exertion in reaching the fire floor, performance and judgement may already be seriously impaired.

In addition it was found that water pressures stipulated in most Building Codes and regulations are no longer in line with the working pressures required for optimum performance of modern equipment. This has resulted in a change in operational procedures in use in the UK, where it was found that using a larger bore hose (51mm instead of 45mm) could offset, to a limited extent, the lower operating pressure in the riser. However, this is a matter which requires serious thought and should be the focus of a determined drive to amend the relevant sections of all codes and regulations.

Many, if not all, of the matters identified in these reports have been advised to the fire and rescue services through the medium of Integrated Risk Management Procedure (IRMP) Guidance Note No.4 and a Fire and Rescues Services Circular (FRSC) Number 55/2004.

Protection of fire fighters

An aspect of the BDAG study included an assessment of the protection afforded by a number of different materials and “systems” for assembling protective clothing for fire fighters. It was found that there was a “trade off” between the enhanced protection afforded and the retention of body heat by the wearer. This means, in short, that the body heat generated by the wearer during periods of exertion cannot, effectively, be dissipated. This gives rise to an elevation of the wearer’s core body temperature, which, once it rises above 390C, can result in impaired performance and loss of mental awareness. This is of particular concern where fire fighters are required to expend a considerable effort in order to reach the fire floor and are then expected to penetrate into the fire compartment with an already elevated core body temperature.

Penetration into a building

It is assumed in many codes and building regulations that fire fighters will be able to penetrate between 45 and 60 metres into a burning compartment and perform rescue and firefighting activities. The BDAG studies found that this is not the case and that the elevated core body temperatures coupled with exertion severely restrict the ability of the fire fighter to carry out rescue and penetrate further than between 18 and 30 metres even with the best possible level of personal protection afforded by the PPE.

Rescue and refuges

The need to provide access for the ambulatory impaired worker and visitors to these buildings requires that special provision must be made for their safety in the event of fire or other disaster. To this end “refuge” areas are generally provided where wheelchair users may be “parked” to await rescue. The outcomes of several trials in evacuation show that the physiological strain this places on the rescuers needs to be considered very carefully when planning these.

The case for active fire protection systems

There can be no doubt that, in the light of the trend towards higher buildings and the use of modern and innovative construction systems and design of buildings, the nature of the fire that may arise is very different to that which, even twenty years ago, was likely to be encountered. The BDAG research clearly shows that the physiological limits for the fire fighter are a matter for serious concern everywhere, never more so than in structures where the physical exertion required to reach the fire floor and the fire are likely to push the fire fighter to the limit of their endurance. We must also recognise that the World Trade Centre event was unusual and that there is almost no practical defence against such an attack on any building. That said, the measures provided for the evacuation and fire defences performed as intended, even though the fire was far beyond their designed capacity.

Building Codes and Regulations need to be updated to take account of the data now available. Regulators and regulating bodies need to take account of lessons learned in all too many fire disasters to ensure that not only are these structures given the passive and active protection they require, but that these are fully and properly maintained throughout the life of the building. It is completely unreasonable to expect that fire fighters can lay hoses up staircases to floors more than 20 metres above the ground and still effectively fight a fire. It is even less reasonable to suppose that the fire can be fought from aerial ladders or platforms pitched from the street or adjoining property. Reliance on any other form of access, such as helicopters to deposit fire crews on the roof of a high rise structure (sometimes encountered in the planning proposals in some developing countries) or to perform rescues is not a viable concept and should not be included in any code. As Sir Eyre Massey Shaw wrote a hundred and fifty years ago –

“To be effective a fire fighter must enter buildings …”

Patently, we cannot expect fire fighters to enter buildings if there is little or no chance of successfully reaching the fire area while it is possible to deal with it, nor can we expect them to enter a building on the point of failure. Having entered it they must be able to operate in relative safety as they approach the fire compartment and then enter it to deal with the fire. They can only do so if the structure has been designed to permit not only escape of the occupants, but the access for fire fighters to deal with the problem. In high rise structures this means that they must have a protected route to reach the fire floor, the fire itself should be controlled and prevented from spreading unchecked until they can reach it, and the structure should be able to stand up to the attack from the fire for long enough for the fire fighters to reach the building and launch their attack on the fire. That can only be achieved if the building is equipped with: -

• Adequate means of escape and access for fire fighting,
• Protected shafts to allow fire fighters access to the fire without exposure to smoke, heat or flames,
• A fire detection and alarm system capable of giving early warning of a fire,
• Active protection systems such as sprinklers capable of containing the fire in the compartment of origin, and
• Risers and landing valves capable of supplying sufficient water and water pressure for the operation of the fire fighting equipment.

Where a smoke control system is fitted this should be designed to complement the other systems and should not be a “replacement” for any other active fire protection system. All too often the provision of one or other “life safety” system is used as an excuse to “trade off” something which is essential for the safety of the fire fighters or for the containment and extinction of a fire once started. Particularly in High Rise structures such “trade offs” should be approached with a great deal of caution and should only form part of any “approval” if it can be proved that the systems provided give the same, or a greater, level of protection without the “trade off”.

Equally important is the need to recognise that a building’s fire risk changes almost daily as the fire load is changed by alterations, by refurbishment and by the introduction of new plant and equipment. The built environment is dynamic, the fire risk is never static and it is therefore essential that designers, regulators and enforcers recognise that there is an unbreakable link between life safety of the occupants, property protection and the safety of fire fighters committed to deal with fire, evacuation or any other emergency. The fire protection must be built into these structures; it is not a luxury or something that can be fitted and forgotten. It is vital to the safe operation of any high rise building.

Finally, the entire solution needs to be understood and effectively managed throughout the life of the building. All to often the safety of both the occupants and of fire fighters is seriously compromised by building owners failing to maintain systems or attempting to save money by replacing parts or carrying out alterations which compromise performance. Without this final check – there is no safety in a High Rise structure.


Physiological Assessment of Firefighting, Search and Rescue in the Built Environment; December 2004, Optimal Performance Limited for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Hydraulic Calculation of Wet and Dry Risers, Hoses and Branches; December 2004, BRE for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Effect of Reduced Pressures on performance of firefighting branches in tall buildings – Aspects of High Rise Firefighting: Hunt S and Roberts G, December 2004 Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Collection and Analysis of Emergency Services Data Relating to the Evacuation of the World Trade Centre Towers of 11 September 2001; December 2004, Prof E R Galea and Mr J P Dixon, University of Greenwich for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

IRMP Guidance Note 4; March 2004, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, HM Inspectorate of Fire Services

Fire and Rescue Services Circular No 55/2004 – The Building Disaster Assessment Group – Key Research Findings; 2004; Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, HM Fire Service Inspectorate

NFPA Reports

Joelma Building, Sao Paolo, Brazil

MGM Grand Hotel, Las Vegas, USA


BS/EN 12845 – Fixed firefighting systems, Automatic Sprinkler Systems
NFPA 13 and related Codes.
NFPA 101 – Life Safety Code
Approved Document B – Issued as an adjunct to the National Building Regulations (UK)

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:49 PM | TrackBack

May 05, 2008

A great Review

A new review has appeared on Amazon.com for my book, Out of Time. I'm really chuffed by this one - it's from a fellow struggling author whose book I reviewed a little while ago. He's returned the favour with oak leaves and diamonds.

By Ben Maxwell - See all my reviews

Full disclosure here. Mr. Cox has already reviewed and praised my book, United America: 2014. I'm also partial to nautical novels.

This book has everything, from naval battles on the high seas, interplanatery slave labor, to gene splicing and naval battles in deep space. Mr. Cox knows how to tell a story, and how to grasp an universal truth: Don't ever forget the fundamental skills we used to prevail in our old, primal struggles to survive. Harry Heron, his servant Ferghal O'Connor and "powder monkey" Danny Gunn are transported from a Napoleonic sea battle to an intergalactic starship. There, they show great pluck and resourcefulness adapting to their new, high-tech environment, and bring with them important, long-forgotten skills, such as aiming by visual sights, that help Mr. Heron's great, great, great grand-nephew and legal guardian, Commodore Nelson-Heron, defeat the lawless Consortium in a far-flung corner of the galaxy.

Mr. Cox leaves enough loose ends at the close of the novel to suggest a sequel in the works. I eagerly await discovering how this new voice in YA fiction develops.

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April 27, 2008

Decorated mosque

Iranian mosques are a riot of colour and decoration unlike those generally seen in other Middle and Near Eastern countries. The Iranians belong to the Shia branch of Islam as opposed to the Sunni sector. Sunni Islam has a more austere (though one could be forgiven for wondering sometimes which is which!) approach to the following of certain precepts of their faith. While I do not pretend to understand these divisions, they do strike me as a bit like the argument between those of the Roman branch of Christianity and the Orthodox branch - except that the Sunnis seem more "Protestant" and the Shia more "Catholic". It all centres on the number of "Imams" since the Prophet and here the Farsee word "Imam" means "Leader" and again they mean by that the descendents of the Prophet himself.

Entrance and unfinished minarets Saleh Abad.jpg
The Mosque at Saleh Abad, a village on the south western ouskirts of Tehran.

Entrance Saleh Abad cropped.jpg
The ornate decorations are created using hand painted and glazed tiles - an expensive and time consuming task.

I was welcomed to the Mosque in a most friendly fashion and shown some of it's glories. I don't like to give offence so refrained from taking photographs, but my hosts promptly borrowed my camera and began "happy snapping" with it! The results can be seen in the following pics.

Narthax Saleh Abad.JPG
In a Christian Church this would be the Narthax, or entrance vestibule, though in an Orthodox church (Which many Mosques here strongly resemble!) it would be the Nave with the Screen separating the inner sanctuary from the secular. The green glass and silver chased case holds the Holy Quran which is ceremoniously removed to be read on Fridays.

War Memorial Saleh Abad.JPG
In the Narthax I noticed this small War Memorial which commemorates the many who died in the Iran/Iraq War - an event remembered here with some bitterness - Sadam was then being funded and equipped by the West! And yes, I did wonder about the cross motif!

Interior Dome Decoration Saleh Abad.JPG
The decorated interior of the cupola over the main prayer room of the mosque - a very peaceful place.

This little mosque is fairly typical of those found in Iran. It was a sharp contrast to the starkness of those I have seen in the rest of this region and I could not help but be struck by the resemblance between these mosques and some of the Orthodox churches I have seen in parts of Eastern Europe, both in the layout and the style of decoration - except, of course, no human images here save those on the graves and the war memorials.

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April 15, 2008

Tehran ramblings....

Tehran is fascinating. Our Western Media don't tell half the story. For instance it doesn't present the image of a city like any other filled, not with fanatics, but with ordinary people all struggling to make a living. Our hosts here, fairly senior ogfficers of the fire service, all have second jobs to pay their way. The economy has the potential to be huge, but the Rial is currently worth IR9,900 = $1. A second currency unit, the Taman is worth 10 Rials, and most goods come in units of Thousands of either.

Property is expensive here in Tehran and most ordinary people struggle to find a place they can afford a small flat can cost several Billion Rials. But, by contrast, property in many of the other cities is much lower, but then, work is not that readily available.

After the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 several things happened, among them attempts to put the Shah back into power. But, when you learn how things ran under his regime, you do wonder at the Realpolitik that was going on behind it all. This, after all, is a country surrounded by potential enemies, not least the former USSR to the north and Iraq under the secularist Saddam to the west. Because the army had propped up the Shah and been led by his placemen - it was reduced to almost nothing while the constitutional arrangements were sorted out. And Saddam took advantage, perhaps hoping to gain more territory and attacked Iran in the now infamous Iran/Iraq war.

Now, its a funny thing, but I wonder how many of us have been consulted on what our constitutions say? Labour under Blair and now Brown have rewritten our constitution but refuse to honour their election pledge to allow a refendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty. The Iranian regime, while not one I would choose to live under, has at least been agreed to by the majority of the population. Like us, they have a problem with Al Qaeda, the Mujaheddin and the Taliban. And recently they have intervened on behalf of the Iraqi government with Moqtadr Al Sadr, apparently with more success than our efforts.

Perhaps it is time to silence those who insist on imposing Western "values" and standards on a people who don't share our cultural history and probably never will.

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April 09, 2008


In the Middle and Near East if a child is being naughty a parent will threaten the delinquent with the prospect of being taken away by Eskander the Great Demon. In the Islamic folklore, no doubt borrowed from the Persian peoples pre-Islam, Eskander is a demon who comes to slay those who misbehave and drags their souls off the Hell. Dig a bit deeper and you discover that their version of Alexander the Great is somewhat different to our own.

In our history Alexander defeated the Persian King Darius (NOT the Great!) and then swept through Babylon, Assyria and Persia into the lands north of the Himalayas and Afghanistan before descending into the Indus valley. His return march through the deserts of Southern Iran is the stuff of legend, nothing short of a miraculous survival by his army. The only city he completely destroyed was Persepolis, the capital, yet, in the Arabic version of this history, he laid waste to the entire land and slaughtered the inhabitants. No mention is ever made of the fact that, once a city or governor surrendered to him they were, unlike the usual tradition under their own Kings, restored to their estates and honours after swearing fealty. Only those who rebelled after being restored got the chop - and then, admittedly, Alexander was completely without mercy. It seems that his generosity in victory is forgotten while his intolerance of treachery is not.

Strange how history always takes a different perspective once the politicians get hold of it.

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March 27, 2008

Visit into Past Times

An almost clear blue sky and encouraged the Monk and Mausi to take the car out of the garage and drive south to Cirencester today. Cirencester, known as Corinium in Roman times, started out as a fort to help defend the provincial frontier in AD 49. When Wales was conquered and the frontier moved northward the fort changed into a
town which eventually became the second largest Roman settlement in Britain after London. The Monk and Mausi spent a delightful couple of hours in the Corinium Museum. It houses a vast collection of objects from everyday life in Roman times and especially quite a number of mosaics from houses of apparently wealthy members of the Roman society. A great deal of thought has obiously gone into how best to display the objects in the museum and it is well worth a visit.

From the museum the Monk and Mausi took a stroll through the narrow streets of Cirencester.

Narrow street of Cirencester with houses in the typical Cotswold style

Not far from the Corinium Museum stands the Parish Curch of St John Baptist, one of the largest Parish Churches in the country. In medieval times farmers in the Cotswolds went into wool production on a big scale. The wool merchants brought real wealth into the Cotswolds' area and often money would be invested in parish churches, known as the "wool churches". St John Baptist in Cirencester is one of them.

One of the Cotswolds wool churches - St John in Cirencester

The Church is an example of English Perpendicular. Construction work on the nave started in the 12th century but bits and pieces were added until well into the 16th century when the nave was rebuilt and raised in height by 20 ft. Mausi was most taken with St Catherine's chapel, right next to the Chancel.

St Catherine's Chapel inside the Parish Church

It was erected in 1150 but the delicate fan vault was installed 350 years later. On the left side remains of the original wall painting, depicting St Christopher carrying the Christ Child, can still be seen. The Monk and Mausi had a good time exploring the church from end to end.

At last they had to make their way back to the parking lot before the meter ran out of coins. The drive back home through that lovely Cotswold landscape just made a perfect ending to a beautiful day.

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March 17, 2008

Saint Patrick

It's nice to be quoted and rather flattering to be quoted as a source. The e-zine Residential Aliens has a short biographic piece up on Saint Patrick, quite my favourite saint and the one person I will forgo all other pleasures to meet one day. The man who could write in stilted and "old fashioned" Latin, probably in his old age, "Ego Patricius, pecator ...." I, Patrick, a sinner and most unlearned ...

Magnus (or Magonus) Succatus Patricius was born sometime around 385 AD of Romano British parents probably in the West Gloucestershire region now called the Forest of Dean. His family were well off, owning land, a villa and holding important positions in local government. As he himself tells us, he was the son of Calpornius, Decurion and Deacon of the Christian Church and grandson of Potitus, Presbyter (Priest). His mother was from Gaul and her family owned estates near present day Tours.

The Roman naming system complicates any effort to identify his movements until he returned to Ireland in the spring of 429 AD as a Bishop, the first missionary Bishop since St Paul began his journeys in Asia Minor and Southern Europe. His first name would have been given at birth, but was probably only used by his family. It means "Great". His second name is a "Family Name" and is thought to be derived from the name of a Celtic War God - Sucret. The thrid name, the one by which we know him today, is probably a "Nickname". For example, Gaius Julius Caesar's names are "Gaius" (Prenomen) or "given" name and Julius (Nomen familias) or "Family" name. "Caesar" actually is a nickname - poor Julius was bald - and the name means "Hairy". Thus Patricius is probably a nickname given because he wasn't patrician in his manner, education or lifestyle. And he probably saw that as a compliment.

All of that means that we know little or nothing about him that he doesn't tell us himself, and trying to find him, as some people have, in papal or monastic records is almost impossible. This is in part down to the fact that the church was much more "local" in government of things like training, ordination and even consecration of Bishops. Rome did not achieve its universal authority for at least two hundred years after Patrick's mission to Ireland. In Patrick's Church the Bishops were far more autonomous and far less tied to the dictats of Rome. Germanus of Auxerre is probably the man who authorised Patrick's mission and ordained and consecrated him as Bishop.

From Patrick's own words we know that he was at first rejected and Rome's chosen man, a Deacon named Palladius (And also nicknamed Patricius) was consecrated and sent to the southern part of Ireland in 428 AD. According to later historians this mission failed because Palladius died a year into his episcopate, but other evidence suggests that this may not be entirely accurate. What is plain is that Palladius' was not sent as a missionary, but as a Bishop to minsiter to an established congregation. This is where Patrick's mission differs radically - he went to an area that was not Christian, an area in which the only Christians were slaves as he had been. Even more daringly - he returned to the area in which he had been a slave.

And under the Law of the Brehon, once a slave, always a slave. You could never be freed and you could not buy your freedom. Even after twenty two years, his former master would have been able to lay claim to his person and demand his life be forfeited for his having run away. Yet he triumphed, very likely because the Irish could not understand a man who walked into their midst unarmed and unafraid of the consequences of their law. He describes himself as a slave of Christ and therefore no man can touch him. Even now we find it hard to understand that faith and the centuries have cloaked it in legend.

His first "church" was a barn located at a place today called Saul, some four miles from Downpatrick. The barn is long gone, its place taken by a stone church in medieval times and replaced in the 1930's by a modern church. It is here too that he died on the 17th March 461 AD as he had lived, quietly, unassuming and deeply and fiercely loved by everyone he had touched.

As I said, I will forgo all else, just to sit at his feet one day and learn to know this man whose faith changed history and a nation, a faith so steadfast and unshakeable that it brought the fiercest and most feared warriors in the West to a faith they have held ever since. Truly Christ's Steadfast Man.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:22 PM | TrackBack

March 05, 2008

Fortifications ....

Mausi's piece a few days ago on the Hohenburg mentioned Sebastien de Vauban, the military engineer who changed the face of fortifications and brought them to the point where assault became so costly it was considered almost impossible - or, at worst, so costly in lives that it was not worth it. That didn't stop wars, but it did change the way places defeneded like the Hohenburg were dealt with. And, like everything else, it led to the development of other ways of attacking such fortresses. In truth, the full impact of Vauban's innovations was not appreciated until well into the twentieth century, and examples of "impregnable" fortresses were still being built in 1939. They include the famous (or infamous!) Maginot Line, the Fort Eben Emmanuel in Belgium and Hitler's Siegfried Line and Atlantic Wall.

So what did Vauban do to fortifications?

Well, he laid them out in the classic "star" design, but he wasn't actually the inventor of this pattern, he took it the next logical step. Instead of building normal walls as his outer curtains and bastions, he built first huge earth and stone embankments. Then he faced these with sloping dressed stone facings, the angle of the wall being around 10 degrees from the vertical as it rose. Atop this he placed firing platforms and embrasures and within the bank built tunnels and huge chambers for storage and accommodation and in some cases built in batteries for cannon and smaller chambers with loopholes for musketry and grenadiers. The angles between bastions and curtain walls were not built at ninety degrees, they turn back slightly on themselves so that the bastion stands away from the curtain and men placed at the angles can enfilade the full length of the linking curtain wall.

Nor could you simply march up to the walls or the bastions, since these are both covered by each other, and fronted by a deep moat or ditch - with an outer bastion standing in front of the inner curtain and filling a space between the inner bastions. More such outer bastions were then placed in front of the main inner ones and are overlooked from behind. In other words, if you succeeded in taking one of the outer bastions, you could not use it to assault the inner one since your occupying force was now exposed to fire from above and behind.

Obviously you have to be able to get in and out under normal circumstances and gates always provide the weakest link in any fortification. Not so in Vauban's designs. The gates could only be approached along deliberately indirect corridors overlooked by embrasures for musketry and grenadiers on both sides. Effectively only the suicidal would even consider trying to send a force up one of these approaches. Even if you got as far as the gate house you found yourself in a tunnel which could be closed at both ends by huge gates and portcullis' and effectively you were now in a kill zone from which there was no way out. As I said, Vauban didn't actually invent most of these ideas, he simply combined them in new and much more effective ways. It speaks for itself that most of his fortresses were never captured by assault, they fell usually after very prolonged sieges and more frequently through treachery.

So how did this influence modern warfare? Well the first thing it did was render all previous forms of artillery obsolete and it led to the development of new guns and more effective siege weapons. One of these was the mortar, a stumpy short barrelled "gun" set in a heavy cradle which fired an explosive "shell" over the heads of the defences to burst inside the fortress. It led too to the development of siege engineering - again, not new, but now taken to a higher degree of science. Ultimately commanders realised that Vauban's fortresses, while superb for defence, did not, in themselves win wars, they simply tied up vast numbers of men which led, in its turn, to heavy losses from disease and starvation on both sides. The answer then, was to fight more mobile wars, to lure an enemy out of these fortresses and fight in open country. A lesson not fully learned until the bloody aftermath of Ypres, the Somme, Thiepval and many, many more attempts to assault the German fortified trench systems in WW1. And that echo of Vauban's fortress design, a design which relied on defences interlocked with others in depth, brought about the development of the modern tank and the heavy artillery we now deploy on battlefields.

Simply walking through one of the remaining examples of Vauban's designs - and there are many of them still in evidence, such as Wurzburg, St Goar and many more along the Rhine and into Holland (Try Sluys on the Scheldt estuary) and in northern France, and you get a feel for the futility of attempting a frontal assault on them. As a military engineer Vauban stands out and his shadow is a long one.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:48 AM | TrackBack

March 01, 2008

The Hohenburg

On top of the hill into which Europe's biggest coloured sandstone caves have been dug are the remains of a former castle and fortress, The Hohenburg.

Part of today's remains of the Hohenburg

The Hohenburg was first mentioned in 1123. In 1351 it was sold to Count Wolram of Zweibrücken and finally castle and town fell to the Counts of Nassau in 1453. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) Hohenburg's archives were moved to Idstein and later to Frankfurt. Unfortunately all documents were lost somehow and the Counts of Nassau couldn't prove their ownership of the castle, town and the surrounding lands and forests any longer. The castle was finally conquered by the Imperial troops after it had beaten them back several times. Fortunately for the Counts of Nassau Emperor Ferdinand III gave Hohenburg back to them during the Westphalian Peace Treaty in 1648.

In the late 17th century the French King Louis XIV strengthened his eastern border and Hohenburg was just perfect for turning it into a fortress. This plan was carried out by his famous engineer Sebastian de Vauban who turned the castle into a fortress, built a strong wall around the town and added four bastions - Deuxponts, Fontaine, D'Mure and D'Autage.

Model of Castle and Town during in the late 18th century. The trademark of Sebastian de Vauban is easily recognisable.

According to the Peace Treaty of Rastatt in 1714 Louis XIV had to give Hohenburg back to Emperor Karl VI which he wasn't prepared to do, of course. The French soldiers blew up the whole fortress leaving only a pile of rubble for the Germans. Obviously no one took the trouble of rebuilding the castle ever since.

The Federal State "Saarland" of which the Hohenburg is a part has always been of interest both to France and Germany because of its coal and steel industry. After various attempts of France to annex the Saarland in the first half of the 20th century in 1948 the Saarland even became an independent state, though not internationally recognised. But during this period the Saarland had a national football team and almost stopped the Germans qualifying for the football world championships in 1954. It doesn't bear thinking of if the Saarlanders had become world champions instead of the Germans...

In 1955 the population of the Saarland voted against becoming part of France or a western union and instead opted for joining the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the Federal Republic of Germany, which they did in 1957. But in the early 1950's a bunker was built into parts of the sandstone caves underneath the Hohenburg. It was supposed to provide shelter for the government of the Saarland in case of a nuclear strike.

bunker.JPG   bunker02.jpg
The bunker that was never finished

In order to keep the population in ignorance of this bunker a hotel was erected on top of the hill, right beside the ruins of the Hohenburg at the same time the bunker was built. The hotel, however, was finished while work on the bunker was stopped after 1955. Apparently, parts of the bunker are still used for local festivities by the local townsfolk. A very good idea, Mausi thinks.

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February 27, 2008

Sandstone Country

Last weekend Mausi had the opportunity to visit the largest coloured sandstone cave in Europe. It meant a 90 minutes drive to the south west. Close to the French borders lies the town of Homburg. One of its attractions is this huge cave.

One of Homburg's churches built from red sandstone

The coloured sandstone formations around Homburg formed about 240 million years ago. The cave Mausi visited encompasses 12 storeys but only one is open to the public at the moment. If all goes well another two will be accessible in a couple of years.

The sandstone colours inside the cave are truly beautiful

The sandstone inside the cave shows alternating layers or red and yellow. The red sand was contains iron oxides and was depositied during wet periods when the iron was dissolved in water. The yellow layers where caused during dry periods when deserts temporarily took the place of shallow waters.

Ripples in the sandstone caused by waves in shallow waters

The cave itself is manmade. The sand contains a high amount of quartz which was used as a raw material for the production of glass during the seventeenth century. It was quite easy to get at the sand, very simple tools did suffice. Over the different storeys of the cave the sandstone has different densities. The hardest layer has actually turned into sandstone, but in the part of the cave Mausi visited the sand could be scraped from the walls by her fingers. Some of the ceilings are only 80 cm thick but their load bearing capacity is astonishing - up to 2000 kg per square meter.


At all times during different wars the caves have also provided shelter for the people of Homburg. The humidity inside the cave is between 80 and 90 percent or more but the temperature is always +10 Celsius, regardless of what the temperature is outside. The winter of 1944/1945 was extremely cold with temperatures around -20 Celsius. For the people who came to the caves to find shelter from the air raids it must have felt as if someone had suddenly turned the central heating on. At least until the humidity got through the last layers of your clothes.

Temporary home for a whole family during WW II

Mausi finds it hard to believe that families could actually survive in such conditions. Cramped into little space in a damp environment, with little food and no sanitation to speak of. Good thing those times are over and hopefully for a long time to come.

Posted by Mausi at 08:31 PM | TrackBack

February 12, 2008

Living on the edge ...

South of Manila is farming country, with some spectacular mountains and ridges. In the midst of this is a magnificent lake - Lake Taal. The lake is beautiful and huge. There are several small towns along its edge and prime real estate is being developed along the ridge running all around it. In its centre are several small islands. Very picturesque, very beautiful setting and the sunsets .... Well, to die for as they say.

A settlement under development to the north of Lake Taal. Note the sea views. The mountain in the distance is a volcano.

The trouble is that you might well end up doing just that. For "Lake" Taal is the flooded caldera of the Taal volcano!

Lake Taal, seen from its Northern Rim. The "islands" are all volcanic vents and fume regularly.

In 1510 the Taal Volcano blew its top in a super eruption much like the Mount St Helens event and buried the area on which Metro Manila now stands in fifteen feet of ash and debris. When the Spanish invaders arrived some twenty years later, the vegetation had recovered sufficiently to hide most of the scars. Mount Taal had ceased to exist and the crater is all that is left - but it blows its top in a cycle that runs to roughly every 600 years - so watch this space .....

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February 05, 2008

Just boats and beaches ...

The Filipino fishermen run these interesting motorised "canoes" with outriggers for stability. The engine is a marinised V8 petrol or diesel and these things can get up to very respectable speeds, certainly high enough for water ski-ing.

The slim lines of this motorised outrigger canoe can be seen. A heat exchanger under the hull is all that breaks the smooth lines of the canoe.

Boats on a beach - these fishing canoes use lines, nets and sometimes divers.

Watching them at sea is interesting, they are far more seaworthy than they look.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:43 AM | TrackBack

February 01, 2008

More Philippines pictures ...

Overpopulation and pollution have turned Manila Bay into an open sewer. It used to be said that if you fell into the Thames, you needed full decontamination and probably innoculation against every known disease. That isn't the case any longer, but Manila Bay is filthy and the stench, particularly when the wind is off the bay, is unbelievable. Falling into this would, I think, result in the instant contracting of every known plague!

I did have the opportunity to sail on a forty footer in a race held on the bay and the most remarkable thing is the clear delineation that is visible in the water as you cross the point at which the tides form a barrier to the outflow of the filth in the bay. On one side you are floating on dirty, brown and stinking water, cross the line and the water is clean, clear and blue green.

A ferry in Manila Bay, built on traditional lines. this one runs from the city out to the Cavite peninsula. Other ferries run to Corregidor, the fortified island which forms the stopper in the neck of the bottle that is Manila Bay.

Fishing boats on a beach on the Cavite peninsula - note the detritus on the beach ...

I expect that with several million people living in Metro Manila, and an infra-structure that is less of a structure and more of a political football, it is hardly surprising that very little actually functions and that which does, is inadequate to meet the needs of the population it serves.

Outside of the Manila area the countyside shows its volcanic origins and the soil is very fertile - but again, the population levels mean that most families manage on a little subsistence farming and trade like fury for anything else they may need. The large farms all belong to a very small group of families - "Hidalgo" style nearly all the wealth rests inside the few "families" who did well under the Spanish - and the only option for the less well connected is to take employment from the Hidalgos or scratch a living in some other way.

It amuses me somewhat whenever I hear the Green accusation that we in the West are "raping" these countries and destroying their ecology. WE aren't, and the populace of these countries don't give a damn. The Filipino wants a BIG gas guzzling engine in his Jeepney and doesn't seem to care much about the impact throwing rubbish into rivers, lakes, the sea or anywhere else, has on the future of the planet at all.

Paradise it most certainly could be - away from the politicians and the cities, but at the moment, I rather think it fits the description of a paradise in danger of being permanently lost.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 28, 2008

Visions of the past ...

Starting in 1996 I made several trips to the Philippines capital, Manila, for business. I had been engaged to advise on fire safety for a major construction project and made several trips a year between 1997 and 2000. The contrats one encounters in this country are enormous, from fabulous wealth (Some apartments sell at $2 to $3 million a unit ) to abject poverty. Armed banditry is rife as is kidnapping, highjacking and some of the most amazing con artists in the business. Needless to say, you are warned of certain 'no-go' rules when you are engaged, but, by and large, I found myself well looked after and the majority of Filippinos are friendly, fun loving and generous to a fault.

A street in China Town, just outside the "Old City" known as "Intramuros". Crowded, busy and the shops sell anything and everything.

The entrance "Gate" to China Town in central Manila. Infrastructures are crumbling, but business is as usual. The horses are apparently descended from those brought by the Spanish in the 1500's ....

The old Spanish fortifications are still very much in evidence in the Old City and the area is known as "Intramuros" or literally "Within the Walls". Periodic earthquakes have left their mark on some buildings and on the streets too. The overhead powerlines are the craziest I have ever seen and in some places it looks like spaghetti overhead. The country suffers greatly from the fact that a small number of "families" seem to own just about everything - land, buildings and businesses. They also control access to key jobs and to elected posts such as Congress, the Senate and even the Presidency. Within that structure there is no "middle class" of Filippinos, it is, instead, provided by the ex-patriot community.

The Cathedral in Intramuros. The seat of the appropriately named Cardinal Sin, Papal Legate and Cardinal Archbishop of the Philippines.

The Pasig River runs through this part of Manila and discharges into Manila Bay. The Pasig rises in Laguna de Baye, a large and rather shallow lake West of Manila and runs through Taguig, Quezon City and Makati before discharging into the bay. Just for the record, Laguna de Baye is actually the caldera of a rather large and still active volcano. It just happens to have blown away its rim some centuries ago. The Pasig is also best described as an open sewer, yet many "squatters" have built houses on stilts over the waterway - a feat which may provide homes, but is also the source of tragedy and disaster when any of the frequent typhoons run through this area. On one of my visits, the Pasig carried away all the houses over it and drowned several hundred people.

The other big problem in Manila is the traffic. With almost no "public" transport of the co-ordinated and organised sort, the people here make their own arrangements. So the roads are clogged with Jeepneys offering the cheapest travel solution, buses if you're desperate, and taxis and private cars the preferred means of transport of the better off. If you are really poor there are motorised Rickshaws (Tuktuks in Thailand and Indonesia) - basically a Vespa Scooter modified to provide a tricycle. Or, even better, a moped (125 cc motorbike) which can carry three or sometimes four (depends if they are prepared to share the footrests) for a moderate fee. I am convinced that if you deprived any Filipino motorist of his car horns he'd be unable to drive ...

More reminiscences and photos of the Philippines soon.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:32 PM | TrackBack

January 15, 2008

Analysis of a disaster ...

With yet another loss at sea, this time thankfully without loss of life thanks to the RNLI, the publication of an item in Der Spiegel looking at the loss of the ferry Estonia seems timely.

Some clever fellows in Hamburg have managed to run a computer simulation which recreates the last moments of the ferry Estonia which went down in the Baltic in 1994 after her bow visor failed in a storm. Their findings are reported in Der Spiegel online. They conclude that the loss was due to a manoeuvre designed to save the ship and exacerbated by the inadequacy of the life saving provisions on such ships.

That last point is interesting to me in particular since it is very near to my heart, being related, of course, to escape from fire. Few of those travelling on the huge luxury cruise ships will appreciate that their "life boat" provision is still, after the Titanic disaster, only 100% of the passenger and crew capacity. Fine - if you can use the boats on both sides of the ship. It does not take account of a ship doing what the Estonia did, capsizing. Ever tried walking up a vertical surface intended to be smooth and easily cleaned? You probably had more chance on the Titanic - at least she stayed upright for a lot longer! In fact it is well known that once the gradient for escape goes beyond about ten degrees the majority of people will have difficulty. Add to that the storm and the movement in the deck as the ship slows and starts to capsize and you find that a whole range of assumptions about escape to lifeboats disappear out of the proverbial scuttle! Stabilisers are used to keep these ships level and reduce the effect of wind and sea on the hull for the comfort of the passengers. They work only as long as the ship is moving. Stop the ship and they're useless.

Did you really want to know that some of the bigger liners depend on them in extreme weather to maintain stability? Probably not.

One thing is for sure. This report, when it finally hits the politicians and the money managers in the shipping companies, is likely to cause a major rethink in the way these ships are designed, managed and used. Small comfort to the 832 people who died on the Estonia.

Scientists Unveil Cause of Estonia Ferry Disaster
By Ulrich Jaeger

Scientists in Hamburg recently simulated the sinking of the Estonia, the 1994 Baltic Sea ferry disaster that killed 852 people. They discovered that the vessel was traveling much too fast in stormy seas and that the crew's attempts to save the ship by turning it actually caused it to capsize.

The Estonia in the docks in Tallinn. The ship sank on the night of Sept. 28 1994, killing 852 people.
It was 1:02 a.m. when his alarm clock slipped off the night table. A survivor of the Estonia disaster remembers the exact time because he had to replace the batteries, which fell out of the alarm clock when it hit the floor.

1:00 a.m. ship time -- shortly before the ferry suddenly heaved to one side -- is the time that a computer simulation of the disaster begins. A group of Hamburg researchers are hoping to unravel the last secrets of the terrible night of Sept. 28, 1994. It was the night when the Estonia capsized in rough seas while en route from the Estonian capital of Tallinn to Stockholm. Only 137 of the 989 passengers and crew on board survived the disaster.

To this day, some suspect that criminal activity was behind one of the worst disasters in European seafaring history. Theories that the ferry was in fact the target of an attack have also been fueled by questions about the credibility of the official investigation report, which Estonian, Finnish and Swedish authorities published in 1997.

With these misgivings in mind, Swedish authorities hired experts at Hamburg Ship Model Basin (HSVA), a hydrodynamics research facility, and at the Hamburg University of Technology (TU) to conduct a study on the sinking of the Estonia. The group, headed by university researcher Stefan Krüger and Petri Valanto of HSVA, plans to submit its report in late March. The information they have uncovered so far suggests that their results will not only shed light on the causes of the disaster, but will also have consequences for passenger shipping. One certain conclusion is that evacuation procedures for combined car and passenger ferries like the Estonia are inadequate.

The research team's calculations, which it obtained using ROLLS, the world's foremost simulation program for shipping disasters, already contradict speculation that the Baltic Sea disaster may have been caused by explosives. Instead, they suggest that speed, wave conditions and a turning maneuver sealed the fate of the Estonia.

The researchers are also rewriting the timeline of the disaster. According to the 1997 official investigation report, the drama began at 1:14 a.m. and the ferry capsized in heavy seas about 25 minutes later. According to the computer simulation, however, the ferry's death throes lasted a full 14 minutes longer, because the final hour of the Estonia began at precisely 1:00 a.m., not 1:14.

On the night of the disaster the ship's Estonian crew had whipped the ferry at full speed through four-meter (13-foot) waves to make up for delays. The resulting stress caused the bow visor to break off from the hull, and the vehicle ramp, which formed a second barrier against the waves when tilted up behind the bow visor, to open. The vehicle deck, normally about three meters (10 feet) above the water line, was suddenly flooded with water.

Explosives Theory Refuted

Both the media and experts alike long viewed the loss of the bow visor as a sign of foul play. According to their theories, only an explosive device could have severed the visor from the hull, because the visor's massive locking mechanism could not have been broken off by other means.

Some attributed the supposed explosion to rumors that a truck carrying nuclear material was on board, or that the vessel had been carrying secret weapons shipments for Swedish intelligence. According to these theories, the Estonia was deliberately sunk to avoid detection of the illicit cargo by Swedish customs officials.

A private company even recovered metal samples from the bottom of the Baltic Sea in August 2000 in an effort to prove this theory. Three institutions analyzed the samples for evidence of a possible explosion. But in the end, an analysis commissioned by SPIEGEL in 2001 refuted the explosives theory.

Simulation of a Terrifying Night
Any other result would have surprised TU researcher Krüger. According to his analysis, the forces acting on the Estonia as it traveled at top speed through heavy seas were "verifiably greater" than the forces the bow visor had in fact been designed to withstand.

The authorities used the testimony of surviving crew members, radar data, pieces of wreckage and the location of the wreck to determine the course the Estonia traveled during its final nautical miles. According to their data, the Estonia was traveling westward toward Stockholm at 281 degrees, with the wind and waves whipping against the ship from portside at about 45 degrees.

The Hamburg group simulated three possible scenarios for what happened next. According to model "0a" of the disaster, the visor was still attached to the hull, but both it and the vehicle ramp opened by a gap of 1 meter (3 feet). In version "0b" the visor was torn from the hull but the ramp, opened by a gap of 1 meter, still offered some protection against the waves. Finally, in scenario "1" the bow visor and the ramp both failed to act as a barrier against the sea.

According to the researchers, version "0a" could only have applied to the "very initial phase of the disaster." In their estimation, the volume of water flooding the ferry, according to this scenario, would not have been sufficient to cause it to capsize.

But even if, as in scenario "0b," the bow visor was torn off, the volume of water entering the vehicle deck through the slightly opened ramp would still have been too small to explain the dynamics of the disaster. In this case, the ship would have listed by 14 or 15 degrees after 10 minutes, and the crew would have "had sufficient time to take action against the water ingress."

Physics Stronger than Crew's Efforts

For these reasons, scenario 1 seems the most plausible, at least according to the simulations performed so far. When the bow visor broke off, the crew under the Estonia's captain, Arvo Andresson, could only have surmised the true extent of damage to the ferry. They would have been unable to see that the visor was missing, because it was not visible from the bridge, which was set back from the bow and towered five decks above it. Nevertheless, both the investigators of the accident and the Hamburg researchers are fairly certain that the nautical officers, none of whom survived, must have known what had happened.

The Estonia's last course shows that it turned to portside. The ferry also slowed down within the space of a few minutes, from 14 knots (17 mph) at the time the visor broke to 9 knots (10 mph).

Valanto believes that the turn to portside was an attempt to use wind and wave action to stabilize the ship, a maneuver that makes sense from a seaman's perspective. On the one hand, the natural forces would be expected to press against the right side of the ship, helping to bring it upright again. Besides, the open bow, facing the sea like an open wound, would be turned to face away from incoming waves.

But the maneuver did not save the ship as expected. The computer simulation reveals why physics prevailed over the crew's efforts, ultimately leading to such a devastating outcome.

In the first phase of the accident, after the bow visor had broken off and, as the Hamburg researchers assume, the ramp had also lost its protective function, the Estonia took on a lot of water. According to Valanto, the ship's "dynamic behavior" only reinforced this effect. The ferry's high speed caused the bow to sink deeper into the water, while at the same time allowing a higher bow wave to develop.

When the Estonia turned to portside, the centrifugal force produced by the ship's curving motion pushed the water in the opposite direction. As a result, the ship's list, instead of being reduced by the emergency maneuver, was in fact increased by the force that now pushed all the seawater on the deck against the right side of the vessel.

At this point, as the behavior of the simulation's virtual Estonia shows, water rushed into the passenger deck below the vehicle deck. According to the simulation, the Estonia was listing at 50 degrees at 1:20 a.m. and tilted onto its side at 1:32 a.m. Meanwhile, the sea was already tearing new holes into the hull.

Large panes of glass lined the decks along the rear half of the ferry, while the windows in the outer cabins toward the bow were smaller. According to the simulation, the safety glass in the large windows was the first to fail.

In the simulation, the Estonia's kiss of death came when water flooded into the openings formed by the roughly 90 large windows, upending the keel and sinking the ship.

The simulation also helped the researchers understand why only 137 people survived the disaster.

If the standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) had been observed on the night that shocked Europe, most of the Estonia's passengers and crew members would still be alive. According to the IMO's evacuation standards for the construction of passenger ships, hallways, doors and stairways should be designed so that, in an emergency, all passengers and crew members can reach the open decks from the ship's interior and escape in lifeboats and rafts.

In the case of the Estonia, the roughly 40 minutes between the breaking of the bow visor and the capsizing of the ship should have been enough time to enable everyone on board to escape from the ship. But the reality belies the IMO standard. Only 250 to 300 passengers and crew members managed to escape from the ferry.

The simulation illustrates why hundreds of desperate people never made it. For the first time, the Hamburg team, aided by the developers of Advanced evacuation simulation software, was able to take into account the effects of an increasing list on the ability of passengers and crew members to get out of the ship.

According to the researchers, the data they obtained diverged "substantially" from the IMO standards. The calculations for the virtual Estonia show that when a ship lists, its evacuation routes become almost impassable. In the simulation, only 278 of the 989 people on board the ship managed to reach the open decks. The ferry became a coffin for the rest.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:22 AM | TrackBack

December 29, 2007

Frankfurt in the cold ...

Yesterday was one of those cold grey days here in Germany. Low hanging clouds, dank clinging fog and mist and crowded Autobahn make for tricky travel. But the planned trip to Frankfurt am Main was worth it. The plan was to visit the Archaeological Museum which is located in the former Carmelite Monastic Church in Karmeliter Gasse. The collection ranges from the Neolithic, through the Ancient Greek and Persian to the Roman and late Medieval.

Looking at the beauty of the Grecian decoration on the pottery, in particular the delicacy of the painted figures and the exquisite detail in them, one does wonder at how much we lose each time a society goes into decline. This is certainly reinforced when looking at the furnishings and decoration of Roman colonial homes and the construction of these. The sophistication of their heating systems and their skill in engineering is astonishing. You are forced to ask yourself what would our society look like today if we had not "lost" these skills and abilities for several centuries. You cannot escape the feeling that our societies today might have been much further advanced than we are.

Almost as interesting is the thought that in their latter days the Roman's also thought, as we do, that the Barbarian Hordes could be absorbed and would adopt their ways. That it failed to happen is evidenced by the loss of the technology, the loss of ability to repair or maintain or even to continue to operate a commercial system. Perhaps our current crop of leaders and bureaucrats should take some lessons from the fall of the Roman civilisation. It might prove instructive to them.

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December 21, 2007

Strange but true ...

It seems that the arguments about power supplies will soon get even more heated - pardon the pun - but it now transpires that coal ash is more radioactive than the waste from a nuclear pile.

The extended post has the extract from the Journal Scientific American, one of my favourite reads. As an anarchic colleague I have a great deal of respect for once remarked when someone complained about a small radio active source we were using for a demonstration (It was an Alpha source!) - its a radio active universe sonny. You might escape exposure if you get into the habit of wearing four inches of lead all the time and covering you from head to foot - otherwise just grow up and be realistically sensible!

I can't wait to see what Greenpeace and F(r)iends of the Earth make of this .....

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste
The popular conception of nuclear power is straight out of The Simpsons: Springfield abounds with signs of radioactivity, from the strange glow surrounding Mr. Burn's nuclear power plant workers to Homer's low sperm count. Then there's the local superhero, Radioactive Man, who fires beams of "nuclear heat" from his eyes. Nuclear power, many people think, is inseparable from a volatile, invariably lime-green, mutant-making radioactivity.

Coal, meanwhile, is believed responsible for a host of more quotidian problems, such as mining accidents, acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions. But it isn't supposed to spawn three-eyed fish like Blinky.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:31 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 18, 2007

Big Kites and Cargo Ships

Earlier this year Mausi wrote a about a new idea of saving fuel on cargo ships by simply fitting them with an additional sail. The sail looks rather like a big kite and is flown at heights up to 500 m. Provided the winds comes from behind the ship or from the sides it could help save a considerable amount of fuel.

After a number of preliminary tests with smaller ships in the Baltic Sea the first commercial cargo ship equipped with a huge kite was christened "MS Beluga Sky Sails" in Hamburg by the wife of the German Bundespräsident on December 15. The MS Beluga is 132 m (436 ft) long and its sailing area covers 160 square meters. In January 2008 she will embark on her maiden voyage, which will take her from Bremen in Germany to Venezuela. If all goes well the sail area will be doubled to 320 square meters. The ship owners hope to cut down fuel consumption by 30 to 35 per cent then.

More ambitious plan are already afoot. The Beluga shipping company has two bigger ships under construction at the moment. They will be fitted with sky sails as large as 600 square meters. If they work according to plan they will reduce the costs for shipping cargo by 6,000 US Dollars per ship and day!

All this wouldn't of course have been possible without the previous invention of new and durable materials which are used for the sail and the rope which fastened it to the ship. And the very advanced high tech computer system which is needed to trim the sail 300 to 500 m above the water surface. But what can be learnt is that it is still possible to make inventions in this high tech world. What Mausi finds a bit nerve-wracking about the ongoing global warming and fossil fuel conservation debate is the unwillingness of some to think along new lines. They've always used fossils fuels and they will do so until the end. Perhaps now is the time to be a little more creative.

Mausi, at least, will keep her fingers crossed that all goes well for the MS Beluga Sky Sails in January. It would be great to sails coming back to the oceans.

Posted by Mausi at 11:26 AM | TrackBack

December 15, 2007

Living underground

During my recent trip to Libya I learned that some parts of the country are so hot and dry that living on the surface is definitely inadvisable. I suppose it is a demonstration of human ingenuity that for centuries the inhabitants of these areas have built elaborate dwellings below the surface. And, far from being primitive or even uncomfortable, many of these dwellings are far more luxurious than their inhabitants would enjoy in a normal house built above ground.

The courtyard of a subteranean dwelling. The earth above insulates the rooms against the intense heat and even the courtyard is cooled by channeling breezes through tunnels to ensure it doesn't overheat.

The rooms are arranged to open off the central "courtyard", and though they lack windows, the shaft of the courtyard provides plenty of light and air. Airshafts and the means for directing breezes and even cooling the air by means of passing it through tunnels and small chambers in which there is a water cistern, all help to regulate the temperatures and maintain them at an even and very liveable level.

The entrance door to a subterranean house. Beyond lies a large vestibule and short tunnel into the central court.

The other advantage of being below ground is that the stored warmth in the earth above you keeps the temperature at night a constant and pleasant warmth, even when the surface temperature at ground level is below freezing - which it can easily be in the desert!

All the comfort of a normal desert house.

And just for the record - these houses were used in the filming of Star Wars but they are still in use as the homes of quite a large group who have lived here for centuries ...

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:55 PM | TrackBack

December 03, 2007

Entertaining the interesting?

Today I have received two interesting offers. The first is from a firm of Literary Agents in New York who would like to represent me and sell my latest book into a publisher. Having read their contract offer carefully - they want ten percent of anything I earn from any sale they make - I have signed it and sent it on its way. I now await with interest the next move, which I gather is to have a meeting and discuss the book with an agent. Hopefully here - NY is a long way and the calendar is a little full for the next month or so.

The second interesting development is an e-mail from AuthorHouse, the publishers of Out of TIme - forwarding an enquiry from a Japanese publisher who seems to be interested in translating and publishing Out of Time in Japanese! I have responded to that cautiously suggesting that I would certainly be interested in discussing business arrangements with them and will provide a review copy for their study. My curiousity is, however, aroused. I find myself wondering what drew them to my book. They surely haven't scanned everything on Amazon to find it and its even unlikely to have been a scan of AuthorHouse's collection. I know the Japanese have a fascination for the mileu of SF - a fact born out by their research in robotics and other SF machinery. Research incidentally that few, if any, Western companies are even attempting.

Won't it be fun if I find myself published by a Japanese publisher when publishers in the UK can't even be bothered to look at a manuscript? I wonder what it says about the publishing industry here and their selection process?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:11 PM | TrackBack

November 02, 2007

Wanderer in Space

During the night from October 23 to 24 a something spectacular took place in the constellation of Perseus: a comet became "suddenly" visible because within twenty-four hours it jumped from magnitude 17, which is not even visible with the better telescopes on earth, to magnitude 2.5, which is visible with the naked eye during a clear night.

Comet Holmes, a bright spot on the sky

The name of the comet is "Holmes". The next picture shows where exactly to look for the comet in the constellation of Perseus which can be seen in the North East after nightfall.

How to locate Holmes

Perseus is quite a colourful constellation. Its brightest star is Mirfak (alpha Persei), a Reddish Supergiant, delta Persei a Blue Giant and Misam (kappa Persei) a Yellow Giant. Algol is a so-called Variable Star, meaning it has a companion circling it and obscuring it from time to time. Next time this can be observed from Earth will be on November 13, 21:20 UTC.

Holmes, the comet, was already discovered in 1892 by Edwin Holmes. It then displayed a similarly spectacular outburst in brightness as it did last week. High resolution pictures revealed that Holmes suffered some kind of internal explosion last week. Fragments can be seen on those pictures. At the moment the astronomic community is not sure if Holmes has been ripped apart or will again survive as it did more than 100 years ago.

Safe journey, Holmes, wherever you go ....

Posted by Mausi at 07:11 PM | TrackBack

September 12, 2007

Travelling the Oceans

Mausi loves to go by ship whenever she has an opporunity to do so. She would however draw the line at travelling oceans in tiny nutshells. She was fascinated when she learnt a long time ago how cleverly people from the South Pacific navigated from island to island in tiny canoes closely observing the wave patterns. When coming close to an island waves would be reflected on it and a ring of calm water would form around the island where the incoming and reflected waves would cancel themselves. So these seafaring people would know an island was near even if they couldn't see it yet.

Another of these astonishing feats was accomplished by Captain Bligh of the Bounty when he and those who wanted to follow him were abandoned after the mutiny in a tiny lifeboat. By discipline, strict rationing of their provisions and Bligh's brilliant navigation by charts that only existed in his head they finally reached Timor and safety.

portaferry.jpg Mausi's been wondering what would be easier - crossing the southern oceans in oppressive heat or the northern oceans in mind numbing cold as the Vikings did. Alright, their boats were bigger than canoes or lifeboats but Leif Erikson still went to Newfoundland in an open boat. One can hardly imagine nowadays how incredibly harsh life on those Viking boats must have been with cold winds and even colder water gushing into the boat in bad weather and no real shelter for the seamen. The Norsemen left their footprints all over Europe and especially the islands of Western and Northern Europe. Mausi encountered this specimen in Portaferry, a village in Northern Ireland at the Southern end of the Ards peninsula. The wooden Norseman is guarding the entrance to Strangford Lough, a name which is derived from the nordic "Strang Fjord". Before the invasion of the Norsemen it was known as Lough Cuan. The Norsemen have long gone but the name obviously stuck. Looking at the photo now brings back memories of a lovelylate evening walk along the waterfront of Portaferry. As then Mausi still feels sorry for the Norsemen because some clown thought it good fun to bend his weapon....

Posted by Mausi at 08:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 03, 2007

A Glimpse of Medieval Life

Mausi and the Monk went adventuring and paid a visit to the remains of Tintern Abbey in South Wales. It was once part of a Cistercian monastry, founded here in 1131 by Walter fitz Richard of Clare, Lord of Chepstow. The Cistercian movement started in 1098 when the abbot Robert of Molesme, who was dissatisfied like many others with the way The Rule of Benedict (a practical plan for the way of life and organisation of a monastic community) was observed in European monastries, left his prosperous Burgundian abbey set out with some like-minded to search for a physically austere location where they could 'live more strictly and perfectly according to the Rule of the most blessed Benedict'. They found the ideal spot near Dijon and founded the Novum Monasterium (the New Monastry) which later became known as Cistercium. Today the place is named Citeaux. During the 12th and 13th centuries the Cistercian movement spread over Europe and in Britain alone some 86 monastries were founded.

Tintern was the perfect place to apply to the Cistercians' idea of an existence in poverty and seclusion. It is situated in the narrow Wye valley, surrounded by steep hills covered in thick forest. We've seen the place in broad sunlight but I bet most of the year it was damp and foggy.

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Tintern Abbey (seen from the South East) and the East window

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South Transept and a view towards the South West part of the abbey

The Cistercians strike me as a very strange order and not a very Christian one either. At least not in the sense that I understand Christianity which is rather to live and work among the people. But the Cistercians had no interest in the outside world. They led a secluded live inside the monastry. Work on the outside fields was done by lay brothers who were kept separately from the monks. The lay brothers were illiterate and had to stay that way. Their way of serving God was doing manual labour. Other orders had lay brothers as well but none as many as the Cistercians.

The abbey looks very grand now, even if it is in ruins. Especially the east window must have looked stunning. But it was never intended to be used as one big room. A stone screen separated the monks' choir from the nave where the lay brothers were allowed to be. The monks even had a separate entrance from their living quarters into the choir, which is the staircase at the south transept. So they really could keep themselves to themselves.

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The Warm House (right entrance) and a view of the Chapter House (front) with the Infirmary Cloister behind it

Life for the Monks must have incredibly hard when they started out at Tintern. The Warm House was the only room apart from the kitchen and the infirmary where a fire was allowed. And you can just see the Monks huddling in there for warmth. Their clothing was made of undyed coarse wool and they denied themselves any kind of underwear! No wonder they needed quite a big infirmary bits of which can just be seen on the right side of the infirmary cloister. The infirmary was used to look after sick and dying monks.

The Cistercian Monks have lived at Tintern for about 400 years until the monastry was dissolved. Most of the time they must literally have lived at a construction site. It took at least 10 years to build the first church. The cloister and other buildings were added. From then on a constant rebuilding and adding-on process followed. In the 13th century the church was completely rebuilt. This time the head mason was obviously given a free hand and in contrast to the very austere and simple architecture of the first church elaborate stone carvings and ornaments were introduced into the building.

Over the centuries the abbots also sat themselves apart from the community of the ordinary Monks. Their living quarters became much more spacious enabling them to receive and entertain benefactors of the monastry. This is quite in contrast to the original Cistercian idea of poverty which also forbid to accept gifts or money from outside. As it is with all societies that start out as a community of equals - after some time a few members become more equal than others.

Anyway, Tintern Abbey is well worth a visit and Mausi and the Monk had a most interesting time there. Mausi, however, is still trying to figure out what kind of mindset is needed to shut yourself off from the world in the middle of nowhere and lead a life of incredible hardships in God's name.

Posted by Mausi at 09:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 09, 2007

Greetings from Überwald

Last week Mausi was send to the small town of Selb on business. Selb is situated close to the Czech border in an area that is called "Fichtelgebirge" which translates into "Mountains covered in spruce trees". When you go there you can easily see why. The sight definitely triggers an überwaldish feeling in every TP reader.

Selb is famous for its porcelain factories. The first one was built in 1857 by Lorenz Hutschenreuther, which was a piece of good fortune for the town as it had suffered severe losses during a big fire in 1856. Porcelain is everywhere in Selb, the Town Hall even has a porcelain carillon.Mausi just wonders how many attempts it took to give each bell exactly the right tune...

Part of the Town Hall facade with the porcelain carillon

The biggest church in the old part of Selb is the Stadtkirche, a protestant one, situated at Lutherplatz (Luther Place). It came as a bit of surprise to Mausi as Bavaria is usually a very catholic Federal State in Germany.

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Stadtkirche and an assembly of tiles giving a short biography of Martin Luther

Selb has undoubtedly seen its best days. Some of the porcelain factories have closed down and the number of inhabitants has decreased from 24,000 to about 17,000 at the moment. Young people move to bigger towns which offer jobs and better perspectives. Mausi and her colleague had some difficulties finding a place to eat on the first evening. Most of the restaurants and pubs they passed had closed down. At last they found a nice enough looking pub and went inside. Only four people were sitting around one table, two of them the owners of the pub. When Mausi's colleague asked if they could get something to eat (it was about 7 p.m.) one of the women answered: "If I feel like cooking tonight." Definitely not the response you expect. But she then got up and vanished into the kitchen. The food, however, turned out to be quite good and the "Schwarzbier" Mausi had ordered (and which had to be fetched from an adjacent house) was delicious. Half an hour later four men turned up and sat down to play the old German game of cards called "Schafskopf". Apparently they were the only guests that were expected that evening.

It is a bit depressing when you walk through a town like that with shops on offer for sale everywhere. The only ones that seemed to thrive were hairdressers and shops for mobile phones. Hopefully, someone will come up with a bright idea before the town is abandoned for good. It's a nice little town and - as can be seen on the next photo - people try to brighten things up.

Brightly redecorated houses giving the street an almost Mediterranean flair

Walking around Mausi came across some strange sights like this house which belongs to the Rosenthal porcelain factory:

Hundertwasser facade with trees growing out of the windows

The building itself looks like it was designed in the 1970's but afterwards the facade must have been redecorated by the famous Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Usually his buildings display a lot more colour but this time the mosaics were probably the best he could come up with under the circumstances. One of his trademarks are trees growing on top or out of buildings.

All in all Selb has been quite an interesting experience for Mausi, both work- and townwise, and she is looking forward to another visit some time.

Posted by Mausi at 04:19 PM | TrackBack

July 01, 2007

Angel orchestra

One of the glories of Tewkesbury Abbey is its great vaulted nave roof. Sixty five feet from the ground it is admittedly difficult to see without getting a crick in the neck, but it is very well worth the effort. The "Bosses" which lock and decorate the intersections of the vault "ribs" are all individual and colourful with the central spine all bearing scenes from the life of Christ. On either side of the Gospel story, an orchestra of angels all accompany the story on a variety of medieval (and some very much earlier!) instruments.

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This plaster cast of one of the bosses shows an angel playing a medieval violin called a "Reebeck". The cast barely does ijustice to the real one which is brightly painted.

A portable organ - called a "Regale" it had free beating reeds rather than pipes and is played by pulling sliders out to sound the note. The crank operated a small bellows which provided the wind for the instrument.

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Love them or hate them, the bagpipes have been around for some time - and may have even found a place in heaven!

These plaster casts of the real bosses do not do them full justice, the originals are fabulous. What I have long found fascinating is the fact that many of the angels seem to be playing instruments more closely associated with Ireland - several of the harps are clearly Irish and not Welsh - suggesting that the carvers were brought here from Ireland. That would make sense since the principal family involved in the endowment of the Abbey are the de Clares. Those who know their Irish history will know of Strongbow - one Richard de Clare, conqueror of Ireland for the Norman Henry II (After Henry reminded him that he was a vassal of Henry's!) and the Lord of County Clare.

Do pay the Abbey a visit if you are in this area, it is always a rewarding experience.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:34 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 24, 2007


In Mausi's opinion Schloss Johannisberg is a most fascinating place. She still can't get over the fact that a prince abbot would order the tearing down of a monastery - derelict as it may be - and have a castle build instead, as happened here. After the secularization the castle had various owners, one of them Kaiser Franz of Austria. He finally gave the castle to Prince Metternich for his services during the famous Congress at Vienna. The last member of the Metternich family died only last year.

Schloss Johannisberg - a truly beautiful place high up above the Rhine

Vineyards have always belonged to the monastery here and later to the castle. Prince Metternich had been given the castle on the condition that he would pay a certain amount of tax in wine each year to Kaiser Franz.

Apparently, Johannisberg is the cradle of the different special qualities of wine we know today, namely Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein etc. All these were cultured here and as with all good inventions chance played an important role.

One of the couriers, who were sent each year to the Prince Abbot at Fulda

Every year in autumn a courier was send from Johannisberg to the Prince Abbot at Fulda with a sample of ripe grapes. The Prince Abbot would then decide about the beginning of the wine harvest. In 1775, however, the courier returned later than usual from Fulda. The reason is not known. But in the meantime the grapes in the vineyards had started to rot. The steward had to harvest the rotting and the non rotting grapes separately. He made wine from both. And surprisingly, the wine from the rotting grapes wasn't bad at all. Quite the contrary in fact. So the rot was called 'noble rot' henceforth and the 'Spätlese was born. In 1858, the first 'Eiswein' was harvested in Johannisberg. Eiswein is made from frozen grapes. The grapes have to be collected very early in the morning before the sun comes up and thaws the grapes again. As one can easily imagine only small quantities are made each year and sometimes none at all if the weather is too warm. It is very expensive and tastes like pure honey. Quite nice for dessert, once a year.

Posted by Mausi at 06:47 AM | TrackBack

June 21, 2007

The BREMEN revisited

Last year Mausi was fortunate enough to be sent to Helsinki to attend a conference. June is a perfect time of the year to visit this town with lots of sunshine and apparently never ending days. On the last day before setting off for the airport Mausi and some of her colleagues went on a harbour cruise. An unforgettable experience! There were lots of interesting ships to be seen. Among them was the German frigate Bremen.

The Frigate BREMEN in Helsinki, 2006

Mausi has already posted photos of her on July 8, 2006, wondering how a ship like that could make room for a crew of about 200.Sometime this year Mausi and the Gray Monk received a comment from Andreas, one of the crew members of the Bremen. He sent the pictures published in this post. He also explained how 200 seamen could find a place to sleep on the Bremen:

There are four beds on top of each other - a total of 12 in each cabin.

It looks crowded but Mausi bets it's a lot better than having to sleep in hammocks on a gundeck neatly stacked head to feet as the crew on the Victory had to do in the 19th century because there was not enough space to sleep shoulder by shoulder!

The last photo was taken at Wilhelmshaven, the homebase of the Bremen. She had to take a new diesel on board for her electric power supply.

Exchanging a bit of machinery

Mausi and the Gray Monk wish the Bremen and her crew all the best wherever she sails und immer eine Handbreit Wasser unterm Kiel!

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June 16, 2007

Traces of the Benedictines

The Rheingau area is famous for its vineyards streching up the hills on both sides of the river Rhine. The view from some of these hills is quite spectacular.

View of the Rhine valley from the top of Johannisberg (Mountain of St John).

The first vines were brought to this area by the Romans and obviously developed very well. For almost 2000 years now this area has been farmed and cultivated by its inhabitants. Much of this is undoubtedly due to the monasteries that were founded here. Johannisberg was the first monastry in the Rheingau and the only Benedictine one. There's a Benedictine nunnery, though, a bit further down the river which was founded by the famous Hildegard von Bingen.

In 1130 the church of the monastry was consecrated. Its patron is St John the Baptist. The monastry prospered until the Peasant Wars in the 16th century. After the wars the last abbot was removed from its post by the Archbishop and the monastry dissolved. Its church became the parish church.In 1716 the monastry was bought by the prince abbot of Fulda. The monastry was torn down and a castle build instead which served as a summer residence.

Schloss Johannisberg and the church, the only part of the monastry that has survived until today

Along with the building of the castle went a redecoration of the church. Originally being build in the style of a Roman basilica the outside was left untouched but the interior was redone in the baroque style between 1717 and 1726. I am not sure I would have liked it. You don't expect Baroque when you enter a Roman building.

Present interior of the church

In 1942 church and castle were heavily damaged during an air raid. Everything combustible in the church burnt but the outer walls could be salvaged. Reconstruction work started in 1945. The architect in charge wanted to preserve the orignal character of the building while at the same time giving the interior a more modern appearance. He also wanted to bring more light into the church, hence the white washed walls and pillars. It is a pity that the original coloured floor tiles from medieval times were lost over the years. Today's stone floor is no substitute! But otherwise the interior fits a Roman basilica very well.In my opinion.

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June 11, 2007

A walk along the river

Mausi's not fortunate enough to live somewhere near the seaside but at least she lives in resonable distance to a proper river, the river Rhine. Near Mausi's home the Rhine flows through an area called the Rheingau, one of the most beautiful along the whole river. It consists mostly of hilly vineyards close to the river and more hills and forests farther away. Very beautiful.

The biggest city in this area is the town of Eltville on the banks of the Rhine.It is well known for its wine and for its roses.

Always a pleasure to stroll along the Rhine in Eltville. The river can just been seen in the middle of this photograph, right behind the trees.

Mausi always enjoys visiting Eltville in late spring or early summer and check on the famous roses herself. A fine collection is kept in the "Kurfürstliche Burg" (Castle of the electoral prince).

Entrance to the "Kurfürstliche Burg", the symbol of Eltville

The present castle was build at the site of an older one which was destroyed in 1301. When the Archbishop of Trier, Balduin of Luxemburg, was elected.Archbishop of Mainz, he needed a new residence. Eltville obviously was a perfect spot, not too far from Mainz, which is almost opposite on the other side of the Rhine. Balduin had the new castle build from 1330 to 1345. Some additions followed in 1419. Then the Swedes came and reduced it to a pile of rubble in 1635 during the 30 year war. The castle was partly rebuild in 1682. What was still left of the castle underwent restauration in 1938.

There is still enough left to enjoy a visit there, walking among the roses in which now grow in the former ramparts of the castle. The walls give them perfect shelter.

Roses in abundance

This year, however, Mausi was a bit late in the year. Most of the roses were already past their bloom. But still a good sight on a sunny day and well worth a visit.

Posted by Mausi at 08:03 AM | TrackBack

June 01, 2007

Back to the future

Last holiday weekend, my wife and I went to Scotland to visit family in Dumfries. It was a chance to catch up with everyone, and also to bathe in nostalgia. Since I’m now nearer the century than my birth day, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the past, as well as looking forward to the future. I’ve also discovered I’m a natural conservative, and I abhor change for changes’ sake. However, some things are almost timeless, and I would like to share with you my experience when visiting a haunt of my youth.

On Bank Holiday Monday I decided to go fishing on Lochrutton loch, about 5 miles from Dumfries. The small village of Lochfoot nestles along the northern shore.

The village of Lochfoot seen across the Loch.

This a large, windswept and relatively shallow lowland loch, probably formed at the end of the last Ice Age. It has a very interesting feature – a crannog. Crannogs are a type of ancient loch-dwelling found throughout Scotland and Ireland, while one has been discovered in Wales in Llangorse Lake. Most are circular structures that seem to have been built as individual homes to accommodate extended families. Other types of loch settlements are also found in Scandinavian countries and throughout Europe.

Seen in 2006, the crannog is barely above the water.

Crannogs are also known as artificial or modified natural islands and they were as much a product of their environment as the period in which they were constructed. The one in the middle of Lochrutton appears to have been last occupied in the 13th century. For further information see:
Lochrutton Crannog

Last year when I visited, all I could see were some trees sticking out of the water. This year the crannog was more visible, due to a drop in water level.

The Crannog as seen this year, with the stony structure revealed.

I got to wondering who lived there, and what sort of life did they lead? I also got to reflect on my agnosticism, which came about after my father’s early death in 1969. It was after this traumatic period that I was given an old fishing rod and reel, with the purpose of giving me an interest, and probably to keep me out of mischief – I was 13 at the time! One of the first fish I caught was a wee perch from Lochrutton, and I spent many a happy day fishing there in my school holidays and weekends, after cycling all the way there. I am so grateful I was given this opportunity, as it has lasted a lifetime (apart from a small break of about 10 years due to getting married and raising a family!). It has helped me to find serenity and peace of mind through life’s troubles, much the same as many readers of the Monk find comfort in God and Church.

I used to attend church before my father’s death, but since then I have gained solace and serenity from Mother Nature, who embraces me every time I wet a line. As I sat under my brolly (well, it was a Bank Holiday and I was in Scotland!) to shelter from the wind and showers, I was aware of the swallows with their beautiful aerial dancing displays as they dived to the loch’s surface in search of insects. I also caught a hard-fighting pike of around 8lbs. Small, but perfectly formed, I slipped him back to his environment after unhooking him. He sulked in the margins for ages before moving off to wherever he lived. He lives as his ancestors have done for millions of years. As I looked up at the sky, with its mixture of large rain clouds and blue sunny patches, I even had a conversation with my Grandmother. She passed away many years ago, but I cannot believe that all the love that she had within her simply disappeared into the earth when she was buried. My understanding of science is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Love is a type of energy in my opinion, so what happens to it when we die? It’s got to be eternal, hasn’t it?

What is the point I am making here? Well, I mentioned my agnosticism earlier. Have I replaced the God I thought I believed in with something else? I believe I have, through Mother Nature. I have no doubt that there are great forces at work in this universe. Those same forces formed the environment I am so enthralled with. The loch was there 800 years ago when the crannog-dwellers were alive. There may even have been people living on it long before that thousands of years ago. It will still be there 1000 years from now, barring some dire global catastrophe. Even though I was wallowing in nostalgia, I realized that in the future, someone else will be enjoying the experience I was having too.

On a final note, my experience was marred by the presence of litter all around the area I was fishing. This is despite the local Community Council threatening to ban fishing if it continues. Most anglers cherish their environment, but sadly, the morons who leave it behind don’t give a fig about anyone else, so what do we do? I did pick up some, but not all of it, as I had to carry a lot of gear back to my van. I hope that you have enjoyed my story and may your God go with you.

Slim Jim

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:36 PM | TrackBack

May 23, 2007

Little ship, large achievements

Tucked away in St Mary Overy dock, adjacent to Southwark Cathedral, is a replica of Sir Francis Drake's flagship on his epic voyage around the world 1577 to 1580. She is an exact replica in all her dimensions and when you see her you are compelled to wonder what manner of men would risk their very lives sailing her along the route they did. Even more interesting is the fact the Drake sailed north as far, possibly, as the island chain leading to the Bering Straits in an attempt to find a passge home across the top of the continent. When he was driven south again, he carried out repairs to his ship somewhere in the vicinity of modern San Francisco before setting off across the Pacific. He had captured so much treasure that he had no choice but to jettison his normal ballast (and cannon balls according to some accounts) and had the ship ballasted with the treasure. It is said that Queen Elizabeth the First received £6 million worth of treasure, having allowed Sir Francis to quietly remove his share before her commissioners (Tax Collectors) arrived. It is also said that his share was almost £1.5 million - in those days!

The replica Golden Hind sits afloat in her dock at St Mary Overy in London.

No wonder the Spanish King was a little upset with him. In fact the circumnavigation was a necessity as the Spanish had a fleet out looking for him in the South Atlantic and to prevent his return via the Cape Horn route.

The ship herself is very small, only ninety feet overall and the "Admiral's" cabin is certainly not on the scale of Nelson's quarters on HMS Victory, being in part shared with his other officers. Only the Master had a tiny cabin on the poop aft of the helmsman's position. The crew, again reputedly around 80 men and boys, slept and lived wherever they could find space, generally under the forecastle or - in really cold climates - in the hold itself.

One feature of these ships which we would find very difficult to deal with is the smell. Elizabethan sailors were required, under the Queen's Regulations for Ships being in fashion of War upon the Sea, was that half hogsheads had to be lashed to the gunwales and kept full of urine. Canvas "beaters" had to be kept near these to allow the crew to use them, soaked first in the urine, to extinguish any fire. With no toilet facilities it was common for the crew to use the bilges in bad weather for all other waste disposal. More than enough said!

The achievement in sailing a ship like this around the world, going the "wrong" way round Cape Horn is nothing short of Herculean. The prevailing winds and currents make it much easier to sail from West to East around the Horn, going the other way is simply asking for trouble. To do so in a single ship in the face of enemy ship's hostile locals and without a single friendly port to take refuge in in a crisis speaks of men of remarkable endurance and courage.

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May 05, 2007

Iron and Steel

Last week Mausi and about 30 of her colleagues had a day off and went to the Saarland, the smallest of the German federal States, to learn more about iron and steel works. Their destination was 'Saarstahl', a company that produces a variety of different steels, as for example one for the Ariane rockets. Until 1986 they also produced the iron they needed for the steel. The iron works have since been turned into a museum and it has even become a part of the UNESCO world cultural heritage. Mausi and her group were given a guided tour and spent a fascinating two and a half hours around and on top one of the giant blast funrnaces.

One of the blast furnaces, hidden behind the chimney

The blast furnaces were used to continuously produced pig iron which was then transformed into steel in another part of the factory. This kind of labour must have been incredibly hard even in the 20th century. The furnace was stoked with alternate layers of ore and coke. Preheated air was blown into the lower part of the furnace. While the ore was melted and travelled downwards, then preheated air travelled upwards, burnt the coke to carbon onoxide which in turn reduced the iron ores to metallic iron. The whole process is of course much more complex but this very simplified description shall do here. The ore was transported to the top of the furnaced on a sort of conveyor belt construction which can be seen on the left side of the photograph above. Tubs, each filled with one ton of ore,
would travel up that construction.

Two of the reddish brown tubs can just be seen inside the steel construction

Sometimes, the chemical process inside the blast furnace would not go according to plan and residues would form would form a big lump which attached itself to the brickwork inside the furnace. Such a lump which could weigh several hundred kilos was called a 'bear'. And it had to be killed! For this purpose restoking was temporarily stopped so that the filling sank below the point where the bear had attached itself to the wall. Then 3 m of sand were added to offer a minimum of heat protection because several workers had to enter the furnace and locate the exact spot where the bear was hiding!

The manhole through which the workers had to enter the furnace

Temperatures were still around 1000 Centigrade or more and maximum exposure time was 90 seconds for each worker. It is impossible to imagine what they must have gone through inside the furnace. Our guide said he had to do it once 40 years ago and the experience is still giving him nightmares. I can well believe that. Once the bear
was located, holes were drilled into the furnace from outside and the bear was killed with small amounts of TNT. Depending on the size of the bear the number of holes could come up to 70. Afterwards a bigger hole was cut into the furnace to rebuilt the inner brickwork and then the hole was closed again. We saw several of those marks on
the furnace.

From a certain height downwards the furnace was cooled by a thin film of water running down on its outside. The water would also wash down dust that had settled on the surface. The resulting mud would collect in the pans that can be seen on the photo below.

Pans to collect the mud that is washed down with the water

Each furnace had about 3000 of these pans. They had to be emptied continously by two people working on each shift. The pans were emptied into buckets, the full buckets had to be carried down by hand and the empty buckets up again by hand. Apparently there was no possibility to use a rope or something to lower and lift the buckets. You certainly build up muscles climbing up and down the furnace all day and night.

From the 1960's to 1986 the place must have been humming with activity. At peak times about 17000 people worked there. Each had only access to a very restricted part of the plant. Nothing was dreaded more than industrial spionage. Only now that the iron works have become a cultural heritage are the former workmen allowed to see and visit the rest of their plant.

Nature is alredy trying to take over

Part of the original iron works have already been turned into a museum. But there is still much left to be done. Nature is already trying to take over. But even as it is now it is a fascinating place and if you have the opportunity to visit the 'Völklinger Hütte' you should do so by all means.

Posted by Mausi at 11:25 AM | TrackBack

April 25, 2007

Old Sarum

Mausi and the Monk have been exploring a bit of the South of England. Taking a scenic route they stopped at a place called Old Sarum. Fascinating site, indeed. On a hill near Salisbury with a commanding view over the
surrounding landscape traces of settlements from the Iron Age to Medieval times were found. Standing on this hill you easily understand why the first people to come here choose the hill to build a massive Iron Age fortification on top. The precise date is unknown but it may well have been around 400 BC. This ancient hillfort was protected by an outer and an inner rampart. The outer rampart encloses 29 acres, quite a big site. Iron Age hillforts served many purposes such as acting as markets, storehouses, religious sites and last but not least as protective enclosures into which the local population and their livestock could retreat in times of danger.

In 43 AD the Romans came along and occupied the top of the hill until the early fourth century. During the Roman period Old Sarum starts to appear in documents as Sorviodunum. Three Roman roads from the north and east
converged at the hillfort. It must therefore have been quite a busy place with Roman settlements outside the ramparts.

In 1070 William the Conqueror decided to build a royal castle in this spot, the ruins of which can still be seen on the hilltop.

Ruins of William the Conqueror's royal castle with the remains of the mighty keep in the background to the left

For this purpose he very cleverly divided the old hillfort in two. An inner set of fortifications protected the castle itself, a complex of towers, halls and apartments. This was surrounded by a huge outer enclosure or bailey. This was also home to a small cathedral. Unfortunately, it was heavily damaged by a severe thunderstorm on 10 April 1092, only five days after its consecration. But under Old Sarum's most influential bishop, Roger, both castle and cathedral were rebuilt and added to in the beginning of the 12th century.

Layout of the first and the rebuilt cathedral of Old Sarum

Despite all these efforts neither cathedral nor castle were occupied for long. In 1220 the cathedral moved down into the valley below and is now known as Salisbury Cathedral. Apparently only a handful of people continued
to live within the castle until about 1400.

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April 22, 2007

Watch where you are going

For every visitor to Dublin Christ Church Cathedral is definitely a must.It was built between 1173 and 1220 and heavily altered in 1875.

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Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

What struck Mausi most inside the cathedral - apart from its graceful proportions, the beautiful windows, and the crypt - were the beautiful tiles on the floor.Being used to flagstones and marble in German and Italian churches and cathedrals Mausi saw tiles like these for the first time in Tewkesbury Abbey. The ones in Christ Church Cathedral have probably come from the same source.

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Floor tiles in Christ Church Cathedral - warm colours and intricate patterns

One of the most beautiful bit was this cicular arrangement of tiles. The outer circle shows the 'beggar foxes', foxes disguised as beggars.

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Beggar Foxes on the floor tiles

The Monk thought the Beggar Foxes were unique to Ireland but Mausi knows they are not: she has already seen a little statue of one of them in a small town called Michelstadt in the heart of the Odenwald in Germany. Doesn't need much imagination to see them travelling all over Europe in the Middle Ages, does it?

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March 15, 2007

Ernst August II

Just in case you have wondered - Mausi has not expired, she's just buried under a huge workload at the moment. With the Easter hols approaching rapidly more and more things get heaped onto her desk. Like this business trip to Hannover a few days ago. It wasn't as bad as anticipated, the business part went smoothly in the morning and Mausi had a few minutes to sit outside beautiful Hannover Central Station in the warm spring sunshine enjoying the almost Mediterranean atmosphere of the street cafes all around her and renewing her aquaintance with Ernst August II, Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, Duke of Cumberland and King of Hanover (since 1837).

This equestrian statue was given to Ernst August by his people

Ernst August II was born in London in 1771 as a son of King George III of Great Britain and Ireland. He lived at a time when the Germany we know today was still an assortment of various little kingdoms. Mind you, with our 16 Federal States and the behaviour of the 16 Ministerpräsidenten (Heads of these states) I sometimes think not much has really changed. In 1837 Ernst August abolished the Constitution of Hanover which at that time was only four years old and became king.

The abolition of the Constitution was strongly opposed by seven professors from Göttingen University known as the "Göttinger Sieben" (The Seven of Göttingen). Ernst August simply dismissed them from their posts. Apparently life was a lot simpler in those days. All the same these professors and their "outrageous" behaviour as well as their apologias contributed decisively to the development of liberalism in Germany.

Ernst August died in 1851 in Hannover. He was probably not such a bad King after all.

Posted by Mausi at 08:59 PM | TrackBack

March 11, 2007

Interesting link

I have just discovered that one of my posts has been linked by a Danish blogger - Uriasposten - in a recent post he has put up on the ongoing controversy over the famour "Prophet Cartoons". It never fails to amaze me how wide the readership of blogs is and I regularly check my meter to see where I have had visitors from. I think, as far as I can tell, that this is the first time I have been linked by a non-English language blog. Quite an achievement I think, its just a pity that I have no Danish at all.

Mausi has some and she has managed to translate enough to identify that the Danish author thought that I had put together a thoughful and reasoned piece on the subject. Flattering to say the least. The relevant part of the link is to be found in Comments at number 49 and again in number 51. My own post is titled "And so it begins ..."

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 27, 2007

The Old Naval Cemetry at Port Royal

When I visit countries like Jamaica I find myself torn between a desire to respect their desire to turn their backs on the past, particularly when it is as painful as the slavery issue, and a need to show respect to those who helped shape the future. Near Port Royal I found something however, that moved me to tears of rage! Not necessarily against the Jamaicans themselves, but against my own government. It was the Old Naval Cemetry.

This sign is about the only thing that shows there is a cemetry here in which lie the remains of the men who stopped the slave trade, defended the island and kept the peace in these waters.

In this sandy and overgrown enclosure, lie the remains of the men who gave their lives expelling the Henry Morgans from these waters, who protected the trade for the wealthy of Europe and Britain, who suppressed the slave trade and kept the seas free for the law abiding to go about their business. They performed feats of seamanship in saving lives and in protecting their country and the ideals of their rulers - and these photographs show all too graphically how we show them our thanks.

The overgrown cemetry - many graves unmarked, the markers having decayed, collapsed, or in some cases defaced or stolen.

Jamaica is a place where Malaria (Yellow Jack) is endemic, and huge numbers of the seamen who lie neglected in these graves died of it in the days before the means to control it and treat it were discovered. Yes, many possibly hoped to return home rich enough to lift their own families out of poverty, but they were rendering a service to their nation in so doing.

Successive government's can spend vast sums of tax payers money lining their own pockets, providing for the comforts of themselves and their cronies, but they cannot, it seems, provide a paltry sum to have this cemetry cleared, restored and attended to honour our dead. If there is a monument to the ignorance, stupidity and cupidity of our present generation - this is it!
One of a pair of cenotaphs to the dead of HMS Goshawk, lost with almost all hands during a storm on these shores. The second cenotaph has had it's anchor stolen.

The Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, says; "And some there be that have no memorial. They have vanished away as if they had never been, and their children after them." These men have a memorial - their legacy is far greater than Blair's, Thatchers's or any of their predecessors. For it is by their efforts that we enjoyed the peace of the Pax Britannica, it is by their efforts that we live in a supposedly free and democratic society and not one dominated by dictators. We owe them some respect.

Anyone care to join me in a campaign to get this cemetry cleaned up? It is the very least we can do for the men who lie there!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:34 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 26, 2007

Historic Jamaica

The oldest part of the English settlement on Jamaica is Port Royal which lies at the end of the long sandspit that forms the protective break water enclosing Kingston Harbour. Port Rpyal has a long a violent history, having been first established as a base for pirates and slave traders following the displacement of the Spanish. Captain Henry Morgan was based here, one of the most violent and unpleasant characters one could wish to meet (or NOT meet for preference.). Having read a little about the man and his activities there is little doubt in my mind that he fits the classic profile of a psychopath. One substantiated story concerning the behaviour of the men who built this place recounts how a group had observed a woman in the last stages of pregnancy from their favourite drinking den and made a bet as to which sex the child she was carrying would be at birth. Not prepared to wait for nature to provide the answer, one of the number drew his sword and cut her open in the street to find out.

It is probably small wonder, with genetic material like that in the population, that violence is endemic.

The plan of Port Royal as it was in its heyday around 1690. A violent earthquake a few years later saw the whole of the waterfront along the lower side of this plan (the North) sink into the sea.

The settlement was protected by fortifications from assault from the sea and from the land. Fort Charles, the largest of these and the Headquarters of the garrison still remains, its bastions now some distance from the waterfront on the Southern and seaward side. Once the pirates and their supporters were dislodged from the area following the earthquake, the Royal Navy took ovver and established a base here. Sadly many of the original buildings that would have been familiar to Rodney, Hawke and many other famous seamen (and many more not so famous!) are now being allowed to fall apart even though some of them are still in use by the Jamaican Coastguard.

A model of Fort Charles as it was in the early 1700's.

While Fort Charles is the only one of the three forts that is preserved, the ruins of the one that guarded the land approach are still visible on the seaward side of the road approaching the town. The town itself has shrunk as evidenced by reference to the plan shown here and the fact that the Land Guard fort is now some distance from the remaining settlement.

The outer wall of the Western Bastion of Fort Charles. This was once on the sea's edge.

There are signs that something is being done to preserve their heritage - and it is as much the heritage of the modern Jamaicans as it is ours - and some of the buildings that are still saveable are apparently being preserved. The Coastguard has just taken delivery of three very modern and fast strike craft to be used against the drug and gun runners who infest these waters and it is to be hoped that they will make a difference.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:05 AM | TrackBack

February 21, 2007

Colonial splendour

At the heart of Spanish Town, to the West of Kingston and in the foothills of the mountains which encircle Kingston harbour, stands this gem of the Colonial past. The two wings are linked by the open colonade which is known as the "Rodney Colonade" and which commemorates Admiral Lord Rodney, the victor of the Battle of the Saints in 1782. This was the one really successful naval battle of the American campaigns and a French Force under Admiral de Grasse was soundly defeated - too late to prevent the loss of the American Colonies.

The Colonade in memory of Admiral Lord Rodney and his defeat of the French Fleet at the Battle of the Saints or Isles des Saintes.

A detail of one of the bas relief panels on the colonade.

Admiral Rodney was the Commander in Chief, West Indies Fleet for much of the War of Independence, although his attention was focussed, perforce, on the hostile fleets of the French and Dutch in the Caribbean. This resulted in his leaving the activities along the American seaboard to subordinates, some of who where decidedly unproductive! The CinC had several bases to draw on, Bermuda being one used for activities and patrols along the American coast. Jamaica provided a useful base from which to watch the French in Martinique, the Spanish in Cuba and Dominica and the Dutch further South. Admiral Rodney was followed as CinC here by Admiral Sir John Jervis, later to become Lord St Vincent after his defeat of the Spanish and French Fleets in the Battle of Cape St Vincent at which a certain Captain named Horatio Nelson distinguished himself.

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February 16, 2007

Little colonial gem

The former Colonial Administrative Capital of Jamaica lies in Spanish Town. Unfortunately very little survives in good repair, the former government buildings in the main square stand as a lonely testament to the neglect that the colonial heritage has suffered since the independence of the island in 1962. Two of the squares buildings stand as empty shells, gutted by fire at some time and evidently not considered worth restoring then, and now there is no money for such work. Outside the central square stands St Jago's Cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Jamaica. Built originally in the early 1700's, St Jago's was restored by the Victorians and is a fine example of a large brick structure. It is home to a fine organ installed in 1849 and 'modernised' in 1953 with a free standing Walker console.

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The Chancel and Sanctuary of St Jago's Cathedral, Spanish Town, Jamaica.

The chior and the organ are situated at the back of the Cathedral on a large gallery and accessed by a grand staircase set to one side. This gallery also provides a place for the chior vestry which is tucked in beneath the main body of the organ itself.

The magnificent organ in St Jago. The Walker Console can be seen at the front of the gallery.

Worshipping here was an experience in itself, it is a long time since I last heard a sermon lasting over an hour and the Sung Eucharist itself lasted two and half in total. That said it was a rewarding and enriching experience to share with the large congregation. Certainly one of the memories I will cherish of Jamaica.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:47 PM | TrackBack

February 12, 2007

Master's of flight - Buccaneers of the skies!

One of the most beautiful birds in the Caribbean - at least in terms of flight - is the Frigate Bird. These graceful birds drift about the skies, following ships, boats and anything else that may turn up a meal. They are birds I have read about in numerous books and they are always described as graceful and effortless fliers. They are also frequently described as the signal that the Tropics and the West Indies in particular are near, not surprising since they are natives to these parts. What is surprising is that they cannot fish for themselves, simply put, they cannot get into the water.

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A pair of Frigate Birds soar above Downtown Kingston near the water front.

The reason is quite simple; their feathers lack the oils which would waterproof them and, if they land in the water, they are in trouble. That said, they can and do scoop smaller fish from the surface, one reason they follow ships is because the passage of a ship - and the rubbish sometimes dumped by them - attracts fish to the surface where the Frigate Birds can get at them. However, they are much more adept at stealing fish from other birds. Pelicans, Cormorants and even the ubiquitous gulls are no match for these sky pirates. They will even rob each other to get food, true "Buccaneers of the Caribbean".

They are quite large birds with a very large wingspan and a long tail which, opens out into a classic swallowtail and to watch them gliding effortlessly on the air currents is pure magic. They appear to be of the Albatross family - my ornithological references are a bit thin on that aspect - with a long narrow and jointed wing, long beak and head and narrow body. They land only to breed and raise the chicks and then take to the air again spending almost all their lives aloft. Buccaneers they may well be, but they have a grace and a presence that gives them a magic that makes one indulge their depredations on their fellow sea birds.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:22 PM | TrackBack

February 06, 2007

Food from Cotton?

I bet that idea never crossed your mind. I certainly didn't know that a cotton plant could provide you with anything else than wool. But nonetheless this plant seems to hold more potential than meets the eye.

Cotton plants were already used by Egyptians, Babylonians, Indians and the native tribes of Mexico thousands of years ago. Nowadays cotton plants seem to be ubiquitous on all continents except Antartica - of course. In 2004/2005 as much as 26 mio tons of cotton wool were picked and about 40 mio tons of cotton seeds were recovered. For some time now seeds have been pressed to get the cotton seed oil but the residues could only be used as cattle fodder because in contrast to humans cattle is resistant against the cotton plant toxin 'Gossypol'. Gossypol makes the cotton plant resistant against pests.

In the 1950's researchers had already cultivated a variation of cotton wool that was free of Gossypol. Well, the bugs had a field day with that one. Now scientists have created a new cotton plant whose seeds contain less only 2% of the usual amount of Gossypol which makes the seeds edible for humans. The beauty about this creation is that the Gossypol level in the rest of the plant remains unchanged so that it can still fend off hungry insects.

What makes the seeds so attractive as food is that they contain about 20 weight% of proteins. It is estimated that the yearly harvest of 40 mio tons of seeds would be enough to feed about 500 mio people. Another bonus is that as contrary to for example corn the cotton plant is a very hardy one it would be even attractive to small farmers in developing countries.

Ah well, trust the scientists to come up with a brilliant idea now and then. However, I wonder when the universe will strike back and some hidden flaw will emerge from this. On the other hand - you never know, it might even work.

Posted by Mausi at 07:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 01, 2007

Kite-flying cargo ships?

Mausi's been watching a fascinating programme on TV last night. You think the days of sailing ships as commercial transport vessels are over? Wait until you see the invention of two German engineers: cargo ships are pulled through the ocean by big kites called "Skysails"!

The skysail has the form of a paraglider and will be huge - up to three quarters of a soccer field. It is made from new high-tech and ultra light materials and has a little gondola attached to it that contains sensors for measuring wind direction and velocity. Data are transmitted to the autopilot who adjusts the direction and velocity of the ships so that the pulling force of the kite is always at its maximum. The kite is flown in curves in a height of up to 500 metres.

The kite is connected to the ship by a single rope that only branches out farther up. If the kite were operated by two ropes instead of one this would result in the cargo ship leaning to one side as a sailing ship does which would most probably cause the load to slide as well. In heights between 300 to 500 metres winds and breezes are stronger and more reliable than closely to the sea surface so that the kite will always get enough wind to make it tow the ship effectively. Interestingly all the major routes the merchant sailing ships travelled came into existence because those ships could not cross before the wind. And 80% of these routes with their major trading ports still exist. So quite a number of our modern cargo ships should be able to use skysails effectively.

The kite could not tow a cargo ship of up to 100,000 tons all by itself of course. But it could save a considerable amount of fuel, probably up to 50%. In 2004 the biggest container ship was the Hongkong Express who needed 50,000 litres for 100 km (I don't know if that is true but my pocket calculator says that's 9 metres to the gallon). Saving up even 20% of fuel in times like this would be a considerable amount of money saved. Not talking about the cubic metres of carbon and sulphur dioxides the atmosphere will be spared as well.

When will we spot the first skysails? Probably as early as this year. After testing a model (an exact replica of a container ship on the scale of 1:26) on the Baltic sea near Wismar where the waves matched the size of the model the TV programme showed a real cargo ship being towed by a skysail of 80 square metres. It looked great. And with all this modern weather forecasts, GPS and other fancy computer data it should be possible to pull down the kite in time even from several hundred metres height if a storm is coming up.

If you are interested to see the real thing - google Skysails website. There's an English version for you to enjoy.

Posted by Mausi at 09:04 PM | TrackBack

January 28, 2007

A little piece of Imperial Russia in Darmstadt

Mausi has previously posted a picture of this little gem of a chapel, once the summer place of worship of the Russian Czar and Czarina. Icons of the murdered Nicholas II and his Czarina adorn one corner of the chapel internally which is now under restoration internally. Years of neglect and candle soot have dulled the internal decoration quite badly, but a start has been made and the bits that have been treated are looking a lot better than the parts yet to be done.

The external restoration is now complete, but much remains to be done.

The restoration is obviously being done as and when funds are available, it also seems to be very much a labour of love by a very small congregation, none of whom would seem to be that flush in the pocket. It would be nice to hear that they have had a bit of help on some of the internal work they need to complete, it is certainly going to be worth seeing when it is complete. At present the fine Iconostasis is showing its neglect, and several of the more valuable icons have obviously been lost over the years because they have been replaced by photographs, but in its heyday it would have been stunning, and may well be so again!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:36 PM | TrackBack

January 25, 2007

Roman self loading ballista

The Mainz museum of Antique Ships also has this superb recreation of a self loading cross-bow or ballista. Until the Gatling gun came along this must have been about the most devastating semi-automatic weapon in anyone's arsenal. I have no idea what its rate of fire would have been, but I don't think I'd have enjoyed facing one!

The self loading ballista mounted on the Roman Patrol Boat.

A working model that young visitors are encouraged to operate - without the bolts!

As the winch mechanism is turned the bow string is drawn back, and as this passes a predetermined point on its travel, a bolt drops from the 'magazine' above into the guide channel. At the fully wound point, the winch is tripped and the bowstring released, shooting the missile at the target. Looking at it this thing could probably fire six or seven times a minute in trained hands. Probably lethal too against packed groups or ranked enemies. Especially if you've never encountered one before!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:16 PM | TrackBack

January 17, 2007

Frankfurt sights

Visiting Frankfurt proved very interesting, not least for the discovery that the cathedral is built on the site of a second or third century Roman structure. During the restoration of the building in the 1950's, the opportunity was taken to excavate the Western end of the site, which had been built over several times. Some two metres down the remains of the first cathedral came to light and with it, several earlier structures.

Decorated tomb cover of a noble family.JPG
The ornate cover from the tomb of a noble family - possibly relatives of the von Thurn und Taxis family.

In this area one cannot help but feel the long lines of continuity of occupation. Generally the Romans built on sites already in use, and I suspect that this one is no different. Wandering around these streets you cannot but be struck by how familiar and yet unfamiliar everything is. Shops look the same, but the architecture has a strong character all its own and the use of colour on the facades is something unfamiliar to those of us who are used to the English practice of keeping colour subdued.

Bread is another example. In England, unless you are prepared to frequent a speciality bakert - or bake yourself - you simply do not have the same variety of breads and bread like products. There is something special about buying warm Bretzels and eating these with a cup of coffee in an ancient square - with your breath steaming in the cool. (For my American readers - Bretzel = Pretzel, but fresh baked and sold warm and soft!), or wandering along cobbled streets with brightly lit shops on either side and hearing all the variety of languages around you that is modern Europe.

It reminded me too, of the reasons why we should work to find ways to make our latest attempt at working with our cousins in Europe, work.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:47 PM | TrackBack

January 16, 2007

Royal Mailman

Most people who read the international and business news will have come across the name of an exotic sounding lady, Princess von Thurn und Taxis, but how many will know that she is a member of one of the oldest families in Europe, certainly in Germany. This family were responsible for the Emperor's mail services throughout the Holy Roman Empire, set up by Otto the Great. If my history is correct they go back at least to Charlemagne (Charles the Great in English, Karl der Grosse in German). Their family estates centred on Frankfurt which is also the seat of the Electoral College for the Emperors.

Some of us could be excused for thinking that the title of Kaiser is a fairly modern one, associated with the Hohenzollern family from Prussia, but it stretches back to Charlemagne and is the German term for Emperor. More correctly it is associated with the family we think of as the Austrian dynasty, the Hapsburgs. The Kaisers were 'elected' by the Kurfürsts (Electors), seven originally, and later extended to nine. They included the Great Elector, the Elector of Brandenburg, Hannover, the Palatinate, Aachen and one from France. The election of the Kaisers took place in the Chapel of the Electors which is built into the North side of Frankfurt am Main cathedral. The Kaiser was then proclaimed, seated on the Altar in the entrance to the Quire, and the famous "Golden Bull" sets out the process for the election, the manner of the proclamation and the procedure for the crowning.

Decorated tomb Covers Family von Thurn und Taxis.JPG
The elaborate 13th Century tomb stone from the grave of a member of the von Thurn und Taxis family now mounted in the wall of Frankfurt cathedral.

Frankfurt am Main is often seen as a place with not much of interest - thanks largely to the nightly visitations of Lancasters and the daily visits from B-17's - but you would be wrong. The historic core has been beautifully restored, with the ancient Römer Hall, where the newly crowned Kaiser dined attended by the Electors, and the Market Square are all worth the effort. So too are the museums - not least the display of the Golden Bull, probably the worlds first constitutional document. It certainly predates the English equivalent, Magna Carta.

But I digress, the Thurn und Taxis family are certainly a prime example of how those with great wealth and power seem able to hang onto it one way or another. They diversified long before accountants and economists dreamed up the term. Their wealth went into a huge variety of interests, from land, through trade and eventually into industry and commerce. Not bad for a family whose first enterprise was as the Postmaster to the Kaiser. In accepting responsibility for the delivery of the Kaiser's edicts, judgements and business correspondence between his various officials, vassal rulers and Ratshaus officials, they laid the foundations for one of the most enduring fortunes in Europe. It certainly made me think on the subject of "old money" versus "new money" as I looked at the monuments around the cathedral. As I have grown older I have come to recognise two important things about the upper echelons of industry and commerce, the judiciary, the civil service and the elected members of our various parliaments. There is definitely an element of "them and us" and I don't think it is altogether unhealthy - unless it gets to badly skewed one way or another.

Look around at the top people in all the examples I have just given and you find a certain commonality to it. Public school, blue brick university, entree to the step ladder to the board room all seem to be built in - and they are to an extent. If your parents have the money to ensure you have a place at Eton, Harrow, Winchester or Charterhouse to name but a few, you have already got several steps up the ladder. You are intouch with a network that runs on money, rather than position or background - although that certainly helps, a 'cor blimey' accent isn't going to get past the front door. Your parents too, by definition move in circles that give you a head start into the professions and the right pathways to the board room, entrances and pathways not exactly denied to those from the local comprehensive, but certainly a lot harder to crack from that perspective. Part of the problem for the rest of us is that these folk move among equals and the rest of us don't mix in the same category.

The right connections and the doors swing open, old money always survives mainly because they have had years of practice at surviving and making sure their assets are so diversified that you could never get a single hit to destroy them all. Examine the shareholdings of all the Blue Chip companies and you will see what I mean. These are not people who play penny-pinching on the Stock Markets, they own substantial blocks of shares in a wide variety of corporations - and they have solid assets as well to back those up. They don't bank with a bank, they own them, and not just one either, but several.

Standing in front of this tomb cover I could not help reflecting that the great Royal Houses are still with us, the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, they may live quietly and out of the public eye, but they are still a force to be reckoned with. Now they control the assets in multi-nationals, in industry and commerce. Those centuries of breeding taught them how to survive in politics - and international commerce is not that different.

Who says the leopard cannot change his spots? I suspect that if we really look at the "Old Money" families we will find a lineage that stretches back to Ancient Babylon, people who know when to move, to take their tents and their herds and move, before the invading barbarians overrun the place. That is how families like this survive, they adapt and change. Perhaps the rest of us should be a little less envious and a little more willing to adapt ourselves. Who knows, in a thousand or so years someone will look at a tomb stone and say, how have they survived this long and this wealthy, of one of us.

We live and dream I guess!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:35 PM | TrackBack

January 09, 2007

More Roman Ship models

I know, I know, I'm an anorak when it comes to ships! My excuse for the photo below is that it is a pair of beautifully made modesls of two different types of Roman bireme. These ships were the most powerful of their day and surprisingly enough most were not rowed by slaves, but by hired seamen. The discharge papers these guys were handed on leaving military service have survived in a number of forms and several seamen have been accorded the honour of grave markers of quite elaborate design.

Two types of Roman military bireme, the smaller vessel probably designed to get in close and do damage to larger and less manoeuvrable vessels to enable them to be boarded and taken by their larger consorts.

The bireme with its double bank of oars must have been quite an interesting ship to handle one way or another. Certainly the rowing of them would have required a degree of co-ordination and skill, especially in any sort of seaway. An oarsman "catching a crab" in a modern boat is quite bad enough, it can tangle other oars, damage the boat and even, in extreme cases cause a boat to capsize. To do the same in a ship of this size with oars of this size would have caused mayhem! Note that the lower oars have leather sleeves fitted, suggesting that this tier of oars was close enough to the waterline for them to ship water through these openings while on passage.

Apparently the preferred seat for those with experience in these ships was the upper tier. With no toilet facilities I'll leave the why to your imagination!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:22 PM | TrackBack

January 08, 2007

Contrasting life scenes

The Neapolitan crib scene we saw recently in the Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden was a fascinating vignette of Neapolitan life in probably the early 17th Century. The scene is divided into six sections, with a predetermined order in which they are supposed to be arranged. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the central piece of the lower part is the stable scene, but to the viewers left is the scene in the photograph below - the innkeeper and his guests making merry.

The innkeeper and his guests in the inn adjoining the stable/

Above and again on the left of the stable is a scene which can still be recognised today in old Naples - an old man sits on a small verandah prepared to be shaved by the visiting barber, while in the street a group including a man with bagpipes head for a celebration. Quite a contrast between these two scenes of everyday life hard up against the event taking place in the stable next door. But then, that is what it is supposed to point out.

Note the worried look on the man waiting to be shaved!

John 1: 5 - "The light shines in the darkness; but the darkness comprehended it not."

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 07, 2007

Witnesses from the Past

The Monk went home yesterday evening. It's been great fun having him here and visiting places with him where we have not been ourselves for quite some time. Like the Landesmuseum in Darmstadt which among others holds a collection of skeletons found in the famous Messel pit.

The pit is a quarry between Frankfurt/Main and Darmstadt where oil shale was mined from 1869 until 1970. The first fossil, an alligator, was already found in 1875. The greatest problem turned out to be retrieving fossils from the oil shale. As soon as it becomes dry it crumbles easily and destroys the fossils within. In the 1960's, however, a method was developed to transfer the fossils from the oil shale into a bed of synthetic resin thereby preserving them permanently.

The oil shale in the Messel pit was formed by sedimentation in the eocene period about 47 milion years ago inside the explosion funnel of a 300 m deep volcanic lake. The great depth ensured that little turbulence and disturbance occurred at the bottom and this explains the subperb state the skeletons are in. Most fossil sites are happy to find partial skeletons but Messel is famous for its large number and variety of intact skeletons. Particularly so for the early knee-high form of our horses, Hyracotherium,of which more than 70 specimen were found. The other fossils inlcude reptiles, birds, fishes, mammals and even insects. The stag beetle is quite something to look at.

The exhibits in the museum have been arranged in a different and far better way than the one I remembered from my last visit more than 10 years ago. Then it was all in glass cases. Now pains have been taken to show some of the original environment as well and there is even a small excavation site where kids can go hunting for skeletons themselves.

Believe it or not - in the 1970's the Federal State of Hessen wanted to turn the pit into a waste disposal site. Planning went ahead until 1990. By then a broad resistance had formed among the population and the amount of waste had decreased drastically. In the end the waste disposal site plans were abandoned and the pit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site on December 9 in 1995. This should ensure the future of it so that digging can go ahead and hopefully much more of the past life on this planet - long before we arrived - will come to the surface.

Posted by Mausi at 01:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 03, 2007

Roman Navy on the Rhine

In the 1980's a most interesting find was made while a site near the modern bank of the Rhine was being excavated for a new building project in Mainz. Six wooden ships were uncovered buried under centuries of mud. These were in a remarkable state of preservation and archeologists were very excited by their discovery because they were among the best examples of Roman ships yet discovered. Even better was the fact that two turned out to be military vessels, providing a wonderful insight into a type, until then, known only from friezes and funeral ornamentation. These have been reconstructed in full size and now form the centre piece of a museum built near the site on which they were originally discovered. One is a small, lean and very businesslike galley, the other apparently a patrol ship, is slightly broader in the beam, decked and carries the Roman equivalent of a machine gun on her foredeck.

The reconstructed Roman war galley at the museum of Antique Ship Travel in Mainz. Note the slim lines and businesslike bow ram - the Roman equivalent I suspect of a modern Fast Attack Craft!

Among the other vessels that were uncovered, several were obviously for trade and commerce, but the construction is the most interesting feature. These ships are all of them 'carvel' built over stong ribs. That is to say, they are built of planks laid edge to edge and not overlapping as the later Nordic ship's were built. The planks are broad and fastened to the frames with 'clenched' iron nails, making the whole structure very strong. The seams were paid with rope yarn (something which was still being done right up to the time Brunel started the system of building in iron or steel in the 1840's!) and then the hull painted over with a bituminous mix to seal them. The hulls all have a flattened bottom in the waist (the broadest part of the hull) with the bow and stern shaped to provide a clean 'entry' and 'exit' from the water. The two military examples both carry a 'ram' bow, clearly capable of doing considerable damage. Even more interesting is the manner in which they dealt with the very difficult design problem of creating the "turn of the bilge", since a seam along the junction between the ship's bottom and the first strake or plank on the side would invariable 'work' and leak badly. The Roman designers solved it by cutting a plank with a 90 degree bend built in from a single tree trunk. To do this they needed to saw it from the heart of an oak tree trunk that would have been at least 150 yeras old. Tool marks show that they used saws, chisels and adzes to cut the timbers and shape them and some of the joints between planks, particularly where there is a need for strength, are 'chamferred' so that the joint is a long diagonal rather than a vertical seam. Analysis of the galley's hull shape and tests carried out with it, have shown that it could reach speeds of around 28 km/h - a speed quite capable of impaling it into any enemy craft attempting to cross the river!

Broader and heavier than her counter-part, this ship is thought to have been a 'patrol vessel'. The outrigger arrangment for the oars clear the central part of the hull, allowing it to be decked over and giving the crew a sheltered space when not rowing or standing guard watches.

The Roman Naval organisation was impressive, even for a 'Fleet' based entirely on the river. It followed the same pattern as any of the seagoing fleets maintained by the Roman Empire and the command cascade included structures and command ranks we would have no trouble recognising today. An 'Admiralty' sat at the top of the tree, probably in Rome itself, and command then devolved to Fleet Commanders, Squadron Commanders and the commanders of individual ships. Fleets were based in the Black Sea, the Adriatic, the Levantine shore, Alexandria, Tripoli and Southern Gaul. There was one based on the Cinque Ports in the British Isles and the Rhine, with its Commander based at Köln. Each ship had two commander's, the one responsible for the management of the ship itself, the other for the fighting men aboard it and the actual fighting. A Division of Command that again had echoes right into the Middle Ages, being reflected even in Nelson's Navy by the fact that ship's carried a Captain and a "Sailing Master" - the man responsible for the navigation and sail handling originally, but, by Nelson's time, a Warrant Officer whose position was as an assistant to the officers with responsibility for the maintenance of the ship's charts and other navigational equipment as well as to ensure that the navigation was carried out correctly.

It seems these ships survived because they were abandoned, probably deliberately damaged, after the 'Catastrophe on the Rhine' in 406AD when Germanic tribes swept across the frozen Rhine and stormed several Colonia, over running them. At that time the Rhine was the border to the Empire, and once it had been penetrated it rapidly crumbled, the Roman's withdrawing progressively south from there on in. The soon forgotten ships sinking into their mud berths to be preserved and rediscovered some 1,600 years later. I suppose that, in some ways, the 'Catastrophe' has provided us with some truly remarkable examples of Roman ships, beautifully adapted and built for the protection of the river and an even more remarkable insight into how they were built.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:14 AM | TrackBack

December 29, 2006

A lesson in European History

Spent a fascinating day yesterday in the company of Mausi and her husband, exploring the city of Frankfurt am Main. I certainly had not realized that this city was, for several centuries, the Imperial heart of the Holy Roman Empire, the Emperor, or Kaiser, being elected here in the Chapel of the Electors which is situated alongside the Dom Cathedral in the ancient heart of the city. It was here too that the Kaisers were crowned in an acient ritual whose nearest parallel is the making and enthronement of an Archbishop.

The Carolingian Emperors came to an end in 1806 and the city became a "Free City" briefly, but saw a revival of its fortunes briefly during 1848-49 when a special parliament was held here to try to create a constitution based on universal suffrage. The Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, however, had other plans, and the city saw the rise of the Hohernzollern family to the the status of Emperors in the Second Reich, which, even at its height could not match the extent of that founded by Charlemagne or Karl der Große as he is titled here.

A fascinating document preserved in the museum here - the "Golden Bull" of Charles IV (Karl IV) which is, in effect, a pact between the Kaiser and the individual states he is overlord too. It sets out the manner in which the Kaiser is to be elected and the procedure for his annointing, crowning and enthronement and a great deal on what he may impose and what he may not impose upon his "vassals" who are, in fact, also his electorate!

Amazing how little we know about the history of so much that is right on the doorstep. If only the Iron Chancellor's plans and those of the Paulkirche parliament had been able to combine, I rather think the history of much of the twentieth century would have been a very different story. But that, as they asy, is history!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:07 AM | TrackBack

December 21, 2006

Immaculate conception

OK, OK, so this is a sensitive subject to some people, but the news is full of the fact that we are expecting a "virgin" birth - in a zoo. It has been known for some time, in fact is written up scientifically, that reptiles and avians don't share the mammilian Y-chromosome. The sex of any hatchling is apparently determined by the temperature during incubation but we don't (at least I haven't seen it anywhere) fully understand the mechanism that produces this. Then there are chickens. A problem for the Battery Hen farmers is the spontaneous appearance among a couple of hundred hens of a Cock Bird. The result is chaos as the battery eggs are supposed to be unfertilised - introduce a cockerell and suddenly the eggs are doing things they should not commercially. The scientists have been working on this one for some time and still haven't full unraveled how a hen chick can change sex when the need or the occassion arises!

The excitement in our press at the moment is over the coming "virgin" birth (hatching out) of a clutch of eggs laid by a Komodo Dragon, nearest male several hundred miles distant! It appears that the Dragon's eggs are fertilised and it is equally the case that she has not had the opportunity to meet up with a Mister Dragon ....

All joking aside, there is a scientific name for this and it is something that has been recorded and documented in other species, but was thought to be a rare and otherwise unusual event. Now it seems, since the Zoos in the UK have now had several of these "events" in the last year, it may not be so unusual after all - in fact, it may well be that, in some species, males may not be necessary in the reproductive role! This probably bodes no good for the future of mamilian males either .....

Again, and trying to be serious for a moment, it has been noted that the modern "Y" Chromosome is seriously different to that carried by our original Homo Sapiens. In fact this is the case in all mammals, the Y-Chromosome is rapidly (give or take another couple of hundred generations) being reduced to a shadow of its original size, shape and function. This may explain why males are more susceptible to certain cancers and some genetic diseases. Males only have one set of genetic data to copy from - and its all on the X-Chromosome. Females, having two X's have two sets of data to copy in the genetic code and thus may carry, but not suffer from, a range of genetic disorders because some mechanism we don't yet understand seems to switch off a defective gene and switch on a good one from the other chromosome.

Perhaps the concept of virgin births in humans is not beyond the realms of possibility - in the far future it may well have become the norm. For now? I think the traditional approach is with us for some time to come. As for the Komodo Mum to be, I hope her offspring prove scientifically as interesting as their species is - after all, this seems to me at any rate to be an interesting example of a species that has the ability to pull itself back from the brink and it may be important for us to know how - the knowledge may be useful to our species one of these days!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:12 PM | TrackBack

December 11, 2006

A permanent presence on the moon?

The recent announcement that NASA would like to establish a permanent base on the surface of the moon is exciting news, not least because it is one of the first steps to the stars. A permanent base there would be the staging post for longer voyages of discovery and, as the lunar gravity is about a sixth that of the earth, it would also be much easier to launch a whole range of probes and even manned exploration ships from there than it is from the earth.

Truth is often stranger than fiction and Asimov, Heinlien and Clarke, the greats of the Sci-fi genre, have long postulated having a base there. Once that is established, voyages to Mars and the moons of Jupiter become much more manageable. What I do find interesting is that NASA's proposed station sounds remarkablky like something Asimov described in the 60's. Hardly surprising really since he was a scientist himself. I look forward to the establishment of this station, I just hope I am around to see its being built. Let's hope too that our politicians can keep their fingers out of it and that the scientists can keep the accountants from cheeseparing the budgets for it to nothing.

It seems to me that the three things most likely to wreck this project are, in order; accountants, bureaucrats and politicians. And the greatest threat is probably the accountants!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:08 PM | TrackBack

November 23, 2006

Carbon Nanotubes and Ancient Sabres

Up until the 1980's the chemical element carbon was known to chemists in only two modifications: graphite and diamond. Those two could not be more different: graphite is a good conductor of electricity, diamond of heat. Graphite is black and opaque, a diamond usually transparent and so forth. In the 1980's another modification of carbon was detected: the fullerenes, spherical molecules of carbon atoms that are arranged in five- and sixmembered rings. They always consist of 12 pentagons and (n/2 - 10) hexagons where n is the number of carbon atoms. The most famous is C60 which looks exactly like the European soccer balls we had before the last Soccer World Cup. If you take one and count the edges, pentagons and hexagons you'll know what I mean.

The fullerenes where first artificially generated in laboratory experiments and then found to be combustion products in hydrocarbon/oxygen flames, although in very low concentrations. A few years later the nanotubes were detected. They consist only of 'sheets' of hexagons (no pentagons) which are rolled up to form molecular tubes. They have surprising properties and are still very much under research.

Now scientists have found nanotubes from the 17th century! In the blade of an ancient Damascus sabre. Damascus sabres of that time had extraordinary mechanical properties which were not known in their European couterparts and very sharp cutting edges. The process of making Damascus steel was apparently a very complex one and sadly the secret has been lost over by the end of the 18th centuries. The basic ingredients are believed to be small cakes of steel, named 'wootz', which were produced in ancient India.

Other necessary additions to the steel cakes are small quantities of the elements vanadium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel and carbon to improve its mechanical properties. It is still unknown how exactly the medieval blacksmiths overcame the inherent brittleness of plates of cementite (iron carbide) that forms in steel with a carbon content of 1-2 wt%. With the help of a high resolution transmission microscope German scientists have found that the Damascus sabre they examined contained cementite nanowires and carbon nanotubes. Fancy, blacksmiths creating nanotubes more than four hundred years ago!

The hypothesis is that the thermal cycling and cyclic forging process eventually caused the catalytic elements present to segregate and thereby enable the carbon nanotubes to form. The nanotubes in turn might have initiated the growth of the cementite nanowires. Cementite nanowires are very probably the cause of the characteristic surface pattern of Damascene sabres and knifes. What role exactly nanowires and nanotubes play regarding the mechanical properties and sharpness of the sabres still awaits further research.

The things Nature thinks up - never ending fascination, isn't it?

Posted by Mausi at 09:06 PM | TrackBack

November 11, 2006

The Fifth Season

Today, at 11.11 a.m. the Fifth Season started in Germany. It is the official beginning of the Carnival season. The highlights of this season are still far away - they will mark the end of Lent next year and consist of parades, marches and public sessions of carnival clubs. The most famous parade in Germany is the one on Rose Monday in Cologne.

The origin of the carnival season reamains a bit of a mystery. One theory is that it even predates Christianity and marks the beginning of spring. Putting on masks, making loud noises and music during parades and processions should help to scare away evil spirits. Only later on the processions were devoted to patron saints. So the celebration of carnival is always closely related to areas of Catholic population.

In Germany the Carnival 'strongholds' are found along the river Rhine, namely Düsseldorf, Köln (Cologne), Koblenz and Mainz. Here Carnival festivities took on added momentum in modern times as a means of expressing anti-Prussian and anti-French thoughts during the times of occupation. Until today this is shown in the famous Rosenmontagsumzüge (Rose Monday Parades). Especially in Cologne the figures and topics displayed there are extremely political. The same is true for the public sessions of the Carnival clubs. Some of these are on TV and the speakers are allowed to tell politicians what they think of their work. Some are very witty and good at that. And you see the quite a number of well known politicians sitting in the audience. Apparently they feel being ticked off in public is better than not being seen at all. That might make people think they are afraid or have something to hide.

The begin of the season on November 11 is marked in many cities by the symbolic handing-over of town halls to the 'Narren' (Fools). This is a big event in Mainz and Cologne where thousands of costumed people are out in the streets and watch the Mayor being taken prisoner and the 'Narren' taking over the Town Hall. From now on preparations will begin for festivities at the end of the season. Wagons have to be assembled for the parades and speeches have to be written for the sessions.

When I was five years old we moved from the Protestant, Carnival-free North to a small town in the Rhineland, right between Düsseldorf and Cologne. We had a great time as kids. Four weeks before Ash Wednesday we would insist on going everywhere in costumes. Mind you, in the sixties, costumes consisted mostly of our everyday clothes which our mothers would alter by adding fringes to the seams of our trousers to make us look like Red Indians. Other favourite costumes were Cowboy, Pirate and Clown - all easily achieved with very little. The more affluent ones among us had cowboy hats or tomahawks - I had at least a very cheap revolver but had to economise on the ammunition. My pocket money didn't take me very far those days. We always thought it a real shame that we weren't allowed to wear our costumes in school. The teachers were afraid that competition and jealousy would spring up among the children. Hmm. Those were the days before everyone tried to walk around in Diesel jeans and Nike trainers.

The hightlight of the season for us was of course being taken to a procession on Rose Monday. Not to Cologne, where survival chances for small children are not very high for the streets are packed, but to smaller ones in the neighbouring towns. During the procession sweets are thrown from the wagons and we kids were busy collecting them. Often the weather in February would be cold and rainy and we had to fish quite a number of sweets out of little pools. At home our loot would be weighed (you had to show off to your friends after all!) and often dried on the radiator in the childrens room. The best sweets we ever had, if you ask me, even if we had difficulties getting the paper off them after the drying process.

I wish everyone a happy fifth season of the year!

Posted by Mausi at 01:07 PM | TrackBack

November 01, 2006

Dublin botanica!

Wandering around the green houses at the Glasnevin Botanical Gardens in Dublin produced some interesting surprises, like the healthy specimen of the Wollemia pine from Australia in its sturdy cage (these Australian plants are ferocious beasts you understand - the public needs to be protected from them!) and the many varieties of tropical plant with a mini rain forest thrown in just for good measure. Having grown up with a number of these plants growing wild around me it is fascinating to see them on show here as "exotics".

One of the many carniverous plants in the greenhouse set aside for them at Glasnevin. Probably not a good idea to stand to close or poke a finger into these little beasties!

Strolling around the outside gave me a chance to prove that I can also take some good close ups of nice flowers - so the pictures are displayed for your enjoyment.

One of the delightful walks in Glasnevin, flanked by flowers and scents.

There is a lot to see, and there is plenty to interest everyone - and plenty of really beautiful flowers and plants to savour.

Bougainvillea blossoms in one of the green houses. The creeper itself fills the rear wall of the South facing green house - a magnificent sight.

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October 30, 2006

Rambling in Dublin

There are many ways to see Dublin, among the best is probably from the top of one of the open topped tour buses. The commentary is usually hilarious and very informative and, best of all on a tight budget - the tour pass is valid for a full twenty-four hours. You can hop on and off as often as you like as the tour travels round making stops at all the most usually sought out attractions. As I have commented before, Dublin is an ancient city and there is much to see. The picture below is taken from the buss and shows St Michael's Cathedral in the Christ Church area of the city. The cathedral is the burial place of "Strongbow", the Norman Earl de Clare who came to Ireland at the head of an army in 1169 (invited by the King of Leinster to help overthrow the High King) and who, having defeated the High King at the battle of Clontarf, promptly crowned himself King of the whole shooting works. As he was a "vassal" of Henry II Plantagenet, Hery promptly demanded fealty - and got it when he arrived backed by an army and his fleet. So, between them they started the entire problem of the "occupation" of Ireland.

The Victorian restored Cathedral of St Michael, linked by a bridge to the Synod Hall, now the home of the Dublinia Exhibition.

Down the hill from St Michael's is the venerable establishment of Trinity College, established as a university college by Queen Elizabeth I. This university is a wonderful collection of classical buildings centred on a huge courtyard. It houses students, lecture theatres a fantastic library collection - and the Book of Kells. There is probably several days worth of exploration to be had right here, without even looking at the rest of Dublin, but for those on a tight time line, the Book of Kells is a definite must see. The exhibition is well thought out and the book itself is on display - in an environmentally controlled case and under very subdued light. Even so the explanations of how it was created and the vibrant colours and writhing illustrations of the Celtic art make it well worth the time spent here.

A part of the great courtyard at Trinity College in Dublin.

And for those with a mind to simply enjoy the Liffey, well, you can do that too, although the traffic can sometimes be horrendous!

But then, there's always the Guiness Brewery museum with its amazing displays of the brewers art, the advertising - and, of course, the tour driver's ascerbic comment that with a daily production of five million pints, it produced just enough each day to keep Ireland in Guiness for about a day and a half ......

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October 25, 2006

A day of Guggenheim

A few days ago I visited the Guggenheim exhibition in Bonn (former capital of the Federal German Republic) together with my mother. One part of the exhibition is called The Guggenheim Collection with paintings of famous modern artists and another The Guggenheim Architecture. The latter one shows models of museums all over the world that have been proposed or been actually built to house some part of the vast collection of Solomon Guggenheim and his niece Peggy.

The museum in Bonn - quite interesting in itself from an architectural point of view

We started with the Guggenheim Architecture and were immediately taken with the models on display. The first Guggenheim Museum was opened in New York in 1959. The work of its architect Frank Lyloyd Wright is a true milestone of architecural development. The visitor is allowed to go up on a spiralling ramp which eventually reaches a gigantic glass dome. No more walking through claustrophobic rooms elbowing your way to the front to catch a glimpse of a famous picture. If you recall what the architecture was like in the late 50's and bear in mind that Wright started working on it already as early as 1943 it is a truly astonishing building.

Another breathtaking building is of course the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao which was opened in 1997. Its shape is very unusual and I suspect you actually needed computers to plan it. The combination of the materials stone, steel, glass and titanium is also new and unusual. The architect is Frank Gehry and the museum proved to be an enormous asset and motor to the economic and structural development of the city of Bilbao. It had cost 85 million Euros to built the museum but the town got the money back over the first three years from tax revenues directly associated with the museum.

Frank Gehry also proposed another museum for New York which looks a bit like the one in Bilbao. Plans existed to built it at the East River. The museum would have been a 40 storey building which looked like a cluster of clouds in steel. The model is truly fascinating. But after the terrorists' attacks on 9/11 and a decreasing economy and in view of the environmental problems a building on and over the water would have created the Guggenheim foundation pulled out of this project. A pity, if you ask me.

The most daring proposal was perhaps the one for Rio de Janeiro in 2002 by Jean Nouvel. The building was to be built at the waterfront and a large part of it would have been inside the water below the surface like a big aquarium. I can well imagine that the light effects would have been fantastic. If a building like that would have worked with regard to fire protection and evacuation in cases of emergency is quite another matter. I suppose all of the models we saw must have given Fire Protection and Safety Engineers sleepless nights and a fair amount of headaches. In the end the project met with so much opposition that it wasn't realised.

It is impossible to describe every exhibit here. You simply have to go to Bonn and see for yourself.

Having taken in this impressive display of architecture we headed upstairs for the real paintings and sculptures. What is remarkable about the exhibition is that it consists of well known artists but not necessarily of well known paintings. There are quite a number of lesser known ones. The exhibition is big enough to fill you with enough art for one day it is not so big that you simply want to get out and leave in the end.

My favourite painting was one by Pablo Picasso. There were beautiful paintings of Picasso. There's no one like him to express a whole world of things in one stroke of his brush. The one I liked best, though, is called 'Lobster and Cat'. The cat must have jumped up on the kitchen table and almost walked into the lobster who's not quite dead yet. You get the impression he's sharpening his scissors while carefully watching every movement of the cat. And you can see how terrified the cat is by her wide open eyes and how very hard she's trying to give the impression of a very dangerous animal by hissing raising her hackles and digging her claws into the table. Fascinating piece of art, isn't it?

I have to admit that I wasn't equally impressed by the comtemporary artists and their work from the 70's onwards. I might need another decade or two to get used to it. After the paintings we went downstairs again and went through the 'installations'. The most impressive one was a labyrinth made from plywood and painted bluish grey. It was about 3 m high but fortunately had no roof. Five people at a time were allowed to enter it. It wasn't a proper maze though because there was only one very narrow (perhaps 80 cm in width or even less), winding passage leading into the centre where there was just enough room for five people to turn around and retreat their steps to get out again. The passage was 132 m long (one way!) and because you had to turn so many corners you soon lost all sense of direction. An eerie and claustrophobic experience! But good fun all the same.

Although it's an almost two hours drive to Bonn it has been a journey well worth the effort If you like to find out more yourself try this link.

Posted by Mausi at 07:23 PM | TrackBack

October 23, 2006

Land of Sturm and Uhudler

Last week Mausi went to the Steiermark on a business trip. The Steiermark is one of the Austrian Bundesländer. It is situated in the South East of Austria next to the Slovenian border. The Austrian colleagues were extremely hospitable and took us on a short trip early in the morning to see a bit of the local scenery.

We had driven through fog in the valley but were met by this glorious morning sunshine on top of the hills.

Tha landmark in this part of Austria are green hills rather than high mountains. The hills are covered with vineyards and must be a splendid sight when the leaves are turning colour. The landscape reminds you of Tuscany in Italy rather than Austria, although the two tall trees behind the house on the photo above are not cypresses but poplars.

As it is the case with almost every region where wine is grown small winegrowers struggle against the big ones to survive. Most of these vineyards have been in the possession of one family for a long time. Quite a few Austrian winegrowers possess land on both sides of the border. Sometimes the border goes right through one vineyard.

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A part of the Austrian-Slovenian border and chestnuts being roasted for us

At this time of the year the harvest is already finished and we had of course to taste the local goodies like 'Sturm' and roasted chestnuts - a fantastic combination, if I may say so. Sturm is what you get when yeast had been added to the grape juice and the fermentation process has just started. The sugar content is still high and the alcohol concentration still rather low which easily tempts you to drink more of it and faster than is good for your head. But in combination with hot chestnuts that are roasted on an open fire and salted to get the skin off them more easily it is just great.

A small winegrower selling homegrown and homemade products

Apart from the Sturm there were other goods on display buy and take home with us like chestnut honey, wine and an assortment of schnapps from different berries. Everything looked quite tempting.

On the last evening of the conference we all went to a 'Buschenschank' for a meal and a drink. Here the winegrowers are allowed to sell their own wines and a cold meal, not a hot one. You can get wine, water, juices but neither beer nor coffee. The meal consisted of homemade bread, cheese, different kinds of ham and cold meat. After having tasted the red and the white wine I eventually ended up with a glass of 'Uhudler'. Sounds dangerous and I believe it is. It the same as 'Sturm' but made from wild grapes instead of cultivated ones. It has a very fruity and probably slightly drier taste than Sturm. Even in small doses it speeds up your digestion like nothing else. But I enjoyed it. It was a pity we had to drive home almost 800 km the next day and so had to take it easy on the wine.

I hadn't been to this part of Austria before and I must say it's a beautiful area. See for yourself, if you have the opportunity. October is quite a good time to be there.

Posted by Mausi at 04:34 PM | TrackBack

October 15, 2006

A Walk in the Park

061014_rosenhoehe01.jpgAfter a leisurely walk through the assembled Jugendstil architecture on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt we finally reached a public garden called 'Rosenhöhe'. The entrance is guarded by six mighty lions looking down from the tops of long brick pillars. Originally the garden was a ducal vineyard. In 1810 Grand Duchess Wilhelmine ordered the vineyard to be transformed into an English garden with exotic trees, pavilions, gazebos, water basins and round flower beds. The responsible landscape gardener was Johann Michael Zeyher. In 1826 a mausoleum was built and the garden served as a graveyard for the ducal family. A little palais was added in 1894 by Prince Wilhelm which was destroyed during WW II and never rebuilt.

The last Grand Duke Ludwig added a rose garden and a rosarium most of which survived both wars. Since 1979 work is underway to restore the historical garden to its former beauty. Having seen some of the more famous gardens in England I think there is still a lot of work to be done which will keep an army of gardeners occupied for some years. I always ask myself when German gardeners will finally discover the third dimension - our flower beds are always as flat as floor board. Still, it was a pleasant enough stay there in the warm October sun. The peak of the rose blossom was over but there were other things to discover and enjoy. Like this metal sculpture of birds. Going around and noticing the shiny metal bits you could tell exactly which size the kids are that come up here to give the birds a pat on the head. And the toddlers which cling to the wings and take their first steps into life.


061014_rosenhoehe03.jpgWhile standing close to the water basin a huge dragonfly zoomed around us. A true challenge for an ambitious photographer. This cunning little bugger would keep zig-zagging across the water surface and you could bet on his changing direction the moment I pressed the button. But grim determination and endless patience were rewarded in the end: gotcha!

I shall certainly return to the Rosenhöhe from time to time and watch the progress the garden is making. Besides it's a good area for taking easy walks and strolls. Whenever you get the chance - take it by all means.

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October 12, 2006

Russian Ties

Another little gem on the Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt is the Russian Orthodox Chapel. The golden roofs of the onion shaped towers are quite a sight against a blue sky.

The Russian Chapel as seen when climbing up to the top of the hill

061012_russ-kapelle02.JPGA daughter of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig and his first wife Alice (second daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) married into the Romanov family. Her husband became Tsar Nikolaus II who was murdered together with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The chapel was built as a private chapel for Tsar Nikolaus and Tsarina Alexandra, born as Princess Alix von Hessen und bei Rhein, whenever they came to visit their German relatives.

The chapel was designed by the Russian architect Leontij Nikolajevich Benois from St. Petersburg. The foundation stone was layed in 1897 and the chapel was consecrated in 1899. Elaborate mosaics and wall paintings cover the outer and inner walls of the chapel. The paintings and mosaics were designed by the Russian artist Viktor Michailovich Wasnezov (1848-1926). Wasnezov was well known as an artist of religious paintings. In his paintings he reawakened the Byzantinian and Kiev tradition, turning away from the romantic style of the 19th century. He is seen as a master of the Neo-Russian style, a variation of the European Art Nouveau.
The mosaics on the outer and inner walls were pieced together by the brothers Alexander and Vladimir Frolov from St. Petersburg. The mosaics were put together in plates and these plates were then assembled in Darmstadt. The brothers used the so called Venetian method to do this. A mirror image of the original design for the mosaic was copied onto a thick piece of paper. The paper was cut up into pieces and the cobalt glass pieces were glued to the paper surface face downwards. The resulting pieces of the mosaic were then framed and fixed with a solution of cement. In the end the mosaic plates were attached to the walls and the seams filled and sealed. The result is quite stunning, isn't it?

At the moment the chapel is undergoing extensiv renovation as it did not react well at all to the environmental challenges of the last years. As it is a comparatively small building there's hope it will eventually be restored to full glory!

Posted by Mausi at 06:08 PM | TrackBack

October 11, 2006

Art Nouveau

Last Monday I had an opportunity to visit Darmstadt, where I went to University, again. There are quite a few things there to see and look at. One of them is the famous 'Mathildenhöhe'. Strangely enough I never found the time to visit this place while I was living there although I have always had an interest in art and architecture.

As the name indicates the Mathildenhöhe is a little hill where the Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig founded a colony of artists in 1899. It consisted of one architect, painters and sculpturers, seven people in all. Their first task was to design their own living and working quarters. That was the beginning of the Darmstadt variation of Art Nouveau or 'Jugendstil' as it is called in German.

One of my favourite houses is 'Haus Deiters' which was designed by the only architect of the colony, Joseph Maria Olbrich, for the colony's manager. It is the smallest of the houses and has a rather interesting geometry. It has escaped both World Wars unscathed and has been extensively renovated and restored from 1991-1992. In 1996 the German Poland Institute moved into it.

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Pretty little Haus Deiters

Inside the rooms are arranged in a 'space optimised' way so that nothing is squandered on broad staircases or endless corridors. I wouldn't mind living there myself.

Another building on the Mathildenhöhe has become the symbol of Darmstadt - the 'Hochzeitsturm' (Marriage Tower). This impressive building (height 48 m) was again designed by J.M. Olbrich in memory of the marriage of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig with Princess Eleonore zu Solms-Hohensolms-Lich. Nowadays it really earns its name as it is used as a registry office. And one can climb up to the top and enjoy the view - not on Mondays, though ...

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The famous 'Hochzeitsturm' also known as 'Five-Fingers-Tower' for obvious reasons

The first exhibition on the Mathildenhöhe was held in 1901 and made Darmstadt quite famous. The beginning of the First World War, however, marked the end of the Darmstädter Jugendstil epoch. Although the old town of Darmstadt was completely destroyed during the night of September 11, 1944, the Mathildenhöhe somehow managed to dodge the bombs and is still well worth a visit.

Posted by Mausi at 06:08 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 05, 2006

Reminders of the past ...

Given my interest in ships and in sailing ships in particular, the discovery, during my recent trip to Dublin, that the Jeannie Johnson was moored in the Liffey, made a visit to her an essential! Unfortunately she is not open to the public so I had to content myself with viewing her from the embankment. She is a replica of one of the infamous "famine" ships - the emigrant transports which shipped the starving away to America during the potato famine in the 1840's. Near her berth stands another reminder of this terrible human tragedy in the form of emaciated figures staring hopelessly topwards the vessel as she lies moored.

The beautiful Jeannie Johnson at her berth in the Liffey.

The monument to the starving emigrants of the potao famine years. Poignant and desperately moving.

The modern ship is no hell hole - she is in fact the Irish Nation's sail training ship and a beautiful example of a small "tall ship" in her own right. That said, when you stand alongside her and realise that she was one of the larger craft used for this desperate escape from poverty and hunger, the full sense of the desperation to which the emigrants had been driven becomes very much more apparent. It is sometimes estimated that fully a third of those who embarked on these ships died on passage - a witness to the appalling conditions they were prepared to accept in their bid to escape and to the terrible condition they were in when they set out.

The tragedy of the Potato Famine was probably a natural disaster waiting to happen in one sense, but was made infinitely worse by the incompetence and ignorance of Whitehall and the bureaucrats lodged in Dublin Castle. On the latter head, one has to acknowledge that they knew what was happening, but were reluctant to admit to Whitehall that the entire economy of Ireland was on the point of collapse as a result. In Whitehall, they had an inkling of what was happening, but were desperately trying to justify holding the price of home grown wheat as high as possible by means of a set of laws which prohibited the import of certain produce - which could have relieved the famine!

The resulting tragedy must therefore be laid at the feet of job's worth bureaucrats and self interested politicans who would have done well to recall the words of the Reverend Jonathon Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels and Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

"It is the error of many to mistake the echo of the London Coffee House for the voice of the nation."

The tragedy of the potato famine, and quite possibly the violent birth of the Irish Nation could, perhaps, have been avoided if the politicians and bureaucrats had listened less to the voice of London and more to the real voice of the nation - the population who live outside of the capital!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 27, 2006

Not everthing is rubbish

Hard to believe but true - not all is rubbish everything is rubbish on TV nowadays, sometimes they even show something really interesting. Last weekend I watched a program about Albrecht Dürer visiting Venice at the end of the fifteenth century. One of Dürer's mentors in Venice was his fellow countryman Anton Kolb, a publisher and entrepeneur. Kolb had been commissioned by the City of Venice to print a detailed map of the whole city at the scale of 1:750. The first copy of this map was printed in 1500 and then distributed among all major trading posts in Europe. In fact, the map was part of one of the biggest PR campaigns of the Middle Ages to ensure the economic survival of Venice.

The most astonishing fact about this map apart from its sheer size and the abundance of minute details is the fact that the city of Venice is printed as seen from about 300 m above the surface of the lagoon - a perfect three-dimensional picture. Now, how was that achieved. Easy, of course, the artist was sitting in a balloon and looking down. The only thing is, the brothers Montgolfier didn't let their first hot-air balloon take off until almost three hundred years later in 1783!

So, the artists had to think of something else. A few years before Dürer's visit to Venice painters and mathematicians in Northern Italy had discovered the laws of perspective. Hard to imagine nowadays that people had been unaware of these laws until the late 15th century. But when you look at paintings before that time you realise that they either look very flat or that some things seem to be out of proportion.

Anton Kolb employed a large number of artists and surveyors for his map. First a detailed survey of the Venice had to be accomplished. Then drawings of all buildings were made, all from the same viewing angle. The Venetian artists used a sheet of glass with a grid on it through which they viewed the buildings to be able to draw precisely and to scale. After that was done the individual drawings had to be put together and to be distorted according to the laws of perspective in such a way that the result gave the impression of viewing Venice through a bird's eye. What a task!

If you like to see the result or at least a tiny bit of it for yourself, try this link: http://www.zdf.de/ZDFde/inhalt/20/0,1872,3980020,00.html

Venetians seem to have been extremely resourceful people. For one, they build a whole city on poles. Whole forests must have gone under water for this project. Nine poles were needed per sqare meter. Several hundred years later the buildings are still standing! Buried in salt water and shielded from air the tree trunks have become as hard and durable as concrete.

Venetians were also famous for being able to build ships as fast as no one else. They were even accused of using magic to do this. Their magic was that they had optimised their production line: 700 highly specialised workers - men, women and kids - put ships together from prefabricated modules. The Venetian dockyards not only turned out merchant vessels but also galleys to protect their trading routes.

The end of the 15th century also marked the downfall of Venice. In the East the Turks had started to take over the trading in the Black Sea region and to the West Portugese and Spaniards send out ships to discover new trading routes and markets. The Mediterranean Sea quickly loses its importance as an economic region. The final blow is the discovery of a sailing route to India by Portugese ships. Portugal takes over the trading of herbs and spices, Venice's last monopol.

Perhaps it is not surprisind that so many new ideas and inventions came to Europe via Venice during the Renaissance. A city where its inhabitants had to be resourceful and inventive to take on the daily challenges of trading successfully with the rest of the world must have been an ideal environment for art and science to flourish profusely.

Posted by Mausi at 08:40 PM | TrackBack

September 24, 2006

Visit to Belgrade

Visiting Belgade for the first time is quite an experience. It is a city of contrasts and it is a city with a rich and varied history, not least because, since this spot was first settled in neolithic times, it has stood on one of the worlds major cross roads for history. It has been under Grecian rules during the Macedonian period, under Roman rule, then under the rule of Byzantium and, after a brief period of independence under their own Kings - know as the Despot - invaded and conquered by the Turks. Indepednence was again won after a protracted war but the southern provinces of Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia remained under Turkish domination for several more centuries.

Belgrade has been the capital of Serbia since 1500 when the then Despot moved here from the original capital located in modern Kosovo. It is small wonder that the Serbs are unhappy about the segregation of Kosovo from their nation as it is the birthplace of the Serbian nation, it is where their Kings are buried in the old capital and it is the place where the Turks were eventually driven from their land. The legacy of that occupation is to be seen in the conflict of today, between Orthodox Serbia and Muslims living in Albania, Bosnia and now seeking a separate Muslim state in Kosovo. In part that history is one of enforced conversion to Islam - the Selucid Turks and later the Ottoman empire forcibly removed all boys aged five and over annually from Christian Serbian (and other subject peoples) homes and, after compulsory conversion to Islam, trained them as the Sultan's personal guard, the famed Janissaries. Those who did not make the grade as Janissaries were castrated and put to work as eunuchs in the palaces and houses of the rich and powerful. This is a legacy that will not soon be forgotten since the Turks ruled these southern provinces until 1836, and memories run long here!

The Citadel in Belgrade incorporates Roman structures, medieval and later buildings in its remains. Today it is a public park and a meeting place for the city's young men and women. It is also home to a fascinating museum and a fabulous restuarant!

As every school child knows, the First World War was sparked in Sarajevo by the assasination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort by a Serbian patriot. Again, the rest is history, but what is seldom understood is that the Archduke represented a country whose fading Empire had recently fought an abortive war in the Balkans which had resulted in a seizure of parts of Serbia. Tempers ran hot and the incredible series of blunders that resulted in the almost opportunist shooting must surely be one of history's great mischances. Again, attempting to unravel the right and wrong of the Balkan War of 1912 - 1914 is almost impossible. The consequences changed the entire world order.

Belgrade is almost two cities. Nova Beograd is on an island between the Sava River and the Danube, Old Beograd is on the peninsula between the two rivers, with the Citadel crowning the high ground which commands the approach to both. Architecturally, Belgrade has suffered heavily from its position on the cross roads of world history, since every invader seems to have burned or destroyed large chunks of it. The communist years have not helped either, leaving a legacy of neglect and lack of maintenance that now needs to be addressed if the best of the city's rich legacy of buildings which survived the last two world wars is to be saved.

But what can one say of the people? Plenty. They are hard working, keen to catch up and be a part of the Europe they feel they belong too, proud of their heritage and a little defensive of their recent history. They are generous, they have a sense of humour and a deep sense of purpose. Everywhere there are signs that they are rolling up their sleeves and getting down to rebuilding what they lost under the communists, but they are doing it with hope and with pride in themselves and their history.

One thing will stand in my mind - the sign on the remains of a downed F-117A Stealth bomber:

"We apologise to the USAF for downing this aircraft - we were not told we weren't supposed to be able to see it."

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:23 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 21, 2006

The Rock of Cashell

Possibly one of Irelands most historic, and certainly one of its most picturesque places is the Rock of Cashell. This great ruined castle cathedral sits atop a huge granite upthrust and was once the home of the Kings of Munster and then of the Archbishops of Cashell. It must surely be unique in concept and in purpose. The cathedral has a long Chior (or Quire) on its Eastern arm, and two equal length transepts - but almost no nave. At least half of what would have been the nave is taken up with a massive square keep as high as the great certal tower which straddles the crossing between the main church and the transepts.

In the space between the Gatehouse or Barbican that gives entrance to the outer Bailey of the enclosure, is the stump of a very ancient "High Cross", known as St Patrick's Cross. The weathered state of the unusual stump gives testimony to its age but the entire upper part of the cross is gone. It marks the fact that St Patrick is said to have visited the site and baptised many converts here.

The Rock of Cashell seen from the North, once the fortified palace of the Kings of Munster who gave it to the Church who turned it into a Cathedral Castle. The top of the round tower can be seen against the sky and the central tower.

As a fortress the Rock has had to withstand many seiges and assaults both as a Royal Fortress in the many wars between Irelands numerous "Kings" all struggling to gain the coveted status of High King. In fact it was one of their number who eventually, in 1169, invited a Norman invasion - an invasion which led to the annexation of Ireland by Henry II of England and the rest, as they say, is history!

Entrance to the cathedral inside the enclosing walls. Seen here from the South West, the great central tower rises above the crossing.The West End of the cathedral is shortened and its place taken by the Keep - a fortified dwelling for the Archbishops.

Tucked into the South East angle of the Quire and South Transept is an even more ancient building than the Cathedral which dates, in its present form, from the 13th Century. This is Cormac's Chapel, unusual because its Chancel and Sanctuary is not centred on the nave, but is offset to the south side. On the North Eastern corner of the North Transept is an even more ancient structure - the Round Tower, a tower of the type built in the 8th and 9th Centuries as a lookout and refuge tower as the Viking raids gathered momentum. This one dates from 1101 and can be seen in the photographs with this piece as the tall 'finger' with its conical roof of stone. Cormac's Chapel is in the Romanesque style and is said to be one of the earliest and the finest stone churches in Ireland although no date is available for the building of it in any guides we found. It is almost windowless, with blind arcading decorating the exterior and the interior and the fine Norman style tympania above the doors are decorated with Celtic style carvings, hinting that this is a building that predates the invasion.

The cathedral suffered badly during the Parliamentary assault on religion during the Commonwealth period and it was sacked by a Parliamentary Army under Lord Inchiquin in 1647. However, it was partly restored and, now as a Cathedral of the Church of Ireland" continued in use until 1748 when the cummulative damage of the centuries and the rising cost of repairing and maintaining a church design to exclude rather than include a congregation, led to its abandonment. The Cathedral status being moved to the church of St John in the town. The Rock's church remained partially roofed until 1845 when the roof and part of the Keep collapsed and finally the Eastern gable fell as well. In 1869 ownership transferred to the National Monuments Board and has been conserved in its present state since then.

The Hall of the Vicar's Choral now serves as a visitor centre, shop, museum and small conema in which visitors may see the history of the place through a short video presentation and is, in itself an interesting insight into life on the Rock. Again, a very holy place with much, much more that needs to be explored.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 20, 2006

Seeing the sights of Dublin ...

Dublin the modern city is a very different place from the city of the early ninteenth century or the disasterous 1845 potato famine years. Then its tenements teemed with vermin, its inhabitants struggled to earn enough to survive and the air was foul with the smoke of open fires, ofal and sewage. The folksong "Dirty old town" was written to describe it. Going back even further one traces its origins to the Baille athe claithe or "town at the bridge" the name for the settlement which sat on the Western bank of the Liffey beside the Duhb Linn, the Dark Pool.

The "Trollop with the scallop" as our tour guide rather colourfully referred to the statue of Molly Malone, a mythical shell fish seller made famous in the folk song "In Dublin's fair city".

Then came the Vikings and they built a permanent settlement and port for their raiding and trading forays into Europe and Britain. It was through here that the boy who would become Saint Patrick would have been dragged as a slave and it was from here that he fled as the handler for the great hounds that the Vikings bought in Ireland and sold into Europe as guardians. These were the fierce Irish Wolfhounds - and in those days they were a very different breed to the modern ones. It would seem that the runaway slave Patrick, having lived among the hounds in his master's household, was given passage only because the traders didn't have anyone who could keep the hounds under control.

Dublin is a fascinating place for many varied reasons. It is a vibrant place with music, busy with commerce and filling up with returning Irish and workers from all over Europe. It is an interesting fact that the most common language is English, the second most common is Polish and third comes Gaelic. One is never far from the history - and never far from the blood that has been spilled by one side of the many conflicts or another.

Is it worth the visit? Of course it is, the Book of Kells, O'Connell Street, the National Museum, Christ Church and St Patrick's Cathedral to name but a few of the sights that await you are all worth the visit. So too is the Irish national personality, the individuals - and the Guinness!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:04 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 19, 2006


Germany consists of 16 Federal States and at this time of the year I am always brought to realise the extreme diversity of our different states. Last weekend the famous Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, started and will last until October 3. I think to really enjoy something like that you have to be a Bavarian.

The Octoberfest is the world's largest fair with over 6 million (!) visitors each year. Most of the festival area is taken up by enormous tents of the local breweries where people can eat and drink and listen to music bands playing. I don't know if they can hear much of the music because the noise level inside the tents must be enormous. Each tent is big enough for several thousand people.

Bavaria is the land of breweries, probably because there have also always been quite a number of monastries. And the monks had to survive during winter and the time of Lent. Therefore beer in Bavaria is not considered an alcoholic beverage but part of your daily food. During the Octoberfest the local breweries brew a special beer for the occasion called Wiesnbier. It contains a bit more alcohol than the usual Bavarian beer.

Beer at the Oktoberfest is served in a 1-litre tankard, called Maßkrug. The waitresses dressed up in their traditional Bavarian costumes, Dirndls, have all my admiration. Fancy carrying 10 or more of these tankards through the enormous tents all day! Prices for a 'Maß' have been going up steadily over the the years. They have now reached 7.50 Euros. The other thing is that the breweries always tried to make some extra profit by short serving customers. That was quite easy when they still used earthenware tankards. With the beer foam on top it was impossible to tell how much beer was inside. Its not so easy nowadays when glass tankards are mandatory but even if you short serve customers only a little bit it adds to your profit considerably. In 2005 6 million tankards of beer were sold during the festival! Some years ago a private association has been founded whose members check the amount of beer in the tankards and encourage customers to demand that their glasses are topped if they have been short served. I bet these people have a great time during the two weeks of the festival although they are exactly popular with the landlords. On the other hand it is impossible to check each one of 6,000,0000 tankards! Hard to believe but true: the local Munich breweries sell 30 percent of their yearly
production during the two weeks of the Oktoberfest.

The Oktoberfest has a long tradition. The first took place in 1810 on the occasion of Crown Prince Ludwig, who later became King Ludwig I., with Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. At first all kinds of sports events were organised during the Oktoberfest. Legend has it that Pierre de Coubertin got his idea for the modern Olympic games from the competitions during the early October festivals in Munich.

Since 1950 the Octoberfest is traditionally begun with 12 gun-salute and the tapping of the first barrel by the mayor of Munich who utters the traditional war cry of "O'zapft is!".

Ever since 1960 the number of visitors has been steadily growing from all over the world. Especially Americans, Japanese and New Zealanders obviously love to come and enjoy the festival. I am afraid the Oktoberfest is also responsible for the picture of the typcial German in the world. I remember when my sister had an English girl visiting her during a pupil's exchange program in the 1970's Fiona was very much surprised that my father wasn't wearing leather breeches and we didn't live on Sauerkraut and Knödel.

Probably the most interesting part of the Oktoberfest is the parade of the breweries on the first Saturday. Quite a sight - the big horses drawing the beer carts through Munich onto the Theresienwiese where the festival takes place.

But as for the rest - for the life of me I cannot imagine what makes people sit in a big, noisy tent, day after day, drinking themselves stupid and thinking this is a great way of spending your day. But then, I was born in the North of Germany, at the opposite end, so to speak.

Posted by Mausi at 03:37 PM | TrackBack

September 03, 2006

A Journey into the Past

Two years ago my parents went on a cruise on the Baltic Sea. By chance I discovered the photographs of their trip a few days ago. It took them along the coasts of Germany, Poland, Russia, Finnland and Sweden. Apart from being able to visit quite a few well known and famous towns it also provided my mother with the opportunity to see again the farm she grew up on as a child. Even after almost 60 years it was exactly as she had remembered it. The farm is situated in an area that now belongs to Poland.

One of the most stunning cities my parents visited was doubtless St Petersburg. As the Monk wrote two days ago it was the armoured cruiser 'Aurora' which started the October Revolution in 1917 by firing at St Petersburg's Winter Palace. Here you see what she was aiming at.

The Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum complex

A great number of St Petersburg's buildings has been lovingly restored in recent years. The Winter Palace is now one of five buildings that form the well know Hermitage Museum.

The foundations for St Petersburg were laid in 1703. Tsar Peter the Great wanted to build a new capital at the mouth of the river Newa. Not a brilliant idea it seems as the area consisted mainly of swamps and was flooded regularly. Many died during while the town was built. In 1712 Peter the Great declared St Petersburg the new capital of the Russian Empire which she stayed until 1918 except for a brief period from 1728 to 1732 when the Court moved temporarily back to Moscow.

Peter the Great wanted a 'window into the west' and tried to make St Petersburg a centre for European Science and Technology right from the start. However, when he died in 1725 the enthusiasm of the Russian Emperors for the 'window' subsided briefly and the Court moved to Moscow. But Tsarina Anna returned to St Petersburg and made substantial modifications regarding the layout of the city.

Most of the magnificent buildings were erected during the reign (1741-62) of Tsarina Elisabeth. She invited many artists and architects from Western Europe to work in St Petersburg. The Catharine Palace was extended to honour her mother Catharine I - a tribute indeed.

The Catharine Palace originating from 1717, planned by the German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein.

During the reign (1762-1792) of Catherine the Great scientists were encouraged to settle down in St Petersburg and schools were founded, among them the first public school for girls. The abolishment of serfdom in 1861 under Tsar Alexander II encouraged a great number of people to move to this town and the number of inhabitants increased considerably.

On the other hand all important revolts and revolutions of the Russian history until 1918 also took place in St Petersburg. As mentioned before the October revolution started with the Aurora firing at the Winter Palace. Well, looking at all the splendour and magnificence found in St Petersburg which takes me straight back to all of Dostoevski's novels I've read in my youth and which was only available to very few people while the rest of the Russian people had to live under very different circumstances I do not find it astonishing that revolutions took place here. I'd say they were bound to happen sooner or later. I had the same feeling when I saw some of the famous castles at the Loire in France for the first time.

It's a good thing those times are over and a lot more of us can now enjoy places like St Petersburg.

Posted by Mausi at 10:10 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 02, 2006

Old Customs

Mausi lives in a small village at the foothills of the Taunus Mountains. All in all there are about 280 inhabitants, no shops, no pubs but a public phone box and a letter box. And a bus stops there several times a day as well. So the village is not entirely cut off from the rest of the world.

Every two years at the first weekend in September a big event takes place: the Village Festival. Traditionally the festival starts with the villagers baking their own bread as in old times.

The old oven used for bread baking

The very old oven of the village is used for this purpose. It is out of service for the rest of the year. It is made of stone with a brick layer inside as can be seen on the photograph below.

A look inside the oven - warm and cosy!

It takes of course ages, well several hours at least, to heat it up to the proper temperature. And you need a bit of experience to operate it properly and not get the bread burnt. But all went well and Mausi was lucky enough to secure herself a fresh loaf - still warm and crispy. The best bread she has ever tasted!

Posted by Mausi at 08:23 PM | TrackBack

September 01, 2006

Reminder of the past

Some ships survive because they are unique, some because they are loved and some because they have stood at the cross roads of history. Into this last category must surely fall the Russian "Protected Cruiser" Aurora. Laid down in 1897 and commissioned in 1900 she has a fascinating history and is the sole survivor of her type as far as I can ascertain. Unusually she is also the holder of two "Decorations" for her service to the State. The first was awarded in 1924 and is the Order of the Red Banner of the USSR Central Committee, the second, awarded in 1927 was the Order of the Red Banner. The reason? This is the ship which triggered the "October Revolution" of 1917 when she fired on the Winter Palace, then the seat of the Provisional Government, in support of Lenin's Bolshevik movement. The 1924 decoration was replaced in 1968 by the Order of the October Revolution.

The Museum Ship RUS Aurora moored in the Neva River at St Petersburg opposite the Russian Naval Academy.

When launched the ship carried fourteen six inch guns and twenty four three inch guns, with armoured protection over her engine spaces and magazines. Her engines were originally able to propell her through the water at a top speed of 24 knots and she had a cruising range of just over 1,400 miles at 20 knots. As can be seen in the photograph, taken a few years ago by Mausi's father, her hull has a pronounced "tumblehome" - a feature of the old "wooden wall" sailing ships and adopted in European naval designs for warships as it provided additional strength to the hull, allowed better armour protection by presenting a sloped surface and reduced "top weight" thus improving stability. In this configuration she was part of the Baltic Fleet sent to relieve Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War and took part in the infamous Dogger Bank Incident in which the Russian Fleet fired on the Hull Trawler fleet after mistaking them for Japanese Battleships! She reached the Far East and took part in the Battle of Tsushima and was one of three cruisers that escaped destruction and capture, making her way to Manila where she was interned.

In 1906, repaired and returned to the Baltic she became a Training Ship, in which capacity she served until 1914 when she returned to Fleet patrol duty. In 1916 she was re-armed with most of the three inch guns removed and the remainder replaced by high angle anti-aircraft weapons. She then served until the fleet mutiny of 1917 (the Battleship Potemkin incident) and finally, under an "elected" Captain, fired the first shots in the Bolshevik Revolution.

After the Revolution she became once more a training ship and served in that capacity until the outbreak of hostilities in 1940. Moved from the Neva to the Port of St Petersburg, she was used as a floating artillery defence and anti-aircraft battery until finally sunk in 1943. She was raised in 1944 and fully restored in 1945 - 48, when she returned again to duty as a Training Ship, although now on a permanent mooring in the Neva River. In 1956 she became a Museum Ship and is still maintained and manned by the cadets from the Naval College across the river from her mooring. During the 1980's the ship's hull was found to be in a dangerous state and her plating badly corroded. She was substantially rebuilt during 1984 - 87 to original specification and the hull is now virtually completely renewed. New funnels and upperworks were also fitted during this reconstruction so the ship is now virtually new. Her original machinery is still installed and can be viewed by visitors for a fee.

In 1992 the Soviet flags were replaced on the ship with the Russian Naval banner of St Andrew, thus completing the cycle and restoring to her the colours she lost when the Red Banner was hoisted in October 1917.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 04, 2006

Domesday online .....

Today the Domesday Book should be available online at the National Archives website. I haven't yet managed to find where they have hidden it, but I have found a whole lot of fun information about the book which could be used to bore your dinner guests and companions next time you are stuck for something to say. The original is a list of all the property owned within the boundaries of the Kingdom of England. It was compiled in 1085 - 1086 by the Chancellor of the Kingdom at the orders of William I - also known as Duke William of Normandy and "The Conqueror". He gave the order, interestingly enough, in Gloucester, where he and his court were wintering as he had a desire to "know the Kingdom and his subjects" - more succinctly, who should be paying tax and how much!

Gloucester has another, possibly less well known link with the Conqueror. His eldest son Robert, Duke of Normandy, is buried (perhaps not the right description since he is actually contained in a wooden casket in the ambulatory) in Gloucester Cathedral. Robert should have been King after William I's death, but William II (Rufus) beat him to the crown and had him banged up in Cardiff Castle "for the rest of his natural" as I have heard one guide put it. Robert now resides in the South Ambulatory in a wonderfully colourful cataflaque. In an amusing twist, he spent the second world war resting on the crate that contained the Coronation Chair from Westminster Abbey when the treasures from there were stored in the Crypt of Gloucester Cathedral and Robert was removed and placed there for safety as well. He never sat on the chair in life, but "sat" on it for six years in death - almost 900 years after he missed his chance.

The Domesday Book was originally known as the "Winchester Roll" or the "Book of the Treasury", but by the 13th Century had become known by its present name - presumably because, as with the Day of Judgement, there was no appeal against any judgement made on its content! It does make interesting reading - and one becomes very aware of just how small the population of these islands was at that time. Villages listed in it, many of them still in existence, show populations of under a hundred (remembering that the book lists only the adult males!) so a village listed as having eighteen "Villagers", seven "Riders" and two "Ploughs" probably means that the overall piopulation would have been around fifty, since the "Villagers" would have been males of arms bearing age, the "riders" the same and their wives, and children would at least treble the number. Interestingly a "Villager" was someone who "owned" a small piece of land sufficient to keep a family and a surplus of produce to sell on. A "Rider" on the other hand was a hired man who escorted the Villagers and their produce to market. The village this information is taken from is today home to several thousand and the days of the individual supporting themselves on the land assigned to them are long gone - in fact there is no arable land for them to farm in sufficient intesnity to do so.

As it stands, the Domesday Book provides us with a fascinating look at life in the 11th Century - but perhaps it also tells us that we need to manage our resources and, dare I say it, our population levels, a whole lot better than we currently do!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:02 AM | TrackBack

July 19, 2006

Interesting things

I've been browsing through a biology magazine today which contained a number of interesting articles. Did you know, for example, that no sharks exist below sea levels of 3000 m? Now that's a relief! No, seriously, for quite some time scientists have thought that sharks who are cartilaginous fishes (Chondrichtyes) and therefore belong to the oldest known group of fishes are present in deep sea. Apparently there's a food related reason for this. Sharks do not have a gas bladder to keep them afloat but achieve this with the help of their oil rich liver. The growth of that liver requires a lot of energy, i. e. food, that is simply not present in great depths. Modern bone fish (Osteichtyes) on the other hand do have a gas bladder and have been observed at depths of up to 9000m (29500 ft). Amazing!

I suppose at least the dedicated gardeners among you are aware that plants though rooted to the spot are not as helpless as they look when it comes to defending themselves against enemies. Some of them have quite impressive thorns and some can even start a chemical warfare on their aggressors. Ever been stung by a nettle? And that's just a mild form of defensiv weapon. But did you know that quite a number of plants, among them soybeans, potatoes and tomatoes, try to starve their enemies? They contain proteins which will inhibit the metabolism in the attacking insects. The insects will simply not be capable of breaking down the bits of tomato they have eaten into amino acids and synthesizing the proteins they need themselves from these acids. Instead it leaves them with a tummy bug and a hungry feeling inside.

I have no doubt that the insects have the appropriate countermeasures at their disposal to survive even this. Judging from observation of those living in my garden their numbers never seems to decrease - quite contrary! Ah well, I suppose Nature will find a way of keeping a balance...

Posted by Mausi at 09:05 PM | TrackBack

July 17, 2006

Aaah - to be a kite ...

Now with the haymaking season in full swing we have "our" kites regularly patrolling the fields around the village. You never know where mice have been stirred up or frightened to come up to the surface.

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A magnificent bird gliding effortlessly through the morning sunshine

Near our village live at least three of these birds. As the village is situated on a hill with a valley running below the kites usually do patrols starting along one side of the valley and then coming up along the opposite site. This way they pass our garden several times a day.

We had quite a bit of fun observing them a few years ago when a pair had a young one and was trying to teach it to fly. The parents were circling above the young one shouting commands and the young one was trying its best to stay airborne. You could almost hear the young one crying: "Mummy ..... HELP". This went on for several days but with the parents' coaching the young one turned into a perfect glider in the end.

It has always fascinated me how birds of prey can detect their food far down below. Apart from having a sort of built-in magnifying device in their eyesight, falcons for example can also detect the fluorescence of mouse urine in the ultraviolet. Fancy, catching your food by following piss trails ... yuks! Amazing, isn't it, what Nature comes up with to ensure the survival of her creatures.

Posted by Mausi at 08:23 PM | TrackBack

July 08, 2006

Mighty Ships

Alright, I am another one of those who like ships. With so many different kinds of ships to be seen I had a field day during our cruise through Helsinki harbour. The one below, for example, is a ship that is not easily detected even inside a harbour basin because it is so well camouflaged. I had to look twice before I eventually spotted it.

Fast Attack Craft

The Gray Monk has told me that this kind of ship is called a Fast Attack Craft. Her raked superstructure deflects radar so that she will have a smaller signature on radar than a normal craft of her size. The idea is to make her appear less threatening and allow her to get in real close to launch missiles or torpedoes. As often before I wonder at how much creativity goes into the design of destructive weapons.

Opposite her in the harbour was moored the German Frigate BREMEN. Her main task is to fight U-boats but she is equally well equipped to fight aircrafts and other ships as well. She doesn't look it but she is 130 m long and her top speed is 30 knots. She carries along a crew of 219 men. I cannot imagine where they all fit in, must be a bit of a squeeze. Pity, we couldn't get on board and have a closer look around.

Frigate BREMEN with the coat of arms of the City of Bremen (a big key) visible on her bow

Another breathtaking sight on our cruise was the group of icebreakers basking in the sunshine at their summer mooring place enjoying the warmth no doubt. They must be pretty busy in winter keeping the passage from Helsinki to Tallin in Estland free of ice. These icebreakers are designed to break up an ice layer of up to five meters! Amazing, isn't it? I'd like to sail on an icebreaker myself one of these days, just once, in winter of course ...

The mighty URHO and her five sisters

The next turn to starboard brought us back into the harbour basin and our cruise to an end. What a way to start the day ...sigh...

Posted by Mausi at 07:36 PM | TrackBack

July 03, 2006

Cruising around Helsinki

If you like to live near or on the water Helsinki certainly is the place for you. There is water and islands all around. Much of the area is owned by the town of Helsinki and open to the public. There are marvelous places to spend your weekends or holidays.

Surely you cannot live in Helsinki without owning a boat...

Whereas people in other countries might have a boat house on their property Finns own a sauna. And they use it all year round - no kidding. I suppose in winter they have to whack a hole into the ice first for the after sauna bath. From my experience a sauna is good fun once you've got used to it.

A house at the sea, a private sauna and a boat close by - what more can you want?

The landscape around here was formed about 2000 years ago. The land is still rising about 3mm per year. That doesn't seem much but it amounts to 3m in 1000 years!

There's nothing like cruising through these waters on a day like this.

The shore line is mostly dominated by natural bedrock. There are a few sandy beaches to be found, however. A new part of the town has been built close to this one. The design of the area won a prize for being especially children and family friendly. Hard to see from far away, though.

One of the few sandy beaches around Helsinki

On returning into the harbour we me this little beauty of a sailing ship going out with a group of people in historic costumes on board.

A Ketch sailing out towards the open sea

I could have spend a lot more hours on this cruise. Summer is special in Finland.

Posted by Mausi at 08:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 02, 2006

Helsinki Cathedral

Visitors coming to Helsinki by ship are greeted by the outline of a strikingly white cathedral towering above the town. It is undoubtedly one of the landmarks of Helsinki.

45 granite steps lead up to the cathedral and make a splendid resting place for the weary tourist

The cathedral was designed by the Tsar's favourite architect, Carl Ludwig Engel, and completed in 1852. The layout of St Nicholas Cathedral is a regular cross, much in the style of a Russian Orthodox Church, although it is a Lutheran church. 93% of the Finnish population are Lutherans. The four small domes which can be seen on the photograph were added to the original design after Engel's death.

Although the white colour looks brilliant on the exterior of the cathedral against a dark blue summer sky it makes the interior of church looks bare and even austere.

Inside St Nicholas Cathedral

Three niches are occupied by the famous reformers Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and Michael Agricola. Michael Agricola was born in the small town of Pernaja in Finnland in 1510. He went to Wittenberg in Gemany as a student to learn more about the reformation from Luther and Melanchthon. Returning to Finnland three years later he started the refomation process in Finnland and also invented the written language of Finnish. If your eyes and your tongue have ever struggled through the pronounciation of run-on Finnish words (like Pohjoisesplanadi = North Esplanade) - now you know who's to blame!

The organ, on a balcony opposite the altar

To me the cathedral looks well suited for an organ concert but for a service I would prefer Temppeliaukio Church any time - it had a much more welcoming and hospitable atmosphere. But if ou ever come to Helsinki by all means don't miss the opportunity to judge for yourself.

Posted by Mausi at 03:52 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 30, 2006


After the conference we were lucky enough to have half a day to ourselves before we had to drive to the airport and catch the flight home again. Some of us decided to take a harbour cruise that morning - a brilliant idea! As you can see the day was simply perfect for such an adventure.

Helsinki - Daughter of the Baltic Sea

Helsinki was founded in 1550 but it took a very long time to turn into a prospering town. One reason being that the first settlements were simply in the wrong place. The shallow, swampy waters could not be turned into a harbour for big ships. So in 1640 the barely 100 year old fishing village was removed to the area where the white cathedral is nowadays. But not until the Swedes built mighty a sea fortress on the island of Suomenlinna in the 18th century did the fishing village develop into a city.

Part of the Suomenlinna Sea fortress

Actually the sea fortress is not built on one island but on five. Suomenlinna still serves as a training camp for the Navy but also welcomes visitors and tourists. Owing to its being a sort of protected site quite an interesting flora and fauna have developed on these islands and some people would like to turn in into a nature reserve altogether.

Another part of the fortress

The last photo shows the entrance into Helsinki habour guarded by the sea fortress. The entrance could be closed by pulling heavy chains about it in former times.

The entrance into the harbour

One can easily imagine how effectively Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg as it was called by the Swedes) guarded the harbour and city of Helsinki. History, however, took a surprising turn when the Swedish commandant surrendered the fortress to the Russians without firing a single shot for the Swedes had lost the war against Russia anyway. That's why Finland, the Swedish province, became the autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Tsar in the winter of 1808/1809.

Posted by Mausi at 08:11 PM | TrackBack

June 29, 2006

Conference call

The Monk is away to Cincinnati for a conference at which he is giving the paper in the extended post below. The conference is to be attended by fire investigators from all over the world and drawn from all sorts of disciplines. These conferences are a great way to exchange ideas and thinking on a range of issues, some seemingly unimportant, and others giving that "eureka" moment as something not previously considered, or perhaps only vaguely understood becomes clear.

You can visit the conference website through the National Association of Fire Investgators site. Look for the link labelled ISFI 2006.


International Symposium on Fire Investigation
University of Cincinnati
June 2006


Until recently the UK Fire and Rescue Services had no powers to conduct an investigation into the origin, cause or progression of a fire. Such investigations were done, but they were dependent upon a “good will” working arrangement with the occupier of the affected premises and the service. Not unnaturally this could create a problem if the investigator was denied entry or challenged on his or her findings and report, particularly as, until recently, a misleading Circular reiterated the false impression that the fire officer could not be considered an “expert”. As the final conclusion on any report is inevitably an opinion – albeit one supported by the facts and information discovered during an examination of the scene of the incident – this “advice” from the relevant Department of State (currently the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) could be, and has been, used by defence attorneys to get cases dismissed from court. In British legal precedence only an acknowledged “expert” may give “opinion” in evidence, and, if the “expert” is a fire officer, and the case hinges upon his or her “opinion” their exclusion as an “expert” can, and does, have serious consequences.

The situation vis á vis the status of “expert” witness is a complex one, but, in any court in the UK, it is for the judge to determine who is and who is not an “expert” witness. Such decisions are always based upon several criteria, usually a consideration of experience, qualification and credibility in any individual. It is further complicated by the degree to which a witness can be regarded as being “expert”. An expert in the UK legal system is someone who is considered to have a wider than usual knowledge in a particular subject. Thus, an amateur can be declared by the judge to have an expert knowledge of a particular subject and be regarded as more credible than, say, a professional in the same field. This has happened in a case where an amateur student in the field of handwriting was declared in a court to have a greater grasp of the subject than another expert who had less specific experience and knowledge. This “confusion” of advice from a government department has certainly not helped the professional fire officers who must daily complete a report form on incidents which require them to complete a section which states “Supposed cause of fire” – clearly an opinion and certainly one which may lead to further investigation and possibly legal proceedings.

For those who are recognised as national or international “experts”, there is the privilege of being allowed to sit in court during the hearing of testimony from all other witnesses, for the “expert” witness recognised only in that court, this privilege is not available and the witness must wait outside the court until after having given his evidence-in-chief and been cross examined. He or she may then sit in the court to hear the remaining witnesses and experts give their evidence. That said, the status of the Fire Service Investigator remains something of a dichotomy, as the majority do not normally fall into the category of “Court Expert” in the fullest sense of that definition. There are, however, processes in place whereby a Fire and Rescue Service Investigator may, by a process of peer review, registration and qualifications become such an expert.

A special body has been established in the UK as the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practioners, and a suitably experienced and qualified fire service investigator who meets the criteria may make an application to this body for registration. To do this requires the submission of a body or work for peer review, a full curriculum vitae and a review of both qualification and experience. It is, rightly, a rigorous process and registration is not lightly given. Once registered a candidate is subject to regular peer review and may be struck from the register if they can be shown to have failed to follow proper scientific and forensic procedures or to have become “incompetent” as an “expert”. While, as I have already explained, it is for the court to determine whether or not to “recognise” an “expert”, those who are on the Register are more likely to be granted the full status than someone who is not.

The legal position of the fire and rescue service investigators in the UK changed with the receipt of the Royal Assent of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. A new power was created which gives an “Authorised” officer the power to investigate the cause of a fire or why it progressed in a particular way. This set out in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004, Section 45 (1)(b) and subsequent clauses qualify this and provide certain additional powers, in particular those provided in Section 46 which make provision for the taking of evidence and for taking “other persons” into the investigation scene.

The provision of legal powers to carry out investigations places an “implied” legal duty upon the service to use these powers and it further implies that they must conduct any investigation in a thoroughly professional and scientific manner. To this end, a series of analyses of the actual roles and expertise required to do this have been conducted and the resulting “Role Map” was then used to determine the knowledge and skills development requirements for those wishing to become competent in the field of fire investigation. These criteria were then used to develop what is the now adopted National Occupational Standard. This has helped enormously in focussing on what fire investigators need to be able to do, to understand and to report in order to be deemed “competent” to do this important task. There are, inevitably parallels with the NFPA 1033 and certainly the systematic approaches set out in NFPA 921 have a powerful influence on the conduct of investigations.

As a part of this, the service has had to learn to work in partnership with the Police Forces and to work to the same rules and standards of evidence. Necessarily this involves working to the parameters of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and related legislation which sets out the requirements for criminal evidence. In practice these have much the same effect as the celebrated Daubert Rules in the US since they require that all evidence is managed in a way that ensured fairness and legitimate access for the defendant.

But the position is complicated by the fact that they are specifically barred from entering, as of right, any premises occupied as a dwelling unless they have fulfilled one of the following criteria:

  • 24 hours notice has been given in writing that they intend to carry out the investigation,
  • A warrant to enter the premises for the purposes of conducting an investigation has been issued by a Magistrate, or
  • The occupier has waived his or her right to receiving notice and consented to the Fire and Rescue Service Officer entering and conducting the investigation immediately.
  • Section 45(3) of the Act states:

  • (3) An authorise officer may not under subsection (1) –
    1. enter premises by force, or
    2. demand admission as of right to premises occupied as a private dwelling unless 24 hours notice in writing has been has first been given to the occupier of the dwelling
  • This is further compounded by the restriction in subsection (4) –

  • (4) An authorised officer may not under subsection (1)(b) enter as of right premises in which there has been a fire if –
    1. the premises are unoccupied, and
    2. The premises were occupied as a private dwelling immediately before the fire,
      Unless 24 hours notice has been given to the person who was the occupier of the dwelling immediately before the fire.
  • In the United Kingdom the Police are solely responsible to the investigation of any criminal activity. Thus their powers are focussed upon preventing crime, investigating crime and assembling the information for the prosecution of the perpetrators of crime. There are certain limits upon these powers, for example, police officers may enter a building in which a crime is believed to be in progress in order to apprehend the criminal(s), they may enter a building in which a crime has been committed to investigate that crime (provided the victim invites them to do so) or they may enter a building in execution of a warrant issued by a court. These are termed “general” powers and do not permit the police officer to override a specific restriction on any other bodies powers. Thus, where the Fire and Rescue Service officer is required by the statute to give notice of his or her intention to investigate, this cannot be overridden by the police officer using their power of entry to “invite” the fire and rescue service to accompany them.

    The legal “bars” placed on the power of entry to investigate fires mean that the fire and rescue service and the police services have to put in place policies and procedures for those occasions where a joint approach is required. Ad hoc arrangements will simply lay both sides open to attack by the defendant’s legal team in any court and the prosecutions case may be jeopardised by this. Thus, it is vitally important that the procedures have legal credibility and are robust enough to withstand scrutiny in the cold light of the court room.

    The Fire and Rescue Service investigator must, in exercising his powers to investigate also keep in mind two very important aspects in regard to the investigative process. First, if it is a crime scene, or is potentially a crime scene, the police have the overriding authority and their lead must be followed. The FRS cannot and must not, undertake activities which could lead to a criminal investigation being obstructed or in anyway compromised. Secondly, the process of investigation where there is a possibility that some form of enforcement action, for instance in the case of an offence being committed under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, and for which the FRS are the enforcing authority, must be conducted in accordance with the rules determined by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the Criminal Justice Act and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act. All of these contain restrictions or procedural requirements intended to ensure that the rights of the individual are not in any way compromised or that a miscarriage of justice occurs.

    The Fire Investigator is therefore required to be familiar with the procedures set out in Code B of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1988 which sets out the requirements for the collection, collation and control of evidence. They must also adhere to the procedures for interviewing witnesses, recording of interviews either on paper (which requires a verbatim record) or by means of electronic devices. Everything done during the investigation should be recorded in a “Contemporaneous Note” and these must be kept in a particular style and format. A simple “aide memoir” provides a useful guide on this and is based on a simple “Acrostic” –

    There shall be NO:
            Lines missed,
            Blank spaces,
            Overwriting, and
            Written in INK, with
            Spare pages struck through!

    The notes must be dated and signed and the note book itself must have consecutively numbered pages. Where a unique note book is used for each case, the books must have a unique identifying number on the cover and a register kept of who they were issued too and for what purpose or case. Failure to follow these simple rules will usually result in the court refusing to allow an investigator to use his note book as an aide memoir in the witness stand – usually with embarrassing results! This is neatly summed up in Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which creates a presumption in favour of a witness in criminal proceedings refreshing memory from a document whilst giving evidence provided that:

  • He/she states that the document represents his or her recollection at the time he or she made it; and
  • The witness’s recollection was likely to be significantly better at the time the document was made (or verified).
  • The fact that the witness may read the statement he/she may have made at the time of the investigation or given to another investigating authority prior to giving evidence does not affect this presumption. This is a well established principle in the UK and one which the courts guard rigorously, taking a very strict view on the acceptability of note books as a result.

    Interviews conducted by the investigator must also follow the strict guidelines set out in PACE Code C, creating another training aspect for the would be investigator. Code C provides a definition of “Interviews” which makes a distinction between a conversation with someone who may impart certain information, and an interview conducted under caution and along formal guidelines, it is: -

    “An interview is the questioning of a person regarding his involvement or suspected involvement in a criminal offence or offences which, by virtue of paragraph 10.1 of Code C, is required to be carried out under caution”.

    It means in essence that any interview conducted under these rules and in a formal way has to be done using a technique referred to a “Cognitive Interviewing”. This ensures that the interviewer cannot be accused of “leading” a witness or “putting words in the witness’ mouth”. Such interviews should always be conducted with one person recording the interview and the other asking the questions. The technique is one which requires careful thought and a little planning. It also requires very good listening skills and an ability to recall things said which require further expansion and lead to secondary questions.

    The “Caution” referred to in PACE is one which has to be administered whenever a person is under suspicion of having committed an offence, but, for the most part, in any fire investigation, it will not be used or administered by the fire officer. The crime of arson (Willful Fire Raising in Scotland!) is an offence which falls within the ambit of the Police and they will therefore always be the authority who will administer the caution and conduct the interview.

    The next item which is of considerable importance in developing good investigative practice for fire personnel is the importance of recognising control of entry to premises and the control of gathering and collating items in evidence. “Contamination” of evidence through lax control or carelessness, whether through ignorance or bad management, is viewed by courts to be inexcusable, and the investigator needs to know and understand the rules governing this aspect of the investigative process very well.

    PACE Code B deals specifically with the Seizure of Articles and Substances and reference to both the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 Section 46 and to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 give the Fire and Rescue Service certain powers to seize and examine items – an activity which clearly falls under the aegis of Code B! Thus, the fire investigator needs to be aware of the process for collecting samples, for recording them properly and ensuring that they are secured and packaged in a manner which preserves the integrity of the item. This poses a further serious question, one of control and of managing the storage of any such items, as these must be retained in a secure facility under continuous control and be available for examination by an officer of any court, or the defence and other interested parties.

    In a rather interesting way, the Fire and Rescue Service officer who exercises any enforcement powers is also incorporated into another Act aimed at regulating the powers and the use of powers for the police when it comes to surveillance. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, referred to as RIPA, allows the fire and rescue services to access certain restricted information sources, but to do so, they must appoint a person or persons as “SPoC” – not the famous Vulcan – but a Single Point of Contact person through whom all requests must be channelled. The Act also makes clear that certain activities, such as “staking out” premises, by, for example, booking into a hotel in order to check certain management compliances with regulations, constitutes a “controlled” activity for which permission must be obtained prior to commencement of the surveillance.


    The National Occupational Standards have been drawn up in an effort to identify all the knowledge and skills necessary for competence in the field of fire investigation. These standards were the work of a committee of fire investigation practioners and an expert in the development of National Occupational Standards, and were designed to be broad enough to embrace all levels of investigation and all the various disciplines involved. This is a comprehensive approach, but it is also intended to describe the knowledge, skills and functions required for ALL fire investigators, police, fire and other agencies and independent operators. It spans the three “levels” identified in preliminary work on developing these so that the UK’s investigators fall into one of three groups.

    With such a broad brush approach, the interpretation of the NOS is key to determining the appropriate training required at each level. It will also be recognised that the vast majority of Fire and Rescue Service personnel operate at Level 1, with a number at Level 2 and a very small number able to qualify for recognition at Level 3. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this paper, the courts determine the status of individual witnesses as “expert” or not and this determination is based on the individuals qualifications, depth of knowledge and experience and credibility. Recent unfortunate miscarriages of justice in cases where conviction was based almost entirely on “Expert Opinion” have made courts extremely wary in this regard and the fire investigator is no exception to this. Thus, anyone who seeks to be recognised as an “expert” in the field of fire investigation is required to undergo a rigorous registration process which requires the submission of evidence of qualification, assessment of skill in applying knowledge and technique and a peer review of cases investigated. This will permit their being eventually recognised by being placed on a register of Forensic Practioners managed by the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practioners (CRFP) and to regular review of their competence in the field. The Council manages the registration of a wide range of forensic groups, each embracing a specific forensic discipline, so a person thus registered is not unnaturally registered to a particular field and does not become “expert” in any other discipline unless specifically so registered.

    For personnel in the Fire and Rescue Services, the National Occupational Standard can be broken down into individual “modules” for the purposes of personnel development, allowing a mixture of training, learning and qualification approaches to be adopted. These Modules provide four Knowledge/Skills groups which cover: -

  • Planning for Fire or Explosion Investigation,
  • Investigate the origin and cause of a fire
  • Analyse the findings and respond to the findings of an investigation, and
  • Report the findings at formal proceedings.
  • img01.jpg
    A graphic representation of the elements required for a structured fire investigation and the areas in which competence is required to be achieved.

    These somewhat vague categories encompass a wide range of activity falling broadly into a knowledgebase acquisition covering: -

  • Fire science, including the physics and chemistry of fire, fire spread and behaviour and related matters,
  • Fuels, inhibitors and ignition sources,
  • Structures, structural materials and their behaviour in fire,
  • Data collection techniques,
  • Investigation procedures including scene management, access control and record keeping,
  • Analysis methods and tools including the use of computer modelling,
  • Burn pattern analysis,
  • Evidence collection and controls,
  • Fire pathology, DNA evidence and procedures for avoiding contamination of this,
  • Interviewing techniques and procedures, and
  • Legal authority, restrictions and controls.
  • Naturally, there may also be a need to understand, if not to actually carry out, the processes by which laboratory analysis may be conducted. There will certainly be a need to understand what, if anything, can be achieved by forensic chemists and what they will not be able to provide. At all levels there will be a need to understand and to be able to carry out simple experiments and research to find additional information about the behaviour of materials or fuels which may throw further light on something found in the course of a scene examination.

    That said, the difficulty for those designing training for all personnel who may be required to conduct a fire investigation in one form or another and at any given level, is how much information is essential and what can safely be assumed to be “prior learning” knowledge.

    Thus, at the Level 1, the training development may include some electronic learning, some classroom based learning, mentoring and peer guidance and accreditation of knowledge gained on other programmes. At Level 2, this needs to be expanded and focussed on a broader platform providing again, a mixed learning approach which takes account of transferable knowledge, experience and practical and classroom acquired knowledge and skills to bring personnel up to the threshold levels of competence.

    Those aspiring to become Level 3 Investigators need to undertake a Degree level programme to underscore their knowledge base (although this can be achieved by other means) and this must then be balanced against experience on the ground, peer review of submitted work and performance under cross examination in court. Successful candidates may then be registered through a body called the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) and may then be considered by the Courts as “recognised” experts.

    As originally envisaged by the Training Sub-group of the Arson Control Forum, the “levels” where broadly defined as being: -

  • Level 1 – any person in the FRS who was required to complete a Fire Damage Report and record a “Supposed Cause of Fire”.
  • Level 2 – a specialist investigator from the FRS and possibly from an Insurance company or other “non-Forensic” discipline with a wide range of experience and some qualification who may or may not have been a recognised “expert”, and
  • Level 3 – a Forensic Investigator who specialises in investigating fires and explosions and who is an acknowledged Court “Expert” who has either a Post Graduate Degree or Doctorate and specialist knowledge in a particular aspect of such investigations.
  • Subsequent development by the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) special interest Task Group on Arson Reduction and Fire Investigation has placed a broader interpretation upon these and currently envisages the levels as:

  • Level 1 – Fire and Rescue Service personnel whose role includes Incident Command and requires them to complete a report referred to as an “FDR 1” or an “FDR 3” both of which require completion of a section headed “Supposed Cause of Fire”,
  • Level 2 – FRS and Police Crime Scene Managers/Investigators who are required to investigate fires which involve a fatality, a criminal act, a fire of special or unusual interest or where the Level 1 investigator has been unable to identify a cause, and
  • Level 3 – which involves FRS Investigators, Forensic Scientists, Police and other Specialist Investigation Agencies. These will include persons who are recognised “Expert Witnesses” in their field under the UK legal system.
  • This has somewhat muddied the waters as far as the original intent was concerned, but does provide a useful platform from which personnel can plan their career development requirements. It is also helpful in terms of identifying the “start-up” level for individuals coming into the field from outside the Fire and Rescue Services since it makes clear that Level 1 is a basic level for form filling purposes only. The key area is obviously, for the majority of those wishing to gain a specialist role, in Level 2.

    With the advent of the registration process, many senior FRS investigators are now looking to become Level 3 investigators and have undertaken Masters Degree studies in order to develop their knowledge base appropriately. This, taken with prior training and their experience in the field enables them to apply for registration, and, subject to the court’s recognising this, to be acknowledged as Expert Witness. Naturally, the number of FRS personnel who reach these exalted heights will necessarily be restricted since many will not have the opportunity to build a sufficiently broad portfolio for registration.


    The training programmes available to would be UK fire investigators are available from a number of providers. These range from one and two day “awareness” programmes to one, two and even three week courses which provide a mixture of theoretical knowledge development and practical skills in examining a fire scene. Several providers now deliver programmes broken down into Introductory”, “Foundation” and “Practical” usually of about a weeks duration at least for the last two programmes. Some offer “Advanced” courses as a follow on from their initial progression and several offer “Maintenance” courses for those who need to renew or refresh their skills after a period of relative inactivity in the field. All such programmes are based on the requirements set out in the National Occupational Standards and this means, in effect, that they also cover the requirements for NFPA 1033 in so far as that standard is applicable to the UK situation.

    Raising the awareness of the importance of noting the state of the fire and the vehicle or structure at the point of arrival – and then ensuring that, while effectively extinguishing the fire, the scene is preserved as far as possible, is an important element in developing Level 1 candidates. (Photograph © P G Cox 2006)

    For the majority of Fire and Rescue Service personnel, their personal development in this discipline will begin with a Fire Investigation and Forensic Awareness programme provided usually “in Service” either by the particular Service’s own FI Team or by an outside provider. This is usually aimed at Crew and Watch Managers and is aimed at developing their ability to identify the point of origin in a relatively uncomplicated scene, and thereby the cause, or in recognising a scene where a higher level of investigation will be required and to preserve as much as possible of the potential evidence it contains. They will receive advice on how to prevent the loss of evidence, on DNA contamination and how to secure and preserve the scene as far as possible.

    As with a vehicle, the Level 1 candidate needs to recognise the importance of being able to recall and interpret the state of the fire at the moment of arrival and to preserve as much as possible of any external evidence which may assist in prosecuting a criminal at a later stage. (Photo © P G Cox 2006)

    Such a programme typically covers:

  • Legal authority, restraints and restrictions,
  • Identifying a point of origin and likely cause,
  • Electrical causes of fire,
  • Data collection and information gathering,
  • Scene management and preservation,
  • Scene examination, pattern analysis and evidence interpretation,
  • Forensic awareness and preservation of evidence,
  • Restrictions and triggers for higher level investigation, and
  • Hand over procedures and information exchange.
  • Such a programme is usually run over two days as a minimum and would include some practical and “table top” exercises in simple evidence analysis and examination. It should be said that Health and Safety issues form a large part of the National Occupational Standards in Fire Investigation, but as this is an integral part of most fire and rescue service officers “mainstream” development, it is generally covered in the form of “reminder” and “refresher” elements within the appropriate sessions in any programme of this duration. Not unnaturally there needs to be an element of skill and knowledge assessment attached to the programme and this can take several forms, although a mixture of practical assessment in the workplace coupled with a form of knowledge testing is often required to show the individual has developed the necessary ability and is ready to begin the next stage of development.

    Ideally, candidates would be able to examine a real scene in training, but table top exercises using good photographs which adequately illustrate the learning points can be as effective. (Photo © P G Cox 2006)

    img05-glass.jpg  img06-sockets.jpg
    Equally valuable is allowing candidates to examine real artefacts and requiring them to answer questions or a series of questions concerning the item or the state of it. (Photo © P G Cox 2006)

    For the Level 2 practitioner, the development programmes build upon their foundation knowledge of fire behaviour and fire fighting, with, for the fire and rescue service candidate a development of understanding of the investigative process, building on the techniques of examining, recording and reporting. To the pre-existing store of knowledge will be added a number of scientific subjects and further development of the overall understanding of fire behaviour, fuels, ignition sources, structural materials and furnishings. Key to the whole is the need to ensure that their methodology is able to withstand critical scrutiny by peers or a court. Police Crime Scene Managers/Investigators and others from outside the fire service may need to undertake some additional development programmes in order to acquire the underpinning knowledge of fire and fire behaviour required in order to interpret fire debris. All will need to become experts in the techniques of excavation, examination and analysis of information in order to reach the required level of expertise required for recognition as a competent investigator. Key to the Level 2 candidates’ development is the encouragement of a wider purview of the role of a fire investigation. It is essential that candidates recognise the need to examine all aspects of the event and not confine themselves to identifying simply a point of origin and cause. Fires are extremely complex events and many things combine to make a fire in one scenario behave in an entirely different manner to that in another scene which is essentially the same in terms of fire load, distribution of fuel packages and dimensions of compartments.

    This graphic depiction of the information flow from sound Fire Investigation demonstrates the importance of taking a holistic approach. Each of the items shown can be further expanded to provide further sub headings and information trees.

    The programmes devised to address the development needs of a Level 2 investigator must also take account of the levels of knowledge that may have been acquired by the candidate in the course of other training, career development programmes focussed upon fire fighting or command and control. There is a need to address the knowledge gaps which may occur in candidates who do not have a fire and rescue service background, and it is often necessary to assist FRS candidates to refocus and recognise the manner in which knowledge they hold which relates perhaps to fire extinguishment is essential in the interpretation of some of the data they have now to analyse in interpreting the fire damage they are examining. Typical examples are the indicators left by search and rescue teams, or where hose streams may have changed the patterns left by soot or flame movement. These programmes generally divide into two parts; theoretical and practical development and will cover broadly the following:

  • Legislation, authority, powers, duties, controls and restrictions,
  • Smoke flame and heat movement and behaviour,
  • Fire science including chemistry, physics and fire promoters and inhibitors,
  • Electrical fault finding and contributors to initiation,
  • Ignition sources and initiators,
  • Toxicology of debris and health and safety assessment,
  • Scene management, entry control and log books,
  • Inter-agency working and sharing of information,
  • Evidence gathering and controls,
  • Pathology, DNA and techniques for identifying fatalities,
  • Fingerprint and DNA evidence recovery and preservation,
  • Information gathering through documents, interviews and other sources,
  • Forensic scene examination including scientific methodology and the analysis process,
  • Debris analysis,
  • Pattern analysis and interpretation,
  • Correlation of data,
  • Recording activities, evidence and data through plans, photographs, notes and video etc., and
  • Development of a hypothesis, testing and reviewing the same, and finally being able to write a report and defend their findings under cross examination in court.
  • Naturally the candidates will need to be given the opportunity to get their hands dirty in a physical scene examination or two as well. Again the mixture is very much a case of using lectures, demonstrations, table top exercises and as many practical scenes as possible (and economically sustainable!) into the mix. In this way the candidates get the benefit of lectures and practical sessions with acknowledged experts in all the disciplines involved in fire investigation.

    Emphasis is also laid upon the need to avoid contamination of samples or scenes, particularly where a crew may have responded from another incident and may well have carried debris or traces of accelerants with them. The use of ever more sensitive instruments, and the sensitivity of a trained dog’s nose means that greater care than ever before is needed to ensure that the possibility of accidental contamination is reduced to a minimum.

    At this level as well, candidates need to develop the ability to use as wide a range of research tools and sources as possible. While they may not be classed as “experts” in the fullest sense of the word, they do have an obligation to behave in as professional and expert a manner as their training, personal development and role allow. When in court, the judge may well decide to accept their expertise as being of a sufficiently high standard to recognise them as experts in that court and it is essential that they are able to support their arguments and opinions with a sound background of written reference or practical demonstration of experience. The training needs to include this element to ensure that every candidate, no matter what their background, has had the opportunity to develop these skills.

    Realism in the setting of scenes is not a luxury, it is an essential tool if a realistic fire scene is to be achieved.

    The practical work on any programme needs to be as realistic as possible, so the scenes built for training need to reflect reality as closely as possible. This, in its turn, presents the trainer with something of a challenge as they must attempt to “engineer” the fire scene in a manner that produces the evidence and the learning outcomes they want. There are several ways of doing this, one being to ensure that the fire is relatively carefully controlled by controlling the fuel packages present, the smoke and heat plume or simply by restricting the size of the fire or length of burn. Some trainers argue that it is not necessary to allow the compartment to go to full room involvement, others that to do so provides the students with a worthwhile challenge from which they stand to learn a great deal more. Either way, one aspect which does need to be addressed is the technique to be followed for an excavation – which sooner or later will be something an investigator will have to do!

    The same scene as in the foregoing photograph – but post fire as the students see it.

    Excavation skills are best acquired by actually carrying out this often laborious and sometimes thankless task. The tools required for it include “stepping plates”, trowels, sieves, protective clothing including dust masks and goggles and it is best approached in the same manner as an archaeologist approaching an ancient burial site. In some fire scenes there may also be a need to wear full enclosure coveralls to avoid DNA contamination, particularly where it may be a suspected murder scene.

    Stepping plates are used to avoid destroying small items which may be vital evidence when first entering a room or compartment to be excavated.

    By avoiding treading on the primary surface, an investigator can preserve any evidence that may be present if there is a need to reach a particular area before commencing a more detailed examination.

    Part of the training for scene preservation is to develop an awareness of the need to employ a “Common Approach Path”, a route agreed between all agencies present to be used for all access and egress from a scene to avoid disturbing or destroying other evidence which may lie in areas adjacent to the scene or in areas which it is not intended to examine immediately. The use of the CAP must then be rigorously observed and enforced by the scene manager, who should also keep a strict log of everyone accessing or exiting the scene. This is particularly important in any scene where there has been a fatality or an explosion.

    As ever, the recording of the data found, acquired or analysed must be done in a methodical and comprehensive manner. Note taking and keeping has to be done methodically and carefully, photographs logged and a record kept of precisely what each frame depicts. Plans need to be drawn to show where items were before recovery and to mark out the patterns left by the fire.

    Archaeologists work to a grid reference and this is a useful technique in fire investigation as well.


    Exploded views often help to show a contextual relationship between items of significance and the marks of burn or plume patterns on walls of furniture.

    Naturally the development of the investigator has to make provision for the fact that he or she may well be faced with an explosion scene. There can be many causes of explosion, the most common in the UK, despite appearances in the media, is still the inappropriate use of gas, tampering with gas supplies or gas appliances or simply the accidental and undetected discharge of gas. Dispersed phase fuel air explosions will generally involve a wide range of specialists drawn from organisation such as the Health and Safety Executive, the Gas Supplier and the Forensic Science Services or similar private organisations such as the J H Burgoyne partnership. Usually the fire officer fire investigator is on the periphery of this, but may well hold vital knowledge which can contribute significantly to the investigation provided he or she has been adequately trained in this field. As already mentioned, joint working, shared information and agreed controls on entry, exit and the use of equipment and a common approach path become absolutely essential.

    The shattering force of a relatively small device in a small car. This was the result of a commercially available “Shock Rocket” strapped to cement block and 2.5 litres of petrol mixed polyurethane foam. The quantity of explosive was about 70 grams of Flash Powder. (Photograph © P G Cox 2006)

    For the fire officer understanding the mechanism of deflagrating or detonating explosions and the damage patterns likely to arise from each is a matter of some importance. Some air vapour mixtures, such as petrol or Propane, can produce blast forces close to those one would normally expect to see with the use of high explosive. Recognising the difference is not always easy, but it can be done if the investigator has been given the opportunity to develop the skill.

    A backdraft seen head on – another form of fuel/air deflagration. Recognising the differences between this and other explosions is a skill developed through knowledge and experience. (Photograph © Dr-ing S Löffler 2005)

    Increasingly the misuse of fireworks, pyrotechnics and other commercially available “low” explosives and incendiaries has created a need for training in this area of expertise, although it being highly specialised, it is generally handled by specialist teams. The terrorist threat in Europe and elsewhere has also increased the chances of an investigator finding himself or herself faced with peroxide based explosives and residues thus making it necessary that they are fully conversant with the risks these pose.

    Maintenance of competence and currency is a problem for many fire officer investigators as the mobility of roles moves them from a role which includes fire and explosion investigation to one which does not. To this end short “refresher” courses have been developed which allow candidates to catch up on changes to legislation, renew skills or re-confirm their ability to investigate a fire. These programmes are structured to put in more practice and keep the theory to a level of “confirmation” or “refresher”.

    One aspect which needs to be mentioned here, and which crosses the gap between a Level 2 and a Level 3 investigation, is the need to use engineering tools such as computer modelling in order to provide confirmation or support for a hypothesis. For many investigators this has become an essential tool, particularly when faced with analysing a fire event in a building of innovative design or which has apparently behaved in an unusual manner. Essential too, is an understanding of the interactions between various components of any “fire engineered” fire safety solution in a large structure, and it may be necessary for the investigator to analyse the effectiveness or otherwise of the systems – and their effect on the fire growth, spread and development.

    Finally we have to deal with the Third Level of investigator, usually a forensic scientist of some years experience and very highly, if narrowly qualified in a particular field. The vast majority of those working at this level are in the private sector, having started out as graduate entrants and worked their way through a range of experience and further study usually culminating in a PhD, a course the vast majority of FRS investigators will never achieve. Their foundation knowledge is usually, but not exclusively developed in University and the focus of their development beyond graduation is in gaining the practical experience and credibility that goes with being recognised as a specialist “expert” in the field of forensic practice and investigation.

    The recent introduction of a Register of Forensic Practitioners for Fire Investigation has seen a number of fire and rescue service personnel seeking to gain recognition at this level. This has generally been welcomed, but it does place a very heavy requirement on the fire and rescue service investigator who must now seek higher qualification alongside his or her experience in order to develop their knowledge base academically to achieve the level of knowledge a court expects of a person working at this level. Several universities have introduced Master of Science programmes in Forensic Science which include a fire and explosion investigation element and these have attracted a number of fire and rescue service officers who wish to expand their knowledge and skills into this field. Again this is a positive step since it can only benefit their employers in the longer term to have people capable of operating at this level.

    Finally, it is important to appreciate that at all levels the training uses the concept of “Structured” investigation procedure to develop the professional abilities of all those who investigate fire or explosion scenes. Any person who embarks upon an investigation and does not follow the defined structural approach to fire investigation – as has been clearly shown by recent challenges to “expert” testimony in the US – is fundamentally failing to follow the simplest principles of sound investigation technique. It matters not whether it is likely to be subject to judicial proceedings or not, clearly the investigation is of value only if it is pursued and conducted with thoroughly professional vigour and a scientific process. Those who embark on an investigation with a preconceived notion of the outcome will find only the evidence that supports their particular conclusion.

    The mind is like a parachute – it works best when it is open. Professional trainers in the UK do their utmost to ensure that those they are developing share that concept.

    A Representation of the Structured Approach to Fire Investigation


    National Occupational Standards - Fire Investigation - Determine Origin, Cause and Development of Fire and/or Explosion; Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; 2005

    NFPA 1033; National Fire Protection Association.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:16 AM | TrackBack

    June 28, 2006

    From Hotel to City Hall

    Next to the Market Square, right at the heart of Helsinki's Neoclassical town centre, looms the bluish-grey facade of the town's City Hall. Construction of the houses around here began after the devastating fire in 1808. In 1812 Helsinki became the capital of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire but an Autonomous Grand Duchy nonetheless. This new status required of course more stately looking buildings in the city.

    The Helsinki City Hall

    The City Hall was originally built as a hotel, the Seurahuone Hotel, which was opened in 1833. The banquetting rooms on the first floor must have been quite a sight. The main hall was huge and could accomodate up to 1600 people. The hotel also had separate gambling rooms and - would you believe it - actually 27 rooms for guests. The members of the conference were lucky enough to be invited inside for a reception by the Mayor. The Main Hall could easily accomodate several hundreds of us, a splendid buffet and a good selection of drinks including astonishing amounts of red and white wine.

    The Main Hall - restored to its former splendour in the 1960's

    Those must have been the days, indeed, with the Seurahuone Hotel being the centre of society life in the 19th century Helsinki, housing balls and concerts for Russian and Finnish officers. As a result of the Tsar's ban on foreign travel Helsinki also welcomed many visitors of the Russian gentry who no doubt added even more colour to the social scene. The Seurahunone did its utmost to keep its popularity providing such newfangled things as gas lamps and running water as early as the 1860's and even electricity in the 1880's. During WW I the hotel served as a naval hospital and was turned into a home for the Helsinki City Council in the 1920's. The building was completely renovated in the late 1960's to suit the modern architectural spirit, restoring only the main hall, the facade and the entrance colonades to its former glory

    On the day we visited the City Hall some specially designed pieces of everyday use were on display in the foyer. I must admit that I have a weakness for scandinavian design especially where it concerns household goods. The design usually proves to be extremely simple but effective and it is often something completely different to what we are used to around here. I often think it is because of the long, dark winters scandinavians have to spend indoors which makes them spend a lot of thought on how to turn their homes and houses into extremely comfortable places.

    Design water taps (and a bicycle) on display in the foyer

    Posted by Mausi at 06:44 PM | TrackBack

    June 26, 2006

    The City of Helsinki

    The city was founded by the Swedish King Gustavus Vasa in 1550. He actually orderred the inhabitants of three villages to leave their homes and resettle in Helsinki at the coast of the Baltic Sea. I am sure nowadays no drastic measures would be necessary to make people live in this beautiful town.

    As I've said before the famous architect Alvar Aalto wanted to introduce a mediterranean atmosphere into the town when he planned Finlandia Hall. About a hundred years before Ernst Bernhard Lohrmann had already been successful in doing that when he designed Hakasalmi Villa which is situated next to Finlandia Hall.

    Hakasalmi Villa

    The building was completed in 1845 and has served as Helsinki City Museum ever since 1911. There is a little cafe in front of Hakasalmi Villa where we used to take a cafe latte during lunch break. Sitting there in the light shade or bright sunshine felt more like being in Tuscany than southern Finland.

    But Helsinki has also been under strong Russian influence having been part of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. There are still quite a few monumental buildings around in Helsinki that somehow are quite noticeable among the rest of the houses. An example is the Finnish Parliament building right opposite Villa Hakasalmi. And there are a few others as well like the central train station.

    Building of the Finnish Parliament

    Finns are inventive people and I like the way they make use the bits of bedrock that are found everywhere in town. This bit for example has been turned into a splendid playground for children.

    Ever met such cuddly stone trolls?

    Helsinki is a fascinating city even if you only walk through it. If I had to live in a big city Helsinki would certainly be on top of my list.

    Posted by Mausi at 06:56 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    June 25, 2006

    Church without Bells

    During the Helsinki conference I passed Tempelliaukio Square each morning on my way from the hotel to Finlandia Hall. Part of this square is the famous "Rock Church" planned and built in the 1960's. The idea of building in church in this spot dates back as far as the very beginning of the 20th century. It took, however, about 30 years for a building plan to evolve that everyone could agree on. Excavation work began in 1939 but was stopped by the Winter War. After the war, it was decided to make a fresh start: another architectural competition was launched which was won ty the brothers Timo und Tuomo Suomalainen and led to the present design. It is considerably smaller than the first ideas that went for a cathedral but spectacular none the less.

    The church was quarried directly into bedrock which crops up in various places all over Helsinki. The idea behind this was to preserve this rock formation and consequently the church had been built into the rock as far as possible. The outer stone wall surrounding the curch is nade if quarried stones held together by steel bindings. It shields the church quite effectively from street noise and from people walking on the rock above.

    Entrance to Temppeliaukio Church

    The entrance to the church is at street level which creates the impression of entering a cave and transports you right back in time to meetings of the first Roman Christians in the catacombs. After passing through a short corridor, however, you are standing in a pool of light inside the church itself.

    Inside the rock

    The church seems much bigger from the inside than it looks from outside and provides seats for no less than 750 people. The roof consists of a copper dome attacked to the rock by reinforced concrete beams of various sizes. 180 skylights are embedded between the beams allowing the light to literally flood the room.

    The walls inside are bedrock and quarried stone, the colour of the predominant red granite giving the whole room a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. The surface has been left rough for acoustic and aesthetic considerations. I would have loved to hear the organ being played in there but wasn't that lucky. Quite a unique feature is water being allowed to run through cracks in the rock face of the walls and led away through covered drains in the floor. And the altar wall is formed by an ice-age rock crevice. It seems to me that nature has found a way of easily coexisting with man in this church or perhaps vice versa?

    Man put his hand to the flinty rock,
    and overturns mountains by the roots.
    He cuts out channels in the rocks,
    and his eye sees every precious thing.
    He binds up the streams so that they do not trickle,
    and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
    But where shall wisdom be found?
    And where is the place of understanding?
    God understands the way to it,
    and he knows its place.
    For he looks to the ends of the earth,
    and sees everything under the heavens.
    And he said to man,
    "Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
    and to depart from evil is understanding."
    Job 28:9-12,23-24,28

    Posted by Mausi at 06:58 AM | TrackBack

    June 21, 2006


    As you might have read I went to a conference last week in Helsinki. The venue was Finlandia Hall designed by the famous Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). You have probably come across one of his well known design elements, the wave, which makes for example his vases recognisable everywhere. But he is also famous for his monumental buildings. Finlandia hall is undoubtedly one of them.

    Part of the Eastern front of Finlandia Hall

    Alvar Aalto intended Finlandia Hall as part of a whole ensemble of buildings comprising - among others - an opera house, an arts museum, the city library and a number of other public buildings. This ensemble was supposed to form a new central square opposed to the existing monumental square in the old city centre. The new aquare should symbolise the independence of Finland won in 1917. This was to be further emphasised by a Freedom Avenue (Vapaudenkatu) leading from the new square into the old city centre. This ambitious plan was never fully carried out, though, especially the Freedom Avenue bit but Finlandia Hall at least was built from 1967 to 1972.

    The building is a striking in many ways. Lots of white marble from Carrara in Northern Italy have been used in its exterior and interior construction. The marble on the outside of the building contrasts nicely with black granite giving the whole building a friendly but elegant appearance. The reason for using white marble was Aalto's wish to introduce Mediterranean Culture into Finland. Looking at the Helsinki of today I would say he has been very successful indeed.

    Finlandia Hall is a combined congress and concert hall with many separate rooms for conference purposes and musical performances. It can easily accomodate up to 3,000 visitors.

    Tables laid for lunch for the 845 delegates

    The architecture of the building is interesting to say the least, though not always very practical or user friendly. As there were several parallel sessions during the conference finding another lectures room would sometimes lead to quite adventurous walks through corridors and staircases. The overall impression, however, was one of a spacious, light-flooded building.

    Typical for Alvar Aalto was meticulous attention to detail and high-quality construction. In Finlandia Hall every lightning fixture, every piece of furnituze, all mouldings, panels and flooring materials were especially designed for the purpose. The result is stunning in its simplicity and reflects Aalto's conviction that architecture should not attract attention itself but only serve as a background for human beings.

    Posted by Mausi at 08:35 PM | TrackBack

    May 29, 2006

    Maids of all work

    Portsmouth Dockyard fifty years ago would have been solid with Grey Funnel Liners as the RN's ships were sometimes called, usually by insiders. Since then the number of ships and the facilities that have supported them have been progressively reduced. In the period 1947 - 1957 all but one of the battleships were deleted and sent for scrap. The excuse put forward by the Civil Service was that " a single bomb could destroy and entire fleet". The used the same trash argument in 1964 when they deleted the entire aircraft carrier fleet and the last battleship - HMS Vanguard. The real reason for this destruction of the fleet was the need to raise money to balance the treasury books as spending spiralled out of control under the various Labour Governments headed by Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan. The simple solution? Sell off the big ship's for their scrap value - and pay off the matlots that manned them! Instant Treasury saving and windfall. Who needed the Fleet anyway, after all Mr Wilson's great chum Kruschev was going to be the President of the Soviet State of Europe anyway.

    Type 23.JPG
    A pair of Type 23 Frigates alongside in Portsmouth. Their single automatic gun mountings belie their real fire power, some of which is concealed in the structure aft of the gun mount.

    The Navy was saved by the fact that the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Louis Mountbatten, redesignated the three mini-carriers "Through Decked Cruisers" in order to get around the fact that Parliament (Populated as ever by morons and idiots) had endorsed the Civil Service decision that the Navy did not need Aircraft Carriers. That, in itself, arose from the fact that, again to save money, the Civil Service had cancelled the defence contracts to purchase a new generation of carrier aircraft and our Fleet was therefore left with out of date aircraft for the carriers. A further stay of execution came with the Falklands War, a war we should have lost! We had neither the fire power nor the ships for such an expedition and it was largely down to the fact that those we did have were better handled, more aggressively fought and used than those of the other side than the Civil Service's ongoing cuts had provided for.

    Under the present government our armed forces have seen even more swinging cuts in manpower, material and support than under any previous regime. Our fleet is reduced to an operational strength on paper of 35 ships - but more than half of those are small craft. The three carriers are reduced to one in service, one "laid up" and one "in maintenance" and a glance around Portsmouth Dockyard tells the same story of the rest of the larger ships. The truth is that under Blair and his anti-military morons, the civil service has been able to get away yet again with the argument that "one modern frigate has more fire power than the entire Grand Fleet at Jutland." Quite apart from the fact that this is complete tosh, the Grand Fleet numbered well over a hundred ships - which took a lot of individual sinkings to destroy. They could also all be deployed individually to anywhere you needed them - and one ship remains one ship. It may have more fire power, but it is still one ship. Unless the moron in the civil service who obviously thinks it can be more than that is aware of a means whereby that single ship can be in at least forty places simultaneously, he/she/it had better stop using that insulting phrase.

    Perhaps the government's "openness and honesty" over the mess in the Home Office can be extended to the MoD and we can at last reveal the fact that the MoD is unfit to manage the defence of the realm - primarliy because the senior Civil Servants who now infest it and have no understanding, knowledge or background in the services are incompetent. On the other hand, maybe that would be a step to far for Blair and his Civil Servant appointees.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:14 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 27, 2006

    Last of her kind ....

    A strange little survivor from a bygone era is tucked away next to HMS Victory at Portsmouth. This is the 'monitor' gunboat M33, and she has survived because she was converted into a floating workshop in the 1920's and remained in use until quite recently. She is now being slowly restored to her original appearance as a small monitor carrying a pair of six-inch naval guns.

    HM Monitor M33A.jpg
    Under restoration, a nice bow view of HM Monitor M33 in dry-dock at Portsmouth. Her forward six-inch gun is fitted with a tompion and the curved gunshield betrays the age in which she was built.

    A whole batch of these little monitors were built between 1914 and 1919 with M33 being the last to be laid down but not the last to be completed. The gun mounts came from old armoured cruisers which carried single mountings and which had shown themselves no match for more modern ships. As the old ships were scrapped, their guns were given to new ones. For some strange reason all of the Class were known as the M15 Class and carried numbers starting from M15 (very original!) and running to M33. For some reason the first batch was M15 to M28, then they had a hiatus on building more for around eight months, then batch two began and M29 to M33 were all built more or less simultaneously. They performed very useful service in shallow tidal and coastal waters in a number of different theatres, being able to support the army from an enemy's flank or in support of a landing party behind enemy lines.

    Interestingly while the majority of these little Monitors were steam propelled, four were fitted with diesel engines, which were unreliable as they aged. By all accounts they gave pretty good service right up to the end of WW2.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:27 PM | TrackBack

    May 21, 2006

    HMS Warrior - The Black Snake

    Another famous sight at the Historic Docks in Portsmouth is the HMS Warrior, the first ship of the Royal Navy that deserves the name 'Battleship'. She was launched in 1860 and joined the Channel Squadron in 1861. Compared to HMS Victory her design is quite revolutionary.

    HMS Warrior at Portsmouth

    Inspired by the La Gloire a French warship of Napoleon III whose wooden hull was simply clad with iron armour-plating to offer better protection against gun fire the English did things properly and built the whole hull of iron instead of wood. Additionally her guns and machinery were protected by a long 'armoured box' (64.6 m) which was impenetrable, even at close range, by the latest guns at that time. Bow and stern of the ship were not armour-plated but the warrior was divided into watertight compartments to limit the spread of water in case of being holed. Watertight compartments were a great step forward in ship construction but only possible in iron hulls.

    In contrast to the former wooden warships HMS Warrior has only one gun deck, equipped with quite a fearsome assortment of guns: 26 x 68 pounders (range 2.5 km), 10 x 110 pounders (range 2.7 miles) and 4 x 40 pounders (range 3 km). The biggest guns on HMS Victory were 32 pounders! Her crew consisted of 705 men.

    The Warrior was fitted with a steam engine. But at that time the engine was not fuel efficient enough to make the sails obsolete. Burning 11 tonnes of coal an hour at full speed the Warrior's steaming range was not more than 3500 km, not even enough to let her cross the Atlantic. Therefore great distances were usually covered under sail using steam only to get her in and out of harbour. For this she could telescope down her funnels and the propeller was hoisted clear of the water. Funny enough this had to be down by manpower as the ship lacked powered machinery to perform these task. Just as on the Victory sailors did not exactly have an easy live on the Warrior either

    The progress that had been made in ship design over a hundred year becomes evident if you compare a few numbers: The Victory is 69 m long, the Warrior is almost twice that size at 127 m. The beams are almost the same size with 16 and 18 meters. The displacement of the Victory is 3600 tonnes, the Warrior's more than twice as much, namely 9367 tonnes. Under full sail the Victory would reach a top speed of 8 knots compared to 13.75 knots of the Warrior under full sail. Using sail and steam the Warrior would even reach 17.5 knots which must have been quite something at the end of the 19th century.

    The Warrior has had (and is probably still having) an interesting life. Being such an awe inspiring fighting machine she never had to fire a shot in anger. Serving in the Navy she entered Portmouth in 1883 and was laid up in a remote corner of Portsmouth Harbour called 'Rotten Row'. In 1929 she became a floating jetty for an oil fuel depot at Milford Haven in Wales. That probably saved her and in 1979 she was towed to Hartlepool for restoration. In June 1987 she arrived back in Portsmouth looking, I should think, as resplendent as on her first day at sea.

    Posted by Mausi at 12:08 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 15, 2006

    Highlands and Lowlands

    Loch Lomond is situated right at the Highland Boundary Fault which marks the border between Highlands and Lowlands in the West of Scotland. The photo below was taken at the south bank of Loch Lomond catching a first glimpse of the Highlands.

    Loch Lomond in the morning with a snow capped Ben Lomond at the back

    The change in the landscape between Lowlands and Highlands is quite abrupt and reflects their different geological histories. The rather bare looking mountains of the Highlands were carved out of so called Dalradian rock, named after the ancient Scots kingdom Dalradia. These were originally marine sands, muds lime-rich deposits and layers of volcanic ash. Being buried between 15 to 20 km below the earth surfac they were altered by heat and pressure. Increased pressure and temperatures around 600 deg C brought about the formation of new minerals and sands and muds were transformed into hard cleaved rocks such as slates, phyllites and schists. Earth movements in this area known as the Caledonian Orogeny or mountain building event formed the Highland mountains. In much the same way the Himalaya and the Alps have been formed more recently. It is quite fascinating to know that at the time the Highland mountains were formed Scotland lay south of the equator and belonged to Laurentia, a large continent that subsequently fragmented into eastern North America, Greenland and Scotland.

    The Lowlands are more like a basin into which thick layers of Devonian and then Carboniferous sedimentary and volcanic rocks were deposited. The glaciers from the last ice age also took part in shaping the landscape.

    Loch Lomond is a beautiful area to explore but can be subjected to quite sudden weather changes. Having climbed half way up a hill on the east side of the Loch we were suddenly surprised by a rain cloud.

    2006_LochLomond-02.JPG  2006_LochLomond-03.JPG
    The cloud went as swiftly as it had come upon us

    Except for the Western Hebrides rain is almost always "just a shower" in Scotland. Having endured a few minutes of refreshing raindrops and a lively breeze the sun was back and with it a breathtaking view of the Loch and Mountains.

    View across to the northwest end of the Loch

    Posted by Mausi at 08:44 PM | TrackBack

    May 14, 2006

    Chepstow Castle

    Exploring the British Isles you sometimes wonder what people actually did during the 11th and 12th century apart from building castles and cathedrals. Quite a large number of these buildings seem to have been begun around that time and then added on over the centuries. A fine example is Chepstow Castle situated at the river Wye and guarding the Southern entrance into Wales.

    Nowadays it is only a ruin but an impressive one. In 1067, a year after the Battle of Hastings, William fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford, began the earliest defences at Chepstow. The castle is built on a cliff which effectively protects its Northern side. To the East, West, and South fortifications were added over the years. In the end the castle consisted of three Baileys and strong walls and fortifications on the southern side. These southern walls, however, could not withstand heavy cannon fire during the Civil War. In the end the Castle was taken by the Parliamentary troops and granted to Oliver Cromwell.

    2006_chepstow-martens-tower.jpg   2006_chepstow-gate.jpg
    Marten's Tower to the left and the impressive fortified Main Gatehouse to the right

    Nowadays the castle is entered through the Main Gatehouse which leads into the Lower Bailey. Around the Lower Bailey the living quarters of the last inhabitants of the castle are built. Marten's Tower must have made quite a nice house to live in with spacious rooms, a fascinating little chapel and quite a view from the windows in the upper stories. It is named, though, after the regicide, Henry Marten, who was imprisoned in the tower.

    The Lower Bailey is separated from the Middle Bailey by the East Curtain wall which contains two towers. The next photo, which shows the wall between Lower and Middle Bailey, also shows how effective the cliff must have been in defending the castle. Supplies could be easily brought to the castle by boat but entry was impossible from the waterside.

    View from the Middle Bailey along the cliff onto the curtain wall between Lower and Middle Bailey

    Between the Middle and the Upper Bailey the Great Tower, the oldest building of the castle, is situated.

    2006_chepstow-great-tower.jpg   2006_chepstow-arcade.jpg
    Westen wall of the Great Tower

    Originally the Great Tower comprised a basement and a single large room above. Part of the Norman arcade of niches can still be seen on the west wall. A second floor and new windows were added by the sons of William Marshal, who gained Chespstow by marriage in 1189, and completed by Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk, who inherited Chepstow in 1270. The single large room must have been quite a stately one, well befitting the importance of the masters of Chepstow Castle. A closer look at the niches of the western wall even reveals remains of the eleventh century wall painting.

    View from the Upper Bailey onto the muddy river Wye at low tide

    The view onto the river is spectacular, at least in bright sunshine. Might be quite different in the usual Welsh drizzle, of course. However, the remains of Chepstow Castle are well worth a visit. Standing inside the Bailey and looking at the walls makes you suddenly realise how long they have actually been there: since 1100. That is almost a millennium ago. America wasn't even discovered then and the world must have been altogether a much smaller place. On the other hand – probably not - because travelling from A to B certainly took up a lot more time than it does nowadays.

    Posted by Mausi at 03:42 PM | TrackBack

    May 11, 2006

    The World's Oldest Commissioned Warship

    One of the highlights during my recent visit to England and Scotland undoubtedly was a day at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. Much to the Monk's astonishment Portsmouth greeted us with bright sunshine. Apparently it usually tries its best to live up to the old myth that it is forever raining in England.

    One cannot, of course, stroll through the dockyard without having a closer look at the HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's famous flagship in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. She is a beautiful ship although she was built for one purpose only: destruction.

    The HMS Victory in dry dock in Portsmouth

    The HMS Victory was designed as a fighting machine. Three decks carried three different sizes of guns: 30 x 32 pounders on the lower deck, 28 x 24 pounders and 30 x long 12 pounders on the upper deck. There were additional smaller guns on the quarter deck and fo'c'sle. Each pair of 32 pounders was operated by a crew of fifteen. Reloading and firing a gun is quite a complicated business, especially if you have to do it on a dark, smoke-filled gun deck. Nelson's seamen were so very well trained that they could reload and fire these heavy guns within 90 s, which gave them a clear advantage over their enemies. Moreover the Victory is said to have been an excellent sailing ship making 8 knots at top speed.

    On entering the ship one is astonished how low the ceilings are and instantly starts to wonder what life must have been like on a ship like that. The crew at Trafalgar comprised 821 men. About 500 of them lived on the lower gun deck. As the gun ports were usually kept closed it must have been dark, damp and extremely smelly down there. The men slept in hammocks of 400 mm width. That is so narrow actually that they had to sleep with their heads next to the feet of their neighbours! The stench of unwashed bodies must have been overpowering but probably the human nose just shuts down in situations like this.

    Food and drink supplies on the other hand were generous, amounting to something like 5000 calories per day: cold oatmeal porridge for breakfast, salted meat stew cookes in the galley for dinner and biscuits and cheese for dinner. It was a pity that the ship's biscuits were soon invaded by weevils who had to be shaken out by gently tapping the biscuit on the table before eating it. Small wonder most seamen apparently preferred to enjoy their biscuits in darkness ... Drink consisted of half a pint of rum a day mixed with (often salty) water. But getting drunk was a major offence and would be punished. Discipline was very strict on board. I suppose it had to be considering the living conditions on a ship like that.

    Still - considering the general living conditions of poorer people in the 18th/19th century the seamen were probably not that badly off. They had a sheltered place to stay, they had work and income, and they had sufficient food each day. That is probably a lot more than a worker in a coal mine had at that time. And they would often sail for years before they had to go into battle. Out of the 821 that went to Trafalgar surprisingly few were actually killed and wounded.

    On the other hand I would very easily forego the experience of being a 'powder monkey', boys aged between 8 and 14 years, during battle on board the Victory. You had to feel your way down to the lowest deck where the sacks of powder for the guns were filled. For the three different types of cannons, three differently sized powder bags were stored in three different places so that the risk of mix ups was kept to a minimum. You had to take the powder bags and hurry back to your place through darkness and most probably silence as most of the seamen on the gun decks went deaf after the first salvo was fired. And those on the lower decks weren't even able to see what was coming their way. I know, I'd suffer badly from claustrophobia.

    Mind you, on deck things can't have looked much brighter in a battle. Broadsides were usually fired at each other at close quarters, different types of cannon balls were designed to do maximum damage and snipers were aiming at you from the opposing ship. One of those mortally wounded Lord Nelson on October 21, 1805, who died a few hours later.

    You certainly wouldn't want to see her coming at you like this ...

    After a day around the docks you wonder why so much effort, thought and creativity always seems to go into the building of weapons and war machinery.

    Posted by Mausi at 06:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    May 06, 2006

    Skye scenes

    After arriving in Skye in gales and driving rain, the next morning dawned clear and beautiful. So, after a sumptious breakfast, we set out around Trotternish, the Northern Peninsula of the island. This is the wild and scenic bit with steep mountains and hills, deep glens and sheer cliffs with spectacular waterfalls. First stop was the Old Man of Storr, which Mausi climbed far enough to get a decent picture! The Monk stayed in the car park and admired the view! Climbing mountains "because they are there" is not his scene, he only climbs them when its essential!

    The spectacular Old Man of Storr pinnacles. Mausi met some exhausted Japanese tourists who had exhausted the ability to exchange greetings after climbing all the way up and back down again to their waiting coach!

    Next stop was a spectacular waterfall which is difficult to photograph, but which tumbles down a sheer cliff beneath the road, then falls through a narrow gorge a further couple of hundred feet to discharge into the sea. From there we continued on round the coast to the bassalt cliffs known as "Kilt Rock", the basalt pillars creating the appearance of folds in a kilt while the limes tone and sandstone interlayers create the "tartan" pattern.

    Kilt Rock, a basalt cliff with intruding layers of other rocks.

    From there we continued to the remains of Duntulm Castle, once the stronghold of the MacDonalds. The castle stands on a spectacular peninsula and is approachable only from one side. Below, in a shallow bay protected by outlying islands are the remaining traces of the drawslips where once the MacDonald galleys would have been drawn ashore. The castle itself is now a crumbling ruin, much of it dangerous and most of its stone robbed out to build a more imposing and more comfortable house for the family in the 16th Century. The family were eventually eclipsed as the dominant leaders on this island by the MacLeod's whose castle at Dunvegan lies in Vaternish to the West.

    The crumbling remains of Duntulm Castle perched on its promontory.

    Duntulm provided a good spot for a good walk and a light lunch, while we enjoyed the breeze off the sea, the sound of the sea and the birds. From there we went on to see the grave of Flora MacDonald, she of Bonny Prince Charlie fame (Ironically she and her husband ended up working for the MacLeod of Dunvegan Castle - a supporter of George I and his successors!) and then it was short drive to Uig, where again we took advantage of a good vantage point on the road that rises up the cliff face to sit and watch a ferry arrive, discharge, load and depart again for the Western Isles. This brought us to a cross roads which gave us the option of returning to Portree or driving on around the Vaternish peninsula and seeing Dunvegan Castle - no prize for guessing which was our choice.

    Dunvegan Castle from the Lochside.

    Dunvegan's gardens were just starting to get their spring foliage, but were still peaceful and well worth the visit. In full bloom, these must be spectacular, but the varieties of plants will mean that there will be ongoing beauty throughout rather than one "explosion" of bloom. The Castle itself is a fascinating place and very well worth the visit. It is obviously a home as well as a place of interest and the guides go out of their way to make you welcome. Anyone visiting Skye really does need to put this one on their list of places to see.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 05, 2006

    This 'n that.....

    OK, OK, so I'm soft on ships. Any ship, all ships, especially beautiful ships ..... But I couldn't resist taking and sharing this picture which shows the Iolaire of Iona, the lovely little ship that took us from Iona to Staffa. She has twin Perkins engines and screws and triple rudders which help to make her particularly nimble and manoeuverable. As you can see from the picture the landing stage at Staffa demands both skill and manoeuverability - or there would be something of a nasty accident sooner rather than later!

    The lovely Iolaire of Iona alongside the landstage on Staffa. In evidence are the outlying reef and outcrop out of sight to the right of the cliff is the basalt outcrop which funnels any running sea straight onto the landing stage.

    Travelling North to Skye brought me some more ship and boat pictures including one at Mallaig and several more at Portree. In Mallaig I was able to capture (between the rain and the spray!) a shot of a small and very sturdy looking little ship perched on the quay under maintenance. Named Pibroch she made a pretty little picture, as did a larger version moored in the harbour and evidently converted from a fishing vessel to a motor cruiser.

    Pibroch perched on the quayside at Mallaig.

    Despite the hairy drive on Skye, Portree provided a beautiful shot the next day, of the tranquil harbour - but more of that tomorrow. For now - my impression of the journey from Armadale to Portree .......

    Flying sheep on Skye

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:48 AM | TrackBack

    May 02, 2006

    Puffins and geology

    The island of Staffa, North of Iona and West of the Isle of Mull, is a geological gem. The island is composed of layers of volcanic ash and huge basalt columns. These columns formed millions of years ago when hot flowing basalt lava flowed over a layer of ash (several hundred feet thick in places) and then was suddenly cooled by immersion. This causes the basalt to form into hexagonal, sexagonal and even octagonal "pillars".

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    An islet at the Southern coast of Staffa built of *gonal-shaped basalt pillars

    Those on Staffa are matched by the Giants Causeway in Antrim, 70 miles away on the coast of Ireland. Legend links the two places as Staffa is the site of Finghal's Cave and in Irish folk legends, the islands of Western Scotland are boulders thrown by the Irish giant Finn M'Couhl in a battle with an enemy on the Scottish side.

    The spectacular basalt pillars which form the island of Staffa, with Finghal's cave opening to the right.

    We were fortunate to have a flat calm sea and almost no breeze for our trip to Staffa from Fionnphort, as it allowed us to enjoy the spectular views of the variety of sea birds, the clear seas and the surrounding islands - the Isles of Treshnish. Climbing the cliffs and certainly clambering along the ledge into Finghal's Cave is not recommended in rough weather since the landing stage at the island is approached between a huge basalt pillar pile and two submerged ledges. The sea breaks through the gap between Staffa and the outlying basalt islet with some force according to our skipper and I can well believe him.

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    Puffins - straight out of Enid Blyton's famous "The Sea of Adventure"

    The climb up the cliff face is well worth the effort as is the trek to the other end of the island. The Puffins had arrived only a few weeks earlier - they spend the winter in mid-Atlantic - and rather like having people visit as this drives away the guillemots, Herring Gulls and other birds that rob them and their underground nests. As the pictures show, they waddled quite close to us and the other members of the party. Funny little fellows, there is apparently little distinction between male and female that humans can spot - so presumably the Puffins know and can tell easily enough! They make a strange groaning and grumbling noise as they congregate and this goes on all the time. In flight they are quite graceful, with wings designed for skimming and swimming. They have been recorded diving to almost 60 metres, but more usually swim down to between 20 and 30 meters to catch sand eels.

    Departing Staffa after an hour on the island, our skipper announced that, as several elderly members of the party had not seen the Puffins close too, nor been able to get to Finghal's Cave, he would make a small detour. He did, we got a close view of a raft of Puffins swimming and diving and then, in a feat of seamanship that was thoroughly professional and displayed his skill, took the 70 foot launch into the mouth of Finghal's Cave, stopped engines and drifted gently part way into the interior.


    A thoroughly memorable and truly worthwhile trip!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:30 AM | TrackBack

    April 27, 2006

    Light and shadows ....

    Driving up from Loch Lomond around the deep sea lochs that penetrate the Scottish Western coast, we rounded a bend and found ourselves looking down on this rainbow at the head of Loch Fyne. The light seemed to be striking upwards from below the rain and clouds above which poured over the mountains to the West of the Loch. Rain swept across the head of the glen and we watched in quiet enjoyment as the sun played with the raindrops to produce the stunning rainbow in the picture below.

    Now, had this been Ireland we would have found a Leprechaun at each end clutching his pot of gold - and could have got three wishes for grabbing him and the gold! Never mind, the pure magic of the sight was enough for us.

    The roads around here are narrow - mostly single track with "passing bays" - and require a good deal of patience and concentration, but for the brave, the bold or the plain ignorant, it all brings it's own rewards as each bend produces some new sight or breathtaking view. Once the rain cleared - and it soon did - we drove on down the Western side of the Loch to Inverary, then on up through more winding twisting glens and along the shores of Loch Awe and on to Oban, to find a ferry to the Isle of Mull.

    But more of that tomorrow!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:23 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    April 26, 2006

    Vital Spark

    At Inverary we found this pair of small ships that make up a fascinating Maritime Museum. In the foreground is the Antarctic Penguin, once a Light Ship in the Clyde Approaches and now a preserved vessel with displays of the maritime heritage of the Clyde and the Western Isles. Tucked in behind her is one of a large number of "Puffers" which once roamed the Lochs and islands collecting and delivering goods before the trade was taken over by the juggernaut lorry and the vehicle ferries. The one captured here was originally built for the Royal Navy and served all her working life as Vic 27, carrying stores and munitions around fleet anchorages to replenish the capital ships of the once mighty Royal Navy. Now she is preserved with the dual purpose of comemorating the men and small vessels who kept that fleet at sea, and also the large number of similar ships and hardworking men who plied the Scottish coast with their little ships supplying communities with the necessities of life.

    The former Light Ship "Antarctic Penguin" and the 'puffer' Vic 27 now bearing the name "Vital Spark" alongside the quay in Inverary.

    Those familiar with the Tales of Para Handy will recognise the name the Vic 27 now carries, the "Vital Spark" being the roguish Para Handy's little ship. In fact this small ship and one or two like her, have stood in for various TV programmes which have brought Para Handy and his crew to life for a more recent generation who will never have encountered their like.

    The Antarctic Penguin is home to a fascinating display of famous ships and their crews and owners, of the conditions aboard them and of the "emigrant ships" - some as small as fifty feet in length - that carried the displaced Highlanders and Islanders away from Scotland during the "clearances" of the 1800 - 1850 period. Conditions aboard were horrendous for these unwilling passengers. The Penguin herself was never used for oceanic voyages, buit served instead as a moored navigation beacon in the Clyde approaches. Her rig is authentic, she did indeed have three full masts, the fixed lights she displayed being carried on them. For all that she has a sound sea going shape and must have been a good sea keeper when in use. She carried a crew of eight and they would have done a "tour" of a month at a time aboard.

    Both vessels are well worth the time to visit - as is the Castle, home to the Dukes of Argyll, the famous heads of the Campbell Clan.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:07 AM | TrackBack

    April 22, 2006

    Inside the SS Great Britain

    The SS Great Britain is cleverly designed to bring as much comfort to its passengers and crew members as possible. Looking at the photograph of the deck below the top deck you notice chestlike structures on both sides. These are in fact "windows" designed to bring light from the top deck into this one and into the dining room below. They are covered by grilles to prevent things from falling through.

    Deck below the top deck inside the ship

    The First Class cabins are to the port and starboard of this photograph. These passengers had of course their own access to the top deck.

    The rather big sized galley gives you an idea how many of the crew must have been busy with preparing and serving the meals for the passengers. I imagine it must have been quite a hectic place at times with pots steaming and spluttering all around you.

    Part of the galley

    Keeping enough supplies for all on board must have been quite another matter. The photograph below shows the larder. There is also a place on board where freshly caught fish or whatever came along could be kept.

    One of the places where the provisions were kept

    I wonder, though, how often they were reduced to ships biscuits and plain water during the last leg of their journey...

    Posted by Mausi at 02:04 PM | TrackBack

    April 21, 2006

    Travelling on the SS Great Britain

    Before she became a freight ship the SS Great Britain was origally intended to transport passengers from Europe to America and back. A journey on board a ship like that must have been quite interesting to say the least. No fancy shopping malls or large sized cabins as we have on some modern cruise ships nowadays. The top deck was divided by a fine white line between First Class and common passengers. Every group had to keep to itself. Space on the topdeck was furthermore taken by a stable to keep an ox or two and guarantee a certain supply of fresh meat. Whatever space was left and not taken up by the crew or their equipment was the passengers' to enjoy a breath of fresh air in.

    And they most certainly needed that! Below deck passengers, even first class ones had to squeeze in wherever possible.

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    Size of first class cabins

    The cabin to the right might seem a bit bigger but there are two more bunks hidden behind the door on the left side. I can't imagine how people were able to get enough fresh air in such close quarters when the weather was bad and they were forced to keep the porthole shut.

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    The loo (left) seems to be a rather comfortably sized room compared to another of those cabins (right)

    But even the officers were not much better off - as a look into the Purser's cabin tells us. It cannot have been much fun having to work in such confined spaces especially in bad weather when the ship started rolling about.

    060411_0042-s.JPG  060411_0041-s.JPG
    The Purser's office and sleeping quarters

    Probably to keep passengers amused and entertained and from falling into a depression during their long voyage across the Atlantic ocean meals must have been the highlight of the day. It shows in the design of the First Class dining room which has been magnificently restored recently.

    The grand First Class Dining Room

    Posted by Mausi at 01:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    April 20, 2006

    Modelling the Great Britain

    It is difficult to get a picture of the Great Britain from any point around her that shows her full lines - it is also difficult to get a feel for her size. The model in the dockside museum at least gives some idea of the beauty that Brunel sculpted in the iron he used for her building. As an idea of size, her second mast from the bow is the main mast and this is 240 feet in height, and the yard on which the lower of the two square sails is set is made of iron and weighs 7 tons.

    This model of the Great Britain gives a good view of the overall hull and her rigging and shows just how innovative Brunel's design is.

    Brunel's design combined the then familiar structural method of creating a "tumblehome" above the waterline, so that the beam is at it's greatest at and just above the water, then tapers inwards until it meets the upperdeck. This increases the strength of the hull considerably - a fact borne out by her survival on an exposed Irish beach for eighteen months early in her career and then for almost sixty years aground in a cove in the Falkland Islands. Few modern ships would survive such treatment.

    The use of iron also allowed Brunel to create a ship twice the size of any conventional ship of the time built in wood. Even so-called composite hulls could not practically exceed a certain size dictated mainly by the length of planking and the difficulty in creating joints which would not suffer excessive stress. The combination of the screw propulsion system and the balanced rudder also made a ship which was both fast and manoeuverable and lacked the clutter of the huge paddle boxes on her sides. It also allowed him to keep the engines low down in the hull and thus give her greater stability. One feature he retained from the paddle steamers and which subsequently became a feature in all modern ships is the "Bridge", a raised platform spanning the deck and placed just aft of the funnel, allowing the Captain and his officers to see clearly all round the ship from a vantage point. Only later would it become practical to combine the steering position and the "Bridge" - something the Royal Navy has not done until quite recently, arguing that it was better to keep the helm position separate so that both Bridge and Helm could not be "knocked out" at the same time.

    While this model conveys the beauty of the ship, nothing can compare to standing on the real thing and admiring her "in the iron".

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:45 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    April 16, 2006

    Modern propulsion ....

    Mr Brunel's genius extended way beyond the capabilities of the materials he was working with on occassion. His design for a screw propellor for the Great Britain was so far in advance of the concepts of the day that it was truly groundbreaking and produced far more power than the materials he had available to make it from could handle. Not until the advanced metallurgy of the late twentieth century became available, could screw propellors like this one be made. First for the nuclear submarines and now, of course on almost every modern passenger and freight carrier at sea.

    Brunel's innovative screw propellor and the balanced rudder he designed for his great ship, the ss "Great Britain".

    Brunel's original design was fitted to the Great Britain and served on her first voyages across the Atlantic, proving to be extrremely efficient in service. However, the cast iron blades were extremely fragile and snapped under power - a much toughre and less brittle medium was required and this would not be available for some years. As a result the Great Britain spent most of her career as a steamer with a two blade and much less efficient screw fitted - still managing to prove very fast and powerful even with this handicap.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    April 13, 2006

    Brunel's great ship

    This is the 200th anniversary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's birth. Isambard who? Probably the greatest engineer of the Age of Industrial growth, this man was playing with materials and ideas others had not even dreamed of - and he had some spectacular failures as well as some huge successes. His bridges are still in use, a tunnel under the Thames driven through clay and lined with brick was the idea of his father and finished by IK in partnership. The disasterous "Great Eastern" - the world's biggest steamer when launched and which bankrupted all but her last owners, was probably his greatest failure, but his successes where even more spectacular.

    One of these, the impressive and unique "ss Great Britain" is preserved in Bristol in the Great Western Dock where she was built. The ship was so innovative and so huge that many predicted disaster from the moment she was conceived - yet she served valiantly from launch in 1845 until damaged off Cape Horn and seized by the Falkland Islands Comapny as a wool store and isolation hospital. Finally, in the 1930's she was towed round the island from Port Stanley and sunk in shallow water in a cove from which she was finally recovered in 1970 and brought hom to Bristol. Now she is being restored and visitors can see at least some of the genius that was Brunel's greates achievement.

    The beautifully restored upperworks of the "Great Britain" as she lies in her dry dock.

    Present work includes the reconstruction of the engines Brunel designed to drive this then leviathan of the ocean - an inverted steam compound engine that used a huge flywheel to drive a proppellor shafte via massive iron chain belts. Everything on this ship had to be designed from start - Brunel had no previous examples to work from of anything like this scale (His previous ship, the Great Western was a composite hul and much smaller - also using paddle wheel propulsion) and included having to design an efficient screw propeller, a balanced rudder which made her easier to steer than many smaller ships, and much of the engines themselves. His spacing of the frames, construction of the double bottoms and even the working of the wrought iron plates that made her hull strakes all had to be calculated and designed from scratch. Even the interiors did not escape his attention to detail and these were as lavish in parts as they were functional elsewhere.

    The fine lines of the "Great Britain's" underwater hull can be admired from the floor of the dock in which she is preserved. Her gracefull hull form gave her a very efficient entry and exit at bow and stern and meant she had a fair turn of speed under both steam and sail.

    She burned 30 tons of coal per day under steam and carried sufficient to steam across the Atlantic and have a small reserve. Once she was switched to the Australian emigrant run she had to rely on sail power and was converted to sail only. She proved very successful on this and on her next manifestation carrying coal to Australia and wheat home.

    Watch this space for a little more on this wonderful ship - I have a whole slew of pictures of her interiors and some more on her other features!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:01 AM | TrackBack

    April 11, 2006

    Ancient stones

    Mausi and I are enjoying a little break together in England. Last year she showed me the Rhine-Pfalz, this year it's my turn to show her parts of the UK she hasn't seen. Yesterday we visited a site older than Stonehenge - the Avebury Henge which was almost destroyed in the 17th and 18th Centuries, but fortunately saved and restored as far as possible by several enthusiastic and wealthy archeologists in the 20th. Avebury has been a site of human occuppation and activity for 6,000 years and the Henge was built slightly more than 5,000 years ago. Stonehenge is a comparative newcomer having been started around 3,000 years ago.

    Avebury is also the site of a manmade hill - Silbury Hill which is the largest manmade mound in Europe and stands just over 43 metres in height. No one now knows why the ancients Britons erected it, or what purpose it served in their lives. Itr is not a burial mound and it seems to have no practical function to speak of.

    The Avebury parish church dates to Saxon times and is a little over 900 years old. Some of the Saxon windows and stonewrok are still visible within.

    Avebury had ceased to be an important site by the time the Romans came to Briton, the centre of worship and apparently government having moved to Stonehenge and Amesbury about 30 miles to the East. It would not be re-occupied until the Anglo-Saxon settlements in the 7th and 8th Centuries and it has been in continuous settlement since then.

    Worth a visit if you are interested in ancient sites - and certainly well worth more thought.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    April 06, 2006

    Rural tranquility

    Between Northleach and Cheltenham lies a tiny hamlet called Yanworth. It is on the road to the site of a Roman Villa excavated and open to visitors so many barely pause as they pass through it. Many probably do not even see the little church hidden in the farmyard as one approaches the hamlet. Yanworth church has a "mass" grave tucked into the angle between the Chancel and the North transept or "aisle" as it is more properly designated. It holds the remains of six Cromwellian soldiers found dead and stripped of their arms nearby. No one has ever identified them and one almost gets the feeling no one had any desire to. They were simply buried here and their grave is surrounded by an iron fence installed in Victorian times.

    The interior of the church at Yanworth.

    The War Memorial in Yanworth itself and the lists of the hamlets menfolk who went to war in 1914 - 18 and again in 1939 - 45 tells a story of tragedy for this community. It lists so many names from so very few families that one can only guess at the impact it must have had on this part of the world as fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins marched away never to return. Small wonder that the appeasement of the dictators who arose between the wars was so desperately pursued. Today Yanworth is a tiny cluster of houses strung on either side of the suingle track raod - and the little church sits among the farm buildings at its Eastern edge.

    The little church dates from the 11th Century and is lovingly cared for by its congregation. It may be small and it may even be remote, but it is a little gem of rural religious architecture - and even more importantly is one of those places where the distance between heaven and earth is not great and one can find real tranquility and peace.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    April 04, 2006

    The march of progress ....

    Visiting some of my old stamping grounds in South Africa a little over a year ago, I managed to get a couple or three of pictures of appliances from my past. Although I never actually used either of these "in anger" I did have a hand in the preservation and restoration of the older one of the pair, a 1932 Leyland Metz 85 foot turntable ladder unit. The one closer to camera is a Dennis F12 chassis carrying a 100 foot Metz Turntable ladder and belonged to the Johannesburg Fire Department at the time I was serving in Bloemfontein.

    A DENNIS F12 chassis and Metz 100 foot turntable ladder stands proudly next to a LEYLAND chassis carrying a wooden trussed 85 foot Metz ladder. The Leyland dates from 1932 and the Dennis from 1961. Both are now the property of the Bloemfonetin Fire Museum.

    The Dennis is powered by a Rolls Royce RB 80 8 cylinder, 8 litre petrol engine which, under load, achieves around 4 miles per gallon, the Leyland has a straight eight cylinder 9 litre capacity long stroke engine with horizontal carburation. This can be interesting if she backfires during start-up!

    The museum in Bloemfontein is managed by the Bloemfontein Fire and Emergency Service and is based on the Station at Ehrlich Park on the Southern side of the city. It is home to a number of unique and unusual appliances and pieces of equipment including the 1932 Pump version of the Leyland TTL and a Morris Stanley pump built on a small Morris Commercial chassis and dating from 1930. The little Morris is still operational, although she is now treated with the respect due to an old lady of over 90 summers! It is well worth the time and effort to visit if you are passing through Bloemfontein!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    April 01, 2006

    Physics of a spaghetti

    I never cease to marvel at the things physicists get fascinated by. Take a dry spaghetti, for example. If you hold it at both ends and bend it, it breaks, of course, but not into two pieces as one might expect but into quite a number of small pieces.

    The reason for this was now found by two French scientists from the University of Paris: elastic waves. The waves increase the tension in the bent spaghetti causing it to break up into many little pieces. They proved this experimentally, filming the breaking up of the spaghetti with a high speed camera. As expected the first breakage occurs when the curvature of the spaghetti has reached a maximum. This, however, does not relieve the tension in the rest of the spaghetti but sends forward elastic waves. Interference of the waves causes futher breakage along the spaghetti because the spaghetti is bent strongly in those places. The experimantal results were collaborated by computer simulations.

    However, theoretically each new breakage should send out new elastic wave packages so that the spaghetti should actually be reduced to smithereens. Why this doesn't happen, the scientist don't know yet but I am sure they'll find out before long. But first of all they'd like to have a look at different materials like fibre glass or metals.

    If you think I've made this all up because it's April Fools Day today you are quite wrong. The spaghetti problem actually goes back to Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century. He became widely known during the investigation of the Challenger disaster when he showed how a rubber o-shaped seal had failed due to low temperatures during the night before the start by simply dropping it into a glass of water and ice cubes in front of him. After that no more excuses were heard.

    Posted by Mausi at 07:45 AM | TrackBack

    March 17, 2006

    Regula Stultorum (Fools' Rule)

    Regula Stultorum comes in quite handy if you want to multiply two numbers between 5 and 10 but can't remember the multiplication tables you've learnt by heart as a kid. Let's try for example 6 times 9. Raise as many fingers on each hand as the excess of each number above five and leave the others folded down. This should be 1 finger of your left and 4 fingers on your right hand. The raised fingers now represent the tens of the result, 5 x 10 = 50. The product of the fingers down on each hand gives 1 x 4 = 4. Therefore, the result of 6 x 9 = 50 + 4 = 54. Now try 7 x 7. That's two fingers up on each hand representing a value of 40. The multiplication of three fingers down on each hand is 3 x 3 = 9. So, 7 x 7 = 49. Dead easy, isn't it?

    When you have sorted out your fingers again try 6 x 6. At first sight this does not seem to work as the raised fingers represent a value of only 20! But of course four fingers down on each hand mean 4 x 4 = 16. Phew! And now the ultimate test: 5 x 10 = ?

    Believe it or not this system is still in use in some parts of the world, e. g. Syria, Palestine, Italy, Spain, southern France and southern Russia. Mathematically it is described by the following equation:

    (5 + a)(5 + b) = 10(a + b) + (5 - a)(5 - b)

    'a' and 'b' are the number of fingers we raise on each hand.

    If your fingers have got cramped during these exercises you can use a slightly different approach which is called the complementary method. It was quite popular in the 16th century and is based on the same principles as the Regula Stultorum.

    6   4         7   3
      X             X  
    9   1         7   3
    -------         -------
    5   4         4   9

    In the first column you write the numbers you want to multiply, 6 and 9 in the first example. The second column contains the difference of these numbers to ten. The tens are now found as the difference between either number and the >em>complement of the other number: (6 - 1) = (9 - 4) = 5. The unit digit is of course the product of the complements: 1 x 4 = 4. Not surprisingly the result is 54!

    Coming to think of it it's a real pity I never learnt these things at school. I certainly would have got a lot more fun out of my maths lessons than I actually did.

    Posted by Mausi at 09:16 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    March 15, 2006

    Turning a cocoa bean into something useful

    Cocoa was discovered by the Olmec an ancient people living in Southern Mexico between 1500 and 400 BC. They were the first to cultivate the cocoa tree. Already 600 BC hey were known for a drink called 'kakawa'. Cocoa beans made their first documented appearance in Europe at the court of Prince Philipp of Spain in 1544. But it still took a few hundred years to turn the cocoa beans into the delicious chocolate we know today

    The process of making chocolate bars is incredibly complex. The fruit of the cocoa tree is melonlike and between 10 to 30 cm long. Each fruit contains 30 - 50 cocoa beans, exactly the amount needed for a 100 g chocolate bar. After picking the fruits are opened and the beans taken out, spread in the open and covered by banana leaves. After a few hours a complex fermentation process starts. During the first 24 hours yeast cells decompose glucose to ethanol, afterwards lactobacilli take over and produce lactic acid. This reaction is exothermic (producing heat) and raises the temperature of the mixture to 37 degrees Celsius. This gives another type of bacteria the chance to have a go at the ethanol and lactic acid turning it into acetic acid. The temperature raises further to over 50 degrees Celsius and eventually the fermentation process stops. The beans are then dried in the open for about two weeks losing most of their lactic and acetic acid content during this time. Afterwards they are ready for shipping.

    During the fermentation process quite a number of 'aroma precursors' are formed. When the cocoa beans arrive at the chocolate plant they are roasted for 1-2 hours. The roasting lets the 'aroma precursors' react with sugars turning them into the characteristic chocolate flavours. Quite a number of complicated chemical processes take place during the roasting of the cocoa beans which I don't want to go into detail here. The result, however, are dark brown, lovely smelling cocoa beans.

    After the roasting the shells of the cocoa beans are removed and the beans are grounded. Then the natural fat of the beans, called cocoa butter, is extracted, leaving cocoa powder behind. In 1847 the English manufacturer Fry & Sons created the first chocolate bar from grounded cocoa beans, sugar and cocoa butter called 'Chocolat Délicieux à Manger'. Cocoa butter has a melting point between 34 to 38 degrees Celsius rendering chocolate a solid at room temperatur that readily melts in the mouth.

    The real step forward towards 'high quality' chocolate was made possible by the Swiss Rudolphe Lindt (1855-1909) who invented the 'conche'. The first conche was a device made of granite in which the grounded cocoa beans were kneaded together with other ingredients such as sugar and cocoa butter by two granite rollers. The friction was sufficient to heat up the mixture beyond its melting point. In the conche the cocoa bean particles are reduced to sizes below 20 microns. The tongue is not capable of detecting individual particles of this size. In other words: before the invention of Rudolphe Lindt chocolate felt like sand in your mouth.

    Besides reducing the size of the cocoa bean particles the conching process also coats the cocoa bean fragments with a layer of cocoa butter. Flavours from the cocoa beans diffuse into this fat layer thereby enhancing their effectiveness. Since the 1930's lecithin is also added during the conching process. Traces of lecithin reduce the viscosity of the chocolate considerably.

    Cocoa butter has a fascinating property: it is polymorphic, i.e. it crystallises in six different forms (I - VI) The chemical composition is always the same but the arrangement of the fat molecules in the crystal is different in each form. Gourmets will only accept chocolate of type V which is the only one that has a glossy surface, the right degree of hardness and melts in your mouth. Type VI is the thermodynamically most stable one but its surface is dull and its melting point at 36.3 degrees Celsius lets it only melt reluctantly in the mouth. If you keep type V too long or too warm it will eventually turn into type VI. Type VI is softer than type V reminding you of biting into a wax candle. The different types are achieved by heating and cooling the chocolate in the right way - another very complex process.

    Chocolate contains quite a few useful things like antioxidants and minerals. It does not contain cholesterol but a lot of sugar. After reading through all this I hope you are still able to enjoy your piece of chocolate now and then and perhaps will from now on also appreciate the work of countless scientists, engineers and manufacturers who put so much effort into turning the bitter tasting cocoa bean into this heavenly product...

    Posted by Mausi at 09:42 PM | TrackBack

    February 24, 2006

    Lost at Coronel 1914

    Once again I have been painting ships, or a ship to be precise. This time it is the Armoured Cruiser, HMS Good Hope, flagship of the South Atlantic squadron under Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. Built in 1901 as one of a "Class" of four known as the "Drake" Class, they were obsolete when the First World War erupted in August 1914. Originally four ships, Drake, Good Hope, King Alfred and Leviathan, they saw a wide range of service with the loss of both the Good Hope and of the Drake. On paper they look like powerful ships, carrying a broadside battery of sixteen 6 inch guns (eight on each side), twelve 12 pounders (six a side in casemates) and two 9.2 inch guns in two single turrets.

    HMS Good Hope undergoing speed trials in 1901. Painted from a photograph of the ship taken in the Channel.

    The great weakness in this design is the arrangement of the batteries. The lower "Battery Deck" is so close to the waterline that in any sort of seaway, the ship is liable to rolling the lower battery of guns under and rendering them unusable in a battle. This is what happened to Good Hope and her consort Monmouth when Cradock attempted to engage the more powerful ships of Graf von Spee's East Asiatic Squadron off the Coronel Coast of South America on 1st November 1914 in a rising gale and heavy seas. The well balanced and better designed pair of heavy armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau swiftly overwhelmed Good Hope and Monmouth, both lost with all hands, but the unfavourable weather conditions allowed the light cruiser Glasgow and the Armed Merchant Cruiser Otranto to escape. They joined up with the pre-Dreadnought battleship Canopus - Cradock had been ordered to wait for her to join him before he engaged the German squadron (and her twelve inch guns would have made at least some difference), but decided to act rather than be accused of failing to engage the enemy.

    Even the Admiralty had difficulty understanding Cradock's decision, particularly as it was known that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were superior ships and they had with them three light cruisers, Dresden, Nürnberg and Leipzig and an Auxilliary Cruiser, the liner Prinz Eitel Friedrich.

    Glasgow and Otranto were very lucky to escape the massacre, only the worsening weather and the onset of the night saved them. However, the Monmouth's sister ships, Kent and Cornwall were at the Falklands a few months later when von Spee attempted to attack the capital, Port Stanley, and was in his turn surprised by the emergence of the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible. In an almost one sided fight, the two battlecruisers destroyed Scharnhorst and Gneisnau; Kent (burning her Wardroom furniture to supplement a shortage of coal!) caught and sank the Nürnberg; Cornwall and Glasgow caught and sank the Leipzig. There were no survivors from the Scharnhorst and only 90 of a crew of 400 from the Gneisenau. The other German ships crews fared slightly better, but not by much. Only Dresden escaped, but not for long, cornered, low on ammunition and coal, she was sunk at Mas a Fuego several months later.

    And the Eitel Friedrich? She had been detached to patrol on the Coronel coast, but gradually found herself more and more hunted. She was eventually interred in a US port and ended the war as a transport for US Troops, surviving to serve again as a passenger liner until broken up in the late 1920's.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 20, 2006

    More Ships

    Another famous member of the Flying-P-Liners family is the Padua, now known as the Krusenstern. She was built in 1925 and went on her first journey in 1926. She was the last four mast bark built for transporting goods over the oceans. From the beginning she served as training ship sailing to Chile and Australia and carrying saltpetre and wheat.


    The Krusenstern (the former Padua), a truly magnificent sailing ship

    The ship is 114 m long, the area of her sails adds up to 3,400 square meters and the longest mast is 55 m high. That makes her slightly smaller than her sister 'Passat'.

    060217_krusenstern02.jpg 060217_krusenstern03.jpg

    On board the Krusenstern. Looking around one can't help thinking: "Those were the days ..."

    The Padua made her last trip as a cargo ship in 1939, sailing from Glasgow to Hamburg. In May 1940 she sailed to Stettin (Szczecin) for the shooting of a film. Afterwards she stayed in the Baltic Sea and was used for training purposes. In 1943 she was even fitted with a gun but obviously she wasn't much use to the German Wehrmacht because she stayed in port for the rest of the war. In January 1946 she was handed over to the Russian Authorities.

    The Padua received a proper overhaul and was renamed 'Krusenstern'. Until 1959 she was an official member of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet but remained in port all the time nonetheless. She was remodelled again from 1959 - 1961 and after that served the Hydrographic Institute exploring the Atlantic, Carribean, and Mediterranean Sea. After being refurbished again in 1969 she has served as a training ship for sea cadets ever since. Her home port is now Kaliningrad.

    The Krusenstern received another complete overhaul in 1993. From 1995-1996 she sailed around the world. When participating in the Cutty Sark Regatta in 1999 she came up third. Well done, indeed!

    Posted by Mausi at 03:10 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 18, 2006

    Tall Ships

    One of the 'landmarks' of Travemünde is the sailing ship 'Passat'. Travemünde is habour of Lübeck, one of the towns at the Baltic coast that belonged to the famous Hanseatic league.


    The 'Passat', a four masted bark

    The Passat is one of the legendary 'Flying-P-Liners'. These sailing ships were built at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century for the shipping company of F. Laeisz in Hamburg. Their names all began with 'P'. Best known are the Passat, Pamir, Padua, Potosi, Peking and the Preußen. These ships were famous for their speed. The masts of the Passat are 56 m high, the total area of the sails adds up to 4,600 square meters. The Passat could reach speeds of up to 18 knots! Among others the Passat was used to bring saltpetre from Chile to Europe.

    The Passat was built in 1911 and made her first trip to Chile in 1912. On her second trip from Hamburg to Chile she needed only 73 days to reach Valparaiso. She served as a freight ship more or less until 1947. From 1952 until 1959 she was used as a training ship Since 1960 she has found a permanent home in Travemünde.

    Her sister ship Pamir was built in 1905 and just like the Passat also served as training ship in the 1950's. In 1957 she went down in a heavy storm southwest of the Azores. She took 80 young seamen down with her, only six were rescued.

    Once a year the 'Travemünder Woche' takes place. For a week Windjammers are gathered there and can be admired and visited. It may not be as grand as a similar event earlier in the year in Kiel but still - it is absolutely fascinating and well worth a visit. It's the one opportunity for the Passat to meet her sister Padua again, which now sails under Russian flag and is known as 'Krusenstern'. The other surviving sister, Peking, has found a new home in New York.

    One of my favourites among these old ships, however, is the 'Alexander von Humboldt'. She was built in 1906. She is much smaller than the Passat, the area of her sails being less than a quarter of that of the Passat. Now owned by the German foundation 'Sail training' (DSST, Deutsche Stiftung Sail Training) and sailing around the world on various trips. Right now she can be found at Chilean coast.


    The 'Alexander von Humboldt', easily recognised by her green sails

    Posted by Mausi at 05:30 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 16, 2006

    Land of Sledge Dogs

    One of the most beautiful places I have ever visited certainly is the little village of Saqqaq at the North end of the Disco Bay on the West coast of Greenland. Getting there was a bit of an adventure in itself. We came by boat but as there's no harbour in Saqqaq we had to be ferried to the village in a small rubber dinghi. You can just see it coming back for more of us on the left side of the photo below.


    The picturesque village of Saqqaq

    The water was crytal clear and very cold and while sitting in that rubber thing you could look straight to the bottom of the sea several meters below us. What slightly worried me was that the two Inuit who ferried us ashore were pumping air into the dinghi all the time while smiling broadly at us. I didn't think this reassuring in the least and had checked the straps of my backpack repeatedly to make sure that I could get out of those in no time at all should we sink or I fall overboard. I was ever so glad when I had firm ground under my feet again.

    We were a group of 16 and had rented a house in Saqqaq which served as a sort of base camp for several short trips into the mountains and along the coast. The South of Greenland (at least on the West coast) belongs to the sheep dogs and no sledge dogs are allowed there. But the North is sledge dog land and Saqqaq is part of it.

    On the first morning I made the aquaintance of a gang of sledge dog puppies. As long as their are puppies they are allowed to run free, later they are kept on a chain. Houses in Greenland very seldom have a bathroom, usually the kitchen is used for that purpose. With 16 people around it gets rather cramped in the mornings so those of us who dared took a big bowl of water outside and washed in the open. I was still a bit sleepy when suddenly six puppies were all over me. One tried to steal my bar of soap, two were having a fight over my towel, one was trying to drink up my water, another one tried to run off with a piece of my clothes and the last one was trying his very best to be in my way as much as possible. With much shouting and laughing I was able to get my things back and finally finished my morning toilet. At that age they are really cuddly. But not anymore once they are grown up.


    Six grown up sledge dogs

    The thing about sledge dogs is that they melt perfectly into the background. It is very easy to overlook them. And they will let you approach them until you within reach of their chain. And then without warning they suddenly explode into your face. I once had an adult sledge dog following me when going for a walk near the village and it gave me quite an eerie feeling.

    Almost from the day they can walk children will practice hitting cans or other targets real hard with pebbles for hours on end. By the age of five or six they can hit a dog right between the eyes and scare it off. One must bear in mind that sledge dogs in Greenland are no pets. Being kept on a chain during the summer with nothing much to do certainly doesn't improve their temper or social behaviour. But at least summers don't last long in Greenland ...

    Posted by Mausi at 09:50 PM | TrackBack

    February 15, 2006

    More history in the stones and timbers ...

    As mentioned in a previous post, the Old Friends Meeting House in Tewkesbury, has quite a chequered history. The lovely house it is now has seen the "riot" which arose when the then Church Warden's had Mr George Fox and his supporters arrested for their dissenting views and "unlawful" preaching. It became a Public House when the "Friend's" moved on in the early 18th Century, and remained so until the mid-19th when it lost it's license because of unruly behaviour among it's licencee and his clientelle. Then, it became two small cottages, and now it is once more, one single dwelling.

    The Old Friends Meeting House in Tewkesbury with the entrance to the Friends Burial Ground visible at the side.

    When originally built, the ground floor was occupied as a "normal" home, with the entire upper storey being used as the "Meeting" room. It was here that such luminaries of the "Quaker" or "Societies of Friends" movement as Mr George Fox met and preached - in clear breach of the law which, at that time, made it illegal to practice any form of worship, or to preach any teaching, not set out in the parliamentary approved "Book of Common Prayer" and in conformance with the "Act of Conformity of Worship". It was the attempt to enforce the provisions of this Act which caused the "riot" in which Mr Fox was arrested.

    On another occassion twelve men were arrested in the front room of the house for illegal assembly - in other words refusing to attend the Abbey! The real disgrace was that the men were deliberately targetted because this removed them and their tools from competion with "conformist" tradesmen - and left their families to starve.

    As a modern Church Warden of the Abbey, I would be appalled if anyone tried to get me to act in this way. Perhaps this is a measure of just how far we have managed to move since those far off days of strife in which our faith was abused for the financial and business advantage of a few.

    Thankfully we have begun to learn how to behave as Christians.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:47 PM | TrackBack

    February 14, 2006

    Medieval views

    The area of the old town of Tewkesbury, from the Cross to the Abbey, contains a range of ancient and some more modern, buildings. It must be said, however, that "modern" in this area is a relative term, since there is very little later than the 19th Century on view. The town was fortunate to have been spared the bulldozers of the 1960's and only one area, at the Northern end of the town was replaced by the utilitarian architecture of that era of wholesale destruction of heritage buildings. The area round the Abbey was saved by the prompt action of a number of people who used the auspices of a Charitable Trust set up in the early 20th Century to preserve the grounds around the Abbey itself from development, to buy up the row of 14thCentury Merchants houses which separate the Abbey from the busy roadway, part of the A38.

    The view, much as it has been since the 12th Century, of the Abbey tower, seen from The Old Friends Meeting House in St Mary's Lane. On the right is a recently restored and renovated shop and house dating to the late 14th Century and the Merchants Houses date from around the same period.

    The Merchants Houses were once part of the Abbey Desmense and the rents would have gone to the Abbey Treasury. Now they are owned by a charitable trust whose purpose is to preserve the Abbey surrounds for posterity. These picturesque and now comfortable homes have not always been so. By the 19th Century and into the mid-20th Century this area had been allowed to degenerate quite badly, eventually becoming a slum. Since the 1960's restoration, repair and private residents have done much to completely revitalise the whole area and this has benefitted the town as a whole.

    Well worth a visit and the time to explore it.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:39 PM | TrackBack

    February 12, 2006

    An interesting corner of history

    The ancient market town of Tewkesbury sits astride the confluence of the River Avon, (or Afon in Gaelic - which means it is called the River River!) and the Severne. It is at least a Saxon foundation, and probably earlier than that, as we have on the hills surrounding us various "hill forts", "castles" and "camps" at Bredon, Embury and Kemerton to name but a few, so human settlement of this area certainly predates the Roman period.

    It is an interesting place for many reasons, King John had a castle here to guard the ford over the Severne, Edward IV secured the Crown of England here and the Duke of Clarence and Edward Lancaster, Prince of Wales, are buried here. The town's name is a corruption of the name of a 7th Century hermit who established a hermitage where the Abbey now stands, called Theoc. Over the years Theoc's Bury has become Tewkesbury. Certainly the present Abbey Church, built between 1102 and 1121, replaced an earlier Saxon building and the Abbot's Residence, now the Vicarage, has a Saxon undercroft.

    Of more recent date, the town has also seen the start of a number of other branches of Christianity, certainly we have the oldest Baptist Chapel in England, hidden away down a "Court" almost on the Abbey's doorstep! This fascinating building was disguised as a pair of houses, complete with false front doors and windows to give it the "domestic" appearance. Personally I find it difficult to believe that the Vicar, Church Wardens and other Church authorities could not have known what was in fact being built, but they do seem to have "tolerated" it despite the Acts of Religion then in force. Recently though, I discovered that the earliest Baptist "missionaries" to the North American Colonies, actually worshipped here and were among the founders of this chapel. Thus, there is a link between the Deep South Baptist churches of the modern US and this ancient Town and Borough!

    The Old Baptist Chapel, nestling under the shadow of the Abbey and designed to appear to be two cottages, hence the different windows!

    A few lanes further back and nearer the town "centre" stands a small cottage known as "The Old Friends Meeting House", another "Non-conformist" chapel originally disguised as a house. When the "Friends" abandoned it, it became a public house, and then was divided into two small cottages. The present owner, a friend of mine, has restored it to a single dwelling and regularly invites the "Friends" to hold their meetings there. After all, her back garden is in fact their burial ground! This house too has strong links with the Quaker pilgrims, many of their leading lights having at some time worshipped here. In the window of the living room is an account of the "riot" outside the house in the late 17th Century at which Mr Fox, then the leader of the "Friends" and several of his followers were arrested by the Church Wardens of the Parish for holding a meeting likely to incite a disturbance.

    The back of the Old Friends Meeting House and a part of the burial ground, now a park.

    I find it ironic that my friend, now the owner, is, with me, one of the successors to those Church Wardens. I hope we have a more tolerant attitude towards our fellow Christians. After all, we are all serving the Lord in our own way, and the style of worship is, I think, a matter of conscience.

    I find it fascinating that this ancient town with the Abbey at its centre, is also the home of such diverse branches of the Christian family as the Baptists and the Society of Friends. Perhaps the past has an important lesson for the future - in tolerance and understanding. It is my belief that the great Abbey Church in Tewkesbury was saved by the town for the very reason that it had always tried to accommodate the town, something we still try to do.

    If you are passing through this way, do stop and visit, not just the Abbey, but the little Baptist Chapel hidden in it's "Court" and the lovely Old Friends Meeting House and Burial ground. Do stop and think a little on the people who created these places of worship, and on their contribution to our world today.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    February 11, 2006

    Kalaallit Nunaat

    That is the Inuit name for Greenland and it means 'The Land where the Humans live'. If you go there nowadays you might wonder why people chose to live there at all, apart from the breathtaking view of the scenery during the six weeks of summer, of course. Greenland is still a very difficult place to live because of its climate but how much harder must life have been before the advent of motor boats and sledges.


    A kayak used for hunting in the old days

    The photograph shows a kayak as it was used for hunting in the old days. You see a small screen of sailcloth in the front which was used for cover when sneaking up on a seal. The hunter would also take it with him when 'boarding' a floe and hide behind it while stealing up on his belly towards his prey. On the paddler's right side you see the harpoon, securely fastened to the deck. Behind him, attached to the rope of the harpoon, is a seal bladder filled with air. That would prevent the wounded seal from diving and thereby escaping.

    The man in the boat wears an anorak, a piece of clothing invented by the Inuit. It keeps the wind and the water out. It was usually fastened to the kayak itself so that water was effectively prevented from getting into the boat. Another thing which is mandatory for survival in arctic water is that one masters the art of the eskimo roll. Contact between water and body must be kept to an absolute minimum.

    060206_inuit.JPGIf it has been hard to survive the rest of the year how much harder must it have been in winter time. Contrary to common belief Igloos were only used as temporary shelter during hunting trips or when traveling for other reasons. Family groups usually spent the winter in camps where they built a 'Quarmaq'. A hole - the size of a big room - was dug into the soil and then whatever material was found (stones, bits of turf, shrubs, driftwood, and occasionally whalebones) were used for the walls and the roof. Gaps were sealed with bits of turf and snow. The whole group would lived together in one room. That meant no privacy at all but would ensure the survival of the group because it was the only way to keep the room warm.

    The photo on the right shows a grandfather proudly presenting his granddaughter. The little girl wears a traditional dress. The trousers are made from sealskin. The boots are called 'Kamikker' and were usually only worn inside a house or tent. To make the leather for it soft and flexible it had to be chewed for a long time - a task that fell to the old women in the family.

    Grandfather and granddaughter welcoming the Danish Queen in 1982

    The nomadic life of the Inuit finally ended at about 1960. In Greenland now most of them live in 'proper' wooden houses.

    Posted by Mausi at 09:25 PM | TrackBack

    February 09, 2006

    Fog and frost

    For several days in the past week my part of the UK has been covered by a sort of fog. I say "sort of" because it is fog in some places, mist in others and a general blanket of overcast everywhere. Cap that with temperatures hovering between -4*C and 2*C and we get some interesting effects - like freezing fog.

    The frozen frost coating the trees at the top of "Fish Hill" above Broadway on the edge of the Cotswolds.

    This combination of cold and fog conditions produces a lethal situation in which black ice forms on the road surface, birds are trapped by their feet freezing to the tree branches and telephone wires and the lack of visibility. It looks pretty, but it can be very dangerous to motorists and certainly is lethal to a range of small birds and animals.

    Unusually this time we have seen the frozen fog only in patches, such as this one along the edge of the Cotswold escarpment and not further into the plateau. In addtion, as can be seen from the picture, the frost decorates only the trees from about two feet above the ground, suggesting that the ground's latent heat is sufficient to prevent it forming closer the ground. The temperatures have been very low (for the UK) but they have not produced snow.

    The lack of snow, coupled with a lack of rain in recent months means we are facing a shortage of water as has been highlighted by several newspapers lately. Coming from one of the drier bits of Africa, I must say that I have difficulty getting my head around the fact that we have had more rain than many parts of the area I came from get in a year - yet we are facing a drought. I guess it's back to the perspective and what you are used too!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:08 PM | TrackBack

    February 02, 2006

    Hopping stones

    When I was a kid our family used to live only a few kilometers away from the River Rhine. At the weekends my father would often take me for a walk along the river. One of our favourite pastimes was to let pebbles hop over the water surface as often as possible. It is obviously something that has always fascinated people for this kind of game is already described by Homer. As far as I know, the world record is held by J. Coleman-McGhee who let his pebble hop 38 times.

    Everyone who ever tried this out himself knows that the shape of the pebble and a few other things are important for success. Ideally, the pebble should be disc-like. It must be thrown in such a way that its flat side is parallel to the water surface and that it rotates around an axis perpendicular to its surface. Its hitting angle with the surface must be quite small. Therefore it's best to bend down close to the water when throwing the pebble. I think I finally got the hang of it after only a few hundreds of pebbles.

    Trust a team of scientist to turn this into a scientific experiment. They created a 'model pebble', an aluminium disc (diameter: 2.5 cm, thickness: 2.75 mm), and a device that would throw the discs into the water. Two parameters could be varied: the velocity of the disc on leaving the throwing device (2.5 - 5 m/s) and the hitting angle between disc and water surface (15 - 45 degree). The spin of the disc was kept constant at 65 revolutions per second.

    The scienstists found out that they achieved the best results, i. e. maximum number of jumps, if the times of contact between disc and water surface were very short, less than 0.1 sec in the experiments, because then only a small amount of energy would be lost by friction. Furthermore, the disc needed an initial velocity of at least 2.5 m/s. For the shortest contact times the disc had to hit the water at an angle of 20 degrees. At 45 degrees it wouldn't hop at all.

    What is really fascinating about these experiments is what actually happens when the disc or pebble hits the water. Pictures taken with a high-speed camera revealed that the pebble will hit the water with its rear edge and glide through the water for a short way because it is stabilised by its rotation (around the axis perpendicular to its surface). Thereby a little wave is formed in front of the pebble. If the velocity of the pebble is still high enough it will eventually catch up with it and use it as a ramp for its next jump. The pebble will of course lose energy upon each new contact with the water surface, the jumps will become shorter and shorter and then its velocity will be too low to catch up with its 'bow wave' at all.

    The physical principles in this harmless bit of fun were also used in warfare to destroy coastal fortifications. Bombs would be given a rotation around their longitudinal axis when dropping them into the coastal waters. On hitting the surface they would jump a few times just like a pebble. If timed correctly the last jump would bring them close to the dam where they would travel straight through the water being stabilised by their rotational movement and eventually hit and destroy the dam itself.

    It is a bit of a comfort that nowadays these principles can be put to better use, though. A spaceship goes through a similar series of jumps on re-entering the atmosphere thereby losing a great deal of energy and heat. Studying pebbles might eventually lead to bit of optimisation in that area as well.

    Posted by Mausi at 09:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

    January 31, 2006

    What colour is today?

    In my perception of the world around me everything is associated with colours, even things like days of the week, months or numbers. For example, Wednesday is orange and Friday is yellow, March is a light shade of blue, June is green and August red, the numbers between 0 and 19 have individual colours whereas the twenty's are different shades of blue, thirty's are orange, forty's are yellow, and fifty's are green. It took me years (decades really) to find out that this is not the usual way to see the world. Very few people - one in 2,000 - make this connection between abstract terms and colours. They are called "synaesthetics" (from the Greek syn = together and aisthanesthai = to perceive) because an external stimulus will provoke - automatically and at the same time - the response of two different sensations.

    Most common is apparently the above described "colour hearing". It was studied systematically and described by the British physician Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, as early as 1883. He found out that synaesthetic abilities are individual, meaning that no two people associate the same sounds with the same solours, and that they are hereditary.

    Already in 1904 an article was published about this phenomenon in a German Scientific Journal (Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 29 (1904) 375). It described the associations of vowels with colours made by a female person:

    A: red-brown, E: white, I: blue, O: yellow, U: dark green

    Consequently combinations of vowels yielded the following combinations of colours:

    Au: left field of vision red-brown, right dark green
    Ei: left white, right blue
    Ai: left red-brown, right blue to violet
    Eu: left white, right dark green
    Oi: left yellow, right blue and so forth.

    Nowadays we know that synaesthetics do not suffer from hallucinations. Modern technology has revealed that on reading or hearing letters or words that stimulus is not only processed in the primary auditory but also the primary visual cortex. It's just the wiring in the brains of people with synaesthetic abilities that is a bit different after all. Otherwise we are perfectly normal.

    Posted by Mausi at 05:05 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 24, 2006

    Heavy bells

    One of the unique things about the British - or more properly the English - rural scene is the sound of church bells. Unlike the bells heard on the continent, or especially in Italy, which are often rung by a single "Ringer" using a keyboard arrangement which allows him or her to "play" the bells, English bells are hung for ringing by a team. As I have described in the past, this is called "Change Ringing" and is a somewhat unusual and rather skilled art.

    The bell frame in Tewkesbury Abbey, with the bell "stays" - the wooden post - visible above the yoke which secures the bell in it's trunions and holds it to the frame.

    Bells hung in this manner do not play tunes, and the process of ringing a full peel of changes is highly complex and follows a mathematical progression as the bells change places in the order of the ring as the "change" progresses. A full peel can take several hours as it involves an very large number of permutations in the "changes" during the peel. The more bells you have, the greater the number of "changes" that can be rung in a peel. If you visit the Stoke Poges site, you can see an animated graphic which shows how the bell is controlled - and you can get a lot more information about the patterns for ringing. Even better, with a sound card you can hear their bells ring Grandsire Triples and Grandsire Doubles!

    There is technically no limit to the number of bells that can be used for a peel, but the smallest number is usually four. The "Ring" at Tewkesbury is one of the bigger rings in England (there are only around 1640 "Rings" of bells hung in this way worldwide and a little over 1600 of these are in the UK) with twelve bells hung for ringing. Another four, all cast in the late 1690's are now the bells on which the clock strikes the hours and quarters, and a further small bell is hung as the "Sanctus" bell, rung during services at the consecration of the elements during a communion and at twelve noon daily for the "Angelus".

    Those who look closely will see that the large wheel has a single rope secured to the "spokes" which passes through the rim and draws along a groove cut into the rim of the wheel. It is this that is used to swing the bell into the "set" position with the "stay" downaward and the bell mouth upward. A sharp tug on the line is then all that is needed to swing the bell 360 degrees allowing the clapper to strike once as it swings. The rope is used to check the swing and hold it on the opposite stay until it is swung again in its new position in the "change".

    A fascinating art and a fun pastime for those interested in giving up hours to learn the art and practice the huge variety of "changes" that go into "peels". If you want to learn more about this - or perhaps find out where to join a group near you, try the Central Council of Bellringers website by following the link.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:36 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 22, 2006

    Old Houses

    The Odenwald (Odin's Wood) is an area in the South of the Federal State of Hessen, where I live. It's a lovely landscape with soft sloping hills and, of course, a lot of woods and forests. Over the centuries it has always been a favourite hunting ground. It also offers a grand view into the valley or rather the plain that is occupied by the River Rhine.

    One of the most famous and beautiful towns of the Odenwald is certainly Michelstadt. "Michel" is an old German word meaning "big". It seems quite small, however, nowadays and you can easily walk along the city wall around the old town. It is beautifully kept and restored and the half-timbered houses are quite a sight as I found out last summer.

    The most famous building of Michelstadt is the Old Town Hall. It was built in 1484 and it is still in use! What really intrigues me is that it was actually built eight years before Columbus discovered America! The oak beams that form the structure of this building are more than 500 years old! And they still look good.


    Market place with the Old Town Hall

    The lower open hall was used as a court hall. An iron rod the length of an "Elle" (yard) is incorporated into the left oak pillar. So disputes about the correct length of a piece of cloth could be settled on the spot. In bad weather the market stalls would move in there as well.

    The upper hall was used for various purposes: council meetings, Catholic Church (the one behind the town hall is Lutherian), hospital, school room and others. Council meetings took place in there as late as 1973. Then the room became too small. Nowadays it is used for representative purposes and as a registrar's office.

    I hope the oak pillars and beams will carry on another 500 years! Houses like this make you aware by how much history you are surrounded.

    Posted by Mausi at 05:23 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    January 13, 2006

    A medal of honour?

    It would seem, on the face of some reports, that the "award" of the Iron Cross, a German military decoration with a long history, was not confined to members of the German Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine or Luftwaffe as one would normally suppose. During the second World War it was "awarded" to a British Sergeant Major, Sgt Major Charles Coward, for his services to both sides while a POW. As ever, the truth is a little stranger than the fiction!

    The "award" was actually made to him because he had been mistaken for a German soldier - he was actually wearing part of a German uniform over his own and had been wounded so was appropriately blood stained - and, when ordered to "get treatment", replied, in German, that he wished to stay at his post. The real reason for both the disguise and his desire to "stay at his post" was that he hoped to be able to escape back to his own side as soon as things calmed down a bit. The partial disguise as a German soldier was a risky, but useful, fiction he was trying to maintain, but the officer heard of this "brave fellow", went back to see to it that he accepted treatment and reported his bravery! The result was that the fictional "soldier" was recommended for the award of an Iron Cross. I have not been able to discover whether or not it was ever actually awarded, because his disguise was discovered in hospital. He had actually collapsed in the field while still insisting that he didn't need treatment and was taken unconscious from there to a field treatment station and then hospital. It must have been quite a serious wound because he was unconscious or delirious for some time. He was also a fluent German speaker. He was, I suspect, extremely lucky to have escaped being shot!

    There is a further irony in this, for, after the truth emerged and he was sent to a PoW camp, his command of the German language made him a natural for a plum job as the Camp Liaison Officer; a job he filled very effectively - but with a motive! While he was acting as the camp's liaison officer, he was actually gathering information and items useful for escape attempts!

    He was eventually sent to Auschwitz PoW camp, adjoining, but not part of, the more notorious camp, where he soon became involved in a humanitarian effort. Having heard that a fellow British PoW, a Doctor, had been incarcerated in the "other" camp, he managed to disguise himself in a work party and infiltrated that camp in an effort to rescue the Doctor. He failed in that, but became the instrument by which others did get rescued. In this he is directly credited with assisting 400 people to escape the extermination programme. A double irony perhpas that his 'award' could be said to honour.

    By all accounts a most unusual man, a most unusual "award" and an even more unusual place in the rolls of honour. Even if his "award" was not official, it does perhaps reflect the recognition of a man with remarkable courage!

    The story was made into a rather silly film in the 1950's with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role. It is said that the real Sgt Major was polite about it.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:43 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 10, 2006

    Fascinating "Pi"

    I think the number Pi is known to all of us. It is the all important factor necessary when calculating the area of a circle and circles have been fascinating people for thousands of years.

    Ancient civilizations knew two perfect geometric figures: square and circle. Both figures were of mystical importance and a circle in particular because it has no beginning and no end like the sky that encircles the earth (or, as some believed, the disc). Both sun and moon are of circular shape as well and, owing to an apparent whim of the gods, they appear to be of the same size, as the moon will completely cover the sun during an eclipse. The square on the other hand is like a symbol for the four directions North, South, West, and East. With the help of a ruler and a pair of compasses all other geometric figures can be derived from these two: triangles, polygons, trapezoid, rhombus, cube, pyramid, sphere and cone. If you put two squares symmetrically into a circle and the diagonals of the squares equal the diameter of the circle this will result in an octagon. Octagons have quite often been used as a layout for ecclesiastical buildings.

    By about 2000 B.C. clever mathematicians could calculate the area of plane geometrical figures and the volume of three dimensional ones like cubes, but the area of a circle eluded them. If the circle wasn't too big they could use a piece of string to measure the circumference, but, its area, was a totally different matter. The first idea was to find a geometrical procedure (only ruler and a pair of compasses allowed!) to turn a circle into a square of the same area - easier said than done! The first approach was to put a square into the circle. Its diagonal equals the diameter of the circle. One glance tells you that the area of the square is smaller than the area of the circle. You can also put a second square around the circle so that the length of the side will equal the diameter of the circle. Now the area of the square is of course much bigger than the that of the circle. Clearly a different approach needs to be taken.

    Around the same time mathematicians found out that the ratio between circumference and diameter is constant regardless of how big a circle is. The circumference is always slightly more than three times the diameter of the circle. So Pi (the Greek letter equivalent to the Latin "P" was first used in the 18th century) was slightly larger than 3. "Slightly larger" meant between 1/8 and 1/4 of the diameter resulting in 3,125 < Pi < 3,25. But the question was how to determine exactly where between these points is the value of Pi?

    If you cut up a circle into an even number of equal segments you can put the segments together to form a rectangle. You can easily calculate the area of a rectangle. The more segments you use the greater your accuracy will be. This is how the equations for determining the circumference (Pi times the diameter) and the area (Pi times the square of the radius) were originally found. The problem was that this didn't help much as the exact value of Pi was still unknown.

    By 1800 BC the Egyptians had come to the conclusion that the area of a square whose side equalled 8/9 of a circle's diameter equalled the area of the circle. Well, it does, but with an error of only 0.6%!

    Euclid (340-270 BC) calculated the value of Pi to be smaller than 270/70 (3.1428) but bigger than 270/71 (3.1408) which would yield a mean value of 3.1418.

    Archimedes (287-212 BC) devised a method of putting polygons inside a circle to calculate the area. A polygon can be divided into isosceles triangles, each triangle having two sides of equal length. Archimedes did not calculate the area of the triangles, but of the length of the bases. Adding up the sum of the bases of the isosceles triangles inside the circle would lead to the circumference of the circle. In this way he calculated Pi to have the value of 3.1419! No better value for Pi was found for hundreds of years.

    With the decline of the Roman Empire at about 400 AD, the leading role of scientists from Greece and Alexandria came to an end. Europe plunged into difficult times of wars and religious conflicts which had no place for science or scientific discovery. Small wonder that from now on scientific progress took place in Arabia, India and China. So our story moves to about 500 AD when the Chinese mathematician Tsu Chung Chi used polygons with 24576 sides and calculated a value for Pi of 3.1415929!

    Towards the end of the 12th century the Italian mathematician Fibonacci brought a value for Pi of 3.1418 back to Europe from Arabia, reviving interest in mathematics in Europe, and in particular the calculation of the area of circles.

    One of the last "polygon calculators" was Ludolph van Ceulen (1539-1610). In his methodology he used polygons with more than 32 billion (!) sides. Using this laborious methodology he was able to calculate the value ofPito 32 decimal places. This will have taken up so much time that he must have spent all his working life calculating Pi! Advances in mathematics from the end of the 17th century also marked the end of all attempts to calculate Pi with geometrical methods.

    From now on analytical methods could be employed to calculate Pi and an ongoing competition started between mathematicians to see who could calculate Pi to the highest number of decimal places. In 1948 1000 decimals of Pi were identified, this was pushed to 2000 in 1950 and this has been pushed to a billion today! Such enormous numbers are of no practical value, of course, but seem to provide mathematicians with a lot of fun.

    An interesting fact about Pi is that it has an infinite number of decimal places. Moreover, all numbers between 0 and 9 appear with the same frequency but their sequence is totally accidental. If you pick one decimal the mathematical probability for the following decimal to be any number between 0 and 9 has the same "chance" as you would have gambling with throwing a 10-sided dice. This is, in fact, a definition for a transcendental number. Another example for a transcendental number is "e" the base of the system of natural logarithms. Transcendental numbers are always connected with laws of nature which is probably not accidental.

    So how big is the value of the proportion between diameter and circumference? How big is infinity? Fascinating, isn't it?

    Posted by Mausi at 10:00 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

    January 03, 2006

    Traces of the Vikings

    One of the most famous Vikings is doubtless Erik den Røde (Erik the Red), father of Leif Erikson who discovered the North American coast (Vinland) around 1000 A.C. Erik den Røde was born in Norway but soon ran into trouble there and was sent to Iceland in 950. There was trouble again in 982 when Erik was charged with manslaughter and had to leave Iceland. As he couldn't go back East to Norway he sailed West and eventually found a new home in the South West of Greenland. He died there about 1007.

    Around the year 1000 the climate was a bit warmer in Greenland and the settlers were able to keep even cattle there. It must have been a hard job, though, keeping the animals alive during the winter. Nowadays only sheep "thrive" in the South West.


    Greenland sheep

    They are hardy little beasts who look after themselves most of the time they are out in the open. They spend the winter indoors of course. They strongly reminded me of European mountain goats because they are very good climbers. I've was told that their wool is not very good quality, not to be compared with wool from Iceland anyway, but their meat is quite nice.

    While hiking through the Vatnaverfi, a beautiful part in the South West of Greenland consisting mainly of hills and lakes, we would occasionally come across ruins of the Vikings' settlements there. As at the time when we were looking forward to a day of rest in a little village. You'll probably be able to spot some buildings on the photo below.


    The little village is only five hundred meters away - straight down the hill.

    We came to the village after having walked through the rain all day. It is not easy to find shelter from the rain, e. g. during your lunch break, because in Greenland the trees are smaller than the mushrooms. Having watched puddles forming in our margarine pot at noon and feeling thoroughly drenched by the end of the day we were very much looking forward to a bit of rest.

    Luckily enough, the next day was warm and dry and we wandered around the village exploring.


    Ruins of a Viking settlement in the foreground

    There was also time to visit the little village church.


    Inside the village church

    The day ended with a scrumptious meal: rainbow trout, freshly caught in the morning by a member of our group, fresh rolls, and the best leg of lamb I have ever eaten. I think Danish people are naturally born cooks and we had six of them in our group of eight!

    Posted by Mausi at 06:28 PM | TrackBack

    December 28, 2005

    Playing with numbers

    Numerology is one of those areas where you can either get very excited about the way numbers can be added, subtracted, or otherwise manipulated to produce some interesting outcomes. Some people believe that there is a great deal of significance in the way certain numbers occur and recur in certain events. One such is the sets of numbers that arise when you assign numeric values to the assasination of Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy.

    Another has just been forwarded to me by a friend. I have placed it in the extended post as it is quite a long one.

    I have to say that, to me, this is a bit like saying that the world as we see it is all the product of some computer game (The Matrix?) and not real at all - just a set of binary type numbers (except the numbers in these things are seldom reduced to 0 and 1 - although they could be.) which dictate the actions of every living thing. Or, perhaps its a way of trying to say that God is really a giant galactic computer and we are simply electrons in the circuitry.

    No, not even I buy that one! It is fascinating however, to see how these sorts of games can stack up in a strange way. Do try the suggested rendering of the Flight number at the end into Wingdings.

    Subject: 11 - The new number of the beast..?! (This is unbelievable..!!)(Editors note - Not necessarily, some people believe Elvis is the Messiah!)

    1) New York City has 11 letters

    2) Afghanistan has 11 letters.

    3) Ramsin Yuseb (The terrorist who threatened to destroy the Twin Towers in 1993) has 11 letters.

    4) George W Bush has 11 letters.

    This could be a mere coincidence, but this gets more interesting:

    1) New York is the 11th state.

    2) The first plane crashing against the Twin Towers was flight number 11.

    3) Flight 11 was carrying 92 passengers. 9 + 2 = 11

    4) Flight 77 which also hit Twin Towers, was carrying 65 passengers.6 + 5 = 11

    5) The tragedy was on September 11, or 9/11 as it is now known. 9 + 1 + 1 = 11

    6) The date is equal to the US emergency services telephone number 911. 9 + 1 + 1 = 11.

    Sheer coincidence? Read on and make up your own mind:

    1) The total number of victims inside all the hi-jacked planes was 254. 2 + 5 + 4 = 11.

    2) September 11 is day number 254 of the calendar year. Again 2 + 5 + 4 =11.

    3) The Madrid bombing took place on 3/11/2004. 3 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 4 = 11.

    4) The tragedy of Madrid happened 911 days after the Twin Towers incident.

    Now this is where things get totally eerie:

    The most recognized symbol for the US, after the Stars & Stripes, is the Bald Eagle. The following verse is taken from the Quran, the Islamic holy book:

    "For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome eagle. The wrath of the Eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah and lo, while some of the people trembled in despair still more rejoiced: for the wrath of the Eagle cleansed the lands of Allah and there was peace."

    That verse is number 9.11 of the Quran.

    Still unconvinced about all of this? Try this and see how you feel
    afterwards, it made my hair stand on end:

    Open Microsoft Word and do the following:

    1. Type in capitals Q33 NY. This is the flight number of the first plane to hit one of the Twin Towers.

    2. Highlight the Q33 NY

    3. Change the font size to 48.

    4. Change the actual font to WINGDINGS

    What do you think now?

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:15 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    December 26, 2005


    The Gray Monk's posting from December 11 'Searching for a spiritual meaning' set me off thinking what had been the heroes of my youth. Certainly not pop stars. We probably didn't have so many then. Instead I was absolutely fascinated with polar explorers like Roald Amundsen and many others. I read up every book I could find on them in the library and wished very much I could have taken part in a polar expedition myself. Even today I am dreaming about spending in year on Spitzbergen.

    Well, at least I've made it to Greenland and was able to visit the birthplace of the famous Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, who was born in Jakobshavn in 1879. His father Christian worked there as a parson and philologist. I am not sure the church of Jabobshavn today is still the one Christian Rasmussen worked in but it may well be.


    Inside Jakobshavn church

    Knud Rasmussen's playmates were mostly Greelandic people from whom he not only learnt their language but also their way of living and surviving. The Innuit always had a deep respect for him and called him 'Kununguak' which means 'litte Knud' for he couldn't have been more than five feet.

    During his famous expedition from 1902-1904 he spend the winters among the Innuit in the polar region. From 1906-1908 he conducted ethnographic studies in the Nortwest of Greenland and founded the trading post Thule in 1910. Thule served as a starting point for seven further expeditions between 1912 and 1933 into the North as far as the Bering Strait.

    Knud Rasmussen died in Copenhagen on December 21,1933. Legend says he had eaten a Greenlandic delicacy: birds are rolled up in big stripes of fat and buried in the earth. After some months they are dug up again and eaten. Obviously this time he fell ill after the meal and never recovered from it.

    Today Jakobshavn is one of the 'bigger cities' at the West coast of Greenland Scandinavian style houses like the municipality building mix with rather ugly multi-storeyed ones as can be seen on the left of the photo below.


    Municipality building of Jakobshavn

    The government made Innuit people give up their traditional way of living and settled them in flats instead. That caused a lot of problems, at least twenty years ago. Two of them were unemployment and alcoholism. Apparently it is not as easy to change traditional ways of living as some well meaning bureaucrats think. Jakobshavn had (and probably still has) as fish factory. But they had trouble finding people to work there in summer. Because in summer people take out their boats and go fishing themselves. That way they probably earn less money than in the factory but have a lot more fun. Whoever would change a day out in the open among beautiful icebergs and the sun on one's face for a day inside a sticky and humid fish factory with no view at all?

    Posted by Mausi at 05:10 PM | TrackBack

    December 19, 2005

    Visiting forces

    The harbour in Bahrain provided some interesting ships to look at, none more so than the flotilla of patrol vessels (couldn't photograph them without arousing a hornets nest!) moored along a quay obviously part of the Kingdom's Naval Base. On an adjoining quay lay an interesting mix of ships including a RN Type 23, an USN "Oliver Hazard Perry" Class Missile frigate (The pennant Number on her bow is 90, but I can't find her in the USN website!), an USN Hydrographic survey vessel and a medium sized Fleet Supply ship also from the USN.

    US Navy ships in Bahrain with a RN Type 23 Frigate moored ahead of them.

    The Type 23 and the USN Oliver Hazard Perry type pack between them an enormous punch and possess very good anti-missile defence systems. The Royal Australian Navy has several of the "Perrys" in service under the names of their State and Territorial capitals. (For my Ozzie readers, you might like to look up the RAN website where you'll find that HMAS Sydney is pennant Number 03) Both the Type 23 and the Perry Class have powerful gas turbine propulsion systems which allow them to achieve almost 40 knots (the actual speed is not revealed in most reference books) and both can get underway from a berth in around 30 minutes from alert. Manoeuvering is achieved using conventional power modules and the overall power output is further enhanced by being able to vary the pitch on the propeller blades.

    Watching one turn under full power is interesting - better hope that no one was trying to drink a cup of coffee or anything else when they do it!

    Fleet Auxilliaries such as this are an essential part of any modern fleet deployment - a sort of "one stop shop" for ships!.

    By contrast the Fleet Auxilliary is basically a floating department store for ships. Get your fuel, ammunition replacements, food and spare parts here! These ships can steam with others abeam or astern and pass fuel and stores across without havng to stop or find shelter. They are an essential part of any fleet deployment - without them the fleet is tied to fuel ports and bases wherever they go.

    The hydrographic survey vessel has multiple roles, but it's most important function is keeping charts and changes to seabeds, coastlines and sea data up to date. Essentially their function has grown from the voyages of the likes of Captain Cook and other explorers - most of whom would have been overjoyed to have some of the modern exploration tools to help them!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:08 PM | TrackBack

    December 16, 2005

    Icy Colours and Shapes

    As I have said before icebergs are pieces of ice from a glacier that have eventually travelled to the open sea. Glaciers are usually white on the surface as the one below.


    Glacier near Nassarsuaq in the Southwest of Greenland

    While moving down the mountain this glacier had formed several small hollows at its 'belly'. So we were actually able to climb underneath the glacier.


    Picture taken from underneath the glacier

    At this point the pressure from the all the ice above is turning the bottom layer into water thereby creating a sort of film on which the glacier gently slides downhill. Ice that contains a certain amount of liquid water turns blue. It was quite a magnificent sight there underneath all that ice.

    The blue colour can also be observed on icebergs that are dissolving. The one below looks a bit sorry for itself already.


    Dissolving iceberg

    Icebergs also come along in all kinds of shapes. We encountered


    a distant cousin of Nessie ...


    ... and a playful Ice Horse (at the front).

    I know icebergs can be a serious hazard for ships and off-shore platforms but they do make the sea look a lot more interesting!

    Posted by Mausi at 09:44 PM | TrackBack

    December 12, 2005

    Architectural simplicity

    Throughout the Middle East mosques are as prominent as Churches in Europe or the US - possibly even more so. The architectural style of the mosque tells the informed observer a great deal about the patrons, the particular branch of Islam it represents and the status of it's congregation. Those in Bahrain fall into two main categories, with several "sub" categories falling out of these. The ruling family and their supporters are Sunni, the bulk of the populace is Shi'ite. Thus, the small mosque tucked away inconspicuously in a backstreet and painted blue or green and largely unadorned is probably Shi'ite and serves a small and not particularly well endowed congregation - probably fishermen originally, but most likely now "guest" workers from the Indian sub-continent.

    A Sunni Mosque in central Manama showing the simple, but decorative, architecture favoured for these, with understated decoration.

    Elsewhere, however, one encounters richly decorated mosques, one in particular that I passed frequently but could not get a worthwhile picture of, had a fully tilled dome of vivid greens and blues with rich Arabic texts on the plinth in gold (Yellow) ceramic tile. This was a wealthy Shia congregation and not far from this one another, larger mosque in plain white finish with geometric decorative detailing along it's capitals and architraves, proclaimed itself to be a Sunni establishment.

    Outside the city, one finds gloriously palatial mosques within sight of humble mudbrick structures - all very tidily kept and well maintained - in small rural communities. The National Mosque in the centre of Manama is a huge affair, obviously built to show the wealth, status and power of the nation, just as, in earlier centuries, Cathedrals and churches were built across Europe with the same intention.

    The Mosques I have encountered here are an interesting pattern, usually having a large open area for worship, the floor covered by carpets and the roof supported by thin arcaded and decorated pillars or columns. This space is approached through an ablutions area where worshippers can wash feet, hands and face before prayer, and frequently surrounded by rooms for study, reading or meeting. Most have a portico and some - the more lavish - and forecourt usually surrounded by a covered "cloister". Men and women worship separately and some have the main hall divided by a screen for this purpose, others have a separate hall for the women.

    All mosques have a tower or minaret of some kind, although in this age of technology, most have a powerful PA system through which the Muessin calls the faithful to prayer. Gone are the days of his having to climb the tight spiral stairs to the top to shout above the wind to be heard.

    Just as churches differ across countries and Christian persuasions in the West, so mosques tell their own story in the Middle East. All in all, the architecture is fascinating!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:03 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    December 10, 2005

    Singing Icebergs

    A few days ago scientists of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut found out that icebergs could sing. Although the frequency of these sounds is too low for the human ear the noise made by a large iceberg (30 x 50 km) could be recorded at the Neumeyer station in Antarctica. The scientists believe that the sounds are caused by the movement of water in crevices of the iceberg under high pressure. This leads to vibration of the walls. These vibration are very similar to those of vulcanic origin. Scientists now hope to be able to use these seismic vibrations for better prediction of the time of a vulcanic eruption in the future.

    This note about the icebergs took me straight back into 1982 when I spent my summer vacation in Greenland and fell in love with icebergs at first sight. So much that I came back again the next summer. They are truly beautiful as you can see below.


    A truly majestic specimen

    Icebergs are fascinating things. They are all pieces of "debris" from a glacier which eventually make it to the sea. That means they also contain of certain amount of air entrapped in the ice. There's nothing like the popping sound of melting little iceberg cubes in your night cap whisky in front of your tent after a long day of hiking through a breathtaking landscape.

    The fastest moving glacier is the Jakobshavn glacier on the west coast. In 1985 it moved about 6700 m/year (18 m/day). It slowed down to 5700 m/year in 1992, picked up speed again in 1997 reaching a travelling speed of 9400 m/year in 2000 and even 12600 m/year (34 m/day!). The tongue of the glacier reaches into a long fjord which is packed with ice.


    Jakobshavn ice fjord in 1983, view to the East towards the glacier

    The ice in the fjord gives an illusion of being a solid surface which could be easily crossed. This is not the case, however, there are quite big gaps and channels between the pieces of ice.


    View to the West towards the sea

    The fjord gets shallower towards its mouth which causes the icebergs to get stuck. Only when the pressure inside the fjord gets big enough because the glacier never stops pushing new bits into the fjord at the other end are the icebergs released into the sea. A number of them pops out at the same time and - viewed from the sea - make a most impressive "skyline".


    Icebergs popping out of Jakobshavn fjord

    Posted by Mausi at 08:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    December 08, 2005

    Once there was sea ....

    Along the Eastern shore of Manama there are a number of huge land reclamation projects in progress. In fact the whole of the area which is now covered by new development was once under the sea, and the shore line is being extended by a further half mile to a mile to the East. The original "Gate of Bahrain" which once stood on the shore, is now about a half mile from the sea and this will no doubt continue as the Kingdom's economy expands and the demand for "sea shore" locations continues to grow.

    Taken from the top of a newly completed 43 storey tower's helipad, the scene shows the reclamation works which have left an abandoned dhow nearly 500 metres inland in her own shrinking "lake".

    The dhow in the picture above, long abandoned and now marooned a long way from any sea access by reclamation work, will be recovered in due course and mounted as a preserved "decoration" when the "lake" she is currently in is finally filled in. This entire area will eventually be covered by high rise blocks and landscaped gardens as the mega-rich move to newly completed apartments, offices and marinas which are slowly rising from these newly created lands.

    To the left of the last picture, the extent of the reclamation can be seen, with the first of a number of luxury tower blocks rising in the foreground.

    A considerable amount of money, time and effort has gone into studying the effects of the reclamation work along this shore and its impact on the environment. The open channles which will eventually criss-cross it are all designed to allow the free flow of tidal movement and ensure that silting is minimal, but already there is an unforseen impact further offshore as the outlying reefs are showing signs of silting, assumed to be the result of offshore dredging. Further studies have shown that this tends to reverse once dredging stops, so perhaps the damage will not be longterm.

    Bahrain has considerable experience of this sort of work, as the nations pride is that it has linked itself to the Arabian shore by means of a 25 kilometre long causeway and two artificial islands to Saudi Arabia. This feat of engineering was achieved in the 1980's, again with considerable study of the hydrographic effects it would have and has, thus far, had only a minimal impact on the ocean it traverses. The tides flow freely, thanks to the long bridge spans, and the fish stocks, shell fish and other reef life has seen improvement thanks to a large conservation effort and investment.

    The causeway between Bahrain and Saudi stretches across the intervening sea. This picture was taken from the observation tower on the artificial island created at the midway point between the two nations and shows the Bahraini side.

    Perhaps, after all, the reclamation, can be positive for the environment, certainly, talking to those involved in this work, the knowledge gained in each of the studies and in the actual project itself is teaching us more and more about the environment and the forces which affect it.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:59 AM | TrackBack

    December 06, 2005

    Lines of grace

    The dhows of the Arabian Gulf come in a wide range of sizes, but all share the same basic design and shape. There are small ones for use by a single man for fishing which can be rowed or sailed, there are the larger versions capable of short seagoing voyages and used for fishing, short sea trading and pearl diving - and then there are large versions which trade across oceanic distances between Arabia and India. In the days of sailing vessels - in fact right up to the mid-twentieth Century - these sailing dhows used to trade along the East African Coast, and across the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea to India, Ceyl;on, Burma, Thailand and down the Indonesian Island chain. Some still do, but now are powered by large diesel engines as the one in the phot below was until it was abandoned where you now see it.

    An abandoned dhow shows the graceful lines and shallow draft which give these craft their speed and ability to sail swiftly in shallow waters around the islands.

    The sailing dhows carried either a single mast on the smaller vessels or a double mast arrangement on the large ocen going vessels. The lateen rig is not the handiest if you need to drive the vessel to windward by means of a series of "tacks", which requires the ability to change the side on which the sials are "set" in order to make the most efficient use of the wind. This was a major disadvantage of the "square" rig common on European vessels during the age of exploration and expansion, but it was more efficient in that it allowed a rapid change of direction which did not, as in the lateen rig, require the sails to be struck, hauled over the top of the mast and the long angled yard, and then reset on the opposite tack, a manoeuvre possible only where there was plenty of sea room or the vessel could be brought to anchor while the change was made.

    A beautifully detailed model of a twin masted trading dhow showing the arrangement of the twin masts and the manner in which the sails are set.

    As I could not get to a place where there are reputed to still be some fully rigged dhows, I have had to resort to a photograph of a presentation model of the double masted rig. Even on this scale the simple grace of the lines of the hull and of the rig show its simple beauty. While European sailing vessels of the 16th - 19th Century lumbered around the world at an average speed of 4 - 8 knots (around 5 - 10 miles per hour!), the dhows could regularly notch up speeds of 10 - 15 knots (11 - 17 mph) sailing along the monsoon winds between India and Arabia and between Arabia and the East Coast of Africa. On a broad reach these craft have a distinct advantage with a good wind as the hull form and the shallow draft allow the bows to lift and the ship adopts a "planing" attitude which reduces drag and increases the speed which can be achieved. The deep hulled design of European ships required considerably more effort to achieve anything like the speds the dhows could reach.

    The rather sadly decaying timbers of this abandoned dhow show the inherent strength of the hull design and its yacht like lines.

    A remarkable feature of the dhow design is that it has not changed a great deal in over a thousand years. You will not find any drawings for the design in any of the "yards" where they are still built, the design is all done by eye and experience and they vary individually as a result in dimensions, hull form and size. All in all, a remarkably durable and efficient design which has stood the test of time very well indeed.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:12 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    December 01, 2005

    How old is the Moon?

    Do you know? I've learnt a few day ago that is 4,527 million years old - give or take 10 million years that is. At least that is what a team of scientists from Münster and Köln in Germany and Oxford Great Britain say. But how do they know?

    They analysed the content of the metal isotope Wolfram-182 in a number of rock samples taken during various Apollo missions. During the first 60 million years of our solar system Wolfram-182 was partly formed by the radioactive decay of Hafnium-182. But being a very instable isotop Hafnium-182 vanished completely within these first 60 million years. That means that if variations in Wolfram-182 content are found in rock samples the rocks must have been formed within the first 60 million years. If the rocks had been formed after the first 60 million years one would expect no variations in Wolfram-182 content of the rock samples because in that case Hafnium-182 would not have contributed to the Wolfram-182 content.

    Variations in the Wolfram-182 content were indeed detected in the rock samples from the Moon. These enabled the scienstists to calculate that the Moon must have been formed 30 to 50 millions years after our solar system, i.e. 4,527 million years ago. The Moon itself is most probably the product of a collision between the so-called proto-Earth and a marslike object as described in the "Giant Impact Hypothesis". According to this hypothesis the Earth as we know it is as old as the Moon. The oldest rocks which are found on the Earth are at least 500 million years younger than the Earth itself and therefore useless for exactly determining the age of the Earth. But now the rock samples from the Moon, which contain information about both Earth and Moon, will certainly open up new insights into the hour of birth of our own planet.

    Posted by Mausi at 12:29 PM | TrackBack

    November 29, 2005

    Preserving old glass

    One of the great treasures of the Abbey is it's beautiful collection of 14th Century stained glass in the Quire clerestory. Quite how it all survived the attacks of the iconoclasts and the ravages of several civil wars, religious turmoil and the ravages of time, we will probably never know in full. But time has caught up with us! Condensation is slowly destroying the pigments - particularly on the North facing side - and it is also destroying the leading which holds the whole window together.

    14th century window.jpg
    One of the magnificent 14th Century windows in the East Quire range of the Clerestory, depicting Kings and Prophets.

    The time has now come for us to spend mega money on doing something to preserve them for the future. We have to install an outer glazed element to effectively create "double glazing". This is a technique called "iso-thermal glazing" and it allows a constant natural airflow between the inner and outer glazing generated by natural "convection" currents and which prevents the formation of condensation on the inner window. The problem is the money. The Abbey, despite its historical importance and unique history, receives no funding from government, lottery or local government. We have to raise it all ourselves.

    Thus, as I have mentioned before in an earlier ramble, we are launching a Campaign to raise £2 million to carry out essential repairs - and the windows will absorb around £250,000 of that. The rest goes on repairing and replacing stonework, repairing aging timbers, and other essential works to keep a 900 year old building standing. Anyone wanting to contribute to this can contact the Campaign Manager through the Abbey website.

    Every contribution will be a great help!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:01 PM | TrackBack

    November 27, 2005

    Let mighty organs sound .....

    The Abbey has recently played host to another round of Gala Organ Concerts, and the three organs have been strutting their stuff magnificently. I took the opportunity to try and capture some of the features of the Grove, the "Exhibition" Organ built for the Graet Exhibition in the 1880's and subsequently displayed around the country. It is still very much in the shape and order in which it finished up in the Abbey in the mid-1890's and is now very much an almost unique example of an unmodified Victorian Organ.

    Among its unique features is the playing action, a mixture of pneumatic and "tracker" operation with mechanical links for the stops. Pieces like the Boellman Toccata have to be heard on this instrument to appreciate what it really sounds like!

    The four manuals for the Grove Organ - the fifth, the Pedal, is just visible in the photo with the pedal "pistons" for preset "Stop" changes above.

    The organ has a magnificent set of "reed" stops and a very wide range of sounds encompassing all the flutes, and many of the traditional "organ" sounds. The playing action uses wind pressure to operate the valves for the individual pipes in some parts of the organ with the mechanical linkage of "tracker" action for the rest. It provides the Organ Builders who maintain and tune it wioth a number of interesting challenges.

    The linkages for part of the "tracker" section of the playing action.

    Listening to this magnificent instrument, under the hands of a real virtuoso, made me very aware of the fact that, once we have restored and repaired the tower and the transepts - we will have to do something to restore this wonderful instrument.

    That will not be cheap either!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:31 PM | TrackBack

    November 26, 2005

    An island in the desert?

    Bahrain is a small group of islands, tucked in neatly between Qatar to the East and South, and the Saudi Arabian shore of the Arabian landmass to the East. It is in fact a group of 36 islands, many linked to each other by causeways and bridges, surrounded by shallow seas and numerous reefs. Until the discovery of oil and it's exploitation, this was a land, ruled by the Emir, of agriculturalists, camel herders, goat herds, pearl divers and fisher folk. It was also the first country "outside" of the Arabian Peninsula to adopt Islam as it's state religion - just 8 years after the Prophet fled to Medina from Mecca.

    One of the new bridges linking Manama to the island on which the airport is located.

    Civilisation here is ancient, it stretches back a little over three thousand years to the "Dilmun" peoples who lived here 3,000 years ago. They left a legacy of numerous burial mounds, temple ruins and even traces of small (by our standards) cities. Their culture stretched across into Saudi Arabia and Qatar and traces of their civilsation have been found in Kuwait, the Euphrates delta and many other islands in the Arabian (or Persian if you are not an Arab!) Gulf. Bahrain is the modern name for an island that, in antiquity, was known as Awal and was then, as it is once more becoming, an important centre for trade in the Gulf area.

    Old and new rub shoulders across this small nation as old traditions make way for new enterprises. The culture is an open one with Islam being predominant, but markedly tolerant of Christianity and other religions and their practices. The primary tensions one observes here are between Sunni and Shi'ite communities, with the Ruling Family being Sunni and the majority population being Shi'ite. The Sunni Rulers and their friends hold all the reins of power and most of the wealth, which leaves the remainder, if not exactly in poverty, certainly cut off from the means to become wealthy!

    A motorised dhow powers up an inshore channel, the clarity of the water shows the reefs lying close inshore.

    The capital is Manama, which is also the name of the central and largest island in the group. It is a bustling place with much new building going on as the island has succeeded in attracting financial and banking organisations to invest and build their corporate operations centres here. It is interesting though to walk the streets and one soon finds that the new buildings along the sea front mask the old city and it's maze of narrow streets and alleys. The Old Souk is an amazing place, vibrant with jewllery manufacturers and sellers, clothes and clothe merchants, spice sellers and cafe "bread" shops.

    One of the streets leading through the Old Souk.

    Outside of the central city, the accommodation becomes less opulent and much more traditional, small flats above shops with roof terrace space for families to get out of the indoor heat and even screened balconies for the women. Out in the vilages the dwellings show their age, and the tradition of Grandparents, Parents and Siblings all sharing one dwelling is much in evidence. As in other "young" nations (in the sense of having only recently joined the "democratic" and "technological" "Western" model of nationhood) there is a distinct lack of a "local" "Middle Class". One is either very wealthy, or a worker, with a further underclass of "guest" workers, usually from the Indian Sub-Continent or the Philippines. These latter usually live in "Camps" - batteries of hostels set up in compounds outside the city.

    This was, hopefully, the first of a number of future visits to this fascinating nation. By contrast to the surrounding nations, Bahrain is much more open, relaxed and far more mature in their thinking on a range of issues. I hope that they can continue to develop the best of their society in a forward thinking way. The one cloud on the horizon is that the "disadvantaged" Shia community look towards the Iranian Ayatollahs for spiritual and political guidance. That could be their downfall!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:26 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    November 24, 2005

    Wooden Walls

    With all the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar now behind us, I felt it was appropriate to bring out this picture of the famous old ship herself. A little shorter in overall length than a modern Type 23 Frigate, she mounted 104 guns in her broadside batteries, the largest, the 32 pounders, on the lower gun deck. Her crew of 995 men and officers (including a Royal Marine Comany of just over 100) lived in incredibly cramped conditions between the guns. Even the officers were quite crowded in their quarters aft in the Wardroom, with only the Captain, Thomas Masterman Hardy, and the Admiral having the luxury of a private space with separate sleeping quarters. The Midshipmen lived in the "Gunroom", a space below the waterline aft, which also became an overflow sickbay in battle.

    HMS Victory, still in commision after 248 years, flying the Flag of the Port Admiral, Portsmouth Dockyard.

    The 32 pounder guns had a range of about 3 miles and the 24 pounders on the middle gundeck could send a shot about the same distance. The upper gun deck carried lighter 12 pounders which had a slightly lesser range. Fired at close quarters into an enemy, the shot often passed right through the other ship, tearing out huge chunks of the ship's fabric in the process. Most wounds were from wood splinters rather than shot - and gangrene almost always followed a splinter wound as "Green Heart" Oak (from which these ships were built) is poisonous! On the Quarterdeck and on the forecastle she carried (in common with most British ships of the period) a number of "Smashers" - Carronades - short barrelled guns which fired a large hollow caste iron ball filled with metal balls. These burst on impact and did terrible damage in the process. Victory had 24 pounder carronades on the Quarterdeck and four 64 pounders on the forecastle. It was one of these latter which almost put Admiral Villeneuve out of the fight right at the outset.

    The Grand Old Lady is open to the public and well worth the effort of visiting her.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:40 PM | TrackBack

    November 21, 2005

    European Ancestors

    The Gray Monk has already posted bits about his fascination with the National Geographic Genographic Project which tells us about the migration of our ancestors from Africa into Europe and the rest of the world. With regard to Europe there has been a debate for years among geneticists, archaeologists, and anthropologists whether modern Europeans are descendants of the Neolithic farmers who settled in Europe about 7,500 years ago or of the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who had been already present in Europe 40,000 years ago.

    A team of scientists from Germany and the UK have just published their findings in the magazine 'Science' that the genetic impact of the Neolithic farmers who migrated into Europe from the Middle East is much less than had been thought until now. They extracted and sequenced mtDNA (maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA) from 24 out of 57 Neolithic skeletons. The skeletons came from various locations in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. DNA samples were taken from bones as well as from teeth. 6 (25%) of the skeletons contained the characteristic mtDNA type N1a which was formerly widespread among the farmers of the Neolithic age. But Europeans today have a 150 times lower frequency (0.2%) of this mtDNA type. That supports the theory that the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers had a much stronger genetic influence on the modern European female lineage than the Neolithic farmers.

    This comes as a bit of a surprise. Until now it had been thought that together with the spread of farming techniques also went the spread of language, genetic material, and cultural techniques. One of the oldest of the Neolithic Age is the Linear Band Ware Culture, also known as Linear Pottery Culture. It originated in Hungary and Slowakia and within 500 years spread into the vicinity of Paris and Belarus. The quick spread and the fact that finds from an area of almost a million square kilometers are practically indistinguishable from each other seems to indicate that most spread was mostly achieved by immigration. On the other hand some archaeological studies indicate that some Paleolithic hunters and gatherers turned into farmers without mixing very much with the already existing farming population.

    To me this shows again that evolution is never a one way road. Obviously Paleolithic hunters were not simply replaced by Neolithic farmers in Europe but shared the place for some time. I find it fascinating that science somehow never fails to provide us with new tools which enable us to learn more about our past bit by bit. It will be very interesting to find out next what actually happened to the Neolithic farmers in Europe. Wait and see.

    Posted by Mausi at 04:08 PM | TrackBack

    November 20, 2005

    Yew Power

    The penultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought in Tewkesbury and every year there is a re-enactment on the old battlefield - or what is left of it. It is a grand weekend affair with the town filled with re-enactors from all over Europe (Both armies had large mercenary contingents) and the battle ended in a slaughter rather than a defeat. Edward IV secured his claim to the crown and captured Queen Margaret (Henry VI's Queen) in the process. She was merely banished, her son, Edward Prince of Wales, was killed on the battlefield and her husband died mysteriously in the Tower of London. The surviving Lords who had supported her and her husband's cause were all beheaded at the Tewkesbury Market Cross and, with the fallen Prince, are buried in Tewkesbury Abbey.

    Both sides had Longbowmen, the devastating weapon of the high Middle Ages, and both sides made excellent use of them, right up to the point where Edward IV's army managed to turn the Prince of Wales lines and put them to flight. Then it was Edward's bowmen who began the slaughter.

    A pair of "Bowmen" armed with Yew Longbows at the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury.

    The longbow is made from a single strip of Yew wood just over six feet in length unstrung. The Yew has a unique property in that the outer layers are very hardy and the inner core is softer. A bow made from this wood has properties similar to the modern composite bow since, with the hard layers on the "outer" side and the soft layers inward, when the bow is bent, the softer layers are condensed and store energy while the outer layers are stretched. When the string is released, the energy is transmitted through the bowstring as the compressed layers push back into shape, increasing the "straightening" moment of the outer layer and lending power to the arrow. These bows generated a "pull" of up to 220 pounds at full "bend" and almost all of that was transfered to the 3 foot long arrow!

    This is the weapon which killed almost 12,000 French knights and men at arms at Agincourt and a similar number at Crecy.

    There is one more piece to this that should make anyone aware of the power of this weapon - it could, in the right circumstances (about 50 feet and striking a flat surface) - penetrate plate armour, chainmail and the padded jerkins beneath! It could also send an arrow almost half a mile - and the bowman could keep 14 arrows a minute in flight! Against this, the crossbow could fire a more powerful "bolt" over a short distance, but it could only fire three "bolts" to the longbow's fourteen! Also, for the record, modern bows of this type, have a "pull" of a maximum of 180 pounds.

    In case anyone thinks we would have trouble finding Yew wood to make bows - every churchyard the length and breadth of England has stands of Yew trees.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:15 PM | TrackBack

    November 06, 2005

    The eastern choir of St. Stephan

    In 1973 Marc Chagall, "the master of colour and the Biblical message" was approached by the parish priest of St. Stephan requesting him to design stained glass windows for the apse of the church. It cannot have been easy for the Jewish artist to meet such a request from German parish. But finally he accepted and began drawing the first sketches in December 1978.
    From the very first the windows were intended to be a visible sign of friendship between France and Germany but also between Jews and Christians. The latter is expressed in the central window of the eastern choir.


    Lower half of the window in the middle

    The bond between Jews and Christians is the belief they share in one God. Accodingly the following Biblical events were chosen for the central window (from bottom to top):
    Abraham being visited by the three angels (Gen. 18,1-10a)
    Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18,20-33)


    Upper half of the same window

    Sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22,1-18)
    Dream of Jacob (Gen. 28,10-17)
    Moses giving the Ten Commandments to his people (Exod. 34,27-32)

    These illustrations are also symbols of the celebration of the Eucharist. We pay honour to God in three persons as indicated by the three angels. The Eucharistic feast closely related to the feast of Yahweh at Abraham's table, the intercessory prayers being depicted as Abraham's act of intercession. The sacrifice of Christ is implied in the sacrifice of Isaac. Moses represents the preaching of the Word of God and Jacob's dream the mystery of every house of God.


    The three central windows of the eastern choir

    Compared to the windows on both sides the figures in the central window are rather small. Most of the window is taken up by the blue background. Blue is supposed to inspire tranquillity and encourage meditation. And, indeed, it does have this effect on the visitor. The blue background is also a symbol of the unfathomable God in the windows: we cannot actually see God, but he is always there with us and may reveal himself to us on occasions.

    The two windows flanking the centre one depict the story of human salvation beginning with creation in the lowest picture on the right window. Two main motifs can be seen in these two windows. The first is the pledge made by God with the whole of Creation which is expressed by the words spoken to Noah: "I will set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be the sign of a covenant between me and between the earth" (Gen. 9,13). The second one comes as a bit of a surprise subject to be portrayed in a stained church window: the fact that man and woman are shown as equal in rank, virtually a pair, in their role in the history of human salvation. Unfortunately my photographs are not good enough to show you the scenes in the windows in detail. You just have to believe that from what we see in the windows the left one could be called "Window of the woman" and the right one "Window of the man". The artist intended them to carry on a dialogue. It starts with Creation on the lower left (characterised by the rainbow) and moves to the joys of paradise in the lower left. You can probably recognise those two on the photos. And so it goes on.

    The windows are absolutely fascinating, even more so the longer you look at them. If you ever have the chance to visit Mainz come and look for yourself!

    Posted by Mausi at 04:38 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    November 01, 2005

    Versatile steam

    Another visit to my photo collection turned up this little beauty, a truck tractor from the 1930's well able to hit 60 mph with a load behind it. The only limitation was the amount of water it could carry in it's boiler and a small tank.

    A beautifully restored truck traction unit on display at the recent Fairford Steam Rally.

    One big advantage was that it burned coal or coke - and the price was nowhere near todays astronomically taxed petrol or diesel! Perhaps time to rediscover this technology and free up some tax from the fuel bill. With a simple condensing system on a closed circuit steam line instead of the original system which exhausted the steam to waste, it should be possible to create something even more efficient than this today.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:47 PM | TrackBack

    October 28, 2005

    Chagall in Mainz

    Apart from the impressive cathedral there are quite a number of smaller churches in Mainz. The largest of them is St. Stephan situated on the Stephansberg, a little hill close to the old town of Mainz.


    St. Stephan on top of the Stephansberg which was used as a vineyard until the beginning of the 19th century.

    St. Stephan was founded about 990 by the Emperor Otto III on the instigation of the Archbishop of Mainz, named Willigis. At the beginning of the 13th century it was badly dilapidated and rebuilt in a Gothic style. The building activities finished around 1340. After having been severely damaged in 1857 due to the explosion of a powder magazine nearby it was almost completely destroyed during WW II. Only the exterior walls and the piers survived. It was finally rebuilt in 1959.
    The church is entered through a portal from the North. The copper coated door shows the coat of arms of Bishop Stohr who oversaw the reconstruction in 1959 on the left and of Archbishop Willigis on the right.


    North portal of St. Stephan

    Nowadays St. Stephan is famous for its beautiful windows which were designed and painted by Marc Chagall between 1976 and 1981. Chagall was 94 years old when he finished the windows.


    Interior of St. Stephan: the funds available in 1959 were not sufficient to rebuild the original Gothic vault in the nave. A flat ceiling had to do instead.

    The dominating colour of the Chagall windows is a very friendly and warm shade of blue which gives the interior of the church a characteristic atmosphere as can hopefully be seen from the picture above.

    The artist himself said about his windows:
    "To the glory of God - and the appreciation, joy and hope of man.
    Sign of the bond between Jews and Christians, the friendship between France and Germany, the understanding between all peoples."

    Praise the Lord, all ye works of the Lord.
    Praise the Lord, light and darkness (Daniel 3).

    Posted by Mausi at 10:09 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    October 20, 2005

    Witnesses from Medieval Times

    The most beautiful part of the river Rhine is found between Wiesbaden and Koblenz. This is the area where most of the castles along the Rhine are situated. One of the gems among them is the Marksburg at the town of Braubach. The Marksburg is the only castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed. Today it houses the headquarters of the Deutsche Burgenverein (German Castle Association) who ensures that it is beautifully preserved and maintained.

    Perched on top of a steep rock high above the town it offers a splendid view onto the river as most of the Rhine castles do. If you want to extort money from ships passing by you'd better see them coming!


    View of the river Rhine from the Marksburg.

    The castle was first mentioned in 1231. The keep is, of course, the oldest part of the castle and was probably built by some local noble Freemen. Then the Lords of Eppstein added the Romanesque part of the castle. They came from one of the most powerful families of that time who had no less than five archbishops and electors among the family members. In 1283 the castle was bought by the wealthy Count of Katzenelnbogen. The Counts of Katzenelnbogen built the Gothic part of the castle.

    Knight's stairway into the inner courtyards of the castle. The horses of those times must have been good climbers.

    With the death of the last Count of Katzenelnbogen the castle passed on to the Landgraves of Hessen who turned it into a hill fortress with artillery batteries and ramparts. The fortifications are impressive and some of the cannons are still on display in the castle yards.

    Lots of artefacts inside the castle give a good impression of what life must have been like in the Middle Ages. Nowadays the rooms seem very small but it could not have been easy in those days to carry up all the firewood to the top of hill which was needed to keep the castle at least moderately warm and dry. People living in the castle must have led very lonely lives especially during winter times.

    In the 19th century the castle was mainly used as a state prison and almost started falling apart towards the end of the century. In 1900 it was bought by the Deutsche Burgenverein for a symbolic price of 1,000 Goldmarks. It has been lovingly restored ever since and is well worth a visit.

    Posted by Mausi at 05:13 PM | TrackBack

    Have you ever wondered ....

    As most of my friends know, I have spent a lot of my career trying to prevent people from doing stupid things with fire, putting them out when they occur, or investigating them after someone else has dealt with it, and now teaching others to carry on the good work.

    Backdraft full force.BMP
    This is a backdraft as it happens. The "deflagration" is often sufficiently powerful to extinguish the original fire by expelling all the fuel vapour.

    Much was made of the explosive force of the backdraft phenomenon in the film of that name and there were a number of scenes which showed particularly violent explosions. Well, backdrafts are basically a deflagrating explosion of the unburned combustion or pyrolysis products in the smoke plume. They are seldom as violently powerful as Hollywood's version, but they are incredibly dangerous and pretty deadly if you happen to be the idiot in the wrong place when it happens. Anyone stood in the path of the flame emitted is going to be seriously burned, anyone caught in the pressure wave it will generate will probably be very aware of the explosive power.

    An explosion of this type is generally at it's most powerful when it is in the most efficient air/fuel range of mixture - just like the carburation principle in a petrol engine. Too rich and it loses force, to lean and it may not even ignite. The range of materials stored in our homes that can produce the vapours to do this sort of "explosion" are fairly large. Plastics, expanded foam cusions, "Melamine" finishes, gas, some household cleaners, are among the things that can all produce the fuel which makes a stoichiometric mix and - BANG!

    These sorts of explosion usually produce more of a "Woof!" than a "Bang!", but they are no less dangerous for that!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:27 PM | TrackBack

    October 18, 2005

    Bird of war ....

    As a child born immediately after the second world war, I grew up with people talking about Spitfires, Hurricanes and many other legendary fighter and bomber aircraft from both sides of the conflict. I don't think I ever really expected to see them up close - but it is surprising how many are still around. A period spent in the East Lothian region of Scotland found me on the doorstep of a museum specialising in aviation history - there is a Vulcan bomber parked outside as a bit of a clue!

    Spitfire - E Fortune.JPG
    The legendary Spitfire - this one, according to the plaque, a Mk V - in the dark paint scheme used for night fighting.

    Of all the aircraft of the WW2 era, the Spitfire seems to have become the symbol of them all, despite the fact that there were never that many of them in service at any one time. Having now heard them in flight, I have to say, that I can understand some of the legend. They have a snarl to the engine and prop which is unique, rather like Concorde's howl. When you get up close to one, as in the museum in East Lothian, it has a magnetic feel to it, even though this one will probably never fly again. In sharp contrast is the Messerschmidt Rocket plane parked alongside the Spitfire - possibly the first really supersonic aircraft - but a real "suicide special".

    me rocket plane.jpg
    Short, compact, with limited duration - and deadly to both opponents and its pilots, the Messerschmidt Rocketpowered Interscepter.

    This museum is not large, but it is packed with a fascinating collection of aircraft, almost all of them legendary. My only regret is that I have yet to find somewhere with a De Haviland Mosquito (built of Marine Plywood and with twin RR Gryphon engines!) and an even more deadly aircraft designed for Naval strikes - the Bristol Beaufighter, which was nicknamed by the Japanese unfortunate enough to come under attack from them, the "Whispering Death". The reason for this is that the engines were silenced and the prop noise was reduced by using a special blade design which was considerably quieter than any other.

    The only problem is that I not only want to see these aircraft - I want to experience flying in them! One small problem with that - I'm not a pilot!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:26 PM | TrackBack

    October 09, 2005

    Abbey repairs

    Work has started on the repairs to the Abbey Tower, at this stage mainly concentrated on making the roof and drainage from the tower watertight again! Our Campaign to raise the money for the repairs to the stonework is also gathering pace as we have now identified the major projects which need the most urgent attention and will require the most capital investment.

    This picture shows some of the erosion of stonework on the West and North faces of the tower. All of this will need to be cut back and then inserts of new stone placed to "reface" it.

    One of the many "problems" that need to be addressed in repairing buildings like this is that you cannot use modern "Portland" type cement, as this attacks the old stone and destroys the lime mortar that is already in place. It is also far too "rigid" and can cause further damage to the structure by restricting the buildings ability to "move" and adjust to the seasons. The original builders made their own "lime" mortar on site, something our modern builders cannot do for a variety of reasons, so it has to be brought in as pre-prepared "constituents" which can then be matched and mixed to blend with the original. Naturally that takes time, and time costs.

    The eroded stonework has to be cut back, or even cut out - care being taken to ensure that the surrounding stone is not damaged - and then is either "refaced" with new stone inserted over the old, or a new block, cut to fit exactly the old shape, is inserted. Naturally, one does not buy these in the local D-I-Y store, so skilled craftsmen are needed to do this work. It is painstakingly slow and more a work of art than of a builder.

    In case you ever wondered how the medieval builders got their materials up the tower - this is a "winch" pulley they left behind!

    The more I study this building, the more amazed I am at just how skilled the original Norman and Medieval artisans were. I seriously doubt if any of the buildings we are throwing up in our age will still be here 900 years hence!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:52 AM | TrackBack

    October 08, 2005

    Golden history

    The Cathedral (Dom Church) in Poznan has been rebuilt several times in its history, the latest rebuild having been carried out in 1952 to rebuild the building all but destroyed by the Russian assault in 1944/45. Several parts of the original survived, perhaps the most spectacular part being the "Golden" Chapel, built in the 18th Century to house the tombs of the first Kings of Poland. The chapel is, for obvious reasons kept locked and is entered only on special occassions for commemorative Masses by the Cathedral clergy.

    The altar and altarpiece of the Golden Chapel - the altarpiece is not a painting, it is in fact a mosaic composed of various rare and precious and semi-precious materials.

    The walls and the spectacular domed roof are lined with gold - hence the name - and this is worked as both a foil and as inlaid and wrought elements. It is estimated that there is upwards of 18 kilograms (almost 40 pounds) of gold here. Alcoves to the North and South of the circular chapel house the tombs of Mischea I and Mischea II the first two Kings of Poland, four more are entombed beneath the floor.

    The dome of the Golden Chapel. The picture does not do it any credit at all!

    While this chapel is perhaps the most stunning feature, the cathedral holds a number of fascinating features for those interested in history and in ancient buildings. The undercrofts beneath the present structure have been opened up and can be seen as part of an archeological tour, which allows visitors to see the original foundations for the first cathedral and to examine the subsequent changes and enlargements. This tour also reveals the probably site of the baptism font (one of three possible sites) where King Michea I was baptised - and subsequently all of Poland became Christian by decree.

    There must be some irony in the fact that the city of Poznan saw the first King's, the first Cathedral and became the first capital - and also witnessed the dismissal of the last Polish King, overthrown by a Swedish invader in the 18th Century, at which point Poland ceased to exist as a nation, except in it's language and in the hearts and minds of it's people.

    So here you have the celebration of both the beginning and the end of the original Poland - and the pride of the new.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:23 AM | TrackBack

    October 07, 2005

    Mechanical fun and history

    Poznan (sometimes also known as Posen) is interesting for a number of reasons and a very historical place. It is the place where the first Polish Kings were crowned and which they made their capital. In the Dom (Cathedral) Church is the Golden Chapel which is also the resting place of the first two King's and several of their successors. The towns Market Square is dominated by the medieval Town Hall, now a museum, all the buildings in this "heart" having been carefully restored after being almost destroyed during World War II.

    The automata Billy Goats, symbols of Poznan, and "supporters" on the city's Arms, engage in head butting as the clock strikes noon.

    The only discordant note here is the Communist Era "mall" abutting the Town Hall which the city council wish to see demolished and replaced with something more in keeping with the rest of the square. The decorated frontages of all the surrounding buildings are, of course, recreations of the originals, as most of the buildings were very badly damaged in the fighting here in 1944 - 45. The really remarkable thing, is the fact that it has been restored and that so much is so lovingly preserved, not as a museum, but as a living a vibrant community.

    Seen from the Town Hall tower, the street cafes can be seen along one side of the square.

    The automata is a major attraction for visitors and the square is crowded as the time for it to happen approaches. Even more interesting is the fact that parties of school children are brought here for history lessons, which includes a bit of fun as well as the serious business of learning about their past.

    Perhaps only those who have had their history suppressed by oppressive invaders and governments can really appreciate the value of preserving it.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:18 AM | TrackBack

    October 06, 2005

    The Bells, the bells!

    The Abbey is blessed with having a "heavy" "ring" of bells in it's tower, thirteen are hung for ringing as a peel, another four, caste in the 1680's used for the clock and a smaller bell, caste in 1690, used as the "Sanctus" Bell. The Bell Ringers ring every Sunday, practice every Thursday and ring for other state and festival occassions as well.

    Six of the bigger bells "set" for ringing in their Bell Frame in Tewkesbury's famous tower.

    The present thirteen bells used in the peel, are all relatively new, twelve having been recast in 1962 from original bells from the tower which dated from the 18th and 19th Centuries. The thirteenth, a "Flat 6th" was added in 1991 to provide a slightly "lighter" toned Octave. As is the tradition, when a bell is recast the original metal is re-used with some new metal added. Each bell is named and each is mounted in a swinging frame which is in turn mounted in the Ringing Frame seen in the photograph. A "stay" prevents the bell from swinging through the "set" position, and holds it in balance until the ringer tugs the bell rope and releases it to swing through a 360 degree arc to it's reset position.

    The keen observer will have noted something interesting in the picture - each bell is mounted to swing in a different direction to it's neighbour. This is to ensure that the momentum of the bells, transmitted through the Bell Frame, is not transferred to the tower in a motion that could cause the tower to sway in harmony with the movement of the bells.

    There is something quintessentially English about the sound of the bells peeling - they do not play tunes - and it is probably not surprising that there are very few "rings" of bells hung in this way outside of the UK. From a health and safety perspective, there is another little point to remember about bell ringing - the ringers are never in the same space as the bells. The ringing chamber is always at least one, if not two floors below the bells and the sound is muffled. Inside the Belfry itself, the sound is loud enough to cause permanent damage to the ears and the bells in St Paul's Cathedral in London are said to have killed eight men in their history by the noise alone.

    Even so, it is one of the traditions of the English Church which I hope will continue, it is, after all, a part of the culture we all enjoy.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:38 PM | TrackBack

    September 17, 2005

    Medieval Glass

    Gloucester Cathedral boasts one of the greatest expanses of medieval glass in England, if not the biggest. The East Window fills the entire East End of the Cathedral and has recently been lovingly restored. This Cathedral is where the style of late medieval architecture known as "English Perpendicular" was invented and this window is the epitomy of the style's descriptor of "more glass than wall". East of this is preserved the medieval lady chapel, used as a school post dissolution of the monastery and reformation, but now restored to its original use and used daily. It too, is a glorious example of the full English Perpendicular art and we are fortunate indeed that it survived the dissolution.

    The great East Window rises above the High Altar in Gloucester Cathedral.

    The great East Window fills the entire wall at the East End, it's tracery and stonework holding together panels that depict kings, prophets, angels, patriarchs and Our Lord and the disciples and Apostles. Created in the 13th and 14th Centuries it is an amazing set of glass and art, which has survived iconoclasts, puritans, sieges, civil war and the bombing of the second World War. While it was being cleaned and releaded, it has also had minor repairs done to it and hopefully it will still be here for many more centuries as a reminder of the beauty that humanity is capable of creating even in unsettled and violent times.

    Many readers will know parts of Gloucester (founded as a Benedictine Monastery in 615 AD) from the Harry Potter films, the most familiar bit being the glorious enclosed Cloister which appears in a number of scenes with Harry and his chums going to and from classes in Hogwarts. The magic of the movies has transformed some parts giving them access to places that do not exist at Gloucester, but many do, and they are recognisable to those of us who know the building.

    It is also the last resting place for two members of the "modern" Royal lineage, King Edward II and Robert Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror's eldest son. Robert was deprived twice of his father's throne, first by William Rufus (William II) and then by Henry I who locked him away in Cardiff Castle until he died. He now rests in a fine wooden coffin shrine on the South side of the ambulatory near the High Altar. Ironically, he and his tomb were removed to the undercroft during WW2 and rested on top of a large crate from Westminster Abbey throughout. In 1946, when the Westminster crates were collected, it was discovered that he had lain on the throne he never occupied - the Coronation Chair!

    Another Royal Tomb at Gloucester is that of it's founder, the one time King of Mercia who endowed the monastery with land and funds to build the original. He was reburied in a magnificent tomb in medieval times on the North of the High Altar. Never one of the richer foundations, Gloucester today mixes the great drum pillars of a Norman nave, with the late medieval English Perpendicular of the East Quire and Transepts, it's glorious Lady Chapel and the the wonderful cloisters. Many of the monastic buildings also survive as they found other uses when Henry VIII made it a Cathedral in 1540.

    Robert Wakeham, the last Abbot of Tewkesbury, became the first Bishop of Gloucester and it is possibly to his astute management that we owe the preservation of so much of the monastic establishment as he swiftly found uses for as many of the structures surrounding the cloister as he could. Even the Lady Chapel becoming a school is down to his shrewd management.

    A living legacy and one still giving praise to the Lord in all its guises and uses.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:05 PM | TrackBack

    September 15, 2005

    Soaring vaulting

    Going through my pictures from Germany, I felt I had to share this breathtaking view of the nave of Köln Dom (Cathedral). The nave organ is suspended around 100 feet above the floor from the vaulting and is accessed from the clerestory walkway - itself around 100 feet above the floor. That should give a reasonable idea of just how high that vaulted roof is!

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    Looking East down the nave of Köln Cathedral nave.

    These huge and impressive structures soar upwards on a narrow floor plan, their pillared archways supporting incredible loads. While the nave itself is narrow, the overall width is increased by the double aisle on each side, each aisle being as wide as the nave itself, and the doubling increases the overall width of the building to around five times the width of the nave.

    Outside the central lantern reaches for the sky and is balanced by the twin spires of the West End.

    And it was all built without the aid of modern machinery. A triumph of human endeavour and a stunning tribute to the God we worship.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:09 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 11, 2005

    Decorated churches in the Rhine-Pfalz

    The interior decoration of some of the smaller churches I visited during my all too brief visit to the Rhinelands were quite fascinating. They ranged from the highly ornate "Baroque" to a much simpler style, frequently related to whether they were "Lutheran" or "Catholic".

    The interior of a beautiful Lutheran church with tiered galleries and a magnificent Baroque organ. The sign on the left says "Please turn off your mobile phone, we still talk to God in the old fashioned way."

    Typical examples were found in several places as these photos show. In the first I have managed to capture the interior of a beautiful Lutheran Church in Speyer, unfortunately closed to visitors but still visible through the glass screen doors. In the city of Mainz not far from the massive red sandstone Dom, stood a magnificent monastic Church, part of an Augustinian Monastery. The interior a riot of stucco and painted ceilings.

    The magnificent Baroque interior of the Augustinian Monastery Church in Mainz. The exterior belies the magnificence of the interior!

    Externally the building, while interesting, gives little indication of the feast for the senses that lies hidden within.

    I found the contrast between the medieval architecture of many of the Rhineland Cathedrals and older churches and these later Baroque buildings fascinating. The great "Dom" Churches speak of a nation of confident security, political certainity and power, built more for the statement they make about the authority of the Bishops or Kings building them, than their use as a place of worship. The smaller Baroque buildings with their riotous decoration speak of a nation at ease with itself and enjoying prosperity and security, comfortable with it's faith and expressing itself in the decoration and simpler architecture.

    The most striking feature of the great churches is the soaring height of the nave, and then the width of the aisles, frequently almost as high as the nave. The great sweep of the nave from West to East is designed to inspire awe, and it is a place for dramatic political events such as coronations, enthronements and the great festivals of the church. By contrast the smaller Baroque churches are more intimate and less dramatic in size - but make up for that in their decoration.

    Definitely something I want to explore further - there is just so much more to see!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    September 09, 2005

    Magnificent beast .....

    A few weekends ago I had the fun of taking an American friend and visitor to the Fairford Steam Rally. This is a major event covering several acres of parkland and encompassing a wide range of activities from the full sized preserved engines to the modellers and even some steam launches. In another section there were a large number of preserved and restored motor vehicles and the sort of small pumping and generating engines which proliferated from 1900 onwards.

    Pride of place in the show went to six of the big steam traction "Showman" engines. These really are magnificent beasts, their brasswork gleaming as they gently hiss waiting patiently to strut their stuff in the arena. Other interesting steam propelled vehicles also abounded - including three "commercial" lorries and a steam omnibus - one of which picked up a speeding ticket on its way to the show, being trapped by a gatsometer camera at 65 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone!

    The magnificent Burrell Showman Engine towers over her crew as she waits her turn in the show ring.

    Elsewhere in the show area another surprise waited - a fully operational steam "galloper" (a carousel to anyone else, particularly those from the US!). Also called a "Merry-go-round" the steam galloper is built around a central boiler and steam engine mounted on a wheeled platform. The carousel part revolves around the central funnel and boiler from which it is suspended and revolving eccentric cams cause the beautifully carved, painted and individually named, horses to rise and fall giving an exciting and musically accompanied ride. The control platform is central and is hidden by a full calliope organ which plays as the carousel revolves. These used to be seen at every fair, but sadly few survive and this one has a long history and has been lovingly rebuilt and restored. Ironically, the lady in the foreground, a resident of Tewkesbury, lives in a house not far from where the horses were carved - and Tewkesbury itself used to be the proud home of the factory that made the steam gallopers!

    The Showman's pride and joy - a fully restored and operational Steam Galloper. The show that had one of these was a really successful group in the "Big League" of showmen.

    Sadly, these magnificent beasts are now no longer made and the factories that made them are long gone - but we are fortunate that we can still admire the workmanship and the pride that they reflected in their heyday!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:07 PM | TrackBack

    September 07, 2005


    Many of the beautifully restored buildings one sees in the Rhien-Pfalz are, like the one in the attached picture, decorated. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that many of them were very badly damaged by bombs and fire in World War 2 and have been rebuilt or restored since.

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    Decorated medieval buildings in the centre of the old city of Mainz.

    The city of Mainz suffered some bombing during the war, primarily because of its size and it's strategic location on the river. All the more credit, then, to the citizens and the nation that it has been so beautifully and lovingly restored. Mainz and the sister city on the North bank, Wiesbaden will need further exploration when the Monk has an opportunity!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:56 PM | TrackBack

    September 03, 2005

    Big guns on the M1

    It has to be the silly season (the period when serious news simply doesn't happen because Blair and his chums are away on their hols and the Civil Service cretinature is incapable of generating any) when one of the national daily's runs a story to the effect that HMS Belfast, moored in the Upper Pool above Tower Bridge (opposite the Tower of London) has her still operative forward six inch guns trained on a Motorway Services on the M1 12 miles away!

    For most people, I suppose, she is simply an interesting museum piece moored tranquilly in the Thames. Few probably realise that her guns are still serviceable, although I should think that certain safety precautions have been taken, and she has no "live" munitions on board. Fewer still will appreciate that, from where she is, she could hit almost everything inside the M25 and certainly quite a few places beyond it - like Slough, Reigate, Redhill, Barnet, Thurrock and Dartford. She could also hit, and probably devastate, a large part of St Alban's and a few other towns around the capital. Perhaps we should be glad that there are now very few people around who know how to serve and fire these guns efficiently! And just in case you thought that was all she had, think again, she also has pairs of 4 inch High Angle/Low Angle mounts and they have a similar or slightly higher rate of fire and range to match. In the hands of an accomplished, trained, and motivated crew, these will throw bricks which will do just as much damage and have similar penetration.

    HMS Belfast's six inch guns are the same type that took on and severely damaged the Graf Spee at the River Plate, that finished off the Scharnhorst at North Cape (one of Belfast's Battle Honours) and which delivered accurate and massive support in landings in Sicily, Salerno, North Africa, Normandy and elsewhere. Properly served a single gun can keep six shells in flight per minute. That's going some for a manually served gun. HMS Belfast has twelve of them, and she was at North Cape, Normandy, and several other intense battles, her "Battle Honours" are quite a list! At the River Plate, it was the two six inch gunned cruisers, HMS Ajax and Achilles, who did most of the damage to the Graf Spee; their high-speed closing of the range and then high rate of fire meant that the Graf Spee absorbed a large amount of damage very quickly and was forced to divide her own fire between the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and the pair of lighter ships doing most of the damage. It was their shells that knocked out the Graf Spee's after dynamo rooms, her aircraft catapult and hangers, and then destroyed her electric and hydraulic systems to her after guns. The photos taken by newsmen showed little of this damage, possibly because they did not recognise that the smaller puncture holes all indicated deep penetration and internal damage out of all proportion to the size of hole in her armour.

    Each six inch gun fires a 112 pound shell which is "propelled" out of the gun by a 110 pound bag of cordite. With radar gunnery control the maximum range of these guns came into play, previously they had been limited to aiming by visual sights which meant you could shoot what you could see from the control top and rangefinders. Radar moved the accuracy up the ladder, but is still more or less "if you can see it, you can shoot it" and the range could be extended by using aerial spotting to direct the guns, with an aircraft flying between the target and the guns to report the fall of shot and make corrections to the aim. Since the introduction of GPS and satelite navigation, these guns, if served by range and direction finding served by a GPS based system, would probably be far more devastating than any missile save a nuke.

    Six 112 pound shells arriving every minute would spoil anyone's day. Make that 72 and it's time to get the hell out of the way, or wave a white flag and hope they see it!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:02 PM | TrackBack

    August 23, 2005

    A sister Abbey

    Pershore, around 10 miles from Tewkesbury, has an Abbey Church as well. Like Tewkesbury, it was a Benedictine foundation, but predates Tewkesbury by almost 150 years, having been founded around 950 AD. Like Tewkesbury it saw many changes of fortune, and at the dissolution was sold to the townsfolk - as a quarry. They, however, were allowed to maintain the Quire and the Tower as a Parish Church and this survives today. Lost are the original nave, North Transpet, Ambulatory and Coronial Chapels, but the Quire, South Transept, and Tower still stand.

    Pershore Abbey from the South East, showing the remaining South Transpet and Quire Presbytery.

    Unlike Tewkesbury, the interior of the tower was never vaulted, so it remains as a "lantern" with the ringing platform suspended above the "crossing"! Definitely not for the sufferer of vertigo! It must have been a lovely building in its prime; the remaining bits certainly suggest this!

    Interior of the Tower "Lantern" - the "Ringing Platform" is the diamond shaped platform in the centre.

    The bulk of the Abbey Church may have gone, but the people of Pershore still have their "Parish Church" and take as great care of it as we do in Tewkesbury. Any visit to this area should include a visit to this much loved building as well.

    Laus Deo!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:08 AM

    August 22, 2005

    Roman Ingenuity

    Gloucestershire is rich in Roman remains; in fact it was the seat of the military government, the Comes Britainarium, the Commander in Chief of all Roman Forces in Britain was located at Corinium - modern Cirencester. All roads don't lead to London, they lead to Cirencester - at least the Roman ones do!

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    The beautifully preserved mosaic floor of the "Dining Room" at the Chedworth Roman villa in Gloucestershire. The "hypocaust", underfloor heating can be seen in the opening in the foreground.

    Cirencester had a "Stadium" amphitheatre, basilica, and a number of important "palaces". The area around here is full of large Villas which were probably home to local nobles "elevated" by their allegiance to the Romans. Certainly the opulence of the buildings suggests that they did very well, and the remains and excavations show that the area was heavily farmed and well populated. This all began to decay from the late fourth century as Rome itself fell into internal dispute, and increasing bureaucracy strangled its ability to respond to threats from external forces. Then the situation in Britain deteriorated badly once the troops and garrisons were withdrawn in the late 5th Century.

    The great houses at first survived, but the craftsmen and women necessary to maintain them probably moved with the money - to Europe and Rome - as increasing lawlessness and invasion gradually eroded life in Britain. A visit to Chedworth certainly gives one a lot to think about - including what would life be like today had the Roman Empire not collapsed? What if we had not lost the skills and the technology between the 5th Century and the 11th? What if we had seen a technological revolution in the early 6th Century, built on the skills of the Roman craftsmen?

    Maybe our past failures do have something to say about our future. Maybe we should see what would change the cycle for the better - and act on it.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:48 AM | Comments (2)

    August 17, 2005

    Steam for all sizes ...

    The organisers were keen to point out that their membership embraces all sizes and types of steam propelled vehicle. This was born out by the fact that some of the show tractors were too small to be ridden - but could still manage to tow a trailer with the driver and often another passenger riding along.

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    The variety of sizes of the working models on show at the recent Steam Rally can be seen in this picture.

    The performance of even the small engines - and their ability to pull disproportionately large loads - says a great deal about the energy released when water is converted into steam! They may not be the most efficient engine in converting heat/energy into power - certainly a vast amount of the heat produced goes up the smokestack - but there can be no doubt that the 20% of that energy which is used is far more efficient than many modern internal combustion engines - if only because it is using ALL the energy from the moment you open the valve and engage the gear.

    Now, if we could find a way to produce steam without wasting the heat energy we use to produce the steam ......

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:04 AM

    August 13, 2005

    Lunar anniversary.

    An anniversary worth marking slipped past on the 20th July this year which flags up one of those truly wasted opportunities and probably the most high profile failure of vision by politicians. I am talking about the lunar landings in 1969. I must thank Ozguru at G'day Mate for reminding me and stirring me to find the links. Google have a great little map of the landing sites which provides quite a bit of useful information about the targetted area - relatively small and sites quite close together.

    It is encouraging that the US is once more dusting off ideas for future landings, stung into action no doubt by the declared intention of the Chinese, Russians, and EU Space Agencies to do this in the next ten years or so. Back in 1969 of course, the hubris of the then NASA adminstrators led them to include predictions that a manned base could be built there "within a decade". The the politicians lost interest and spent the money on vote catching stuff at home.

    Visiting the Google Map, I have to say that the definition as one zooms in is remarkable. In fact, it is that good that I think I will soon have Church Mouse applying to go there! It certainly looks inviting, but perhaps a little singular in interest. The only thing the map lacks in fact is a scale marker. That would useful - any Google Operatives out there reading this?

    Let's hope that the new plans actually get airborne and then spaceborne before the politicians lose interest again.

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:45 AM | Comments (1)

    July 21, 2005

    Steam tractors anyone?

    Like modern trucks, cars and tractors, steam traction engines came in a variety of shapes and sizes for an equal variety of purposes. One that is almost "multi-purpose" is the steam tractor, and it is easy to see where the modern farm tractor got its shape and basic design from!

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    A younger entrant drives a powerful quarter sized tractor into the arena.

    One drawback was the weight and the fact that they could not be readily used in ploughed lands or over soft ground - so a variant of this is the steam plough which carries a large cable pulley under its belly and a large drum of cable. Two of these set up on either side of a field could pull a plough, guided and steered by a seated man riding it, back and forth across a field - and suddenly modern farming is possible!

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    Giving every impression of its power, a half sized model steam tractor rumbles toward the show arena.

    There were several models of the "plough" variant at the show - unfortunately I could not get a picture that showed the plough mechanism! Never mind, there's always next year!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:11 AM | Comments (2)

    July 20, 2005

    Tracked traction?

    Some unusual traction engines turn up at this rally from time to time and the one in the photograph below is no exception. It is, despite its "battleship grey" paint scheme, actually a replica (half sized) of a traction engine built for Canadian Lumberjacking Companies. It obviously was a useful engine because photographs I have of my grandfather's unit of the Royal Garrison Artillery have something remarkably similar (but a lot bigger) stood behind their 7.2 inch Howitzers!

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    Looking remarkably like the gun tractor it either was, or became, this half sized replica is of a traction engine used to haul logs in Canada.

    The "tracked" wheel system on this unit has obvious advantages in soft or loose ground such as would be found in forests or off "made" roads. I suspect that this technology was probably considered as soon as someone decided to build a mobile armoured gun and troop platform!

    Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:02 PM