Friday, 15 September 2017


I’ve got a little list…
WS Gilbert, The Mikado.
I don’t usually post puzzles at this time, but this is not intended to be a serious attempt to bamboozle my readers. Below are eight photos of Penrith landmarks, all of which are identified and described. The order in which they appear is not significant. So what do these landmarks have in common?

The first two photos are of gateposts:

Gateposts: Corney House, Stricklandgate

Gateposts: Mansion House, Friargate

The second pair of gateposts were once topped by carved stone urns, as the following photograph, taken circa 1910, shows. It was originally captioned ‘The doctor’s wife’, implying that there was only one doctor in town at the time. This seems unlikely:

During the Middle Ages, Penrith was, like most small towns, ravaged periodically by bubonic plague. This probably continued into the eighteenth century. Victims were buried in mass graves to the east of town, in areas that were built on in the nineteenth century. When the plague was raging, all financial transactions between townspeople and outsiders required the buyer to place coins into a stone basin filled with vinegar. Given that the transmission vector for bubonic plague is the fleas living on the backs of rats, I doubt the efficacy of such a procedure.

According to Wikipedia, Penrith’s ‘plague stone’ was fashioned in ‘whinstone’. I had always thought it to be sandstone, but on closer examination I found Wikipedia to be correct, which it often isn’t. ‘Whinstone’ is a quarryman’s term for dolerite, a chemical equivalent of basalt that forms shallow intrusions such as the Whin Sill, which underlies the mountain limestone of the North Pennines a dozen miles to the east of Penrith.

Plague stone

The next photo features more gateposts, these ones dating from the eighteenth century:

Gateposts: Dockray Hall, Great Dockray

The next two photos are of landmarks in the graveyard of the local parish church, St Andrew’s:

War memorial

Memorial to the men who built the L&CR

The war memorial, which takes the form of a Celtic cross, was constructed in 1919 to commemorate the Great War. The Lancaster and Carlisle Railway was completed in 1846 and was subsequently taken over by the London and North Western Railway.

There aren’t many of the traditional telephone boxes designed by Giles Gilbert Scott around nowadays, but here is one outside Penrith’s railway station:

K6-type phone box outside Penrith station

The final photo is of another war memorial, this time to remember the Boer War. It is otherwise known as ‘the Black Angel’ and once stood outside the town hall, but it was moved to Castle Park in the 1960s because it was being damaged by traffic fumes.

Black Angel, Castle Park

This list is incomplete.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

backyard penrith

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of my home town, Penrith, was around 3,800, and at that time, many residents lived in named yards in what is now considered the town centre. Many of these were accessible only through a single narrow passageway, which served a defensive function—Penrith is 30 miles from the Scottish border, and in earlier times it was a regular target of cross-border raiders (the sandstone hill that marks the town’s eastern perimeter is still called ‘the Beacon’, a reference to the practice of lighting fires on its summit to warn the townspeople that yet another raiding party was on its way).

Not many of these old yards still survive. In the 1950s, the local council embarked on a program of what it probably thought of as ‘slum clearance’. Several yards were flattened to build car parks. Some were rebuilt in a more modern style, while several others have had doors or gates placed across the entrance by their residents, so they are effectively off-limits to someone like me, who merely wants to record their existence. Nevertheless, I have been able to put together a collection of photos that I hope readers will find interesting.

Some yards are more like alleyways connecting two streets—there were once four such alleys between Middlegate and Bluebell Lane, but only Three Crowns Yard survives in anything close to its original state (the paving is relatively new, and I suspect that the building on the right in the first photo is new too):

This photo was taken from the end of Bluebell Lane looking down the yard, while the next photo shows the narrow passageway leading into Middlegate:

Notice the external staircase, which was a common feature in such yards.

Starting from the same place as Three Crowns Yard but leading to Cornmarket is White Hart Yard, which is wide enough to drive down, although nobody does nowadays:

The next photo was taken from the same point as the previous one looking back up the yard:

Griffin Yard leads off to the right close to the external staircase in the previous photo. The following photo shows the end of the yard, while the next image was taken looking back towards White Hart Yard:

The next photo was taken in what I originally identified as Sutton Yard, but thanks to diligent research by a friend, I can confirm that it is Ramsey Yard—it no longer has a nameplate over the entrance on Middlegate. It now has little of architectural interest apart from the passage leading to Middlegate, with its two date stones, neither of which, I suspect, belonged originally to the building of which they are now part (the buildings on both sides are modern):

In the same general area, there is an unnamed alleyway connecting Elm Terrace with the bottom of Castlegate. The external staircase in the following photograph is no longer in use, because the door to which it once led has been bricked up:

Across the road from the exit shown in the previous photo is Gloucester Yard. There is no name sign here, and the yard takes its name from the Gloucester Arms, one of four Grade I listed buildings in Penrith. Even though the present owners of this public house have reverted to the name it bore before it became a pub—Dockray Hall—the yard has kept the older name. The first photo is a view looking up the yard, while the second, taken from the same place, shows the entrance to the yard. The third photo was taken further up the hill looking down:

The final photo was taken in the now unnamed alleyway connecting Friargate with King Street and shows the passage leading to the latter:

All the photos here except those of Griffin Yard are of through routes. A few courtyard-style yards still survive, but they are now inaccessible.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

corporal clegg and friends

When I came to work at the Outward Bound School of Hong Kong in January 1974, I’d been attracted by the statement that ‘there are miles and miles of unexplored sea cliffs’. At the time, the school’s rock-climbing program was inadequate, so there was an urgent need to develop a more demanding alternative. The first location I visited was Fat Tong Point, in the far southeast of the New Territories (see map), which overlooks the narrow channel—Fat Tong Mun—between the mainland and Tung Lung Island.

In those days, it was common to see Chinese sailing junks negotiating Fat Tong Mun (mun is Cantonese for ‘door’), and I was most impressed by the levels of seamanship on display, because it was often necessary to perform complicated manoeuvres if the wind was blowing from an unfavourable direction. Incidentally, the logo of the Hong Kong Tourist Association is a sailing junk, but I haven’t seen a real one in Hong Kong harbour for decades. There is a motorized junk that plies the waters of the harbour, but this is merely an attraction for tourists, much like the rickshaws that used to line up next to the Star Ferry piers in Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island.

Fat Tong Point proved to be an ideal climbing venue for Outward Bound students, and we started using it a few months after I arrived in Hong Kong. We would go there with a group of twelve students for two days, camping overnight. On the first day, we tried to do as many easier climbs as we could on the section of cliff directly overlooking the narrowest part of the channel. The following photo is of a page from my records of the time. It shows four of these climbs, which range in length between 40 and 100 feet. The procedure was that I or my colleague for the exercise would lead a climb, and a student would then follow. They would then take the instructor’s place at the top and throw the rope down for the next student, a procedure that was repeated until everyone had done the climb.

The second day was a much tougher proposition. We identified four climbs graded VS (very severe, a respectable level of difficulty), and the challenge for the students was to climb all four. The next two photos show me leading the first of these climbs, Corporal Clegg. I had at the time a penchant for naming climbs after Pink Floyd songs, and this one is named after a track on the band’s second album, Saucerful of Secrets:
Corporal Clegg
Had a wooden leg.

Incidentally, the hardest climb at Fat Tong Point, Astronomy Domine, is named after a track on Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It would have been too dangerous for students to attempt.

The next climb is The Stoat, and the next two photos show my colleague David Lam leading the upper section. The lower section features a vicious finger-jamming crack that feels as if it’s trying to bite your fingers off, so I named it Weasel Crack. However, this climb continues up the easy section to the right of the climber, and I thought that the sloping ramp would make a better (i.e. harder) finish.

I don’t have any photos of the third climb, Right-Hand Wall, which was the only open wall climb among the four.

I named the fourth climb Cumbrian’s Chimney because I’m a native of Cumbria in the UK. Whenever I needed to get from the bottom to the top of a climb, I could go around the easy way, but I was always more likely to climb a route solo instead, as I’m seen doing in the next photo:

 Most of the climb succumbs to straightforward chimneying techniques, but in the photo, I’ve just reached the crux move. The chimney has closed to a narrow crack, so it is necessary to pull over an overhang. The conventional handholds are poor, but there are bomb-proof hand jams in the narrow crack.

I remember few specific incidents from the time we climbed here, but there is one that has remained lodged in my memory for more than 40 years. It was the second day, and as usual the target was for everyone to climb the four routes I’ve just described. A student came up to me:

“Sir! Sir!” he said. “I’m very tired.”

“How many climbs have you done James?” I asked.

“Two sir.”

“That means you have two more to do then!”

I don’t think this was the reply he wanted, but I never had any hesitation in taking advantage of aspects of Chinese culture—in this case that no Chinese will gainsay a teacher—in order to push students to step outside their personal comfort zones. And there is a postscript: James did climb the other two routes, and when we were being ferried back to school, the executive director, who was driving the school launch, asked who one of the students was. It was James, who now had a distinct swagger in his bearing.

We stopped going to Fat Tong Point for climbing in 1976, mainly because of the difficulty in extricating a party should there be a typhoon in the area. Now, the area has been taken over by the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club, and access to the climbing areas is much more difficult.

Friday, 18 August 2017

doomsday scenario

As a former student of geology, I’ve always known about the mass extinction events that have punctuated the Earth’s history, but I recently learned something completely new about the most devastating of these, the Permian–Triassic mass extinction. I was aware that around 96 percent of plant and animal species died out during this event, and I also knew that there were major volcanic eruptions in what is now Siberia but was then part of the supercontinent of Pangaea. These eruptions were of basalt, which is far more fluid than acidic lavas and therefore flows greater distances, and they had been considered the primary cause of the extinction event because the extra carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by these eruptions resulted in dramatic increases in global temperatures, the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’.

However—and this was probably not known when I graduated 50 years ago—some of the extruded basalt flowed far enough to reach what was at the time the planet’s largest coal basin, and the combination of hot lava and huge quantities of organic matter released vast amounts of methane, which rose to the surface, where it exploded. You might think that this is a highly speculative scenario, but a Norwegian geologist recently discovered evidence of these explosions, the existence of which he must have already suspected in order to look. And the result of the explosions would have been dramatic increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a massive spike in temperatures around the world.

There is a worrying parallel with the present day here. The basalt that flowed into the coal basin during the Permian–Triassic event burned through organic matter that had been accumulating for many tens of millions of years in a relatively short period of time. And although the Industrial Revolution is barely 300 years old, humans have already burned through a significant proportion of the organic material—coal, petroleum and natural gas—that has accumulated since.

Yet we continue to extract and burn more, egged on by idiots like the current occupant of the White House and former British chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson, who has had the temerity to establish a think tank, the Global Warming Foundation, to promote his view that global warming is no big deal. In fact, Lawson’s argument is an economic one, that global warming—if it exists—is merely a by-product of raising developing countries to the level of developed countries. However, given that Trumplthinskin believes climate change to be some kind of hoax, and that Lawson is on record as saying that he ‘wouldn’t mind if the weather was a bit warmer’, we can deduce that neither man understands the science involved.

Unfortunately, neither do any of their supporters, which accounts for the frequency with which I have to respond to completely specious arguments about the subject. A classic example of such an argument concerns the recent levelling off of global air temperatures over a period of about a decade. This was seized on by climate change deniers as clear evidence that the planet wasn’t warming after all, but anyone who used this argument is clearly unaware that NASA has a network of satellites around the globe whose sole purpose is to monitor incoming and outgoing radiation. And, guess what! More energy is entering the Earth’s atmosphere than is being re-radiated back into space. So where did the surplus energy go if air temperatures remained static? We now know that it went into warming the oceans instead, an inconvenient fact that I expect will be ignored by those who deny the reality of global warming.

The problem is that the UN target of restricting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, which is essentially a compromise given the impossibility of stabilizing global temperatures at their present levels, is probably unattainable, especially now that the United States—one of the world’s biggest producers of carbon dioxide—has decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and is in the process of eviscerating its Environmental Protection Agency. Temperatures during the Permian–Triassic mass extinction must have been insufferable, but unless humans stop burning coal, use their cars less often and stop clearing forests, they will soon know the meaning of ‘insufferable’. The planet’s sixth mass extinction will soon be underway, if it hasn’t already started. And the human race will not necessarily be spared.