The Mersey Tunnel

Many, many years ago, when I was at University in Liverpool, I always used to wonder what this building, located at George’s Dock, just behind the Mersey Docks and Harbour building, one of the “Three Graces” at the Pierhead, was.


A large Art Deco style structure faced with Portland limestone and decorated with Egyptian motifs that were popular in the 1930’s, not long after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. I eventually discovered that it was a huge chimney surrounded by offices built as part of the ventilation system for the Queensway Tunnel (also known as the Birkenhead Tunnel). It’s certainly one of the fanciest chimneys I’ve ever seen!

It was designed by Liverpool architect Herbert James Rowse (1887-1963) and the carved Egyptian style decorations on the portals are by sculptor Edmund Charles Thompson (1898-1961).


The tunnel was opened in July 1934, and at the time, at 3.24 kilometres (2.01 mi) long.  it was the longest road tunnel in the world, a title it held for 14 years until the opening of the Vielha Tunnel in Spain in 1948. It remained the longest underwater tunnel though, until 1955. The entrance is right in the centre of Liverpool and being built in the 1930’s it only has a single carriageway of four lanes, two in each direction.

Mersey Travel, who own the tunnel, organise regular tours of the tunnel showcasing its history and allowing the public to gain access to the old control room, ventilation equipment and the tunnel itself. They also can arrange special tours for schools, companies and other organisations and last week I took part in a visit organised for delegates attending a conference at the nearby Crowne Plaza Hotel on the Liverpool waterfront. Given the theme of the conference – about the control of exposure to hazardous substances – the tour was customised to highlight how the air quality is controlled.

After donning our hi-viz vests and safety helmets, our guides, Alison and Billy, gave us a potted history of the tunnel and described how it was constructed. Billy was a real “Scouser” – born and bred in Anfield (although a true Evertonian!) with lots of stories and plenty of jokes and wisecracks. A true entertainer!


The tunnel cost £8million to build  and employed 1700 men in difficult working conditions under the river bed. 1,200,000 tons of rock and gravel had to be excavated by two teams working from either side of the river. Pilot tunnels were excavated, one starting in Liverpool and the other in Birkenhead, eventually to meet in the centre – less than an inch out of alignment! – on 3 April 1928. The pilot tunnels were then enlarged to create the full sized tunnel.  There’s more information about its construction on the Merseyside Maritime Museum Website and a more detailed description here.

First stop was the old control room, which was in use until relatively recently. This required climbing several flights of steps (you need to be fit for this visit!!)


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Ventilation of the tunnel to remove contaminants from vehicle exhausts, is provided by massive fans located at 6 ventilation stations, including the one at George’s Dock. Fresh air, brought in from above street level, is blown through the ducts beneath the roadway. The air enters the upper half of the tunnel through outlets18 inches apart at roadway level. The air flow is balanced by varying the size of the outlets to ensure an even distribution of air throughout the tunnel. Contaminated air is extracted through vents in the roof of the tunnel to the exhaust chambers at each of the six ventilating stations.

It’s incredible to think that the original fans, built and installed in the 1930’s, are still in use. They are enormous, with the largest capable of moving 641,000 cubic feet per minute (315 cubic metres per second).


I was rather pleased to hear that one of the two fan suppliers was Walker Brothers of Wigan who specialised in equipment for mines. In the 1930’s there was little knowledge or experience of how to control air quality in road tunnels so, perhaps not surprisingly, they fell back on the technology used to ventilate coal mines.

Fan in the Queensway Tunnel on Merseyside


This diagram illustrates the operaton of the ventilation system (showing the Birkenhead side). It appeared in the second edition of a short lived British magazine “Wonders of World Engineering”,  published in March 1937.


I found the image here.


We were then taken all the way back down and below ground level to look inside the tunnel itself. It’s very narrow and the cars speeded past only centimetres from where we stood on the observation platform. No photographs were allowed to minimise the distraction of drivers of the vehicles passing through the tunnel – we didn’t want to be the cause of an accident.

Then it was back up the stairs to the ground floor where we handed in our safety gear at the end of what was a very informative and entertaining visit.

Return to the IMMA


I’m back working in Ireland this week. I caught the fast ferry from Holyhead that arrived early afternoon, so I had a few hours to myself before heading to my hotel in Naas. I decided to head over to Kilmainham, about half an hour from Dublin Port and on my route to Naas, to visit the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in the old Kilmainham Royal Hospital. It’s somewhere I’ve visited quite a few times over the past few years – there’s usually something on that’s worth seeing and it’s always pleasant to take a walk in the formal garden which changes with the seasons.



There were four exhibitions showing, and I was able to look around all of them. I wasn’t impressed by the Patrick Hennessey exhibition, his work didn’t appeal to me, but there were a number of works I liked in the exhibitions of the work by the Italian artist Carol Rama and in the IMMA Collection: A Decade, which

provides a snapshot of how the National Collection of modern and contemporary art has developed over the past 10 years. 

I also enjoyed the multimedia exhibition The Humanizer by the British/Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara, newly commissioned by the IMMA.

I also had time to take a stroll through  the formal gardens. Everything was fresh and green


but being early in the season very few plants were in bloom. The garden will be at it’s best in a few weeks, I think.





The Asgard


While I was at the Irish National Museum at the Collins Barracks on Sunday, continuing the theme of Irish rebellion against the British, I called in to see the exhibition which told the story of a sleek yacht, the Asgard, that had been renovated and was on display on an out building at the former barracks.


The Asgard was built in 1905 to a design by Colin Archer, a Norwegian naval architect, based on a Norwegian pilot boat. It was commissioned by Erskine Childers and his wife Molly. Childers was a writer and the author of a popular novel, the Riddle of the Sands, a patriotic espionage story about a German plot to invade Britain. Ironically Childers was also a supporter of Irish Home Rule and used the Asgard to transport guns from Germany over to Ireland on the eve of the First World War.


The Asgard set out from Conwy in north Wales on July 3rd, and sailed down the Welsh coast, around Land’s End and into the Channel. It rendezvoused with a German ship, the Gladiator during the evening of July 12 th off the coast of Belgian where the cargo of 1,500 German made Mauser rifles together with 49,000 rounds of ammunition were transferred to the yacht. It sailed back to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire and then across a stormy Irish Sea to Howth, a small port on Dublin Bay just north of the city.


It docked on July 26th and the guns and ammunition were unloaded by a large group of Irish Volunteers (the Republican paramilitary organisation) who then marched in formation back to Dublin proudly bearing their arms.

The Mauser rifles dated from 1970 when they were “state of the art”, but by 1914 they were rather outdated. However the Asgard’s cargo was one of the main sources of weapons used by the rebels during the Easter Uprising in 1916.


Asgard was sold in 1928, and would have three further owners before being purchased by the Irish Government in 1960, after which it was used as a training vessel for naval cadets between 1961 and 1974. It was “retired” and put on display in dry dock at Kilmainham until 2001 and was then put into storage.


Inspection of the Asgard revealed that there was considerable damage from corrosion. It was decided to repair and restore the vessel and after a major restoration project it was put on display at the Collins Barracks where it remains today.


It’s beautifully preserved and the sleek vessel is an impressive sight. It can be viewed from the ground, looking up from below, and also from a viewing balcony at deck level. Panels around the room tell the story of the Asgard, it’s owner and crew and the Howth landing.

1916 – Proclaiming a Republic


Easter Monday 1916. The First World War was raging on mainland Europe. But, believing “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, in Dublin a small group of rebels occupied strategic buildings around the city. These included the General Post Office on Sackville Street (now known as O’Connell street, the main thoroughfare north of the Liffey in the city centre), where they established their headquarters. The Republican flag was hoisted and at 12:45 p.m., Pádraig Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Republic.


Pádraig Pearse (source: Public Domain,

The rebels included Catholic Nationalists and Revolutionary Socialists. The majority were Irish Volunteers, the military wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, led by schoolmaster and Irish language activist Patrick Pearse. They were joined by the smaller Irish Citizen Army of James Connolly, which had originally been formed to protect strikes from attacks from police and blacklegs. There were also 200 women from Cumann na mBan a women’s paramilitary organisation affiliated to the Irish Volunteers.

James Connolly

James Connolly

There followed several days of fighting between the rebels and British troops. There were casualties on both sides and amongst Dubliners who weren’t involved (“collateral damage”) and buildings were destroyed by British bombardment including shells fired from a gunboat, the Aurora, moored on the Liffey. The rebels didn’t really stand a chance and they eventually surrendered on the following Saturday.

Most historians reckon that there was little support for the rising amongst ordinary Dubliners. In fact, the leadership of the IRB were opposed to it – Pearse went ahead despite being ordered to cancel his plans. The British authorities however ordered the execution of the leaders which turned the tide of opinion. So although the Rising failed to achieve power, it set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Irish independence.


So this year is the centenary of the Uprising and it’s being celebrated in Ireland with a series of events, activities and exhibitions. These included a parade in Dublin city centre on Easter Monday. This was not the true centenary as Easter was early this year (at the end of March) while in 1916 it was late and the uprising actually took place on 24 April.

As part of the celebrations, a new exhibition, Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising opened on 3rd March at the Museum of Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks, in Dublin. I’m working in Ireland this week and, as I often do, I’d travelled over on an early boat on Sunday so I could spend the afternoon doing something. So I decided to take a look.


The museum’s website tells us

The exhibition explores the background to the 1916 Rising. It introduces the visitor to the nuances of contemporary political events; the rise of the Catholic élite; the push for Home Rule along with the counter-moves of unionism; the increasing ‘Irish-Ireland’ aspects of the arts and cultural movements of the period and the growth of republican nationalism. The visitor will be presented with accounts of the individuals and the organisations which featured in the political arena of 1916, as it became increasingly militaristic in nature. However, Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising also offers visitors the unique experience of physical proximity to the people and events of Easter Week through the everyday, intimate and personal belongings of the participants.

One of the first exhibits I saw was a copy of the Proclamation. 2,500 copies were printed on an old and poorly maintained Wharfedale Stop Cylinder Press at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) and also of the Irish Citizen Army.

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Exhibits included the Republican flag that was flown from the GPO


and a flag featuring the Starry Plough, the symbol of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army.


These exhibits were objects from the GPO


Examples of weapons used by the rebels.


They were very much “make do and mend” obtained from a wide variety of sources. The best available guns they had were probably the antiquated  German Mauser rifles brought in to Ireland just before the War broke out in 1914.

This is an example of the uniform worn by members of the Irish Citizen’s Army


There were documents too, including hand written notes by Padraig Pearse and James Connelly.

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There was certainly plenty to see and although I already knew quite a lot about the history of the uprising, it was interesting to see the items that had belonged to or had been used by the people involved. It brought history to life. However, I do agree with this view expressed in the Irish Times

space is a little cramped, some elements are too text heavy and the dull lighting does none of the displays any great favour.

Wallace and Gromit in Paris


We’re all big fans of our fellow Wiganers, Wallace and Gromit, and the work oftheir creators, Nick Park and his colleagues at Aardman animation. So when we saw posters on the Metro and in the streets of Paris advertising an exhibition devoted to their work we just had to go and have a look.

The exhibition was taking place at Art Ludique, a museum devoted to comics, mangas, video games, live action cinema and animation films,  which is on the Quai d’Austerlitz. So we took the Metro over to the Gare d’Austerlitzand walked the short distance down the Seine to Les Docks – Cité de la Mode et du Design where the museum is located.


The exhibition features

Over 350 concept drawings, character and background studies, watercolours, and storyboards will complete this exceptional exhibition, where one can even discover Nick Park’s sketchbook as a student, containing the first drawings of Wallace and Gromit, never before seen by the public.

It covered al their work from the early animations such as Morph and the Creature Comforts film that won them their first Oscar, music videos and TV commercials and their feature films including A Grand Day out and the other Wallace and Gromit films, Chicken Run, Sean the Sheep, the Movie (a spin off from A Close Shave), Pirates Adventures with Scientists and others.


(source ArtLudique website)

It was fantastic being able to see the models and sets. The detail in them is incredible – obsessive really as many of them hardly appear on screen, if at all, in the films.

I loved seeing the jokes and puns – I don’t know how well they’d translate into French! Some of them are only sensible when spoken with a Lancashire accent, where master animator comes from (born in Preston). An example was a bottle of washing up liquid in a set of Wallace’s kitchen which was labelled “Furry” (which is exactly how I would pronounce “Fairy”)

It was really interesting to be able to see the concept drawings which show how the characters evolved and developed from conception to screen. Here’s an early sketch of Gromit

(source ArtLudique website)

which is quite a lot different from the character we have grown to love over the years

(Image source Wikipedia)


The obsession with detail was particularly well illustrated by the pirate sp from Pirates Adventure with Scientists displayed towards the end of the exhibition. It was enormous and the detailing was incredible. The conceptual and technical drawings displayed with it showed the lengths the animators go to with detailed descriptions of even the smallest component


(source ArtLudique website)

We spent a good couple of hours in the exhibition, longer than we expected. It was well worth the trip to a slightly out of the way district. It will be a pity if it isn’t transferred to the UK after its run in Paris.

Some engine!


Last Monday, the Mayday Bank Holiday, we went to have a look at the steam engine in Trencherfield Mill at Wigan Pier. The mill was opened in 1907 and operated until the 1960s.

The mill machinery used to be powered by a massive 2,500 hp steam engine with 4 cylinders. The power being transfered from the engine via a 26-foot flywheel with 54 ropes. Today it can be visited on Sundays with “steam days,” when the engine is operated, taking place intermittently.


It’s the world’s largest working horizontal triple expansion steam engine.







Dr Johnson’s House


Turn off Fleet street and wend your way through a maze of small streets and courtyards and you’ll arrive at Gough Square. Although most of the buildings around the square are relatively modern,  No. 17 is a fine example of an early Georgian Town house – the former home of Dr Samuel Johnson – who is, apparently, the second most quoted person in the English language (after Shakespeare).


Built in 1700 by wool merchant Richard Gough. Johnson lived and worked in the house from 1748 to 1759, when he compiled his famous A Dictionary of the English Language .

Our National Trust membership got us half price entry, so we went inside to have a look round. it was a relatively modest house. Four storeys, two rooms wide either side of a central staircase but only one room deep. Georgian town houses usually have a relatively small footprint, with much of the living space created by building upwards. The windows reduce in size going up the building with the smallest on the top floor, again very characteristic for the period.

This website has some interesting material about Johnson and the house by Morwenna Rae, the Deputy Curator and Education Officer at the Dr Johnson’s House Trust, including a video of a lecture she gave, her transcript and her Powerpoint slides.

The front door was solid and had a rather large chain across it. Security against ruffians or, perhaps, Dr Johnson’s creditors and the bailiffs.


This was the small drawing room on he ground floor


There was a reproduction of a self-portrait of the society portrait painter Joshua Reynolds over the fireplace – he was a friend of Dr Johnson. Funnily enough we saw exactly the same image – a copy of the original – in Kenwood House the very next day.


The first floor, or piano nobile, was normally the most important room in Georgian houses. Guests would be entertained here. In Dr Johnson’s house there were wooden screens that could be pulled across to divide the large room into two smaller ones with a hallway between.



On the next floor we found his library


And in the attic, a copy of his dictionary to peruse


Before the visit, I didn’t know that much about Dr Johnson other than he wrote his dictionary and was a noted wit. My image of him was largely formed by his portrayal by Robbie Coltrane in Blackadder the Third. I also knew that he was a Tory, which is usually enough to put me off anybody. But the information in the house made me want to find out more about him. Politics in his time, and political labels, were not as clear cut as today. I discovered that politically he was a man of contradictions with some radical views on women,nationalism and also on slavery. The latter was particularly illustrated by the case of Francis Barber who arrived in Johnson’s household in 1752, when he was ten years old  shortly after the death of Johnson’s wife. He was a slave, brought from a Jamaican plantation by the Bathurst family, who were friends of Johnson.


Portrait of Francis Barber (source: Wikipedia)

Morwenna Rae tells us

Johnson hated slavery, did not want a servant anyway, and promptly sent the boy to boarding school for a decent education. Over the years, he spent hundreds of pounds educating Barber, who was freed upon the death of Colonel Bathurst a few years later. Barber spent most of the next 32 years as Johnson’s manservant and companion, was at his bedside when he died and was the main beneficiary in the childless Johnson’s will.

He was a generous man too. Although not exactly wealthy for most of his life he was noted for his generosity towards the poor in the streets of London.

Never experiencing great wealth himself, Johnson showed generosity and kindness to beggars, prostitutes, children and animals. One example is given in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, where he found a poor, tired woman lying in the street, carried her home and at ‘considerable expense’ had her taken into care. (Source BBC website)

We spent longer in the house than I expected, reading through the various materials available for visitors in all the rooms. A very interesting visit that increased my knowledge and changed my view of Dr Johnson. I discovered that he was a fanatical tea drinker, so he definitely can’t have been so bad!