Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Incredible Cosmonauts at the Science Museum, London

Sputnik I

At the dawn of the 20th century, Russian cosmists developed the idea that the future of humanity lies in space. Their ideas made the leap from science fiction to reality when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, friend of leading cosmist Nikolai Fedorov, calculated the mathematical means of launching a rocket into orbit. It is incredible to think about how far we have come in terms of space exploration in just over a century but even more so to consider how fraught with controversy, danger and political wrangling that journey has been.

The earliest cosmist thinkers were arrested and imprisoned in Soviet gulags for their anti-Soviet activities and much of their early work occurred in secret. When did the tides turn to the extent that the Space Race became the primary tool in the Soviet Union’s arsenal of weapons in the Cold War? If you consider that the Soviets sent the first rocket into space, as well as the first living creatures and human beings, who actually won the Space Race?

The Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition at the Science Museum is, in a word, fantastic. The visitor walks through history as they encounter the very first days of Cosmism and the birth of space exploration. They learn about Sputnik, Laika and Yuri Gargarin, as well as the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova and travel all the way to the present day, Mir Space Station and beyond.

Many of the items on display are being seen outside of Russia for the first time and in fact, many of them have been borrowed from military institutions who are not known for sharing so this is the first time they have been seen in public.

There is so much to see at the exhibition and it is a little daunting to try take in a full century packed full of history so I’m going to share my very favourite parts.

The photo above is a model of Sputnik I which was launched into space on 4 October 1957. The satellite could be seen across the globe and people were fascinated by reports of the beep-beep sound Sputnik I was transmitting back to Earth.

R7 missiles that launched Sputnik into space

If you look up in the photo above, you’ll see replicas of the R7 rockets that fired the satellite into orbit. It’s hard to believe that they could achieve such a feat, being that they were little taller than a person!

Sputnik-inspired samovar

Of course, the world went Sputnik crazy following the launch and that fever was at its peak in Russia. This is a Sputnik-inspired samovar which depicts a Sputnik teapot orbiting the Earth. I have to have one of these!

Sputnik 3

Sputnik 3 was launched into space on 15 May 1958. This is a near exact replica of the spacecraft which was in fact a space laboratory that contained all sorts of instruments for measuring and collecting data about the astronomy, biology and physics in space. I thought it looked like a Dalek.

Glory to Gargarin

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gargarin became the first human being to be launched into space on the Vostok 1. Naturally, the world went crazy about Yuri, so much so, that the term “going Ga-ga” was coined. The banner above says “Glory to Gagarin” and the poster is Boris Staris’s “The Fairytale Comes True” (1961).

Vostok VI

This is the actual Vostok 6 spacecraft which took Valentina Tereshkova into space on 16 June 1963, making her the first woman to ever go into space.

I spend a ridiculously long time staring at the spacecraft and the one below. What impressed (or terrified) me most about this was was the damage to the exterior and how dangerous the flight was. Soon after reaching orbit, Tereshkova realised the spacecraft was misaligned and this would mean that the braking rocket could fire her deeper into orbit and she would have died in space. Thankfully, the ground crew were able to transmit a correcting computer program to the spacecraft.  I had no idea that kind of technology was possible in 1963.

Voskhod I

On 12 October 1964, Voskhod I was launched into space and orbited the Earth for 1 day, 17 minutes and 3 seconds. Voskhod means sunrise which perhaps explains why it is a large, red sphere and it carried three people in the tiniest space. The spacecraft was so tiny, in fact, that there was no room for spacesuits and if you look carefully at the photo above, you’ll see the three beds. There is no way I am ever spending 1 days and 17 minutes in an enclosed space with two other human beings.

Cosmonauts postcards

Once again, the Soviet Union went crazy for the cosmonauts. These postcards say “slava” in the corner which means “glory” and you can see some tiny Yuri Gargarin matryoshka dolls at top left. I have to have a set of those to go with my Sputnik samovar!

LK 3 Lunar Lander

The absolute star of the exhibition was the LK3 Lunar Lander. This is an engineering model but don’t let that impress you less because this is as far as the project went – the Soviet Union famously abandoned their moon-landing project when the USA reached it first.

Sadly, the Soviets had actually planned on reaching the moon as early as 1967 but their rockets kept failing. This module would have carried one person to the moon and had to be dismantled into smaller parts in order to get it into the exhibition.


The final part of the exhibition took us right to the present day. We got to see the many suits required for a modern space journey including heating, cooling and compression suits.

Food in orbit

I finally realised that I am not cut out for space travel when I saw the food that cosmonauts have to eat on their travels. There is no way I am opening a tin can that looks like that.


This spacesuit was used 13 times for spacewalks from the Mir space station. The exhibition closed with an incredible comment about how once-hostile nations now work together on the International Space Station for the good of all humankind.

Escape the cradle

Finally there was a quotation from one of the first cosmists, Tsiolkovsky:

“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever “ – Tsiolkovsky, 1911


When visiting the exhibition, do make sure you leave enough time and money to spend in the Cosmonauts store. I imagine that space geeks like me will go crazy in there!

Cosmonauts store

The Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age runs at the Science Museum, London until 13 March 2016 and is the must-see exhibition of the year. Tickets are £14 and can be booked on the Science Museum Cosmonauts page.

The Science Museum
Exhibition Road
South Kensington

I'd like to thank the Science Museum for inviting me to the exhibition and for allowing us to take photos which was an absolute privilege. Photography is not normally permitted in the exhibition.</P.


Saturday, 12 September 2015

Access All Areas: Charing Cross Station Tour

Disused Jubilee Line Platform

Being a train geek and fan of hidden and abandoned places, I have always wanted to go on one of the London Transport Museum Hidden London tours but was always disappointed because they sell out so quickly. I was thrilled then when my friend Phil got us a pair of tickets to go on the Access All Areas: Charing Cross Station Tour. It definitely pays to be a London Transport Museum Friend!

Disused Corridor in Charing Cross Station

The tour is a behind the scenes, all-access tour of non-operational Jubilee Line platforms, a ventilation shaft and a disused access tunnel at Charing Cross Station. It is an excellent place to practice the use of perspective and vanishing points in photography and also a unique chance to see the London Underground without hordes of people.

Disused Escalator in Charing Cross Station

If these corridors and escalators look familiar, it is because they are often used in films. This is the escalator that featured in Skyfall and it finally answered a question for me. I remember scoffing during the film and saying there was no way Bond went sliding down the middle partition because there are obstructions to prevent precisely that kind of behaviour in the real Underground. But there you are – a perfectly clear and inviting place to slide. I was so tempted.

Disused Jubilee Line Corridor

Paddington Bear, 24 and Spooks have also been filmed here.

Vintage British Rail Signage in Charing Cross Station

There are lots of vintage signs and chances to see snippets of the Underground from days gone by. This British Rail signage invoked a lot of nostalgia amongst us weary commuters.

Looking Out From Behind the Scenes in Charing Cross

It felt strange to peek out into the operational parts of the Underground and see life carrying on as usual. Don’t be fooled – this ‘normal’ looking passenger broke into a happy dance when he noticed me taking his photograph.

Standing Above The Platform in Charing Cross

We exited the Jubilee Line area and then entered another secret passageway to visit the ventilation shafts. Don’t walk this way if you’re scared of heights, they said. Well, you know me and my vertigo, that is just an invitation to me to overcome it and up the passageway I skipped. I have to admit, there were parts of this section that took my breath away. It doesn’t look high but it is. Nonetheless, I loved looking down onto the train and the platform below but was especially careful not to drop my phone.

Walking To the Ventilation Shaft

Next we turned up towards the ventilation shafts.

Looking Up the Ventilation Shaft

Again, the photographs give no idea of the height and depth of this section. To give you an idea, the ventilation shaft is 3m higher than Nelson’s Column! I was scared my hard hat was going to fall off and felt a little shaky and dizzy.

And down the Ventilation Shaft

When I exited into the corridor, one of the stewards asked if my obvious dizziness had ruined it for me but I just felt exhilarated. It was a real privilege to see these hidden areas and I wasn’t going to let a little vertigo ruin that for me.

Entering the Access Tunnels in Charing Cross Station

The last part of the tour was a visit to the disused access tunnels where they store tools and equipment. This was my favourite part of the tour and I loved the muted lighting and eerie atmosphere.

The Vanishing Point

The access tunnels run all the way under Trafalgar Square and end in the area where the fourth plinth (with its increasingly horrible installations) is located.

Corrugated Iron in the Access Tunnels in Charing Cross

The tunnels run to the surface and were used during the construction of the Jubilee line to remove debris and rocks to the surface.

Access Tunnel in Charing Cross Station

These days there are a lot of sidings and corrugated iron sheets stored in the tunnels as well as bags of cement and other construction materials.

Ceiling in Access Tunnel in Charing Cross Station

I thoroughly enjoyed our tour of Charing Cross station and would absolutely recommend it to anybody who is interested in London Transport and the London Underground. We had a lot of fun and I can’t wait until my next transport-related outing. Tickets cost £30 each, which felt like a lot of money but I enjoyed the experience so much that I am happily forking out another £30 on the Clapham South tour in October.

Stored Materials in Access Tunnel in Charing Cross Station

Transport for London and the London Transport Museum have announced this week that they will be conducting Charing Cross Tours again on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 25 March and 17 April 2016. Visit the Hidden London: Charing Cross page for more details.


Saturday, 22 August 2015

A Derelict London Tour of Silvertown

There is one aspect of exploration and photography that I don’t write about often and that is my interest in derelict and abandoned places. I follow a lot of urban explorers on Instagram and I love seeing their photos of abandoned factories, hospitals and schools. If you know anything about urban exploration, you’ll know that it isn’t for everyone. It can be dangerous and often involves illegal entrance into places that can be littered with debris, rubble and the occasional syringe. Not that I’d actually know first hand, because I tend to be a cowardly, law-abiding explorer but I can dream, right?

One of the accounts that I follow on Instagram is Paul Talling from Derelict London. Paul is the author of Derelict London and London’s Lost Rivers and he conducts tours of the types of places that you don’t normally see in London. Paul’s tours are extremely popular and you have to book months in advance but one day in May, I decided to take the plunge and book a tour in August.

I decided to go on a tour of Silvertown, the area in the immediate vicinity of London City Airport. Silvertown was named after Samuel Winkworth Silver who opened a rubber factory in the area in 1852. This area was once a booming industrial town dominated by sugar refiners, rubber producers and animal rendering plants. Devastated first by the Silvertown explosion, then by the Blitz and later by the decline of industry in Britain, large parts of Silvertown lie in dereliction and decay. With the area marked for redevelopment, you’ll need to hurry to catch a glimpse of the history and culture of this once booming town.

Derelict London Silvertown - Tate and Lyle

Our tour began at London City Airport and within moments, we realised that we were in a whole new world. Our first stop was Tate & Lyle, an institution that was to feature heavily in our tour. We learned that Henry Tate never met Abram Lyle and that the two were bitter rivals. It was only after their deaths that Tate & Lyle merged at the turn of the 20th century to become the sugar giant we know today.

Derelict London Silvertown - Tate Institute

In case you’ve already made the connection, I can confirm that Henry Tate was the same person who founded the Tate Gallery but that wasn’t his only legacy. Across from Tate & Lyle stands the now abandoned and derelict Tate Institute which was founded as a social club for Tate employees. In more modern times, this Gothic building served as the Silvertown Public Library until 1961.

Derelict London Silvertown - Roof of Tate Institute

There are plenty of barbed wires and ghost signs in the area which reminded me a lot of downtown Johannesburg, much of which is boarded up and derelict too.

Derelict London Silvertown - Ghost Sign Parker StreetDerelict London Silvertown - Paul Talling

I am always impressed by the quality of London’s tour guides and Paul was a wealth of fascinating information about this area. He has done years of research and in addition to the tour, I’d recommend you spend an afternoon getting lost in his website.

Derelict London Silvertown - Thameside Industrial Estate

We moved over the new Crossrail tracks to arrive at the Thameside Industrial Estate.

Derelict London Silvertown - Tay Wharf

This is all that remains of Tay Wharf. Keiller & Sons jam factory occupied Tay Wharf from 1880 to 1997. They received their fruit by ship and sugar was supplied by Tate & Lyle down the road.

Derelict London Silvertown - 1970s Picket Line Graffiti

Just outside of Tay Wharf, we saw this picket line graffiti dating back to the 1970s. The “Snake Pit” refers to the strikers who broke the picket line and went back to work. I’m a fan of street art, as you know, but this was the most authentic piece of street art history that I have seen so far.

Derelict London Silvertown - Brick Lane Music Hall

Across from Tay Wharf lies Brick Lane Music Hall which was once St Mark’s Church, Silvertown. The church has a fascinating history! Despite working in factories, many of the inhabitants lived in abject poverty. In 1859, a Christmas appeal was run in The Times and money was raised to deliver food parcels to local families. A year later, money was raised again and a church was built with the proceeds. The locals were incensed, protesting that they wanted bread not bricks! Despite their protests, the church was well attended for over a century before being deconsecrated and abandoned in the 1980s. There is a rather grim story of a fire taking place at the church which was extinguished under the weight of pigeon droppings in the roof.

Derelict London Silvertown - Mural at Brick Lane Music Hall

In 1992, the Brick Lane Music Hall moved from Truman’s Brewery to St Mark’s Church and they are responsible for the restoration of the church to its former Gothic glory.

Derelict London Silvertown - Abandoned Lot

Next on our tour, we walked down North Woolwich Road towards Millennium Mill. We passed by several abandoned lots, some marked for redevelopment when London still used 0181 numbers!Paul warned that despite the slow start, we will soon see rapid development in this area.

Derelict London Silvertown - Georges Diner

We passed the derelict Georges Diner, run by Brian and once home of the best fry up in town.

Derelict London Silvertown - The Graving Dock

Next to Georges Diner (they never did get an apostrophe), we could see a beautiful Victorian building peeking out above the weeds. This is all that remains of the Graving Dock Tavern.

Derelict London Silvertown - Millennium Mills

Our next stop and one of the highlights of the tour for me, was a peek at the iconic Millennium Mills. I’ve actually written about Millennium Mills before in my post Millennium Mills: Past, Present and Future but it was great to see it for myself. The Mills will soon be redeveloped into swanky apartments as part of the greater Silvertown redevelopment programme.

Derelict London Silvertown - London Pleasure Gardens

We took a look at the site of the ill-fated London Pleasure Gardens, originally intended to run for 3 years from 2012 but which ran only for a disastrous five weeks. As you can see from the photo above, there was no pleasure to be found here.

Derelict London Silvertown - LondonDerelict London Silvertown - The Thames Barrier

Before long, we arrived at Pontoon Dock DLR station and the site of the Thames Barrier. I last took a day out at the Thames Barrier in 2009 and it was interesting to see the Barrier from the other side of the river.

Derelict London Silvertown - Thames Barrier Park

The hedges in Thames Barrier Park are shaping to look like waves. Here they are, rolling back towards Millennium Mills on the horizon.

Derelict London Silvertown - Harland and Wolff Gate

If Tate gave us his famous galleries, Lyle left us Lyle Park in Silvertown. Nestled on the bank of the Thames behind a document storage facility, you might miss it if you didn’t know it is there. There are some fantastic views of North Greenwich from the park and it is also home to the ornamental gates of Harland and Wolff Ltd, shipbuilders for the White Star Line, including the ill-fated Titanic. These gates stood at the entrance to the ship builders’ premises in Woolwich Manor Way from 1924 to 1972.

Derelict London Silvertown - Looking Towards North Greenwich

Derelict London Silvertown - Number 12

From Lyle park, we continued down Bradfield Road to a particularly grimy part of Silvertown. This area wasn’t completely abandoned but was certainly derelict.

Derelict London Silvertown - Abandoned Yard

We spotted an abandoned yard next to the old Petro Lube premises. A number of my party giggled at the sign on the door.

Derelict London Silvertown - Petro Lube

We continued toward the Lyle Golden Syrup factory. There is an abandoned tract of land next to the factory and the promise of delicious syrup does little to lift the spirits of the area.

Derelict London Silvertown - Abandoned Lot Next to Tate and LyleDerelict London Silvertown - TimesCo

Across the road from the factory is the abandoned premises of the Timesco Surgical and Medical who moved to their new premises in Essex years ago. Just before we reached the Silvertown station, we glimpsed a fantastic view of the Lyle Golden Syrup factory. The factory is neither derelict or abandoned, with a million tins of syrup being produced each month, but together with the weeds, graffiti and grey clouds, it painted a perfect end to our tour.

Derelict London Silvertown - Lyle Syrup

Derelict London and London’s Lost Rivers tours run every weekend and some Fridays too. They sell out months in advance so the best idea to catch a tour is to sign up to Paul’s mailing list. I paid £12 for this tour but tours range from £11 to an all-day tour for £16.50. That reminds me – Paul’s tours are long and require a lot of walking on sometimes uneven ground so this tour may not be suitable for those with mobility problems.

I would highly recommend this tour and am hoping to catch another tour in January. If you’d like to join me, please get in touch and we can coordinate when the January dates are released.

Do you like abandoned or derelict sites or was this post definitely not your cup of tea?


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