September 08, 2011 GMT
Steaming Ahead



My first home was a small bomb-damaged rented terraced house in London's Pimlico, where my parents and grandparents lived. By the time of my arrival, the post-war renovation of London was well underway, led by a new estate of high-rise flats going up on a flattened corner of Pimlico, one block from our home.

It's called The Churchill Gardens Estate, and is the only post-war social-housing project built according to the imaginative plans of Professor Patrick Abercrombie.
Despite not living on the estate itself, I could never keep away from the playgrounds to be found there, such was the creativity that had gone into their designs. Features included castles, flying saucers, massive sand pits set in concrete ocean liners, and much, much more, all of which would be completely impossible to build in today's cotton-wool society.
The castle featured a narrow stone circular staircase going down into a dungeon and up to the keep, where an outdoor rope walkway led to another set of stairs leading down to the rest of the playground. It wouldn't do at all to slip down the stairs, off of the walkway or over the walls, as only concrete and brick would stop your fall.
Ditto the flying saucer, seen here at 1min 16secs into the piece.
And a local history piece here.


Another wonderful feature was this:


steam1.jpg
1923 Aveling and Porter 10-tonner. Six nominal horse-power.

Originally working the roads of Dorchester, it was acquired on retirement by Westminster City Council as a playground installation on the Churchill Gardens Estate. From about 1953 to 1981 it took pride of place, its wheels set in concrete right next to the castle.
I really don't know what I learned playing all over it, falling off it, squashing my fingers in it or being pushed off of it when the time came for someone else to have a go. But I do remember, aged 6 or 7 or 8, being determined to repair this thing and make it roll.
And there was only one thing stopping me: I no longer lived there.
My family had moved to East London, via White City, before my second birthday. The Victorian terraced house had had its top floor and half the next floor blown off by a bomb that landed across the road, so it wasn't really big enough now for burgeoning families and grandchildren. Thus my working visits to 'Churchill' were limited to a few hours on occasional weekend trips to my grandparents who still lived there.
And a few hours a month just wasn't enough time for a seven-year-old to repair a boiler, straighten a bent piston rod and weld up a rusty chimney. About all I could do was scavenge sticks of wood from the bomb site across the road from my grandparent's house and stuff them into the rusty firebox.

steam2.jpg


I couldn't even light the fire - buying matches would have been a capital offence. Sometimes though, an older boy would arrive, with some sort of 'match permit'. We'd get a flickering blaze going, half suffocating ourselves in the smoke, but no matter how hard both of us pulled on the regulator handle with all our weight, the ten tons of roller would never budge.
Then I remembered - my grandad, just round the corner, was a London fireman.

steam6.jpg


We never stood a chance of rolling a single inch of road!


A local know-all said something about 'needing water as well'....... don't be silly, my grandad uses that, it'll put the fire out we'd just spent ages lighting!!


But someone else did get this magnificent machine moving.


The local worthies of later years threw up their hands in horror at the dangers that lurked in children's concrete castles and idle steam rollers, and declared this most popular of playgrounds infinitely more dangerous than sitting in front of a TV computer game. They demanded its demolition.
Thus Churchill was freed from its concrete wheel chocks and fell into the hands of a new owner who completed what I started!
But I have never known who, nor seen the finished result.


Until a short while ago when I happened across a grand announcement for the Great Dorset Steam Fair - 2011, the biggest such thing in the world!
"I must find it there," I thought.
And here it is - last weekend!

steam3.jpg
Just what I needed for the Moyale-Isiolo road!


"You're only the second person who's ever confessed to jumping all over my Roller all those years ago," the present owner told me.
"Look at all the dents in the canopy! Your fellow culprit said there was a wall alongside, which you all used to climb up on, jump onto the canopy, then onto the wheels and into the footplate. Is that right?"
What could I say.
The present owner, the second since Westminster council disposed of it, is a 'preserver' rather than a 'restorer', doing just enough work to keep the machine safe and functional, no more. A lot of it certainly looks as though it's never been painted since those playground days of the 50s, although some of it must have been, as the first owner replaced the boiler and tubes.


"Cast your mind back," he asked. "When you were bouncing all over it, did you notice? Was the Aveling badge there on the front? The rampant horse?"

steam4.jpg


He gave me a deep meaningful look, one to stimulate anyone's memory cells into a super-human effort of data retrieval, pleading with my brain to remember.
"The badge you see here," he continued, his gaze probing my face for fifty-five-year-old information, "was on the machine when I bought it from the first owner, but no one seems to know whether it's the original. It would be nice to know! Do you remember?"
His eyes flicked to and fro, attempting to build a super-highway between my head, the front of Churchill and the Churchill Gardens Estate. But it was a feat of memory too far.
"We used to spend all our time trying to fix the clutch and accelerator," I replied. "We never bothered with: Look! There's a 1923 Aveling model 503! Let's see if we can get the badge off it while no one's looking. A dry box of matches was far more important."
So sadly, I couldn't help.
But I did suggest, "The Royal Institute of British Architects has a massive picture library of that estate. Some of it is on their web site and one photo shows the rear half of your steam roller in the playground. Maybe a browse through their archives will reveal the truth of the matter."
So I left him pondering, 'do I really want to know or is it better left alone?'


Later, just to prove it does indeed roll along after all those years being nailed down in Pimlico, off it trundled across the fairground, through the black smoke of dozens of fellow steam engines.

steam5.jpg
Fire and Water, Blazing like it Ought'a. Churchill rolls the dirt.

I wonder if one of these has ever done London to Cape Town, or RTW?




Back home, I've a new project.
Every weekday now I make my way slowly through half-closed motorways to the radiotherapy unit in Guildford.
There, it's compulsory to recite name, rank and serial number on arrival.
That is: name, first line of address and date of birth.
Twice. At reception and then in the ops room. Everyday.
So tomorrow I'm off to the vets. I'll get a little chip put in the back of my neck to save all this identification rigmarole. It'll have my life history on it, present and all past addresses - you'll be able to read this blog from it.
But alas, "No, don't do that, it'll be a waste. We don't have anything to read the chip with," they tell me, standing next to half a ton and a million pounds worth of Linear Accelerator!
Well, I have the answer. On Monday I'll turn up with the chip installed, and a donation of a Kindle with WiFi. That'll revolutionise things a bit in the NHS!


But today, a possibly better opportunity arose. Some of the zapping appointments were different to normal, including mine, because these Linear Accelerators are serviced quite regularly. By in-house engineers. So I've put out a feeler to the hospital's engineering department to see if I can sneak a look inside one of them during its service. Maybe I'll see a straightforward way for the machine to directly read the chip in the patient's neck........


That may sound a bit crazy, but you never know. Back in the late 60s, my boss at the time gained a patent and not a little fame by developing a device that became extensively used for a while in medical labs. It was a carousel of test tubes, about 40 or so, that rotated in steps. It held each tube precisely under any sort of sampling or testing paraphenalia, for an exact amount of time, as required, accurate to a millisecond or so.
He'd worked for many years on old-fashioned electro-mechanical telephone exchanges and developed his machine from what he'd learnt on that job. The basic mechanism being a switching uni-selector. Quite an advanced idea at the time, although, of course, the fast progress of technology meant his machine was probably superceded within a few years, or less.
By the time he gained the patent for it he'd moved on to the development of advanced (at that time) multi-channel cable TV networks where he was my boss, and continued to come up with all sorts of ideas for spin-off applications.


So you never know. My idea may come to something, although I'm sure someone else is already steaming ahead with a similar chip-reading idea for patient identification.
Either that, or tomorrow is the 1st of April. Hope I didn't miss an appointment.


Next time, I'll have a good supply of syrup to go with the waffle.....




Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:19 AM GMT
September 10, 2011 GMT
Adventure Into Space



"One centimetre."


"I have a half."


"Spot on up here."


"Forward eight."


"Left two now."


"Back four."


"Eighty-three on the gantry ... eighty four ... eighty-five ... mark!"


"Need four degrees left."


.......The cockpit moves .......


"All go?"


"Alignment set."


"Right. All back! All still, don't move!"


.......There's a loud Ker-klunk with a metallic droning - lights dim and green laser beams prance around. Navigational crosshairs are projected from a lens out of sight and reflect in the shiny overhead console.
You notice yet another interrogation of your dog-tag chip.
Now starts the loud raw buzzing from beneath, followed by a massive structure visible in the right corner of your eye swinging out and quickly disappearing far below. The lights come back up.
On a screen hanging from the ceiling coloured columns of numbers scroll too fast to see. The wandering lasers converge up above.
Suddenly the noises cease. There's celestial silence, punctuated by an occasional firing of a navigation motor somewhere off to the left.


"Cabin crew, doors to manual."


"Mind the gap."


........Now, if your crew went through this procedure with such precision and discipline you'd expect one thing, wouldn't you?
Same as me.
That's right - we're lifting off the launch pad for Saturn!


What a disappointment then, when after a few minutes of warp 3.8 through the stars you hear, "OK, all done. See you tomorrow."
"What? Did the sat-nav fail again? Where's Scotty?"
All that's left to do is to take the earthly tarmac back home and try again the next day - unless it's Friday when you wait until Monday. Astronaut flight-crews don't work weekends, but I never noticed that in Star Trek. Something else you can't believe!


The space traveller here was brave enough to video his journey and shove it on youtube, all nicely speeded up to compress the boring bits. But I see his flight failed to launch too - not like the good old days when they shot men off to the moon three at a time, no trouble!
Maybe bad weather cancelled his take-off.
So that's the routine for a while now, with not much to report on adventure motorcycling, on the road or in space.


Notwithstanding that, here's another excuse for a youtube link.


I'm toying with the idea of taking a spaceflight over to Ireland, in November. So it depends on the outcome of my present crop of spaceflights.


I've always wanted to visit The South Pole.


It was opened and run by Tom Crean, who took part in more Antarctic expeditions and marched more miles on the continent than almost any other explorer of his times. So he truly learned something about adventure.


One of his best known rescue adventures was the 800-mile voyage that he undertook with Shackleton, in an open boat across the South Atlantic from Elephant Island to South Georgia. It features in the Kenneth Branagh film Shackleton, Tom Crean played by Mark McGann.
The actual open boat used in that rescue, the James Caird, is on permanent view at Dulwich College.


Well, years ago a young Irish actor and playwright heard about Tom Crean's life and was inspired to write a one-man play all about it. Now Aidan Dooley has been performing his homage to Crean all over the world for more than ten years.
He's just announced a new tour of the play in November, around Ireland, including Killarney, a snowball's throw from The South Pole Inn.
I've seen this play twice now, and very atmospheric and realistic it is too. Especially in small lecture theatres where the audience numbers about 80 and are all seated close around Aidan Dooley's imaginative set.
So another viewing will do no harm I think, particularly being close to Tom Crean's pub.


I decided that going by air would be more commodious than by road. Which means, I suppose, RyanAir.
You can get a flight for fifty pea! (At that price, strictly through the air, not into space).


I've flown with them before, they're ok-ish I find, and a friend recently pointed me to this youtube video for a very Irish review of Ireland's best-known airline.
Stansted to Tralee. Maybe I'll go by sea, after all!
For those who haven't seen it - enjoy!
But don't mock - one day, far, far in the future, they'll take you to Saturn. It'll be the planet they land on when you want to go to Jupiter.




Posted by Ken Thomas at 06:31 PM GMT
September 24, 2011 GMT
Speeding In Namibia Perhaps



I was right about that B1 road that stretches down the length of Namibia. It's so straight you can go faster than the speed of light. Warp 1.0001414 in fact.



A group of scientists in Switzerland, next door to their colleagues searching for the Higgs boson particle, announced on Thursday that they had caught a whole load of neutrinos, red-handed, exceeding the speed limit. They clocked them leaving Switzerland and arriving in Italy so quickly they must have been going at well over the speed of light.
Well, I wanted to check this out. And where better than the linear accelerator launching all those super-fast particles everyday aimed straight at my new tattoos? With no need to hide the radar gun out of sight in the bushes.
But as usual, 'health and safety' got in the way.
"Aim that thing at the machine while it's firing at you and it'll be more than just your prostate tumour that gets shrivelled!" the Radiographers warned gravely, yesterday.
"OK. So when you've done your stuff," I suggested, "we'll check the walls opposite. All we have to do is measure the depth of the holes and how hard the plaster is, and we'll know how fast the little villains were travelling, just like the motorway accident investigators."


That went down like a lead balloon. All I got was a firm, "All done, see you Monday."


So I'll have to rely on those scientists in Switzerland to find the right answers and prove, maybe, Einstein was wrong. That B1 road in Namibia is dead straight after all, not curved in some space-time continuum malarkey.


It's early days yet, but I don't seem to have had much luck so far in my attempts to conduct simple experiments with those NHS linear accelerators.
One day last week one of them broke down. Engineers hurried back and forth carrying boxes of spare parts and the queue of patients grew. I had to keep a low profile in case someone thought I'd broken it. Specially when, ahead of my time, I was called in for my session in front of the waiting queue. My machine was still going fine, it was the other one that had stopped working.


Early the week before last the other bunch of scientists in Switzerland, the Higgs boson crowd, had a meeting about 'how will they know when they've searched far and wide enough to confirm it doesn't exist?'
A very philosophical question. They've not found it after a couple of years so far, so how much longer must they search for?
I thought I'd lend a hand - inside a glove.
I'm sure that at least one or two Higgs must have popped out of the radiotherapy machine while I've been under it - it's just a feeling you get, in your most nether of nether regions.


So one day I turned up with a hidden baseball glove, and smuggled it neatly into the treatment room. No easy task as all these machines are housed inside concrete bunkers. The long access corridors have a couple of right-angle corners in them to keep all the straight-line radiation inside, and are starkly bare, so it's difficult to carry something without it being noticed.
When the zapping was all done and the Radiographers called, "Mind the drop!" as I hopped off the table, they were horrified.
"Whhaaat's THAT??" they shrieked, pointing at my clenched right hand inside the huge glove.
"I think I just caught a Higgs boson! Want to have a look?"
"OK. You sure it's there?"
"Well, it only exists for a tiny fraction of a micro-nano second, so you'll have to look really closely."
I slowly opened my gloved hand........
"Oh, look at that! It's gone!!"
"See you tomorrow!"


--ooOOoo--



I saw a funny sight at Guildford station the other day.
I've taken to using the train some days to travel to the hospital - the fare is less than the petrol. And it's green. Although I think that must be code for something - "Code green, Obi-Wan!" The trains are blue/red on the Guildford line and white/yellow on the Croydon line. I'm glad I got that sorted.
Waiting on the platform for my train home, a strange apparition came into view approaching from the London direction.
An old full-sized steam engine pulled two passenger carriages of similar age along the main line and majestically through the station. But no "puff - chuff - puff - chuff."
The whole entourage was being pulled by a diesel loco, only slightly newer than the steam train. Obviously trundling along to one of those preserved railway lines on the south coast.
The steam loco was dormant. Dead in fact. No fire, no smoke, no steam. There wasn't even a connecting rod fitted on the side facing me, although the valve gear was gracefully swaying to and fro.
In the cab of the diesel unit were two drivers all decked out in their hi-vis orange vests.
But despite there being no life at all in the silent steam engine behind, there on its cold and draughty footplate, with not a chance of frying a single egg, were at least half a dozen 'drivers' and 'firemen' having a high old time!
Another adventure journey.


It was such a surreal sight I didn't think for a moment to grab my camera from my rucksack to snap a quick picture. (I always take it on this journey - I'm sure to get a photo of those particles one day....)




Posted by Ken Thomas at 12:38 PM GMT
 


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