Category Archives: Concrete Sniffing

Touring Military Engineering sites and Museums with an Engineering content.

Concrete Sniffing Along the Medway

Churchill AVLB

Churchill AVLB

The river Medway has a rich history for Naval enthusiasts and Concrete Sniffers alike. Suzanne is not averse to good-quality concrete, especially if it is mixed in with a decent walk and a meal. We started at Upnor Castle, which ticks all the boxes, having two good pubs nearby and a quaint Georgian street connecting them all. The castle is impressive and the dressing-up box is hidden safely away in a corner.

Churchill AVRE

Churchill AVRE

Upnor castle is famous for having failed to prevent the Dutch fleet from raiding Chatham Docks in 1667, and carrying off the Royal Charles. Fair do’s; we had ransacked the Dutch fleet previously and started all the grumpiness off by declaring the Navigation Act of 1651 in a move worthy of President Trump in full rant.

The Royal Engineers Museum is well worth a visit, and only 15 minutes away by car. It is well-laid out, the exhibits work and it is full of Stuff. The walls are information-dense, but that’s fine because military engineering is for grown-ups, and anyone having trouble reading the big words, is in the wrong museum¹. Notwithstanding, where else would do a Bank Holiday Bomb Disposal event? Cool! (Expecting an answer from Maj Tom Mouatt MBE here) 🙂

RE Diver

RE Diver

The other advantage of burying information on the walls in plain sight, is that it does not upset the rest of the Army: We learn that of the only two technical branches originally, (Sappers and Gunners), the top of the intake usually graduated into the Sappers. I was amused to find that in a specialist branch of the Army, my own specialities (Diving, Amphibious Engineering and Harrier Support) were buried away in the corners of the museum. It was somewhat unsettling to see events that I remember vividly to this day, reduced to a few dry lines and a black and white photograph containing familiar fresh faces from 36 years ago.

The sheer scale of the museum, from Gundulf², through the founding of military signalling, and aviation, the building of the Albert Hall and wars practically anywhere you can point to on the Globe, is overwhelming. Fifty five VCs and a long winding corridor stuffed full of medal drawers left me feeling rather numb.

Outside, the tank park is full of big toys, mostly with bridges on their backs or big shovels in front, or both. Sappers scorn long calibre 120mm guns, preferring bigger lumps of explosives and shorter barrels. The Churchill AVRE petard was not called a dustbin for nothing.

We stopped overnight in a very civilised YHA. No longer do you have to smuggle wine into your bunk room, but we did for old times sake.

Where Not to Stand When Firing

Where Not to Stand When Firing

Day two was a visit to Fort Amherst, the largest surviving Napoleonic artillery fort in Britain. It is a sprawling, multi-layered fort buried into the hillside.  The ramparts fight for air under creepers, trees and nettles. Volunteers are working hard to restore it to its former state, but we enjoyed the slightly run-down fin de siècle air of the place.

At the top of the Great Lines is the Naval Memorial for the Port of Chatham. Some interesting (to me) statistics:

Panels of memorials for WWI number 32 in total.

After 1915 when the Royal Naval Air Service was founded, a high proportion of officer casualties were from the RNAS, something to be expected from a service operating state-of-the-art bits of unpredictable wire, string and canvas over unforgiving seas.

Panels for WWII number 158 (+/-2, this from my memory after driving home)

1939 – 8, 1940 – 20, 1941 – 32, 1942 – 49, 1943 – 30, 1944 – 22, 1945 – 5, 1946 – 1, then a final panel with added dates for previous years (presumably missing confirmed dead). To me this highlighted the more global nature of WWII, and 1942 as the naval peak in activity.

Belvedere Heights at Fort Amherst

Belvedere Heights at Fort Amherst

We missed the official guided tunnel tour, but wandered in through a promising entrance at the level of Belvedere Heights (see the grey door in the middle right of the picture above). Coming back out, we were asked by a tourist party if they were allowed to go in³. I assured them that they were, and we beat a hurried retreat before they met the real guided party coming the opposite way. Note to self – don’t visit any more attractions in Chatham looking like a retired Sapper officer.  We ran out of time for a visit to the Naval Dockyards, but if you want a grand day out, then there is plenty to engage your interest in the Medway Towns.

  1. See Infantry, or Cavalry. If the RAF are feeling superior at this point, just remember that the Sappers started the Royal Flying Corps.
  2. Humphrey de Tilleul, William’s engineer, brought a pre fabricated fort across the Channel which he erected at Hastings after the battle with Harold. He was succeeded as King’s engineer by a monk named Gundulf, who later became Bishop of Rochester. Among Gundulf’s better known works are the Keep of the Tower of London and the Old Barbican.
  3. The Bishop of Peterborough told me that if his clergy ever asked if they were allowed to do something, he would say “no” on principle. I take the opposite view, as I believe that God has a sense of humour.
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Concrete Sniffing in Vienna

Vienna was not intended to be concrete-sniffing holiday, but the  Die of Fate rolled and came up with a six. The lovely Mrs K (Suzanne) had booked us an apartment in a residential area between the Danube and the “Donau Kanal“, which meant that we were on a rather large island outside the old city walls, but near to the Augarten park and railway station. Our morning walk took us through the park and cafés into the city centre. We could have taken the tram, but then we would have missed this:

The Leittürme were smaller than the G-Türme!

Even Suzanne was impressed. We have both seen Flaktürme before in the Ruhr, and to find one looming unexpectedly over the trees in a park was a surprise. Then we walked around the corner and saw this:

It reminded me a little of the Emperor Dalek from the ’60s as it sat there with a squat malevolence that time had done nothing to diminish. Naturally, the locals had dialled it out of their mental landscape and only tourist such as ourselves gawked and photographed it.

 

This larger GefechtsTurm had come off second-best with time*, so part of the lower balcony had been removed post millenium, and steel cables girdled the structure, having pulled  the upper platform a good  metre or so out of alignment. The towers operated as a pair, with the L-Turm controlling fire for the G-Turm. Three such pairs protected Vienna in a triangle.

The Viennese, being pragmatic folk, have turned one Turm into a climbing wall, and another that sits rather inconveniently in the centre, into a Sealife Centre.

The rest of the holiday was filled with excellent Age of Enlightenment sights, food, and a concert in the Anna Kirche that need not concern us here, other than to say that Vienna is well worth a visit even without the concrete.

*And the attention of mischievous children,  who set fire to 2,000 flak rounds that still remained in the tower in 1946, the little scamps!

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A Civil Day Out

Lawrence of Arabia Ambushes a Turkish Train in the Arab Revolt

Newark is a splendid place to spend an afternoon, with a plethora of small eating and drinking establishments, and the “National Civil War Museum”. In the same descriptive vein, NQM is the Nation’s “Most Comprehensive WW2 Wargame”.*

Lest this review sound as if the place is not worth a visit, I should hastily add that it is, but that what you find is an excellent local museum that covers the sieges of Newark, and sets it in the context of the English Civil War.** When we visited, a Lawrence of Arabia exhibition was on, which was fun. Who doesn’t love the film? 28mm Figure fans will enjoy the diorama of a train ambush.

Shifting Sands Exhibition Train Ambush 1

The museum exhibits give a good Royalist, town-centric view of the conflict, which is fine, because where else would you go to find out stuff about the sieges of Newark? There is also a rather nice exhibition regarding battlefield medicine and surgery, including an interactive exhibit that allows you to use a musket ball extractor on a suitably gory arm. The ball probably hit the brachial artery from its location! The claim that advances in medicine would not be equalled until WWI are overstated though, (anaesthesia in 1829, inoculation in 1796 and nursing in the Crimean War all spring to mind. Proper Anoraks can visit the two-room Museum of Anaesthesia at the Royal College of Anaesthetists opposite the BBC to have their senses thoroughly deadened.

As has been commentated on previously, by others; museums nowadays are interactive experiences to keep the kiddies happy, so we were in our element! Kiddies learn that armour is heavy, and the Governor’s mansion can be destroyed with one ranging shot and one shot for effect by a heavy gun that has digital sights. Adults are left wanting a more balanced view, and more stuff to look at. A diorama of one of the sieges shown on the website was not in evidence. Cromwell was the ghost in the building (Visit Huntingdon for the opposite treatment).

One of the interactive displays gave a good flavour of the shifting balance of power through the war(s) without detail such as town names. Chandler did it better with a few maps, without having to swat kids away that squeeze between you, aimlessly press a couple of buttons, then who wander off to the next exhibit that makes cannon-shot noises. This leaves you back at the default menu, trying to recover the events of 1643 on the interactive timeline.

Honestly, curators, having to press a touch screen to bring up pop-up boxes is not a good way to scan information, I do it for a living, so I have an opinion! We went on an uncrowded Sunday, a crowded one would have been worse. Information was there, if you took the time to read a lot of  typeface on boards in a relatively dimly lit main room (but I can do that in a book). It seemed to me that there was a disconnect between the hard information and the interactive stuff

My idea for an interactive display, is a set of stocks that lock for a pound a minute. Anyone can add coins when your child is in there. Proceeds to widows and orphans! In the Tudor Hall, Prince Rupert was holding forth in full cosplay; we gave him a miss. So, in summary, the museum is worth a visit if you are passing, but should be titled the “Civil War Sieges of Newark Museum“.

newarkMap

Newark Castle is also worth a visit – the river facade is impressive,  I expected it to feature more in the museum though. The river walk is pleasant, with pubs clustered around the town lock (what could possibly go wrong?) There is a nice micro brewery tucked away behind the riverfront, and an excellent teashop by the old post office behind the market square. We scoffed, quaffed, then came home.

*It isn’t.

** You are firmly corrected and told that they were the British Civil Wars, covering Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The NHS conducts this sort of rebranding exercise for fashionable diseases all the time.

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