One Last Ride

I have mentioned before my delight at finding old documentaries uploaded for free on YouTube. One which has stuck with me for a long time is episode 10 of Monster Moves, in which a South African Class 15F tender engine is rescued from a breaker’s yard in Bloemfontein and returned to its birthplace in Glasgow.

As expected from this sort of program, every setback is milked for the drama. First, the lorry meant to move the engine to Durban turns out to be too small, so it has to be towed on rails by a diesel engine. Then the wheels all have to be re-lubricated so they don’t catch fire, then ten empty flatbeds have to be hauled behind for breaking capability, then the line is blocked by a stalled lorry, then the diesel breaks down just shy of the dock, then the ferry is diverted, then a giant floating crane is needed to lift the 100 tonnes aboard, then after arriving in Immingham another giant crane is needed to lift it off again, then the lorry trailer has to be redesigned for the narrower track gauge, then the load might be too high to get under British motorway bridges, then the long trailer struggles to navigate Glasgow’s tight corners. All of this is accompanied by a gloriously over-the-top orchestral Western song.

No. 3007 now resides at the Riverside Museum. It is a little disheartening to think that she can never actually run again – her track gauge being too narrow and her loading gauge too wide – and that the other old locomotives at the same depot probably won’t be saved. Many in the comments section also allege that South Africa’s rail infrastructure has deteriorated severely since 2006 and been hit by widespread looting during lockdown. All this makes the film’s ending a little bittersweet.

This was not the only rail-centric episode of the series – they also covered the relocation of two Gresley A4s from North America to York and the retrieval of two Stanier 8Fs from Turkey.

Hard to Track Down

Following Gordon Casely’s talk on the subject two months ago, I have pursued the topic further with the creation of another Wikipedia armorial.

As with the Middle-earth one, I notified both the relevant WikiProject groups beforehand. Nobody in the heraldry group responded, as per usual. The UK railways group took a lot more interest, though so far none have directly contributed to the article. One controversy was how to name the article – at present it is called ”Armorial of railways in Great Britain” as I have decided the island of Ireland should be a separate article to reflect its railways having always been a separate administration, though this does leave some ambiguity over how to classify the railway heraldry of the smaller islands. It may expand to ”Armorial of railways in the British Isles” at a later date.

The other controversy, of course, was over what to count as heraldry. As Casely’s lecture pointed out – and as many in the latter talk page reminded me – most railway armory in the UK is entirely bogus in terms of legal authority and trite in terms of artistic merit. This leads to some difficulties in how to cite the various insignia being catalogued, since few will appear in the works of Burke, Debrett or Fox-Davies, though the latter’s Book of Public Arms still proved very useful in blazoning the civic arms which railway emblems so frequently appropriated. Most of the illustrations are not by me, nor by other heraldic artists, but photographs of emblems as they appear on the sides of old locomotives, stock and stations or scans from very old books (William Weaver Tomlinson’s The North Eastern Railway; its rise and development being especially handy). A good handful of the company seals found are easy enough to recognise in terms of blazonry (such as the York, Berwick & Newcastle Railway, which just had the shields of those towns in a triangle formation) but others (such as Hull & Selby) have no armorial pretensions at all and look more suited to the Soviet Union.

The list is still far from complete at present, and it will be difficult by nature to judge when completeness has been achieved, but I hope this has at least got the fire started – and allowed at least one of the Sudrian shields to get a viewing.

In further heraldry news, the Lyon Court recently opened a YouTube channel, and the second uploaded video is of the installation of new heralds at the Court of Session that I covered some time ago.

The Nearest Exit

One of the most iconic components of election night in the United Kingdom is the 10pm exit poll. There will have been a heavy outpouring of regular polls, predictions and projections throughout the campaign, but the beauty of the exit poll is that instead of asking people what they intend to do it asks what they already did – all uncertainty thus being removed. The mood of political parties regarding their relative fortunes, the emotional state of all watching and the entire political narrative can be one way throughout the whole campaign and then change dramatically into something entirely different as soon as the bongs sound. The most prominent examples are 2015 – where it was widely predicted that the Conservatives would sink to around 290 seats and be level pegging with Labour, only to find that they’d actually gone up – and 2017 – where Theresa May had long expected to win by a landslide, but actually lost her majority.

Only a very small section of the people are surveyed – in the 2010 example Dimbleby said one hundred and thirty polling places, or one for every five parliamentary constituencies. The statisticians in charge of the polling companies are razor sharp in finding exactly the right places from which to check the political temperature. This makes it all the more remarkable that the polls’ predictions are so close to reality. Despite the protestations of the talking heads that “it’s too early to call” and Dimbleby’s own quip that “if it was dead accurate there’d be no need for anybody to go and vote”, generally the numbers shown are not far from the real ones.

To make the lead graphic, I skimmed through the coverage of the six UK general elections that have taken place in my lifetime, and compiled a spreadsheet of the seat totals projected for the two main parties as well as the actual numbers of seats won by those parties. The graph shows how much either party was under- or overestimated each time. The 2010 poll was nearly spot-on, with the Conservative figure exactly right and the Labour only three too low. The worst inaccuracy was the Conservative figure for 2015, and indeed this was the only occasion in this millennium where the overall result was mispredicted (it was a small Conservative majority rather than a hung parliament).


Exit polling explained – University of Warwick

State Occasions

The York Herald’s Twitter feed recently led me to discover the 1960 short documentary series Look at Life, episode 7 of which is State Occasions. It follows the then-Earl Marshal (Bernard, 16th Duke of Norfolk) around the State Opening of Parliament and the Garter Day procession, as well as giving a tour inside the college of arms.

The narrator gives a concise but comprehensive overview of the college’s work and of heraldry as an artform, with ample footage of officers and artists going about their business as well as detailed closeups of the fruits of their labour.

It’s well worth a look.

Re-imagining Towns and Cities

Recently I’ve been binging on some urban design channels – mostly talking about the best way to structure and arrange a populous settlement. Today I attended a Zoom talk on that topic – the heraldry stuff for this year appearing to have run out.

I had expected today’s session to be on similar themes – housing density, cycle paths, zoning etc – but instead it was mainly focused on children’s play areas. It was hosted by Timberplay, with guest speakers Lucy Wallwork and Laura Scott-Simmons.

The consensus was a need to move away from “KFC” playgrounds (Kit, Fencing and Carpet, not Kentucky-Fried Chicken) and towards more varied, naturalistic settings. Much of the aim was to design urban environments in a child-friendly way, so that children could access communal spaces without needing to be driven around in parents’ cars (or, for that matter, being endangered by other cars passing nearby).

Another theme in the talk was the decline of high streets due to the rise of online shopping – exacerbated by the pandemic, of course. It was recommended that city centres cater to more than just retail, with outlets for religion, leisure, culture and even rewilding. It was important to avoid “clone cities” which are indistinguishable from their neighbours, and create a unique feature for each town to attract tourism.

The talk ran on for a little longer than I had expected but there was still time at the end for questions. One asked if the measures for “children” also applied to adolescents, and the speakers acknowledged that teens were often “designed out” of public spaces because of negative perceptions. (The popular industry phrase quoted earlier was “too old for the playground, too broke for the café, too young for the pub”.)

I, living most of my life in remote countryside and noticing how many of these projects had “urban” or “city” in the title, asked if the same principles of design also worked for smaller and more rural settlements. The speakers said that the basic rules still applied, and that there was sometimes a “play deficit” in rural areas because it is often assumed that people there have easy access to nature whereas really much of it is closed-off agricultural land.


Most of these were mentioned in the presentations, and it’s easier just to list the links instead of copying them out.