Director’s Diary: Pedal hard and don’t wobble

This week we hosted a successful CD launch, school visits and meetings about a major building project to improve our visitor facilities and displays. A new 150 seat theatre means we need to upgrade, and we are preparing various applications for approval. This can be an exacting business, and I sometimes wonder how Brunel got on with Planning Departments and permissions.

Building the Thames Tunnel took 18 years, using a totally new technology, but the difficult bit was getting the permissions and agreements. The government agreed a loan, but only for digging the Tunnel. Brunel was not allowed to buy land at Wapping, or sink a shaft or arrange proper circulation of air. The whole length of the Tunnel was dug from Rotherhithe, and the further under the river the less air and the shorter the shift before the miner collapsed. The condition in small print cost Brunel hundreds of pounds and the miners’ their health or even their lives.

Here’s a controversial application for a project in Kent: it seems to be an untried method for moving heavy materials in connection with the burgeoning and largely unregulated ship building/ industrial complex at Chatham Dockyards. From a planning point of view, this is an unjustified and unwelcome increase in movement of heavy goods, putting local residents in some danger and disturbing their right to peaceful enjoyment of their own property.

There is one letter of support from a Mr Charles Dickens of Bleak House whose fanciful submission is headed ‘Chinese Enchanter’

‘… but for a whisper in the air suggestive of sawdust shavings, the oar-making and saws of many movements might be miles away. Down below here, is the great reservoir of water …Above it, on a tram road supported by pillars, is a Chinese Enchanter’s Car, which fishes the logs up and rolls smoothly away with them to stack them. When I was a child (the Yard being then familiar to me) I used to think that I should like to play at Chinese Enchanter, and to have that apparatus placed at my disposal.’
The Uncommercial Traveller

These non-specific claims over noise control fall well short of convincing colleagues in Environmental Health. This is a high-tech system for handling huge quantities of timber, and entirely inappropriate for a predominantly rural area. The author is not even a local resident: Bleak House is a long way from Chatham, where this heavy plant will be located and the committee should ignore his letter. I urge you to oppose this scheme.

Chinese Enchanter is simply Dickens’ phrase for exotic. He knew Brunel and he knew Rotherhithe:

Rotherhithe is the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants
Oliver Twist

Dickens describes inventor Daniel Doyce – a smith and engineer – in Little Dorrit and this is based on Marc Brunel:
A short, square, practical-looking man, whose hair had turned grey, and in whose face and forehead there were deep lines of cogitation, which looked as though they were carved in hard wood. He was dressed in decent black, a little rusty, and had the appearance of a sagacious master in some handicraft – a certain free use of the thumb that is never seen, but in a hand accustomed to tools.

Doyce in Little Dorrit is an inventor, driven from pillar to post by Government (Circumlocution Office.) In exasperation, he takes the plans abroad, where he is made much of. There are many parallels: French born Marc Brunel was badly treated by the government, despite providing pulley blocks for Nelson’s Victory and the boots for Wellington’s army. Brunel was never properly paid on three government contracts and was thrown into the King’s Bench Prison for debt, and from where he corresponded with the Czar about a river crossing for St Petersburg. Only the threat of losing him brought the government to advance money, pay off his debts and release him! Dickens knew Brunel as well as he knew Rotherhithe…

This week Rotherhithe hosted the Midnight Apothecary celebrations for St Patrick’s Day and the Tunnel Opening and a famous Irish victory at rugby. A busy and a happy affair. We have had interesting talks with Handlebards who may bring Shakespeare here on their bicycles. We are in discussion with Atelier Theatre and the Romanian Cultural Institute about a wonderful play by Matei Visniec. This is a very topical comedy about ignorance and intolerance: What shall we do with the Cello? ‘Put the cello over the handlebars’, I hear you say, ‘pedal hard and don’t wobble’. Good advice, but what about Planning Permission…

Next week we host an open day for Totally Thames Festival, the big September event. For the whole of the month, there are performances, sculpture, installations and last year this was our busiest month ever. Next week we have the usual heritage walks and boat trips, and more meetings about future concerts and performances: details below. Remember to toast the tunnel opening and Sir Marc Brunel on Saturday 25th March.

Sunday 19th March
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 20th March
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks
16.00 BAFTA meeting about film & music installation

Tuesday 21st March
10.10 interview for BBC Radio London Robert Elms Show on Rotherhithe Round Your Manor
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.00 meeting about new building project
17.30 Totally Thames open event hosted by Brunel Museum

Wednesday 22nd March
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
15.00 production meeting What shall we do with the Cello?
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks
19.15 Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Local History Group: East India Company

Thursday 23rd March
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Friday 24th March
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
10.30 Clemson University USA

Saturday 25th March
Anniversary day: Opening of Thames Tunnel in 1843
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

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