When I saw this week’s theme of ‘Wheels’ for Cee’s Black and White Photo Challenge, I remembered the fascinating wheels on the old railway trucks in our woods. I’ve posted about the wheels on the old coal trucks before, but for the challenge I decided to re-imagine these iron flanged wheels in black and white.
I think black and white captures the aged engineering of these old work horses quite well.
We humans have proved to be quite adept at harnessing energy to assist us in our daily lives. Wind and water powered our mills before we learned the ‘magic’ of steam engines and then electricity. Where would we be now without electricity? Just looking here around my kitchen, I would be in the dark, it would be cold and I would not be drafting this post on the computer! For Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge this week, our photo theme is Industrial and I decided to seek out some shots that feature energy production in some format.
My first shot reminds me of a wonderful sunny Summer day out we had at the seaside. This magnificently restored windmill was originally built in 1790 and stands overlooking the North Sea at Whitburn on the north east coast of England. In its day, the mill would have been used to grind corn for the nearby village. You perhaps also noticed another rather more modern form of ‘green energy’ in this photo, the solar panels on the roof of one of the houses behind. We spotted quite a number of houses sporting solar panels during our visit to sunny South Tyneside.
Here in the UK, home owners can opt to fit solar panels to their roofs whilst also remaining attached to the National Power Grid. This allows them to provide for their own electricity needs when there is sufficient sunshine and even sell any surplus electricity to the National Power Grid, but also enables them to draw electricity from the national mains supply if they need to. Whilst the UK isn’t always the sunniest of countries, solar power is very much a viable sustainable energy source here and I think a lot more could be done to support it.
Old Coal truck – a relic and reminder
The form of energy most associated with the north east of England is coal. Our valleys and coasts were mined for coal for hundreds of years. Our Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was powered by coal. Coal has played a huge part in the history and culture of our region. It was for the transportation of coal that railways were first invented. This old coal truck stands on its short stretch of track beside the old railway footpath in our woods, a reminder of the industrial history of our area.
The dust and smoke no longer cloak our lungs and lives, but coal mining, iron and steel working and the railways to transport the products of these industries have all left their legacies in our landscape. In its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, about 3000 tons of coal a day rattled their way along this railway en route to the River Tyne where the coal was loaded onto steam-driven collier ships to continue its journey. By the mid-20th century, much of our local coal was being transported only a few miles further down our valley where it was ‘cooked’ at the coke works to make coking coal (coke). The benefit of coke over coal was that it burned hotter and more efficiently and was therefore more suitable for industrial uses such as powering the furnaces for steel making and at power stations for electricity generation.
Old mine entrance
All of this industrial power came out of the ground beneath our feet, dug from coal mines that are now long gone … well, almost. In our woods it is possible to still find traces of old coal mining activity. In this photo you can see some cream coloured brickwork. This is a closed-up entrance to a coal mine that was operational until the around the mid-20th century.
Along the miners path
The coal would have been brought out of the mine in wooden waggons that rode along wooden rails, drawn by pit ponies. Now largely reclaimed by Nature, this levelled track in the wood suggests the waggonway continued from the mine entrance along to the colliery yard (approximately 300 metres away).
A bridge to the colliery yard
To reach the colliery yard, the laden waggons also needed to cross the steep-sided stream. We discovered the remains of an old brick-built bridge. The two green mounds you can see in the photo are, I think, the bases of the arch that would have supported the bridge over the stream. However, we also found further brickwork to suggest the bridge itself was built up to a higher level, around two metres, to allow a level approach from the path from the mine on one side to the level of the colliery yard on the other.
A LILY brick
Brick-making was another industry very much associated with coal mining in our area, as the clay from which the bricks were manufactured formed another strata in the same geological deposits as the coal seams. The brick clay in our valley was a cream colour rather than the red colour we more generally associate with bricks. I recall as a young child going on a school visit to the brick works where this LILY brick was made. For some reason, I remember this visit quite clearly although it is over forty years ago.
The Lilley Brick Works with its landmark tall brick chimney stood only a few yards along the road from the school. When we arrived we were each given a small extruded piece of the greyish white brick clay. Then we saw how the clay was placed into wooden moulds which were in turn encased in what I guess now must have been fire-proof clay. The moulds were then pressed and placed on racks in a large oven and fired – ‘cooked’ – into bricks. You probably noticed a difference in the spelling between the brick itself and the brickworks name! My guess is that only four letters would fit on the brick mould! I remember there were large stacks of these bricks on wooden pallets in the yard of the brick works. I wonder if this early insight into brick-making fired my interest in industrial history in our landscape!
Time to transition from coal to sustainable energy sources
Coal has certainly played its part in fuelling the growth of UK industry over the past two centuries. However, we now recognise that, as well as fuelling significant developments in science and engineering in their support of industry over those historic years, fossil fuels have contributed significantly to climate change and this is something we can no longer afford to ignore. Those natural and ever-giving sources of power are still there – the sun and the wind.
The wind turbines in my above image are now part of our everyday valley landscape, though rather more distant from us than in my photograph. The curious foreground in this image is due to the fact I shot it from a moving bus – I just waited for a suitable gap in the hedge! Modern wind turbines look rather different to the windmills of old, but their underlying function is the same – to harness the power of the wind to provide for one of our basic needs, now via the production of electricity rather than to directly grind the corn for our bread.
Personally, I believe that a lot more of our energy should be produced locally, close to where we need to use it. I have had some crazy ideas on how we could perhaps make better use of roofs on schools or supermarkets as well as thinking that more of us should be enabled to generate electricity for our own use. Sometimes I get a little bogged down in the science that needs to underpin my mad ideas – I’m working on that! – but I still retain an ambition to build a wind-up toaster 😀
As I trundled off along our old railway path on a foraging mission for elderberries this week, I was thinking about the ‘Wheels’ theme for Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge. The old railway inspired me to think about the special wheels of railway transport. Conveniently, a little further along the old railway there are a couple of old coal trucks on a length of track. They are parked there as an historical reminder of the many tons of coal that were hauled along this railway in the past. As I passed by, I took the opportunity to look closely at the large rusty iron wheels on these old railway trucks, particularly noticing the way the wheels are shaped to ride smoothly on the metal rails.
Flanged wheels were a very clever invention, weren’t they? When I returned home I decided to delve a little into the history of the use of flanged wheels for railway trucks and locomotives. I discovered that it was none other than the “father of the railways”, George Stephenson himself, who in 1814 was the first to successfully use flanged wheels on the first of his travelling steam engines, “Blücher”. Named after a Prussian general, the job of steam engine “Blücher” was to haul trucks of coal from the Killingworth Colliery along the Killingworth waggonway. At the time, Stephenson was the enginewright at this colliery, just to the north of Newcastle.
George Stephenson was born in 1781 in the village of Wylam, just a few miles from me. He had a life-long interest in engines and engineering, particularly relating to the coal industry, eventually opening an engineering works with his son, Robert, in Newcastle to manufacture locomotives. Railways were born out of the need to transport coal over our hilly terrain where canals, as had been built in other parts of Britain, were not suitable. Stephenson’s inspiration to build steam locomotives came from the Cornishman Richard Trevithick who had been the first to design this type of engine in 1802.
The gauge of railway tracks was another aspect of this mode of transport in which George Stephenson has left us his inventive legacy. Stephenson’s gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (1,435mm) is still known as ‘standard gauge’ and is still very widely used across the world today. Perhaps I shall take my tape measure the next time I pass by the old trucks and check the track measurement!
The local railway trucks on our old railway path are probably around 60-70 years old. I think the engineering on these industrial workhorses still looks impressive, if a little worn. I looked at some old images of the original locomotives built by George Stephenson to compare the wheels with my ‘modern’ ones. Sadly, the original “Blücher” locomotive has not survived – I read that its parts were recycled into other engines. However, below is an image that I believe is of a locomotive similar to “Blücher”, so you can see how it looked in its day.
It has been interesting learning a little more about railway wheels and their associated history. Please do take a look at other entries in Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge this week and see what wheels others have found.