Tag Archives: NERC

Bidston Observatory – 150 years new

Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory, panorama by Ray McBride

Bidston Lighthouse and Observatory, panorama by Raymond McBride, 2016

We have new neighbours. Edward Clive and his wife Fiona James are the new owners of Bidston Observatory.

On Saturday, 17th September, we hosted a tea party at the Lighthouse to commemorate the Observatory being 150 years old. When we started planning, we didn’t know whether the event would turn out to be a celebration or the launch of yet another campaign to save the Observatory from unsympathetic developers. It could have gone either way. But we couldn’t let 2016 pass without doing something to commemorate the Observatory’s sesquicentenary.

The day turned out to be a celebration. Former Observatory staff, outgoing guardians, representatives of local organisations (including the Friends of Bidston Hill, the Bidston Preservation Trust, Tam O’Shanter Urban Farm, the Wirral History and Heritage Association, and the Wirral Society), local councillors, artists, and many others, all had a chance to meet the new owners and hear about their plans.

Ed, Fi and friend Kym Ward plan to operate the Observatory as a not-for-profit artistic research centre. They also intend to incorporate an exhibition about the Observatory’s heritage, which will be accessible to the public on open days. But first they need to stabilise the building, which has suffered from neglect in recent years.

We are delighted with the outcome. The spectre of a housing development on Bidston Hill recedes (at least for the moment), and the prospect of a public-facing, sustainable and creative use of the Observatory, entirely compatible with our own ambitions for the world’s most inland lighthouse, comes into view.

Although we’ll miss some of the guardians (who have kept the building secure for nearly 12 years), Ed, Fi and Kym are already inspiring us with their energy and enthusiasm. They will need every ounce of it.

We pledge our whole-hearted support to their project.

Further listening

Further reading

State of the roads

Letter from John Hartnup, Directory of Bidston Observatory, complaining about the state of the road

Letter from John Hartnup, Directory of Bidston Observatory, complaining about the state of the road leading to the Observatory and Lighthouse in 1874.

Little has changed in 140 years, apart from the names. The road is now Wilding Way, which is dangerously potholed. The roles of the Dock Board and Mr Vyner are now played by the Natural Environment Research Council and Wirral Borough Council, and I’m cast in the role of John Hartnup.

Wirral Borough Council own the road in question, and have the duty to maintain it. This is a condition of the lease from Wirral Borough Council to NERC over the piece of land that was once the kitchen gardens of the lighthouse and more recently the site of the Joseph Proudman Building, if only for a little while.

Despite owning the road, and being responsible for maintaining it, the Council have never actually adopted it. So whenever someone reports a pothole in the road through the proper channels (i.e. via this webpage), the complaint is initially referred to the people who look after Roads, who eventually pass the buck to the people who look after Parks (because it’s part of the Bidston Hill estate). Parks have neither the budget nor the equipment to do anything about it, so the complaint is finally closed (without informing the complainant). I’ve tried this several times and I always get the same result. Have a go yourself if you don’t believe me: here’s that link again.

I have a lot of sympathy for Parks. Wirral Council has been hit hard by round after round of unprecedented cuts, and it’s not over yet. Parks is feeling the pinch. Four senior ranger posts have been eliminated recently, and Bidston Hill and Flaybrick Cemetery have just lost their dedicated ranger. It will be a miracle if Bidston Hill doesn’t lose its Green Flag status within a year or two.

The only player in this drama with the power to make Wirral Borough Council fix the road is NERC. I have no rights under English law to enforce a condition in a contract to which I am not a party. So I shall write to NERC, in the hope that they in turn will write to Wirral Borough Council. In that respect, John Hartnup had the advantage over me, for he at least could expect the Dock Board, his masters, to fight his corner.

Yours truly,

Stephen Pickles

Bidston Observatory – Heritage for Sale

Bidston Observatory is up for sale, again. Here is the listing on RightMove: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-28459380.html

Prospective buyers have only until 30th November to make their “best and final offer”. This seems a little rushed, given that the advert appeared in Wirral News only last week.

I hope the new owners appreciate what an important piece of Merseyside heritage they are taking on.

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

The Observatory was built in 1866, when the expansion of Waterloo Dock forced Liverpool Observatory to re-locate to Bidston Hill. It was built alongside Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station, on land owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.  John Hartnup, astronomer and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, had been the Director of Liverpool Observatory since it was built in 1843. Amongst his achievements was the calculation of the longitude of Liverpool, which was important for navigation and the development of the port. He presided over the move to Bidston Hill, and continued as director of Bidston Observatory until his retirement in 1885, when he was succeeded by his son. The second director, John Hartnup Jr  died on 21 April 1892, when he fell from the roof of the Observatory while making meteorological observations.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

Over the years, the emphasis of the Observatory’s work shifted from astronomy to other things, but always in the tradition of Time and Tide, so important to the port of Liverpool.

Of Time. The progression from observations of the stars, to the determination of longitude, to the calibration of chronometers was a natural one. The Observatory’s two levels of cellars and other features made it especially suited for calibrating chronometers under controlled conditions of temperature and seismic vibrations. Marine chronometers from all over the empire were calibrated at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from the Observatory by electric cable.

Of Tide. Ever since Liverpool’s harbour-master William Hutchinson (the same fellow who pioneered the use of parabolic reflectors in lighthouses on Bidston Hill) took the first extended series of tidal measurements over a period of nearly thirty years, Liverpool had led the world in tidal studies. This work became centred at Bidston Observatory when the Liverpool Tidal Institute was set up there under Joseph Proudman’s direction after World War I. Arthur Doodson’s work with mechanical computers for tide prediction happened here. One of his machines was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the original one-o-clock gun, after its removal to Bidston Hill from Morpeth Dock.

In 1969, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took over responsibility for the Observatory. Oceanographic research continued to expand under their auspices. During the 1970’s, the Joseph Proudman Building was constructed in the former kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse.

In 1989, the Observatory, Lighthouse and the perimeter wall enclosing them became Grade-II listed buildings.

In 2004, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory moved from Bidston Hill to a new building at the University of Liverpool. Their oceanographic research is still continuing today, but now in the guise of the National Oceanography Centre. NERC’s plans to sell the site to a developer aroused opposition from local pressure groups, and the spectre of an eleven-story high-rise residential development was averted.

Bidston Observatory has featured on TV on several occasions, including episodes of Coast (Series 7, Episode 5: “The Riddle of the Tides”), Inside Out, and Where’s Fred. Joyce Scoffield, who used to work in the Observatory, has written a book about it: “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”, 2006 (available on Amazon). J. Eric Jones wrote “From Astrononomy to Oceanography – A brief history of Bidston Observatory”, which you can download from the NOC web site.

View from Observatory roof, March 2013

View from Observatory roof, March 2013.

Antarctica, Floods and Bidston Hill

Last week, BBC news reported on a new measurement of the volume of ice in Antarctica, from the Bedmap2 project. The potential sea level equivalent of the Antarctic ice volume is 58 metres. What does this mean? The BBC article explains: “if this ice was all converted to liquid water, it would be sufficient to raise the height of the world’s oceans by 58m”.

I did my own “back of the envelope” calculation using the Bedmap2 numbers (and a few guesses and approximations), and came up with a figure of about 60 metres, close enough to convince me that the BBC explanation of “potential sea level equivalent” is correct. I suspect the actual sea rise would be slightly less, because some of the water would inundate coastal regions, making the oceans larger, not just deeper. Still, 58 metres is a lot.

Ordnance Survey cut benchmark on Bidston Lighthouse

Ordnance Survey cut benchmark on Bidston Lighthouse

Something about 58 metres rang a bell. Then I remembered the Ordnance Survey benchmark cut into the base of the Lighthouse, near the front door. (The first time I saw this, I mistook it for a mason’s mark. It was a surveyor who explained its significance to me.)

As I reported in an earlier post, the horizontal line at the top of the benchmark is 58.9727 metres (or thereabouts) above mean sea level at Newlyn, Cornwall. So if Antarctica melted, the sea would be lapping at the foot of the Lighthouse, and Bidston Hill would be an island.

We could buy a boat, and invest in a new dioptric lamp in case the Lighthouse is needed again. But surely it’s better to do our bit towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and invest instead in solar panels (assuming we can obtain planning permission and listed buildings consent).

There’s another connection between Antarctica and Bidston Hill. NERC, which used to own the Lighthouse and still owns the Observatory, is the research council that funds both the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre. It’s only a few months since the proposed merger of the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre was averted.

 

 

 

Creating new horizons

4 Lighthouse Cottages, Bidston Hill is to be demolished.

Not many people know that 4 Lighthouse Cottages, Bidston Hill, CH43 7RA, is actually the postal address of the Joseph Proudman Building.

The Joseph Proudman Building was built during the 1970s on land which used to be the kitchen gardens of the Lighthouse Cottages. It was officially opened on 18 April 1979, and named after Joseph Proudman (30 Dec 1888 – 26 Jun 1975), CBE, FRS, Honorary Director of the University of Liverpool Tidal Institute. Joseph Proudman also gave his name to the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), the research institute which occupied Bidston Observatory, the Joseph Proudman Building and part of the Lighthouse until its relocation to the University of Liverpool in 2004. POL is now part of the National Oceanography Centre.

Few will be disappointed to see the Joseph Proudman Building disappear from the Wirral skyline. Amongst those few are fans of cold-war architecture and the well-intentioned Bidston Preservation Trust, who mounted a campaign to save the building as part of a longer-term strategy to protect the more important Bidston Observatory. They bought a few months for their campaign by applying to English Heritage to have the building Grade II listed. Wirral Borough Council, who own the freehold of the Proudman site, were forced to postpone their decision on whether to consent to the demolition until after English Heritage had considered the matter. To cut a long story short, English Heritage rejected the application at the initial assessment stage, the Council finally gave its consent, and the live-in guardians who have kept the Proudman Building secure for the last seven years have been given notice to quit.

The demolition works are scheduled to start on Monday 26th November 2012, and are expected to take 10-12 weeks. The contractor undertaking the demolition is Hunter Demolition. Their tag line is “creating new horizons”.

If all goes to plan, you will be able to follow the action on the web thanks to wirralcam.org. A webcam mounted on the east face of the lighthouse will give a panoramic view of the proceedings. At the beginning, you will see the Joseph Proudman Building. At the end, you will see the iconic Liver Buildings in the distance. Creating new horizons indeed!