Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Air Mail box, Windsor

There may be many different models of Royal Mail letter boxes but, apart from a few pre-1874 Penfold hexagonal boxes in green or bronze-green, the immense majority is painted in just one colour: red. Therefore this blue George V box outside Windsor Castle really stands out.
Such blue boxes first appeared in the streets of the main British cities in 1930 for the sole purpose of posting air letters. However they were painted in Air Force blue rather than the darker navy blue used when this one was last repainted. Additionally they displayed on top an oval sign with "Air Mail" written on it. Having separate air mail boxes alongside the usual red ones proved to be too costly and in 1938 the Royal Mail decided that the public could use any box to post air letters.
This one has been placed next to the spot where Windsor Post Office once stood (built in 1887, it was demolished in 1966) and commemorates the first United Kingdom aerial post. On 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel took off from Hendon aerodrome with a 23 pound mail bag celebrating the coronation of King George V. Twelve minutes later his Blériot XI powered by an Anzani motor landed in Shaw Farm meadow, Long Walk, Windsor. This was slightly further than the planned landing site and the postman had to jump on his bike to go and get the delivery but at least, in spite of the strong winds, the flight had been a success. It is said that during that short journey Hamel managed to write a postcard to the King. The correspondance carried on that occasion consisted of envelopes and postcards especially printed for the occasion and bore the inscriptions "A.D. Coronation 1911 - First U.K. Aerial Post by Sanction of H.M. Postmaster General" and "To be forwarded by aeroplane from London to Windsor. The Postmaster General is not responsible in case of loss, damage or delay."
Between 9th and 26th September, Hamel and the other pilots of the Graham-White Aviation Company Ltd, which was running the service, made 21 flights with either Blériot XI or Farman III aeroplanes and carried a total of 130,000 letters. However such impressive figures hide the fact that several setbacks occurred during these days. As it was reported, "the official verdict of the experiment was that the airmail would have no scientific value, but it might under favourable conditions permit of more rapid communication than by any other means of transport, but that it was too dependant upon weather to be of use as a regular and ordinary mode of conveyance." Indeed flights had to be delayed or cancelled because of fog, on a few occasions the pilots were unable to reach their destination, and on 11th September, Huber Latham fractured both his legs in a crash. When Hamel heard the organisers did not want to compensate Latham, he went on strike. He only resumed his series of flights on 25th, when the Postmaster General agreed to pay the injured pilot £500. Still, the operation of the world's first scheduled aerial post made a profit and the King Edward VII Hospital in Windsor was presented with the sum of £1,000.
Following this event, Hamel became extremely famous and participated in many public displays and a few publicity stunts. However he disappeared over the Channel on 23rd May 1914 while flying the brand new Morane-Saulnier he had just acquired in Paris. As for air mail services, they became well-established in the 1920s thanks to improvements in aircraft design and the boldness of former First World War pilots.

As a commemorative item, this special blue air mail box does not accept letters, and nowadays neither does the more recent Elizabeth II red pillar box next to it: its aperture has been sealed because of alleged terrorist threat.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Brandenburg Gate, Potsdam

The western side, facing towards Sanssouci.
The Church of St Peter and Paul, built in 1867-1870, rises at the end of the Brandenburger Straße.

While many people are familiar with Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, few may know that Potsdam also has a monumental entry of the same name. However contrary to its Berlin counterpart, which announced the demise of the Baroque style and the dawn of neoclassical architecture in Prussia, Potsdam's Brandenburg Gate was built twenty-one years earlier in 1770 and is a typical baroque construction.

Potsdam's first city gates were built in 1722, when the Soldier-King Friedrich Wilhelm I ordered the construction of a wall around the city. This 3.7 metre-high barrier had a dual purpose: to facilitate the collection of taxes on products entering the city, and to prevent soldiers from deserting. Potsdam housed the barracks of several regiments of the Prussian army, and some recruits tried regularly to escape the harsh discipline enforced by the king and his officers. Demographic pressure and economic expansion during the following decade forced the crown to authorise the construction of new quarters outside the original perimeter and this was followed in 1733 by the extension of the city wall and the construction of new gates. One of these was the Brandenburger Gate, located at the western end of the recently-extended Brandenburger Straße (so called because it led towards Brandenburg). Like the other four gates, its design was simple, with only a couple of decorative elements. However if that suited its function, such a gate was not fit for a king.
Indeed since 1660 Potsdam had become the second residence of the rulers of Prussia after Berlin, and the Stadtschloß (City Palace) rose in the southeastern part of the city. Friedrich II, the third King of Prussia, was particularly fond of Potsdam and four years after his accession to the throne in 1740, he rebuilt the Stadtschloß in the rococo style (it was severely damaged during the Second World War and its ruins were pulled down in 1960). One year later he embarked on the construction of Sanssouci, his summer residence, in a vast park just to the west of the city wall, and in 1763, following the victory of Prussia over Austria in the Seven Year's War, a grandiose baroque palace, the Neues Palais (New Palace), emerged on the western side of the Sanssouci park. As no new gate was opened at the end of the grand alley that ran through Sanssouci, from the Neues Palais to city, the court had to pass through the Brandenburg Gate when it travelled between its city and country residences. This explains why in 1770 Friedrich II commissioned the architects Carl von Gontard and his former pupil Georg Christian Unger to design and build a new monumental gate in lieu of the original one.
For the new Brandenburg Gate, Gontard and Unger drew their inspiration from the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The result is a grand triumphal arch, which symbolises the military might of Prussia and the king's recent victories, but while the message is obvious on the western side, designed by Unger and seen as one enters the city centre, it is less so on the eastern side, designed by Gontard and seen as one leaves the city towards Sanssouci.
The western side with its four pairs of columns topped by Corinthian capitals is the more impressive one, and is a celebration of Friedrich II's military power indeed. Above the central archway, two angels blow their trumpets to the glory of the king, whose initials framed by vegetal ornaments appear between them, while stuccoed crested helmets, flags and spears, together with garlands, ornate the sides between the pairs of columns (originally the pedestrian archways did not exist. These were added in 1843). Still it is the sculptures that rise on top of the arch that really conjure up that power. The central one represents the Prussian eagle in a medallion surmounted by a golden crown and surrounded by statues of Mars, the god of war, and Hercules, with flags behind them. This is completed, above each pair of columns, by war trophies composed of armours, crested helmets, flags, weapons and fasces seized from the enemy.

The eastern side, facing towards the city

While spoils of war also dominate the side of the arch facing towards the city, these are far less elaborate. Actually the whole side is a much more sober affair. Pilasters have replaced the fluted columns and only a helmet surmounts the central archway (similar helmets were added in 1843 above the newly-opened pedestrian archways). However it is the two stucco panels on each side of the archway that are particularly interesting. The one on the left displays objects traditionally associated with war and power - a shield, swords, spears and fasces - while a knotted ribbon hangs above them and passes in front of the shield. As for the panel on the right, it illustrates two of the leisure activities pursued by a king: hunting, with arrows in a quiver, a bow, spears, and an axe, and music with a lyre wrapped in the falling part of the knotted ribbon. This illustrated not only the more leisurely life that awaited Friedrich II in his private retreat at Sanssouci, but also that politics - and in particular war - could not be forgotten altogether.

Albeit fit for a king, the Brandenburg Gate was still primarily a control and tax collection point and remained so for ninety years. By the 1860s the city had expanded well beyond the wall. As it no longer facilitated the collection of taxes and had become an obstacle to further development, the decision was taken to tear most of it down. Portions of the wall remained around the Brandenburg Gate for a while longer but these were pulled down in 1900, nine years after the demolition of the two small buildings, which used to house excise officers.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Great Tit, Wimbledon Common

Spring must have finally arrived in south west London. In spite of the cold temperatures some daffodils have been in blossom already for a couple of weeks, the first buds and leaves are appearing, and a few mimosas and Japanese cherry trees are bringing a touch of yellow and pink to some sheltered streets and gardens. Yet, for me, the clearest indication the new season is upon us is when, after a long and quiet winter, the woods of Wimbledon Common begin to resonate with birdsong. Among the myriad birds, Great Tits, with up to forty types of calls and songs, are some of the most vocal.
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