Ninth Despatch - London Transport Musem at Covent Garden

As dedicated public transport users we couldn't miss the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden.

The tour of the Museum begins with a lift ride up two floors and back 200 years to 1800. Opposite the lift we see a horse drawn omnibus of the era. Seated inside are two costumed mannequins. We climb aboard and as we sit being swayed side to side in a simulation of the carriage’s movement we listen to the rules of occupancy being read out. And we are transported back to London 1800 AD, but without the smells or the corsets. The swaying movement is a reminder, that there seems to be very little difference between a 19th century London omnibus and a 21st century Connex train, except of course omnibuses had staff to assist passengers, unlike Connex’s goons, other than that the speed they travel at is about the same.

London had both omnibuses for city travelling and stage coaches for travel between cities, on an omnibus you paid as you entered while on a stage coach you had to book and pay beforehand. The later horse drawn buses were drawn by two horses and were double decker to accommodate 24 people. When Queen Victoria died in 1900 there were so many horses providing transport to Londoners that these animals produced 1000 tonnes of manure per day. Maintaining these horses was a major operation involving a small army of stable hands, vets, farriers as well as bringing in tonnes of horse feed per day. Cambden Lock was one of the industrial sites which provided for London’s working horse needs, including areas that supplied saddlery, feed, shoeing etc. Horses also pulled London’s early trams. They were more efficient at pulling the trams because the effort required to pull a tram on rails is less than that required to pull an omnibus on the open road. With the switch to petrol buses these horses were sold off in large horse sales of up to 400 animals at a time.

London’s greatest transport revolution was the development of the world’s first underground railway in the 1860’s. Initially the underground linked the major country terminus stations that were then on the edge of the city. The first tunnels were constructed by the 3 step, cut and cover method. First a trench is dug, a brick tunnel is constructed, then the trench is backfilled allowing the land to be built over. The cut and cover method involved significant destruction of existing buildings which included some slum clearance.

The early underground was a huge engineering achievement and very well used, but had one big disadvantage. Pre electrification the underground traveller had to contend with the smoke and steam put out by the engine. Its steam locomotives created a permanent sulphurous fug in the stations and tunnels.

Another diorama showed the digging of tunnels by hand by using cast iron plates for temporary support. I don’t think I could dig an underground tunnel in cramped conditions that existed in those early days. A modern tunnel drilling machine makes the process of expanding the underground a lot easier for those working underground.

The tunnels of the Underground’s later lines are in a larger diameter to allow larger above ground trains to run underground. The original lines have a smaller diameter tunnel that allows smaller underground-only trains to operate in them.

One exhibit was a map of London that showed how the underground system had expanded each year from 1863 until today. Note to Brumby/Kosky, this is how a public transport system should be run - Melbourne's train system hasn't been significantly expanded since the 1930s. Each new line was represented by its colour on the London Transport map, which is so familiar.

The ground floor of the museum, needed its larger floor area for the story of London’s buses and trams. I was unaware that depending on the line, London's trams were supplied with electricity from either overhead wires or from underground cables set in conduits below the road. New York and Washington had similar conduit systems. The conduit system was more expensive to maintain than the overhead wires we have in Melbourne. This increased expense was a contributing factor in the demise of London's trams. The replacement of the tram system began with trolley buses in the 1930's and was completely replaced by buses in the 1950’s.

The museum is very hands-on. For the little boys of all ages there were train driver simulations. There were many train coaches to board, and buses, and engines. If only the little kids would make way for the big kids, we would have had a much better, not to mention shorter, visit to the museum.

The exit was via the book/gift shop where we escaped without buying a book or souvenir, not for lack of trying. The store was designed, much like the museum itself, to appeal more to children. Which is a pity, given that mass transit systems are so vital to the future of all cities.

Back into the crowded stalls of Covent Garden Market which was once London’s wholesale flower market whose proud boast was that it was open everyday except Christmas Day. The flower market moved to South London and today the buildings have become a tourist market filled with speciality retailers, jewellery, souvenir stalls and one lone fruiterer. Fiona looked in vain for a new piece of jewellery. Although Andy did get himself a lovely leather wallet; plenty of places for all his bits of plastic. The market was incredibly crowded and moving around it was quite difficult; it must make pickpockets’ work easier.

We wandered along Long Acre, a street only the English could name where we discovered an English tailor, Hawes and Curtis. Their window display showed beautiful shirts and ties and they were having a sale! We were drawn in to see more, but left with only one new shirt.

It was getting late, we were foot sore and the Tube beckoned. So we returned to the hotel and a nice hot cup of tea. This is the time of day we regretted that our hotel room did not have tea/coffee making facilities. So it's either tea in the lounge, or at one of the many and varied food places in Gloucester Road, but either way we still had to keep our shoes on!

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