Birmingham, Gloucester, Plymouth, and their Trans-Atlantic Twins

Birmingham 

Birmingham, Alabama’s towering skyline (elements.envato.com)

The ‘Magic City’ was founded in 1871 and was planned from the very beginning to become the massive manufacturing hub it burgeoned into. Today, it is Alabama’s premier metropolis and is regarded as one of the US’s best places to earn a crust. Because the city was always planned to be a centre of industry, it was named in homage to Britain’s own hub of enterprise and industry.

Across the pond in England’s West Midlands, Birmingham city vies with nearby Manchester as Britain’s ‘2nd City’. Outside of the heady superlatives of London, Birmingham is the country’s powerhouse of economic diversity which is why it’s dubbed ‘The City of 1001 Trades’.

The name ‘Birmingham’ (pronounced ‘Birming’um’)  comes from the Old English ‘Beormingahām, meaning the home or settlement of the Beormingas – an Anglo-Saxon tribal name meaning literally ‘Beorma’s people’. Founded in 1154, its profile rose as Britain’s profile burgeoned throughout the world, being but a market town until the Industrial Revolution plugged it in to England’s vast canal and rail network and propelled it into a teeming metropolis.

Today (2021), Birmingham is a city of a million people known as ‘Brummies’. It hosts a royal ballet company, the Repertory Theatre and Hippodrome that are all nationally renowned. Its National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is 190,000 m2 (over two million square feet) large and its library is the UK’s largest. The city also hosts no less than four top football clubs. Birmingham gave the world music bands Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath and UB40. Formula One World Championship and the CART Indy Car World Series winner Nigel Mansell; Prime Minister Nevil Chamberlain and Homeland actor David Harewood all hail from Birmingham too. 

Iconic canal boats moored up in the city’s 35 miles (56km) of waterways (birminghammail.co.uk)

Although Birmingham is not exactly festooned with Renaissance architecture, the city likes to boast that it has more miles of canal waterways than Venice in Italy. So, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood you should absolutely take a tour the city in a traditional canal boat. Birmingham also boasts five Michelin starred restaurants and numerous festivals, including one of the world’s largest St Patrick’s Day parades. A stay in the city should also include heading to Victoria Square, with the Council House, Symphony Hall and Town Hall, all built as triumphs of Victorian architecture. There are top museums and galleries throughout the city and visitors can also stroll through Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter or satisfy their sweet tooth at Cadbury World.

The grand Victoria Square, Birmingham, England (en.wikipedia.org)

Gloucester

This hardy Massachusetts city is synonymous with the North Atlantic deep sea fishing industry and it’s where Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous and movie The Perfect Storm were set. Gloucester is one of the USA’s most historic settlements, founded way back in 1623. Today, it is still a working fishing port but also a popular tourist destination. 

Gloucester, Massachusetts’ bustling harbour (tripsavvy.com)

England’s namesake is similarly a smallish, historical port in an out-of-the-way corner of the country. Gloucester, England sits on the river Severn, close to the Welsh border. And it is the UK’s furthest inland port. Its docks are accessed by the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal connecting it to the Severn Estuary then the seas beyond.

The City’s original Roman name was ‘Glevum’ but later took the Welsh name ‘Caer-loyw’ meaning ‘fort-bright/light/glowy’. ‘Loyw’ pronounced ‘gloyw’ by some had the Anglo-Saxon ‘cester’ (old fort) added later to become ‘Gloyw-cester’, then Gloucester. This ancient city was founded in 48 AD as an important fort and Roman colony. It remained strategically important during the Dark Ages, with St Peter’s Abbey being built in 680 AD and King Edward the Confessor holding court there in 1051. Later, it was in this strategic hub King Henry III was crowned and Gloucester’s significance in the Middle Ages is underlined by the fact that many monastic orders flocked to the city. Gloucester grew during the 16th-17th Centuries and construction of its canal began towards the end of the 18th Century, but was only completed in 1827. By that point, however, shipping of the industrial Age had largely outgrown Gloucester’s port facilities.
In the 20th Century, Gloster Aircraft Company would manufacture the UK’s first jet aircraft. In 2007 the city suffered biblical flooding that ironically disabled its water supply for 17 days.  

Famous residents of Gloucester include Methodist Church founder George Whitefield and the founder of Sunday Schools, Robert Raikes. The composer of America’s national anthem John Stafford Smith, Comedic actor Simon Pegg, not to mention the infamous serial murderer couple Fred and Rose West also called Gloucester home.

Gloucester Cathedral, opened in 1089 (gloucestershirelive.co.uk)

This city, within easy reach of the Forest of Dean to its west, and the quaint Cotswold Hills to the east, is a modest one of about 130,000 people but its rich history can be seen throughout its streets. The city centre street layout is the same one the Roman legionnaires laid down all those centuries back and visitors can view half-timbered Tudor shops, the tailor’s house from Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and the city’s very fine 11th Century cathedral where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Gloucester’s best place is its Historic Docks where you can explore the bars, shops and eateries nestled among the renovated red-bricked warehouses around the harbourside. With so much history there is as much to discover within this ancient city’s borders as there is in the bucolic splendour beyond.

Gloucester Docks (aboutglos.co.uk)

Plymouth

Another Massachusetts city, dubbed ‘America’s Hometown’. Although a small city on the fringes of America’s economic development, Plymouth is at the root of its cultural development.

Downtown Plymouth Massachusetts (joesretirementblog.blogspot.com)

It was at Plymouth Rock the fabled Mayflower Pilgrims made landfall in 1620 and, after surviving that first brutal winter, celebrated Thanksgiving the following Fall after a successful harvest restored their vigour and durability. This signified the moment the newborn USA came off of life support to begin its own baby steps. 

Of course, it was England’s port of Plymouth that the Mayflower set sail from. This longtime home of the Royal Navy is all the way down in the south west of the country and now hosts the largest naval base in Europe aside one of the world’s most impressive natural harbours.

Plymouth’s etymology derives from its position at the mouth of the River Plym; ‘Plym’ meaning ‘plum tree’ in Old English (and ‘ploumenn’ in Cornish). Plymouth was an important trading port for tin from prehistoric times well into the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, it managed to retain its Cornish culture distinct from the rest of England. It wasn’t until England’s coming-of-age when the Spanish Armada swept up the Channel that the city came to be an important base of naval operations, and the Naval Dock was established in 1689. From then on, its long seafaring tradition flourished. It was from this Cornish bastion in the late 16th Century Sir Francis Drake made a name for himself on his many voyages and forays. The Plymouth Company was issued with a royal charter by James I of England to establish settlements on the coast of North America, and the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620 to found the 2nd permanent colony in N. America. The city became ever more economically dependent on the Royal Navy thereafter which certainly kept the city busy over the centuries. On 28 May 1967, another intrepid Francis – Sir Francis Chichester – returned to Plymouth after the first single handed Clipper Route circumnavigation of the world and was greeted by an estimated crowd of a million spectators.

Today Plymouth is a city of over 250,000 whose citizens are called ‘Jenners’. Famous residents includes the great globetrotter Francis Drake as well as actor Donald Moffat, known for his portrayals of US presidents real and imagined.

It is rapidly diversifying its economy from one servicing the ‘Fleet’ to one that services its ballooning numbers of visitors instead. Visitors who are fascinated by aquatic creatures really should spend a few hours at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium, the deepest in Europe. Just a short walk away is the historic Barbican area of town. There, explorers can visit Plymouth’s very own Gin distillery, grab a bite to eat at Jacka – the oldest bakery in the UK, or simply wander the cobbled streets and take in Barbican’s old-world charms.

The Old-World narrow streets around the Barbican district

The place where Admiral Drake finished his game of bowls as the Spanish Armada crested the skyline is a bracing and awe-inspiring park that offers panoramas of Plymouth’s vast natural harbour; gateway to the deep, blue sea beyond. Plymouth Hoe is the no.1 spot to crash out on the grass with a picnic. Perhaps even take a dip in the Tinside Lido – Plymouth’s landmark outdoor, art deco swimming pool.

Plymouth Hoe on which Admiral Sir Francis Drake infamously finished his game of bowls before sailing out to attack the Spanish Armada (historic-uk.com)
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Wuppertal’s Suspension Railway – The Steampunk Train

Read about how the Wuppertal Schwebebahn came to be and its 120 years of service

This is the story of the oldest suspension railway in the world. But its origins go back much further than when it first opened for business at the turn of the 20th Century.

Railway from The Future

Film footage (below) from its first year in operation will have steampunk aficionados salivating; heavily dressed pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages throng wide avenues that are lined with trees and classical townhouses.

An elegant iron carriage glides serenely overhead along a suspended rail held together by a framework of struts elevated, in turn, by curved pillars that straddle the road.

The carriage continues over Wuppertal’s narrow river as the sun gleams, passing by pedestrians, bridges and grand facades through this seemingly illustrious German city.

An urban setting from the 19th Century juxtaposed with an engineering portent from the future.

Bold Blueprints

It was in 1824 when a British Engineer named Henry Robinson Palmer found a very receptive audience in Germany to designs of a horse-drawn elevated monorail; an outlandish mode of transport in its own right.

This was a time when the Wupper valley was blossoming into a rich industrial heartland, supplying the flourishing 2nd Reich with coal and steel — two vital ingredients for any global power.

Friedrich Harkort, a Prussian industrial entrepreneur and politician, loved the idea. He saw big advantages in transporting coal to his own steel mill in the area and built a demonstration segment of the Palmer system. The project was ultimately shelved, however, because of objections from more myopic parties.

As the 19th Century progressed and the fledgeling German nation began to flex its muscles, the Wupper valley continued to burgeon and flourish into an industrial powerhouse as even more industries emerged, such as textiles and Friedrich Bayer’s chemical company

The towns of Barmen and Elberfeld developed until they merged to become ‘Wupper-town’. As it prospered, its streets got ever more crowded. By 1879 Elberfeld Zoo was built, and the roads leading to it would get jammed with horse-drawn carriages on the weekends. In 1887 a proposal for an elevated train re-emerged.

Carl Eugene Langen, as one of those brilliant brains who could excel at all sorts of ventures he threw himself into, was a successful inventor, engineer and entrepreneur.

He helped to design the advanced flying piston engine for which he received the gold medal at the Paris World Exhibition of 1867, then founded the Pfeifer & Langen sugar manufacturer that still exists to this day.

It was in the 1890s that Langen started yet another venture in developing rail vehicles through the van der Zypen & Charlier wagon factory, and his suspension railway project came into being.

Before Wuppertal’s civic leaders were approached Langen touted his railway to other cities such as Cologne, and even Berlin, but they rejected his bold blueprints.

However, Wuppertal’s citizens had become very rich and they were ambitious about maximising their up-and-coming city’s potential.

Wuppertal being a uniquely lineal city, owing to the steep hillsides along the river Wupper, was suited to a single line railway project, so they accepted Langen’s proposal.

Its municipal leaders also made the inspired decision to build the railway over the river to eschew the costs of buying up private land to build it over.

Construction of the space-age marvel began in 1898. As it took shape the city merchants were proud that their ‘Silicone Valley’ was at the forefront of technological innovation and invited the German Kaiser to take part in a test run.

To much fanfare, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife took the Schwebebahn for a test run and commented in the typically staid tones of 19th Century royalty that it was ‘both practical and pleasant’.

The city wanted the Kaiser to announce his seal of approval for the whole German Empire to hear, and they got it; Wuppertal was now on the world map.

A Big Hit from Day One

The 8.3 mile (13.3 kilometre) long and 12m (39ft) high railway entered service in 1901 whilst England’s Queen Victoria still sat on the throne and was a hit from day one.

The project used around 19,200 tonnes of steel to construct, and it cost 16 million gold marks.

Also in Germany, Dresden’s suspension railway was also opened in 1901 (erih.net)

It is a measure of achievement that Langen also opened the Dresden Suspension Railway, a 274m funicular version the same year and both railways have stood the test of time.

Train Troubles

It hasn’t always been smooth going for the Schwebebahn, however.

As an industrial center Wuppertal inevitably suffered extensive bomb damage during World War II, yet the railway was brought back into service just one year after the war’s end.

In 1950 some Althoff Circus manager had the not-so-bright idea to organize a publicity stunt by putting an infant elephant, later named Tuffi (meaning ‘waterdive’ in Italian) on a train.

But riding the train didn’t turn out to be to Tuffi’s liking.

A photographer catches the moment ‘Tuffi’ falls from a carriage (hugelol.com)

Jostled by the accompanying press in the crowded carriage, the elephant lost its cool and busted through the side and out into the river below.

Fortunately, she was fine, suffering only a bruised rump. Both operator and circus director were fined after the incident, however.

In April 1999 the railway suffered its first, and to date, only fatal accident when workers failed to remove a metal claw on the track after completing maintenance work. It derailed a carriage and it plunged into the river, killing five passengers and injuring 47.

Wuppertal’s Suspension Train in the Modern Era

Now, the Schwebebahn still serves the city of over 300,000 and transported 25 million passengers in 2008.

Wuppertal’s Suspended Railway today (stern.de)

It continues to awe visitors and Wuppertalians alike with its architectural style and practicality.

It is truly Wuppertal’s ‘Iron Backbone’.

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