“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Friday 23 September 2016

Discovering Oxygen at Wiltshire's Atlantis

Anyone who has studied chemistry will be familiar with the name Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804). Priestley was the clergyman chemist who is credited with the discovery of oxygen in August 1774.

Oxygen, which Priestley called "dephlogisticated air", was only one of the "airs" that he discovered during his experiments. Priestley also isolated: nitric oxide (NO); hydrogen chloride (HCl); ammonia (NH3); nitrous oxide (N2O); carbon monoxide (CO); and sulphur dioxide (SO2). Priestley also conducted electrical experiments, and his dabblings with charged spheres lead him to propose that the electrical force followed an inverse-square law. This relationship was formalised and published in 1784 by French physicist Charles Augustin de Coulomb, and became known as Coulomb's law.

Priestley's greatest gift to the world was probably his method for making soda water. Thinking that soda water might cure scurvy, he provided the method to Captain James Cook for his second voyage. If only he had provided them with some lemons and limes to go in it, his idea may have worked!

When Priestly discovered oxygen he was resident at Bowood House near Calne in Wiltshire, as a guest of Lord Shelburne who had provided him with lodgings and a laboratory.

Bowood House today is a shadow of its former self. At its peak the house consisted of the "Big House" and the "Little House" which were connected by a huge drawing room. In the modern era Bowood become too expensive to maintain, so in 1956  the "Big House" and the drawing room were demolished. During this rationalisation of the house a dining room designed by Robert Adam was auctioned off to Lloyd's of London.  Lloyd's had the drawing room rebuilt in their London offices, and  today this part of Bowood House can be found on the 11th floor of their Lime Street offices. All that remains of Bowood house today is just the "Little House", but this name does a disservice to what is still a rather substantial country residence.

The grounds of Bowood House were designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown, and the centerpiece of his design was a sizeable lake. However, one thing stood in the way of Capability Brown's lake, and that was the village of Manning's Hill!

To enable the lake to be constructed the residents of Mannings Hill had to be relocated, and in 1766 they were persuaded to move to nearby villages such as Sandy Lane. Once the former village was empty Capability Brown had it flooded to form the sinuous lake that is seen today. A lake that is almost 1 km long covering an impressive area of 45 acres.

It seems that parts of the village remain submerged in the lake to this very day and in 2007 divers found the remains of two cottages and stone walls in the lake's murky depths.

So not only does Wiltshire boast its own ghost town, it also boasts its own version of Atlantis!

Bowood House.

The laboratory where Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen.

Bowood's Lake, but what lies beneath its surface?

A Doric temple folly on the lakeside. 

Pictures: Wiltshire (August 2016).

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Wednesday 7 September 2016

Levitating Canal Boats and Massive Water Horses

This week’s post is a guest post penned by author and long-time Fortean Dr Andrew May. Andrew maintains his own blog “Retro-Forteana”, which in his own words "focuses on the weirder fringes of history (and other old-fashioned stuff)". Andrew regularly contributes to Fortean Times and was my co-author and editor for "Weird Wessex". Andrew's two most recent books are part of the " Pocket Giants" series looking at the scientific giants Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. Andrew has previously written for this blog, with his previous post exploring some of Somerset's World War II oddities. Andrew's latest post describes two oddities that Andrew encountered during a recent visit to Scotland. Over to Andrew...

The Falkirk Wheel is a massive steampunk-looking contraption two miles west of the town of Falkirk in Scotland. It's essentially a giant lift, or elevator, designed to raise and lower boats between two canals at different levels. Although distinctly Victorian in its eccentricity and ingenuity, the Falkirk Wheel only dates from 2002. By that time, the series of eleven locks that used to connect the two canals - the Forth and Clyde Canal (lower level) and the Union Canal (upper level) - had fallen into disuse, and a new solution was needed. It used to take a boat almost a day to pass through all the locks - the new mechanism can do the job in just a few minutes.

Here is a view from the upper level, looking along the aqueduct leading to the "wheel". At first sight it doesn't look like a wheel, but the name becomes clearer when it's seen in action. The last section of the aqueduct is actually a sealable water tank which can hold up to four canal boats. Below it, at the lower level, there is another similar tank. The two tanks are attached to a central axle, around which they rotate - so one tank goes up as the other comes down (the tanks swivel so they remain horizontal). The total vertical distance travelled is 35 metres, and each tank can raise or lower 500 tonnes of water plus payload.

Here is the wheel as it starts to move...

And here it is just past the half way point:

And here is another sequence from the reverse angle:

Although the Falkirk Wheel was designed for a practical purpose, it has become a major tourist attraction with a large visitor centre. A significant proportion of the wheel's traffic is made up of tourist boats which spend the day going up and down from one canal to the other!

One striking feature at the visitor centre is a stainless steel sculpture of two horses' heads. In fact this is a one-tenth scale model of a towering modern sculpture, dating from 2013, which can be seen on the other side of Falkirk near the M9 motorway. It's called "The Kelpies", after the mythical water-horses of Scottish folklore. At 30 metres in height, it is currently the tallest statue in Britain.

Here is the small-scale version of the Kelpies at the Falkirk Wheel. If you look closely at the right-hand corner of the plinth of the left-hand horse, you can see a tiny human figure to the same scale!

... and here are the full-size Kelpies:

Pictures from July 2016 by Tomasz Babarowski (Falkirk Wheel), Andrew May (small kelpies) and Ewa Babarowski (large kelpies)

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