The chances of anything coming from Mars…

On a recent trip to London, a friend and I went along to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience. Billed as “the only place in London where you can experience a real Martian invasion” how could we not go?

The show, for want of a better word, is being staged in the historic Hallmark Building on Leadenhall Street. For years, it was home to the London Metal Exchange and was the perfect setting for this. Even the windows look right for what’s going on inside.

Once you check-in at the venue, you’re assigned a “team” with whom you’ll experience the Martian invasion. You’re issued with a wrist band which makes it easier to know where to go. Amusingly, the young man who checked us in got mixed up so we were double-tagged 🙂

Deathly pale Irish skin alert!

And so, on to the experience itself. It’s described as being a mixture of live-action, multi-sensory effects and virtual reality. It follows the plotline of the 1978 Jeff Wayne album and either uses music and songs straight off that album or a score adapted from there. Really nice. At the beginning of the tour, we were greeted by a lady in Victorian dress who explained the ground rules and how to adjust the magical headwear we’d be popping on later on. By now everyone had put their phones away (no harm in that!) and were doing their best to pretend they were back in the early 1900s. And so, on to the show. Over the next hour and three quarters, we made our way through the set. Sometimes the settings were indoors, such as in people’s houses or outdoors (Horsell Common, most notably). Without spoiling too much, the first part largely involved live actors and sets, holograms and a surprise special effect or two. All of it was enjoyable but things really stepped up a gear once we got to wear the Virtual Reality headsets. I had never worn any sort of VR equipment before so it was great to experience it in such a spectacular way.

My first introduction to Virtual Reality here was a boat trip down the Thames and out to sea, soundtracked by Justin Hayward’s “Forever Autumn”. At the start of the boat trip (in which we were sitting in an actual wooden boat), it’s nice and pleasant and autumnal. By the end of it, London’s not looking too good after being trashed by those pesky Martians and we’re out at sea. Rough seas at that! It certainly felt real and that’s the praise the creators are after. Some of the footage can be seen in this short trailer by Layered Reality, the company staging this.

Half way through, there’s a chance to stop and have a drink at the Red Weed bar. This was a welcome break because experiencing a Martian invasion first-hand is thirsty work. A toilet is never unwelcome either, it has to be said.

It was all good fun, with the good-humoured actors adept at thinking on their feet when interacting with dumb members of the public. Special praise should go out to the lady who has undoubtedly heard those jokes about telephones never catching on about 5 squillion times. After surviving (spoiler alert!) the Martian invasion, we returned to real life and the bar outside.

Martian fighting machine in the bar

Overall, it comes highly recommended. One minor quibble, which has nothing to do with show itself, is about the VR headsets. I wear glasses most of the time and would have found life a little bit easier if I’d popped in a pair of contact lenses before going to this. My specs didn’t spoil the experience by any means but they sometimes made taking the headsets on and off a bit of a faff. Anyway, enough of that. If you are thinking of going, keep an eye out for special promotions or vouchers to reduce the entry cost.

On a final note, when my friend and I walked outside afterwards and looked up along the street, we noted that The Gherkin seemed to be looming over us ominously…

To the Tower (or how I visited the Tower of London and got to leave again)

tower_of_london_ticketThis month, I finally got around to visiting London again. It being October and heading into the off-season, it was a fine time to visit the Tower of London. A place that I’ve been told is worth a visit but…the crowds.

The Tower of London (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London) is a somewhat inaccurate description. It isn’t really one tower. In fact, there are 21 of them (some survive only as ruined foundations). Some of them don’t particularly look like towers but that was scant consolation to the poor sods who were imprisoned within their thick walls. It is also a place that has served as a fortress, a prison, a mint, a zoo, home to the crown jewels and the site of quite a few executions. Oh, and the moat where the guided tours start used to be an open sewer. Nice.

Turning up to the Tower early meant that there were no queues or crowds to battle. The first part of the visit was an excellent tour given by a Yeoman Warder (in this case, the wonderful Scott Kelly aka #beefy409). The introduction to the tower and its history was informative, macabre, funny and entertaining all at the same time. Definitely don’t skip this if you visit the Tower.

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The White Tower

After that, you’re free to roam around the grounds and visit quite a few of the buildings. They’re all interesting but my favourite was The White Tower. This is the original tower that gave the entire complex its name. It was was built by William the Conqueror in 1078-79 and is four floors of interestingness. It houses “The Line of Kings” which is a 400 year old tourist attraction. It displays armour belonging to English monarchs, sitting on wooden horses. How genuine some of the armour is is open to question but it’s pretty impressive stuff all the same. As is all the weaponry on display. If all those cannons in the basement were armed and went boom, there’d be no more tower! There’s also room in there for some ye olde toilets (garderobes) and even a working chapel.

Across the yard are the Royal Crown Jewels. Personally, I didn’t find these as interesting but that’s probably more down to my personality than anything else. Save to say, I’ve never seen as much gold in my life! Some other people in the queue loved it though – there were certainly some royal family enthusiasts there. The various exhibitions in the towers were also a reminder that bad and all as things seem to be these days, they were no bed of roses years ago. While it is true that some people lost their heads in the grounds of the Tower, many more met their end on nearby Tower Hill. It tended to be nobility who got the chop in the Tower.

There is so much to read and see about the Tower of London, I’m not going to go into it here. There are lots of websites online where you can find out all you want to know about its history.  It was a very enjoyable few hours and although the entrance fee is pretty steep, it’s worth it if you allow yourself the time to savour it all. Just try to go when there won’t be so many tourists around if you can.

 

 

 

 

Robots at the London Science Museum

While in London for the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, I spotted a sign for a Robots exhibition in the nearby Science Museum. I knew nothing about the exhibition but, to paraphrase the line from Jerry Maguire, they had me at “Robots”.

Admission into the Science Museum in London is free and indeed, there’s loads to see for the price of zero pence. Some exhibitions have an entry fee and this one was one of those. Still, it was about robots, the poster was pretty cool and my head was well turned.

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Maillardet’s automaton, taking a break from writing

As the exhibition poster says, Robots is the 500-year quest to make machines human. The first part of the exhibition had quite a few historical automatons, including a praying 16th-century monk and a draftsman from the beginning of the 19th century. There were also artificial limbs, tiny automatons which resembled insects, and even one that was part of a drinking game. I later learned that another historical automaton I’d love to have seen – the Silver Swan – had been in the exhibition until early April. Once it went back “oop north”, it was replaced by the little draftsman/writer created around 1800. When it was unearthed in 1928, nobody knew for sure who had created it and where it had been. That is, until they got the automaton working again and it started to write some pre-programmed poetry. Right at the end of its last poem, it scribbled ‘Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet’ (written by Maillardet’s automaton)

The next part of the exhibition brought us on to more recent times. It was hard not to miss the replica of “Maria”, the iconic robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis”. The original costume (which had been worn by an actress) had long since disappeared. It was also nice to get up close and personal with a T-800 from Terminator Salvation and not die horribly. There were some interesting stories attached to other robots on display in this section. Perhaps the most endearing was George the Robot, created by a young RAF officer from discarded aeroplane parts. Another British robot was beside George, this one called Eric. The original Eric the robot was created in 1928 for the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers, after the Duke of York cancelled his agreement to open the show. The story goes that Eric rose to his feet, bowed and gave a short speech. The robot was brought to the USA the year afterwards for a tour and vanished at some stage. The Eric on display here was a recreation of the original, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Standing beside this pair was the Italian built Cygan. An 8 ft tall robot built in 1957 and which sold at auction for £17,500 in 2013.

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Cygan, George and Eric

Onwards then to even more robots. It soon became clear that there have been people working in robotics for a long time, for all sorts of reasons. Some for very serious purposes such as surgery and prosthetics. Others so they knock out a few tunes on a trumpet. One interesting robot on display was an “open source” model which people can contribute to. While many of the robots were turned off and not doing anything (probably not practical to have them all operating at the time time, lest a robot apocalypse happened), seeing some in action was fascinating. The one I was particular taken with was Pepper the French robot who shakes people’s hands. Honda’s Asimo was there too, though on this occasion it wasn’t playing football, conducting an orchestra or dancing. Just think – if it had, they could’ve sold lots in the gift shop 😉 Then there was the robot which was designed to look like a real Japanese woman, a blobby one that looks like an escapee from a David Lynch film, one that acts and more than a few which track your eyes…

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R.O.S.A. – Rob’s Open Source Android

Anyway, thumbs up from me for this one. It was great to see robots and automatons of all ages and to marvel at how these machines have evolved. I even brought home a cute little wooden robot of my own, which is standing on my desk as I type. I might just stop short of welcoming our robot overlords though…

To have a look at some of the photos I took, click on one of the thumbnails in the gallery below.

Smeaton’s Tower

Former offshore lighthouse, now relocated on the mainland

Lighthouses by their very nature can be tricky things to get to. So when one which was originally out at sea – perched on a dangerous windswept reef for good measure – moves to the mainland, why not? The lighthouse in question is called Smeaton’s Tower these days and has been standing in a park in Plymouth for well over a century at this stage. Originally it was known as the (third) Eddystone Lighthouse and was built on rocks which bear the same name. The name Eddystone Rocks is a little misleading because they’re not just a few random rocks 19km off the English coast but a large, dangerous reef. Needless to say, many a seagoing craft met a watery end on the reef and there is still a lighthouse out there. Even though this lighthouse is no longer serving the purpose for which it was built, it is still more than just an oversized garden ornament in a public park.

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The ill-fated first and second Eddystone lighthouses

The first lighthouse to be built on the reef was a tower designed by a man named Henry Winstanley. It was completed in 1698 but lasted just 5 years. It was swept away during the great Storm of 1703, killing 6 people including Winstanley himself who had been making modifications to the tower at the time. The second one designed by John Rudyard was completed in 1709 and remained in situ until 1755 when it was destroyed by fire. Its unfortunate 94 year old lighthouse keeper died several days later after swallowing molten lead which was falling from the burning lantern room at the top of the tower. Somewhat bizarrely, the piece of lead which killed him survives to this day.

When it came to building a third lighthouse, engineer John Smeaton was entrusted with the task.  He based the shape of it on that of an oak tree, a structure from nature which had proved to be rather good at withstanding the elements. He went back to Roman times for the type of mortar he used – hydraulic lime is what was used in the Pantheon in Rome and we know how long that has lasted. Crucially, hydraulic lime sets underwater which made it ideal for the job in hand. The lighthouse itself was built from dovetailed blocks of granite, precision cut and interlocking once they were assembled. The blocks were worked on in Plymouth, not very far from where the tower now stands. They were shipped out to sea and the lighthouse built on the reef. After over 3 years of work, the lighthouse finally came into operation in 1759.

The stump of Smeaton's tower, with its replacement lighthouse in the background
The stump of Smeaton’s Tower at sea, just in front of the lighthouse that was built to replace it

The lighthouse operated successfully out at sea until the rocks on which it was built began to succumb to erosion. It was noted in 1877 that any time large waves hit, the lighthouse would shake. A replacement lighthouse was commissioned and built close by and it survives to this day. When that was completed in 1879, Smeaton’s lighthouse fell into darkness.

Thankfully the original plan to blow up the lighthouse didn’t come to fruition. It was dismantled and brought back to Plymouth, where it was reassembled on Plymouth Hoe. In 1884 the rebuilt tower was renamed as Smeaton’s Tower in honour its creator. It has remained open to the public since then. The remnants of the lighthouse’s foundations can still be seen at sea, close to the tower which replaced it. Interestingly, the design of the replacement lighthouse wasn’t a million miles away from Smeaton’s tower. While it was still in operation, a Scottish engineer called Robert Stevenson visited it. He tweaked Smeaton’s ideas when designing the Bell Rock lighthouse off the Scottish coast. When the time came to build the 4th Eddystone lighthouse, engineer James Douglass used Stevenson’s specifications. If the Stevenson name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. The Stevensons were something of a lighthouse building dynasty and there have been books and documentaries made about them.

What’s inside?

The bottom part of the tower isn’t original, of course, and has some spiral steps up to the first floor. After that though, it’s all ladders. Unlike the two other lighthouses I’ve been in which had spiral staircases along the walls, this one has floors with the same shape as Polo Mints. The different rooms in the tower are furnished with a mixture of genuine and replica furniture. There is a table which was in the actual lighthouse. Perhaps the most startling piece of furniture in the place was the bed. Living on an off-shore lighthouse was not the job for you if you were a tall person who didn’t like sleeping in cupboards.

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This, believe it or not, is a bed!

One of the notices on the wall reminds visitors that this is an 18th-century building that was designed for 3 people. Looking around the building, it’s hard not to wonder how tough life must have been for the 3 people living and working there at any time. Cramped is one word to describe the conditions. On the other hand, these guys were probably the nimblest ladder climbers around.

Looking downstairs into the bedroom
Looking downstairs into the bedroom

At the top of the lighthouse is the lantern room, complete with a replica of the candle holder which would’ve been there at the start. These days it offers a nice view over Plymouth and out to sea. On a good day it is possible to see out as far as the Eddystone rocks and where the story began. Plymouth itself was bombed extensively during World War II, destroying a lot of the city. It’s a miracle this wonderful building didn’t bite the dust too.

The lantern room at the top of the lighthouse
The lantern room at the top of the lighthouse

Date of visit: 5th October 2013

Click on a thumbnail to launch the gallery