Enjoying a Tug over Nicola: An article based on a talk written for the World Ship Society Gloucester Branch describing the construction of the Revell 1/144 scale model of the harbour tug Fairplay I and its role in the N gauge exhibition layout Runport St Nicola.
As was later the case with trains and aircraft, where and when there were full sized ships – model ships for display soon followed. In the epoch before photography, television and computers, these models were often built by the same craftsmen who built the real vessels and used as visual aids for sales and promotion. One advantage of producing large scale models was that they could be sectioned to show internal workings. In this case, a model of the pioneering 61 578 tonne oil tanker British Admiral built by the then Vickers shipyard in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria, in 1965 has been constructed to show the arrangement of the tank bulkheads.
However, just as Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic by professionals, ship modelling also became a hobby. French sailors captured by Britain during the Napoleonic Wars carved elaborate model ships from bone to pass the time while later in the 19th Century other model makers delighted in putting ships in bottles. The seemingly impossible feat of putting this three masted tall ship in a bottle was achieved by carving or fabricating a wooden hull and then attaching the masts, sails and rigging flat against the deck but in such a way that they could be pulled upright and locked into place by a thread attached to the top of the foremast and passing through the neck of the bottle. The ship in this particular bottle is the United States Coast Guard training cutter Eagle (WIX-327), one of only two commissioned sailing vessels in US military service.
Many potential ship modellers put off by the idea of carving wood however welcomed the arrival of plastic injection kits. Airfix produced their Series 1 Golden Hind in 1952 – a whole year before their first 1/72 scale Spitfire – and in fact it was the Airfix Armada of historic ships – moulded in polystyrene rather than acetate which tended to twist – that pioneered the popular concept of buying and building plastic models. Moreover, before the rise of more specialist model shops, the early Airfix kits were sold in Woolworths and the packaging format of plastic bag and header card was developed to keep prices lower than they would have been had they been boxed.
The original Series 1 line up – notable for being in proportion but not adhering to a constant scale – included the Cutty Sark and Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria while later Airfix models of large ships – such as ocean liners and men of war – were moulded to 1/600 scale. Unfortunately, while aircraft models tend to be available in 1/144, 1/72 and 1/48 scale there has not been the same broad consensus about ships. Some can be as small as 1/1200 to match the Minic die cast offerings while others are more random scales to fit manufacturer’s available boxes Today Airfix and Tamiya also produce large warships in 1/350 scale which provides a satisfying trade off between detailing and unwieldy size.
Although it is possible to play war games with 1/600 scale warships – such as the British battleship HMS Warspite seen here – being moved around a big enough room, my own interest in railways, aircraft and modern history in general has always steered me towards smaller ships on bigger scales with the possibility of interaction. One of the classics of this genre has been the 1/76 scale Airfix Landing Craft Mechanised supplied with an American built petrol-engined Sherman tank as a load. However, more traditionally shaped 1/72 scale Airfix vessels have included such wave-cutting designs as an RAF Rescue launch, British Vosper and German torpedo boats and one of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute’s up-to-date self righting Severn Class offshore vessels.
While 1/72 scale models of ships – made direct from plastic kits or modified – have sometimes turned up in harbour scenes on 00 gauge model railways I was intrigued to see an offering in 1/144: the scale of large transport aircraft and space rockets. Crucially, 1/144 is also near enough to interact with British N gauge model railways built to the scale of 1:148. The subject was also something different: one of three tugs commissioned between 2007 and 2009 that would look right with trains from the early 21st Century. As, in 2015, I was planning a new modern image N gauge layout I decided to buy, build and ultimately integrate this Revell model. Unlike the other Revell 1/144 scale ships – including the 17 inch long tank landing ship and similar sized submarines – the Fairplay tug was only 7 inches long and so fitted better into a compact layout. It did however come with a stand and as it was not feasible to build the Revell kit as a waterline model I took up the challenge of building the full vessel: both as a modelling exercise and so that I could explore and describe a modern harbour tug.
The Revell website description of the kit begins: “After crossing thousands of miles of open ocean, ships still have the most difficult part of their journey ahead. When they reach the harbor, tugs maneuver huge ships safely into dock. The Fairplay Shipping Company of Hamburg stations tugs in ports around Europe to accomplish this difficult task. Fairplay tugs are powered by twin engines and mount the steering and propulsion systems in a rotating assembly for extra maneuverability. Kit features two-piece hull, fenders, deck fittings, rubber dinghy, detailed bridge, radar mast, towing winch, display stand, and decals for three versions.” And according to Wikipedia, a tugboat is “a boat that maneuvers vessels by pushing or towing them. Tugs move vessels that either should not move themselves, such as ships in a crowded harbor or a narrow canal, or those that cannot move by themselves, such as barges, disabled ships, or oil platforms. Some tugboats serve as icebreakers, salvage boats or firefighting vessels”. Like the Fairplay vessels represented by the Revell kit, the Sydney Harbour tug Woona, seen here, is a standard tug designed to tow its payload on a hawser attached to a winch rather than being semi-integrating into a dedicated barge.
Unlike the Revell Fairplay tugs though, some variants are designed for specific river or shallow water use and have increased width to compensate for lack of draught. However, the San Francisco based tractor tug Delta Deanna, for example, would still be comparable to other tugs in terms of engine power, power to tonnage ratio and bollard pull. Tugboat engines typically produce between 680 to 3 400 bhp but larger deep water tugs can have power ratings up to 27 200 horsepower. The Fairplay I, II and X, as represented in the Revell kit have twin four stroke ABC engines which together develop 5 000 bhp, still considerably more than the latest General Electric “Powerhaul” Class 70 locomotives. These date from 2009 and develop 3 820 bhp as the most powerful diesel electrics currently operating on Network Rail. The Power:Tonnage ratio of a ship meanwhile is measured in engine kilowatts and Gross Registered Tons with most passenger and cargo ships having a PT ratio of 0.35 to 1.20. Large tugs meanwhile typically have P:T ratios of 2.20 to 4.50 while small harbour-tug ratios can be 4.0 to 9.5. The power of tugs can also be measured through the concept of Bollard Pull, where metric tonnes of force are applied by a tug to an immovable harbourside bollard. Most harbour tugs can exert a bollard pull of 15 tonnes while those built in the 21st Century to pull container and other large vessels have been rated at 60 to 65 tonnes. The Revell Fairplay tugs have an impressive figure of 70 metric tonnes.
All this of course was a far cry from the origins of powered tug boats when the Charlotte Dundas first pulled two 70 ton barges 20 miles along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow in March 1803. This voyage took nine and a quarter hours at 2 mph but in the face of “ a strong breeze right ahead” which stopped all horse drawn canal boats. In contrast, Fairplay tugs I, III X and XIV have a maximum speed of 12.3 knots. As can be seen from Robert Bowie’s cut away drawing, the Charlotte Dundas had a stern paddle wheel powered directly by a horizontal cylinder engine. During the last two centuries of course steam has given way to internal combustion prime movers and paddle wheels have given way to screw propellers – although as late as the 1950s the Royal Navy commissioned a fleet of diesel electric paddle wheel tugs to assist its aircraft carriers. The wide beam of these Paxman powered tugs allowed them to move in close to the hulls of the flat tops without fouling their funnels while the paddles added traction when slowly moving a large bulk.
Commercial tugs have more typically been equipped with screw propellers connected to their engines either with mechanical shafts or via electric transmission. One typical arrangement could be two five bladed propellers, each moving water over its own rudder to give the same manoeverability as a tracked vehicle on land. The Revell Fairplay tugs take this idea a stage further by transmitting power through a pair of Z drives, combined rudders and four bladed fixed pitch ducted propellers which can be swivelled through 360 degrees. These 2.70 metre diameter Type 1515 Schottel Rudder Propellers – or SRPs – are a development of the azimuthing propeller first devised by Josef Becker in 1950 and now applied to many modern ships. The SRPs are mounted about. 3.5 m from the stern, protrude 0.8 metres beneath the hull bottom and are tilted backwards by 3.5° to minimise the angles in the universal joints and provide a better performance. Engine power is transferred by American built Marine Control Drive clutches and cardan shafts to the SRPs. Rudder propellers were just some of the 103 components supplied with the 2014 vintage Revell kit 05213 which offered decals for the three ships as they would have been in 2013. Fairplay X was registered and based in Hamburg, Fairplay III registered and based in Rotterdam while my choice, Fairplay I, was based in Antwerp but registered in St John’s, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, a former British colony in the Leeward Islands which gained self government in 1967 and full independence in 1981. I reasoned that a Belgian based ship was most likely to visit Britain – which led to a delicate detailing exercise at the end of the construction process.
Flying from aft of the centre of the mast rather than from guys to port and starboard as the instruction leaflet and box artwork suggested – mainly as by this point I was running out of patience – were, finally, the flags of Antigua and Barbuda, the house flag of the Fairplay Shipping Company of Hamburg and a flag very close to the British Merchant Navy Red Ensign The national flag of Antigua and Barbuda was adopted on 27 February 1967, and was designed by a nationally acclaimed artist and sculptor, Sir Reginald Samuel ahead of 600 other designs. It features a red field with an inverted isosceles triangle based on the top edge of the field; the triangle contains a horizontal tricolor of black, light blue and white with a rising sun centered on top of the black band. The rising sun symbolises the dawning of a new era although the colours can have different meanings. One interpretation is that the black element represents the African ancestry of the people with the blue for hope and the red for energy or dynamism of the people. The successive colouring of yellow, blue, and white (from the sun down) also stands for the sun, sea, and sand with the V-shape representing victory. While tourism and investment banking are listed as some of the main economic activities of Antigua and Barbuda, eighty percent of Antigua and Barbuda registered ships are in reality German with most based in Hamburg. While the Maritime Register of Antigua and Barbuda has been praised for its Port State Control and has ratified many international maritime conventions, one exception remains ILO 147 concerned with minimum shipboard standards for seafarers. International Business Corporations based in the islands are also exempted from Antiguan and Barbudan taxes for a period of fifty years
Fairplay Towage meanwhile was founded in Hamburg in 1905 and today has tug stations in Hamburg, Rostock and Rotterdam. The company can offer harbour, coastal and deep sea towages as well as oilfield and wind farm offshore support services and salvage operations. The fleet includes as many as 35 tugs of different specifications with bollard pulls of between 25 and 110 tons. In over 110 years of service, some Fairplay names have been re-used as many as five times, and although there have only been two tugs called Fairplay XI the name has accrued an interesting history. The first Fairplay IX was a Hamburg harbour tug built in 1910 by a Hamburg shipyard and in 1914 confiscated by the “Kaiserliche Marine” (The navy of Kaiser Wilhelm II, pictured) who used her for several purposes, one of which was minesweeping off the Port of Cuxhaven. In 1919 the vessel was returned to Fairplay but in 1939 Hitler’s Navy confiscated her once more, and again, she was stationed off Cuxhaven. In 1945 the Kriegsmarine returned the ship to its rightful owners and in 1966 the first Fairplay IX was scrapped at Lubeck.
The second Fairplay IX was built in 1970 as Schichau Werft, Bremerhaven yard number 1751. With 57 tons bollard pull and two very cost-efficient MaK-Diesel engines, the tug was predominantly used for long distance towage. Her large bunker capacities enabled the tug to tow for 90 days without stopping and Fairplay IX soon became a favourite with both her clients and her owners. In 1988 however Fairplay IX was captured by pirates in the port of Manila and after being sailed by them via Taiwan and Japan, she was finally returned to Fairplay two weeks later in Hong Kong. 1990 proved to be another eventful year for Fairplay IX. In January she and Fairplay XIV were involved in the salvage of the Iranian Motor Tanker Kharg. The Kharg, a turbine tanker with 270 000 tons of crude oil on board and a draught of 26m had encountered serious problems in a typhoon just off the Moroccan coastline. Then, in September in Guinea, West Africa, 18 African refugees stowed themselves away aboard an accommodation-pontoon which was to be towed to Europe. It was only when they had come as far as the Dutch coast that Fairplay IX crew detected the stowaways. In 2009 and 2010, Fairplay IX was employed towing new-build offshore-hulls from Black Sea yards to Norway. Then, on 26 January 2011 in Bremerhaven, Fairplay IX was delivered to her new Greek owners ‘The Spanopoulos Group’. Now known as the Christos XXIV, she flies the flag of the Marshall Islands.
In fact, although roundels, swastikas and hinomarus are very easy to come by, national flags are rare in 1/72 scale decals and even if I had been modelling an American tug I would have had to find the sheet for the Grumman lunar module. Ideally I would have liked a simple Union Jack to fly as a courtesy flag on Fairplay I during its visit to Britain but the flag I did manage to find does have at least a passing resemblance to the British Merchant Navy’s Red Ensign. My 1970 edition of the Observer’s Book of Ships says of the Red Ensign “Also used as the ensign of dominions, each distinguished by their emblems, eg the stars of Australia. Trinity House, Humber Conservancy and other institutions also wear this flag with an emblem on the fly. As such, Fairplay I must be in British waters on a mission from a similar body – although I currently do not know which one
Finally on the subject of markings, the 250 gross ton 308 ton deadweight Fairplay I displays the International Maritime Organisation number 9365128 and carries the radio call sign V2ES9 – V2 standing for Antigua and Barbuda. The International Maritime Organisation first met as an agency of the United Nations in 1959 and until 1982 was known as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO). In turn, the IMCO could trace its ancestry back to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention set up in 1914 following the 1912 Titanic disaster.
In 1987 the International Maritime Organisation adopted Resolution A.600(15), “aimed at enhancing maritime safety, and pollution prevention and to facilitate the prevention of maritime fraud” by assigning to each ship a permanent identification number which would continue despite any subsequent change in the vessel’s name, ownership or flag. This scheme became a part of international law on 1 January 1996, and was initially applied to cargo vessels that are at least 300 gross tons gross and passenger vessels of at least 100 gross tons. The original IMO scheme did not however apply to:
vessels solely engaged in fishing, ships without mechanical means of propulsion, pleasure yachts, ships engaged on special service such as lightships and search and rescue vessels, hopper barges, hydrofoils, hovercraft, floating docks, warships and troopships. Since then however, tugs such as Fairplay I have been included in the IMO numbering scheme.
From 2002 it was further decreed that IMO numbers should be permanently marked in a visible place either on the ship’s hull or superstructure as well as internally and on the ship’s certificates. Passenger ships should also carry the marking on a horizontal surface visible from the air. IMO numbers are based on a system used by Lloyd’s Register of Shipping since 1963 and are allocated once a keel has been laid in a shipyard. Each one consists of a six-digit sequential unique number followed by a check digit. The integrity of an IMO number can be verified using its check digit. This is done by multiplying each of the first six digits by a factor of 2 to 7 corresponding to their position from right to left. The rightmost digit of this sum is the check digit. For example, for IMO 9074729: (9×7) + (0×6) + (7×5) + (4×4) + (7×3) + (2×2) = 139. From May 2005, ship owning and operating companies have also been allocated IMO official numbers.
Fairplay 1 also has the Maritime Mobile Service Identity 305542000. Each MMSI is a series of nine digits which are sent in digital form over a radio channel in order to uniquely identify ship stations, ship earth stations earth, coast stations, coast earth stations, and group calls. These identities are formed in such a way that the identity or part thereof can be used by telephone and telex subscribers connected to the general telecommunications network to call ships automatically. Within Fairplay 1’s MMSI, the first digit, 3, stands for North and Central America and the Carribbean ( including Antigua and Barbuda) while the three trailing zeros indicate that the ship is fitted with an Inmarsat B, C or M ship earth station, or it is expected to be so equipped in the foreseeable future. Moving from what can be deduced from the outside of the tug, the story of the four strong class of Fairplays I, III, X and XIV began in 1996 when rival Dutch tug company Kotug broke into the German harbour towage market and Fairplay decided to bid for work in Rotterdam and, after 2008, Antwerp. After first chartering new tugs or buying them second hand, Fairplay first ordered two and then two further tugs from Astilleros Armon, Spain. Design and construction drawings were provided by Cintranaval-Defcar in Spain based on a concept proposal by the shipyard and two more tugs of this type were ordered by URS, at that time a 50% subsidiary of Fairplay. They were named UNION AMBER and UNION JADE. These tugs differ from the Fairplay tugs in bridge equipment.
Commissioned in 2007, Fairplay I was 25 metres long , with a beam of 11.2 metres and maximum draught 14.6 metres. Compared to FAIRPLAY I and III, the second series tug’s hulls were slightly modified. With the assistance of the Fairplay-owned Buschmann-shipyard a skeg was developed which will increase the course-stability when going astern. However, this feature was not supplied as an alternative kit part for Fairplay X. All four ASD tugs had double chine hulls divided in 5 watertight compartments with the chines proceeding into the stern. A bilge keel was fitted between the chines and a second smaller bilge keel followed the upper chine over almost the complete length. Fairplay I’s hull and machinery are ice strengthened and has enough marine diesel oil bunkerage and tanks for potable water to yield a 12 day cruising range with a ship-handling crew of three. Under the bridge are an air conditioned mess and galley at port and three two-berth cabins at starboard at front with a sanitary space in between Exhaust pipes are fitted at both aft corners while ventilation shafts are placed on both sides behind the superstructure. At the bows, a two-drum Brusselle Marine Industries hydraulic winch takes power from two Scania diesel generator sets
Aft of the Palfinger Marine hydraulic knuckle boom crane with a safe working load of 0.39 t at 12.3m reach – used to launch and recover Fairplay I’s Narwhal rigid inflatable boat from its cantilevered bracket – the deck is surprisingly clear of obstacles. With the exception of the customary bollards, ventilators, and an emergency exit the aft deck is completely void. Except of course for the plastic garden furniture which Revell did not supply Inside the wheelhouse meanwhile, two control consoles are arranged to left and right of the ship’s centerline. They carry all necessary controls for rudder propellers, winch, main engines, and navigation lights. A Transas multifunctional screen with electronic charting is placed at the front end between the consoles. Gauges with the main motor data and indicators for the orientation of the rudder propellers are arranged vertically along the window posts in front aft of the control consoles. The navigational equipment contains among others magnet compass, autopilot, two radars for sailing forward and astern, electronic chart system, GPS and echo sounder Beside the wheelhouse front are two 6-persons inflatable life rafts mounted in cradles while the top deck – formed by the wheelhouse roof – is home to a magnetic compass and Seematz searchlight forward with a second searchlight aft. The mast carries two radar antennae and the navigation lights as well as the flags.
Having done my research, there was still the task of actually building the model which – being in 1/144 scale – was fiddly and sometimes required lateral thinking to work round an issue. Being a kit offered by Revell as a German rather than American firm, the instructions were very detailed and precise but like most plastic injection moulded kits intended for display, it was mainly formed of two hull halves with a deck being placed on top. In this instance, two perforated stiffening members added strength to the hull and the interior was sprayed black to make the completed model look more solid. Otherwise, a hollow model made from a kit can become translucent. One thing that Revell loves doing is asking the modeller to mix paint, and in this case the main part of the hull was a mixture of 50% Fiery Red and 50% Purple Red. One reason for this is that the range of Revell paints is less broad than its rival Humbrol, and for this model I mainly used Humbrol paints as they were easier to come by and seemed closer in many shades to pictures on the internet, in books and on the Revell box artwork. As with all such models, many smaller parts were painted on the sprue and then added to the main model when dry.
Now, I mentioned earlier that the main reason that I was building the Revell model of Fairplay I was to integrate it into a new N gauge model railway . This was needed to re-employ the fleet of N gauge trains made redundant from my previous layout, Terminal 1. Until technical issues forced this to be retired as a static exhibit to the Jet Age Museum, Terminal 1 represented the sunken station at Britain’s newest airport, which was often accepted flights diverted from elsewhere. As such, a wide variety of trains in different liveries could be seen on charter workings to take home stranded passengers. The new layout meanwhile was designed to pack all the activity of Terminal 1 into a smaller and more user friendly space and even provide an arena for freight working. As you can see below, Fairplay I is crossing four railway tracks on an an aqueduct carrying a ship canal which in turn provides a break between the scenic station area and the fiddle yard where trains are kept until they are needed. Unusually for model railway practice, the tug and aqueduct were built first and most of the other scenery and track were constructed around it.
There were a number of reasons for doing this. Most practically, if the tug and aqueduct combination did not work, I would have to find something more ordinary as a scenic break such as a road bridge with traffic. Also – due to a new method of baseboard construction using plywood laid on a light but stiff aluminium grid – there was no opportunity to make a dock or harbour recessed below the level of the tracks. Fortunately, both the tug and aqueduct – largely built from spruce – DID work, and I was able to use some of the clear plastic packaging from the kit to make the aqueduct water that the tug appears to be floating on. The clear plastic was cut to length and width, a hole as close as possible to the shape and size of the tug hull was cut into one end and the underside was painted brown to give the effect of dirty water. The gap between the edge of the hole and the hull was then filled with small pieces of expanded polystyrene to represent a bow wave and wake.
The alternative to this arrangement would have been to flood the aqueduct section with Woodland Scenics E-Z water, a granular varnish like substance, and then float the tug on it until it set hard. However, I did not know how watertight I could make the aqueduct, and as the E-Z water has to be poured in hot I did not know what effect this would have on the plastic tug. Even if it had filled right up to the hull, the resulting cold resin block would have been heavy and defeated the object of having a light baseboard. As it is, Fairplay I can be lifted off the layout for transport and the wheelhouse further detaches for safe storage.
But why a ship canal aqueduct? Partly for the wow factor of something different, and also because it fitted in with the layout’s theme of homage to the industrial landscape of North West England. For a quarter of a century now, I have been lucky enough to take an annual holiday based in the Lake District with a friend who lives there and as well as arriving and leaving by train I have often bought North West Rail Rover tickets to study the area in more detail. As it happens, the southern limit of the Rail Rovers was Warrington in Cheshire, characterised by distinctive long thin station platforms as well as the many tracks without platforms, most of which are divided by baulks of grass. Also dominating the scene to the west is the Unilever soap factory.
Having built the aqueduct out of spruce planking, the red superstructure stiffening girders were simulated with suitably trimmed stirrers from a well known coffee outlet with the gaps filled in with liquid paper. The rest of the vertical walls of the layout – fixed on the scenic end and detachable for the fiddle yard – were made from light but strong thin birch plywood rather than the much heavier 18 mm MDF used on my earlier layouts. As these had a greater potential for warping, the base for what became the oil refinery became an important stiffening component but yielded the benefit of hiding an access port allowing locomotives to be changed. Similarly, the mobile phone mast in the corner of the aqueduct and the back wall was very useful in holding both items together. The radio transmission dishes on the grey painted dowel mast were made from the white painted internal stoppers of the glue pens used to adhere the flock powder and ballast to the grey painted layout deck.
Also holding the back wall – and the toddler proofing at the front – in place were thin layers of birch plywood painted Dulux Intense Truffle (in homage to LIverpool’s George Harrison) to represent land slightly higher than the Peco concrete sleepered Code 100 track. Beer based Peco also supplied the lineside fencing, station sign and huts while the fine ballast was from Cheltenham Model Centre. The grass mixture was 90% Woodland Scenic Burnt Grass added to a previous mixture of dark earth and brighter grass to add high and low lights. The station platform – now supporting some Bachmann standing passengers – was built from a number of Ratio kits like the arched retaining walls while the Midland signal box originally belonged to the Graham Farish Cumbrian Mountain Express train set.
In describing the construction of my layout I must also mention the splendid products and customer service of P&D Marsh. Having found their range of excellent pre-painted pre-assembled N gauge semaphore signals online, I rang 01525 280068 ( since changed to 07730 202270) with some technical questions only to be offered exactly the upper quadrant junction starters that I really wanted handbuilt at a very reasonable price and posted to me within days. A big thank you and my recommendation to all involved!
While I was thinking about how to replicate a suitable lineside factory, I was given the chance to buy – ready assembled – an American Walter model of an oil refinery with its complex pipework and tall chimneys. This was too tall to be permanently attached to the layout – which was designed to fit a specific shelf – but I was able to build a platform for it which also allowed freight trains to run underneath and inside the complex. Additional industrial fittings were made from balsa wood, drinking straws, plastic kit sprue and the packaging from a liquid paper bottle. Realising that there was a major oil refinery at nearby Stanlow in Cheshire, the structure fitted perfectly with the established theme. And thinking back to singing Christmas carols as a child when crude oil from the Middle East was plentiful I decided that the refinery should be owned by “We 3, Kings of Orient Tar.” The other important thing to know about Stanlow, located close to Ellesmere Port, is that it lies on the Manchester Ship Canal – first used in 1894 to let ships reach Manchester while avoiding the sand banks of the River Mersey. When opened it was the largest river navigation in the World and featured many remarkable structures.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges encountered in building the Manchester Ship Canal was replacing the Barton Aqueduct, opened on 17 July 1761 to carry the Bridgewater Canal over the River Irwell at Barton upon Irwell in Manchester itself. Mainly designed by James Brindley it was the first navigable aqueduct to be built in Britain and was regarded as an engineering marvel of its age. However, by the 1880s, planners of the Ship Canal – which was to use part of the River Irwell – realised that the arches of the Barton Aqueduct were too small to allow the passage of ocean going ships. Its replacement however was another work of genius, the first and only swinging aqueduct in the World. Its moving trough is 330 feet long and weighs 1 450 metric tonnes without the 800 tonnes of water that is held in it by sliding gates. The whole operation is controlled from the brick tower seen in the background, using hydraulic motors nowadays powered by electricity.
Slightly closer to home, the Kennet and Avon Canal – completed in 1810 – has a number of stone built aqueducts over railways including one over the former Great Western line at Avoncliff in Somerset. This was the inspiration for using Peco N gauge single tunnel mouths for the four tracks on my model aqueduct. Also noted while touring Britain’s navigable aqueducts on Google Earth was the structure on Holliday Street, Birmingham – combining masonry and metal elements albeit with a substructure of cast iron. Similarly, the four stone clad tunnel mouths pictured above also ultimately resembled Gasworks Tunnel at the northern end of Kings Cross – taking the East Coast Main Line out of London under the Regent’s Canal. The metal superstructure also owes something to the bridge at the southern end of the station at Bolton, Greater Manchester, distinguished by its cast iron patterns of circles within triangles. Given all these real life aqueducts, might it not have been possible that an aristocratic landowner near Ellesmere Port could have demanded that the Manchester Ship Canal Company build him an aqueduct rather than a swing bridge so that he could have unfettered access to his own grazing lands and oil dock on the tidal River Mersey?
And might that dock – and his own oil refinery and model town – have had its own branch line built from the national network? In the parallel universe of exhibition model railway layouts perhaps. And what if, in the 1990s, the now part-derelict docks had been filled in to build a second airport for Cheshire to supplement the one-runway Liverpool John Lennon on the north bank of the Mersey? The result could look something like this, with a lorra, lorra trains coming under the aqueduct before reversing at Runport St Nicola for the former Midland Railway branch to the rest of Britain. Some passenger trains would be local and stop at the station platforms. Others, such as HSTs and Voyagers would lay up in sidings between long distance journeys while the presence of sidings on the former salt grazing lands would see freight wagons being shunted under the arch nearest the refinery.
Like nearby Runcorn – meaning broad cove – Runport St Nicola would have grown up around the chemical industry but the name itself was inspired by one of my favourite musical groups: Girls Aloud. Recording and performing from 2002 to 2013, Nicola, Sarah, Cheryl, Kimberley and Nadine not only changed the sound of Noughties pop music but united Britain’s industrial heritage and its current empire of the mind. In fact a closer look at their respective backgrounds yields some other more specific links between Nicola Roberts, who was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire but grew up in Runcorn and Sarah Harding, who was born in Ascot but grew up in Stockport. Both Runcorn and Stockport are on the River Mersey – hence my idea for the Runport part of the name – while Stamford was the home of agricultural implement and diesel engine manufacturer Blackstone and Company. By 1969 both Blackstone and fellow diesel engine maker Mirrlees Bickerton and Day had become part of the Hawker Siddeley group of companies and then merged to form Mirrlees Blackstone until 1988 when the firm became part of GEC-Alsthom and then MAN. Mirrlees Bickerton and Day had its roots in Glasgow but in 1908 founded a new factory in Hazel Grove near Stockport.
In 1912 Mirrlees Bickerton and Day installed the first diesel electric drive system on a ship and in 1916 pioneered a diesel engine for the new lozenge shaped tanks which ran on a mixture of 95% low grade tar oil. In 1949 however, they became part of Loughborough based locomotive manufacturer Brush and in 1957 12 cylinder Mirrlees diesel engines powered the first batch of what became Class 31, the first production diesel electric locomotives built for British Railways with two cabs. Class 31 diesels became maids of all work all over the British Railway network and so it was likely that they visited Newcastle, Bradford, Runcorn and Stockport while Mirrlees Blackstone powered ships could well have docked at Londonderry. Unfortunately however the Mirrlees engines did not prove a long term success in Brush’s D5500 series A1A-A1As and later production variants were fitted with a 12 cylinder diesel powerplant made by rival locomotive builder English Electric – based at Newton Le Willows just north of Warrington.
Despite having appeared in a number of television programmes together before their sad and acrimonious split, Girls Aloud never capitalised on their shared industrial heritage. I for one would have liked to have seen them building a boat with a Mirrlees Blackstone engine and sailing it up the Mersey – thereby adding the appeal of shows such as Top Gear, Coast and Scrapheap Challenge to the format of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and their own allure. Unless they all run out of money in a few years time and grudgingly re-unite however, it seems that “Girls Aloud: Apocalypse Mersey” has been terminated with extreme prejudice. In the meantime, Runport St Nicola will help keep the memory of Girls Aloud – including my favourite Nicola Roberts – alive and with the addition of the Revell model of Fairplay I to the aqueduct, exhibition audiences far and wide will be able to enjoy a tug over Nicola.