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22 December 2015

Of Quadrants and Sextants

Given the close proximity, it seems odd that I've never been to Newcastle. I've passed through loads of times on the train, but for reasons I can't explain, I've never ventured into the centre to have a look around. This weekend I fixed this! Today's post is inspired by some of my adventures...

As soon as I walked out of the train station I felt myself falling for Newcastle. The Architecture of the town is amazing. Everything brims with history and it seems to me that every nook and cranny hints at some great long-forgotten story.

You know when things just happen? When one lucky happenstance leads on to another, and another, and another? I live for these moments. I've learnt that the trick is to realise when one of these wonderful events is unfolding and to grab onto it with both hands.

It happened this weekend. Here's how it began:

I had stopped to take a picture of the stonework above when a gentleman popped his head around the corner and said: "Do you want to take a look inside?"


First a few words about the crest that grabbed my attention. You will see in the first picture on the right a shield with what looked at first to me to be a harp on top of a sextant. It's taken me a long time to track this one down, but that's no moon! It's actually a stylized Davis Quadrant as you can see from this picture (which comes courtesy of the Invaluable website).

I've learnt that the Davis Quadrant (aka "Back-staff") was conceived by the British explorer Captain John Davis in the mid 1500s in his quest to find a northwestern passage through the Arctic Ocean (from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean). They reached the peak of their popularity in the 1700s giving way to various forms of the more portable and capable Sextant. The Quadrant is so-named because it measures a full 90 degrees, whereas the Sextant measures 60 degrees.

The basic purpose of these type of devices is to allow somebody on the surface of the earth to measure how high celestial objects are above the horizon. Typically the Davis Quadrant would have been used to measure the altitude of the Pole Star or Sun. With a few key points of reference, Sailors were able to navigate the seas with accuracy. Brilliant. Hold this thought.

The building I was taking pictures of turned out to be home of The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers and the overall-ed gentleman who offered me a cheeky look around was none other than Steve Davidson, Institute President.

As we disappeared through the beautiful entrance-way Steve told me that a lot of people assume that the building is a church due to its stained-glass windows. I hadn't spotted the windows at this point, having been stood on the Westgate Road side. The picture above shows the building from Orchard Street. You can see the windows Steve is talking about to the right of this picture. There is actually a matching set of windows on the far side of the building. If you think these look great from the outside, you should see them from the inside!

Here's the building from the Westgate Road side...

Here's a shot of the stonework above the entrance to the Mining Institute. As with a lot of Newcastle's historic stone buildings, the Mining institute is suffering from wear and tear. I'm no expert, but I think the melted look on this statue is due to the fact that it is carved from Limestone which is prone to dissolving in acid rain. It's a shame to see, but I do think it has it's own charm.

"Hadrian's Wall

 Within this plot, covered by red concrete stand the lower courses of the South Face of Hadrian's Wall built in A.D. 122 from Newcastle Upon Tyne to Bowness on Solway, and afterwards extended to Wallsend. A distance in all of 80 Roman Miles*. The wall was here 10 feet wide. Built with Ashlar faces and rubble core and is considered to have been 15 feet high to the rampart walk."

I'm not going to talk about Hadrian's Wall today... I've mentioned Hadrian's Wall in previous posts on this blog.

* "The Roman mile (mille passus, lit. "thousand-pace"; abbr. m.p.; also mille passuum and mille) consisted of a thousand paces of two steps each." ~ Wikipedia

I discovered from Steve that the Mining Institute isn't open to the public at the moment. It's in a difficult spot. We will all have seen the closure of Kellingley Colliery in the news a week ago. This was the last of the deep coal-mining pits in the UK, sited not too far away from me in Beal, Selby. The closure marks the end of an era, not just for the men who made their living at the pointy end, but also for institutions such as Steve's. Where do we go from here? It's a question that a lot of people are asking. Somehow we need to reinvent ourselves and play to our strengths.

Steve showed me the main meeting room which is currently having its lowered ceiling removed as part of a larger refurbishment project. As Steve showed me around I could sense his worry for the future of the organisation. Can this really be the end of the road? I would hate for this to be the case, but like Steve, I'm not sure what needs to happen next. Perhaps little things like me writing this blog will raise awareness just enough such that the right people can step in and make a difference? I live in hope! I bet Captain John Davis would have been able to find a way through this mess! ;-)

Next up, I was shown the library. I wish I had got more pictures. Length-ways, on either wall are shelf after shelf of books covering mining and engineering in all its different forms. "Get them digitised quick!" I cried. Steve told me that the institute has links all over the world and is recognised as a centre of expertise. I bet!

The handsome chap in the picture is the imposing Nicholas Wood who was one of the founding fathers of the Mining Institute and first president. From the looks of him I reckon his handshake would have left you with broken fingers ;-)

Here's a shot of some of the books peeking out. Wouldn't it be a shame to lose all of this knowledge and history? 

I love this striking carving that stands over the doorway in the library. "Moneo et Munio" is the Institute's motto which can be translated to: "I guide and protect." I think that this really plays to the initial aims of the organisation that was to make mining a better and safer profession by bringing together all the learning of that time under one roof.

In discovering Nicholas Wood I was interested to read that he was good friends with George Stephenson. Stephenson was the first to develop a safety lamp that could be used in the mines without fear of causing explosions. Unfortunately for Stephenson, the better-connected Humphry Davy was also developing a safety lamp at the same time and though a little later with his discovery, through a quirk of circumstance he gets all the credit. Ouch!

Nicholas Wood took Stephenson's design and made it a reality. I'd like to think that the lamps to be seen on either side of this carving are "Geordie" lamps. I'd also hazard a guess that the portrait in the middle is of Nicholas Wood.

I'm coming to the end of my little adventure and I've saved the best til last. Steve took me down some steps and after trying every key he had on his chain, eventually he managed to open a creaky door that lead downwards into darkness.

Around a corner we stumbled into the lecture room. WOW! I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven! Ha ha. It was like stepping back in time.

You can see from the picture that the room isn't huge. There are about 5 concentric rows of curved seats all looking down towards the central lecture area. And on each wall are pictures of presidents and fellows stretching back through time, with more whiskers than you can shake a stick at ;-)

As I stood in the room I could almost feel their presence. It was spine-chilling. What a treat! Thank you Steve for showing me around and sparking in me a desire to find out more. I've learnt so much already. I wish you well and hope that there are many more years left in the Institute! Good luck.

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