A brief history of Bidston Observatory

Bidston Observatory was built in 1866, when the expansion of Waterloo Dock forced Liverpool Observatory to re-locate to Bidston Hill. It was built alongside Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station, on land owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. George Fosbery Lyster was the architect.

George Fosbery Lyster
George Fosbery Lyster

John Hartnup, astronomer and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, had been the Director of Liverpool Observatory since it was built in 1843. Amongst his achievements was the calculation of the longitude of Liverpool, which was important for navigation and the development of the port. He presided over the move to Bidston Hill, and continued as director of Bidston Observatory until his retirement in 1885, when he was succeeded by his son. The second director, John Hartnup Jr  died on 21 April 1892, when he fell from the roof of the Observatory while making meteorological observations.

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907
Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

Over the years, the emphasis of the Observatory’s work shifted from astronomy to other things, but always in the tradition of Time and Tide, so important to the port of Liverpool.

Of Time. The progression from observations of the stars, to the determination of longitude, to the calibration of chronometers was a natural one. The Observatory’s two levels of cellars and other features made it especially suited for calibrating chronometers under controlled conditions of temperature and seismic vibrations. Mariners sent their chronometers from all over the empire for calibration at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from Bidston Observatory.

Of Tide. Ever since Liverpool’s harbour-master William Hutchinson (the same fellow who pioneered the use of parabolic reflectors in lighthouses on Bidston Hill) took the first extended series of tidal measurements over a period of nearly thirty years, Liverpool had led the world in tidal studies. This work became centred at Bidston Observatory when the Liverpool Tidal Institute was set up there under Joseph Proudman’s direction after World War I. Arthur Doodson’s work with mechanical computers for tide prediction happened here. One of his machines was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings.

Observatory staff by the original one-o-clock gun, after its removal to Bidston Hill from Morpeth Dock.
Observatory staff by the original one-o-clock gun, after its removal to Bidston Hill from Morpeth Dock.

In 1969, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took over responsibility for the Observatory. Oceanographic research continued to expand under their auspices. During the 1970’s, the Joseph Proudman Building was constructed in the former kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse.

In 1989, the Observatory, Lighthouse and the perimeter wall enclosing them became Grade-II listed buildings.

In 2004, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory moved from Bidston Hill to a new building at the University of Liverpool. Their oceanographic research is still continuing today, but now in the guise of the National Oceanography Centre.

The departure of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory from Bidston Hill began a 12-year limbo. NERC’s original plan to sell the site to a developer aroused opposition from local pressure groups, and the spectre of an eleven-story high-rise residential development was averted. In 2012, NERC applied for and obtained planning permission and listed buildings consent (now lapsed) to convert the Observatory into four residential apartments. Later that year, the Joseph Proudman Building was demolished. Having put the Observatory to the market on several occasions, NERC finally sold it in 2015 to a developer (Bidston Observatory Developments Limited), who had outbid a community-led consortium. This was the lowest point in the Observatory’s history. A period of systematic neglect saw a rapid deterioration of the fabric of the building and the appearance of the grounds, exacerbated by water ingress, unpaid bills and a winter with no heating, and the Observatory was nominated to the Victorian Society’s list of the top ten endangered buildings of 2016.

Fortunately, the Observatory was sold again in September of 2016. The new owners have announced their intentions to operate the Observatory as a not-for-profit artists’ research centre and to incorporate an exhibition celebrating the Observatory’s scientific heritage.

 

 

 

Tidal Curiosities – The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan

Judith Wolf, 1 Sep 2016.

Most people know that the tide rises and falls periodically at the coast but not everyone is as aware of the periodic flood and ebb of tidal currents. These are of particular importance for mariners and need to be taken into account for navigation. Where currents become particularly strong, they can become known as a ‘tidal race’, which can be unnavigable at certain states of the tide.

Around the coast of the British Isles are many locations where a tidal race forms, usually in a constricted channel between two islands or an island and the mainland. In Scotland, between the islands of Jura and Scarba is the famous ‘Whirlpool of Corryvreckan’ – possibly the third largest whirlpool in the world (after Saltstraumen and Moskstraumen, off the coast of Norway). The Gulf of Corryvreckan, also called the Strait of Corryvreckan, is a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba, in Argyll and Bute, off the west coast of mainland Scotland.

Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba
Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba

The name ‘Corryvreckan’ probably derives from two words ‘Coire’ which in Irish means cauldron and ‘Breccán’ or ‘Breacan’, which may be a proper noun i.e. the name of an individual called Breccán, although this has also been translated as ‘speckled’ from the adjective brecc ‘spotted, speckled’ etc. combined with the suffix of place – an.

There is an Old Irish text known as Cormac’s Glossary written by the King and Bishop of Cashel, Cormac mac Cuilennáin who died in the year 908. The text is written in the form of a dictionary combined with an encyclopaedia. In it are various attempts at providing explanations, meanings and the significances of various words. At entry 323 it provides probably the fullest description of the Coire Breccáin of the early Irish material:

‘a great whirlpool which is between Ireland and Scotland to the north, in the meeting of various seas, viz., the sea which encompasses Ireland at the north-west, and the sea which encompasses Scotland at the north-east, and the sea to the south between Ireland and Scotland. They whirl around like moulding compasses, each of them taking the place of the other, like the paddles… of a millwheel, until they are sucked into the depths so that the cauldron remains with its mouth wide open; and it would suck even the whole of Ireland into its yawning gullet. It vomits iterum {again & again} that draught up, so that its thunderous eructation and its bursting and its roaring are heard among the clouds, like the steam boiling of a cauldron of fire.’

Corryvreckan Whirlpool, photo by Russ Baum, CC BY-SA 2.0
Corryvreckan Whirlpool, photo by Russ Baum, CC BY-SA 2.0.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2720206
Corryvreckan Whirlpool, photo by Walter Baxter
Corryvreckan Whirlpool, photo by Walter Baxter, CC BY-SA 2.0.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33579199

Corryvreckan is also very close to the island of Iona, famous for St Columba, and some of the tales about the whirlpool relate to this saint and his companions, praying to be spared from falling into it, while sailing from Ireland. In one story St Columba is supposed to have encountered and recognised the bones of one Brecan, supposed to have drowned in the whirlpool with his ship and crew, years before. However, there is some dispute as to whether the location of this event was off Scotland or in another whirlpool off northern Ireland.

More recently, in mid-August 1947, the author George Orwell nearly drowned in the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Orwell had fled the distractions of London in April 1947 and taken up temporary residence to write on the isolated island of Jura. On the return leg of a boating daytrip, Orwell seems to have misread the local tide tables and steered into rough seas that drove his boat near to the whirlpool. When the boat’s small engine suddenly sheared off from its mounts and dropped into the sea, Orwell’s party resorted to oars and was saved from drowning only when the whirlpool began to recede and the group managed to paddle to a rocky outcrop about a mile off the Jura coastline. The boat capsized as the group tried to disembark, leaving Orwell, his two companions, and his three-year-old son stranded on the uninhabited outcrop with no supplies or means of escape. They were rescued only when passing lobstermen noticed a fire the party had lit in an effort to keep warm. Orwell’s one-legged brother-in-law Bill Dunn was reputedly the first person to swim across the 300ft deep, mile-wide channel. Nowadays there are regular boat trips and diving trips for tourists.

As the flood tide enters the narrow area between the islands of Jura and Scarba it speeds up to 8.5 knots (>4m/s) and meets a variety of underwater seabed features including a deep hole and a pyramid-shaped basalt pinnacle that rises from depths of 70 m to 29 m at its rounded top. These features combine to create eddies, standing waves and a variety of other surface effects. Flood tides and inflow from the Firth of Lorne to the west can drive the waters of Corryvreckan into waves of more than 30 feet, and the roar of the resulting whirlpool can be heard ten miles away.

Image from Hebridean Wild website
Image from Hebridean Wild website.
http://www.hebridean-wild.co.uk/about.html

Although dangerous when the flood or ebb tide is running and particularly when the wind is blowing ‘against the tide’ (when choppy seas make it very dangerous), it can be safely crossed at slack water when the weather is calm. This is where accurate tidal predictions come into their own, to identify the safe passage times of slack water, although detailed modelling of these areas of complex bathymetry is still a challenge.