Eccentric England: The Headington Shark

Headington Shark
Henry Flower

Once again, I’m back in Oxford for my annual summer working holiday. I love this place. This quintessentially English city offers beautiful colleges, the world’s coolest museum, even the chance to bump into the Queen.

But all this pales in comparison to the sight of a giant shark crashing into a roof.

The Oxford suburb of Headington is a bit dull, so local resident Bill Heine at 2 New High Street decided to commission sculptor John Buckley to create a 25-foot shark to adorn his roof. It was put up on August 9, 1986, the 41st anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. As Heine explained, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation … It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”

The clipboard Nazis in the local council were not amused. They tried to have it removed as a pubic hazard. When their engineer said it was perfectly safe, they tried various other excuses. Much legal wrangling ensued.

Decades later, the naysayers are all gone and the shark is still there. It’s a much-loved local landmark, a modern folly. I see it every time I come in on the bus from London and enjoy pointing it out to newcomers. There’s even a Headington Shark Appreciation Society on Facebook with more than a thousand members. So if you’re coming to Oxford, pop on over and see the Headington Shark.

WWII-Era Parisian Apartment Found Stopped In Time

Cyferus, Flickr

Love letters from fans bundled with a ribbon. A Giovanni Boldini painting worth more than $2 million. Hairbrushes caked in 70 years’ worth of dust. All sitting right where the owner left them during World War II.

According to the Daily Mail, a time capsule of an apartment in Paris’s 9th arrondissement was discovered three years ago upon the 91-year-old owner’s death. She had fled to the south of France when World War II broke out, and it looks as though she never returned. Authorities found the once-elegant apartment in a cluttered, lived-in state, its brocade wallpaper faded and everything covered in cobwebs.

Among the abandoned possessions, one painting caught an expert’s eye: a luminous image of a flirtatiously posed young brunette with a slinky pink silk or satin gown spilling far down her shoulders. The expert suspected it to be a Boldini (the Italian was a friend of Edward Degas and a noted portrait artist in Paris in the late-19th century). But he had no proof – until he found, among the scattered papers in the residence, a love letter from Boldini to the actress Marthe de Florian, a French star at the turn of the century. De Florian was the apartment owner’s grandmother, and those bundled love letters were from her admirers, including one French prime minister.

Later identified as a 1898 Boldini, the painting eventually fetched more than $2 million at auction, six times its opening bid and more than any other work by the artist.

[Via the Daily Mail]

Mussolini’s Bunker Discovered In Rome, Will Become A Tourist Attraction

MussoliniA bunker intended for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini has been discovered in Rome, World Crunch reports.

The bunker was found in 2011 by workers restoring the Palazzo Venezia, but its existence wasn’t revealed until now. The workers found a trap door in the cellar of a 15th-century building that led to nine rooms fortified with concrete walls up to two meters (6.6 feet) thick.

Researchers believe this was the 12th bunker Mussolini was said to have had. It was obviously never finished as there is no plumbing or electricity, only bare walls.

The bunker is 15 meters (49.2 feet) underground and could have withstood some serious bombing.

There are two escape routes in the bunker, one of which leads to a neighboring church garden. The other hasn’t been fully explored but leads in the direction of another of Mussolini’s bunkers.

While his network of bunkers protected Mussolini from Allied bombing, they didn’t protect him from his own people. He was killed by Communist partisans on April 27, 1945.

The bunker will open to tourists this autumn and will include a touchscreen display to explain its historical significance and the recording of an air raid siren to add a touch of atmosphere.

This decision is at odds with what Germany did with Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. While the exact location was known, it was decided not to turn it into a historical monument for fear that it would attract neo-Nazis. It wasn’t until 2006, and after much controversy, that a historic plaque was put up at the location.

[Image courtesy Bundesarchiv]

The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn

Tallinn
Tallinn is an old city, and like many old cities it has its share of secrets. Stories of ghosts, buried treasure and hidden tunnels add to the atmosphere of the medieval streets.

For a couple of years, one of those secrets was revealed when the city opened up the Bastion Tunnels. These corridors were built by Estonia’s Swedish rulers in the 1670s and ran under the earthen bastions that protected the city. These bastions were an improvement over Tallinn’s stone walls, which were now outdated in the age of artillery. The tunnels allowed for the rapid and safe transport of troops from one part of the defenses to the other.

The Bastion Tunnels were used by the soldiers for a time and then were abandoned to the rats and spiders. Abandoned, but not forgotten. The entrances were still visible yet few dared to go down there. Rumors of buried treasure arose but most people were too afraid to venture into the dank, dark tunnels to search for it.

In the more practical 20th century the tunnels got new life. In the 1930s everyone could see that war was coming, and Estonia’s uncomfortable position next to the Soviet Union made it an obvious target. The government reopened the tunnels as bomb shelters. Today, a section of the tunnels is preserved to commemorate this era, with vintage posters showing what to do in case of an air raid, and some frightened dummies set up in period clothing.

The Soviets occupied Estonia in 1940, only to be kicked out by the Germans the following year. They were hardly a liberating force, however, and the partisans who had been fighting the Soviets soon turned their guns on the Nazis. Meanwhile the Soviets launched bombing raids and the citizens of Tallinn hid in the tunnels for protection. Luckily most of the historic city was preserved, but as you walk around you can spot patches where all the buildings are new. This is thanks to the Soviets.

%Gallery-179163%The Estonian resistance actually took advantage of the bombings to strike a blow against their occupiers. Estonians tell the story that the German high officers all stayed at a particular posh hotel. The resistance hoped it would get hit by a bomb and preeminently smuggled ammunition into the cellar. A Soviet bomb hit the hotel and BOOM … no more Nazi officers.

The Soviets eventually retook Estonia and it would remain under Soviet rule until 1991. During that time the tunnels were used again as a bomb shelter. Visitors can see period equipment like radios, air circulation machines and radiation suits. There’s even an old Soviet latrine that still stinks. The photo above shows an Estonian family hoping their suits will stop the radiation from an American nuclear strike. That green bag between the mother and her child is for a baby. I’ll leave it to you to guess whether that contraption would have actually worked.

Eventually the Soviets, too, abandoned the tunnels. Estonia had nuclear missiles positioned all over the country so it was on the U.S. shortlist for bombing. The Soviets must have realized that some 17th century tunnels weren’t going to protect anyone from a direct hit, so the tunnels once again reverted to a home for rats and spiders.

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, a new group took over the tunnels – the punks. Punk rock was illegal in the Soviet Union. That whole defy-the-system ethos didn’t sit too well with the Communist Party. So the punks went underground, literally. They spray painted the walls, threw parties, drank, took drugs and generally had a good time while thumbing their noses at authority. The police harassed and often arrested punks on the street but never chased them into the tunnels. Our tour guide told us that the tunnels had become infested with fleas and the cops didn’t want to catch bugs along with punks.

Independence came in 1991 and the punks could enjoy sunlight again. The economy wasn’t doing so well and the homeless population swelled. They took over the tunnels and made them as comfortable as they could. Eventually, of course, they were kicked out so the tunnels could be restored and opened as a tourist site. Our tour guide didn’t know what happened to the homeless people.

The Bastion Tunnels make for an interesting tour, yet I feel that the city missed a great opportunity. The punk graffiti was all painted over and eventually replaced with faux graffiti in the punk style. I would have much preferred to have seen graffiti written by some crusty old punk from the days when defying authority could land you in jail instead of just angering parents. It would have also been nice if they could have employed some of the homeless people as tour guides. This would have given them work and given visitors an insight into what it was like to live underneath the city.

And the “Time Machine” ride they have is just too cheesy to waste bandwidth on …

Still, the Bastion Tunnels are one of the most interesting attractions in Tallinn. They’re entered through the cellar of the Kiek in de Kök tower. The name means “peek into the kitchen” because the tower so dominated the town that it was said the watchmen could look down the chimneys of the houses and see what was cooking! The tower has a collection of arms and armor as well as a space for photographic exhibitions. From the top you get a fine view of Tallinn’s Old Town.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: A Vintage Submarine and Icebreaker in Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbor!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Lost WWII Planes Discovered In Mint Condition In Myanmar Jungle

A Spitfire Fighter Plane Like Those Found In the Myanmar JungleTwenty-five years ago a British farmer by the name of David Cundall overheard a group of American World War II vets discussing how they had buried a squadron of unused Supermarine Spitfire fighter planes in the jungles of Burma. The plan was to leave them there until the RAF needed them, at which time they could be dug up and pressed into service. But as the war ground to a halt and newer planes replaced the Spitfire, there was never a need to retrieve the hidden aircraft. So, they’ve stayed there, buried under 40 feet of soil, ever since. That story struck a chord with Cundall, who was a farmer at the time, and for some reason felt compelled to go looking for the lost planes. Two-and-a-half decades, and $210,000 later, he has found them, and the discovery has exceeded his imagination.

Cundall started his search about 15 years ago, making regular trips to Burma, which is now known as Myanmar, to comb the jungles there. Earlier this year, he finally found what he had been looking for but while he expected to locate about 20 planes, he has actually discovered nearly 140. All of them are still stored, wings folded back, in their original crates and are wrapped in wax paper and covered in grease. That has kept them in near mint condition, even after being buried in the jungle for nearly 70 years.

After the discovery, Cundall petitioned the government of Myanmar for permission to begin excavating the vintage planes. They have recently granted him that permission, and he is now free to start the process of digging them up and shipping them home. And why exactly would he want to dig up all of those old planes? Because each of the Spitfires is estimated to be worth about $2.5 million when sold to a collector. That makes the entire find worth roughly $350 million.

It seems this lost cache of British fighters may not be the only one either. According to the “Business Insider” story linked to above, there are rumors that more than 230 Spitfires were buried somewhere in Queensland, Australia, as well. To date, none have been found, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from searching.

[Photo credit: RAF via WikiMedia]