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The Tank Museum, near Poole
Bill again challenged my long-standing boast: “I can be fascinated by any topic that is well-presented” by scheduling a visit to the Tank Museum the day after we completed our final segment of the 600+ mile-long Coast Path. It was well done and indeed, I was fascinated. And the experience again confirmed my bias for the beginnings of things, how or why a technology was ignited. Once the early kinks are worked out of almost anything, once the subject moves from what I call “project mode” to “maintenance mode,” my interest wanes.
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Leonardo da Vinci’s tank design from the 1480’s.

The story of tanks begins with an isolated glimmer in the 1480’s with Leonard da Vinci’s “concept vehicle,” as the US auto industry would call it. It didn’t catch-on, like many of his musings, and the first in-the-field tank prototype wasn’t built until 1915 by the British. None of da Vinci’s elements were included in the not-so-successful Little Willie, but the subsequent Mark I in 1917 was a winner. The pressures of WWI resulted in it going from a prototype to a war-ready weapon in a record-setting 9 months.

It was the immobilizing nature of the German’s trench warfare that had created tremendous pressure for a “Landship” to break-through the enemy lines that had spawned tank development. Intended to take fire power directly to the target, these tanks specifically had to motor-through soft, muddy earth; cross wide trenches; and remove mats of barbed wire along the way.

Each Mark 1 carried fascine on top, a highly engineered bundle of twigs to fill a single trench and dragged a grapnel behind to wad and remove barbed wire in its wake. On-board carrier pigeons sent messages back to headquarters. Somewhat effective but thought by some to only be needed for this particular war, tanks were on their way to becoming a permanent element in contemporary warfare.

A British invention, their uniqueness and success were a source of tremendous national pride during WWI and were celebrated in the form of teapots, sweetheart brooches (woman’s jewelry depicting tanks), and the new Tanko dance. In 1917, tanks were put on trains for road trips around the nation to raise donations to support the war effort.

The advent of the new style of warfare and resulting tanks however, doomed the proud and much revered cavalry to obsolescence. Curiously, in the slow process of the Landships being removed from control by the navy, the cavalry troops morphed into the fighters in these first armored vehicles.
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Little Willie, the first tank produced (1915).

After studying the early iterations of the Mark series of British tanks, I moved to retracing why the earliest tank design shifted from the familiar US caterpillar configuration (like a paperclip on its side) to the track being wrapped around the entire, rhomboid-shaped hull, and then back to the caterpillar design.

The imported US caterpillar track proved to be totally ill-suited to Europe’s muddy trenches because the track would sag and fall off of the wheels once it hit a trench, which spawned the more roller-bearing-type design wrapped around the entire vehicle. All was going well with that new approach except that the track on the upper portion of the rig was literally out of reach and hauling ladders onto the battle field was not a hit with the mechanics. Hence, the redesign of the hull and track itself to keep both the upper and lower of sections of the moving belt easily accessible, like on the caterpillar, the configuration still in use today.

The iconic tank turret didn’t top-off the Landship until the interwar years, about 1930. During WWI, the guns were side-mounted in sponsons that had to be removed for transport to the theatre by rail.

The final thread of my self-guided tank development studies was noting the introduction of very wide tracks by the Russians in their extremely successful, WWII, T-34 tank design. The heralded Nazi Panzer’s were no match for the cheap, clunky, relatively low-tech, Russian T-34. Hitler demanded that the Russian-styled, all-terrain tracks be quickly integrated into their Panzer upgrade, the Panther.

After more than 4 hours on the museum floor and only having covered about 2/3’s of the exhibits, we were running short on time and the tank story, in my mind, was degrading into the minutiae. The difference between a gun and cannon didn’t serve my cause, so we wrapped it up.
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The more successful Mark series tank design beginning in 1917 with fascine, side-mounted guns, & a grapnel.

I had been thrilled with the heavy emphasis by the museum curators on the early part of the story, my area of interest, and the astute docent that actually heard the content of my questions and enthusiastically responded with specificity and clarity.

I departed for our long walk back to the train excited and satisfied. Instead of my brain fuzzing from overload, I excitedly shared my condensed version of the history of tanks and the critical, early innovations with Bill, who had a different experience of the museum. Bill had been interested in trains, planes, boats, and such things since childhood, so was much more knowledgeable about the subject at the outset of our museum visit.

Dartmouth Flashback
Our satisfaction with the Tank Museum reminded us of a similarly gratifying visit to a one room exhibit at the Dartmouth tourist information office 2 weeks earlier. A group of steam engine enthusiasts had financed a little addition to the building and relocated the oldest known steam engine to there--one from about 1720. The very first commercially successful engine had been put into service in 1712 in a Dartmouth area coal mine. Thomas Newcomen was local talent who was both the inventor and builder of these engines.

I peered down into the pit in which the machine was anchored; I carefully studied the miniature of it and the schematics; and Bill did his best to explain it to me, but I was still confused. Liberation from my frustration came with contemplating a visual seemingly designed for children. I felt a little better knowing that even given all of his decades of interest in the subject, Bill too learned this same missing piece of information there. The obscure detail of the basics of steam engine theory is that the power, the force to drive the engine, is generated by a sudden temperature change.
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Schematic of the all-important jet of cold water entering the Newcomen steam engine cylinder.

Abruptly introducing a jet of cold water into a steam-filled cylindrical creates a vacuum, making the piston inside the cylinder drop. It’s this drop of the piston that generates mechanical work. In this case, the work was pumping water out of coal mines. All modern engines operate by using the basic mechanical principals employed by Newcomen more than 300 years ago. Fascinating.

Tourist Tax
“Tourist tax” is our long-standing euphemism for “Only tourists like us would have paid this much.” We unwittingly paid a hefty $75 tourist tax our first day in London using the transit system. We didn’t get fined; we just didn’t know about the fine print.

Bill had spent over an hour the evening before our London outing reading about navigating the underground and buses. Like the buses we’d taken from the villages while on the Coast Path, all required non-cash cards and we could continue using our “contactless” credit cards from home, though we never knew what we were racking-up in fees. When boarding, there was no way to know what the prices were, but we pressed on, doing what needed to be done to solve our usually urgent transit problems.

On the last ride of more than a half dozen on our first day in London, Google, which Bill had used for the entire trip for transit schedules, connections, and stop locations, only gave one option for getting to our hotel near the airport, which was the Heathrow Express. He knew that there must be other methods but, like on several other occasions, he couldn’t force the app to tell him what it knew.

We obediently ran to catch the next train and then Bill began to wonder how much it was costing us. His other primary transit guide, the Rome to Rio app, delivered the bad news: about $75. It was a lovely, fast ride but it would have been free or close to it on the underground because we were at or almost at the $15 cap per person for the day, though of course we didn’t know exactly what we had spent on fares that day.
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A canal boat on tour on London’s Grand Canal.

There was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the expensive, coach-class ride. Fortunately, we are price-sensitive but not ‘on a shoestring’ travelers so it stung but that was it. We could sooth the ourselves by saying it evened-out with what we had saved by preparing our own breakfasts for 2 days instead of buying the hotel meal, but really, it was just money down the drain—a tourist tax.

The next morning, Google made the same “take it or leave it” offer of using the Heathrow Express for our trip into the city. Once again, Bill couldn’t force another option, so switched to his app for the metro. We already knew how to take the bus to the metro, so spared ourselves the premium price for the lovely Express, which could have cost us $150 round trip per day.

London on Foot
Other than the unexpectedly expensive finish to the day, we enjoyed walking the neighborhood streets of London. The day started with close to 90 minutes on buses and the underground to buy a backpack Bill had spied in Poole. The electric blue version in Poole didn’t please either of us so the hunt was on for the black model. We then walked as far back to our hotel as we could by 3 pm, did our marketing for our next 3 meals, and then used the transit system to return to our hotel.

Our rather arbitrary route sliced us through many old neighborhoods in desperate need of gentrification; through the ‘big box’ stores selling furniture, tile, and sporting goods; then back into the neighborhoods. The aging architecture was loaded with details for our eyes to feast upon and the street scene shouted London’s ethnic diversity. In part, it was a walk down memory lane when we passed by tiny Turkish produce markets like the ones we’d shopped in Germany, Austria, and Italy so often many years ago.

We were stunned and touched by the multiple little shops in each neighborhood: barbers, launderettes, food, key making, electronics repairs, nail salons, and the like. They were neighborhood scenes that were largely gone from much of the US. Ancient-looking men in rumpled clothes jabbering outside sidewalk cafes like they did in the old country; resolute women in all kinds of garb taking children to school and doing the marketing; and young professionals in a hurry added even more energy to the scene.

Our second full day In London degraded into too many hours using the transit system. We only walked 2 miles because of the drizzle and opted to shelter indoors for several hours in the London City Museum for another history lesson.
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Once mobile, this moored canal boat owner had expanded on to land.

Back on the streets, we were again quite taken with the traffic calming effect that had been achieved in central London by dramatically increasing parking prices and improving the transit system. It was downright calm and quiet and it looked like the carnage with the initial influx in bike commuting that we had read about had passed.

London’s Canals
The grand plan to maintain our walking form for our week in the urban areas of Poole and London was a flop. Originally conceived to do “hub & spoke” outings along the Thames River Path from one hotel instead of using the luggage transfer system between hotels, required too much time on the transit system once we were there and delved into the details. Before we left home, Bill had determined that both the prices and locations of lodging along the route had made walking from hotel to hotel in London a non-starter.

Consequently, Bill revised the plans for our final full day in London to emphasize exercise. We began by walking from ourairport hotel to eliminate one direction on the transit system and only used it to close the loop at the end of the day.

The first couple of miles of walking was along a freeway, then we cut into a sometimes-creepy wooded area that I wouldn’t have traversed alone. Curiously, one old roadway was a dumping ground for motorcycles. We were perplexed because they had all been burned but were neatly spaced apart. “Stolen” was our first explanation which then evolved to “stolen by a pyromaniac”. Their presence certainly didn’t make the locale any more appealing.

We emerged from this disquieting rural scene into reassuringly urban London about our all-important lunch time and found ourselves on London’s Grand Union Canal. “Canal’s in London? Who knew?”

An elaborate canal system was developed in the 1800’s to haul bricks into the city and to send the city’s garbage out to the countryside. It wasn’t long however, before competition from the emerging railroads (powered by Newcomen’s steam engine) killed the waterway transit industry. Even though the skies grayed in the afternoon, experiencing the canals added a cheery end to what started out as an unsettling walk on our last day in England.

And Then…
The next day we hopped a flight to Munich, took the long train ride to the main train station, and spent the night in the city center. Bill was well practiced at positioning us for the next train trip to Bolzano, Italy in the morning, one of our 2 primary cities for accessing the Dolomites by bus. We were booked to spend the next 3 months hiking and biking among those stunning peaks in an area that would feel like home.