A trip to York


 A few images from our recent foray to the National Railway Museum in York.

Some random thoughts:

The Museum is amazing.

It was very good to see some familiar "faces", such as "Evening Star" and the Lancashire and Yorkshire tank loco.

The small exhibits section was fascinating, apart from the over-zealous "explainer" who really wanted to tell me everything about the L&Y signalling school, but couldn't read personal cues.

It's hard to photograph things inside the Great Hall on a dull day, and even more difficult in the station hall. I had to wonder why the Crab and the Midland single were boarded up to the platform so that their best features were hidden.

It was a great idea to put "Mallard" on the next road to the "Duchess". Although for me, they needn't have bothered with streamlining the LMS loco.  I know,  I am in a minority of one here! You could still stand in amazement of the sheer size of what was perhaps Britain's most powerful passenger loco .
 My last visit was 20 years ago, but things weren't dumbed down as I had expected (or maybe I'm dumb).

I was generally pleased with the curation, although felt that more funding is needed to be able to show the myriad small exhibits properly.

People still seem to want to find out about railways and children were generally enjoying themselves around the locos and gimmicks like the simulator.

Benches and barriers around the locos were very annoying to us photographers, but I understand why they are there.

The lattes are very good in the Station Hall cafe.







 Museum Web site:  http://www.nrm.org.uk/

Saltley Firing Days by Terry Essery



Volumes of reminiscences by railway footplate staff tend to be a mixed freight- running the gamut from a mere list of anecdotes, to that rare thing, a work of literary merit and historical value.

Terry Essery's book most definitely falls into the latter category. Over the last few years, I have developed an appetite for this kind of thing and have been entertained, amused and occasionally disappointed by my discoveries in the second hand bookshops. However, when my good friend Geoff Forster recommended this double volume, I immediately ordered a copy.

Terry is brother of the well-known railway modeller, Bob Essery and followed his older sibling into the service of the railway. Saltley is a Birmingham area shed and this initially discouraged me, as I am not a big fan of the Midlands, but within minutes of opening the book I was hooked by Terry's easy writing style and the excellent, insightful descriptions of his mates in the various links that he works through. There are wry observations and much humour in the writing, yet it never falls into the anecdotal or clumsy set-piece style of some other writers. There is also enough detail and description to satisfy the most fastidious student of the steam locomotive.

The descriptions of working the Lickey incline were particularly eye-openening and shed a different light on the business of managing a heavy, loose coupled freight downhill. The most intriguing descriptions, for me, were of locomotives that I have a particular interest in. Terry worked on Hughes/Fowler "Crabs" and found them willing and powerful locomotives and easy enough to fire and work, although the narrow tender caused problems when running backwards. It was no surprise that he appreciated the "9F's" but he gives a reasoned and honest appraisal of them.Such a tragedy that the stars in the railway firmanent were aligned against these magnificent locomotives and they had such a short operating life.

An interesting point is made in the chapter where Terry is teamed with an eccentric driver who likes to "thrash" the engines to produce the maximum power output and time-saving. Our author immediately lets it be known that he is more than willing to work with the man, rising to the challenge- and some interesting runs ensue. An outing with Stanier 5XP Jubilee "Galatea", where the combination of engine and fireman at the peak of their condition combine to produce an epic performance, makes entertaining and revealing reading. As Terry says, sometimes locomotive performance is only limited by the willingness of the fireman to produce superhuman efforts- and nowhere was this more true than with the "9F's". The fitting of a mechanical stoker was an interesting experiment, spoiled by the inability of BR to source the correct grade of coal until it was too late. It is also a pity that Terry didn't have the chance to fire a "Coronation" class locomotive, I would have loved to have read what he had thought of them.

I should also say that, aside from the sort of descriptions that all enthusiasts hope to find in a book about footplate experiences, Terry's dry humour really brings it alive. I found myself chuckling out loud many times, and on one occasion was reduced to tears by a well-described episode. Terry comes out of the book as someone with a great deal of character, well-equipped to deal with the stress of working with a different mate every time his link changes, and more to the point, accepting their foibles and dealing pleasantly with them. Add to that his self-deprecating and realistic writing style and the book is a delight.

Sadly,  in 1959, Terry found the railway clock was against him.  He realised that by the time he'd worked through the driving links and gained the longer-distance turns that he loved so much, the diesel would have reigned supreme. Not for him the quotidian task of machine-minder, and so he left the railway. Speaking personally, I'm glad that he retained enough notes and that his memory was vivid enough to produce this superb book- I heartily recommend it.

(I should point out that this book is out of print- but good copies can still be easily obtained from Amazon and Ebay at reasonable prices.)

More Railways in Art: a little further off the main lines.

Harry Leith-Ross, The Switch Engine, 1942

I'm more of an "off-the-beaten-track" man myself. Paintings of huge express locomotives in full song don't really do much for me- especially those of the chocolate box persuasion, with every rivet and detail obsessively rendered. But kudos to folk who can paint like that, it's not easy and there are a great many connoisseurs who love their work. I can understand why an artist would want to respond to the visceral sight of a "King" thundering past by making a painting. I would try (and fail) to somehow give the viewer the idea of how it felt as that train passed, to tell something of the weight, the bulk and the momentum of that moment. But, as a painter, I just don't have the chops, and my work, sadly, falls too often into the chocolate box camp.

For this post, I've selected a few painters who I feel have succeeded in conveying the atmosphere of the railway. No expresses here, instead I have chosen studies of quotidian moments without any special significance at the time.

The first painter is a bird of passage, Harry Leith-Ross, (1886-1973) who moved to his ancestral  Scotland from Mauritius, studied in Europe, then settled in Pennsylvania, where he became a friend of the celebrated painter, John Folinsbee. The painting above is an impressionist painting, for sure- yet, despite the absence of rivets or any detail worth mentioning, I can tell that switcher is a Baldwin "pig"  and it gives me the feeling of the place and what it was like on an ordinary winters day, watching the yard pilot switching flatcars for various industrial concerns. The tiny watercolour below is of a gas works in Pennsylvania, but again, the railway activity is given top billing, the steam acting as the vehicle for a sense of time and weather.

"Gas Works"- this view may represent a portion of the former Point Breeze Gas Works, operated on the east shore of the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia.
Oddly enough, Leith-Ross trained first as an engineer in the coal industry before taking up the arts. Perhaps that explains his affinity with railways. 

Since I mentioned John Folinsbee, here's a painting of his below, depicting the Poughkeepsie Bridge. It's an impressionistic study which feels quite raw and cold. A turgid, freezing river flows slowly beneath the spidery viaduct. The long coal train almost seems to teeter, emphasising the height of the bridge. While I couldn't find another railway painting by him of a reasonable size to show here, he made an impressive body of work with some fine studies of coal mines and their switching yards, well worth having a look for on the internet.


John Folinsbee, Poughkeepsie Bridge
 Below is a rather amusing study of  a train journey by the Swedish painter, Johan Axel Gustaf Acke (1859-1924). He was a gifted academic painter whose work was influenced by the French Impressionists.



There's a great sense of movement in this, while the passenger enjoying the ride adds a note of humour. (I am left wondering how long that hat stayed on the man's head...)  This must be a Swedish train, double headed with two tender locomotives working hard. Much of the consist seems to be vans, with only the last few vehicles being coaches. The scene reminds me a little of the Welsh Highland Railway where it curves sharply after Waunfawr. Perhaps the curve, or some view off the canvas, is why some other passengers are also leaning out of the windows.  The paint is handled with enthusiasm and I particularly like the way the smoke is described with fluid, curving strokes of the brush.

Now for a painting that had me fooled for a moment. It is by Bernard Gantner (1928-) and is called "Locomotives au Soleil Couchant", 1965. I didn't notice the date at first, as this painter has a very impressionistic style and I assumed that it had been produced in the early C20th. Then the penny dropped, and I realised it was making a point about the end of steam. It certainly evokes memories of the scrap line at Speke in 1967, and the scenes at Dai Woodham's in Barry. I thought at first that some of the locomotives were in steam, but I think that is just an artifice by the artist.



Several of the locomotives are without tenders and although the lighting towers are rendered very well, the locomotives themselves are painted in a kind of shorthand. This is the only railway painting by Gantner and was painted at a time when his work was beginning to gain recognition in France. He is considered a fine draughtsman, yet here we have a mixture of impressionism and Rembrandtesque scumbling. However, if Gantner wanted to make a melancholy reflection upon the sun setting on steam power, he has succeeded here.

 
Finally, a painting by the American artist, Don Coker. It's a painting of a four unit "lash-up" at a coal mine and is a stylistic departure for Don, who has a very realistic, literal way of working. It makes me think of those big coal railheads in Kentucky, where the honking of a diesel horn from a team of big motors punctuates the day for miles around, providing the default background noise. Don is very skilful with oils - he has done several other fine railway paintings, but this, for me, is the outstanding one. I am no stranger to mines and this really captures the atmosphere of a mundane, unregarded moment. Yet Don has celebrated it, been excited enough to spend a good many hours shuffling the paint about and has produced something very honest. I like the feeling of a hillside above; perhaps this is a classic drift mine and the coal will be going to one of those old-style coal-fired power stations.

I think that sums up all these paintings in this post; they are all celebrations of the moment, where the artist has felt something of the magic of railways; the fact that none of them were aficionados makes them even more interesting.

Wandering about the internet, looking for lesser-known railway paintings I am afraid I have found a pandora's box of pigment and pixels...there will be more...you have been warned!

Streetcar provokes desire


Streetcar from James Page on Vimeo.

I found this beautiful video on my colleague Jim Lowe's fascinating and entertaining blog, "30 Squares of Ontario". I'm not really much of a streetcar fan, but that might change after watching this video :-)

The Bookshop gems of Machynlleth

© Copyright Peter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
 I've always liked Machynlleth, a busy, mid-Wales market town with interesting architecture, a fine wholefood cafe and a very notable modern art gallery. The place is special, too, because of the landscape that surrounds it. The jagged mountains of the north are only an echo in the rolling hills; and while Snowdonian clouds still unfurl like distant arguments, here the scenery is altogether more tranquil and pastoral.

There's magic about the place for me, because although there aren't many signs on the ground now, the fabled Corris Railway once had it's terminus near the standard gauge goods yard, bringing slate and passengers to the GWR's imposing station.  That's probably how I first became aware of the town, looking at the wonderful photographs of evocatively named steam locomotives, "Dukedogs" and "Manors", on shed  in various books about the Cambrian lines, or gazing wistfully at old photos of the narrow gauge trains.

It's appropriate that I should raise the subject of GWR Manor class locomotives, because during one of our strolls about the place, seeking blessed refuge from the bland shopping dens of the north, we encountered an unusual bookshop. It was in an antique emporium that I have passed many times before, but this time Petra wanted to investigate, and once inside she called my attention to a corner that was of great interest. Several shelves of railway books caught my eye, liberally consolidated by trays of previously cherished model railway equipment at reasonable prices. My eyes roamed the shelves, settling upon another Bradford Barton title for my collection,"Great Western Steam In Close-up". If I was one of those people that contribute to forums, I would now say something like "coin of the realm changed hands". It was a snip at £4 and looks rather fine next to my other BB titles. The name of the shop is "Machynlleth Antiques Emporium" . Never mind the rather uninspiring web site, because what we are interested in is "Nicks Railway Stuff". I can recommend this place wholeheartedly if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in the town with a modest quantity of spare money wanting a home.



I've already mentioned the excellent gallery of modern art, MOMA, (always worth a visit), but there is another gallery and bookshop in the town which is worthy of the closest examination. It's a seemingly modest premises across from the church on Heol Pen'rallt. The shop is a little like the tardis, bigger on the inside, where there is an impeccably curated selection of new and used books. The walls are host to exhibitions of photography and, when we were there, graphic novel artwork. I suppose I am a little biased, as when we visited there was one of Petra's books on the shelves, but the selection of C20th books is a fascinating one. I had better warn you that there are no railway books, but nevertheless, I still found several interesting volumes to purchase.


A wonderful find was a classic volume, "London's Lost Riverscape", which I first encountered in Pembrokeshire in the nineties but couldn't buy it- needless to say I snapped it up here. It is a photographic journey along the Thames during the 1940's, documenting the wonderful architecture and ships, barges and activity of the period in large landscape format photographs. Every time I look at it I want to model one of the warehouses.  I then stumbled upon Brunskill's "Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain", a companion to his "Handbook of Vernacular Architecture". I'd been looking for that for a while, too. Finally, I treated myself to a volume of the late Tony Benn's diaries, "Free at Last". I shall just say that Big Tony is one of my political heroes and the book does not disappoint. We finished up having a chat with the very friendly owners of the shop. It's called "Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop" and "The List" called it "a beacon in the darkness of the ever encroaching world of e books".

A glimpse inside "London's Lost Riverscape"
So there we are, a whistle stop tour of the bookshops of Machynlleth, once home to the Court of Owain Glendwr, where the doughty residents have recently seen off the ailing food giant Tesco, who wanted to built a 15,000 sq ft powder coated steel palace of consumer kitsch outside the town. It  would probably have turned this fascinating place into a sea of charity shops and empty commercial premises. I have no doubt they, or others like them will be back, so enjoy this beguiling town while you can.

"London's Lost Riverscape" by Chris Elmers and Alex Werner, Guild Publishing, 1988
"Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain" R W Brunskill, Victor Gollancz, 1987 ISBN:0-575-04143-9


Pen'rallt Gallery Bookshop, Heol Pen'rallt 01654 700559
"Machynlleth Antiques Emporium"  20 Heol Maengwyn, 01650 511 534

Header photograph, by kind courtesy of Peter, can be found here at Geograph

Secondhand Gems



We popped into the Bay Bookshop in Colwyn Bay yesterday. It's the only possible reason I can think of to visit that awful place, apart from the fact that it has a nice little guitar shop nearby and a Costa's across the road. The book shop is a veritable treasure trove, with four shelves devoted to Railways and another two for trucks and buses. I didn't need to think before I bought the Bradford Barton GWR book - who can resist a little Dukedog porn? At £4.50 it was a no-brainer.


The other volume was irresistible, being an album of photographs of just about every make of industrial loco from this country, published in 1977 when it was just possible to see the odd steamer in industrial service. Another absolute snip at £8.50. Petra also found a large pile of vintage children's books (she collects other illustrator's work). The shop is well worth a visit and is a few minutes off the expressway. The staff are extremely pleasant and staggeringly knowledgeable.

Last week we were at Llangollen and visited Maxine's Cafe and Books, a delightfully eccentric establishment which reminds me of Voltaire and Rousseau in Glasgow, where I spent a great deal of my free Saturdays leafing through disorganised piles of dusty volumes. At Maxine's, the books are admirably ordered and reasonably priced. I could have bought "The Aspinall Years" for £10 but instead picked up a couple of little gems...



The Tissington Trail booklet because I have always had a soft spot for the C&HPR and there were some photos I hadn't seen. It was £2.00, although cost 90p when first published in 1980!  As for the L&Y "Railways before the Grouping" by Ian Allan...that was something I had once and lost. Full of lovely photos, for £2.00 again.  I can recommend Maxines very highly, although it is a time sink. The only very minor drawback is the surly and disinterested person on the till.

While in Llangollen, I always visit Courtyard Books, a well stocked bookshop selling new stock. It is full of locally interesting titles and is run by a delightful lady who goes out of her way to help. Unfortunately there isn't a web site, but the shop is off Castle street down in a courtyard with a pleasant cafe next door.



The Llangollen Railway shop deserves a mention, as I picked up this esoteric and deeply fascinating book there... I couldn't resist it. Petra and I have been studying the collieries around Bwcle, more an exercise in reading the runes as there is almost nothing left, but this book shows just what has been lost.  The book has an odd design, almost as if it has been set in Microsoft Word with boxes around everything, but the information contained within is priceless and authoritative and all printed on very good quality paper. For the local history buff, at £9.95 it's a real bargain.
The book is "The Buckley Railway Album and Associated Industries" published by the Buckley Society, unfortunately it doesn't have an ISBN.

A page spread from the Buckley Album

Finally, I must recommend the shop at the Talyllyn Railway, not just because they carry my maps, but because they have a large set of shelves of secondhand books. I was able to complete my collection of GWR Journal from Wild Swan with two issues I had given up on. Every time I visit, the people on the till are charming and helpful. What more could you ask for...full size Dolgoch chuffing outside the door?

A mooch around Port Penrhyn


Port Penrhyn, terminus of  a narrow-gauge railway by which slate was brought from the vast quarries at Bethesda down to the Menai Straits for export worldwide. If any reminder of the vast profits to be made hereabouts from slate (and slavery) is needed, one only has to gaze a little way uphill from the Port to the tasteless monolith of Penrhyn castle, built by the rapacious owners of the eponymous slate quarry. They were undoubtedly the Trumps of their day, although in fairness, I think they probably had better hairstyles.

These days, however, no gilded "four in-hands" roll up to the gates of the castle, nor do delightful narrow gauge trains chuff on to the quayside. Today, the scene is changed almost beyond recognition from the photographs of a century ago. Yet, there are still many reminders among the yachts that have colonised the quaysides, or the loudly painted Mussel Dredgers, that line up like accidental bunting.


Above: The way it was, back in the early part of the C20th. Big slabs on railway trucks and a beautiful three-masted ship on the outer side of the harbour wall.

I'd driven down to the quayside expecting some sort of post-industrial wasteland, some tacky housing development or a swanky marina, perhaps. Instead what greeted my gaze was a fascinating mixture of secondary industry, some real port development and a delightful mixture of old boats, mostly come here to quietly rot out their last days with dignity. A busy yacht sales and charter company has squirrelled boats away in every available corner. Despite the recession, quite a few folk were looking round the boats on sale. The fools! (Nobody told them that owning a yacht is like trying to stop a hole in the ocean with ten pound notes). Others were spending the weekend on board their vessel, reading newspapers, drinking tea or wine. Time enough to do repairs and get the old girl ship-shape again. The elephant on the quay says that it isn't going to happen any time soon though, if ever.


One curious vessel, long uncared for, sported a faded captain's peaked cap in the wheelhouse. A couple of trawlers lay berthed with tackle corroded to the mast, washing baskets full of rusty chain. There were signs of commercial sea-going activity with a handful of working boats, but the big waves in the harbour were being made by the brash new kids on the block, the Mussel Dredgers. Operated by a Welsh firm, their colour schemes are chosen by the owner's wife. I wonder if she was the woman walking along the quay in the turquoise top and vibrant pink slacks...



For those, like me, with a yen for the antique and rusty, there was plenty to fascinate. The old engine shed that once housed those illustrious  Hunslet sisters, Blanche and Linda, now does a turn as a boatyard. Very fine it looks, too, with some excellent craftsmanship on show outside. The curious circular Privy is hemmed on all sides by yachtage but still cuts a fine shape. A couple of old cranes rust away in style, now desirable homes for impressive web building spiders. Nearer the big house, the remains of the bridges that spanned the Penrhyn Railway and the standard gauge branch from Bangor are still in perfect condition, as is the fine Georgian-styled Harbour office. A quarter mile post is all that is left of the railway formation hereabouts, but it serves as a fine reminder.


The old Penrhyn railway loco shed.

There's a fair bit of optimism about, too. The harbour's owners are trying to whip up some momentum for the place, making a convincing case for the economy and green credentials of sea-going transport. Right now, it's hard to predict how things will go, but I do hope they have some success...more coastal sea cargo must be a good thing. I just hope they don't evict all those lovely old relics, tied up or beached along the quay. I hope, too, that the owner's wife will continue to have the Mussel boats painted in Expressionist colours, to cheer up those dreary winter's days along the Menai Straits..

The Privy


True Love

More photos on my Flickr stream here.

Impressions of the Extravaganza


Petra and I have been photographing the Llandudno Victorian Extravaganza for about ten years now. I love to see the engines, (which are the main event for me) and occasionally catch up with someone on a loco that I know, or that knew my old man. But that familiarity and emotional investment in the machinery brings a feeling that I can't photograph them any more, it's all been done for me. In many ways, traction engines are a gift for the photographer with all those angles and shiny surfaces, but once you've photographed a wheel or a boiler in a certain way, you've said it. The photography police will come tapping me on my shoulder and say "sorry, sir...that shot is taken. Move along now." I can only reply, "At least I didn't HDR it, officer!"  I know I shouldn't think like this, that there is the variety of differing light, focus, texture and of course, the weather. A proper photographer would come up with something good.

This year, I took about 200 shots, of which only the ones here were any use. (And that's up for debate). The rest are just bland record shots of engines, badly exposed, or just plain rubbish. Never mind, We did enjoy ourselves and it was great to sit upstairs in Cafe Nero and watch the crowds mill about down on the street. Next year? Of course!





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