Well, the job hunting took over again; then a fairly major car problem has kicked me right back. The car was diagnosed with a fuel delivery fault, but a week later it seems that the fuel pump was not the culprit, contrary to first impressions. The garage the RAC towed me to is now looking at fuel line leaks, but these can be difficult to find. And despite not having had a new fuel pump after all, the hours worked on the car are mounting. So it’s entirely possible that Christmas may have to be cancelled and replaced with the 24th, 25th and 26th December…
Still, the past few months haven’t been entirely without photographic interest. At the end of August, I took a trip to mid-Wales, as the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway were having a gala weekend, and I hadn’t been to see them for nearly 30 years.
I was struck by how quick and easy it was to get to Welshpool – just twenty minutes or so beyond Shrewsbury by car. I was also surprised by the way the main-line station at Welshpool had changed. When we photographed it in the 1970s as part of the photographic survey of the Cambrian Railways, we were surprised to find a wedding party descending on the station, only afterwards realising that the upstairs of the main station building was being used as a reception venue. That seems to have continued; and if that has been the reason for the retention of a rather fine station building, then that’s all to the good. The station building is now detached from the railway and no longer serves any transport function; and road developments now mean that what was the station forecourt is now basically the site of a roundabout. The goods shed where, in 1973, the railway historian George Dow kept his holiday home carriage, a beautifully-restored Midland Railway inspection saloon, has now been swept away. I wonder where that vehicle is now?
Anyway, the Welshpool & Llanfair’s terminus, which in 1985 was a bare site with a new brick-built signal box, was now a nicely laid-out terminus station with a quaint and very ‘secondary-railway’-looking timber station building. The W&L has the added interest of a train of Austrian rolling stock, mainly from the Zillertalbahn, but with one coach from the long-closed Salzkammergutlokalbahn. They also have an Austrian locomotive, though in the way of such things, it was built in France to the order of the German Army and only later ended up in Austria. But that’s not in service at the moment, so the prospect of a wholly Austrian train was denied us. Instead, I took a train to Llanfair Caereinion in one of their replica coaches which recreate the rather ornate rolling stock that was provided at the opening of the line back in 1903 – and very fine they look, too.
Llanfair Caereinion was the main site for the gala celebrations, with a silver band, traction engines, a model railway exhibition and a visiting Stanley Steamer – a 1912 steam car that pottered around the site and from time to time disappeared off into the countryside emitting a cloud of steam but otherwise making very little fuss.
I had stumbled upon a book launch; David Scotney was present for the publication of a magnum opus on “30-inch railways worldwide”; and his publisher, Frank Stenvalls from Sweden was also present. It is a wonderful book, full of detail and obscure lines; but the price puts it way outside the “impulse buy” category, and the big problem with Stenvalls is that the firm doesn’t have good access to the UK book trade through being identified as a foreign-language publisher (even though many of the books he publishes are in English). I’ve been looking for a publisher with an interest in overseas railways, and Stenvalls is one possibility; but that would be only one step removed from vanity publishing, because the number of outlets that take Stenvalls titles I can think of are minimal. Having said that, one of them is the bookshop at Llanfair Caereinion; this turned out to be a treasure trove of books on overseas railways, narrow gauge railways and a range of obscure titles. Indeed, I saw one book there that I had not expected to see in the this country ever…
After I took a train back to Welshpool, I decided to indulge myself with a mountain drive into Wales. It was further than I thought, but I’d not been along some of those roads in very many years and I enjoyed the experience…
September saw me engaging in some shows – the Sutton Modellers’ show came first, where my photographs provided a memorial to the sadly-missed Doug Burchall; and then I took Jim Bell’s engine shed layout Glockingen to the German Railway Society show the week after. For that, l needed some help, as the Mercedes turned out to lack a major feature of the Saab – a folding rear seat. The baseboards for Glockingen all turned out to be too large to fit in the car by a matter of inches, so I had to call for help. Axel Klozenbuecher came to the rescue, and the attention that the layout got was all the justification I needed for having rescued it in the first place. I was helped by its appearance in Continental Modeller, which came as a bit of a surprise. The show organiser had circulated all the exhibitors about six weeks beforehand, asking for 500 words of description and a few pictures, as Andy Burnham of CM wanted to run something on the show, it being a major fixture in the European railway interest community’s calendar. So I rattled something off and selected some pictures from the archive. My expectation was that there would be an item in the magazine’s “News” section, and perhaps the odd thumbnail image on the exhibition diary page. Imagine my surprise, then, when my next issue arrived, to find that my text and pictures formed a one-page feature in the body of the magazine! I’ve been pitching articles to Andy for some time now, without success, and to find something that I’d thrown together casually given prominence was quite a surprise. Even more surprising, I got paid for it!
I’d planned one more excursion whilst I still had folding money, and that was a return trip to see the ‘Red October’ event at the Tramway Museum at Crich in Derbyshire. ‘Red October’ is a day in the Autumn where the museum invites owners of former Eastern Bloc vehicles, and reconstructionists, to change Crich into part of Karl-Marx-Stadt or Leningrad for the day. I’d been a few years ago, and was so taken with the vehicles on display that a return trip has long been an ambition. This time, there were a number of military vehicles and more reconstructionists than I’d seen before (though no Tatras, sadly). I decided to join in the fun by going in a large black coat and fedora, and took a copy of Pravda to read on the tram, just to add atmosphere…
The lack of a car made my most recent excursion, to the Warley Model Railway Show at the NEC, a bit problematical, though some of my Austrian Railway Group colleagues were ahead of me. As I had volunteered to staff the ARG’s sales stand, they were able to swing round by mine and give me a lift to the site. it was a busy and tiring couple of days, leavened by some beautiful modelling on display. In particular, there was a nice O gauge layout from Belgium and a Dutch mountain diorama that employed forced perspective to great effect. (That’s a diorama from the Netherlands, not a diorama depicting the Dutch mountains, you understand. Though that’s not for want of a desire for mountains; some Dutch modellers have a peculiar yearning for lumpy landscape, and I have seen layouts in the Netherlands depicting great mountain ranges but with Dutch trains running through them…)
But for me, the highlight must be the photographs I was able to get on the Saturday morning on the way into the exhibition hall. A new leisure complex is under construction, and I was able to get some remarkable pictures of the rising sun shining through this construction site amidst early morning mist.
So the year closes. There is little on the cards in the way of work, although I have some irons in the fire which, if I were to be successful, would mean quite a change to my working life and would fulfill some quite serious ambitions. But we shall have to wait and see.
As I’m devoting a lot of time to applying for jobs, my blogging has drifted backwards again! So here’s another catch-up post…
A few weeks ago, we took a trip down to Gloucestershire, with the aim of visiting Snowshill Manor. Snowshill, near Broadway, is a small and generally unremarkable manor house on the edge of the Cotswolds, near the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire border. It is located on the edge of a village of Cotswold stone, but it hides behind a tall wall, separating it from the village. The approach for visitors is along a half-mile path, as the site in the village is too cramped to allow large numbers of visitors – and it gets large numbers of visitors, not so much for the house as for its contents.
The manor was home to Charles Wade, architect and collector extraordinare. From the age of seven, he collected items which reflected his love of beauty and craftsmanship. Beyond those two criteria, anything was game for acquisition. The house is full of objects – porcelain, carvings, furniture, musical instruments, clocks, paintings – you name it, and he probably has it. But his taste veered towards the eclectic and the everyday, objects that reflected craftsmanship in everyday life, and things that more refined collectors might ignore. So the objects in the house are not refined antiques, but are often of a more plebian origin. For example, in an attic space (which Wade called “A Hundred Wheels” – all the rooms in the house were given allegorical names), there is a collection of bicycles of many different types and ages. He collected tools and workshop equipment before such things were fashionable, He had a taste for things oriental, so he has a small collection of netsuke, and some examples of larger carvings and sculpture from Japan. he collected a few Japanese clocks of the Edo period, when time was measured in unequal parts of the day, according to the tasks to be carried out during those times. You can see religious items (though Wade was not a religious man), ancient chests with elaborate locking mechanisms, sedan chairs, leather fire buckets, suits of armour, keys and locks, samurai armour, ship models, astrolabes, orrerys and a small mortar cannon. It is a house which has something for everyone.
The collection was so large that Wade and his wife lived in an outhouse – admittedly, a quite substantial one – and that also boasted a selection of objects both weird and wonderful. Indeed, he installed indoor plumbing at a time when such things were quite unusual, though the installation has its eccentricities…
The house also has very attractive gardens, laid out in terraces; and the collections spill over into the grounds, so you can find sundials, plaques, and even the remains of a model railway and harbour. The increasingly common National Trust second-hand bookshop even boasts a small printing press with examples of traditional letterpress being run off to show visitors.
To appreciate everything in the house would take all day, and even then there would be things you’d miss.
I hadn’t visited in nearly twenty years, and I was pleased to see that the house had been re-interpreted and some of Wade’s writings had been added to the displays. By profession he was an architect, and a well-read and learned man as well. Photographs show a tall man with a shock of unruly hair, the image of the Great British Eccentric; yet he looks exactly like the sort of person who would be at home in such a place with such things.
I had a bit of a surprise in the NT shop itself. I was looking at some of the books, and a very familiar name leapt out at me – Bob Shaw. It was on a book about a superannuated Boeing 247D airliner that was donated to the RAF in the war and which ended up based not far from Snowshill for radar calibration tests. Now, the Bob Shaw Cathy and I knew was a science fiction author from Belfast, who was one of the most popular and beloved people in the business. He was a great humourist, and produced a number of ingenious if (sometimes) workmanlike novels as well as his fanzine writing. Bob was nominated for a Hugo for his short story Light of Other Days, which hinged on his concept of “slow glass” – glass so “thick” that light took hours, or days, or years to pass through it. In a series of stories, he examined a range of ways that this idea of his might change life. (You can read the story online here.)
The thing was that, before becoming a full-time writer, Bob had worked as a PR journalist, first for Shorts and later for Vickers. He had often written about aviation subjects (having also worked as an aircraft designer), so it was not impossible that this was, in some way, a book of some of Bob’s work. But no; it was a different Bob Shaw. But the coincidence touched me, and as I have a model of the Boeing 247D in the pile to be built, I bought the book anyway.
After leaving Snowshill, we drove the short distance to Toddington, to see the Gloucestershire & Warwickshire Railway. They were just closing down for the night, but I was able to secure a few photographs of one of their engines being bedded down after the day’s services. It’s a good fifteen years since I was last at the G&WR, but I’m sure I’ll be getting back there again in the future.
We rounded the day off with a reasonable meal at The Pheasant inn at Toddington roundabout (usual disclaimer).
A few weeks ago, I took a trip up to Lincolnshire to see some friends of mine who moved out that way at the beginning of the year. They previously lived near Redditch; whilst Andy worked (and still works) in IT, Elaine ran a business from home, alternating this with visits to the allotment to produce fresh vegetables. Their house was quietly bulging at the seams, so when a former railway station, complete with platform and booking hall came onto the market at a reasonable price, they were highly enthusiastic. Andy was spending a lot of his time travelling to meetings in London anyway, and now that so much IT work involves moving electrons rather than people, Lincolnshire was as good a place as any. For trips to the Smoke, Newark on the East Coast main line was a fairly easy drive; so it was that in the worst winter weather for a considerable number of years, they packed all their worldly possessions into a van and headed for rural Lincolnshire. This was my first opportunity to visit.
Obviously, after six months they were still getting settled in, but the station was looking very smart even though they had plans to get it just as they want it. But apart from the appropriateness of the location, for me the interesting thing was the opportunity to explore a part of the country l’ve only touched on briefly up to now. I visited Newark and Lincoln back in the 1970s, and when we were tracing some of mum’s family tree, we made it as far as Bourne, on the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens, where the trail went cold. But now there was a base of operations for an interesting part of the country, so it was with pleasure that we took to the open road.
First port of call (after a fine cooked breakfast from a roadside café) was Spilsby, a small market town whose greatest claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of Sir John Franklin, the 19th Century navigator who explored the North West Passage and who was lost in 1847 in mysterious circumstances trying to perfect the mapping of northern Canada. His eventual fate remains a mystery to this day, but a fine statue to him was erected in Spilsby market place. Otherwise, Spilsby is a fairly unspectacular place, though not without its charms.
Our next destination was rather different – Boston, bustling market town, location of the famous ‘Boston Stump’, visible across the fens for many miles, and a landmark for bomber crews of both sides during WW2. Boston has a rather nice station building (like so many others, now put to different use), whilst the town itself has a mixture of different building ages and styles, and a rather spectacular industrial building, Swan House, which rather contrary to expectations is nothing to do with the well-known brand of matches, but which rather used to be the Fogarty Feather Factory (you try saying that quickly!), built in 1877 and now converted to flats. We found a rather fine model shop, browsed the market, and raided two of the many Polish supermarkets for essential supplies such as horseradish mustard (though Elaine could find no-one offering the more unusual beetroot mustard, which is a delicate pink colour and best resembles spicy blancmange).
Thence to New York, which is a scattering of houses along the road that runs past the end of the runway at RAF Coningsby, and onwards to what claims to be the UK’s premier bubble car museum. This is a rather fine collection of various bubble- and microcars, from the obvious BMW Isettas, Heinkels and Trojans, via the iconic Messerschmitt, to the British three-wheelers such as the Reliant and Bond. They also had a selection of lesser-known British and European microcars (I was surprised to see the Berkeley included), and a remarkable French contraption called an Inter 175, which looked like nothing so much as a fairground ride rocket on wheels. I was a little surprised at the range of what they claimed as ‘microcars’ as the definition stretched to include the Fiat 500, the Citroen 2CV and the East German Trabant – but not the Mini. They also had a selection of utterly ugly machines, many of which had a cyclopean appearance, such as the Peel, the Frisky and the Bamby.
Amongst these unknowns, one name stood out – Ligier. Yes, the French racing car manufacturer tried to break into the microcar market with a vehicle so divorced from the cars that made the name famous that it provoked in me a reaction so strong that I almost cried out “KILL IT WITH FIRE!”
All in all, it was an interesting collection, but also a reminder that we view classic cars nowadays with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, forgetting that the roads in the 1950s and 1960s could also harbour examples of ugliness, nastiness and utter lethality. Not all the exhibits in the National Bubblecar Museum fell into these three categories; readers may remember the 1970 Bond Bug, the wedge-shaped bright orange three-wheeler that epitomised the era and whose popularity surprised even its makers; a prototype four-wheel version, the Bond Sprint, was built but never made it into production. It would have been rather akin to the Smart Sport of the present day.
After this, we went to see the last remaining World War 2 Chain Home radar mast on the East Coast, high on the Lincolnshire Wolds at Stenigot. This is a remarkable survivor, which is now Grade II listed. It survives mainly to train RAF aerial riggers and it has (or so I am told) a memorial to an RAF Aerial Erector at the top… The Lincolnshire Wolds give the lie to the idea that this is a flat county; the view from Stenigot is quite amazing.
After a hard day’s sightseeing and (some) shopping, we finally made our way home via Louth, so I could photograph the remains of the station (now part of a housing development) and a massive grain silo next to the station, which has defeated attempts to either redevelop it or demolish it. Louth is also another attractive market town, with a range of buildings including a fine market hall, an Art Deco cinema, and a particularly good curry house…
Sunday was mainly spent chilling, with lunch at a very pleasant pub in the village, complete with a visit by a local traction engine (which looked well-used rather than over-prettily restored) and a diversion to a local pickle shop – a local resident makes their own pickles and preserves, and sells them from an old shop on the side of the road. Don’t tell the Food Standards Agency….
Sadly, the Sutton Coldfield Model Makers lost its last founder member at the end of July. Doug Burchell died after a short illness.
Doug was one of the three founder members of the society more than 35 years ago, together with George Wright and John Nicklin. He was a local lad, living all his life in the Mere Green area of Sutton Coldfield, apart from his war service when he served with the Royal Navy in the Far East. A couple of years ago he gave the society an illustrated talk on his war experiences, including a visit to Hiroshima in 1946. Both before and after joining up he spent his working life in the insurance industry.
But it was as a modeller that I knew him; he had great skills in modelling ships – including those of the era of sail – and biplanes. His scratchbuilt 1/48th Short 184 was awarded a Bronze Medal at the Model Engineer Exhibition. Later, he started a thematic display of aircraft of the Red Cross, which formed a unique and fascinating display at exhibitions up and down the country.
Doug was also a charming gentleman, but always with a twinkle in his eye and a wicked sense of humour. He was very proud of what the Sutton Model Makers Society had become, and pleased that the society has a fine group of members taking it forward into the future. His best memorial will be the continued existence of the club.
My birthday treat this year was a trip out to Worcestershire to visit the birthplace of Edward Elgar. It’s funny, but I’ve lived in the West Midlands for nearly thirty years, and yet it’s taken me that long to make the journey over to Broadheath. But after quite a few years of driving over to Hay-on-Wye for the festival and passing signposts for the Elgar birthplace, it was inevitable that we should eventually go.
But first, we went a bit further along the road to visit Bromyard – one of those quintessentially sleepy English country towns that still flourish in the depths of the countryside. Ostensibly, we were going to visit a teddy bear museum that was signposted from the main road – only to find that the owners had retired and handed the business over to their middle-aged son, who had changed it into a Doctor Who experience some years ago (but not approached the council over getting the official brown tourist signs changed). Now, that’s an interest that both Cathy and I share, so it wasn’t such a disappointment. The owner knows his stuff, and has spent a lot of time gathering props and memorabilia; at £7.50 the entry price seems a bit high, but when you look at the sort of costumes and props he’s gathered, you begin to understand exactly why he has to charge what he does. Original Daleks, for example, now commend prices at auction in the £15-£20k range – and this bloke has six of them! There is also a genuine Pertwee-era Tardis and some of Mat Irvine’s work (the owner was a bit impressed when I was able to claim acquaintance with Mat through the scale modelling world). And the museum is well set up, with proper display cases and lighting. For those with any interest in the show, it is well worth visiting.
Anyway, after Bromyard, we retraced our route back to Broadheath. The Elgar birthplace has a fine visitor centre, partially funded by Lottery money, though supporters raised the initial capital for the bricks and mortar. Although Elgar only spent his childhood in the house at Broadheath, he retained many of his connections to the Worcester area and the county as a whole. The view from the car park, for example, looks out across rolling fields towards Worcester; for me, this was more evocative of Elgar and his music than the traditional view towards Malvern. The visitor centre and the personal exhibits in the house do a good job of showing Elgar as a fully-rounded composer, rather than the purveyor of patriotic tunes that he can sometimes be painted as, though it’s always difficult to get a sense of the person behind the music in these situations. Perhaps the best example I ever came across was Beethoven’s apartment in Baden, near Vienna, where he wrote the Ninth Symphony; his apartments have been furnished simply with furniture and a few artifacts from the period, whilst an adjoining apartment has been taken over as the museum itself. The museum in Baden keeps odd hours, only opening for a short time in the afternoon, so you have to make a very special journey to visit it. Also, it has to be said, there are so many Beethoven apartments in and around Vienna (old Ludwig not having been the most model of tenants) that the tourist trail gets thinned out when you go further afield – all of which meant that when I went, I was about the only visitor, so I was able to have some quiet time and absorb some of the atmosphere. As Elgar never actually composed much at Broadheath, the connection to his music is more visceral than historical.
The birthplace itself is a small, two-bedroomed house, with a typical cottage garden in the front. Some artifacts, such as a gazebo and seat, have been brought from other properties he occupied in later years, whilst more recently a life-sized statue has been erected of the man himself, sat at the bottom of the garden looking out at the hills. The whole place is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom are musicians themselves.
We were talking to some of the volunteers and discussing our visit to Bromyard, and our liking for little market towns like that; and one of the helpers suggested that we drive down and look at Ledbury. As I’d never been there, I was happy to do that, and found it to be another charming town, with a large church (with a separate bell tower, a Herefordshire oddity), a rather fine wine merchant and a town library that looked as though it had come straight out of a Faller catalogue. Another place to put on the list for when that elusive Lottery win comes through…
For some time, Britain has been rediscovering its railway history. A number of things have contributed to this: the coming of the new-build express locomotive ‘Tornado’, and the growth of the heritage railway industry beyond a certain critical mass are perhaps the two most recent. Another is a series of television programmes fronted by former Tory minister Michael Portillo, travelling the railways of the country and looking at their history and background. The irony of this is remarkable; I for one have not watched any of Portillo’s programmes because I could not stomach someone whose political party made such a mess out of the railways portraying himself as a friend of the system. But it has to be admitted that he has raised the profile of Britain’s railways generally. (He has also fronted a series on European railways, which frankly makes my gorge rise even further; in any case, the coverage it gives European railways can only be superficial.)
But this increase in public interest in our railway history has come at an appropriate time, This year is the 75th anniversary of the world speed record for steam traction being captured by the London and North Eastern Railway’s class A4 locomotive no.4464, Mallard. That record, of 126 mph, is now regularly broken by the modern trains of various operators; but in 1938 it was an unheard-of speed, only narrowly exceeded by the fastest cars or aeroplanes. The war that followed within the year pushed technological development in a range of spheres, and absolute speeds increased immensely; but Mallard‘s record has never been exceeded by steam traction.
The National Railway Museum (NRM) in York was determined to mark this event, though they were probably still smarting from their ‘Railfest’ event in 2012, which was supposed to be the biggest railway festival in the country in living memory, but which failed to reach anticipated admission targets, in part down to last year’s appalling summer weather. Four A4 class locomotives remain in the UK, but someone came up with the idea of going one step further; reuniting all six surviving A4s, which would mean temporarily repatriating two locomotives sent to North America in the 1960s, when the class was withdrawn. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the USA and Dominion of Canada in – wait for it! – Canada had both been static exhibits in their respective museums for just over forty years, and the deal was that the locomotives would be returned to the UK for about a year, be restored externally, and would then be returned to their existing locations.
The NRM planned a series of events, with the aid of various corporate sponsors; all six engines were to be displayed in York during July, would then move to their outstation at Shildon in Country Durham during August and September, and then would return to York in the late Autumn before being returned to their respective owners. But from a photographic point of view, the July show in York was going to be the best bet because by the time the six A4s return to York in October, there would be far less light available for good photography. Shildon would most likely be less crowded, but a 320-mile round trip in a day, or an overnighter, seemed very much like a non-starter. So I decided that I had to make the trip to York in July.
Next question – how to get there, car or rail? The NRM is well placed to make a visit by rail, but surprisingly, it’s harder to get direct trains there than it used to be. When I went up for Railfest by train, I had to change once on the way up, just one station on from where I usually join trains for the north, in Tamworth, because Cross Country employ “skip-stopping” – to keep their trains to time, they minimise the number of intermediate stops they make at stations where passengers do not have to make connections, and the train I needed to use in the morning didn’t stop at Tamworth but did stop at Burton, little more than ten minutes further on. The journey back was even more problematical; I had to make two changes, and in one case the available time was less than three minutes. I’d thought of using a different route to get back, with only one intermediate change and a leeway of ten minutes, but when I got on the train to start that journey, it had been delayed by more than ten minutes because of a door problem that arose.
Bearing that experience in mind, and taking into account the amount of kit I’d be taking with me, I’d decided to drive instead. It would be a good test of the new Mercedes on a long trip, and at least I knew the air conditioning in the car worked! And the cost worked out about equal when I took station parking into account. Rather than try parking in York itself, I intended to use the Park & Ride service; the Green Line, which runs from Rawcliffe Bar on the northern side of the city, serves the NRM directly for the princely sum of £2.60!
I was making good time until I was just a mile or so from the York ring road; then I got tangled up in a road traffic accident that had just happened, and got delayed by a good hour. It was probably well past 1:30 pm when I arrived at Rawcliffe Bar, but I was pleased to see that there was a bus waiting. Little more than 15 minutes later, I was getting off at the NRM – to be faced with what I was told was a 40-minute queue to get in. Stewards were commenting that earlier in the day, it had been more like two hours’ queuing time; yet it seemed little more than twenty minutes before I was passing into the museum.
I had not really been prepared for the sort of crowds that thronged the museum. It was like rush hour on the Tube, or the January sales. The A4s were arrayed on one side of the turntable, and the turntable itself was open for visitors to get a general view of the group of engines (a rare event in itself). It was noticeable that very many people were paying attention to Mallard, a locomotive normally resident at York. Obviously, many of these visitors had never seen Mallard before, even though Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada were the engines that the true cognoscenti had come to see…
But there is more to see in the NRM than six A4s, no matter how rare visitors two of them might be. When I went to Railfest, I was ostensibly helping out some friends with a trade stand, and only had time to look at the outdoor exhibits; my previous visit to the NRM had been on a trip by Sutton Modellers in 2007; we visited the NRM in the morning and the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington in the afternoon, but that schedule meant that there was only time at the NRM to make one circuit of the site at a brisk walk. My plan for this visit was to stay until closing time, when hopefully the crowds would have thinned out a bit. And so I was able to see some of the other exhibits that the crowds were paying less attention to; visit the Station Hall, the old York central goods depot which was opened as a temporary museum when the NRM’s roof needed extensive renovation during the 1990s, and turned out to be so successful that when the Great Hall’s renovation was complete, the Station Hall was retained as a fine piece of scene setting for some of the exhibits; and to wander through the Warehouse, the NRM’s small exhibits storeroom, which resembles nothing so much as a railway version of the warehouse seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark…
The whole museum was benefitting from the increased visitor numbers: given the high levels of footfall, it was hard to find any part of the site that wasn’t busy. But there were other nice things to see: there are a few examples of unrestored engines and stock on site, which provide an interesting contrast with the bright, shiny restored museum exhibits (one of these ‘as found’ exhibits was an intact carriage from the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple Railway in North Devon, complete with a fading and gloriously decrepit interior); staff had put a display of station luggage handling on in the Station Hall, with an assortment of period barrows loaded up with an assortment of period luggage; outside, the replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, built for the 150th anniversary of the Rainhill Trials in 1977, stood, having only recently been in steam; Flying Scotsman could be found in the workshop, nearing the end of its second restoration in five years, due to her condition being much worse than originally thought; and in a dark corner could be seen languishing City of Truro, the Great Western engine reputed to be the first to exceed 100mph in 1904 (though controversy rages over that claim). And as a dyed-in-the-wool Derby lad, I was very pleased to see the Midland Railway ‘Spinner’ No.673, even if it is “trapped” in a platform road in the Station Hall; I saw this engine steamed in the early 1980s when it was outstationed with the Midland Railway Trust at Butterley in Derbyshire, and it would be nice to see it in that condition again. I suppose the earliest that could be justified would be the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Midland Railway, due in 2019 – any takers?
I was also surprised and pleased to see an old locomotive friend, in the form of a tiny Peckett 0-4-0 industrial saddle tank with implausibly small wheels, which had been owned by the late Reverend Teddy Boston, perhaps the most extreme of that epitome of the British eccentric, the railway enthusiast clergyman. His rectory at Cadeby in Leicestershire – not too many miles from my home – was packed with railway memorabilia and a fine collection of model railways; there was a huge model railway in a shed outside, a 2 foot gauge line around the garden, traction engines in the yard and this Peckett, sometimes at Cadeby and sometimes to be found on the nearby ‘Battlefield Line’ at Shackerstone. Amidst all that, he also found time to pursue his calling as a parish vicar! I had no idea where this engine had gone to after the collection was broken up after his death, so I was interested to come across it in the outdoor annexe at York.
All in all, the NRM is worth visiting even if you don’t have a massive interest in railways, as it tries to display a microcosm of British life from the 1840s or thereabouts up to the 1960s, as seen through the nation’s transport infrastructure. It encompasses social history and art and design as well as the engineering. It also has a few really quite odd exhibits, such as a first-generation driving car from the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, circa 1964, which makes an interesting comparison with the high-speed trains passing by outside the museum; and a massive canvas by the railway artist Terence Cuneo of the concourse of Waterloo station, made at about the same time, which has a wealth of detail and some glorious visual jokes.
A large number of people had the same idea as me, and the crowds barely began to thin out much before a few minutes before closing time at 6pm. “Who said no-one’s interested in steam railways any more?” asked one chap in the huddle of photographers trying to get that last, elusive clear shot of one of the visiting A4s. I replied with the late Alan Coren’s quip about “…you could understand people being trainspotters when the trains were worth looking at; nowadays, they just look like Tetra-Paks.”
Nonetheless, with a bit of perseverance, I was able to secure reasonably clear pictures of each engine (though I already had plenty of Mallard itself from Railfest, when it was repositioned outside); and the rest of the time, I just had to be creative. (I did take quite a few pictures with crowds obscuring different parts of the engines at different times, with a view to performing a ‘cut-and-shut’ in Photoshop later, but in the end it wasn’t really necessary.)
I came away with some excellent pictures in the bag. It had been quite hard work, but for the chance to see such a collection of engines together, including two I’d be unlikely to ever see again without a lot of travelling, it was worth the time and expense spent in getting to and from York. And the traffic on the way home was quite gentle, too!
It’s been a while since I’ve added any new posts, partly because a lot has been happening to me. So hopefully, over the next few weeks, I’ll try to catch up and post a bit more often.
In one way, things remain the same. I’m still at Stratec in Burton-on-Trent; my four-week contract is now running into its fifth month, and I’m beginning to get used to Burton and find my way around a bit. (I wonder whatever became of Stuart, the lad from Burton who started work on the same day as me at the old DHSS Derby Victoria Street ILO?) But outside of the Day Job, there’s quite a bit to report. So let’s roll back the clock about six weeks and talk about the UK Corporate Games.
Now, this is the sort of event that I never anticipated myself covering; and yet, it’s exactly the sort of event that I would expect to cover if I really did want to think of myself as a professional photographer. But my involvement came about in the traditional way, through a contact of a contact. One of my old union cronies has a daughter who has set up a photographic agency, Dollymix Media. Their business model is that they aim to handle work for charities and other non-profit causes, and do it with a bit more clout to try to avoid the scenario of a multi-million pound charity with a large permanent staff and a CEO earning hundreds of thousands trying to browbeat creatives into giving their work away for nothing “because we’re a Good Cause”. Anyway, my contact knew my work from the PCS days, and so when Dollymix got the contract to cover the UKCG when they came to Coventry, she put my name forward to her daughter as being someone who could be interested in taking part.
The deal was that all the pictures would be sold on a ‘commission only’ basis. Now, whilst that’s better than “you’ll get good exposure and some great shots for your portfolio”, it’s not normally a deal I’d go for. But this seemed a bit different: it was for an old friend, it was close to home, and there would be the chance to get on the ground in some interesting locations. Plus I would make money from any of my shots that were sold, and there was the chance to do some networking as well. So I thought to myself, “Why not?”
The games themselves started on the Friday, and as that’s a working day for me, I wasn’t going to take the hit on loss of earnings. So I turned up on the Saturday morning at the temporary Dollymix HQ in one of the campus buildings on the Warwick University site. My first assignment was to cover Saturday’s tennis, at a sports centre about five minutes away by car. The morning was hotting up considerably, and I was one of the first people on site, with the organisers still getting themselves sorted out and a few contestants warming up. Immediately, i spotted a bit of a problem. The indoor courts were all liberally draped with netting to prevent stray balls passing between courts, or flying astray and possibly injuring spectators. That meant that for the most part, I would have to work from outside, shooting through the nets. I was able to get onto courts during breaks in play, but that almost put me too close to the action; the outdoor courts were similar.
Getting too close to the action might not seem to be too much of a problem, except for one thing. It’s only when you see amateurs – even good ones – playing tennis that you realise how difficult the game actually is and how easy the world-class professionals we see on our televisions make it look. At the sort of level I was seeing, a rally might only last for two or three exchanges before a ball went out of bounds or a shot was missed and play stopped. That makes trying to follow the action difficult, because it inevitably means that you are focusing on a player and anticipating some action that suddenly doesn’t materialise. It also means that, as a consequence, you end up with a lot of pictures of people serving….
I had to break off late morning to get back to base, to have my pictures uploaded, and then to get over to the Ricoh Arena on the other side of Coventry, because I had been put down to cover a distinctly non-Olympic sport – poker! The casino attached to the Arena was the venue, and that meant that to get in, even as an official photographer, I had to join. Membership is, fortunately, free, but it must count as one of the oddest perks ever from a job…
The poker was a rather different challenge; very low light levels, so the ISO had to be cranked way up; and working with a long lens to keep unobtrusively in the background whilst getting in for those intimate pictures – expressions of concentration, elation or downfall, or hands, toying with chips or deftly dealing out cards. Definitely a departure from my usual subjects and really rather fun – though the format, ten tables of up to eleven players each, played as a knock-out, meant that I was on my feet for a considerable time, and that was only day one! The tournament – played for points, you’ll be pleased to know – went into a second day when the field had been whittled down to twenty players on two tables. The organisers were pleased to ask me to come back for the second day, which took a little organising to swop photographers, but we were all quite flexible…
On getting back to base, we were asked if we wanted to go into the city centre to cover the Grand Parade of the Games. I declined – I’d had quite enough running around, thank you – and so I and one other photographer were on hand when a call came in for some publicity shots for one of the Games’ sponsors. Johnsons’ Coaches, who were providing all the transport for competitors, were about to load up to take everyone down into the city for the parade, and they wanted some shots of people boarding buses. Was I interested? Guess. So now I’m an Official Bus Photographer on top of everything else!
Day Two, then, was going to be more poker, but in the morning, I and another photographer were down to cover table tennis and netball, both at another sports centre venue close to the university. The table tennis was a very different proposition to the “big” tennis; for a start-off, it was easier to get around the tables; and it turned out that the calibre of the players was very much higher. Many of the players had been on national teams in the past and were quite agile for blokes of A Certain Age and a degree of athleticism that wasn’t always obvious.
The other photographer hadn’t come entirely prepared for the weather conditions (in terms of baking hot sun), and as she was also finding the table tennis very fascinating as a subject to shoot, I offered to go and cove the netball. This was quite interesting and colourful; but soon I had to make the trip back to HQ to download and then get across Coventry for the poker final.
All in all, it was a fun weekend, if hard work. I did manage some architectural shots around the Warwick University campus at a time when there were comparatively few people around, which was good; and I met up with a number of other photographers, and it was nice to do that. As an Official Photographer, it was interesting to have the ‘access all areas’ pass, and the compulsory high-vis jerkin made it that I was hardly challenged anywhere (though i was stopped on my way into the casino on day two and asked to open my bag. Showing off the gear, I commented to the security officer that the contents were probably worth more than I could possibly win on the premises, given my luck…). However, although Dollymix was the official photographic agency, a couple of the participating companies did send their own photographers, though how “professional” they were is open to doubt. One company’s guy was very much a gear junkie, and kept asking everyone about their cameras, their lenses and their settings; but another blustered into the last hour of the poker and rather threw his weight around, officiously setting up shots and being rather obtrusive. He also blanked me a bit, but I made a point of engaging him in conversation, smiling a lot and offering contact details for any of the shots he didn’t get. (My guru in such things once said, “Smile and be nice to everyone you meet. You’ll drive ‘em nuts.” Words of wisdom from Snoopy, there…) “Oh, but there were fifteen of you to cover all the events – I had to do it all myself” this company photographer moaned, and I caught the faint whiff of burning martyrs. As I said, these guys had the gear, but quite how much of a professional each of them was could certainly be debated.
The usual plan is for UKCG to engage local photographers to cover the games, but this year was the first time that they’d had a team covering the event instead of one or two shooters. Also, with separating shooting from image manipulation and organisation, Dollymix were able to have pictures up on the website within an hour or so of the end of any given event. Next year’s UK Corporate Games are to be held in the organisation’s British base, Liverpool, and there has been some talk of Dollymix bidding for the coverage rights again, if the organisers are willing to stump up expenses (not all the photographers were entirely local). I for one would be up for it again…
Note: photographs shown here are for illustrative purposes only. Some may be the subject of corporate packages and are not for sale. All sales enquiries on any of these pictures must be directed in the first instance to Dollymix Media: