Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Loud and clear

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I’ve worn spectacles since the age of six; so regular visits to the opticians have been part of my life for many years. Over time, this has become a more and more expensive business as my optical prescription has become more and more extreme. Discount opticians – Specsavers, Vision Express and similar – can’t help me because they make their money out of the 80% of cases who present with fairly straightforward prescriptions. Just to be difficult, I’m in the 20%. To be fair, I did try a discount optician when they first appeared on the High Street. It turned out that my prescription required lenses that they had to order in specially, so their price and order turnaround promises didn’t apply. This is what you get for being different.

Of course, I could have spectacles through the National Health Service – but the range of frames is limited  and there would be no option over the type of lens I could have. I really need two different prescriptions, so I have varifocals – two lens types in one optic. I’ve never asked, but I suspect that varifocals aren’t available on the NHS, meaning that I’d have to have two pairs of spectacles and keep swapping them over for different situations. Also, given the extreme nature of my prescription, my lenses are pretty thick – so I have top-end “thin” branded lenses, which I also doubt are available through the NHS. Even with the hi-tech thin lenses, mine resemble the bottom of a beer bottle in thickness, so again I dread to think what the NHS equivalents are like.

Last year, the opthamologist said that I needed a new pair of spectacles because of a change in ‘prism’ – the way that my eyes work together to  deliver stereoscopic vision (or in my case, not). The technology of opthamology is improving all the time, and there have been new tests introduced for prism in the past couple of years which give a far more accurate evaluation of the patient’s needs. However, I have one “lazy” eye – it works fine, but contributes very little to my overall vision field. So my stereoscopic vision is pretty poor – one reason why I was never much good at ball games when I was in school – and the tests for prism are actually measuring something which I hardly find myself experiencing in everyday life. So I had a new pair of spectacles last year that I found made almost no difference to my everyday vision. I was not impressed.

And then, as if I don’t give my opticians enough trade, the last time I went in, I was offered a free hearing check. Now, I’ve fallen foul of this before. It’s administered in the normal shop, and if there’s a lot of external noise, or other customers in the shop, the result is going to be pretty poor. Added to that, I have tinnitus, so the quieter tones in the hearing test require me to concentrate very hard to pick them out from amongst the continuous “noise” that the tinnitus gives me. This concentration can easily be broken if there are distractions such as other customers and conversations. So I ended up seeing the audiometrist at the beginning of the year as well as having my annual vision test.

The vision test, I’m pleased to say, resulted in no significant change in my prescription, though I was told that I have the beginnings of a cataract in one eye (though that won’t become a problem, all being well, for a good five to ten years). The audiometry was something else. I first had a full audiometric examination two years ago, when I was told that I have the beginnings of age-related hearing loss at the upper end of the hearing register. This came as no surprise to me. In my varied past, I spent five years working for the Social Security Industrial Injuries Unit in Birmingham. The area I covered included parts of the Werst Midlands where there had been a lot of engineering works, and so a lot of industrial deafness cases. Part of my job involved commissioning consultant audiometrists’ reports, having those reports interpreted by the department’s Regional Medical Officers, and sometimes dealing with appeals against the decisions on those industrial deafness claims, including writing the Secretary of State’s submission to the appeal tribunal. So I know a reasonable amount about audiograms, and I could broadly interpret the results as easily as the audiometrist. I had no cause to doubt the diagnosis.

Last year, the initial in-shop screening told me nothing I didn’t already know, but was administered on a good day when I was able to give good responses to the test. But this year, it was not a good day. So I ended up seeing the audiometrist again; and this time, the verdict was a lot of hearing loss at the 4 kHz level, almost to the stage of being defined, she said, as “profound”. The audiogram correspondingly showed a dramatic plunge of the trace to bear this out. Almost immediately, she was saying “We really strongly recommend that you consider being fitted for a hearing aid – or even two, so we can balance out the effect properly.”

The hearing aids on offer start at £450 each, these being the type that fits behind the ear. Once you start looking at types that fit partially or fully in the ear canal, the prices go up accordingly until you are looking at £1250 or more per ear. Other suppliers can also supply hearing aids at a range of costs – I have even heard tghe figure of £3000 per device mentioned!

It was the audiometrist’s eagerness to set me down the road to more and more expenditure that made me hesitate. Even £450 isn’t money that I can put together at the drop of a hat; and I found her enthusiasm rather off-putting, especially as the loss is in the sort of range where I would only really be missing top-end harmonics. I hadn’t noticed that I was missing conversations, altthough I do find the television often difficult to hear (mainly because the speakers on flat screens are on the back of the set and face the wall), and I have missed the odd conversation in the office (mainly because I sit with my back to everyone else and the test manager does tend to sometimes speak from behind his desk screens without standing up). But I consider that I still have hearing that is perfectly good for everyday purposes. So I thought I’d get a second, less biased opinion, and so I went to see my doctor, who in turn referred me to the local hospital hearing centre.

I went a couple of weeks ago. It was quite illuminating. I was shownb into a proper consulkting room whoch was properly soundproofed and away from the main circulating areas of the hospital. the audiometrist explaiuned the test, and i let her, though I did have to warn her to expect some false positives becasue of the masking effdect of tinnitus. She t hen proceed to administer not only the normal audiometric tests, but also did something I’d not had done before, tests using a bone conduction headset – sound waves transmitted through the skeleton, especially the skull, play a surprising part in our hearing sense. The software the hospital had access to was able to integrate all the results including the bone conduction. They confirmed the diagnosis, as I expected them  to. But the audiogram I was shown was drawn up with a far shallower vertical axis, so the amount of loss at the top end didn’t look so dramatic. Also, the NHS audiometrist’s interpretation of how far up the graph the boundaries between “moderate” and “profound” hearing loss occur was rather different to the private one.

She then proceeded to offer me a behind-the-ear aid for each ear. Completely free of charge. And looking pretty well identical to the £450 base model that my opticians wanted me to shell out for.

My sister, who is older than I am, has also had hearing aids prescribed, though she doesn’t wear them all the time. She made the excellent point that if I bought a private hearing aid, I would have to buy all my batteries; whereas with the NHS aid, the batteries are also supplied free of charge. And if I used the aid full-time, the batteries would last about a week.

I’ve decided that I don’t want to have hearing aids just yet. I shall take advice from other friends I know who have them, and I shall take up any offer of further hearing screening tests to keep an eye on my ears. And if I do have an NHS aid fitted, I can always upgrade in future years if I find I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. (Ha!) In any case; I’ve paid tax into the system all my working life. Why should I go out and pay for something I’ve paid in for already?

They say that getting old is a full-time job, given the number of appointments and arrangements that have to be made for health reasons. Thinking of last year’s brush with prostate problems, I thought then that I was in the best place to have these problems assessed without having to worry about the bill – especially as if the results of all those invasive tests I had had not been so favourable, I would have been fast-tracked for treatment – again, no questions asked, no form-filling, no waiting for an insurance decision on whether the claim was allowable. My experience of the insurance industry over the past few years makes me relectant to have them involved in anything as important as my healthcare and treatment. This experience over my hearing, where I was able to directly compare public and private provision, has not changed my opinion.


Written by robertday154

June 14, 2018 at 10:51 pm

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Lord of the Files

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The political scene in the UK this week has been rather taken aback by the treatment of “Windrush children”, West Indians who came to the UK at the government’s request to help full post-war labour shortages but who are now at risk of deportation because after a change in the law in 2012, they are required to be able to produce documentary evidence of their right to reside in the UK or of their continuous residence in the UK since their arrival – evidence which was never pointed out to them that they would need, and which the government never provided them with in then first place.

The government has said that this is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of circumstances, that the “Windrush generation” made an invaluable contribution to the post-war regeneration of Britain and is of course fully entitled to reside in the UK, and that they will take the necessary steps to assist anyone in navigating their way through Home Office bureaucracy in establishing their right of residency.

I’m not going to get involved in this argument directly; I think the rights and wrongs of the case are too obvious to need pointing out by me. However, in the course of political argument, it emerged that the Home Office destroyed a large quantity of immigration landing cards from that era in 2010 as a general administrative clearout of obsolete files. At first, the government countered that these would not have proved right of residency (though they would have acted as the starting point for any potential paper trail of evidence); and then the Prime Minister, at PMQs, responded to criticism from Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, that the destruction was ordered in 2009 by the then Labour Government.

Things are getting badly obscured by the smoke of battle here. The fact was that the Labour government in 2009 set in motion the process by which government departments should start disposing of old and unneeded documents; they did not specify which documents were to be destroyed and which retained; instead, there was a process set out by the Cabinet Office (who have responsibility for these things) that Departments should follow in reviewing documents and files for disposal. It certainly seems to me that this was not being followed in the Home Office by October 2010 when the Windrush-era landing cards came up for consideration.

I took part in this exercise in the Government department I worked in at that time. The aim of the exercise was to economise on storage costs and to exploit digital scanning to keep as many documents as possible in electronic format. All files and/or documents that were considered for destruction had to be considered for scanning or retention if there was any anticipated need for them in future. And they had to be signed off by a manager individually.

I gather that the destruction of landing cards in the Home Office was opposed by caseworkers who understood their importance. My suspicion is that they were overruled, not by members of the political class, but by middle or senior managers of the sort who were parachuted into the civil service in quantity in the 1990s and 2000s from the private sector to introduce new, efficient ways of working and shake up those lazy, incompetent civil servants. Of course, these efficiencies take no account of legal requirements, precedent or best practice. Anything a “career” civil servant said to them was wrong, just because of who they were. These were the people who sent unencrypted data discs through the ordinary post because it was cheaper and quicker and it was an order they gave that had to be done right away and no argument or delay because dammit, I’m the boss. On the occasions when that went badly wrong and personal data was lost, the managers who had ordered those particular corners cut tried to blame the junior officer who had actually done the work, despite their having instructed that junior to bypass the standing instructions on encryption. That sort of manager considered such instructions to be “pointless bureaucracy”.

This all really goes back to the drive to take executive functions away from Government departments and put them in the hands of Executive Agencies in the Thatcher era. And that was done so that Ministers could continue to take the credit for good stuff that happens but weren’t responsible when things went wrong. Deputy heads could roll. It’s incompetence disguised as sound governance by people who have no idea how to run anything. (And Tony Blair’s New Labour fell for it too.) That’s Britain in 2018.

Written by robertday154

April 19, 2018 at 11:23 pm

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This IS about testing!

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Following on from my recent excursions into blogging about testing and sharing those blogs via the Ministry of Testing blog feed, I have now created a new blog for any testing blogs. The blog is named for my first post on the subject, Probe probare – to properly test, and it can be found by following the link.

Written by robertday154

April 19, 2018 at 12:59 pm

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My life in books

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It’s said that I started reading at an early age because I was impatient with my bedtime stories and wanted to know how they finished. Be that as it may, it seems that I had a reading age of 12 at the age of six and rapidly outstripped the school and local junior libraries.

When I got unrestricted access to the adult library, what I found there amazed me. In those seemingly distant, pre-Internet days, there in an unremarkable mill town in Derbyshire was a building which contained, more or less, something of the whole gamut of human knowledge and intellectual endeavour, open to all. Almost inevitably, I gravitated towards working in libraries – only partly because I fancied one of the library counter staff.

Of course, working in a library soon turned out to be far harder work than I ever imagined. As a Saturday assistant, I was in the library on their busiest day, reshelving returned books. Paper in bulk is heavy! After all, it is dead tree.

Meanwhile, what was I reading? School English lessons took care of the literature, in its limited way. For pleasure, I was reading science fiction and books relating to my hobbies. The science fiction started with my exposure to the television shows of my youth, Doctor Who and the early Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray. Then I graduated to comics, such as the Eagle with Dan Dare. The odd paperback came my way from the age of 11 or so; but it was when my father accidentally brought home Brian Aldiss’ Report on Probability A instead of a Mills & Boon romance for my mother because its pre-Raphaelite cover fooled him, and he gave it to me instead, that I became hooked. Report… is unlikely material for a new reader; it is a highly experimental, non-linear novel, and I have to admit that at the age of 13 or 14, I barely understood any of it! But I found its entire off-the-walledness very exciting, and I immediately started looking for more of the same. And found it, though it’s not often that I come across anything quite as radical as that first encounter with Brian Aldiss.

This fuelled my career choice, and so at the age of 18 I went to Newcastle upon Tyne to study Librarianship. The course covered classification, bibliographic tools and principles of management, plus an introduction to computing (or the state of the computing art as it stood in the late 1970s); and, to cater for those who wanted to become librarians in education, the first two years of a teacher training course and some grounding in sociological studies. Those of us who wanted to go into technical librarianship did a course on the history of technology; and we generally covered a range of topics on the fringes of all these subjects. Indeed, the first year of the core course “Organisation of Knowledge” was actually teaching us the philosophical underpinnings of knowledge itself.

Meanwhile, out of college I had discovered science fiction fandom – the North East was one of the centres of British SF fandom at the time. This in turn meant that I came into contact with other fans, with fanzines, and writing, and conventions; which meant that I also started meeting authors, editors, publishers and agents. Spending time drinking with authors influenced the sort of books I was reading, and increasingly the books I was buying. Partly this was down to wanting to keep my author friends in beer money; partly this was also down to libraries beginning to cut back on the variety of their stocks as Government spending cuts began to take hold. This also influenced my acquisition of non-fiction, as one of the early casualties of the cuts was the Inter-Library Lending Scheme, so specialist books now had to be sought out for purchase rather than borrowed.

Time moved on; I graduated, but could not find permanent librarianship work, libraries having been targeted for cuts in the first Thatcher government, and commercial or business libraries in the private sector became early casualties of the recession. (And just to rub that in, at about this time some irresponsible fool was thinking about concepts that led to the Internet…) I ended up in the Civil Service, initially in a fairly minor role, but following water privatisation in 1989, I transferred across to the regulator’s office and found myself working at a much higher level with a range of highly intelligent people, including our first Director General who was the ex-husband of a Booker Prize-winning novelist.

My interests were expanding; meanwhile, my fannish friends were writing about “mainstream” novels and I was beginning to rebuild my acquaintance with “proper” literature, left mainly fallow since school. (Indeed, my sister recently accused me of “only reading SF”, until I counted up the number of non-genre novels I possessed and found over 200!)

An additional task at work led to my becoming a trade union representative, a role I held for twenty years, and that meant that I was exposed to another area of fascination, left-wing politics and history – and a canon of literature not usually explored by many mainstream libraries and bookshops.

Then, in the middle 1990s, I “discovered” Europe, visiting Austria and Germany to chase vintage electric locomotives and the remaining pockets of working steam as Eastern Europe opened up. This meant that I started acquiring books in other languages; more recently, more German literature has begun to appear in translation (I find I can cope with written German on technical subjects, with pictures and diagrams to help provide visual cues and as a quick crib for some terms; but the more abstract a text gets, the harder I find it to read until I find fiction in German to be a tough proposition).

In 2009, I answered a speculative social media post from a specialist publisher looking for potential new titles with an idea for a book of photographs of classic railway infrastructure – station buildings, signal boxes and the like – which I had taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. This became The Lost Railway – the Midlands, published in 2012, which could have been the start of a series of anything up to eight titles but which ended up as a lone publication, partly because it was a bit unusual even for a railway book (having very few pictures of actual trains in it), partly because the publisher switched editor half-way through the publication process, and as this wasn’t one of “his” projects, he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for it as the guy who commissioned it; and partly because the publisher’s  technical team didn’t make a great job out of reproducing the photographs. I still have a number of ideas for books, but they are most probably projects for my retirement years, all being well.

0613_The Lost Railway-The Midlands_jkt vis

Keep an eye out; there are still copies out there if you know where to look…

I did have a little excursion into self-publishing, putting together a photo-book of the best pictures I took during 2011. I sold very few copies of this, as the pricing structure meant that it cost the same as a top-end coffee table book but the content was a bit too eclectic for most railway enthusiasts (looking at the Polish engine on the front cover, one potential punter dismissed it with “Huh. Not enough Great Western in it.” What can you do?). The trouble was that I never did enough really outstanding stuff in 2012 to get very far with the successor volume, though the title remains in my mind as a masthead for future projects…

The Soul of the Machine 2011

The Soul of the Machine 2011

In recent years, the growth of the second-hand book market has been a boon, first through the charity sector putting a random selection of books of all sorts onto High Streets up and down the country; and secondly, the growth of the “destination” second-hand shops becoming a major draw, up to events like the Hay Festival. And this is what has pushed my library size up to pass the magic mark of 6,000 volumes in the main collection by the first quarter of 2018. Looking back over what I’ve written, perhaps the main theme is that of leaving the mainstream, of following the path less travelled, because that’s where the discoveries can still be made.

Written by robertday154

April 11, 2018 at 2:53 pm

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That’s not about testing!

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This is a message to all those people out there who may have looked at my last blog post, “A Warship along the Ecclesbourne” when it was included in the Ministry of Testing blog feed the other day, and had the completely understandable reaction that it had no obvious application to testing.

You are completely right, and if you feel aggrieved by that, I apologise.

Having written a few blog posts on testing and TestBash recently, I submitted them to MoT with the warning that not all my blogs would be about testing, and it was entirely up to them as to whether they listed them or not. I also dropped them a line when I started drafting the last post to say “Hey, guys – the next blog post isn’t going to be about testing. How can I flag it so that you don’t put it up on the feed?” The silence has been deafening.

I started my blog seven years ago when I went freelance as part of publicising my work and abilities as an author, journalist and photographer. Unfortunately, whilst I had some considerable professional success in those directions (in the form of books and magazine articles published, and photographic awards won), I couldn’t actually make a living from it. Which is why I now work as a tester, and very interesting and fulfilling I find it too. But my blog is about anything that interests me as well as (what I think are) interesting things that I have done, so it might cover aviation, railways, motoring, music, history, science fiction or (small-p) politics, as well as testing.

Of course, you could take the view that if these are things that interest a tester, then they might be of interest to other testers. And I see a lot of interest and discussion in the testing community at the moment about communication, writing and presenting at conferences. And these are things that I’ve done plenty of in my time – see my recent post, Return to the Forbidden City. So perhaps people might gain something from my non-testing blogs.

I have a post in mind about some ideas I’ve been working on about the way that professional self-organisation in general and the testing community in particular are developing in terms of mutual support and wider social campaigning in the digital landscape. I’ve been thinking along some of these lines for a couple of years, and TestBash made me think some more about that. But I’m not quite there yet and I shall need to lie down in a darkened room for a while to let these ideas gestate before attempting to put them into words.

But in the absence of any sort of steer from MoT over how they want to me distinguish between different post subjects, I’m afraid you may be stuck with seeing non-testing stories in the MoT blog feed for a while. So I’m apologising for that in advance to anyone who finds that irksome. And to everyone else: feel free to explore! (And isn’t that one of the things that testing’s about?)

Written by robertday154

April 6, 2018 at 9:31 am

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A Warship along the Ecclesbourne

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The River Ecclesbourne in Derbyshire is not one of the country’s longer or better-known rivers. It rises in the quarry town of Wirksworth, on the edge of the Peak District, and runs for nine miles south to a confluence with the Derbyshire Derwent at Duffield. Only slightly more than thirty feet across at its widest, there is no sense in which it could be said to be at all navigable; even canoes would have difficulty in its upper reaches. So how could I be going there to see a Warship?

Well, regular readers might guess that there is some sort of railway connection.

During March 2018, for a couple of weeks the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway hosted a visiting Class 42 diesel-hydraulic locomotive, a class known as “Warships”. Although I don’t normally make a point of following vintage diesel locomotives, in this case I made an exception. The story goes back to the nationalisation of the railways in 1948. Britain’s railways had been built by private capital; by 1914, there were some 120 or more separate companies. The First World War left the railways in poor condition; they had been run by the Government during the war specifically for the war effort, and they had been run into the ground with little thought given to essential maintenance. The backlog of work when they were handed back to their private owners was too great for many of them to afford; so the Government forced amalgamation on the railways in the 1921 Railways Act, merging the majority of companies into four. Three of these were new companies; but the fourth was the Great Western Railway, which through effective lobbying not only survived intact, but indeed absorbed many smaller companies and took over the majority of companies in mid- and South Wales. Twenty-five years later, the same process happened in the aftermath of the Second World War; this time, the Labour Government decided on nationalisation as the solution to the railways’ investment problems, creating British Railways (BR). The new BR was organised on a regional basis; and once again, the Great Western survived as a commercial entity in all but name. The new Western Region exercised a remarkable degree of autonomy, commissioning new builds of a number of Great Western locomotives and ordering unique classes of the new diesel locomotives at a time when the 1955 Modernisation Plan was calling for a range of standardised engines, both steam and the new motive power of diesel and electric.

There was some method behind this. The main line to the West was a legacy of Brunel’s obsession with the “atmospheric railway”, which promised the ability to run fast, light trains over steep gradients, powered by creating a partial vacuum in a tube laid between the tracks and propelling a train by means of a cylinder running in that tube, attached to the train through a hinged leather flap valve running the length of the top of the pipe. Having engineered the line for that method of propulsion, Brunel saddled the Great Western and its successors with a problem when the atmospheric railway proved to be a failure. Victorian technology could not make a reliable flap valve that would allow the passage of a train but at the same time seal the vacuum pipe effectively. GW locomotive superintendents oversaw a range of light but powerful locomotives that could maintain line speeds over the line to the West in the steam era; when dieselisation dawned, the Western Region went looking for a unique solution to the same problem. They found it in the form of the diesel-hydraulic locomotive, which offered a far better power-to-weight ratio than the diesel-electrics being adopted on the rest of the system.

They went to West Germany, where this type of locomotive was widespread, and for their light express passenger type arranged for licence production of a British version of the German V200 class, using German engines also built under licence in the UK (by Hawker Siddeley at Ansty in Coventry). In all, 38 locomotives were built in two batches, the first at BR’s Swindon works and the second by North British Locomotive in Glasgow. The class were all named for British warships – hence the class name. They entered service in 1958 and survived until 1971, having been finally declared non-standard in the late 1960s. Two have been preserved.


The one I went to see, D832 Onslaught, was the last engine of the first, Swindon-built,  production batch. It had a connection with Derby, a place they never visited in regular service. After class withdrawal, Onslaught came to the Railway Technical Centre in Derby where it spent a number of years engaged in a variety of research projects. I saw it parked at Derby on a number of occasions during that time but never managed to secure any photographs; so when I heard that it as to visit one of my favourite railways, it became important that I should go to photograph it.


And why is the Ecclesbourne line one of my favourites? Well, I saw it fairly regularly in my youth, and never imagined that I would ever have the opportunity to travel on it.

Although the railway wasn’t built until 1862-67, projects for a railway along the Ecclesbourne valley started much earlier, as a part of the corporate manoeuvring concerning rail links between London and Manchester. The Derby-based Midland Railway were promoting a line through the Peak District, but were blocked by the independent (and grandiosely named) Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway, which had built the railway along the Derwent valley from Ambergate to Matlock, but who were blocked in their ambition to reach Manchester by the Duke of Devonshire who refused permission for the railway to pass through the Chatsworth estate. There was an earlier railway in the area, the Cromford & High Peak, which was projected in the 1820s as a canal to link the Cromford and Peak Forest canals over the High Peak itself; realising that water supply would be a problem, the engineer, Josias Jessop, decided to make the route into one of these new-fangled railways. However, having been designed as a canal with flights of locks to get up and over the Peak, the C&HP was built as a railway to the same principles – level sections of line followed by inclined planes where wagons were drawn up by a stationary engine. This was never going to be a practical proposal for a serious passenger link (the C&HP did carry passengers in its early years, but the inclined planes – nine of them in all – made progress slow and hazardous) but the Midland saw it as a means of getting their longed-for link with Manchester and so were happy to promote the branch railway to Wirksworth as a first stage in incorporating the C&HP into their inter-city route. Construction actually started on an incline beyond Wirksworth to connect the two lines, but only the first part ever saw trains, and that only for bringing stone out of the Middle Peak quarry.

The Midland’s rival for the Manchester route, the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) then acquired th4e C&HP, putting an end to the Midland’s plan. For a while, they considered driving a tunnel between Wirksworth and Cromford, and building a parallel line to Matlock on the other side of the Derwent to the existing rival line (which the LNWR also had a major shareholding in); but then they were able to acquire that line and use it as a springboard to construct an extension from Matlock to Bakewell and through the Peak to Chinley and Manchester. From that time, the Wirksworth branch became of local interest only, with passenger services and heavy traffic in stone and milk.

The growth in road haulage saw milk trains being replaced with road tankers, with the milk service ending in 1939. The war saw the passenger services severely curtailed; the passenger service was suspended in 1947 and officially ceased in 1949. Limestone traffic continued, though, and it was as a purely freight line that I saw and knew the railway during the 1970s and 80s. The line had also always been used by Derby Locomotive Works as a “running in” venue for new or recently-repaired locomotives; when Derby restored a number of locomotives for the National Collection in the late 1950s, Wirksworth station became the location of a number of official photographs, and for a while, visitors to the transport museums at York and Clapham could buy souvenir postcards of some of the exhibits that were taken there. However, there was continuous pressure for the quarries to transfer their transport operations to the road, and in 1991 a change of ownership of the quarries precipitated the decision to cease rail transport altogether.

But by then, rail privatisation had occurred; and knowing of the proposals, a group of Derby-based railway managers had earmarked the Wirksworth branch as a possible candidate for one of the new kinds of railway, a “community railway”. Accordingly, in 1992 these managers established WyvernRail Limited, with the intention of operating such a service between Wirksworth and Derby using leased diesel units under the “Open Access” management model.  The Railways Act 1993 created the framework that would allow WyvernRail to start the process, but the industry structure the Act created also caused the whole process to slow down to a crawl. The line had been mothballed after 1991 as Wirksworth had been designated a Strategic Freight Site, protecting the whole undertaking for railway use and possible future stone traffic, and making closure of the line extremely difficult.

Changes to the structure of the industry following privatisation meant that for several years during the mid-1990s WyvernRail often experienced difficulty in maintaining a consistent business relationship with the authorities responsible for the line. However, while progress was slow on the ground, the individuals involved maintained informal links with Railtrack because of their background in the rail industry. This enabled them to be granted a Light Railway Order for the line in 1996, and then starting to explore the possibility of leasing or even an outright purchase of the line.

From the Summer of 2000, Railtrack management changed its stance and not only took an interest in the firm’s activities but provided a proactive and imaginative basis for negotiations, including granting the company’s staff and the supporters association’s volunteers access to the line. This approach led to the gradual restoration of the line, accompanied by conversion to a plc and the successful share launch of WyvernRail plc in April 2002. Re-opening of the line started in 2004 and passenger services were reinstated for the length of the line in 2011.

The Ecclesbourne valley is relatively unspoilt and Wirksworth has undergone a renaissance as a town working hard to attract tourists (as, indeed, has my neighbouring home town, Belper). The railway is a pretty professional operation; it aims to provide a service first whilst accommodating and welcoming enthusiasts, but it isn’t trying to achieve superstardom in the heritage railway firmament. I recommend it for an excursion and hope to see them flourish for many years to come.

Written by robertday154

April 5, 2018 at 12:18 am

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Return to the Forbidden City

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About ten days ago, I posted on here about my attendance at TestBash, a conference for software testers held in Brighton. As I said in the post, that was my first testing conference (and very enjoyable and informative I found it, too), but certainly not my first conference in Brighton by any stretch of the imagination.

Apart from visits on family holidays, my first conference in Brighton was the 1979 World Science Fiction Convention, held over the August Bank Holiday in the Metropole Hotel. I’ve written about science fiction conventions before in this blog; but World Conventions (Worldcons for short) are something a bit different. Until comparatively recently, it was rare for them to leave the United States; prior to 1979’s convention, Seacon, the previous time the Worldcon had been held in the UK was Loncon II in 1965. Interestingly, I recollect Loncon II being reported in the Daily Mirror as though it was a (moderately) serious scientific conference; granted, I was only eight years old at the time, but the reporting seemed reasonably straight, if a little “silly season”, but not mocking in the way that later media accounts of sf conventions have tended to be.

I couldn’t afford to stay in the main convention hotel, so I was located in a hotel on the other side of Regency Square. I had a bedroom at the top of the hotel at the back, and I recollect that the window frame was sufficiently rotten for rain to come in through the frame timbers on my first night. I recollect little of the convention that I’m prepared to write about here, beyond:

  • attending a programme item in the Bedford Hotel a bit further along the seafront and sharing a lift with author Larry Niven on the way out
  • seeing the world premiére of the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back (once Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner were able to attach the special anamorphic lens for the widescreen format to the hired-in film projector)
  • watching my then girlfriend portray Supreme Commander Servalan from the BBC series Blake’s 7 in the convention masquerade and ending up on television myself when a BBC camera crew managed to get me in shot during the masquerade photo-call
  • wondering what all the fuss was about with this much-hyped film Alien that we were seeing so much advance publicity material for, including that August’s must-have accessory, Nostromo crew baseball caps
  • wandering by accident into the Science Fiction Writers of America suite whilst looking for someone and (despite their fearsome reputation for security) not getting thrown out because I obviously had the air of someone thinking Nah, no-one here I want to talk to
  • listening to a lot of people discussing this new radio show The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and hearing people wonder who this Douglas Adams bloke was, because he’d nailed some of the more ridiculous tropes of science fiction (especially television science fiction) so well that he was obviously some sort of insider; but no-one had ever heard of him, so the speculation was that it was a pseudonym for someone much more famous (of course, as fans of written literature, hardly anyone had previously spotted Adams’ name in the credits for Doctor Who – as script editor – a few years previously).

I came away with some additions to the book collection and a determination to attend more conventions.

I returned to Brighton in 1984, when the European Science Fiction Convention returned to the Metropole. This time I stayed in the hotel, in what appeared to be a broom cupboard. The impression of it being a broom cupboard wasn’t because of the size – anything but. It was a huge room on the fifth floor, where the corridor turned through 90 degrees away from the front of the building. My room was on that corner, and although it had one wall facing the sea, there were no windows in it. Instead, the windows were on the side wall, and what made me think the room had been storage at some point was the fact that the windowsills were six feet off the floor! To look out of the window, I had to stand on a central heating pipe; and then I was only able to peer over the windowsill. Otherwise, the room was perfectly well appointed, with all mod cons and a huge en suite bathroom. Frankly, I remember even less about this convention. The one thing I do remember is going out to eat with a friend and finding what we would now call a pop-up French restaurant actually on Regency Square. The proprietor was a French chef who was running an hotel’s kitchen for them; the hotel only offered breakfast, but they were allowing him to open the dining room of an evening at his own expense. The food was excellent, but there were very few customers; so after the meal, we got to chatting with the owner, and offered to take him back to the Metropole for a nightcap. We’d talked about why we were in Brighton, but the reality of a convention in full flow rather amazed this chap. He immediately saw the opportunity and sketched out a menu on the back of an envelope, said that if we could get twenty people together he’d do that menu for a fixed sum, and when could we come? We put up notices and spread the word, and on the Sunday night twenty people turned up at this restaurant and filled it. The shock was so much that the chef’s pregnant wife went into labour and he had to make a quick exit…

The convention must have been something of a success, though, because the world convention returned to Brighton and the Metropole Hotel in 1987. But that’s when things began to get a bit weird…

There had been a fireworks display on the sea front opposite the hotel; this had caused some consternation because the organisers wanted to put music on to accompany the fireworks, but the city council vetoed that. So the pyrotechnic engineers cheated a little and slightly increased some of the firework charges. The resulting display was deafening, with car alarms going off in a half-mile radius and some of the louder explosions echoing off buildings in the town.

Meanwhile, I had my second television appearance; this time, another BBC camera crew were filming in the convention’s art show and wanted some fans meeting friends they hadn’t seen for ages. So I was roped in to greet warmly some people who I’d spent the previous evening drinking with. This was unscripted, but I recollect that we had three takes before the director was satisfied. Of course, the broadcast footage looked incredibly staged.

And then there was the infamous (to those who knew about it) ‘hotel explorations’ of the late author Iain M. Banks, who took great delight in clandestinely going “behind the scenes” in the Metropole, just to see what was there. This later appeared as an episode in his novel Use of Weapons where his protagonist does likewise with a hotel – and more, engaging in climbing expeditions on the outside of the building, just for the fun of it…

But that was as nothing compared to the arguments going on behind the scenes in the hotel. There had been issues over some of the function rooms that had been booked and paid for; when the convention tried to use some of these rooms, they found that there were still painters and decorators in residence and some of the rooms were not ready – but the hotel did not seem to be interested in fulfilling their side of the contract. Then there were the attendees’ key cards. Most convention attendees received key cards marked with a green star. The reason for this was that it identified them as convention attendees as opposed to “proper” guests (convention room rates were usually lower than the hotel’s rack rates as part of the deal for filling the hotel and guaranteeing huge bar takings for three or four days; this was long before the Internet and getting the cheapest deal for your hotel room depending on who you book it through); and convention attendees were then not allowed to charge anything  to their room bills. And the hotel security staff were more than a little over-zealous over who they allowed to have access to which parts of the hotel, irrespective of whether they were residents or not. This came to a head at 11pm on the Saturday night, when the convention organisers pulled one particular American author out of bed – his day job was as a lawyer – to confront the hotel manager. Or the deputy manager, as it turned out, as the manager proper was not on site for that particular weekend. A major argument blew up.

The upshot of all this was two-fold. Firstly, the then owners of the hotel – a major hotel and catering chain – were soundly lambasted by convention attendees. At the gripe session – a regular feature of conventions, where attendees can attend and  deliver bouquets or brickbats after the main events of the weekend have finished – one particular friend stood up and declared that although he looked like an aging hippy (to be fair, I’ve known this guy for at least 35 years and he has always looked like an aging hippy), his Day Job was organising corporate conferences and training courses for the UK HQ of a major international computer company on the south coast of England (clue: all their executives wear blue suits, after which the company is nicknamed, their name consists of three letters, and they have no connection whatsoever with the computer HAL in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: a space odyssey, despite many people thinking that there was some sort of connection implied), and he said that after the treatment that both he personally and the convention had received at the hotel that weekend, he could assure everyone that the owners would never get any business from his company again. Anywhere in the world.

But something strange then happened. The deputy manager of the Metropole left the company shortly afterwards. A few years later, some convention organisers decided that Brighton was such a good venue that they should try organising another convention there. They enlisted the help of the official Brighton Conference bureau, whose remit was to bring conferences to Brighton. All was sweetness and light. The organisers chose their hotel and started negotiations. But then, about half-way through, the negotiations came to a sudden halt. The hotel terminated the discussion. No reason was given. The Conference Bureau made enquiries; they were given no explanation either. It wasn’t the personalities involved; science fiction conventions are usually organised by a group of people who come together for that sole purpose, so there was no connection between those organisers and the convention committee of the 1987 Worldcon. The deputy manager of the Metropole had never reappeared; and indeed, the hotel had changed hands twice since 1987. None of this made any difference. Other convention committees came to Breighton, but negotiations either came to nothing or never even started.

And so Brighton became known to the science fiction community as “The Forbidden City”.

Meanwhile, my life had moved on. In 1989, as a consequence of the privatisation of the UK water industry, the government took the decision to locate the regulator’s office, Ofwat, in Birmingham as it was equidistant from most of the water companies’ HQs. I took level transfer to Ofwat, and by a series of odd events found myself the organisation’s main trade union representative. I began rapidly making contacts and looking for support and advice, as I’d gone from being a floor representative within a union sub-Branch in one office of a department employing tens of thousands of staff to being the leader of trade unions in an entire Government Department; although that department only had a total of 250 staff at its height, my peers were suddenly people leading the unions in Departments such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or the Inland Revenue, with memberships in five or even six figures. Things were complicated by the fact that the union I was then in, the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) was known in some quarters as “the Beirut of the British trade union movement”. The level of internal conflict in CPSA was notorious, and had a shady origin in tales of conspiracy, plots, secret armies, infiltrators of Left and Right, and the efforts of the security services to keep a lid on all this. Back in the days of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in the 1960s, there were rumours that the Prime Minister was a Russian spy (sound familiar?), and one David Stirling – founder of the SAS – and a bunch of cronies from the Clermont Club and similar establishments in Pall Mall had set up a private army ready to seize power. He claimed that he had many supporters in the Civil Service, and the security services promptly recruited some minor union officers to keep an eye on disruptive elements of both Left and Right. In time, these people became entrenched in CPSA and were elevated to high office. Others arose to counter them, seeing them as anti-democratic. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

So it was that CPSA conferences were pretty turbulent affairs. Stirling had recruited his insiders initially to cause trouble at conferences; the Left organised to repay that compliment. Over time, their influence waned, especially as changes in the Civil Service meant that there began a series of union mergers to reflect changes in Departmental structures and to present a more coherent and united front to a government determined to downsize the Civil Service and to degrade the terms and conditions of employment. CPSA and its fellow unions held their conferences, it was said, in “a seaside town beginning with B”, usually circulating between Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton; by the end of the 1990s, a series of mergers had created the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which was of such a size that Brighton’s seafront conference centre was the only venue big enough for the annual delegate conference.

Conference Week was the main event in the union’s annual timetable. Over the preceding months, elections to the National Executive Committee had been held, and the results of those elections were usually published shortly before Conference. Meanwhile, Branches had been consulting members on motions for Conference; these had been submitted and the union’s Standing Orders Committee had considered the motions, brought together those which were on similar themes and had similar objectives in a process known as “compositing”, decided which motions were suitable for debate – there were a set of fairly bureaucratic rules determining the criteria under which motions could be ruled suitable or not suitable for Conference – and assembled a timetable for Conference which placed the most important motions first in each session’s business. If debate caused motions to run out of time, they were guillotined, though half of the final morning of Conference was set aside for guillotined motions to be heard, though it was down to the same Standing Orders Committee to decide which guillotined motions made it to the schedule.

Meanwhile, the normal pattern was for the union’s Sections and Groups – roughly corresponding to employing Departments – to hold their Conferences over the few days before main Conference. These Group Conferences would decide union policy in areas that solely concerned members’ terms and conditions in those Departments. After two or three days there, main Conference would start, with sessions lasting from 9am to 5:30pm, and with a tight timetable and a formal process to determine who should speak. And so it was that I ended up on the podium at least once each Conference, and on odd occasions three or four times.


One of my appearances at the Conference podium at Brighton (photo: Jon Gambit)

Conference was notable for a few things. One such was Popular Front, or “The Popular Front for the Liberation of the CPSA”, a scurrilous newsheet that circulated on the fringes of Conference and took satirical potshots at personalities on all sides of the union.  It drew its iconography from some of the formal politics of the Middle East (especially Gadaffi’s Libya), inspired by that “Beirut of the trade union movement” tag already mentioned. It is a bit of a surprise that it never got into more trouble with more people than it did. Regularly denounced from the top table, perhaps the best perspective on it would be a misquote of Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being in Popular Front is not being in Popular Front.”

On another occasion, PCS conference made national news, though not through anything that happened in Conference itself. In November 1998 (Conference was very late that year because of merger timetables), the Royal Albion Hotel, at one end of the seafront, caught fire one breakfast-time. Apparently, the ventilation ducts from the kitchen hadn’t had their grease traps cleaned out for a number of years; so a minor frying pan fire rapidly escalated to a major conflagration.


The Royal Albion on fire, 1998 (Photo: BBC)

The hotel was being used by the MoD delegation, who had to evaculate in the clothes they stood up in. The union immediately made emergency payments available to affected delegates, though quizzical eyebrows were raised at the number of posh suits being claimed for by otherwise sartorially-challenged delegates; and there were red faces over the number of official MoD laptop computers being claimed for that should not have been being used for such non-official duties as union work. I was staying at the time in a small hotel in Hove, a good mile or more along the seafront; the column of smoke was visible as soon as I left the hotel and the location of the Albion meant that traffic was severely affected.

Our regular haunt for our Group Conference in later years was the Queens Hotel, not quite next door to the Albion, A slightly eccentric venue, the site was once occupied by an inn called ‘The Dolphin’ which was demolished in 1846. Next door was the famous Vapour Baths run by one Sheik Mahomet, who had been Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV. The baths were converted into the Markwell Hotel in 1869 and eventually were absorbed into the Queens Hotel.

And now I’ve been to my first TestBash. My last post talked about the content; I’ll just add that for me, it was even a new experience because of the venue, as the Clarendon Centre is located in an end of Brighton that I’ve never explored before. Of course, places look much different in winter (and be sure that March is still potentially winter in terms of the British weather! I’ve never seen snow in Brighton before until this year’s TestBash), so to close, and especially for TestBash attendees who might not have seen much of Brighton in the sunshine, here’s a portfolio of photographs I’ve taken in Brighton since 2003, showing some of the places I’ve named in this post (and a few others that I haven’t mentioned but which delegates might know).


Written by robertday154

April 2, 2018 at 12:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized