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More astronomy news

A significant event is coming up

One last astronomy post for a while, and then I’ll talk about something different, I promise: in a few weeks time, on December 21st Saturn and Jupiter will be at their closest conjunction for several hundred years.

The Plain People Of The Internet: Conwhatnow?

They’ll come close together in the sky. The closest they’ll be for a few hundred years, in fact. They’re already fairly close in the sky right now, but on December 21st they’ll be so close that to some people they’ll look like a single spot of light, although people with 20/20 vision should still be able to see they are two separate dots.

Unfortunately … I’m not sure I’ll be able to see it. They’re both on the far side of the sun from us right now, and we’re basically watching Jupiter passing in front of Saturn from our perspective on the other side of the solar system. Because of this, they’re also fairly close to the sun in the sky, which means you don’t get a very long window of opportunity to see them. They will set together in the south-west sky only about 90 minutes after the sun does, so you have a brief window of time to see them together at dusk. If you’re on a south coast then things are grand; if you’re in a town, they may well be already below your neighbour’s roofline before the sky gets dark enough to see them. Personally, our only chance will be from an upstairs window. Fingers crossed, though, the sky will be clear enough to see something of them both together.

One of our galaxies is missing!

Or, more astronomy for beginners

Yesterday afternoon, sitting at my desk as dusk was falling, the skies were clear and I could clearly see the moon and Mars rising in the sky. As soon as I logged off from work, I scampered downstairs and went outside, and saw Jupiter and Saturn just visible above the rooftops at the back of the house. “Let’s get the telescope!” I said to The Child Who Likes Animals Space. “Before they set!”

“Before what set?” said The Child, but I was already rushing off to get his telescope and set it up in the back garden.

By the time I’d hoicked it out of its box, Jupiter had already gone down below the roofline, but Saturn was still there. Sadly, I could only see it when I was stood up. The telescope, sitting on a camping table, was too low down to spot it. I briefly considered setting the smaller camping table on top of the larger camping table and making some sort of rickety makeshift telescope-tower, but it would probably have ended in some sort of injury to one or both of us. So, like we’d done before, we looked at the moon, we looked at Mars, and we looked at random bright stars. “Point it at that blue thing!” he shouted. “That’s a very hot star!” This time, at least, he was a lot calmer and could stand still looking through the eyepiece without having to break off every couple of seconds to run back and forth with excitement. I experimented with holding my phone camera in front of the eyepiece. Worst. Astrophotography. Ever.

Worst. Astrophotography. Ever.

After The Children decided they’d rather go inside and watch TV I left the telescope set up; and after they’d gone to bed, the skies were still clear. Time for some telescope practice for me, I decided. Using an app on my phone to show me roughly where things were, I tried focusing on key visible stars then swinging the telescope sideways to find a nearby Messier object. The results? Not very successful, other than a possible sighting of M29, the Cooling Tower Cluster.

Getting a rough fix and vaguely hoping to spot the thing clearly wasn’t working. So, I fetched my laptop, and fired up Stellarium in Night Mode. I picked a target—the Triangulum Galaxy—and went looking for it.

Although the skies were clear, the seeing wasn’t great. Even a newbie like me could tell that the seeing wasn’t good. Vega normally stands out to me like a sore thumb, but last night it didn’t really appear any brighter or more significant than the stars of the Northern Cross to its south, which normally are noticably fainter. Nevertheless, I could see Hamal and Sheratan, the brightest stars in Aries, and could spot the telescope nicely onto Hamal and swing it between the two. Zooming in on Hamal in Stellarium, and flicking my head back and forth from the telescope eyepiece to the dim red screen of the computer, I could slowly navigate my way upwards from star to star until I reached Mothallah, which I hadn’t managed to see with the naked eye.

Road map of the stars

From there, I could similarly hop south towards the spot where the Triangulum Galaxy should be, navigating from star to star and matching the scene in the sky to the screen of the computer. But when I reached it: nothing. Just a blank patch of sky. I found Mothallah again, then worked my way across by a different route. Still nothing. The Triangulum Galaxy has been stolen!

Let’s try the Andromeda Galaxy instead, I thought, given that it’s one of the brightest galaxies in the sky. I found Mirach by eye, spotted the telescope on to it, and walked over to where the galaxy should be. Another blank patch of sky, with a faint hazy blob in the middle of it. Hurrah! A faint hazy blob!

I’m almost glad I hadn’t found it the other day when The Child Who Likes Animals had asked me to find it, because I suspect if I had he’d have been awfully disappointed. I was a bit puzzled, though, because in theory the Andromeda Galaxy is of naked-eye magnitude. I should have seen much more than a fuzzy blob, surely?

A quick note about how astronomical “apparent magnitude”, or brightness to you and me, works. It’s a relative scale based loosely on the subjective scales used by ancient astronomers, and as it’s relative it’s written down as a number without units. The higher the number, the fainter the thing is; and a difference of five in the apparent magnitude number means “a hundred times brighter”. If you have a calculator to hand you can work out that a drop in magnitude of 1 therefore means “2.5119 times brighter”.* The star Vega, mentioned earlier, has magnitude 0, so a few things in the sky have negative magnitudes: Sirius is -1.47, Jupiter varies from -1.66 to -2.94, and Venus from -2.98 to -4.92, almost 100 times as bright as Vega.

On a good night, with a clear dark sky, the human eye should in theory be able to see things as faint as magnitude 6 or so. Last night was clearly nowhere near that: I could see Sheratan at 2.655 and Albeiro (in the Northern Cross of Cygnus) at 3, but couldn’t see Mothallah at 3.42. Through the telescope, though, I was happily stepping my way across the sky using stars of 8 to 8.4, roughly speaking, stars around 140 times less bright than the faintest I could see without it.

The Triangulum galaxy, though, is officially** of magnitude 5.72. Andromeda is considerably brighter still, around the same magnitude as Mothallah. So what was going on?

A galaxy isn’t a point of light, like nearly all stars are. Nearly every star in the sky, other than a handful of stars like Betelgeuse when seen through very high magnifications, appears to be just a single point of light to the viewer here on Earth. A galaxy, by comparison, covers a broad chunk of the sky. That small fuzzy blob I could make out in Andromeda was really just the very brightest core of the galaxy; and the rest of that 3.4 magnitude of light is spread out over an area wide enough to fill my entire eyepiece. Through the telescope, it just becomes a vaguely paler area of sky.

Hopefully at some point we will get the telescope out on a night with rather better viewing conditions, and be able to see all of these things properly. Until then, it seems strangely unintuitive to be able to see hundreds of dimmer stars but not a theoretically many-times-brighter galaxy. That, though, is just how the physics works.

* Apparently, the formal definition “five means a factor of 100” was set down by a Victorian astronomer with what I think is a great name, N R Pogson. The relationship 1:2.5119 is therefore known as Pogson’s Ratio.

** I say “officially”. I mean “according to what I’ve just read on Wikipedia”, of course.


The art of not seeing very much (as yet)

The other day I mentioned The Children have just turned seven. As The Child Who Likes Animals has spent quite a lot of time in recent months liking space instead, watching Brian Cox’s The Planets innumerable times, memorising lists of dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, centaurs and so on, and learning the difference between a red dwarf, a white dwarf and a brown dwarf. We decided, therefore, that it might be a nice idea for The Mother to get him a telescope, as a suitably grandmothery sort of present. Not trusting The Mother to judge what might be suitable, I reached out to a few astronomers I know for recommendations, and found something that both fell into The Mother’s budget and had a reasonable chance of imaging the rings of Saturn. The number of times I’ve looked down a telescope myself before can be counted on the fingers of one hand; but if I was age seven, was given a telescope, and found that it couldn’t show the rings of Saturn I’d be terribly disappointed.

Of course, I messed up to a certain extent. I’m sure I achieved my objectives, but there’s no way really that The Child Who Likes Animals would be able to actually point the telescope at something himself. So, this is going to be the sort of present that I set up in the garden on dark nights; find out what he wants to point it at; try to point it; and then he looks down the eyepiece. Naturally, it becomes a family event, with The Child Who Likes Fairies also wanting to get involved.

As I said, I’ve hardly ever been near a telescope before, despite having books and books on astronomy when I was that age myself. So, on the few nights we’ve had so far when the cloud has at least been broken rather than blanketing, it has gone something like this: I set up the telescope outside. A child asks to point it at something, in a brief pause for breath whilst running around with crazed excitement. If it is an easy thing—the moon, say—I contort myself to the right angle to try to see through the finder, point the telescope and roughly nudge it about until we can see what we’re looking for, all the time with said thing bouncing up and down in the eyepiece as children bounce up and down on the decking. A child then steps up, instinctively grabs the telescope and knocks it out of alignment, and we go back to square one.

Eventually everyone has seen what we’re looking at, and one of them will name something else. I try to work out how to find it, with my laptop and a copy of Stellarium. I fail to find it, and end up sawing the telescope back and forth across the sky desperately trying to find the thing they have asked for. I try again with the finder, drape myself over the telescope and twist it around until the red finder dot is in just the right place; then look through the eyepiece and see nothing but haze. I look up at the sky again, and my target patch of sky, clear a few moments before, is suddenly covered in thick cloud. This cycle repeats a few times, until we either look at the moon again instead, or The Children get bored and go back into the house.

So far, we’ve successfully looked at the moon, Mars, and some random patches of sky that have lots of stars in but nothing I can actually put a name to. Oh well. I’m sure at some point we will get the hang of it, even if I end up becoming the main telescope user myself. It certainly has shown me just how non-empty an empty-looking patch of sky actually is, even living in a hazy, foggy, light-polluted city like this one. I’ll let you know if I manage to find anything less easy to spot. Or, indeed, if we do ever see the rings of Saturn.

The mighty chopper

Or, an eye for detail

Regular readers will know I’m the sort of person who always has an eye for odd little details, odd little quirks of history or mechanical gubbins. You’ll probably be unsurprised to know that this has never really changed much.

Last week I posted photos of my first ever trip to the Ffestiniog Railway, from back when I was still in primary school. I can still remember being intrigued by the “chopper” couplings the Ffestiniog has used as standard since the 1950s (and to some degree since the 1870s—naturally the full details are online). I can’t say it was the first time I had seen them, but it was the first time I had been close enough to notice they were a novelty to me, enough for me to want to take photographs of how they work. So, naturally, I did.

Coupling on Car 100

This is my grainy 110-film photo of the coupling on FfR Car 100. On the far left is its electrical connector, with a hood to shelter it. In the middle is the coupling: a central buffer with a hinged hook fitting into a slot, and a weight (the “bob”) hanging below. Bear in mind that when I took this picture I didn’t know any of this; I was just intrigued by this peculiar metal prong. I’ve learned the technical details since.

Car and loco coupled together

After the loco (Mountaineer) coupled up to the train, this is what it looked like. The hook on each coupling is swung down into the opposite slot, but initially it doesn’t drop all the way; it’s blocked by a camshaft attached to the bob. The bob is swung to one side until the hook drops into its running position, and then swung back; the bob’s camshaft locks the hook into place and prevents it lifting. After that, you can attach the brake hoses.

Nowadays, of course, there are probably a thousand videos of how this works online, that you can go and watch whenever you like. I’m quietly pleased with myself, though, that back in the day when you couldn’t do that, this is the sort of thing I felt worth recording on film.

Technical advice post of the week

Or, what to do with a particular compilation problem

This week, Microsoft released .NET 5, and it reminded me I’ve been meaning to post a piece of technical advice that has bitten me a few times but which doesn’t seem to be very well-documented or well-described online. It’s a piece of technical advice, though, that will slowly be fading away in relevance because it’s advice on .NET Framework; so I thought I should put it up here whilst it is still helpful to people.

(Note for non-technical readers, who are used to photos of trains and cemeteries and probably won’t find this post very interesting: .NET 5 is the latest version of .NET Core, which is the replacement for .NET Framework, hence Microsoft have dropped “Core” from the name to try to make that clearer. .NET 5 is the successor to .NET Core 3, because there were many very popular versions of .NET Framework 4.x which were and are heavily used for a long time, so Microsoft thought reusing the number 4 would be just Too Confusing. Are you less confused now?)

This problem, too, is pretty much specific to people working in teams. It only happens (well, I’ve only seen it happen) if all of the following apply:

  • you’re working in parallel in a team, on a complex system, probably that has solutions containing a relatively large number of projects
  • you’re using the MSBuild tool as part of your continuous integration pipeline, deployment process, or similar
  • you’re using Git as your version control system

The symptoms of the problem are:

  • You can open the solution in Visual Studio and build it with no problems
  • When MSBuild tries to build the solution, it immediately errors, claiming that the solution file has a syntax error on line 2.

Spoiler: there is no syntax error on line 2.

Another note for non-technical readers who are still here: what you might think of loosely as a programming project, in any kind of .NET flavour, has a primary file called a “solution” (its name ends in .sln). The solution contains one or more “projects”; each project contains code. Visual Studio can open your solution file and your project files and turn the projects into some sort of output product, such as a program, a website, a code library or whatever. However, you don’t have to use Visual Studio to do this. .NET Framework has a program called MSBuild that does the same thing. If you have automated your build process (which if you’re working in a team you probably should) and you’re using .NET Framework, your build process will probably use MSBuild to do its work. What happens here is one of a range of problems called “well it worked on my machine”. A developer has code that seems to be in a happy, working state, they upload their code to the team’s server, the automated build process runs, and the automated build process falls over and says it doesn’t work.

The cause of the problem is: two people on the team have added different projects to the solution, in parallel. Now, Git is often quite good, when two people change code at the same time, at either working out how to merge the changes together, or at least, asking you to sort the situation out manually. This, though, is a situation where Git does the wrong thing and breaks your solution file—but it breaks it in a way that only MSBuild notices, and that Visual Studio happily ignores.

The reason this happens is down to the syntax of solution files. The part which lists the projects they contain looks a bit like this:

Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project.Library", "Important.Project.Library\Important.Project.Library.csproj", "{E6FF8E04-A41D-446B-9F8A-CCFAF4B08AD2}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project", "Important.Project\Important.Project.csproj", "{9A7E2940-50B8-4F3A-A535-AB6220E6CE3A}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Important.Project.Tests", "Important.Project.Tests\Important.Project.Tests.csproj", "{68035DDB-1C24-407C-B6B3-32CEC1D964E5}"

Don’t worry too much about what each line says: the important thing to spot is that each project has a pair of lines: a Project(...) = line that contains the important information, and an EndProject line that, er, doesn’t. The projects are in a fairly arbitrary order, too; on your screen in Visual Studio they get sorted alphabetically, but that isn’t reflected in the file, where they are in the order they were added in.

The real cause of the problem is that Git doesn’t know that every Project... has to be followed by an EndProject. So, imagine two people have added new, different projects to the solution file. Git sees this and thinks: Alice has added Project... to line 42, and Bob has added a different Project... to line 42. So I’ll make those into lines 42 and 43. Alice added EndProject to line 43, and so did Bob, so I’ll just pop that in as line 44. So you get this:

Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Alices.Library", "Alices.Library\Alices.Library.csproj", "{0902233A-3857-4E5E-99F4-54F3F5E695E5}"
Project("{FAE04EC0-301F-11D3-BF4B-00C04F79EFBC}") = "Bobs.Library", "Bobs.Library\Bobs.Library.csproj", "{56ABE9BB-1373-43D3-B1C5-1526E443AD73}"

Visual Studio is quite unpeturbed by this. MSBuild, however, doesn’t like it at all. It reads the file, realises there’s a Project without a matching EndProject, and falls over. For some reason, it always complains that the error is on line 2, even though it isn’t anywhere near line 2.

The fix for this, as you might have guessed, is to open up the solution file in a text editor and manually enter that missing EndProject line after Alice’s project. And that’s it. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable going in and hacking your solution file directly, remember I said that Visual Studio is completely unfazed by this? You can make some sort of small change in Visual Studio that will imply a different change to the solution file: for example, tell it not to build one of the projects in one of the build configurations. Visual Studio doesn’t just change that bit, it will write out the whole file from scratch, so the problem gets silently fixed for you. Which one is less work depends on which one you’re happier doing, to be honest.

That’s the abstruse technical post over for now. Next time I write one, I’ll see if I can find something even more technically obscure.

Photo post of the week

Neu, hanes Cymreig

Occasionally, when I visit The Mother, I look through old photos. Either family ones, or ones from my own albums. My first camera was a Christmas present I’d asked for when I was age 7 or 8: a Halina-branded Haking Grip-C compact camera that took 110 cartridge film. With a fixed focus, a fixed shutter-speed and a choice of two apertures, it was an almost-entirely mechanical beast. The shutter was cocked by a lever which engaged with the film’s sprocket holes (a single hole per frame on 110 film) and the only electrical component was a piezoelectric switch attached to the shutter, for firing a Flipflash bulb if you’d inserted any. I might still have an unused Flipflash somewhere.

A photography geek might look at the above spec and be amazed that I managed to photograph anything recognisable on that type of camera. Frankly, even aged 7 so was I: to go with the camera I’d been given a book called something like A Children’s Guide To Photography which made no bones about this type of camera being a very basic one that it was hard to get good results from. It lasted me a few years though, despite at least one drop that popped the back off; I was still using it in my teens, I think.

Sometimes on this blog I’ve mentioned visiting the Ffestiniog Railway; last December for example. The last time I visited The Mother, though, I dug out the photos I’d taken on my very first visit, on which we did a single round trip from Blaenau to Porthmadog and back again behind the Alco. All the photos were taken right at the start of the day, it seems.

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The Alco at Blaenau

The weather in Blaenau is famously murky and damp; I’m not sure quite how much of the murk and grain in those photos is down to the camera and how much is down to the weather. Still, what the photos lack in sharpness, they certainly have in atmosphere.

We can rebuild it! We have the technology! (part four)

Or, finishing off the odds and ends

Settling down to see what else I should write in the series of posts about how I rebuilt this website, I realised that the main issues now have already been covered. The previous posts in this series have discussed the following:

And throughout the last two, we touched on some other important software engineering topics, such as refactoring your code so that you Don’t Repeat Yourself, and optimising your code when it’s clear that (and where) it is needed.

There are a few other topics to touch on, but I wasn’t sure they warranted a full post each, so this post is on a couple of those issues, and any other odds and ends that spring to mind whilst I am writing it.

Firstly, the old blog was not at all responsive: in web front-end terms, that means it didn’t mould itself to fit the needs of the users and their devices. Rather, it expected the world to all use a monitor the same size as mine, and if they didn’t, then tough. When I wrote the last designs the majority of the traffic the site was receiving was from people on regular computers; nowadays, that has changed completely.

However, the reason that this isn’t a particularly exciting topic to write about is that I didn’t learn any new skills or dive into interesting new programming techniques. I went the straightforward route, installed Bootstrap 4.5, and went from there. Now, I should say, using Bootstrap doesn’t magically mean your site will become responsive overnight; in fact, it’s very straightforward to accidentally write an entirely non-responsive website. Responsiveness needs carefully planning. However, with that careful planning, and some careful use of the Bootstrap CSS layout classes, I achieved the following aims:

  • The source code is laid out so that the main content of the page always comes before the sidebars in the code, wherever the sidebars are actually displayed. This didn’t matter so much on this blog, but on the Garden Blog, which on desktop screens has sidebars on both sides of the page, it does need to be specifically coded. Bootstrap’s layout classes, though, allow you to separate the order in which columns appear on a page from the order in which they appear in the code.
  • More importantly, the sidebars move about depending on page width. If you view this site on a desktop screen it has a menu sidebar over on the right. On a narrow mobile screen, the sidebar content is down below at the bottom of the page.
  • The font resizes based on screen size for easier reading on small screens. You can’t do this with Bootstrap itself; this required @media selectors in the CSS code with breakpoints chosen to match the Bootstrap ones (which, fortunately, are clearly documented).
  • Content images (as opposed to what you could call “structural images”) have max-width: 100%; set. Without this, if the image is bigger than the computed pixel size of the content column, your mobile browser will likely rescale things to get the whole image on screen, so the content column (and the text in it) will become too narrow to read.

On the last point, manual intervention is still required on a couple of types of content. Embedded YouTube videos like in this post need to have the embed code manually edited, and very long lines of text without spaces need to have soft hyphens or zero-width spaces inserted, in order to stop the same thing happening. The latter usually occurs in example code, where zero-width spaces are more appropriate than soft hyphens. All in all though, I’ve managed to produce something that is suitably responsive 95% of the time.

The other point that is worth writing about is the build process of the site. As Wintersmith is a static site generator, every change to the site needs the static files to be built and deployed. The files from the previous version need to be deleted (in case any stale ones, that have disappeared completely from the latest iteration of the output, are still lying about) and then Wintersmith is run to generate the new version. You could do this very simply with a one-liner: rm -rf ../../build/* && wintersmith build if you’re using Bash, for example. However, this site actually consists of three separate Wintersmith sites in parallel. The delete step might only have to be done once, but doing the build step three separate times is a pain. Moreover, what if you only want to delete and rebuild one of the three?

As Wintersmith is a JavaScript program, and uses npm (the Node Package Manager) for managing its dependencies, it turns out that there’s an easy solution to this. Every npm package or package-consumer uses a package.json file to control how npm works; and each package.json file can include a scripts section containing arbitrary commands to run. So, in the package.json file for this blog, I inserted the following:

"scripts": {
  "clean": "node ../shared/js/unlink.js ../../build/blog",
  "build": "wintersmith build"

You might be wondering what unlink.js is. I said before that “if you’re using Bash” you could use rm -rf ../../build. However, I develop on a Windows machine, and for this site I use VS Code to do most of the writing. Sometimes therefore I want to build the site using PowerShell, because that’s the default VS Code terminal. Sometimes, though, I’ll be using GitBash, because that’s convenient for my source control commands. One day I might want to develop on a Linux machine. One of the big changes between these different environments is how you delete things: del or Remove-Item in PowerShell; rm in Bash and friends. unlink.js is a small script that reproduces some of the functionality of rm using the JavaScript del package, so that I have a command that will work in the same way across any environment.

So, this means that in the main blog’s folder I can type npm run clean && npm run build and it will do just the same thing as the one-liner command above (although note that the clean step only deletes the main blog’s files). In the other Wintersmith site folders, we have a very similar thing. Then, in the folder above, we have a package.json file which contains clean and build commands for each subsite, and a top-level command that runs each of the others in succession.

"scripts": {
  "clean:main": "cd main && npm run clean",
  "clean:misc": "cd misc && npm run clean",
  "clean:garden": "cd garden && npm run clean",
  "clean": "npm run clean:misc && npm run clean:main && npm run clean:garden",
  "build:main": "cd main && npm run build",
  "build:misc": "cd misc && npm run build",
  "build:garden": "cd garden && npm run build",
  "build": "npm run build:misc && npm run build:main && npm run build:garden"

And there you have it. By typing npm run clean && npm run build at the top level, it will recurse into each subsite and clean and build all of them. By typing the same command one folder down, it will clean and build that site alone, leaving the others untouched.

When that’s done, all I have to do is upload the changed files; and I have a tool to do that efficiently. Maybe I’ll go through that another day. I also haven’t really touched on my source-control and change management process; and all I have to say there is, it doesn’t matter what process you use, but you will find things a lot more straightforward if you find a process you like and stick to it. Even if you’re just a lone developer, using a sensible source control workflow and release process makes life much easier and makes you less likely to make mistakes; you don’t need anything as rigid as a big commercial organisation, but just having a set process for storing your changes and releasing them to the public means that you are less likely to slip up and make mistakes. This is probably something else I’ll expand into an essay at some point.

Is the site perfect now? No, of course not. There are always more changes to be made, and more features to add; I haven’t even touched on the things I decided not to do right now but might bring in one day. Thoe changes are for the future, though. Right now, for a small spare-time project, I’m quite pleased with what we have.

Putting things into practice

Or, time to get the model trains out

A couple of times recently I’ve mentioned my vague model railway plans and projects, including the occasional veiled hint that I’ve already been building stock for the most fully-fleshed out of these ideas. At the weekend I had some time to myself, so I unpacked my “mobile workbench” (an IKEA tray with a cutting mat taped firmly to it) and had a look at which projects I could move on with.

The other week I’d been passing my local model shop and popped in to support them by buying whatever bits and pieces I could remember I needed. I’ve been wondering the best way to weight some of my stock, so bought a packet of self-adhesive model aircraft weights. I wasn’t convinced they would be ideal because they’re a bit on the large side for 009 scale, but the 5g size do just fit nicely inside a van.

Wagon and weights

Yes, I know I didn’t clean off the feed mark on the inside of the wagon; nobody’s going to see it, are they. The weights are very keen to tell everyone they are steel, not lead. I wasn’t really sure what amount to go with especially given that (like most Dundas wagon kits) it has plastic bearings; it now has 10g of steel inside it and feels rather heavy in the hand.

Another project that’s been progressing slowly is a Dundas kit for a Ffestiniog & Blaenau Railway coach, which will be a reasonable representation of the first generation of Porthdwyryd & Dolwreiddiog Railway coaches. The sides were painted early on with this kit so that I could glaze it before it was assembled; it still needs another coat on the panels but the area around the window glazing shouldn’t need to see the paintbrush again I hope. In my last train-building session I fitted its interior seating; in this one, it gained solebars and wheels and can now stand on the rails. Its ride is very low, so low that, given typical 009 flanges, it needs clearance slots in the floor for the wheels.

Coach underside

This made it a little awkward to slot the wheels into place, but when I did it all fitted together rather nicely, with little lateral slop in the wheels and a quick test showing everything was nice and square.

Standing on a perspex block to check for squareness

To show just how low-riding it is—like many early narrow gauge carriages—I used a piece of card and a rule to measure how much clearance there is above rail level.

Height measurement

This shows rather harshly that I’ve let this model get a bit dusty on the workbench.

It needs couplings, of course, so I made a start on folding up a pair of Greenwich couplings for it. I’m still trying to find the perfect pliers for making Greenwich couplings. They don’t need any soldering, at least, but they do need folding up from the fret and then fitting the two parts—buffer and loop—together with a pin. These small flat-nosed pliers are very good for getting a crisp fold.

Greenwich coupling fret

Part-folded Greenwich buffer

I should give those pictures a caption about the importance of white balance in photography, given how differently the green cutting mat has come out between them. By the time I got to this stage it was starting to get a bit too dark to fit two tiny black pieces of brass together with a black pin and get them moving freely, never mind wrapping ferromagnetic wire around the loop tail. Still, all in all, I think everything seemed to be coming along quite nicely.

The only perfect railway is the one you invent yourself

Or, some completely fictional history

The other week, I wrote about how there are just too many interesting railways to pick one to build a model of, which is one reason that none of my modelling projects ever approach completion; indeed, most of them never approach being started. Some, though, have developed further than others. In particular, I mentioned a plan for a fictitious narrow-gauge railway in the Rhinogydd, and said I’ve started slowly aquiring suitable stock for it. What I didn’t mention is that I’ve also put together the start of a history of this entirely invented railway. I first wrote it down a few years ago, and although it is a very high-level sketch, has a fairly high level of implausibility to it, and probably needs a lot of tweaks to its details, I think it’s a fair enough basis for a railway that is fictional but interesting.

Narrow-gauge modelling general does seem to have something of a history of the planning and creation of entire fictional systems; rather, I think it’s something that has disappeared from British standard gauge railway modelling, partly due to the history of the British railway network. This, then, is my attempt at an entry into this genre. If you don’t know the Rhinogydd: they are the mountain range that forms the core of Ardudwy, the mountains behind Harlech that form a compact block between the Afon Mawddach and the Vale of Ffestiniog. The main change I have made to real-world geography is to replace Harlech itself with a similar town more usable as a port; all the other villages, hamlets and wild mountain passes are essentially in the same place as in the real world, and if you sit down with this fictional history and the Outdoor Leisure map that covers the district, you should be able to trace the route of these various railways without too much trouble.

The primary idea behind the railway is that profitable industry was discovered in the heart of the Rhinogydd. Not slate as in Ffestiniog; the geology is all wrong for that. The industry here would be mining for metal ores, and it isn’t really too far from the truth. There genuinely were a whole host of mines, largely digging up manganese ore, in the middle of what was and is a very inhospitable area; all of them were very small and ultimately unsuccessful. The fiction is that an intelligent landowner realised that a railway would enable the mines to develop; so, using part of an earlier horse-drawn tramway, a rather circuituous route was built from the middle of the mountains down to a port at the mouth of the Afon Dwyryd. The earlier tramway, also fictional, would have run in a very different direction, from the Afon Artro up to the small farms in the hills overlooking Maentwrog. Why you would want to build a horse tramway over such a route I’m still not entirely sure, but it means that my Porthdwyryd & Dolwreiddiog Railway can be a network, a busy well-trafficked main line in one direction, and a half-abandoned branch line in the other. This is of course not too dissimilar to the Welsh Highland Railway, with its Croesor and Bryngwyn branches, originally both main lines but both later superseded.

I did, a few years ago, draft a whole outline history for the railway, trying to explain quite why such a thing would and could exist, and how it might have at least partially survived through to the present day. It was an interesting exercise, although I’m not sure it would be a very interesting piece of writing to post here. I do like the thought, though, of writing it up as a full history, complete with some unanswered questions; and then, when I do build models of the line, I can claim that it is at least an approximately accurate model of something that actually did run on the railway. I quite like the idea of steadfastly maintaining that it is actually a real place—what do you mean, you’ve never heard of it before?—and that I am trying to model, however imperfectly, trains that really did exist. I can always be very apologetic when my model “isn’t as accurate as I’d like”, or when I “haven’t been able to find out” exactly what colour a given train was painted in a given year. I wonder how persuasive I will manage to be.

The railway in the woods

Or, some autumnal exploration

Today: we went to wander around Leigh Woods, just outside Bristol on the far bank of the Avon Gorge. It’s not an ancient woodland: it is a mixture of landscapes occupied and used for various purposes for the past few thousand years. A hillfort, quarries, formal parkland, all today merged and swallowed up by woodland of various forms and patterns, although you can see its history if you look closely. I love walking around damp, wet countryside in autumn; although today was dry, everything had a good soaking yesterday and earlier in the week. The dampness brings out such rich colours in photos, even though I didn’t have anything better than the camera on my phone with me.

Twisted roots

Twisted trunks

Part of the woods, “Paradise Bottom”, belonged to the Leigh Court estate and was laid out by Humphry Repton, the garden and landscape designer who should not be confused with Boulder Dash. It includes a chain of ponds which are now very much overgrown, their water brown and their bottoms thick with silt; and some of the first giant redwood trees planted in Britain, around 160 years ago now.

Redwood, of not inconsiderable size

The ponds drain into a sluggish, silty stream which trickles through the woods down into the Avon, the final salt-tinged part of the stream running under a handsome three-arched viaduct built by the Bristol & Portishead Railway, back when when the redwoods were newly-planted.

Railway viaduct

Railway viaduct

If you’ve heard of the Bristol & Portishead, it may be because of the ongoing saga of when (if ever) it will reopen to passengers again. It closed to passenger traffic back in the 1960s, freight in the early 1980s, but unusually was mothballed rather than pulled up and scrapped. At the start of the 21st century it was refurbished and reopened for freight trains, but not to full passenger standards. Although there have been plans on the table for ten or fifteen years now to reopen it to passenger traffic, years have passed, the leaves in the wood have fallen and grown again, and nothing keeps on resolutely happening. The main issues are the signalling along the line (token worked, I understand, with traincrew-operated instruments) and its single track, which limits maximum capacity to one train each way per hour at the very most. Aside from putting in a station or two, these are the main factors which at present prevent it from being reopened to passengers.

When I moved to Bristol, over ten years ago now, the Bristol & Portishead line was busy every day with imported coal traffic. Now that that is fading away, the line itself is much quieter, and indeed can go for days at a time with no trains at all. Its railheads are dull, not shiny, as it curves through the lush green woodland. I walked up to the top of one of its tunnel mouths, and looked down upon it silently.

The railway in the woods