As the calendar year is drawing to a close, and Yuletide is slowly coming to an end, here’s a selection of random photos from 2022 that I don’t think I’ve posted anywhere previously.
As the calendar year is drawing to a close, and Yuletide is slowly coming to an end, here’s a selection of random photos from 2022 that I don’t think I’ve posted anywhere previously.
There are so many preserved and heritage railways in the UK—there must be something around a hundred at the moment, depending on your definition—that it’s very difficult to know all of them intimately, or even to visit them all. It doesn’t help that still, around 55 years after the “great contraction” of the railway network in a quixotic attempt to make it return to profitability, new heritage railways occasionally appear, like mushrooms out of the ground after rain.
Which is why, a few weeks ago, I decided to pop over to Another Part Of The Forest and visit one of the very newest: the Crowle Peatland Railway. It’s still only about three and a half years since the CPR first started laying track; only about ten years since the railway’s founders first conceived of the idea, and less than a year since passengers have been able to ride on it.
The CPR was built to preserve the memory of a very specific, industrial type of narrow-gauge railway, one that is associated more with Ireland than with Britain. The Crowle Peatlands are part of one of the largest lowland bogs in England, the Thorne Moors, on the boundary between North Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. Drained from natural wetland by the engineer Cornelis Vermuyden in the late 1620s, from the mid-19th century the area started to be mined for peat, with a network of railways bringing the peat from the moors to factories at their edges for processing and transshipment. For many decades these railways used horse haulage, but from around 1950 the peat company switched to petrol and diesel locomotives.
This map shows the Moors at around the time the railways started using locomotive power: you can see the lines of railways across the moors, following the drainage canals, making sharp, almost-hairpin corners. Even in the 1980s there were still between 15 and 20 miles of narrow gauge railway across Thorne Moors, remaining in use until peat mining ended around 2000; the newest locomotive on the railway was bought new as late as 1991.
The preserved railway is in the area shown on that map as “Ribbon Row”, west of Crowle, reached along a narrow, dead-straight lane across the flat landscape of the Moors. As soon as you are outside the town, it feels disconnected, remote, outside the normal world entirely. As I drove, in my mirrors, I saw a young deer crossing the road behind me.
To date, the railway has a café with very nice home-made cake. a maintenance shed, and a straight line of track stretching out across the moor. The shed is full of the sort of small diesel locomotives that worked on the moors from the 1950s onwards—and also, a Portuguese tram.
I think the loco on the left is Schöma 5130 of 1990; the diamond-shaped plate is the builder’s plate of Alan Keef of Ross-on-Wye, to mark the loco being rebuilt in the late 1990s with a more powerful engine, which you can see here.
The newest loco to run on the peat railways was named after a retired member of staff in the early 1990s, shortly after it was built.
The railway’s other locomotive is a Motor-Rail Simplex built in 1967 and abandoned around 1996 due to worn bearings.
It’s a nice little engine, much less powerful than the newer ones, but I’m not sure what I think of lime green as a locomotive colour.
On a map—if it had made it onto any maps yet—the railway would no doubt appear as a dead straight ine; but on the ground it follows gentle curves and undulations. At 3ft gauge the track feels wide for a narrow-gauge line, especially given the small size of the powered trolley that takes you out onto the moor. On my run I was the only passenger, with a driver and guard to look after me, as we pottered out along the track, surrounded by wildflowers pressing close up to the track, fat bumblebees buzzing close to the car as we went.
No stations; no platforms; no sidings. No signals other than a fixed distant sign warning that the track will run out soon. Just a single line of track, which stops. Back we go; with me and the guard having the best view this time, although I tried to make myself thinner and not block the driver’s line of sight.
That photo shows practically the whole railway, with the shed visible in the distance. We trundled back in, feeling far faster than the handful of miles per hour we were actually doing. Retracing our steps, back to the yard.
The Crowle Peatland Railway isn’t somewhere I’ll be going back to again that soon, because for now, I’ve seen all there is to see. But it is a nice little place to visit, a reminder that everyone starts somewhere, and that sometimes a railway is just a stretch of line running out into a field. It’s open and running trains about one weekend a month at the moment, and it’s worth visiting for the cakes. Or, indeed, if you just want to be out in a landscape where the horizon is straight as a ruler, and there are few noises beyond the wind blowing the grass.
A visit to the Rheilffordd Ffestiniog/Ffestiniog Railway, back in April.
At the start of the month I mentioned that I’d taken The Children away for a week in the Easter holidays, up to North Wales. As I said then, we saw quite a few beached jellyfish. Naturally, though, I refused to spend all day every day on the beach. So where else did we go?
To somewhere I’ve been to a few times in the past, but for some reason, whenever I’ve been there myself I’ve never had a good digital camera with me. Time to rectify that, I thought.
I can remember taking practically that selfsame identical shot when I was a teenager, on Kodachrome slide film. This is a place that—on a sunny day—was ideal for slow Kodachrome and its richly saturated colours. I’m teasing you with little detail shots here because it’s such a famous place, and its main landmarks and vistas are so well-known and well-photographed, that you’d recognise it immediately if I’d started out with any of the obvious viewpoints.
Some of you will have recognised it: the holiday village of Portmeirion, on the headland between the Afon Glasyln and Afon Dwyryd, just on the other side of the headland from the Boston Lodge railway works. It’s full of picturesque clusters of cottages and intriguing viewpoints, because it was deliberately designed in precisely that way, by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. The grandest architectural folly of them all, a folly expanded to the size of an entire village and turned into a holiday resort.
One of the regular readers has already told me that they “struggle to be whelmed” by Portmeirion, and I can see what they mean. Because it’s designed with an artistic eye, because it is designed to be almost like a stage- or film-set in some ways, it has that strange faery property that a set has of seeming, when in pictures or on film, of being much, much bigger than it actually is. You can—and people have—publish entire books of pictures of Portmeirion, with almost as much variety as if it were an entire city, but when you visit you realise that all those views and all those sightlines are crammed into a tiny pocket of space, like the hollow between the cusps of one of your back teeth. If most of the visitors stick to the village and its shops, I do have to wonder what they do all the day.
Still, if you wander off into the woods, or down along the shoreline path, there are places to explore that relatively few of the village’s visitors get to. A painted-steel lighthouse at the tip of the headland, or various oriental ponds and pagodas. Most curious of all, the Dog Cemetery, a small clearing in the woods packed full with graves.
Now I’ve been to Portmeirion with the Proper Camera, now I’ve shown the kids around it, I don’t feel I’ll see the need to go again for a pretty long time; I feel I’ve seen it all. Was it worth going again for the first time in over a decade though? Was it worth it, so that I can take the same photos as everybody else does? Yes, I think so. It’s a charming place, but maybe that bit too carefully-orchestrated, that little bit too whimsical and twee, to be quite as charming as I’d like.
Recently, I finished editing the second month of posts from The Old Blog and published them on here. One of them included this line:
I had half an hour spare this afternoon, so I reordered all my CDs. By colour, the colour of the spine of the CD case. The plain-white and plain-black shelves don’t look that nice, but there’s a lovely graduation of the rest from dark red through orange to green and then blue.
It really was the worst way to file your CDs when you actually want to find something, but the coloured ones did look pretty. And—I thought—I’d also found a photo to prove it! I’d taken a picture, back then, of The Cat sleeping precariously balanced on top of them, showing the filing-by-colour. Or, at least I thought I had. I found the photo, and it must have been from before then. It’s still a cute photo, though.
And as it’s a cute photo, I thought I’d show it anyway. It was probably taken on a Pentax ME film SLR originally; I do still have the negatives too.
It’s been quiet around here lately, hasn’t it. Over a month since the last post, and that was just a quick note itself. As the title suggests, though, that’s because things have been busy. I’ve been pushing hard to get one of my personal coding projects to version 1.0. At work we started a new product from scratch four months ago, and it’s just had its first beta release. And in my personal life: well, it’s a long story, and if I were to write all that down it would probably turn into an entire memoir, but it’s taking up a lot of my headspace too at the moment.
Nevertheless, I still look at my list of topics to write about, my list of drafts I’ve started, and think on all the ideas I’ve had that I didn’t have the chance to write down at the time, and I keep promising myself I will come back at some point and write them, whether to publish them on here or do something else with them.
Sometimes, I do manage to make a quick note, and this post really is one of those. The other day, a conversation on Twitter with the artist Dru Marland led me to some amazing photographs of Britain in the mid-80s, taken by a Swedish photographer named Bjorn Rantil. They’re of miners and mining communities, taken in 1985 just after the end of the strike. I started with this set, taken in Treharris, Abercarn and Tilmanstone among other places, but there are a few other albums on his Flickr account. If you don’t remember the 1980s, go and look.
I mentioned in Saturday’s post that I’ve recently been pulling data off a hard disk I haven’t touched for more years than I care to think about, and saving the things that are worth saving. The original text of my degree dissertation, for example, which I thought I’d lost, and more than one terrible short story. Photos that are even older, that I’d had scanned in for one reason and another. I thought it might be worth sharing a few bits and pieces here.
First off, this post from May 2006 about local politics was picked to be quoted in The Guardian, for some reason. So, naturally, I saved an image of the clipping.
More people probably skimmed that quote than anything else I’ve ever written on here, at least to date, but I recall it didn’t lead to any noticeable spike in traffic, showing that people just don’t bother to type in URIs they read in newspapers.
Then, among the black and white photos, these pictures of an empty croft on the edge of the village of Calanais, in the Outer Hebrides. It stood in the middle of a tongue of land sticking out into Loch Róg, with nothing but grassland all around it, so you could almost imagine you were in that famous Andrew Wyeth painting. From the fragments of newspapers we found, it had last been lived in some time in the mid-1970s.
When I was in the Outer Hebrides, doing archaeological things, it was standard practice to carry two cameras: one loaded with black and white film, for print, and one loaded with colour slide film, so you could lecture people. These photos are from the same trip as the empty house. The first I think shows the Ullapool ferry approaching Stornoway somewhere on the east coast of Lewis; the others are another random evening around Calanais, probably with a large supply of stubby bottles of beer. I think the croft you can see in the middle picture is the same one as in the set above.
Some of the colour photos on that trip have never been scanned in and I think I’ve hardly even looked at them; these ones were scanned by someone I was briefly seeing, years ago, who had access to a film scanner, and scanned as many as would fit onto one CD. You never know, maybe I’ll dig the others out one day. There will probably be a few more of these posts to come, too.
A trip away last weekend, to what is arguably one of the most iconic sites in British, or at least Anglo-Saxon, archaeology. It’s been famous since the 1930s, there have been TV series made about it, and it has shaped the way we see Anglo-Saxon Britain ever since. The site I’m talking about is: Sutton Hoo.
Given that Sutton Hoo is only a few miles outside Ipswich, I met up with regular correspondant Sarah from Ipswich and her husband and dog. Sarah is almost as fascinated by archaeology as I am, which is probably a good thing because at first sight there isn’t much to see at Sutton Hoo itself. The “royal burial ground”, the field where all the famous archaeology was found, is a particularly lumpy and humpy fallow field, covered in long grass with a scattering of gorse and broom bushes, and with a stark, narrow viewing tower watching over it. The famous ship burial, Mound 1, is marked by steel rods where the prow and stern of the ship originally were.
If you’re interested in history, there’s always an awful lot to be gained from visiting a site in person, not just reading about it. Archaeological literature, particularly the older sort, tends to focus very much on the confines of sites themselves without considering their wider perspective in the landscape. I hadn’t realised, for example, just how high up the burial site is above the river. When you think of a ship burial, you tend to assume it would be close to a riverbank. Sutton Hoo does overlook a river, but it’s quite a long way from it: about half a mile away and, more importantly, about a hundred feet up. In modern times a wood has grown up, but when it was built the burial mounds would have been a commanding sight from a ship on the river. One of the mounds has been reconstructed to roughly its original height, to give visitors some idea of how it might have looked within a decade or two of construction.
In the nearby National Trust museum, they are unequivocal that the king buried in the ship burial was Raedwald of East Anglia. This is something we will never know for certain, whatever techniques of analysis we manage to develop in the future. The chances are it was likely Raedwald, or his son Eorpwald, or with an outside chance his other son Sigebehrt. We’ll never really know, but we do know that, whoever it was, he was left-handed.
The new viewing tower, built from galvanised steel, gives an excellent bird’s eye view of the site. I couldn’t resist spending a few minutes taking photos of the scene so I could stitch it together into a panorama-collage, to give you some idea of what the whole place looks like. The view a seagull would have got, maybe, the day that Raedwald-or-whoever was interred in his warship under a great mound of bare earth.
No person would have seen it that way at the time, of course; very few until this year, in fact. And now we can.
Do we get a better idea of Sutton Hoo by visiting these mounds, instead of going to London and seeing the artefacts in the British Museum? I think we do. This was an important place, one which has to some degree survived when many other similar important places have been lost to us forever. It might have changed significantly in the last 1,500 years, but nevertheless, you can’t understand the site, you can’t feel its relationship with the sea, with the river, with the surrounding landscape, unless you have actually been there and seen it. It might be a field of grassy lumps, but it is definitely worth the trip.
A couple of weeks ago now, I mentioned that I’d been outside and pointed the camera up at the sky to see what happened. It’s about time, I thought yesterday, that I tried to actually see if I could make the photos that resulted useful in some way.
This is all down to a friend of mine, Anonymous Astrophotographer, who I won’t embarrass by naming, but who manages to go out regularly with a camera and a tripod and even without a telescope produce beautiful pictures of the Milky Way and various other astronomical phenomena. I asked them what their secret was. “Nothing really,” they claimed, but gave me a bit of advice on what sort of software to try a bit of image-stacking and so on.
I thought, you see, that given that The Child Who Likes
Animals Space’s telescope doesn’t have an equatorial mount, it would be pointless to try to attach a camera to it. You can, after all, visibly see everything moving if you use the highest-magnification eyepiece we’ve got at present. Equally, surely it would be pointless just to point my SLR up into the sky? Apparently, not, Astrophotographer said. The trick is to take lots of shots with relatively short exposure and stack those together in software. The exposure should be short enough that things don’t get smeared out across the sky as the Earth spins—anything over 20 seconds is probably too long there—and the number of shots should in theory even out random noise in the sensor, stray birds, and so on.
As a first attempt, I thought, there’s no point trying to get sight of anything particularly special or impressive, so I pointed the camera to a random fairly dull patch of sky and see what happened. You can click to see a larger version.
This is an arbitrary area in the constellation of Draco. In the middle you have Aldhibah, or ζ Draconis, with Athebyne (η Draconis) over on the right and the triangle of Alakahan, Aldhiba and Dziban over on the left. The faintest stars you can see in this image are about mag. 7.5, maybe a little fainter, which is a bit fainter than you could see with the naked eye even in perfect conditions. This image has been adjusted slightly to lower the noise; in the original you could just about persuade yourself you could see mag. 8 objects, but they were barely distinguishable from noise. The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) and the Lost In Space Galaxy (NGC 6503) are both theoretically in the picture, in the lower left, but they’re not visible; the former can just about be spotted as a faint pale patch very different in shade to the noise around it on the original images, if you know exactly where to look.
Here’s the handle of The Plough, with the stars Mizar and Alcor together in the middle. This one really doesn’t look much at a small size, but if you click through you can see how well the camera captured the different colours and different shades of starlight. Again, the darkest things visible here are about mag. 7.5. The Pinwheel Galaxy is right in the middle of the lower centre, but at mag. 8 or so doesn’t come out of the noise at all.
What do I need to do to make things better? Well, for one thing, the seeing wasn’t actually very good on the night I tried this. As I said in the previous post I had to give up fairly quickly due to cloud. What I hadn’t realised, until I saw the photos, was that faint clouds, lit up by moonlight, were already rolling in well before it became obvious to the naked eye. Trying some photography again on a clearer night would definitely be a start. Secondly, my SLR is pretty old now, dating to the early 2000s. The sensor is, compared to a more modern one, fairly noisy at low light levels. I’m not going to rush out and buy a new camera tomorrow, but I do suspect that if I did, the attempts above would get quite a bit better.
Work has stolen and sapped all of my energy this week. I’ve still found time, though, to go out walking; and although the weather has been bitterly cold there are signs that spring is coming. The trees are full of songbirds, too.
I’m entranced by this fallen electricity pylon, lying on its side battered and derelict, its structs bent and broken like some ancient reptilian fossil. My own local beached plesiosaur. I keep watching it from different angles; I really should come by with the Proper Camera.
Similarly, I keep watching Mynydd Machen from different angles. I can see it from my window; sometimes invisible, sometimes flat and two-dimensional in mist, sometimes so bright and bold I could reach out and pick it up. On the wide-angle phone camera, though, it always looks small and disappointing.
There will naturally be a proper railway history post at some point; I just need to put it together and decide exactly what I want to say, other than “this railway is much older than all those fancy modern upstarts like that one from Manchester to Liverpool”.
And finally, all cats are grey, as The Cure once upon a time said.