Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Geekery : Page 1

Yet another crafting project (part eight)

Or, series two, episode five

The latest crafting project was finished last week, after just over seven weeks of work. I was surprised how quickly I finished it, to be honest, considering how much more difficult it was compared to the previous cross-stitch project. I say “finished”: it still needs blocking and framing, which is always going to be the least interesting job in a project like this. Because I’m fairly pleased with how it looks, there’s a larger picture if you click through.


I’ve already started the next cross-stitch project, which is going to be a much, much easier one; I will actually start a different series of posts for it this time. After only a week or so, it’s already well under way. At some point, too, I’ll pick up all those other projects that have been ongoing since some time last year.

The other posts in this series are part four, part five, part six and part seven.

Pye in the sky (part one)

Or, some pieces of railway history

For a few months now, I’ve been threatening to start writing a long series of blog posts about the railway history of South Wales, starting in Newport and slowly radiating outwards. The question, of course, is how to actually do that in a format that will be interesting and engaging to read in small chunks; and, indeed, for me to write. The “standard” type of railway history comes in a number of forms, but none of them are particularly attractive to the casual reader. Few go to the point of setting out, to a random passing non-specialist reader, just why a specific place or line is fascinating; just what about its history makes it worth knowing about. Moreover, not only do they tend on the heavy side, they are normally based either on large amounts of archival research, large amounts of vintage photographs, or both. Putting that sort of thing together isn’t really an option for me at present, especially not for a blog post.

So why would I want to write about the railways of the South Wales valleys in any case? In general, if you’re a British railway enthusiast, you probably think of the South Wales valleys as a place where GWR tank engines shuffled back and forth with short trains of passengers or long trains of coal. If you’re a specialist, and like industrial railways, you might remember it as one of the last areas where the National Coal Board still operated steam trains, at places such as Aberpennar/Mountain Ash. There are two things, though, that you probably only realise if you’re a specialist. Firstly, if you include horse-drawn railways and tramways, the South Wales railway system was the earliest and densest complex railway network in the world. Horse-drawn railways are often completely overlooked by enthusiasts, for whom railways started with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1830. Partly, I suspect, because unlike later periods there aren’t many good maps or any photographs of most of the horse-drawn railways of this country. Although horse-drawn railways do appear on tithe maps, in most cases they are not very clearly marked and resemble a road more than anything else.

Secondly, the 19th century history of the growth of the South Wales railway network was intensely complex and entangled, and the later domination of the area by the GWR was by no means a foregone conclusion. Through the 1850s and 1860s there were a number of factions at work: on the local level, horse-drawn lines trying to modernise and make their railways part of the national network; newer steam-operated lines each serving a single valley and without any scope for a broader outlook; and nationally, the large London-based companies trying to gain “territory” and a share of the South Wales industrial traffic. In 1852 two directors of the London & North Western Railway, Richard Moon and Edward Tootal, said:

[A]ll the Narrow Gauge Lines [standard gauge] of South Wales are at present detached: & divided into separate & small Interests:- Again they are at present at War with the Broad Gauge.

(memo to LNWR board quoted in The Origins of the LMS in South Wales by Jones & Dunstone)

I’ll come to the reason why Moon and Tootal were investigating the railways of South Wales in a later post; but that, hopefully, sets the scene a little. South Wales didn’t become a GWR monoculture until, paradoxically, after the GWR itself ceased to exist. Through all of the 19th century, South Wales was a maze of twisty little railways, all different, many of them with very long histories.

All of which, if you’ve read this far, brings us on to a fairly ordinary-looking back lane behind some houses, in a fairly ordinary suburb of Casnewydd/Newport.

An ordinary back lane

You’ve probably guessed this is actually some sort of disused railway. It is; but it’s a disused railway that, paradoxically, is actually still in use. This is the trackbed of the Monmouthshire Canal Company’s tramway; its exact date of building is a little unclear but it was started around 1801 and open for traffic in 1805.

I’ve written about the Monmouthshire Canal Company before, as a good chunk of the Crumlin Arm of its canal has been semi-restored, albeit not in a navigable state. The canal was built in the 1790s, following the valley of the Afon Ebwy/River Ebbw down as far as Tŷ Du/Rogerstone where it cut across north of Newport to reach the Wsyg/Usk.

The canal’s enabling Act of Parliament permitted anyone who wanted to use the canal (within a few miles radius) to build their own horse-drawn feeder railway linking them to the canal. This included the Tredegar Ironworks, in the Sirhowy Valley; the only sensible way they could reach the canal, however, was to build their railway all the way down along the Sirhywi until reaching the confluence of the Ebwy and Sirhiwy in Risca. The canal company built a matching line, roughly parallel to their canal for much of its length but running around the south side of Newport. The picture above is part of this line, near the modern day Pye Corner station.

Above I said that paradoxically, this is a disused railway that is still in use. The reason for that is: a line built for horses to draw trains at walking pace is not exactly suitable for use by powered trains at much higher speeds. A secondary reason is that in many cases the new “rail roads” were the best road in the area, became heavily used by pedestrians, and started to have ribbons of houses built along them in the same way that public roads do.

Tithe map

This is the tithe map for the photo shown above, from around 1840. As you can see it’s hard to see the difference, in this map, between the railways and the roads; but a “public road” has already been built around the other side of the buildings that have grown up along the railway, so that people don’t have to walk on the railway to get to them.

When this map was made, the railway had already been using steam engines for around fifteen years or so. Not long after, the company decided its trains needed a better line of route here, so a new line was built, parallel, only a few tens of metres to the west. That line is still in use today as Trafnidiaeth Cymru’s Ebbw Vale Line, although it’s seen many changes over the years.

I was going to segue into the later railway history of the Pye Corner area at this point, because there’s plenty to discuss. Indeed, as far back as the mid-1820s there was already a railway junction there, and on the tithe map above you can see the second line striding off to the left of the map. It’s technically no longer a railway junction. There are still two routes here, but they come together and run parallel rather than actually joining. As this is already turning into something of an essay, though, that will wait for a later day.

Test shots

Or, looking up at the sky

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.

The Plough Handle

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.

Yet another crafting project (part seven)

Or, the bee takes shape

We’re a couple of weeks on from the previous post, so it’s time for another update on my current cross-stitch project. This weekend just past, I finished off the last of the cross-stitch itself on this project. Now, I just have the back stitch to do.


The back stitch that makes up the border (and the lettering at the bottom) will be nice and straightforwards; the back stitch that provides the veining on the wings is going to be rather harder, as it’s in a dark brown thread that doesn’t stand out very well at all against the fabric. By the time of the next update, I suspect I’ll be getting somewhat frustrated.

The previous parts in this series were part four, part five and part six. The final part is part eight.


In case you were in suspense

Those of you who read yesterday’s post about the Lyrid meteor shower may well be waiting on the edges of your seats for further information as to how the night went.

The short version is that I don’t think I saw any meteors. I went out after it was dark, sat in a chair, relaxed, and watched the sky. The sky was nice and clear; initially, at least. The Moon was rather bright, though, and before long high clouds started to roll in from the north-east. The moon lit the clouds up beautifully, but for anything else it was hopeless. I went in after half an hour, without a single meteor being spotted.

Still, I had also taken my camera out with me, as a bit of an experiment. I set it up on the tripod, plugged in the remote release, chose what seemed to be a good exposure and sat there clicking away. I don’t expect the results will be outstanding, not for a first quick attempt, but we’ll see what comes out of it. It might take a bit of experimentation in post-processing; I’ll keep you updated.

Up in the air

Or, tonight's astronomy

There haven’t been many astronomical posts on here recently. Partly, that is, because as the seasons turn it’s no longer feasible for The Children to stay up and get the telescope out, at least not on a school night; and I have to stay up later and later for the sky to be dark enough. Indeed, a little over a month from now, it won’t be technically night at all for a while here. At this latitude there’s a whole two-month period, centred on the summer solstice, when it doesn’t officially get any darker than “astronomical twilight”. As of today, you have to wait after 10.30pm or so (local time, that is) for it to be night night.

Nevertheless, I do have plans in the pipeline, both for astronomy-themed things to write about here and astronomy things to actually do. So, watch this space. I’ve been taking hints and inspiration from a friend who takes some lovely astrophotography shots; we’ll see if it goes anywhere.

The reason I’m posting this today, though, is that it’s another one of those interesting times in the astronomical calendar. Tonight, some time in the middle of the night, it will be the peak of the April Lyrids meteor shower. The Lyrids are the debris from Comet Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861 and hasn’t been seen since, as its orbital period is around 415 or so years. The meteors themselves often tend to be of the “fireball” type, fat streaks of light that leave a noticeable smoke trail behind them, a bit like one of the Geminids I spotted last December.

As it happens, the weather forecast for tonight here is actually quite a good one, with (at the time of writing) clear skies in the forecast right through the whole night. Maybe I’ll try dragging a chair outside at bedtime and sitting back to watch the sky for a while, to see if anything happens.

Yet another crafting project (part six)

Arguably, part three

In lieu of a more informative post—I’m in the middle of researching something in-depth and historical, but everyday life and tiredness keep getting in the way—here’s an update on the current cross-stitch project, a couple of weeks on from the previous one.

It's still a bee

As I’ve gone through it I’ve been leaving aside all the bits that feel as if they would be awkward and fiddly; but now, it feels as if there’s nothing but awkward fiddly bits left. It feels as if progress has slowed down because the overall outline hasn’t changed much; but there are an awful lot of colours now which I’m fairly sure I’ve completely ticked off the list.

The previous parts in this series were part four and part five. The next parts in this series are part seven and part eight.


I deliberately didn't post this yesterday in case you thought it was an April Fool

Talking about trains: regular readers will be aware that occasionally over the past few months I’ve been banging on about the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, a curious little Welsh concern that until 1922 operated two stretches of railway line. One from Brecon to Merthyr—actually, to Deri, a small village between Dowlais and Bargoed—and the other from Rhymney to Newport. The latter was originally built as a horse-drawn tramroad in the mid-1820s and its southernmost few miles are the last part of the Brecon & Merthyr Railway still in use, now just as a freight branch to serve Machen Quarry. In included probably the oldest viaduct on the railway network, which I’ll write more about another day. Occasionally someone proposes reopening it to passengers, together with the disused line from Machen to Caerphilly, but nothing ever happens about this.

I say “still in use” but the Machen Quarry line is very much only still in use in the hypothetical sense; trains along it are few and far between. Because of this, I was slightly surprised to drive past Rhiwderin station the other day and see a train, stopped, in the disused railway station.

Why was there a train standing still in Rhiwderin station, when it closed getting on for seventy years ago? Well, first, a bit of explanation. The level crossing at Rhiwderin is of the “locally monitored” type. That’s to say, it works automatically. There are signals for the trains, which normally (when the crossing is open to road traffic) flash red. As a train approaches, it hits a switch to operate the crossing. The lights flash, the barriers come down, and the flashing red train signal changes to flashing white. What do I suspect happened? Well, when I drove past, the barriers were most definitely up. Presumably, the first train in many months had hit the switch to operate the crossing, nothing happened, so the train had stopped at the flashing red signal until someone could come along to make sure everything was properly safe.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But surely now, if you have a train on a crossing, nobody is going to drive themselves into the side of the thing are they? It’s bloody huge, is what I’m saying.

Really, you would be surprised. It is certainly not unheard of, for a car to drive into the side of a train that was already blocking the road. Not wanting to risk that happening, is entirely understandable. The interesting thing here is that this train was on its return trip, heading away from the quarry towards Stoke Gifford marshalling yard (or, for non-train people, the sidings next to Bristol Parkway station). Heading up to the quarry, the level crossing must have worked as designed; then on the way back, nothing happened. If I was a rarely-used level crossing myself, I could definitely understand.

I was half-tempted to pull the car over, get the camera out and start taking photos of this train stopped in a station that closed over sixty years ago. There was already a guy leaning over the fence by the level crossing, though, watching the world go by and watching the train very much not going by. Another random (me) turning up with a camera was, no doubt, the last thing the people trying to get stuff moving again actually wanted. Still, I’ll have to keep an eye on the timetables now in case trains start to appear regularly on the stub of the Brecon & Merthyr again, just in case I will have chance next time to pop out with the camera as they pass.

Original footage

In which we consider moving to the mountains

The other day I was rather pleased to discover, on YouTube, a documentary from the 1970s that I’ve known about for a while but had never before seen. The Campbells Came By Rail is a documentary about the everyday life of Col. Andrew Campbell.

Colonel Campbell had a long and successful career in the Black Watch, largely overseas, policing the crumbling corners of the British Empire. Coming out of the Army in the early 1960s, he became county solicitor for Merionethshire (as was). At auction, he bought an equally-crumbling manor house in the northern fringes of the county, which he had fallen in love with at first sight. Its name was Dduallt.

Map of Dduallt

If you’re a regular reader—or paid attention to the title of the documentary—you may well be ahead of me here. Dduallt,* when Campbell bought it, had no vehicular access, but it was alongside the Ffestiniog Railway. At the time, the Ffestiniog were not operating services over that stretch of track; so the Colonel bought a small Simplex locomotive and had a small siding built alongside his new house. The railway let him park his car at the nearest station, Tan y Bwlch, and run himself up and down by train.

The Colonel at Tan y Bwlch

The documentary shows him picking up his loco and a brakevan from Tan y Bwlch and heading off up the line to show the filmcrew round his home, describing it as part of his normal daily commute from the county council offices. Off he heads, past the cottage at Coed y Bleiddiau, up to his own Campbell’s Platform, where he puts the train away.

Shunting at Campbell's

Unlike a modern documentary, you get to see all the detail of the Colonel putting the train staff into a drawer lock, working his groundframe, and then a demonstration of how to use an intermediate staff instrument,** including a spin of the Remote Operator dynamo handle to make sure the section is clear and the instruments free.***

Intermediate METS instrument

As I said above, when Campbell moved into Dduallt, the railway wasn’t operating over the stretch of line past his house. By the time the film was made, that part of the railway had reopened to traffic, and it must have been difficult on a busy summer day to find a space in the timetable for the Colonel to run down to Tan y Bwlch in the daytime. Further north, the railway was rebuilding a couple of miles or so of line that had been drowned by a reservoir, and Colonel Campbell had provided invaluable help. For one thing, he allowed the railway’s civil engineering volunteers to use one of his buildings as a hostel provided they helped restore it, which they did complete with a large London Underground roundel sign on one wall. For another, he was a licenced user of explosives, so was called out each weekend to blow up rocks along the path of the new line. If you look in the background of the documentary you can see a couple of wagons carrying concrete drainpipes are sat in Campbell’s siding, no doubt waiting to be used on the new line.

Eventually, Campbell did get a roadway built to the house, zigzagging steeply up the side of the vale, but only in the last few months of his life. He died in 1982, the same year that the Ffestiniog Railway completed its 27-year reopening process. The Ffestiniog went through a number of significant changes in the early 1980s, and the loss of Colonel Campbell was one of them. He is still an iconic figure to the railway, though, so watching the documentary was a fascinating opportunity to have some insight into who he was, what he looked like, what his mannerisms were. In particular, the upper-class Englishness of his accent startled me somewhat, given he was on paper a Scot. That, I suppose, is what being an interwar colonial Army officer turned you into. There is a whole thesis that could be written on colonialism and the Ffestiniog, given that it was funded in the 1830s by Irish investors and re-funded in the 1950s by English enthusiasts—and considering the long, bitter and quixotic arguments the railway had with Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments characterised by a tone of disingenuous legalistic pedantry on the railway’s side. It’s certainly far too complex a topic to be summarised within this single blog post. In the documentary, Campbell was very clear that after ten years of living at Dduallt he still felt himself to be an outsider; indeed, he gives you the feeling that he didn’t think he would ever truly belong to the land and to the house in the way that his farming neighbours did.

The Ffestiniog Railway is a very different place now, with a very different attitude to the local community. Dduallt has changed hands a few times since Campbell’s death, most recently just in 2020 after sitting on the market for some years. Its final price was a bit over £700,000, less than the sellers wanted but somewhat more, I think, than when Colonel Campbell picked it up at auction. It’s in rather better condition now, of course, not to mention rather more photogenic when shot on a modern camera. Apparently, if you go there (and the Ffestiniog will start running trains past it again next month) you can still see parts of the aerial ropeway that linked the house and its station back in the 1970s.

The documentary is certainly a moment in time, and that time has now moved on. Nevertheless, if you know what the railway is like now, it’s a fascinating watch. If you don’t, maybe it will entice you to visit. It’s certainly worth it.

* The famous-but-controversial railway manager Gerry Fiennes once said that the best way to pronounce Dduallt was by sneezing, which is cruel but more accurate than pronouncing it as if the letters were English.

** Technically speaking it’s a “miniature electric train staff”.

*** The Remote Operator handle and indicator is a Ffestiniog peculiarity, developed to enable the railway to operate with unstaffed token stations and traincrew-operated signalling equipment. There is more information about it in this video about one of the Ffestiniog’s signalboxes.

Yet another crafting project (part five)

Or should this be a new series of posts?

As I haven’t been posting very often here recently, it feels as if I can’t publish too many posts showing small, gradual amounts of progress on the latest cross-stitch project, the start of which I showed a couple of weeks ago when the previous cross-stitch project was finished. If I post every day, it seems reasonable enough to post the same craft project once per week. If I post twice a week, it seems a bit much for fifty percent of those posts to be about small quanta of progress on the same thing.

Nevertheless, after two weeks, I feel I’ve done enough for it to be worth showing off. For one thing, you can actually recognise what it is now.

It's a bee!

The kit comes with patterns to write the name of the species (Bombus terrestris, or the buff-tailed bumblebee) in Latin, and also in Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish or Italian, I think. I’m tempted to do it in Latin and Dutch, and if there’s enough thread left and enough letters to piece it together, in Welsh (“bili bomen”, and if I’ve got this right, a full literal translation of “buff-tailed bumblebee” would be “bili bomen colyn llebliw”).

The previous part in this series was here. The later parts are part six, part seven and part eight.