The End of the World

The imminent end of the world, based on a Mayan calendar assumed to end on 21st December (presumably something about it being the shortest day of the year, otherwise some archaeologists have been terribly precise), has been provoking a great deal of media storm about how this catastrophe is due to come about. Interestingly some mad Americans with books predicting the Apocalypse were largely met with sniggers, while claims that the Large Hadron Collider would smash up the planet (between whiles of costing Europe rather more than we can really afford) were greeted by sarcastic headlines on the morning in question, but a long-extinct civilisation in a neck of the woods now more noted for producing hallucinogenic drugs has obtained months of interest, interested debate and great encouragement for everyone to book package holidays in a French village.

One basis for this catastrophe – its actual occurrence being of less interest than what form it will take – has been that all the planets will fall into line on the 21st and rip the solar system apart. I have written an opening to a story on this basis – and then decided to replace it with something simpler – but also recall it happened in February 2002 or some such time (when there were more planets, so theoretically more risk) and nothing much happened then. How the Mayans would have predicted eight planets in line without telescopes to observe the last two I haven’t the foggiest.

All this talk has reminded me of a rather peculiar dream I once had – ten or twelve years ago, it being one of those dreams which sticks in young minds – where all the planets formed into a big burning ball, came over and ate Earth. At least, I think that was the grand finale, though my alarm clock has a habit of interrupting such things.

The details are currently a little blurred, but I daresay enough time remains between now and the 21st for me to write a decent pamphlet on my prediction of the end of the world that came to me in a dream at some relevant moment – subject to some minor memory jogging, easily provided with the help of £50,000 or so.

On a slightly different note, the calendar on my wall above me ends on December 31st, a mere 10 days after the Mayan one, and all that there is after that is a blank back cover with no sign of more days. Should I be worried?

Seasonal Area December 2012 and Photography

The Seasonal Area picture for December 2012 is now online. It’s one of several pictures taken on a Marlow trip with the aim that one of them would become a Seasonal Area picture. The remainder will largely be sat on for future use. Not a bad little batch.

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For some reason I’m in a mood to write a lengthy scribble on railway photography – not that I’m an expert, but I’ll work on the basis that I know more than average. So this lengthy exposition, inspired by today’s walk around the Kennet and Avon Canal near Hungerford, aims to show what you can achieve with a railway and a camera and why I find railways an interesting feature to point a camera at – or, at least, my logical justification for an inherent prism through which I see the world.

I do also take pictures of other interesting features, patches of scenery, woods and so forth and some of these crop up on the Seasonal Area. Railways generally don’t, so I’ll show off a few pictures here instead.

If you can do better, write your own blogpost and tell me to visit.

Now – into another post featuring a quick spot of pigeon-holing.

Type 1: Photting Trains

This nice simple form of entertainment can be easily practised should you find yourself on a station with half an hour to kill while you change trains. Get out the camera, ignore the funny looks you get and take pictures of anything remotely interesting. Over time you may get some rough idea of how to frame a decent picture and set up interesting scenes where you have a picture showing a station (generally a fairly photogenic sight in itself on some level or other) and in it there is a train, fairly level, with its roof at the top of the picture and not too much of it overlapping other features or falling off the side of the frame.

For example:

Forsinard 1 JPG

A First Scotrail Class 158 (No. 158716) rolls into Forsinard station en route to Wick. We can see most of the front car of the train, the station building and the track. The trees neatly frame the scene, the building balances the train and the warning boards for the level crossing don’t get in the way of the front of the train. Finally, the train adds some interest by a) adding colour to a scenic but largely unremarkable Scottish bog and b) demonstrating how ludicrously low Forsinard’s platforms are.

Please feel free to argue with this attempt to justify a holiday snap as a work of art in the comments bit.

Alternatively:

Reading 3 JPG

Here we have something of a busy inter-urban station, with a commuter train (bound for London Paddington) on the right and an express train (bound for Hereford) on the left. Again, an idle snapshot off Reading station footbridge captures a scene – even late at night (or, it being winter, about 5pm).

There is a popular belief that trains are more boring these days. It rather depends on what you’re looking for. Steam locomotives (with the exception of two Middleton Railway engines scrapped before the camera was invented, 50 or so streamlined creations, the Beyer Garratts with a tender at both ends and three designs by Oliver Bullied of the Southern Railway) all feature a round boiler, possibly decorated with water tanks, sat on frames atop wheels of some size or other and with a cab at the back. There’s not much you can do with that general design – except turn it around so you have the boring box-like cab and coal bunker at the front. Though it can prove to be quite handsome, depending on taste and the designer:

Henbury 1 JPG

Once you eliminate the boiler the only requirement for the front end is that it have some means for the driver to see out – and in Britain there’s a fondness for keeping yellow paint producers in business. This means that apart from the yellow paint the train’s face can have quite a bit of variety – and courtesy of our stop-start approach to train ordering and the long shelf-life of trains, the faces available come in many styles and vary between bits of the country. Take these two examples at Gatwick Airport station, busy proving that you can have a bright picture with almost no trees at all:

Gatwick 1 JPG

Yellow paint is chosen because it’s loud and yellow is rare in nature, so it adds a splodge of contrast to your photo. If you don’t like it, photograph the grey rear-ends of freight trains instead.

Truro 6 JPG

The back of loco-hauled coaching stock has its points too, but with the exception of the nation’s three Sleeper services, weekend railtours and the stack of heritage railways (those which don’t only do railcars or top-and-tail/ push-me-pull-you) this feature is quite difficult to find. This early Mark 2 coach is attempting to look handsome leaving Truro for the North, with the angle of the sun emphasising the rear end at the expense of a repetitive bodyside.

If you prefer red fronts, then Transport for London is your friend.

Type 2: Photting infrastructure

Railways have plenty of this – so do roads, but that’s generally not as impressive or as artistically finished. Take Forder Viaduct in Cornwall:

Forder Viaduct 1 JPGWhat would otherwise be an attractive but largely ordinary Cornish creek is given an extra frisson by a fine brick and stone viaduct striding across the scene. (The wreck helps considerably too; it’s almost tempting to think it was put there on purpose.) You can add a train if you like, but it’s not really required and arguably the scene looks better without. (Maybe something in green with chocolate and cream coaches would enhance the scene, but that may be a GWR inclination within me struggling to get out.)

Your infrastructure does not have to be terribly big to feature in a scene and sometimes it helps if the railway is relatively small-scale, surrendering to the grander landscape.

Duncraig 1 JPG

This one, showing an embankment near Duncraig Castle and its halt in Scotland, would probably have been improved by being taken from higher up; a train might have helped too but they’re a trifle rare on the line to Kyle of Lochalsh.

A small scene – mini-infrastructure in a little snapshot of landscape – shows that you can decide exactly which feature you want a picture of – on this occasion, a nice snug scene of a flooded mini-marina by the Thames at Bourne End.

Bourne End 1 JPG

With the train matching the general colours of the scene (blue and blue) this one does help the composition and adds some sense of scale – creating a feeling of a very snug image by not fitting into the scene. An idea for the ultimate space-starved railway modeller here too – one bridge over an interesting feature with occasional trains passing through a gap between houses.

You may gather from these three that I like water in a picture.

Type 3: In the landscape

Landscapes show off how a railway fits into the natural world around it; station pictures only show human interaction. Note “railway”, not “train”; trains are optional and your picture can be better without one. Besides, when trains can travel at three miles a minute getting one in a good location in the frame is a tricky exercise shared with few other branches of photography.

Meldon Viaduct is a structure consisting of a lot of straight lines, painted entirely in battleship grey. The initial inclination is therefore that it would rather ruin an innocent Dartmoor valley. It certainly stands out, but actually I think it adds something. There’s lots of rolling green, with curves and blunt edges, dominating the view from various sides and visible in the far distance. Then in the middle is a patch of straight grey, adding a slightly different feature to those already there.

Meldon Viaduct 2 JPG

Would it look better with a train? Tricky. It probably wouldn’t look too bad; since the viaduct doesn’t really settle in the landscape the train’s colours would add some extra interest rather than clashing. This picture is also devoid of scale, which a train would provide. (Forder, by contrast, I don’t think would necessarily benefit from a dark blue object, handsome as they can look elsewhere. The wreck provides scale.)

Of course, if all you’re playing with is plain track through a scene then a train is naturally going to add interest. Or maybe not.

Duncraig 2 JPG

This picture of the Kyle line, looking towards Duncraig Halt and the embankment seen above, provides a window through the landscape on some more landscape beyond. The track leads the eye into the centre of the scene. A yellow cylinder (an axle greaser to minimise wear on the line’s tight bends) adds a touch of extra interest. Put a train in and you can’t see the background landscape. But on the other extreme:

Fathew Valley 1 JPG

It’s hard to plead that this one was not taken predominantly to show the train, rather than as a bit of landscape which coincidentally and most artistically has a train in it. But the presence of Talyllyn Railway No. 1 Talyllyn plus train, on the way back down to Tywyn, adds something to what would otherwise be a fairly boring bit of bracken-covered hillside.

And it depends on your definition of landscape. Arguably this is a bit of landscape:

Quarry Siding 1 JPG

And it’s a bit of landscape which enjoys certain benefits from having Talyllyn in it, working back up to Abergynolwyn and Nant Gwernol. Without a train it would be the “Road to Adventure” that L.T.C. Rolt wrote of so lovingly in Railway Adventure, in the days when Talyllyn was a battered, exhausted shell. Without track or train it would be another patch of woodland, possibly with a sweet little path to it but lacking the added individualism or larger human feature of a narrow gauge railway.

But you can get the railway line, even with a train, to seem almost incidental. This is an extreme train-free example, looking down on Redruth from Carn Brea, where the railway is simply a break in the muddle of houses. Railways have a fun tendency to be shades of brown with a green edging, whereas roads tend towards being grey with grey edging and so match the house roofs. There’s a bus in this scene – see how easy it is to spot compared to the railway approaching the station.Redruth 1 JPG

This not terribly good view of Blaenavon makes an attempt at the same point with a train on show. The eye is mostly drawn to the purple heather, the mix of housing styles and Blaenavon’s largely tidy road layout which has still managed to accumulate a jumble of buildings. In the foreground is the flank of a mountain, hidden by its own shadow. Passing through some trees between these features is an “Austerity” saddle tank loco hauling a couple of coaches, but it’s more an extra feature.

Blaenavon 1 JPG

Meanwhile this railway, on the back of Rowtor on the north flank of Dartmoor, has an entirely different idea about how to be part of the landscape.

Rowtor Railway 1

Type 4: Art

The task with Art is to decide when it stops being art and becomes a rubbish photograph. This, for example, is (at least in my books) simply the unsuccessful result of trying to take a picture out of a train window of a bit of on-track equipment being passed at 80mph:

RRV at Pangbourne 1 JPG

But this one, I personally think, has rather nice shades and colours:

Highclose Bridge 1 JPG

While this one attempts to say something deep and meaningful about it being the “end of the line for this old girl”:

87027 Long Marston 2 JPG

(The old girl in question is the late Class 87 No. 87027 Wolf of Badenoch, laid up at Long Marston storage base some two years before her disposal. The picture has little other photographic merit.)

This one attempts to make a political point:

Truro 7 JPG

The point being that, while the future development of West of England train services is shrouded in darkness, the HSTs at least have a clear road ahead – for anything up to 20 years or so.

This one is just esoteric:

Par 1 JPG

But why not?

Type 5: Architecture

Railways have lots of this; while airports are doing their best to catch up and the odd motorway flyover has its points, mostly decent architecture in the transport world is the domain of the railways.

As frozen music, it should probably come under Art, but it’s going to get its own section.

Styles vary considerably based on available materials, purposes and local designs. For example, the station building at Bere Alston aims to communicate the importance afforded to any Plymouth, Devonport and South-Western Junction Railway station, since they were all key links in the true mainline from London to Plymouth:

Bere Alston 3 JPG

Unfortunately the mainline from here to London Waterloo has since been closed down, but the imposing building manages to retain some of its pride in its role as a couple of private houses at the reversal point on an obscure branchline to Gunnislake which most people have never heard of and the bulk of the rest think has shut.

At the other end of the country, Britain’s most northerly station has a rather plain and solid style which matches the rest of Thurso rather well.

Thurso 1 JPG

This does, however, make getting an attractive view of the utilitarian structure very difficult, since it’s not terribly attractive to begin with. The curves give it something; perhaps with the morning sun in high summer from a silly angle it would qualify as art.

Railway architects liked to achieve something with everything; the Wye Valley Railway may not have had any money but it still managed to build three rather neat signal boxes, two of which have now been demolished. This one seems to have been altered a little since preservation, such as the blocking up of the windows on the lower floor. Signal boxes of some sort used to be located at every station in the land; now they’re rather rare, which just emphasises when you get to compare a few of the survivors that everyone managed to do something different on a common theme. They make handsome structures for balancing pictures with.

Tintern Signal Box 1 JPG

This is a bridge:

Penmere Platform 5 JPG

Building it from local Cornish stone instantly gives it a character distinct from the (very few) bridges north of Inverness, for example. But also note how much the engineer went to town on making it interesting to look at – the parapets are neatly divided from the actual bridge by a line of large stones in a different shade and the retaining walls curve out from the arch rather than striking off at a harsh angle. The bridge arch itself neatly thrusts out from the side walls.

Since it fulfilled no useful function and was not exactly unique (except in ease of access to take pictures of it, being adjacent to a station platform), this particular bridge, at Penmere Platform in Falmouth, was demolished a few months after this picture was taken in Summer 2009.

This evolution of the rail network makes getting pictures of architecture rather interesting because of the different styles that arise on one station. This is Kettering, where the Midland Railway’s station survives relatively intact with the neat saw-tooth awnings. However, quite recently the narrow subway with its steep staircases was replaced by a modern, airy footbridge with lifts. This naturally clashes a little with the old styles, but if you like pointing a camera at contrasts then Kettering is a good example:

Kettering 1 JPG

And, to bring the article full circle, so is Reading – for now. At the moment GWR awnings and platform buildings feature alongside a 1980s ticket office and footbridge in contrast to the steel, glass and panelling of a new “transfer deck” and associated platform awnings. From next March, the “transfer deck” will come into use and the remaining old platform buildings and 1980s footbridge will be demolished – the 1980s ticket office and original station building are to remain. But perhaps this highlights a serious reason for photographing the present beyond the simple artistic features of Kettering station on a Sunday afternoon.

You never know when an accountant will get round to signing a cheque paying someone to scrap your trains, demolish your pet station and replace the whole lot with gleaming modernity while you’re having a brief holiday somewhere. Today’s commonplace is, after all, tomorrow’s history.

Reading 4 JPG

Welcome to the future. It doesn’t look much worse than the present, but a photograph is a good way to make sure you can keep track of that. Meanwhile it makes a pretty desktop background.