Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Winter Warmer

I'm pleased to release the first Grumpy Git Productions film of 2010, featuring Fowler 4F 44422 hauling the ‘Winter Warmer’ trains early in January. With beautifully clear winter skies and bright, low sunlight the loco and four Mk1 coaches are filmed to advantage along various parts of the Nene Valley Railway. Three return trips along the line were edited together to create a single journey; outward with loco leading and ending with some tender-first running. The small loco has to work much harder than the usual loco on this line, Standard 5 73050, so the smoke effects are much more impressive.

Choosing a soundtrack was quite difficult for this film, but I eventually settled on some Yorkshire brass, as I'm rather partial to traditional brass band music anyway - by ‘eck, lad! The Black Dyke Mills Band hail from Queensbury near Bradford, an area that I’m reasonably sure will have been familiar to the Fowler locos. The band is much older than the train, as it was formed in 1816 by John Foster, owner of the Black Dyke Mill – like so many Yorkshire mills of the day, it dealt with textiles. After a faltering start, the band was fully established in 1855 and all members were outfitted in uniforms made from the mill’s own cloth. The band has remained active ever since, and still rehearses in the original rooms. However, they probably get their uniforms from Primark these days.

The selected piece of music is Cornet Carillon, a piece that brought back many memories as soon as I heard the opening bars. When I was at school (in those days it wasn’t a nice weather option, you just went regardless) we had a fantastic music department that would put on theatrical performances and concerts during the year. The Senior Brass Band would always play this piece, with a battle to be the soloist on the cornet. Nowadays the rest of the pupils would just text in to vote for whoever sold them drugs at playtime, but back then it was all down to ability, and the lucky person would be handpicked by Miss Northorpe, a diminutive teacher of around 5’2, but she could command the respect and obedience of the meanest thug with her withering gaze. Nobody every answered her back twice. Miss Northorpe ran our music department with discipline and determination that wouldn’t be out of place in the SAS, and produced extravagant concerts that were the envy of the other schools in the borough.

Although I personally prefer music in films, it can be highly subjective as to whether it enhances or detracts from the end result. So in this film I decided to have a go at pleasing both sides. The YouTube version has been made with a soundtrack, but I made a slightly different version without any score at all and that can be viewed here. Because the weather conditions were so good, I was able to video the train with barely any intrusive wind noise – the Samsung’s mike isn’t up to much – so unusually, I have an entire film with just the sound of the Fowler working fairly hard. Viewers have a choice of film, depending on personal preference. Perhaps I should run a competition to vote for your favourite version; tune in to see which locos are in the steam-off!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Dyeing to Get Dirty

Way back (or so it seems) in December I attended the model railway exhibition at Wigan. Having become jaded by the quality of almost all shows these days I rarely bother to travel around to see the same inevitable line up that I’ve seen everywhere else. However, a large and urgent stock delivery meant that the three-hour cross-country trek was a necessity – but am I glad I went! Wigan was a model railway exhibition – doing exactly what it said on the tin. High quality, fully operational and interesting layouts covering a broad arena of gauges, periods and nationalities were backed up with relevant trade specialists. Such a pleasant change from the usual rows and rows of second-hand Hornby and Bachmann box shifters that make most shows look like a carboot sale with a few token layouts.

Difficult to choose a favourite layout because the quality was so high, but the scenery on the 'N' Gauge Bassenthwaite Lake really stood out, simply because the water has been reproduced to an extrordinarily realistic level:

This view epitomises the natural splendour of the Lake District.

To make a change from photographing a BR Standard 5, I photographed this .... oh, not again!

A quiet moment on Sodam Hall. The captions underneath the JCB apparently refers to certain writers at Rail Express, a magazine that prides itself on removing every last vestige of fun from the hobby of modelling. Everything but everything must meet their exacting standards - although they've never explained that a model of a diesel loco powered by an electric motor can hardly be described as prototypical. How does that work, then?

However, the show itself is not the main point of this post (oh, so there’s a point? That’s a new one …) Our neighbour on the Ten Commandments stand were Alan & Claudy from a new enterprise known as Modelmates Weathering Spray Dye. Weathering is a tricky area; you’re either good at it or you’re not. I fall into the latter category, so I’m always interested in any new materials or tools that will help me out in this department.

Modelmates use aerosol cans (there goes another polar bear*) filled with a coloured dye, not paint. This means it can be sprayed on in the usual manner, but the biggest difference is that it can be worked in and wiped off with a moist tissue. This sounded interesting, so I spent a significant part of the day trying out varying techniques.

The company was actually set up to provide film and TV producers with suitable materials for temporary weathering and scenic effects, where real life weathering and distressing would be impractical. You need a spotless train to appear old and dirty in a period film? No problem; get down and dirty within a couple of hours, then in the morning wash it off and it’s as if it had never happened. Bit like being an MP, but morally acceptable.

This technique was used back in November on The Nene Valley Railway, when film producers set about recreating snow scenes for the upcoming remake of Murder on The Orient Express. (Full story here). This will be an ITV adaptation of the original story in a Poirot investigation format, rather than a like-for-like remake. Several tons of fake snow arrived by truck in order to recreate the snow covered railway tracks that blocked in the train during the critical murder scenes when the frustrated passengers pooled their resources to stab the Train Manager after 7 hours of non-communication. Sorry, I’m getting my stories mixed up – I’m thinking of Murder on The Eurostar Express. This must have cost thousands of pounds – bet they’re kicking their accountants through the door now.

“I told you we should have waited another month; now
there’s half a million tons of the real thing out there!”

If I may digress from the point here as is customary, then the new film should be well worth watching. The NVR was able to provide the original Wagon Lits coaches without problems, as regular readers of this column will be aware. Unfortunately they don’t have any serviceable foreign locos, which resulted in Standard Type 5 73050 City of Peterborough being given the role. In order to make a Standard Type 5 look more at home in Belgrade (where else would you get a statement like that?), the film makers whacked a huge headlight on the smokebox door and removed the BR numbers to leave just 305. Clearly this is a big budget production.

"They'll never see through this disguise. Just don't tell Rail Express!"

(Photos from filming by Ben Davis at Peterborough Evening Telegraph)

More photos from filming may be seen on the NVR Gallery pages, whilst photos of 73050 steaming away in acres and acres of real snow may be seen in my photo gallery or in the Winter Wonderland video. If ITV would like any of this footage, please get in touch with an envelope full of used tenners, and we’ll talk.

But back to the point - the range of colours by Modelmates covers a pale sandy brown up to sooty black, with, appropriately enough, the most recent addition being snow – because none of us can get enough of that at the moment.

Now I have to say I was a little sceptical when I saw the dyes, as so many instant weathering materials have popped up over the years, and generally, they’re not up to much. So, Alan handed me some tins, I took a load of stock off our stand and began playing. And it’s impressive stuff, it really is. Whilst rolling stock is an obvious target, my main interest is in weathering buildings. The new old-style brick factories that Ten Commandments have produced look great, but I wanted something that could age them and provide a timeworn, rundown appearance. These dyes are ideal, because there are two main ways of applying them.

For a light dusting of background weathering, the can is held about a foot away and passed over the required area quickly until the required amount of dye is on the model. For detail areas, such as protruding stanchions, doors and underframes etc, the can should be held a couple of inches away and sprayed quite heavily so that the area is swimming in the stuff. Then, with judicious dabbing with a slightly dampened tissue, the dirt can be worked in to the required areas to create a build up of muck. The dye dries to a powdery matt finish, thus recreating a dusty look that is remarkably effective. For greater effect, the area can be resprayed and re-wiped several times, and the layers will build up, just like the real thing. I plan to try different dyes out on various old models from the bits box, and here is my motley collection:

In the meantime, more information can be gleaned from the Modelmates website. I’ll be working with the dyes on the demonstration stand with Ten Commandments at the Doncaster Model Railway Show on 13/14 February, so come along and take a look. Modelmates will also be trading at this show, so you can even have a go and get some yourself. Right, I’m off to go and get down and dirty.

* Not really.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Fowler and Foul Play

It’s always the way, isn’t it?  12 days off work in grotty, dull weather and finally on the last day it decides to be nice.  Sunday in Grantham was extremely cold and the snow we’ve had of late had frozen solid, but when I woke to cloudless blue skies and a bright winter sun, I knew that this was a photography day.  I had a choice of trying again for the Fowler 4F running days at the Nene Valley, or heading west to The Great Central that runs between Loughborough and Leicester.  Whilst the intensive timetable offered by the GCR appealed, the route to reach it involved many miles of traversing the icy back country roads in order to (hopefully) reach it.   Hmmm.  Maybe not.  Plan ‘B’ meant that I could take the A52 and A46 to Loughborough, but these roads are pure hell at the best of times, and on a New Year Bank Holiday would be chock full of Citroen Picassos and Renault Scenics packed full of screaming kids and overloaded with Christmas presents from the holiday with Granny in Ingoldmells.  Anything that wasn’t a people carrier would be a Vectra on it’s way back from the Ikea sale, easily identifiable by the 3 piece suite strapped onto the roof rack with a piece of garden twine.

By contrast, the NVR is reached from the dual carriageway A1, meaning that all the people carriers could be overtaken, except for those dodging armchairs that had come adrift from the aforementioned Vectras.  The weather was cold and there was a sprinkling of snow on the ground, so all the 4x4’s and Audis would be tucked up on their drives in case they got dirty.  The NVR it was, then.  The snow petered out a few miles south of Colsterworth, with only icy patches remaining as a result of the chilly, cloudless evening.  Well, I was now in the Deep South, after all.

Mindful of my previous wasted journey to the NVR on (whatever day it was – with these holidays I lose track) I drove past Wansford Station to see a satisfactory plume of steam billowing above the station building.  At least something was active, so I continued on to Ferry Meadows to park up and start walking.  Well, I say ‘parked’ – the surface was pure black ice and the moment I cornered and dabbed the brakes, the car did a graceful twirl with a pirouette before ending on a plié in between the café and the coach park.  I got a nasty shock, an unexpected arrival in my underwear and a sev-errrn! from Len.  Oh well, near enough.

With such great weather, all the favourite locations were up for grabs.  I wanted to try a couple of different angles and techniques, and kicked off with an into-the-sun shot at Lynch Bridge:

I was videoing and shooting stills together, which basically meant setting up the Samsung to film video and then concentrate on getting one decent photograph from that location as well.  I didn’t plan to do much panning by video, and that meant that I could concentrate on not making silly mistakes, like letting my 50-foot shadow occupy the foreground as in Winter Wonderland.

After Lynch Bridge it was off to the meadow, which was a great location for my favourite shot of the day, and some good film to match:

I’d planned to walk along to Castor Crossing for the next set, but when I was climbing the stile at the end of the meadow, I thought this area itself would make a nice panorama given that the wooden fence and overhanging trees made a natural frame.  Location sorted, I now had a chilly hour to kill, but ate my pack up and read my book (I’m still on Peter Kay, in case you were wondering.  And if you were wondering – boy have you had an exciting New Year).

Next up would be new location I’ve never used before, Sutton Cross.  The line is dead straight, has a working signal and provides a good head on view of trains working out of Castor Crossing.  This place makes for wonderful video, but for the photographer there is one tiny, almost insignificant drawback.  If you look closely, perhaps you’ll spot it:

Got it yet?  Okay, I’ll tell you – it’s the pylon.  Oh yes, I can see it now.  I still like this photograph, and if you look at it with your eyes closed, then the pylon disappears.

With two return workings covered, 44422 had one more round trip to perform.  As it was warmer to walk than stand in a field, I decided to head all the way into Wansford and get a couple of station shots.  The plan was to film the departure, and then while the train went to Yarwell to run round I’d nip across the bridge and film the eastbound run as it crossed the Nene.  I could then walk down to Lynch Bridge to capture the final westbound run of the day, which would be at around sunset.  Great!

Wansford Station was eerily quiet after the hubbub of the Santa Specials.  I wanted some shots of the 4F steaming away, but these were difficult due to the presence of a real bobblehat out on day-release.  He stood talking to the driver about all sorts of rubbish – tales of his mother taking the Evening Star over the Somerset & Dorset; an issue about a leaking steam pipe on the loco and were cheese and pickle sandwiches more tasty than cheese and beetroot?  All very interesting – the poor driver needed CPR before taking the train out – but he was stood right next to the cab, ruining any chance of a good photo.  Thank you.

The icing on the cake came at departure time.  I knew this idiot would take over the station, so I decided to film the train from behind the loco and watch it recede into the distance – I could frame it with the Wansford station nameboard, and the lighting would make it work.  When I got the camera home and ran the film clips, I couldn’t believe what I saw.  This selfish idiot had hogged everybody’s photo for over 20 minutes; yet as the train prepared to leave, he set up his own shot and had the effrontery to shoo a small group of other photographers and visitors away from the end of the platform as they were getting in the way of his pictures!  This kind of selfish arrogance needs naming and shaming, or in this case, photographing and shaming:

I detest this type of photographer intensely, and it seems to be a particular brand of railway photographer that is the worst offender from what I’ve witnessed recently.  When you consider that during the Santa Specials there were literally hundreds of people thronging Wansford Station, I never had a single problem with taking a picture.  Good old-fashioned courtesy dictates that you get your shot, and then discreetly move away so that other people can get theirs.  If you’re shooting video when people are around then you simply take your chance and hope for the best – and make good use of editing facilities later.  You do not block other people’s photos for 20 minutes and then demand that they clear a path so you can get yours.  Is it me?  Now you know why I prefer to spend so much time linesiding.  Which was where I was heading now, as I needed to get back into a frosty field to capture the final trip as it returned through Wansford, heading for Peterborough.

The next shot would be the last run of the day, loco running boiler first, so I chose a point near Ailsworth where there is a small embankment just above the river.  The trees here were very autumnal, and the setting sun would really highlight the oranges and reds in a blaze of glory as the lingering hues of sunset reflected off the passing locomotive and coaches as they trundled by into the creeping tendrils of the encroaching dusk.  Sorry, I have a friend who’s started writing fiction lately, and thought I’d have a bash myself at some descriptive prose.  I fancied doing a modern Railway Children – The Railtrack Children; a group of ASBO teenagers who set off a landslide to derail a train.  No?  Okay, back to the drawing board then.

Where was I?  Oh yes – Ailsworth.  The setting was perfect and the lighting made-to-order.  With the train due at 15:50 and sunset at just after 16:00, it would look fantastic.  Well, it would have been, if the train didn’t manage to lose 20 minutes for no discernible reason.  Sunset waits for no man or 4F, and I watched with great disappointment as the sun settled over the horizon bit by bit.  No amount of 4F-ing and blinding would encourage 44422 to arrive, although it kept goading me by whistling several miles away down the line.  All I could do was watch the bright oranges and reds turn grey until eventually, it turned up.  The film came out rather better than expected, but the photo I took was rather flat and lifeless.

I tried to be a bit adventurous here and move the train to one side of the picture so that it wasn’t the main focus – as you can see it didn’t work at all, and the rather scrubby grass dominates the picture.  The train certainly isn’t the main focus of this picture, given that it can barely be seen, so in that respect it could be deemed a success.  This scene might have worked better during the day when the sunlight brought out the vivid array of colours and detail.  With dusk falling and the sun all but gone, a straightforward three quarter shot would have been preferable.  Still, if you don’t try something, how else can you determine what does and doesn’t work?

Despite this disappointment, I felt that the day was a success, and it more than made up for my previous attempt to capture the 4F in action.  It also rounded off the interminable Christmas holiday period on a positive note, and on the way home I didn’t hit a single sofa.  That’s what I call a good day out.

The photos from this set will be uploaded to my Picasaweb Album shortly, and Grumpy Git Productions are working on the  film.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Bernie Cartwright, A Sad Loss

Sadly, I was informed today that Bernie Cartwright of the Whitewebbs Model Railway Club died this morning from a heart attack.

I’ve known Bernie well since 2002, as he was the exhibition manager of the Enfield Whitewebbs show, held every September near London. He was an ex-pat Northerner from Darlington who'd ended up down south, and I met him when was I making and selling clocks at model railway shows. We had a chat in Leicester, of all places, and he invited me to try out his show. I accepted, but Corail Images was struggling a bit and unfortunately I decided to close the business down a few months later. I rang Bernie and told him I had to cancel, and in his typically forthright manner, he said, “So what are you doing instead?”

I explained that I was experimenting with creating a range of ‘OO’ gauge signs and advertising billboards that I’d recently tried out at the annual DEMU Exhibition, but it was too early to say if it would work. Bernie said, “Okay, bring down whatever you’ve got on the day and I’ll give you a table. If you make any money then you can give a donation to the club; if you don’t – well, you’ll have a day out and we’ll feed you.”

That pretty much summed Bernie up really. No nonsense, tell it like it is and always a solution to hand. I attended Whitewebbs that year with much success, and indeed from that, Signs of The Times was born. I traded at his show until SoTT folded in 2007, at which point Bernie said, “So why not bring your layout down instead?” My final appearance would be in 2008 with a demonstration stand; Bernie regularly rang round his mates on the circuit to find out what they were up to and would offer you the chance of involvement at the show. He’d ring several times a year, just for a chat – imagine any other exhibition manager doing that!

Bernie was far more of a mate than an exhibition manager. Whether you exhibited, traded or demonstrated, to Bernie you were a person as opposed to a means of generating money. You’d be fed and watered, with bacon butties for breakfast and a lunch in the railway carriage – but if you were on your own, then lunch was brought to your stand. That’s what made the difference, and that’s why I supported the Whitewebbs Show until he stood down due to ill health in 2009.

Bernie’s wife Jan was always involved in the exhibition catering, and so I got to know her well too over the years. They made a great team and shared a wicked sense of humour that permeated the rather stuffy world of many railway clubs. Going to the show was always a day out and a bit of a jolly, with an exhibition and some trading thrown in. Bernie’s straightforward and no nonsense style will be greatly missed on the circuit; I’m raising a glass in his memory tonight and I hope that anyone who knew him will do the same in his honour. I'm sure that he wouldn't have it any other way.

Bernie Cartwright – One of a kind and greatly missed.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Heading For a Breakthrough ... or Breakdown?

New Year is here; at last a return to normality – such as it is. New Year’s morning was the ideal opportunity to shake off the stodginess and lethargy of the whole festive trial-by-turkey season and get some fresh air, a good walk and some photographs.

Naturally I headed down to the Nene Valley, as they were running some ‘winter warmers’ consisting of the LMS Fowler 4F that is visiting the line until October. Three return trips were booked to run, and as it was a fairly clear and crisp (i.e. icy and freezing cold) morning, presented ideal conditions for some good pictures. Four of these locos are preserved, although I can’t say how many are operational. Small tender engines such as these tend to be overlooked on preserved lines because of their more glamorous big sisters, so it’s great that 44422 was being given an outing.

44422 approaching Lynch Bridge back in October.

For the opening shot I chose Castor, which has a shallow embankment. When trains head east on the NVR the loco travels tender first, and to my mind, that’s when smaller locos such as the 4F look much more natural than the mainline passenger locos in a similar position.

At the appointed time, nothing happened. 15 minutes later, I heard a diesel engine approaching – I wondered if the NVR was top and tailing again, or perhaps there’d been a failure and a class 14 was deputising. This is the sight that I was greeted with:

This was quite unexpected, a London Transport Sentinel diesel shunter with three men in the cab. (More can be read about this interesting loco here). I wondered if perhaps the Winter Warmers were somewhat under-subscribed, and to cut costs and the need for running round etc, the railway had decided to make life a little easier for themselves. I stayed put, getting increasingly colder as time pretty much stood still. Normally I’d just read a book that I always take with me on photoshoots when I know there’ll be long gaps to fill (currently Saturday Night Peter: Memoirs of a Stand-Up Comedian by Peter Kay if you’re interested). But after turning three pages and losing three fingers through frostbite, I gave up on this method of passing the time. The age-old photographers adage that ‘move and you’ll miss it’ was uppermost in my mind, but moving steadily down the priority list as the cold worked upwards. After another 45 minutes of chilly boredom, and watching more fingers drop off as I replied to various New Year texts, I decided to call it a day. Back at the car I heard the rumble of a diesel engine approaching, and legged it back to the track to find that the Sentinel was heading back, still with 3 people in the cab and no coaches or wagons in sight. Fortunately my shutter finger hadn’t yet fallen off, so I nabbed this shot as it rumbled past to Wansford:

Therefore my theory must be correct – this was the Winter Warmer special, or maybe the NVR station staff had sent the lads down to Peterborough to buy McBreakfast. Why would you send a Sentinel loco down to McDonalds? Well, you’d never get a 4F and four Mk1’s into a Drive-thru, now would you? Keep up.

Seeing as I missed out on another chance to film steam at the NVR, I found this excellent video that was filmed at the Nene Valley in the early 1990’s. It’s certainly very different to every other railway video, and has everything you could possibly want in a film. Queen (as in We Will Rock You as opposed to We Will Rule You); a great rock song; steam locos and a sexy model - nice to have all my hobbies in a single film – it is, of course, Breakthru (or Breakthrough if you’re over 40) by the incomparable Queen.

Most of this film was shot between Castor and Lynch Bride, with Mill Lane overbridge appearing several times – all familiar locations to eagle eyed Grumpy Git Productions viewers. The rest of it was shot at Wansford tunnel. I took a friend down to the NVR to recreate the fantastic opening scene, but it didn’t work. Firstly, the British Transport Police Anti-Fun Department of Pointless Rules & Regulations politely and firmly moved me on. They didn’t object to her lying in between the tracks and walking down the permanent way; no, it was because she didn’t have a hi-viz jacket on while doing so. Then my ‘model’ moaned that the ballast had made her little black dress get dirty after 17 takes. That wasn’t my fault – in Breakthru (or Breakthrough) – the model lies still, and gracefully rises to walk down the tracks. Whereas Chloe kept twisting round “because I can hear a bloody train coming.” I tried to assure her that a train wasn’t coming, and even if it was, then if she would lie still it would pass right over her anyway. “Just lie there completely motionless. Like you do every other night of the week.” Actually, I didn’t say that, I just thought it. Even I’m not that stupid – and I don’t want spherical earrings, thank you. I decided that tact and diplomacy were the order of the day instead, and sought to reassure her with, “You don’t get many to the pound down there anyway, so a train won’t hit them.’

Once I’d regained consciousness, I began to wonder if I’d said the wrong thing. Filming continued in an atmosphere best described as ‘frosty.’ Finally, when she did get up and walk (totter) down the track, a heel broke on the ballast; she slipped on to a rail, laddered her stockings and split her knee open. And of course, it was all my fault. It wasn’t the happiest of photoshoots I’ve ever been on, I can tell you. Even buying a Burger King on the way home didn’t improve the chill in the air. There’s just no pleasing some people. Next time I’m working with Kate Moss.

Having realised that she'd forgotten her petticoat, Bobbie wondered if waving
her red G-string at the driver of the 09:15 Green Dragon would have any effect.

(If you haven't read or seen The Railway Children, then this gag won't work. In that case, just admire the pretty picture because I'm not even going to attempt an explanation).

Health & Safety Warning: Grumpy Git Productions do not recommend walking / lying / posing on railway tracks. It's fairly dangerous, except at weekends when you have to lie in front of the replacement bus service, and the end result looks similar to the time your Granny slipped on the kitchen floor with a hot redcurrant and blueberry pie. GGP supports the Government's Safety Awareness programme: Be an idiot responsibly.

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