Monday, 26 July 2010

You Ask For a Shed, & Get a Couple of ED's!

Sunday proved to be quite an interesting occasion at the NVR, when no less than three visiting locomotives turned up and presented us with the opportunity to hold a mini Diesel Gala.  In truth, we were expecting a visiting GBRf class 66, which we got – what wasn’t anticipated was a pair of class 73’s attached to it!  It transpired that the class 73’s were ‘in the way’ to use highly technical railway jargon, so rather than move them, they were tacked onto the 66 and sent down to Wansford.

It was all part of a GBRf Gala Day, which offered a carboot sale at Wansford and, er, some other stuff I didn’t really notice.  The carboot sale was pitiful; four cars selling tat and a man punting wicker baskets seems a little underwhelming to me, although I’m no expert in this field.  Perhaps it was all part of the ‘less is more’ way of thinking.  So let me assure you that less is definitely less in this case.

Fortunately the visiting locos provided recompense for the dismal attractions not on offer.  They did, however, bring their own particular brand of problems – notably contemporary diesel fans.  These people are a totally different breed to your average railway enthusiast, and cause so many behavioural problems that a lot of regular volunteers won’t work at the Diesel Galas.  Indeed, I recounted my own experiences at the last gala in March.  Different loco classes attract different fans, and whilst some – notably the class 31 followers – are the most laid back, friendly and down to earth group you could hope to meet, the class 66 followers are often bullish, arrogant and downright rude.  They carry a couple of grand’s worth of camera kit around, but will jump a fence to avoid paying the £12 fare to ride behind their dream loco.

To even the score up a bit, the NVR relied on its secret weapon – THOMAS!  Yes, Thomas was in steam as booked, hauling the Yarwell shuttle.  The same coaches then worked the Wansford – Peterborough section behind a diesel with our resident class 14 on the first train; the 73’s on the second, class 66 on the third and back to the 14 for the last train.  The coaches were our Danish (DSB) open vehicles that added to the pot pourri nature of the day.

Now I have to say that when a train’s passenger list consists of 50% Thomas kids and parents having a day out, and 50% diehard class 66 groupies waving Nikons around, the atmosphere onboard the trains was interesting to say the least!  Some of the 66 group got into the spirit of the day, to be fair, and were quite laid back about Thomas’ haunted tunnel.  But later on at Wansford I was trying to herd passengers onto the already late running afternoon service when I was told, “We’re not getting on this train until that bloody kettle thing is removed!”  This lot were all in their late 40’s / early 50’s, so I can only assume that with the level of maturity on display, they must work for Elf n’ Safety.  Or a Town Council.  Or the Highways Agency.  And I'm sure some of them must have designed the new junction on Grantham's High Street.

I also got another telling off by one irate idiot, sorry, passenger, who bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t been issued with an authentic Edmondson style card ticket.  These tickets were extremely important, he informed me at length, because he logs every detail of the trip and then attaches the ticket to the relevant page.  Printed till receipts don’t cut a lot of ice, it would seem.  I tried the sensible and rational explanation, which got me nowhere – so I turned the argument on its head.  “Sir, you’re travelling in a Danish carriage behind Thomas The Tank Engine through a haunted tunnel in the middle of Cambridgeshire.  Just how much authenticity can you take in one day?”  He didn’t seem to like that much, although the family in seating bay opposite certainly did!

More daft comments were heard by a colleague, Old Arkwright, who works at Orton Mere Station.  You can read his accounts about the day here.

The event was not particularly well publicised by the organisers so passenger numbers were relatively low, which as far as being on duty on the trains went was a good thing.  We were able to keep control of the coaches and do full ticket inspections – during Diesel Galas you simply can’t get from one end of the train to the other, and two or three TTI’s are required on each train.

Overall it was an interesting, albeit hard day to be on duty.  It made a nice change to ride behind different locos and get some novel photos.  Although I have to say that I dropped an almighty clanger here, and set up the camera with ridiculous settings that resulted in enough noise on the photos to make them look as if they were from 1926.  It took a fair bit of editing to get a set suitable for publication.  Normally I’d just delete them and try again, but as this was such a unique event I just had to bite the bullet and sort them out.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

A Brief Encounter

One of the great railway films of all time is Brief Encounter, a classic and timeless story that showed how an unexpected meeting can set off a chain reaction that would never have occurred had just one of those people not been in a certain place at a certain time.

My own brief encounter happened in June, and I recounted the full story here.  Briefly, I was on duty at the Nene Valley Railway quite by chance as I was covering for a colleague who was sick.  A photographer and model (Siân) came to the NVR for a photoshoot and I mentioned that I met them quite by chance, as they needed a guide to take them into the yard.  At the end of the piece I flippantly wrote, ‘I personally wish Siân great success with her future career; perhaps one day she might get to star in a Grumpy Git Production, the pinnacle of any model’s career.’

Well, fact can often be stranger than fiction.  After some thought I contacted Siân through one of her website portfolios and asked if she’d be interested in doing a photoshoot with me, bearing in mind that I am a complete amateur and have no experience at working with models whatsoever.  As a photographer I have to be honest (as indeed I was in my communications with Siân) and say that I am at the bottom rung of the profession.  Well, I’m looking up at the bottom rung, but it gives me something to aim for.  My photographic kit is restricted to one good quality point-and-shoot style camera (Panasonic TZ6), a Fuji Finepix S1500 that I don’t much care for, a tripod that accompanies me everywhere and a reflector, which is actually a silver sunshield, scrounged out of a car at work.  When I say basic, that’s exactly what I mean.  This was brought to home in January at the Great Central Railway Winter Steam Gala when I joined a line of photographers who looked as if they were filming a Hollywood blockbuster.  Out came my diminutive Samsung point n’ shoot (at the time) and tripod which I set up in all of 30 seconds.  A group not ten feet from me openly scoffed between themselves at turning up with such kit, although when I glared across at them with a lorry driver’s hard stare, they shut up.  For these reasons I didn’t I really think that a professional model would be interested in a shoot, but Siân had seemed a very pleasant and outgoing person at the railway, and I felt that if I didn’t ask I could miss out on a great opportunity and regret it later.

Therefore, I was delighted when Siân replied the next day, which impressed me a lot, and agreed to a shoot.  Many emails passed between us, and I was struck by her helpful advice and suggestions as things progressed.  It was clear from her emails and portfolios that she loves her job and gets a real buzz from it, but what makes her stand out is that she wants the best possible results for the photographer as well.  Frequent communication also built up a rapport in readiness for the shoot, which meant things were relaxed from the moment we met on the day.

I have no studio experience at all, and as I mentioned above, I’m somewhat lacking in the equipment department.  I enjoy working in the field, shooting variations on landscapes or transport scenes, particularly railways.  So a location shoot was required, and I have a reasonable imagination when it comes to composing pictures.  Therefore I planned a shoot that would be varied and hopefully interesting for both of us, set on a local farm that sits in a beautiful and undulating valley.  Perfect – and everything was set for the shoot.  Except, being Britain, the prolonged heatwave and clear skies over Lincolnshire turned dramatically into storms five days before the shoot.  It soon became clear (to me, not the weather) that conditions were going to be ‘unsettled’ as the BBC weather Wombles like to say.  They meant, ‘It’s going to rain a lot’, and it did.  Wednesday was crunch time – the forecasts were poor and an evening thunderstorm rather proved the point.  I cancelled the farm as they didn’t have any boats to get up to the meadows, and hurriedly devised Plan (b).  This was, of course, the Nene Valley Railway.  It was a natural choice – I’m familiar with it, and could work around poor weather with undercover shoots if necessary.  I hurriedly blagged some Peterborough deliveries at work on Thursday and popped down via Wansford to sort out a shoot.  As always, I got terrific and enthusiastic support from my colleagues at the railway with access to the locos, yards and a bundle of useful props for the specific shoot I had in mind.

Siân wasn’t put out by the sudden change of plan, in a flurry of texts she proved that she was game for anything and looking forward to the shoot regardless.  That was a relief; it’s not very professional to change things around at short notice, but needs must in the circumstances.

Friday dawned with bright and sunny skies, ironically enough, and the forecast had changed from unsettled to bright spells with showers – which is the same thing as far as I’m concerned.  Siân arrived early, which was great – good timekeeping is a fad of mine – and turned up with a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of clothes and props.  This girl comes prepared for anything, and in a suitcase and two large bags had an entire wardrobe available to suit any kind of look at a moment’s notice.  She was accompanied by her chaperone and fiancé, Spike – who is also a photographer and occasional model.  Some photographers dislike chaperones; personally I found it useful to have people who could add ideas and enrich the shoot with their experience.  Spike in particular spotted some brilliant photo opportunities that I’d have missed, and these were fantastic shots that look amazing.  He was unstinting with suggestions and ideas that added a great deal to the shoot, and I really appreciated his enthusiasm to help me get some great pictures.

I’d planned a shoot that would be structured and themed, as this is how I create videos.  Plan the work and work the plan, always allowing for those unexpected issues that crop up along the way, of course.  Many models are photographed on heritage railways as they provide a nice, historical background for a shoot.  I was after a totally different theme; by dressing Siân in appropriate uniforms I’d picture her undertaking the various jobs we do around the railway.  When I say uniform, I should point out that I wasn’t exactly after historical accuracy here.  If the sort of people who go to model railway exhibitions point out that her cap badge doesn’t match the era of the type of tail-lamp seen in some pictures, deal with it.  Preferably a long way away from me.  Yes, there really are some people out there who notice these things, and are only to happy to wax lyrically about them ad infinitum.  I know; in a previous life as a trader at railway exhibitions I’ve met them.  My costumes would be a nod to traditional railway dress, but with a twist to make the shoot light hearted, humorous and sexy.  Imagine St Trinians on the Orient Express and you’re on the right lines.

The shoot began in the glamour of the yard amongst bits of old scrap components, boilers and machinery.  So much nicer for a model than a beach in Barbados!  Spike spotted the hand trolley beloved of old movies from the Buster Keaton era.  Indeed I discovered only on Saturday that this particular trolley had just returned from a far less exotic photoshoot of its own, as it had just been filmed for a role in Coronation Street as part of Haley’s wedding.  I don’t follow Corrie, but if you watch it that will no doubt make sense.  Siân jumped straight onto this and struck a fantastic pose without even being asked; she knows a prop when she sees one and instinctively interacts with it to create the look you want.  Indeed, as the day wore on and we got to know each other, I’d often start a sentence to suggest the next pose and she’d be in it before I’d got half the sentence out!  She’s definitely a natural model and made the shoot easy to direct as a result.  Even her throwaway moments between shots were great; so much so that I then asked her to repeat them for the camera.

From the yard we moved to the rolling stock itself.  Donning a grey driver’s jacket to go with her rakish cap, heels and short skirt, this was her moment that every girl dreams about - yes, I’m talking about driving and firing real locomotives.  First call was for some exterior shots on a class 14 diesel, mimicking the sort of pose struck by models at the Motor Show on brand new Ferraris.  The difference here was that Siân was posing on enough horsepower to give Jeremy Clarkson wet dreams for a week.  Leaving that pretty picture behind, we moved onto the Polish tank loco for some firing shots.  This meant shovelling coal and Siân got stuck right into the task.  Having earned her stripes with a shovel, she was rapidly promoted to driver on our flagship loco, Standard 5 City of Peterborough.  Siân settled straight into the role and soon got to grips with the intricacies of the regulator and brake, whilst keeping a close eye on the gauges.

A spot of maintenance beckoned, and as we passed the Fowler 4F with the smokebox door wide open, Siân asked if she could pose inside it!  It was an inspired moment on her part, and the pictures look fantastic.  How many girls can claim to have been inside the smokebox of steam loco?  One for the grandchildren, that.  Another great set of scenes were filmed around her job as an oiler on 73050, getting stuck into the valve gear with some amazing facial expressions.  Siân’s hands-on involvement with the task was now literally showing with coal, grease and general muck all over her legs and hands, so with a couple of dabs to her nose, her initiation as a railway-woman was complete.  It seemed like a good idea to break for lunch and general clean up, so we retired to Jayne’s café for sustenance and soap.

Once fortified, it was a change of outfit for one of the most important railway jobs – signalwoman.  Our regular signalman doesn’t often sport white high heels, but once he’s seen the set I hope that this might signal a change of direction at the NVR.  Together with an appropriate tie and dinky waistcoat Siân set off to learn another new job in Wansford Signalbox.  This would be quite a tricky shoot for me, being indoors but backlit with daylight streaming in through the ‘box that is entirely glazed on three out of four sides.  It took a while to do this bit of the shoot, as I took many identical photos at different settings to cope with the lighting.  Some fantastic pictures came out of the box; I particularly like the reflections in the mirror, the close up headshots and the raunchy pose taken opposite the ‘box as she stood on the window sill giving me a ‘don’t mess with me’ look.

One task remained; one of the most prolific railway jobs available.  This was, of course, Guard.  I had a rake of coaches available and the traditional task of waving the train off with the green flag suited Siân admirably.  She had some interesting moments placing the tail lamp on the bracket, as it was far heavier than either of us expected.  She doesn’t give in, however, and created a great look by swinging the lamp in a pendulum movement to get it in place.  She also managed to get herself onto the headstocks and pose ballet style next to the gangway – no mean feat, I can tell you.

Siân had never been inside an old ‘proper’ train like the Mk1 coaches and was really keen to take a look inside.  She adored the compartments, and instantly presented me with a great photoset that I hadn’t considered.  Discarding her hat, waistcoat and kicking off her shoes, I got a great end-of-the-shift look as she languidly stretched out and reclined on the seats.  These are lovely, natural photos and really capture the moment of ending your duty after a busy day and relaxing ‘on the cushions’ as the train returns to the depot.

That was the main shoot of the day completed, but Siân was eager to carry on modelling; she has real passion and enjoys her work immensely.  I was surprised as modelling is incredibly hard work and thought she’d be ready to drop by now.  There is a general assumption that modelling is easy, simply a case of posing whilst having your picture taken.  Well, I am happy to dispel that myth.  During the day Siân had clambered in, out, under and on steam locos, old boilers, piles of ash and coal, dirty and greasy machinery and balanced one legged on a bufferstock.  Throughout this she’d had to hold and change pose time and time again, and have the same photo taken several times at different settings.  The idea that models are airheads was also totally turned on it’s head.  Siân brought incredible concentration to her roles, and as we walked around the site she was constantly looking for and suggesting ideas or props that could be used.  She gives herself totally to the shoot, and throws herself into roles with great enthusiasm.  She enjoys new things; well she certainly got that!

The shoot ended with a bit of freestyle modelling in the fields near Wansford Station, where Siân put on her own clothes and posed as if on a picnic in the countryside.  We tried some ball games for action shots and ended with some relaxing poses next to the river.  To add in a really authentic British picnic feature it began to rain at that point, although in fairness it was the first rain we’d had all day.  We carried on shooting in the rain for ten minutes, but then it turned into a deluge so that was that.

Surprisingly, the shoot had gone for eight hours, but where the time went I just don’t know.  It was great fun, particularly working with Siân who loves modelling and has incredible energy and dedication.  The nerve racking came bit at home when I uploaded the 753 photos I’d taken – would any of them actually be any good?  Fortunately the overall result was pleasing, and I ended up with around 350 pictures that I like.  I got good and very complimentary feedback from Siân and Spike, particularly about my creativity regarding the locations, theme and style of pose.  I have a penchant for full-length shots of a model, sometimes taken from a striking angle.  I favour a model to be pictured in a setting so that she becomes part of a scene as a whole and not just standing in front of something.  In many of my scenes Siân is interacting with various props to create striking poses that look in keeping with her surroundings.  I went for a teasing look to the railway set to suit the idea of a young girl taking on the traditionally male dominated roles of the industry, and with Siân’s impish facial expressions and natural coquettishness this came across beautifully.

Overall I found the entire experience a fantastic challenge, extremely creative and great fun to undertake.  It has taken my photography to a new level that I would like to develop further.  Both Siân and I have many ideas for great shoots in the future; indeed I was so impressed that I immediately rebooked her for a second shoot the following week.   Perhaps our initial brief encounter could become from here to eternity!

These sample photos clearly demonstrate Sian's enthusiasm and versatility as a model.  A good selection from her extensive portfolio may be seen here.

Update: The full set of photos from this shoot may now be seen in my Modelling Portfolio.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Please, Mr Postman

After a few hours sleep – well, time spent in bed trying to sleep in the sort of heat associated with market day in Basra – I was off again to the Nene Valley on Sunday morning.  I wasn’t on duty today, as I wanted to attend the Bus Rally that I wrote about here.  However, I also had another pet project on the go, which was filming some of the Mail by Rail event on the railway.

The NVR regularly operates working Travelling Post Office (TPO) trains that demonstrate how mail used to be collected, sorted and dropped off from trains in the days of steam.  In the sixties it became possible to post a letter in the evening and have it delivered to another part of the country the following morning.  Imagine if that were feasible today – well, the possibilities are endless.  You could post a birthday card the night before someone’s big day and they’d receive it over breakfast the following morning!  Instead of which it either gets crushed in the sorting machines or buried under 18 tons of mail left over from the last strike or can’t be delivered because your front door has three steps that can’t be negotiated for elf n’ safety reasons.  But never mind.  You can celebrate your birthday with an offer for the new Capital One credit card offering balance transfers for 41% interest or wonder how you’re going to fill the ‘Cash Your Gold’ envelope that always manages to get through any disaster striking Royal Mail.

That aside, you can come and watch how mail used to be collected on the move.  Although The Great Central Railway and Didcot Railway Centre offer TPO services, it takes the NVR to do it justice.  And I’m not just saying that because I’m biased.  The NVR uniquely has two sets of lineside apparatus, one at Sutton Cross and the other at Yarwell.  Both sites have a public viewing gallery that offers a grandstand view of proceedings, and at each demonstration the train performs three or four run pasts so that the public don’t miss anything.  Access to the sites is on board the TPO itself, so visitors can really savour the whole experience rather than just watch a drop off.  All that for £4 can’t be bad, or free if you’ve purchased a day ticket for the railway as a whole.

My plans for shooting the TPO went awry before I’d even arrived.  The previous day, as I mentioned here, the railway was affected by a steam loco ban between Wansford and Peterborough due to lineside fires.  The decision was taken to continue running the Yarwell services behind 73050 City of Peterborough and cancel the Sutton segments.  This worked out well for me, as I really needed a steam loco for the project I was working on.

I travelled to Yarwell on the first passenger train of the day so as to be in position for the TPO emerging from the tunnel later on.  I covered the mailbag drop and pick ups, then jumped the return service to Wansford.  There was a great photo opportunity here, as one of the visitors to the Vintage Vehicles event had brought an early GPO van and bicycle – and even dressed up for the part!  As our resident postie, Paul, was also in uniform from TPO duties, I was able to get some nice shots.

Following this I then headed for the Bus Rally at Sacrewell Farm before returning to film the afternoon TPO runs.  Having already captured the action shots earlier in the day I simply needed some shots of the train itself to add into the film.  The interior scenes on the coaches had been filmed in June so I was now ready to create the video.

As soon as I thought about filming the TPO I’d decided that there was only one soundtrack to use – W.H. Auden’s Night Mail, of course.  The prose echoes the beat of the locomotive and wheels on the rail joints perfectly, and the version I chose to use had a great musical arrangement that fitted in perfectly.  The end result is quite pleasing, as I feel it captures the atmosphere of the TPO whilst maintaining continuity and relevance to the narration.  So I hope you enjoy Grumpy Git’s visual interpretation of Night Mail.

Frying Tonight

It was a hectic weekend down at the Nene Valley once again.  With the annual Vintage Vehicles Weekend at Wansford Station, a Mail by Rail event, an evening dining train on Saturday and a bus rally at Sacrewell Farm with vintage buses shuttling down to Wansford on Sunday there was something for everybody, not to mention normal train services trying to cope with the stultifying heat.

So where to start?  Well, I was ticket inspector on Saturday, and the booked train consisted of the Danish coaches hauled by the PKP tank 5485.  Unfortunately the windows in these coaches only open wide enough to pass a credit card through, so conditions inside the train resembled an oven.  Indeed, I took some yeast and flour on board the first train, left them in the Guard’s compartment and had a loaf of bread by lunchtime.

It has been consistently hot and humid in Cambridgeshire for weeks now, and the lineside vegetation is tinder dry and brittle.  It didn’t take much to ignite it, and after four fires it was reluctantly decided to replace steam with diesel locos until further notice.  The trusty class 14 driven by the ever trusty Thunderbird James was called out to rescue services, whilst the A1A Society members on site laboured under extremely uncomfortable conditions to get 31108 ready for the evening dining train that had been booked initially for 73050 City of Peterborough.

5485 & 73050 quietly head for the depot 
as Billy Joel performs 'We didn't Start The Fire...'

The dining train was The Wansford Fryer, a service which picks up passengers on an evening run down the line before heading back from Peterborough to Yarwell non-stop, whilst passengers dine on fish n’ chip suppers that have been collected from Peterborough Station.  It is a service that requires exacting timekeeping – if the train is late at Peterborough then obviously the fish n’ chips will go cold.  And that isn’t good.

I’d stayed on after my turn as TTI to travel on the Fryer and assist with dishing out the meal.  A group of us – Team Jayne – set up the Mk1 coaches with tablecloths, cutlery, condiments and sauce baskets.  This is posh fish n’ chips; well, we are in the deep south after all.  Back home in Sunderland it’s fingers and paper bags, but I’ve adapted to my new environment quite well.  The meals would be served in two TSO coaches, whilst the four compartment coaches were available for anyone who just fancied a ride on the train.  For some inexplicable reason the TSO’s were marshalled at each end of the train and not coupled together.  This would mean someone (guess who?) would need to run the length of the train at Peterborough with the box of 60 fish n’ chip dinners and keep them warm.  What’s that old army saying?  Oh yes, never volunteer…

31108 at Yarwell after running round.  Nice headboard!

The train left Wansford 20 minutes late behind 31108 due to operational reasons that I have conveniently forgotten, so don’t ask.  Thanks to some nifty running round at Yarwell and some good thrash from the crew, we actually arrived at Peterborough only 4 minutes adrift.  The van was waiting for us, and I grabbed the first big box and legged it down the platform.  About halfway down, I suddenly wondered if I had the correct box ….. oh well, too late now to worry about that.  Fortunately it contained the suppers, and they were dished out to the diners on board.  As we cleared the tables on the return trip, I was pleased to hear so many complimentary remarks about the food – and proof of this was that there were no leftovers from any table.  Beat that, Gordon Ramsey!

The end of a busy shift.

After the non-stop run, the train ran the whole service again to drop off passengers who’d joined at intermediate stations.  Then a final run back to Wansford where we arrived around 22:15, and saw the end of a hectic but pleasant day – and a chance to try out some nocturnal photography.  I headed for home and some shut eye, as tomorrow I'd be back for another go!

The NVR turns in for the night.

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