Monday, 7 April 2014

Confessions of Winchcombe Signal Box

If pressed to describe myself, the phrase 'keen amateur photographer'  would probably be in there somewhere.  That is of course a euphemism for somebody who spends a lot of time and money taking photos but isn't very good at it.  One of my preferred forms of photography is railway photo charters.  I was asked to describe what a 'railway photo charter' was to a lady friend some years ago and I said that it is similar to when a camera club hires in some scantily clad models to practice taking photos of.   A whole bunch of people club together, hire the model and grab a set of photos.  This is the same sort of idea, except that you hire a steam loco (not necessarily scantily clad) and get it to run up and down a line all day whilst you take photos.  The key fact being that if you miss a shot at one location because the sun chose that moment to pop in behind a cloud and not emerge again until the tail lamp has just passed you, then you can simply call it back and re-do the shot.  If need be, you can just keep it sat a little way up the line whilst you wait for the sun to reappear.   Another benefit of these events is that you can within reason choose the stock that you run with, freight trains being popular as you don't often see them running otherwise.  The big idea is to try and recreate scenes from the age of BR steam or sometimes even earlier and photograph them.  There are worse things to do with your free time.  I'm struggling to think of one right now, but I'm sure there are.

The GWSR hasn't run any such photo charters since before the landslip at Gotherington, at least six years ago now.  Whilst on charters elsewhere, I have been nagged approached by several charter organisers who would be keen to see such events staged at the GWSR again.   Getting the ball rolling has proved to be a fairly lengthy process which has involved what in effect was a risk assessment process wherein the procedures for running charters was defined stating what sort of things could be accommodated by the railway and those that could not.  Eventually after several iterations a document that stated how such charters would operate in a safe manner and a contract document for charter organisers was arrived at.   We were ready to dip our toes into the waters of the photo charter market once more. 

The arrival of Dinmore Manor on the railway has generated a great deal of interest amongst the general public and the photo charter community alike and so a couple of dates using Dinmore Manor were arranged with Martin Creese of 30742 Charters, the first day with a freight train, the second with a three coach maroon rake.  The dates were the Wednesday & Thursday of last week.  This is how it all went:

I had a slight panic the night before the first one, when it suddenly dawned on me that although I could get into the car park at Toddington, none of the charter participants would be able to without me standing by the electric gate all morning to let them in.  A strategically placed empty crisp packet sorted that one out.  I now know how to keep the gates open without having to recourse to employing litter for a purpose for which it was never intended. 
Crisp packet 1 : 0 Electric Gate
The Operations Manager was as good as his word and the freight train was ready and waiting in platform one
A fair proportion of the attendees on photo charters are of an age that can remember BR steam in the fifties and sixties and want everything to look as if it was from that era as much as possible.  In particular, they like locos to look uncleaned and unloved much as they did back then.  To that end, a request not to clean Dinmore Manor beforehand had been made, but the last time I had seen her, she still looked pretty much as if she had just emerged from Swindon works.   I noticed when I set off in the morning that my car had acquired another coating of Saharan sand dust and of course, so too had Dinmore Manor.  Good for the charter of course, but this Saharan dust is definitely a mixed blessing.

Once the crew had Dinmore Manor ready, we were off to Stanway Viaduct for a few runs past.  This is probably the GWSR's signature shot, and one that wouldn't have been available the last time charters ran.  Helpfully there was an Easterly wind which carried the exhaust away from us.
7820 with freight on Stanway Viaduct
 Unfortunately the light was rather flat all day, with no sign of the sun at all. In such conditions, black and white photos tend to work best.  At least in spite of the forecast it didn't rain at.  

Transportation between photo shoot locations was of course in the brake vans. 
Jack Boskett relived a misspent youth sat on the only seat on the Toad's verandah
Jack is a 'keen professional photographer', which means that he is somebody who is so good at photography that he can make a living at it.  He does take some extremely good photos indeed.

The next stop was at the popular Didbrook 2 location  (second bridge at Didbrook). 
Crossing over Didbrook 1
Approaching Didbrook 2
 The idea of course is to stage shots where nobody is in anybody else's way.  If you step back from the gallery a bit, this is the sort of thing you'd see.
Dinmore Manor in a sea of hi-viz vests
 Next stop, Chicken Curve:
Silhouette at Chicken Curve
 The next shot is one of a couple being considered for use by DMLL on a series of promotional mugs.  I'll provide a link to the location that they can be ordered from when it's available.
7820 mug shot
Jonathan was the driver for the day
Fireman Andy damps down his coal
 After lunch in the Flag and Whistle, we were unexpectedly held up for a couple of minutes by the permanent way gang who were doing some spot re-sleepering near Hailes.  It turned into a photo opportunity for the crew as well as me.
Red flagged at Hailes
Given the green flag and we were off again
Andy at work in the office
What is the collective noun for lineside photographers?
Leaving Winchcombe
Leaving Winchcombe in B&W
And again in colour
 The photographers weren't allowed to enter Greet tunnel for safety reasons.  That doesn't appear to have deterred Pink Floyd though.
Wait for it...    Another Brick in the Wall!
 There was no sign of their legendary light show though.

Roaring into Greet tunnel
 Ok, perhaps not 'roaring into Greet tunnel', 7820 was stationary at this point.

Down in Dixton cutting, we had a rare opportunity to get photos of her approaching a functional distant signal.  I'm not sure that too many other railways have distant signals that are operational.
In Dixton cutting
A few shots of Dinmore Manor bursting through Three Arches Bridge were on the cards too. 
Three Arches Bridge
Three Arches Bridge
 That was pretty much it for day one, on to day two.  Martin Creese was unavoidably unable to run the charter however Simon Hopkins deputised and did an excellent job of keeping the whole event running seamlessly.

Normally points are deducted if a fireman creates too much black smoke.  If you bung some coal on and the smoke becomes too black to see through, then you're supposed to open the firehole doors a bit or stick the blower on to clear it.  Woe betide the trainee fireman who causes such clag as to besmirch the washing hanging on the lines of the houses alongside the railway.    Photo charters are an exception however as the photographers are keen on anything that can make the loco's exhaust stand out from the background sky.  The Fos-Y-Fran coal that we are using at the moment is very clean and generates little black smoke, so I decided that testing out a few smoke bombs would be in order.  I filled an old water bottle with contaminated oil which could be thrown onto the fire at a strategic point.
The Mk I smoke bomb, primed and ready to go.
 The first stop was at Didbrook 2 again:
Didbrook 2
 This day was rather colder than the first day which helped the exhaust stand out from the background sky rather better anyway.
Didbrook 2
I'm a fan of pan shots, but only tried doing the one over the course of the two days.  It wasn't quite as sharp as I'd have liked.
Pan shot at Didbrook 2
 Given that we'd lose the nice exhaust when the day warmed up, we elected to go to the South side of greet tunnel for some tunnel exit shots:
Dinmore Manor bursts out of Greet tunnel
 Later on back at Winchcombe we did a few staged cameo shots on the platform
The guard (Mel) with Clive and Stephen relax on the platform at Winchcombe
The guard takes it easy, the crew share a joke
 I really rather enjoyed that session, the rebuilt Monmouth Troy station building at Winchcombe is a gem and nothing in the scene says that it wasn't shot in the late fifties or early sixties.  The location has particular associations for Simon Hopkins who was running the charter on this day.  Apparently his dad had been a signalman at Winchcombe in the late fifties at around the time he started courting Simon's mother.  Simon is of the belief that his brother was conceived in Winchcombe signal box.  Sadly the one we have now is not the original, which like so much else on the line was demolished by BR.

Further on down the line, we tried a few runs past at Gotherington station.  It was here that we tried using the smoke bomb.
Mk I smoke bomb in action
The effect was rather limited as the smoke lasted a very brief while and was gone by the time that 7820 reached the point that most people were clicking their shutters.  Not to be deterred, the crew had their own smoke bomb made up of bits of oil soaked carpet and so on in a plastic bag:

That did the trick
 After lunch, I made up a few more:
Mike with a couple of the mk II smoke bombs
 Stanway viaduct is normally a 'morning shot' i.e. the line runs north to south and the only side with open views is on the east.  If you don't want the train to be in shadow, you have to be there in the morning.  Given that we had no sign of the sun and therefore very diffused light, there were no shadows to fall foul of, so we set off up to Stanway viaduct:
Approaching Stanway viaduct
Leaving the viaduct
And somewhere in the middle
One of the mk II smoke bombs in action
And again
 The tender was already full, but we staged a cameo shot of it being over-filled for a few seconds.  Heaven knows why they thought to stage this, we seem to be able to do this perfectly ok without having to try.
Clive keeps his feet dry
 A few departing shots at Toddington:
I've lost track of the number of times I've done this in the past, but it still works.
 We finished off the day with a few departure shots at Winchcombe:
Departing Winchcombe
And again
This is another mug shot possibility
That was that, I had a marvelous couple of days and I very much hope that everybody who joined us did as well.  I was nice to catch up with a number of old friends who I regularly see out on the photo charter circuit.

The list of people that I need to thank is extensive, and I'm always loathe to say who as I will be guaranteed to miss somebody important off, but here we go, in no particular order:

Colin Fewell for working out the commercial aspects of the charters.

The staff of the Flag and Whistle for opening specially for breakfast and lunch on both days.

Carriage and Wagon for assembling that rather nice freight train.

Whoever was involved in the shunting operations required before and after the charters.

Martin Creese for bouncing ideas off of and for getting the interest of so many photographers to support the event as well as organising it.

To the photographers who paid to join us.  I very much hope that they all enjoyed themselves.

To the lineside clearance team who have kept the undergrowth at bay.  There's no point paying to photograph trains from the lineside if you can't see them for trees & bushes.

To the crews, guards & signalmen; Jonathan Windscheffel, Andy Webber, Stephen Burnett, Clive Norton, Mel Curnock, Malcolm Hector, Peter Giddins & Peter Smith.

To Simon Hopkins who stood in for Martin Creese as organiser on the second day.

As always to the myriad other groups who do all the work that keeps our railway ticking over from day to day.  Can't do this stuff without track, stations, carriages etc.

A big vote of thanks to all the good people of the Dinmore Manor Locomotive Group who have pulled out all the stops in order to get Dinmore Manor ready to run in time for the agreed charter dates.  Looking back it was a scarily close run thing, the two charters were her first two revenue earning days in traffic during this boiler ticket, a loaded test run having taken place just a few days beforehand.  In particular I'd like to thank Mark Young and Mike Solloway for keeping me posted on developments with the restoration and reassuring me that all would be ready when the charter dates arrived.

Thanks also to the Bluebell Railway for the loan of the Dukedog's tender.

Finally, my thanks must go to our Operations Manager, Neil Carr who provided invaluable assistance in helping me draft the document that describes the terms under which we will operate photo charters as well as making sure that the stock was checked to run (remember the freight train hasn't been used since last year's gala) and shunted to the right starting points before the charters started, as well as making sure that it all got put away where it was supposed to go afterwards. Most especially, I am grateful to Neil for coming to our assistance at the end of the first day, when a signalling failure had us all stranded at Winchcombe and unable to get back to Toddington.  He quickly turned up and fixed the problem, even though he had already gone home and was relaxing in the bath when the call came in.  Definitely dedication above & beyond the call of duty.

Now that we have something of a template as to how it will all work going forward, it should be easier to roll out more photo charters.  We already have another sold out event with one of our visiting locos for the gala and the prospect of more being scheduled for the Autumn.

Remember that Saharan dust, well I turned up on Saturday expecting to have to clean it all off of Dinmore Manor before she could go out on a regular service train for the first time.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mike, Dan and possibly others had already made a good start on cleaning her up on Friday, leaving me with little to do.  Quite a few other people turned up on Saturday to help as well, for which I was very grateful.  Kenneth Sims the chairman of DMLL was one of them. He kindly sent me this photo of the assembled throng of cleaners & crew taking a tea break.  He's clearly cottoned on to how to get his photos published in here as it doesn't include me.
Breakfast Tea Party, photo courtesy of Kenneth Sims


  1. Excellent pictures, and post as a whole (as usual) thanks for sharing your photos, I was hoping I'd see some around so I could find out how it all went, not being at the railway for a few weeks. Nice that the freight set got to stretch its legs again, hopefully it will be in use more if there are more photos charters on the way. I dream of the day when it's in a regular timetable like the Isle of wight's now is...

  2. What a terrific set of photos, Ray - quite inspirational! Many thanks for posting them on your very interesting and entertaining blog. The shots of 'Dinmore' on the 3 maroon coaches brought back some happy memories for me - schooldays by the MSWJR line in Cirencester - it was either 7808 'Cookham Manor', or 7810 'Draycott Manor' way back then. You have recreated the image perfectly.


  3. I am surprised they didn't ask for the G Ws to be expunged from the vans. I suppose these can be photoshopped out - is that allowed in your photographer circles?

    Incidentally, AFAIK, I never saw a reply from you on the workshop facilities available to do some of the specialist work on 4270. I wondered if you got any joy on that one?

    Thanks for a great blog, much appreciated.

    1. Hi Howard,

      Martin Creese (the charter organiser) just asked for a BR head to the freight train, which luckily was what we already had from the last gala. Neil Cave has expressed an interest in running charters on our railway and he wants an all BR freight train. Use of Photoshop is down to individual preference. I leave the subject by saying that it is a contentious can of worms that I have absolutely no intention of taking the lid off of in here.

      There was a belated reply somewhere about workshop facilities regarding 4270. The key point being that the con rods were beyond what can be done at Toddington, so they were sent elsewhere for machining.

  4. Ray,
    Many thanks. I missed that reply and will search back for it but I guessed as much, that's very specialised stuff, that. I think what *is* being done at Toddington is very admirable and I am in awe.