FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Maison Dieu

Posted in Dover, England by folkestonejack on September 8, 2018

One of the pleasures of Heritage Open Days is to discover extraordinary buildings that have somehow blended into the surroundings, raising barely a glance from most passers by. The town hall in Dover is one such building, hardly helped by the fact that the town and the surrounding countryside are simply overflowing with historic buildings that would be major attractions in their own right anywhere else!

Dover Town Hall

Dover Town Hall, originally known as the Maison Dieu, has seen an unusually large number of changes of use from its beginnings in 1203 as a hostel for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to its current use as an event space. Along the way parts of the complex have been used as a hospital, navy victualling yard (complete with bakery and brewery), courthouse, council chambers, gaol and exhibition hall.

The future restoration plans might expand this further with proposals for a visitor centre to explain the history of the building, community meeting rooms, a new cafe and holiday lets.

The Mayor’s Parlour

The current shape of the building and its gothic design is the work of Ambrose Poynter and William Burges, who were approached in the mid-nineteenth century to adapt the building on its purchase by the town council. The highlight is the stone hall, which includes medieval style gargoygles climbing over the doorways and stone carvings of the coats of arms of past Lord Wardens of the Cinque Ports along its length. Six wonderful painted glass windows, designed by Edward Poynter, depict scenes from Dover’s history such as the relief of Dover Castle from a siege by the French in 1216. A display of weapons and portraits on the walls complete the effect. It’s alot to take in!

Other rooms on our tour included the council chamber, with a beautifully decorated ceiling and rare gas sunburner for illumination; a large assembly room named the Connaught Hall; the Mayor’s Parlour with an original Burges ceiling design; and the Courtroom, entered through one of the original 13th century arches. Sadly, many of the decorative designs by Burges had been painted over by the 1950s but some traces have survived under layers of paint and wallpaper, which we saw in the corridor and the Mayor’s Parlour.

The proposals for restoration include the re-instatement of the interior designs of William Burges in the Mayor’s Parlour and the Connaught Hall which would be really worth seeing. The digital images produced during the bid for Heritage Lottery funding already give a hint of just how impressive that will be.

Although I made my visit during a Heritage Open Day there are opportunities to see the interior on regular tours led by volunteer guides from The Dover Society.

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Back to Folkestone Harbour

Posted in England, Folkestone by folkestonejack on September 8, 2018

A trip down to Folkestone for a family gathering provided an opportunity for a short stop off at the harbour to see how much progress has been made with the re-development of the old station at Folkestone Harbour.

Since my last visit the old ticket office (facing towards the Leas) has been demolished and the station platforms have re-opened following extensive repairs to the station canopies. The difference between the station today and in its last years of decay is rather striking!

Folkestone Harbour Station – 2011

Folkestone Harbour Station – 2018

In some of the press reports from earlier in the year there was talk of providing train carriages for traders to operate from so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

I’m not against the wider development that will follow on from this, but I can’t help thinking that the harbour will look swamped with over 1,000 beach houses, apartments and town houses surrounding them (some apparently up to 12 storeys tall). I wish the density of the development was somewhat less. On top of that, it is sad to see that the familiar sight of the harbour master’s house doesn’t feature in the plans. Still, it’s good to see the preservation and restoration that has taken place so far.

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Mercedes mastery

Posted in Brands Hatch, England by folkestonejack on August 11, 2018

In the early 1990s the arrival of commercial satellite services to the UK opened up an exciting panoply of European motor sport series that had been largely invisible before.

Our dish was installed in 1992 and I immediately started channel hopping. My happiest discovery was the live broadcast of DTM races on 3sat. I only had a limited grasp of German but soon picked up enough new vocabulary to understand what was going on. My ad-hoc German lessons ended when live coverage of later seasons appeared on english speaking channels. The first races I saw were dramatic enough to ensure that I came back for more and I have been pretty faithful, losing touch only during the years when UK coverage largely disappeared.

Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters

The ‘exotic’ sight of cars like the Mercedes-Benz 190E Evo 2, Mercedes C-Class V6 and Alfa Romeo 155 V6 Ti made for a thrilling spectacle on TV and one that we couldn’t resist seeing up close, buying tickets for the non championship races at Donington Park. I was completely hooked and ended up travelling to see races at Brands Hatch, Hockenheim, the Norisring and Zandvoort as the series evolved, died and got re-booted.

This year the DTM returned to Brands Hatch after a five year gap and better still, racing on the grand prix circuit rather than the shorter indy circuit. I booked my tickets for the first day early on, eager to see the Mercedes C-Class one last time before the manufacturer leaves the DTM at the end of the season. It was money well spent – the sight of these machines plunging down the track from Paddock Hill Bend and up to Druids was as wonderful as ever.

I don’t know how I had ever forgotten just how brilliant Brands Hatch is for spectators but I fell in love with it all over again. On top of that, a compact schedule served up action aplenty – two free practice sessions, a series of practice starts, qualifying and a race. The drivers had alot to take in as most were unfamiliar with the grand prix circuit. A few found the limits of the track the hard way and the grid had a quite unusual look to it, with the current championship contenders scattered throughout the ranks.

A little off-track excursion

The racing was rarely dull, though the absolute highlight had to be Mike Rockenfeller’s audacious pass on Glock and Green at the same time to jump from 13th to 11th towards the end of the race. All the talk at the start had been of the difficulty of passing, so the sight of three cars abreast was quite an effective ripost! The race victory went to Daniel Juncadella, recording his first win in his 67th DTM outing.

There is much talk of 2019 being a transition year for the DTM and the possibility of aligning the series with the Japanese Super GT championship. Wherever it is headed, I hope the next evolution of the DTM is as successful as its past and that it won’t be long before we see these cars climbing Hailwoods Hill once again.

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RAF 100 Flypast over London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 10, 2018

The blue skies and wall to wall sunshine might have disappeared but that could not diminish the sight of 100 aircraft flying over London today to celebrate one hundred years of RAF operations. Every rooftop, building site and crane seemed to be alive with spectators eagerly anticipating ten minutes of noise and spectacle. Crowds started to gather at Waterloo Bridge a good hour before the clock struck one.

22 Typhoons mark the RAF’s 100th anniversary in style, seen here passing over the City of London

It was amazing to think that as the first helicopters reached the mall the Red Arrows were only just starting their flight along the route from Ipswich to London, via Chelmsford. It’s not often you get to see some of these aircraft in the skies, let alone over central London, so it was a real pleasure to watch. The RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft, the E3-D Sentry, Sentinel R1 and the soon to be retired Tornados were all pretty special. However, the highlight had to be the 22 Typhoons in an astonishing ‘100’ formation.

The photos are almost silhouettes and not really worth sticking up here, but I have included a few to give a sense of the occasion. Thank you to the 200+ aircrew and all those involved in creating this wonderful spectacle.

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Paddling along the Thames

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 7, 2018

The sporting smorgasbord on offer this weekend offers something for everyone, whether that be the opening stages of the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix and the World Cup quarter-final between England and Sweden. However, slipping under the radar a little is a rather interesting newcomer – the International Stand-up Paddle Board World Tour.

Michael Booth approaches the finish line at the 2018 London SUP Open Pro Thames Race

This is the first time that the world tour has come to London, giving Londoners a chance to see some of the world’s best paddle boarders in action. After London the world tour will move on to New York City, San Francisco and Paris.

Most of the activity this weekend is taking place at the City Paddle Festival at the Royal Victoria Docks but first up there was the small matter of the 2018 London SUP Open Pro Thames Race early this morning. The race took in a 4.5km stretch from Battersea Bridge to an impressive finish outside the Palace of Westminster, with victory claimed by Michael Booth.

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Exploring Gibraltar

Posted in Gibraltar by folkestonejack on June 29, 2018

Although the most talked about sights in Gibraltar are up on the rock, there is plenty to see at ground level. On our first day we traveled the length of Gibraltar on foot and by bus (all day hoppa fares are very reasonably priced at £2.50 for adults) to see as much as we could. It helps that the territory is only 4 square miles in its entirety and only 3.10 miles from one end to the other.

The Rock Hotel, built in 1932 and still going strong

Our starting point was the Hotel Rock, a 1930s landmark in its own right which has played its part in many episodes in the history of the territory. I could quite happily have whiled away many a hour sat on the terrace just watching ships come and go from the Bay of Gibraltar. It is located in a quiet part of town, overlooking the Botanic Gardens, but still only a ten minute walk from the bustle of Main Street. These are the highlights of our exploration, in the order that we covered them:

1. Trafalgar Cemetery

The small, beautifully tended, Trafalgar cemetery sits against the lower stretch of the Charles V defensive wall by the referendum gates. It was laid out in 1798 and referred to as South Ditch Cemetery, but in time acquired its more poignant name.

You might expect to find the place filled with the graves of men from the Battle of Trafalgar, but in fact there are only two – Lieutenant William Forster (20) from HMS Colossus and Captain Thomas Norman (35) from HMS Mars. Most of the burials from the battle took place at sea, while those who died from their wounds in the naval hospital were buried in another cemetery. In 1932 some of the tombstones of these men were brought here and set into the wall.

Grave of Lieutenant William Forster in Trafalgar Cemetery

A wander around the cemetery brings to light too many heartbreaking early deaths, mostly from the epidemics of fever that raged in Gibraltar in the early nineteenth century but also from other naval battles in the area. One grave contained two men who had been killed by the same shot on 23rd November 1810 while directing the howitzer boats in an attack on the enemy’s flotilla in Cadiz Bay. Their fellow officers from the station had the stone erected as a tribute of respect to two who were the brightest ornaments of their corps.

2. King’s Chapel

The King’s Chapel dates back to the Spanish era, having been established by the Franciscan order in 1560, but was taken over for the British Crown in 1704. Located next to the Convent, the official residence of the Governor of Gibraltar, this was the only church in which C of E services were held until the opening of the new Garrison Church (now known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity) in 1833.

It is quite something that the chapel is still standing after enduring an incredible cycle of wreck and repair through the many sieges of the eighteenth century and the devastation wrought by the explosion of the ammunition ship RFA Bedenham on 27th April 1951.

Stained glass image of King George VI in the King’s Chapel

It might not look like much from the street frontage but step inside and you can only marvel at the beautiful interior, regimental flags and military memorials. There are quite a mix of memorials, ranging from simple tablets remembering regimental dead to grand monuments for past governors. A marvelous stained glass window in the north transept depicts King George VI in the robes of the Order of the Garter.

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned are also well worth a stop as you head down Main Street.

3. Garrison Library

The Gibraltar Garrison Library was founded in 1793 by Captain Drinkwater, an inspired act to help encourage his fellow officers take up more wholesome activities than those on offer in other parts of the town. The success of the venture led to the construction of today’s library in 1804 and went on to provide a model for other garrison libraries around the empire. It’s another great survivor – I can’t imagine that there are many similar institutions still around (if any) and certainly not with collections as intact as here.

It’s a beautifully maintained space that thrives under the care of a small but dedicated team. Most importantly, it is a working library rather than a historic monument. Our tour guide, Chris, pointed out a recent donation that was being sorted for classification. I liked the display of historic artifacts from the library, such as an hourglass used to determine how long an officer could spend reading The Times before having to relinquish it.

The library holds an important research collection of material on the history of Gibraltar, including the complete run of the Gibraltar Chronicle from its inception in 1801. I can highly recommend the guided tours (weekly on Fridays at 11am) to get a little insight into this institution, though I will admit that, as a librarian, it is rare to find a library that doesn’t fascinate me in some way!

4. Gibraltar Museum

The small but delightful Gibraltar museum, offers some quite unexpected attractions in its eclectic collection. The most startling of these is an egyptian mummy and its wooden sarcophagus that had been found floating in the bay, debris from a ship wrecked whilst en route from Egypt to Europe.

The remains of a Moorish bath house in the basement, a terrific 1865 model of Gibraltar that fills an entire room and a charming collection of handmade plane and ship models were other highlights. I really hadn’t anticipated being quite so captivated by this place. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

5. Europa Point

A short hop on the number 2 bus took us out to Europa Point, the southernmost point of Gibraltar, with views across the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa. Strange as it is to say, this was the busiest spot that we visited in the territory with a steady stream of tour party coaches coming and going throughout our short stay.

It doesn’t take too long to wander around the area with views of the Europa Point Lighthouse (1841), the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, the Sikorski memorial and Harding’s Battery. The Shrine of Our Lady of Europe is also located nearby.

The lighthouse at Europa Point

At the time of our visit the first stages of construction for the new Europa sports facility were well under way while a nearby apartment block was nearing completion. The new sports complex will eventually provide a multipurpose sports hall, a smaller sports hall and large playing field which will be the home of Gibraltar’s Rugby Football Union, Cricket Association, Squash Association and Darts Association.

The plans appear to have taken account of concerns raised in response to an earlier design. The new buildings will not obscure the view of Harding’s battery and a second world war bunker on the site, currently standing in isolation, will be incorporated within the finished building.

6. 100 Ton gun

The last stop of the day brought us to the Napier of Magdala Battery to see the 100 ton gun, a massive weapon in its its day that took three hours notice to build up sufficient pressure to move. One for the slower moving targets!

Only two guns of this type survive survive (the other is at Fort Rinella in Malta) out of the four originally manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth. The active lifespan of the gun on Gibraltar was incredibly short – just 13 years. The original gun was installed in 1883 but by 1906 was considered obsolete.

The gun on display today was originally installed at Victoria Battery but was moved to Napier of Magdala Battery after the first 100 ton gun was wrecked during firing practice in 1898. Apparently locals were given a day’s notice of test firings with a recommendation to keep windows open and remove fragile objects from shelves.

The 100 ton gun at Gibraltar’s Napier of Magdala Battery

The modest admission price (£3 for an adult) gains you entry to the battery, the interior chambers (one offering a view of the hydraulic lift from the magazine) and the gun itself. It doesn’t take long to go round but it’s well worth a look.

Once we had completed our visit we headed back to our hotel, taking in a pleasant shortcut through the Alameda Botanic Gardens. A lovely end to a wonderful, if hot and tiring, day. I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by our first day – Gibraltar has far surpassed my expectations and proved to be every bit as fascinating as I’d hoped before we have even made it up, or inside, the rock.

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Touch down in Gibraltar

Posted in Gibraltar by folkestonejack on June 28, 2018

In my travels around Europe I have visited a couple of places that have laid claim to be the title of Gibraltar of the North (the fortress of Luxembourg and Suomenlinna in Finland) but had never actually made it to Gibraltar itself. Time to put this right…

A British Airways A319 arrives at Gibraltar airport

The trip started well, with an on-time flight and smooth landing at Gibraltar Airport. It’s not the busiest airport you will ever see – our flight was one of only five timetabled to arrive that day. However, it is one of the more interesting with an approach from way out in the Mediterranean Sea, steadily descending to a runway positioned between the rock and the border with Spain.

It is an impressive runway, stretching out across the isthmus and into the Bay of Gibraltar on land reclaimed during World War II using material blasted out during tunneling inside the rock. It is both a military airfield (RAF Gibraltar) and a commercial airport, handling around half a million passengers per year. Facilities have been upgraded in recent years with a spacious new terminal that offers one of the most scenic airport terraces anywhere.

Traffic queues build up while waiting for a British Airways flight to clear the runway

Our arrival meant a disruption to the daily life of the local population – the main road from the border to the centre of town crosses the runway. About 10-15 minutes before a flight arrives the barriers come down (not dissimilar to a level crossing on the railway) stopping cars and pedestrians from walking across. Sweeping vehicles go out to check and clean up the runway ahead of the inbound flight.

As soon as a flight has landed and taxied back to its stand the road re-opens. It’s quite strange seeing the queue of waiting traffic as you land and that spectacle looks just as impressive from the ground as up on the rock at one of the many vantage points. All of that is expected to change in early 2019 with the completion of a four lane tunnel at the eastern end of the runway.

The new tunnel would see traffic take a one and a half mile diversion from the border, around the runway and back to the roundabout on Winston Churchill Avenue by the Cross of Sacrifice. It’s not surprising to hear that pedestrians are less keen to substitute this for their 150 metre walk across the runway. The Ministry of Defence is understandably keen to stop people walking across but there have been suggestions that the current arrangement might remain.

A view of the runway, terminal building, border post and the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción

Although the set-up is unusual, this is not the only runway with a road across it. In 2007 my travels took me on a road across the Swiss air base at Meiringen but that had considerably less road traffic and many more cows! I gather that there is also an airport runway with a railway line crossing it (at Gisborne, New Zealand) which sounds even more curious.

Up on the rock there are plenty of vantage points to watch commercial flights operated by British Airways, Easyjet and Royal Air Maroc come and go from Gibraltar, though it is hard to beat the terrace next to the Great Siege Tunnels. On our trip we were also lucky enough to see a Royal Air Force Airbus A400M-180 (ZM408) follow one of the commercial flights out.

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Bank holiday sun atop the city

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on May 9, 2018

A couple of months ago I booked a table at one of the restaurants at 20 Fenchurch Street for my father’s 80th birthday, little suspecting that it would be a day of record breaking temperatures, beautiful blue skies and wall to wall sun. Perfect conditions for a lovely family occasion – a little wander round the Sky Garden followed by a leisurely meal as the sun set.

The view towards Canary Wharf from the Sky Garden

It was my first visit to the Sky Garden and I was impressed by the sights on offer, even if the feel of the space was more green airport concourse than public park to my mind. The outdoor terrace was closed throughout our time on floor 35 but even without this we still had the most wonderful views across the city and out to Canary Wharf (albeit with the shocking sight of a layer of pollution hanging over London).

The Sky Garden opened in January 2015 so my visit comes rather late in the day compared to most bloggers. It is interesting to see that the green element, such as it is, is a little more substantial than it appeared to the first visitors (the Evening Standard reported some users describing it as more of a “Sky Rockery”). It’s definitely worth a look though and a good deal easier to get up top now that the initial rush has subsided, though clearly still a very popular destination.

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The beauty of the blast furnace

Posted in Germany, Völklingen by folkestonejack on May 1, 2018

The town of Völklingen in Saarland is home to one of Europe’s most unusual tourist attractions – a preserved iron works which serves as an art gallery, museum and science centre. It’s an important historic monument, recognised as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1994 on account of its being the only intact example of an integrated ironworks in Europe and North America and the place where many technological innovations were first developed.

The origins of the complex can be traced back to the establishment of the first ironworks in 1873, though it was the entrepreneurial spirit and improvements introduced by the Röchling family from the 1880s that really established the long term success of the operation. Remarkably, enough remains from each stage of the site’s development to present a physical chronology of the evolution of pig-iron production. The site has been left as it appeared in 1986, when the blast furnaces were shut down, though the overall appearance is of an ironworks of the 1930s.

The view of the ironworks that greets you as you get off the train at Völklingen

The complex is easily reached by public transport from Trier with regional express trains taking around an hour to make the journey south and local services taking an extra twenty minutes on top of that.

I caught my first sight of the iron works from the platform and marveled at the monstrous tangle of chimneys, pipes and blast furnaces that filled the skyline. The photographs I had seen really did not do justice to the scale of the place and made it even harder to fathom how anyone could have had the foresight to preserve the entire complex, let alone open it up to visitors!

The extent of the visitor route through the site is really impressive – it’s a good 7km from start to finish. Along the way this takes you 27 metres above group to a 200m long platform where monorail cars once ran along the platform to supply the six blast furnaces with raw materials (each monorail car held approximately one tonne of coke or two and half tonnes of ore, sinter or scrap, operating at a speed of 3mph on the flat). To reach the platform involved climbing plenty of metal staircases, wearing hard-hats, but the effort is amply rewarded.

It gets even better – you can climb up to a 45 metre high observation deck at the top of the blast furnace group to see the terrific panoramic views of the complex and the industrial landscape in which it sits. I’m pretty scared of heights but the photographic opportunities helped me overcome this…

The 45m high observation deck at the top of the Völklingen ironworks offers stunning views

Once we had climbed the heights we headed back down to ground level and on to ‘The paradise‘. As you might already have guessed, the name plays on the hellish nature of the coking plant in its active life and the wildlife that has taken over since then.

A leisurely walk around the well signposted 1000m trail provides some interesting views of nature’s battle with the ironworks, as well as the gigantic machinery and narrow gauge locomotives that once kept everything moving in and out of the site. Once we had completed the circuit we returned to the starting point, in the blower hall, admiring the enormous wheel shaped blowers.

Some of the most poignant exhibits were the smallest and most human items displayed – such as the wooden shelter that the workers built to protect themselves from the dust in the sintering plant and the paper file recording the prisoners forced to work at the plant during the second world war. The terrible human cost was highlighted in one of the museum displays – of the 12,276 foreign workers who worked at the Rochling iron works between 1942 and 1944 around 250 died. Forty five were infants that had been born at Völklingen.

One of the figures from Ottmar Hörl’s Second Life – 100 workers

Overall, the time we spent exploring the site (following the route marked on the handy map they provided) were some of the most rewarding I have spent in any museum.

It was an absolute dream for industrial photography and took us a good three hours to explore, despite visiting in between exhibitions in the main space (during our visit we got to see a gallery of photographs from Banksy’s dismaland project and an exhibition of Ottmar Hörl’s mini worker sculptures distributeds across the site, but the next big exhibition about Queen Elizabeth II was not due to open until 19th May 2018).

At the time of our visit entry cost 17 euros per person, including all the exhibitions on offer. I kept having to pinch myself at the freedom on offer here – I can’t believe that we would ever have opened anything like this in the UK with our very cautious culture of health and safety!

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Trains around Trier

Posted in Germany, Trier by folkestonejack on May 1, 2018

Over the course of four days, between Saturday 28th April and Tuesday 1st May 2018, nine steam locomotives (along with historic electric and diesel locomotives) hauled more than 100 special services over a distance of 8,400 kilometres around Rheinland-Pfalz and into Luxembourg for ‘Dampfspektakel 2018’.

The event, organised by the federal state and its two regional railway operators, more than lived up to its billing as a spectacle. It was a joy to stand on the platforms at Trier Hauptbahnhof and see steam locomotives moving in all directions before getting anywhere near the more scenic stretches of line!

Pacific 01 202 (Henschel, 1937) hauls a mid-morning service from Trier to Saarbrücken through Taben on Monday 30th April 2018

An event of this scale, with all the challenges and liabilities involved, could only take place with the patronage of regional government. I am very thankful that they continue to offer such events to help draw in tourists and promote the wonderful sights in their region. It certainly succeeded on that front as far as I was concerned, introducing me to some lovely restaurants and remarkable sights during a stay in the area.

Unlike the two similar events I attended, in 2009 and 2014, I attempted to come up with a blend of spectacle and sightseeing that would keep my better half happy. The result was a terrific trip, taking in some well chosen photospots, but also impressive sights such as iron works at Völklingen, the roman remains of Trier and Stolzenfels Castle near Koblenz. A few early starts were planned but ditched following forecasts for some particularly wet mornings.

DB electric 103 113-7 hauls a special from Trier to Koblenz across the double-deck bridge at Bullay on Saturday 28th April 2018

I have a particular fondness for the class 103 electric locomotives that were a common sight on intercity trains as I was growing up, even if I only had one opportunity to see them for real in 1984. The elegance of a 103 once again hauling a rake of red and cream coaches, recalling the golden era of the Trans Europ Express, was something that I could not miss. Three of the opportunities that I picked out were designed to capture this sight at its best.

The first opportunity came from the riverside at Bullay, with DB electric 103 113-7 hauling a special across the Moselle using the double deck bridge at Bullay on the saturday morning. It couldn’t have been a better start – the sun gloriously illuminating the steep hillside vines of the Stein family behind the bridge as the train passed.

In the evening I returned to the same location, this time taking the zig zag path up the hillside to the top of the vines for a view down on the bridge. By this point the first rain had arrived, necessitating a little shelter amidst the trees as we waited. The arrival of the evening train from Koblenz was delayed by around half an hour, but luckily appeared before I had to abandon to catch catch my train back. Only later did I hear the sad news that the day’s schedule had been interrupted by a serious spectator injury at Trier.

DB electric 103 113-7 hauls a special from Koblenz to Trier across the double deck bridge at Bullay on the evening of Saturday 28th April 2018

Our next encounter with 103 113-7 came the next day. We took the train from Trier to Bullay, then switched to a much smaller shuttle for a six minute hop on the Traben-Trarbach branch line. A leisurely 45 minute walk along the cycle path from Reil, the first stop on the branch, brought us to a small stony beach with a terrific view of the 786 metre-long Pünderich Hangviadukt. It was the perfect spot for spectating and the sun even deigned to come out for the veteran electric – a vast improvement on the rain and gloom that had greeted us at the start of our walk.

As we left Pünderich behind we could see that all of the little beaches and vantage points had been filled by photographers, ready to snap the steam special due around midday. I took my chances with that at Bullay but the sun disappeared moments before the train crossed the bridge. Some you win, some you lose.

DB electric 103 113-7 hauls a special from Trier to Koblenz along the Pünderich Hangviadukt on Sunday 29th April 2018

On a handful of occasions during this event I simply enjoyed the spectacle, rather than photographing it, such as with the parallel morning run of trains to Saarbrücken and Nennig run parallel between Trier and Karthaus. At other times, the wisdom of standing on a bridge in a gale or in the pouring rain at a hilltop chapel, camera in hand, seemed suspect but the resulting pictures were usually sufficient reward. I might not have come away from this trip with a stackful of shots but I certainly had one or two that looked alright.

One night stays in Luxembourg City sandwiched our trip to Trier, giving us an opportunity to enjoy the sight of many regular service trains crossing the impressive Pulvermuhl and Pffafenthal viaducts. It seemed like a good way to start and finish the trip. Here’s hoping that this isn’t the last of the spectaculars and that we’ll be plotting another eclectic mix of sightseeing and railway photography in another few years.

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Farewell to Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 5, 2018

The end of the tour saw the slow drift of the group in the direction of the airport, though with a late night flight with Emirates I had plenty of time to kill. I mused on various options, but in the end settled on a relatively relaxed wander around Fort District to mop up the sights I missed on my first couple of days in the country followed by an afternoon of rail photography.

One of the most striking contrasts of my wanders came from a visit to the modern lighthouse overlooking the Indian Ocean. The lighthouse was unveiled on 2nd February 1951 to commemorate the commencement of work on the Colombo Port Development Scheme of 1950, a massive modernisation programme that saw the creation of multiple berths, transit sheds and warehouses. It was a significant milestone in the economic development of the country in the first few years of independence.

Monument to mark the Colombo Port Development of 1950

Today, that same stretch of land is the site of another massive project – Colombo International Finance City. As the name suggests this is not just any property development, it is quite literally the construction of an entirely new city on the doorstep of old Colombo, bankrolled as part of the Chinese government’s One Belt One Road initiative. It’s not the only major development in play – a game of global stakes is afoot with India and Japan investing in the development of Sri Lanka’s ports following the recent handover of Hambantota port to the Chinese on a 99 year lease.

A glance at the panels all along Chaithya Road show the incredibly ambitious plans which are intended to rival Dubai and Singapore. Tall buildings in the city already dwarf the colonial remnants, but this will change the city beyond recognition. The plans envisage the construction of a complete financial district, a marina, hotels, restaurants, apartment blocks, retail units, banks, embassies, museums, galleries and convention facilities.

At the moment the focus is on the $1.4 billion reclamation of the 269 hectares of land that will be needed for this project. The work continues 24 hours a day with completion is anticipated in June 2019. It was no surprise to learn that such a substantial project has proved controversial and the degree of dependence on Chinese finance has been heavily debated in the Sri Lankan parliament and beyond.

Hoardings promote the ambitious vision for the future of Colombo

In the afternoon I found myself staring at another new development project, this time the shell of the troubled Grand Hyatt Colombo which the papers have suggested has run out of funding. I didn’t spend much time pondering the controversies associated with this and instead focused on the railway line that runs in its shadow, through Koluptiya, alongside Marine Drive and on its way towards Mount Lavinia.

It turned out to be a splendid spot to watch passing trains, but only if you could ignore the almost constant invitations for a Tuk-Tuk tour of the city, offers of massages or horror stories about the number of suicides that had taken place here. The view of the fishermen trying their luck in the Indian Ocean made an interesting foreground to the line, though these were only ever going to be record shots as the skies had already clouded over.

Class S10 railcar 879 heading away from Koluptiya

Over an hour or two, I managed to photograph a couple of railcars (S8 and S10) and one loco hauled service (M4) before I had to head back to pick up my ride to the airport. In typical fashion when I actually wanted a Tuk Tuk ride there were none to be found, but it was an interesting enough walk up through Galle Face Green and back to my hotel in Fort District.

One of my last impressions of the country was the most surprising – an encounter with the friendliest immigration officer I have ever chanced upon who chatted amiably about the highlights of my trip. Sometimes it is the little moments like this that really stay with you. On making my way airside I was pleased to discover that my flight was on time whereas the same flight 24 hours earlier had left some 20 hours late. Time to swap 36 degree heat for the deep freeze of London…

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Steam to Colombo Fort

Posted in Colombo, Kadugannawa, Kandy, Rambukkana, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 4, 2018

The last day of the tour saw us travel seventy-six miles from Kandy to Colombo Fort on a busy public holiday. Across the country celebrations were taking place to mark the 70th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, something we had seen for ourselves in the morning as marching bands started to make their way into the city centre. It wasn’t entirely clear if any extra trains would be running but most of the services we saw looked as packed as ever.

On arrival at Kandy station at we found our two steam locomotives sat outside the shed and not attached to the stock. AS all the trains seemed to be running late it was no surprise to hear that our departure had been pushed back an hour to 2.30pm. At least it gave us another opportunity to photograph the beautiful signal gantry at Kandy. Inevitably the best light fell on the service trains, but it was a marked improvement on the murky conditions that had greeted us some days earlier.

Steam under the gantries of Kandy

A walk down the track to a position just beyond the gantry gave us a great vantage point to admire the variety of locomotive classes in action today, including an S12 diesel multiple unit, two classes of diesel electric locomotives (M5C and M6), two classes of diesel-hydraulic locomotive (W2A and W3) and a class Y Hunslet shunter. Most of us were looking pretty clean and refreshed after a morning chilling or taking in the city but many a white shirt proved a good litmus test for the speed at which dirt gets sprayed around on these trips!

After taking a photograph of a false departure we boarded our train and set off at 2.45pm. The plan was as simple as it could be – we would run as fast as the pathing would let us be, apart from a scheduled photostop at the Lion’s Mouth. In reality the complexities of our train’s appearance on the network were amply demonstrated by the many stops needed to allow the service trains to overtake us. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of a couple of these to squeeze in extra runpasts at Kadugannawa (4.15pm) and Rambukkana (5.32pm) on the way to Colombo Fort (8.05pm).

Most of all, the run in to Colombo Fort gave us a chance to soak up the atmosphere and absorb the detail of the stations, signals and even the wonderful weigh bridges along the route. Our speed was pretty limited for a long stretch, dictated by the speed restriction signs enforcing a limit of 25km/h due to weak rails and sleepers, but once we got clear of this section we were able to pick up speed and got up to 65 km/h where we had an uninterrupted run.

One of the many warning signs along the first part of our route

In the cab for today’s run there was one driver and three firemen (one past fireman and two trainees) so they could keep at it all the time. Although inexperienced (with only two previous trips behind them) they seemed to be doing a good job, improvising where they needed to and giving us a superb run into Colombo Fort. It was pretty splendid to be riding west into the setting sun, towards the Indian Ocean, with cinders flying past the windows and locals crowded at the lineside. The air thick with smoke as we thundered towards Colombo.

At Polgahawela we could see photographers in tuk-tuks chasing the train, which seemed a rather uneven battle, whilst at another stretch workers packed into an open truck cheered and waved as we passed. Somewhere else a family of three perched precariously on a motorbike waved as they rode in parallel.

More often than not it looked as though ordinary folk had heard about the train whistling in the distance and come to the lineside to see it pass. It certainly seemed to add something to the celebratory vibe of the day. In all these snapshots of lives intersecting with our train, as seen from the carriage windows, we were reminded of the final line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem about the views from a railway carriage ‘Each a glimpse and gone forever!’

A quickly arranged run past between service trains at Kadugannawa

Even when the colourful skies gave way to darkness there were still many marvelous sights to enjoy on the approach to Colombo, from the fishermen in the wetlands using lamps to illuminate their spots to the sight of the Lotus Tower specially illuminated for national day. However, it was just enough to sit in the dark carriage illuminated only by the streaks of light from passing trains and stations, along with the constant spark show.

It has been a very enjoyable tour in good company, even if one of our number did voice the opinion that it would make a great psycho-pathology field trip! The weather might have been less than kind at times, but it did at least clear the skies, giving us bursts of brilliant blue rather than the haze that apparently dogged the previous tour here. Bernd thought that we should also thank the Chinese engineers – for it was their railcar breaking down that gave us such brilliant photo opportunities when we had to push back rather than forward a few days ago!

A considerable degree of effort has gone in to making this tour possible, from the way that the railway staff across the network have found ways to make things work for us (often at short notice) to the supreme efforts of the crew handling the locomotives with limited experience and equipment. Most of all though, it is Bernd’s years of effort and incredible organisational skills that have delivered the most astonishing photographic opportunities to us. I for one am very appreciative of everything that has contributed to making this such a wonderful trip and look forward to my next FarRail adventure!

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Beyond the boundary

Posted in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Talawakele by folkestonejack on February 3, 2018

Our re-arranged morning saw us take a bus to Talawakele at 6am, ready to take advantage of the glorious morning sun. The first few shots around the station were enough evidence of how good the decision to change the plan had been but better was to come.

A morning glint at Talawakele

A short walk across the railway bridge, over the waters of the Kotmale Oya, gave us a wonderful view that just kept improving the further away you walked. Up close you had a shot of the town with a pretty splendid distance signal but as you walked back the mountains came into view along with some lovely reflections in the water. A couple of double-headed runpasts over the bridge had everyone smiling and Bernd joked that we could go back to the hotel now, the best shots of the day in the bag…

On our return to Talawakele we boarded our train and headed off in the direction of Hatton (8:53), once again passing through the tea fields and small communities on each side of the line. An extended stay at one spot a little further on, not too far from the small halt at Derryclare, saw us descend upon a community cricket match. Play had just finished but we were able to persuade some of the team to return to the field to give us some impressive foreground for a couple of runpasts. If you got the shot right, as some did, you could have got the batsman striking a six just as the train passed. Needless to say my photographic efforts don’t capture this!

Colonial imports: cricket and steam

After continuing under the midday sun we found ourselves at a spot just beyond Kotagala where we tried a shot that required a little climb. It didn’t really work out for me but paid back the effort some had made with wet feet, muddy clothes and some leaches! We spent a while shunting up and down the line around Kotagala, getting out of the way of service trains that needed to overtake or cross us, only leaving for good in mid afternoon (14:16). The increasing cloud cover, with only small breaks for the sun, certainly backed up the re-arrangement of our activities for the day. If we had stuck to the original schedule we would have missed all the best conditions for photography.

A few more shots from the hillsides (14:35-14:45) were followed by a fast run to Hatton (arriving 15:05). The choice of continuing on by bus or by train seemed a fairly simple one – the bus would take two hours to reach Kandy whereas the train would take four and a half hours (our two steam locomotives would need to take water first, around 30 minutes per loco, and wouldn’t get a clear run). The faster drive by bus had its downsides – our driver had an interesting line in overtaking on blind left hand bends (think it was better in the fog when we couldn’t see how bad the driving was!).

Token exchange at Kotagala

We finally reached Kandy just after 6pm and were soon enjoying what I can only describe as the blandest meal of my life – a bowl of lukewarm tomato soup followed up a rather tasteless carbonara pasta dish with pomegranate seeds – served up by some of the most hopeless waiters I have encountered! A bit like theatre performances that are so bad that they become unmissable, this was one meal that could only be appreciated for its comedic value. Thankfully, no-one seemed to have agreed to their requests for credit card pin numbers to be disclosed…

My day finally came to an end with a session of night photography at Kandy which involved working around the late night trains and empties moving in/out of the station. It was a lively experience but I think we were all happy that we could return to our beds for a good nights sleep before too long.

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Quick thinking

Posted in Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 2, 2018

An early start saw us arrive at Diya Talawa at 7 o’clock, just beating our train by ten minutes. Our loco, class B2b no. 213, looked splendid in the early morning light but before we could start our day in earnest we needed to let a service train overtake us. The intended plan unraveled rather quickly when the service train developed a problem, blocking the line.

Some splendid quick thinking saw the plan turned on its head. Instead of climbing uphill towards the summit we would head in the opposite direction and give them time to sort out the faulty diesel multiple unit.

Some early morning sun on the return to Diya Talawa

After rolling back a short distance we started our climb back to Diya Talawa, attempting three wonderfully atmospheric shots as the sun made short work of the morning mist. I lined up a lovely shot of a local family, sitting on a rock to watch proceedings, but the patience of my foreground was shorter than mine and they disappeared before our train returned. Some you win, some you lose!

The frustration of missed opportunities dogged us through the morning. After passing back through Diya Talawa (8:40) we walked along the track to a grand curve. It was one of those spots that would reward a little effort to get the most panoramic vista.

I followed a few others along a path up the hillside, on stepping stones over a little stream and then made the scramble up the rocks to gain some height. The view was splendid but three attempts to match the passage of the train with the breaks in the cloud (9:00-10:00) failed miserably. The best we got was the diesel running in isolation in sun – not the shot that many had hoped for. Still, at least I wasn’t one of the poor souls who tried an alternative route through boggy ground… soggy feet for a shot in shade must have seemed like a poor exchange!

Diesel in the sun at Diya Talawa

On our arrival at Haputale (10:13) we found the platforms packed with school children. At first we assumed that they were waiting for the service train scheduled to overtake us here but they were still on the platform when it departed. It dawned on us that they had come to see the steam loco – clearly a relatively rare event.

The loco needed to take on water here but it looked as though the water crane could no longer be turned. The solution was ingenious – the crew procured a piece of guttering that some locals took off a house under construction. The makeshift watering facilities did the job and were on our way just over an hour later (11.22).

Improvised watering facilities at Haputale

The afternoon took us from the sun of Haputale to the mists of Pattipola, with the usual back and forth between stations to get out of the way of service trains crossing or overtaking us. There were plenty of memorable moments along the way – a school sports day taking place next to the track at Idalgashinna, a shot that required standing on a stack of sleepers covered in ants and a photospot above a tunnel mouth abandoned after the discovery of a large nest of bees.

The cloud had closed right in as we reached Pattipola (17:02) and left us scratching our heads for a moment as we tried to work out which direction we needed to walk through the mist to find our buses. Overall, I think we have been quite lucky again. Although we didn’t have much luck getting our train in sun it could have been an awful lot worse. At one point it hammered down when the train set back but our photo spot didn’t see a drop of water!

In the clouds on the line between Haputale and Idalgashinna

Once we reached our hotel there was a discussion about alternatives to the planned schedule and near unanimous approval for the scrapping of night shots in favour of an early start to take advantage of the best conditions of the day (according to the forecasts). Let’s hope this pays off…

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The Demodara loop and other delights

Posted in Bandarawela, Demodara, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 1, 2018

I’m not sure where the threatened storms are but I’m glad they are keeping away. In fact, conditions were quite the opposite. On our arrival at Demodara this morning, around 8am, we were even treated to a spell of blue skies and sun. I wouldn’t exactly say that I made the best use of them at our first photospot but the opportunity was there…

Class B2b no. 213 departs from Demodara Station as a track ganger looks on

Demodara is one of the more interesting spots on the route. At first glance it looks like a pretty country station but step over to the other side of the forecourt and you see that a 414 foot long tunnel runs underneath the station (approximately 100 feet below). This was our first glimpse of the spiral that allows the line to manage the dramatic change in elevation.

A train climbing from Badulla will cross the valley over the Badulu Oya river by means of a 210 foot long iron girder bridge and then enter the 414 foot long Tunnel no. 42, passing underneath Demodara Station. On emerging from the tunnel the train completes a 360 degree loop around the hill before arriving at the station. It’s a terrific engineering feat for its time that laid the way to the official opening of the final section of the Uva Railway on 5th February 1924.

In practical terms the loop takes sufficient time that you can photograph a train crossing the valley and still have time to photograph it arriving at the station. Needless to say, we took full advantage of this. On top of that the well tended station, opened in 1921, is very photogenic in its own right. I’m sure its appearance has changed little in its 96 year history although I noted little signs of the ingenuity that keeps this railway going on a tight budget with a lamp shade cleverly fashioned from a bottle.

Once again the use of the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet provided a marvelous demonstration of the continued application of the system for single line working (originally invented in 1878 and long since vanished in most other places).

Tea-pickers in the hillside plantation at Demodara

We spent a good while at Demodara, taking a variety of shots around the bridge and station for almost two hours (8.45-10.30), before heading up the hillside to a spot among the tea plants of the Demodara Tea Estate for a couple of scenic runpasts (11:00-11:15). Bernd had arranged the hire of three tea-pickers to work in just the right spot for our photography, providing a really neat touch. None of us had quite anticipated their Adidas branded uniforms though – a long way from the traditional outfits you usually associate with tea pickers!

After leaving Demodara behind we headed uphill towards Ella (11:45), passing over the famous nine-arch bridge. Once a service train had overtaken us (a diesel hauled mixed train with freight cars, regular passenger carriages and an observation coach) we set back for the bridge (12:12). We had already seen how popular a tourist spot this was on our way through with around a hundred people at the Ella end of the bridge taking photographs and plenty more hiking along the lineside (signs at the platform ends at Ella and at either end of the bridge prohibit walking along the track but are largely ignored).

Class B2b no. 213 crosses Nine Arch Bridge

The 400 foot long and 100 foot tall bridge, the largest viaduct on the railway in Sri Lanka, was constructed at Gotuwala in 1917 to link the two mountains on the line between Bandarawela and Badulla. It’s another impressive example of British engineering, not least because of the hard to reach worksite and limitations of the equipment available. In his superb book Essays on Ceylon Railways (184-1964) Hemasiri Fernando points out that the construction materials had to be transported by pack bulls for the entire period of construction!

After two runpasts over the bridge (12.30-12.45) we continued on towards Bandarawela, passing through Ella (13.03) and Heel-Oya (13.20) en route. Another runpast on the approach to Bandarawela (14.05) was followed by a lengthy stop at the station whilst we waited for a train to cross. This was no problem – the station was fascinating and deserved a good explore.

Arrival at Bandarawela

Along with the by now familiar historic equipment and the lovingly maintained gardens that we have seen at most stations we found that Bandarawela’s platform included an aquarium; a framed faded picture of a Baureihe 103; some helpful posters showing a complete class-by-class history of Sri Lanka’s railway locomotives and units; and one of the most beautiful wooden departure boards we have seen so far. Opposite the platform we could also see a G2 class Bo-Bo diesel-electric shunter (no. 535) – one of eight in its class (North British Locomotive Co., 1950). Just when we thought we had seen it all a member of the station staff came out of his office ringing a large brass bell to announce the imminent arrival of the next train!

After the service train (a S12 unit) had passed through we continued on our way towards Hapitale. The clouds seemed ever darker as we progressed whilst the distant rumble of thunder threatened. Nevertheless, the conditions gave us the opportunity for some moody shots and certainly hadn’t deterred local onlookers – it was lovely seeing a family of young railfans watching in awe atop a stack of wooden sleepers here and at a tunnel just after Diya Talawa two kids could be seen running back and forth at the top of the tunnel mouth enjoying the spectacle (especially being clouded in steam!).

A moody shot on the line between Bandarawela and Diya Talawa

On our arrival at Haputale (16:57) we called it a day and boarded the buses for the drive back to our hotel. It was good timing as the mist was closing in fast. The forecast from the meteorological office for tomorrow sounds pretty dire with the promise of heavy rain (75mm) accompanied by thunderstorms in mid afternoon. Yikes!

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Timewarp

Posted in Bandarawela, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 31, 2018

The reward at the end of a long drive from Pattipola was a stay at the Bandarawela Hotel, an incredible colonial survivor built in 1893 which has been spared significant alteration in the years that followed. Stepping inside the hotel it felt as though the clock had been wound back a century.

My room at the Bandarawela Hotel

It was not hard to imagine the hotel’s past life as a tea planters club as I wandered the balconies, relaxed in the lounge and enjoyed a drink in the bar. The experience extended to the rooms with interior decoration straight out of the 1930s (along with the light switches, plumbing and just about everything else). A bolted door in the bathroom was apparently once used by the staff to bring hot water to guests for their evening baths!

Climbing into the clouds

Posted in Great Western, Nanu-Oya, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 31, 2018

It would have been easy enough to believe that workmen had been hammering nails into the roof all night but I knew full well that it had been the rain. The BBC forecast is one of unmitigated doom for the next seven days – heavy rain, thunderstorms and the works. It was all too credible from what we could see on the ground and the reports in the local press about localised flooding in the Nuwara Eliya area (where we are currently staying). Some of the areas flooded have been experiencing a drought for the past few months, so our timing has been impeccable!

Station sign at Nanu-Oya

An early start ensured that we reached Nanu-Oya nice and early (7.30) and our train departed just a quarter of an hour later, rolling back to the station at Great Western. The name sounds as though it should have a railway connotation, though it actually comes from the nearby mountain. The conditions were also surprisingly good with blue skies and a little sun for our photographic efforts (a failed runpast, runpast and false departure) though things were slowed a little by the need for some impromptu repairs.

The usual pattern of setting off, rolling back and then departing for real continued today to allow us to work around the packed service trains into hill country. In that sense we only really left Great Western just after 10am. Thankfully, our train was not quite so much of a squeeze today with additional seating added to the crew compartment in the form of a station bench from Nanu-Oya (I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw the bench being lifted off the station, across the tracks and into the train!).

Extra seating for the train…. a station bench!

Our run up the line gave us the opportunity to take some photographs from the hillside, standing among the tea plants and looking out over the plantations. One of the spots, in the Kelani Valley Plantation (Glassaugh Estate), offered a stunning view of our train crossing a girder bridge over a waterfall with tea plantations on both sides. It was only a pity that I followed the water drainage channel on the way down rather than the much easier path and staircase! After we were done we headed back to Nanu-Oya, arriving at 1pm.

It’s not hard to see why many think the line is among the world’s most scenic with its views of the mountains, tea plantations and waterfalls. Most of the trains we passed in hill country were packed to standing with tourists rather than locals and tickets for seats in the reserved carriages disappear quickly during the peak holiday season. Our journey up the line might have been considerably slower but gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the scenery without those hassles and set foot in some of the equally lovely stations a little off the main tourist trail.

Class B2b no. 213 (1922) crosses a bridge over the Kelani Valley Plantation (Glassaugh Estate)

The station at Nanu-Oya is wonderfully atmospheric and well maintained, perhaps no wonder given its proximity to one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions. It is a historic treasure trove with many features that can probably be traced back to its opening in 1885 such as the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet system. Later additions include the turntable which dates to 1957 (a manufacturer’s plate shows that it was made by the Carlisle engineering firm of Cowans Sheldon and Co).

The entrance to the station has a marvelous wooden board listing the next trains due into the station, each with a little clock to indicate the time, and around the stations you can see signs that feel as though they come from a different age stating ‘partaking of meals brought from outside prohibited within‘ and ‘liquor served to railway passengers only’.

An invite to take a look in the signal box was most welcome and gave a wonderful illustration of how well the traditional signalling has been maintained across the network on a relatively restrained budget. I wouldn’t have thought the place out of keeping with a historic signal box on a preserved railway but here it was part of a functioning and busy main line! I was happy to give the team a little thank you for their time but I have a feeling it might be the most lucrative signal box on any network…

The view from the signal box at Nanu-Oya…

.. and how that appears in the track plan

Our afternoon gave us another opportunity to take a shot among the tea plantations before heading straight on to Ambewela, discovering in the process just how low the cloudbase is today. We had a moment or two to explore whilst we waited for a service train to overtake us, but since everything was shrouded in cloud didn’t want to stray too far. It seemed appropriate that one of the street leading up to the station was called World’s End Road! We set off again just after 4pm, reaching Pattipola, the highest station in Sri Lanka, a quarter of an hour later.

The cloud was even denser at Pattipola but that didn’t deter hordes of local children from turning up to see our steam locomotive – clearly not a frequent occurrence. Meanwhile, Bernd, our tour leader was seen disappearing into the fog armed with an umbrella trying to find a photo spot!

Despite the foggy conditions we still managed a shot of a token exchange, two runpasts at a semaphore signal beyond the station and another two runpasts at a tight spot in the forest beyond that. As the day came to an end the rain returned. On another day it might been the last straw, but given the severity of the forecasts I thought we’d all had a pretty lucky escape.

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Rain, leeches and a loco failure

Posted in Nawalapitiya, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 30, 2018

The sound of shunting might not be everyone’s idea of a great wake up call, but for me it was hard to fault the terrific sights and sounds of the railway station at in Nawalapitiya available from the balcony of the Jayabima Grand. Admittedly, I might have liked a room with glass in the window frames but I guess you can’t always get the luxuries in life!

The view from the platform at Nawalapitiya

It was raining steadily as we waited for our bus pick-up for the short run to the station and the mist seemed to be clinging with some determination to the hill tops. Everything suggested that we might be in for a difficult day of photography from the outset and a little dog seemed to capture that gloomy prospect perfectly when he cocked his leg to spray a microphone positioned by one of our number. If we managed to come away from the day with something decent it would be a very pleasant surprise.

I was perhaps more pessimistic than I should have been. There were some surprising moments of morning sunlight among the rain but it proved impossible to time our runpasts to take advantage of them (as usual, our movements were dictated by the timetable of service trains). Just occasionally the conditions worked in our favour, such as a shot with our steam locomotive passing underneath a pedestrian bridge filled with umbrella carrying commuters, but more often than not it was hard work for little reward.

Umbrellas at Nawalapitiya

It took a little while to get going – when we arrived at the station we discovered that our two locos were coupled together, facing each other, so a little re-marshalling was required. The plan today was to run with the class B2b no. 213 (Vulcan Foundry 3555/1922) up to Nanu-Oya.

Our station photography complete, we squeezed into a single carriage and set off from Nawalapitiya (8.40) heading deeper into the rain. Progress up the line was slow but steady, taking us to Inguruoya (8.55), Galboda (9.10), Watawala (10.05) and then on to Rozelle (10.57). The timings are more than a little deceptive as we sometimes arrived at a station, crossed with a local train, rolled back to a photo position, photographed the runpast, then returned to the station. A little distance can take quite a while!

In the worst of the rain we were mad enough to try a photo position on a hilltop overlooking a sweeping curve in the track. Normally we have to time the runpasts to catch the sun but here we had to time them for the moments where the mist thinned out sufficiently to reveal the landscape! A later shot that morning saw us standing utterly saturated in the forest, desperately trying to protect our cameras as thunder cracked around us and the rain poured. It was depressing that the forecast suggested we had two more days of this ahead.

The classy logo of Ceylon Government Railways (CGR)

After a welcome hour of respite at Hatton (13.20-14:30) we continued up the line. The next stop, Kotagoda, would prove to be as far as we we could go – our loco had a problem. Things seemed to have gone awry at the last stop, though the exact scenario proved hard to pin down. The facts were simple – there was now no water in the boiler and the fire was out.

Plan B was to lighten the load and run using our second locomotive – the class B1d no. 340 (“Fredrick North”, Robert Stephenson 7155/1944) – back towards Hatton. After re-marshaling the train we left Kotagoda at 16.40 and managed to squeeze in three decent photo stops before the light disappeared. Our train finally pulled in to Hatton at 6pm.

The day had one final kicker for me as I discovered that the wet weather had created the perfect conditions for us to discover the dubious delights of leeches. I’m sure that the local population are quite used to them, but to this squeamish westerner it was an unwanted experience! One had managed to attach itself to me and bitten through my sock. The results were painless but not pretty. The leech check now became a regular part of the post-photo stop routine…

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Through the Lion’s Mouth

Posted in Kadugannawa, Kandy, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 29, 2018

The complications of arranging photo stops on the main line were highlighted by our arrival at one of the most memorable locations – the Lion’s Mouth, a distinctive rock that overhangs the line at the Kadugannawa end of the Moragalla Tunnel.

The Lion’s Mouth is a spot that has fascinated photographers since the completion of the tunnel in 1866 and looks remarkably unchanged from a photograph in the British Library from the 1870s. Our timings allowed just one attempt at the shot (12.10) before we had to clear the line for an express, arriving at Kadugannawa ten minutes later. Once the express had passed through we were able to roll back down to the Lion’s Mouth for a second attempt.

B1d class steam locomotive no. 340 at the the Lion’s Mouth

Once this was all complete we were able to return to Kadugannawa and take a look round the National Railway Museum during a lull in the action. It’s a compact museum based around a goods shed with some locomotives and rolling stock displayed on the adjacent sidings (admission 500 rupees) with slightly forbidding no photography signs attached to just about everything.

The museum collection includes the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the country – an E1 class tank locomotive (no. 93) built by Dubs & Co in 1898. It seems astonishing to think that this was still in industrial use, in the mills, as late as the 1980s. Other exhibits on outdoor display include some interesting looking railcars, an early railway carriage (no. 4173), a class S3 diesel-hydraulic multiple unit (no. 613), a class M1 diesel-electric loco (no. 560) built by Brush in 1955, a diesel electric 0-4-0 shunter (no. 500) built by Armstrong Whitworth in 1934 and a N2 narrow gauge diesel (no. 732).

As we wandered the consist of our train was re-arranged to give us a brake van at the end of the wagons when the diesel and other carriages are taken off during runpasts. Our onward journey resumed in mid-afternoon (14:50), taking us through Pilimathalawa (15:00), where we were all astonished to see a maroon Routemaster in public service, then on to Peradeniya Junction (15:10).

Steaming through Peradeniya Junction

The triangular junction station at Peradeniya has three signal cabins to co-ordinate movements and you can see why they would be needed. Historically, this has always been one of the busiest spots on the Sri Lankan railway network and it certainly demonstrated that during our stay.

There are some lovely photographic opportunities here, including a beautifully positioned Buddha at the end of the station platform and a semaphore signal gantry. Unfortunately, the number of trains through the station made it difficult to make the most of this – when we arrived we had three trains cross so by the time we were able to attempt our shot with the gantry the sun had slipped behind the clouds and looked quite unlikely to return! I suspect the crew will have been relieved that the light had disappeared as their shift started at 11.30pm last night…

Our departure from the junction (16:39) left us with the very short run in to Kandy’s rather gorgeous art deco station (16:51). The day had a little more to give with a couple of false departures in rather dark and moody conditions, but after that we headed off to dinner and our hotels in Nawalapitiya.

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Runpast at Rambukkana

Posted in Rambukkana, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 29, 2018

The leisurely start we enjoyed yesterday was long forgotten as we rose in the early morning to prepare for a 4.30am departure from Colombo on our two tour buses. In truth most of us had enjoyed little sleep on account of an all night disco somewhere in the neighbourhood and the hotel maintenance team’s unfathomable conclusion that 12.30am was a good time to start some drilling.

It might well have been an early start for us but the traffic on the road suggested that it was a part of the daily routine for many commuters trying to avoid the traffic hell of rush hour in Colombo. The service buses on their way in to the city centre already looked full to standing. In the meantime we had a cardboard-boxed breakfast from the hotel to enjoy – what delights might be in store? The groans from around the bus suggested that I might not like the answer. I was somehow still surprised to see that the hotel had outdone themselves by serving up cold chips and a pot of mayonnaise!

A run past the water tower at Rambukkana

If our early start had left us bleary eyed then we ought to have spared a thought for the crews who left the shed with our empty coaching stock at 1.30am so that we could make an early start from Rambukkana, where the main line towards Badulla really begins its climb. I’d like to say that we were brimming with confidence for the day ahead, but after seeing the loco struggle on a first run past the signalbox (at 7.40am) we wondered how on earth it would cope with the gradients ahead…

A short walk up the line brought us to the next photo spot with a lovely view of palm trees and traditional telegraph poles, but we were not the first to reach the location. A friendly cow had been tethered in farmland adjacent to the line and the rope allowed it just enough scope to reach the perfect spot for the shot. You couldn’t turn your back without suddenly discovering that you were the next source of his/her curiosity! It was no fan of steam and didn’t stick around for the run past.

B1d class steam locomotive no. 340 passes the signals outside Kadigamuwa Station

After another burst of photography we headed up the line at 9.25, reaching the next stop at Kadigamuwa fifteen minutes later. Our train had to wait here for service trains to cross but there was time enough first for a couple of runpasts at a signal just beyond the station. The conditions were beautiful – blue skies, sun and lovely semapahore signals. Once the line was clear we continued on to Ihala Kotte.

Once again a service train needed to overtake us, so we walked back on ourselves to the exit from tunnel 5a and waited for it to pass before attempting a run past. Attempt is the operative word here – as the loco emerged from the tunnel the carriages decoupled and ended up standing stationery immediately in front of us! This didn’t matter too much to the stills photographers but was less enthusiastically received by those among us recording video. After a more successful repeat we returned to Ihala Kotte and crossed with a mixed freight headed towards Colombo (11.35) before continuing on our way (11.38).

The morning really brought home the organisational challenge of arranging opportunities for photography here. The runpasts have to be deftly interwoven with the schedule and this gets an awful lot more complicated when train delays are factored in. I’m sure that we are make life incredibly difficult for everyone on the line today so I’m incredibly appreciative for what we have been able to do. In many places they wouldn’t even consider attempting this!

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Colombo Fort to Dematagoda

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 28, 2018

A short run in the afternoon with our class B1d steam locomotive (no. 340) took us from Colombo Fort to a spot just beyond Maradana with a few runpasts along the way. It was a good opportunity to get our rusty photographic skills back into gear and reacquaint ourselves with the art of clambering in an out of carriages at the unlikeliest of spots. I think our guards, more accustomed to the sedate pace of the luxurious Viceroy Special train, could already see that we were a little bit mad…

Our destination for the afternoon – Dematagoda

A walk along the trackside to Dematagoda brought us first to the former coaling stage, now home to a number of rusting steam locomotives, then on to the workshops and running shed. There were plenty of steam survivors here, though perhaps the most special were the narrow gauge class V1 Sentinel steam railcars sitting outside Shop 26, albeit looking rather sad in their overgrown and derelict state.

Other delights to be found at Dematagoda included class C1a Garratt no. 346 (Beyer Peacock, 1946) at the coaling stage; class B1e no. 352 (R. Stephenson, 1948) now almost completely hidden by lineside vegetation between the coaling stage and running shed; a line of J2a and J2b narrow gauge locomotives (1912-1913) alongside the running shed; and a 5’ 6” gauge Colombo Port Commission Locomotive (an 0-4-0ST built by Hunslet in 1899) inside Shop 26.

Dumped class A3a locomotive no. 277 (Hunslet, 1929) at Dematagoa Coaling Stage

Aside from the relics from the steam age it was interesting to see just how busy the approach to Colombo Fort was and the wide variety of motive power around. In just a few hours we had seen diesel multiple units from three classes (S8, S11 and S12), diesel electric locomotives from 6 classes (M2, M4, M6, M7, M9 and M10), one class of diesel-hydraulic locomotive (W3) and a pair of class Y Hunslet shunters.

The Sri Lankan railway fleet come from a variety of manufacturers so there was plenty of differences in styling and few looked like anything you might see on British shores (the exception, the class M9 diesel, was a dead-ringer for a British class 67 which makes sense you discover that both were manufactured by Alstom). Most classes are relatively small in number so you have a good chance of seeing a good mix on a trip to Sri Lanka.

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Stepping through time

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 28, 2018

Our introduction to Sri Lanka’s railway marvels began with a tour of Ratamalana Railway Workshops, a railway complex that was considered to be state of the art when it was constructed in 1935. At its peak the 77 acre site was served by a workforce of 4,000 skilled and unskilled workmen performing scheduled repairs on the entire rolling stock of the railway every few years. It’s still an impressive sight today and loaded with character.

Around the sprawling site we found various narrow and broad gauge survivors from the steam age, including: a gorgeous looking C1a class Garratt no. 347 (1946, Beyer Peacock); D2 class no. 21 (1914, R. Stephenson) as a stationary boiler; J1 class no. 220 (1925, Hunslet); L1b class no. 203 (1920, Hunslet). In one of the workshops we found B1a class 4-6-0 locomotive 251 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (1928, Beyer Peacock) in bits. I don’t think any of us really believed the suggestion that it will be re-assembled and running in a couple of weeks!

In many ways it felt as though we were stepping through time with so many features and signs that quite possibly pre-date Sri Lankan independence in 1948. It was interesting to see Gledhill-Brook Time Recorders in the offices too. However, it wasn’t all frozen in time – along the way we saw the 2 stroke diesel, 4 stroke diesel and diesel hydraulic workshops plus plenty of quirky decorative additions from mermaids to fishermen.

It was a pleasure to take a look around this impressive site, albeit without its usual hum of activity. The workshops were eerily quiet with just a handful of workers on hand as we wandered through. However, there were plenty of signs of the ghost workforce with clothes strung up on lines everywhere you looked.

It gave me a little sense of how the big workshops of the steam age in the UK might once have looked. It’s certainly easier to get a feel for that here than when you are wandering around the shopping mall that was once Swindon works!

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Steam in Sri Lanka

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 27, 2018

The age of real steam may be almost over, but authentic looking recreations of the everyday sights for past generations are still possible in many places around the world where the infrastructure has yet to be completely modernized. Sri Lanka offers just such an opportunity with a wonderful variety of semaphore signals, traditional gantries and beautifully maintained stations. This will be the setting for our steam hauled mixed freights and passenger trains before much of this gets swept away.

Over a ten day stretch I will be participating in the madness of a FarRail photo charter that will take us deep into hill country and probably test the sanity of most. Our motive power will come from two locomotives, B2b 213 (Vulcan Foundry 3555/1922) and B1d 340 (“Frederick North”, Robert Stephenson 7155/1944).

Our locomotives, B2b 213 and B1d 340, outside the running shed at Kandy

The path to picture perfection is rarely smooth. You can pretty much guarantee that the exercise of trying to fit 32 photographers onto small rocky pinnacles and the like will not be achieved without a little heated debate and the occasional anguished cry. We won’t have a therapist or psychiatrist on our tour, so the best medicine is usually a bottle of beer at the end of the day…

The up side to this is that you can learn more about the art of photography and picture composition than on any course, picking up tips and advice from the many talented and published photographers on the trip. Sometimes it is a revelation to see the different angles each person has taken on the same shot. With all the help on offer, you would have to be trying very hard to come away with nothing.

The participants in the tour bring their own skill sets, but particularly meteorology (if we wait thirty minutes will that tiny opening in the clouds allow the sun to illuminate the train for the few seconds needed for a shot?), horticulture (how many blades of grass need to be removed to allow a clear shot of the tracks?), rock climbing (what shot couldn’t be improved after a ten minute impression of a mountain goat?), furniture arranger (wouldn’t that station bench be better positioned as a second row for a photo-line?) and animal tamer (how do I persuade that tethered cow stay to show me his most photogenic side as the train approaches?). Aside from this, it also helps to have plenty of patience and a ready supply of stories for the occasional hour when nothing is happening.

A grab shot of the group, perched opposite the Lion’s mouth (Moragalla Railway Tunnel)

One of the aspects that I like most about these tours is the freedom to experiment photographically, which is not always the case with photo-charters. There is no need to stand in a prescribed photo-line, so long as you are out of everyone else’s shot. Sometimes doing something different pays off, sometimes not. It’s nice to have the option.

I’m not expecting to walk away from the tour with the kind of master shot that my fellow photographers will produce, but if I can get a small set of images that do justice to the lovely setting then I will be more than happy.

Colonial Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 27, 2018

Colombo is not generally regarded as one of the highlights of the tourist circuit in Sri Lanka. More often than not it is left as an awkward last stop on the way to the airport at the end of a vacation. It is undoubtedly true that the city is no match for the ancient sights to be found across the island but it still has a fine legacy of colonial buildings and cultural sights that it would be a shame to miss.

The National Museum, Colombo

The reviews of the National Museum seemed decidedly mixed but after a bit of deliberation I paid up the 1000 rupee entrance fee and headed inside. I was glad that I did – there are some terrific exhibits to enjoy if you don’t mind the relatively conventional presentation. The air conditioning was also most welcome on a hot and humid day!

The star exhibits are the crown and throne of the last King of Kandy, which were returned to Sri Lanka by the Royal Family in the 1930s. However, there are plenty of smaller exhibits that reward close attention. Personal highlights included the 28 water colours painted by Andrew Nicholls in the 1840s, a rare pictorial record of Sri Lanka at this time; some oil lamps ingeniously crafted in the shape of birds and some striking 16th century fish hook coins that I have never seen the like of before.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee statue (1897)

It is also worth looking around the back gate to the museum for the rather marvelous statue of Queen Victoria, commissioned for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It gained something of a reputation for bringing bad luck, prompting its relocation from a position outside the presidential palace to this rather quiet spot just across the road from Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park).

Viharamahadevi Park offers a few interesting sights of its own, including a large gilded Buddha facing the Town Hall (1927) but my eyes were immediately drawn to the rusting remains of a 2ft 6in gauge railway running through the park. It looks as though it must have been out of use for years but no clues to its history are offered in situ which is a pity. Quite apart from this, there were some rather amusingly worded signs that I couldn’t resist snapping…

What disasters await in Viharamahadevi Park?

Other sights that I enjoyed included the colourful kitsch exterior decoration of the Sri Subramananian Kovil, the striking red and white facade of the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Seema Malaka temple on Lake Beira, the Clocktower in Colombo Fort and the Luytens designed Cenotaph War Memorial. There is easily enough to fill a day of wandering.

A wander alongside the seashore at Galle Face Green ended the day perfectly. It’s quite something to see this space come alive with families, street vendors and kite flyers as the sun sets.

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Doing the Colombo Crawl

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 26, 2018

It was a pleasure to step out onto the tarmac at Colombo this afternoon after 15+ hours spent in the air plus an interval aimlessly wandering the airport malls of Dubai.

I have arrived in Sri Lanka for a ten day stay to see and photograph a re-creation of some authentic looking steam-hauled passenger trains on the scenic broad gauge railway line into the mountains. Needless to say, I am happy to swap the 6 degree chill of London for the 30 degree heat of Colombo!

Welcome to Sri Lanka

The guidebooks to Sri Lanka mentioned that traffic was as nightmare in Colombo, but as we breezed along the expressway from the airport it was hard to imagine that there was any issue at all. It was only when the expressway merged into the regular route that I realised just how agonising the slow crawl of Colombo’s rush hour traffic could be, only inching forward with each change of the lights. Even the slowest prediction offered by the guidebooks proved to be far quicker than we managed! I dread to think how much slower the bus that avoids the expressway would have been…

The traffic situation makes a rail connection highly desirable but the efforts to offer this in the past have been relatively short-lived. The future offers more hope, with plans for the re-development of Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) that include the operation of an airport express rail service to Maradana. The existing line runs alongside the airport road and it looks as though the proposal is to build a station pretty much where it ends today with a connection to the airport by elevated passenger walkway. You can see some visuals for the station in a promotional video and there is a model on display in airside departures.

I am not entirely sure how the airport re-development plans I have seen tie into the announcement of a $2 billion investment in a maglev line between Colombo and Katunayake in June 2017, but it looks like one way or another the airport will be served by rail in the future.

A view of the Altair, Lotus Tower and other skyscrapers under construction (as seen from the Cinnamon Red Colombo)

My taxi ended up reaching my hotel in the last few moments of sunset. There was just about time enough to head up to the rooftop bar for a view of the Colombo skyline which has seen incredible change in the past couple of years. The two most striking additions are the Lotus Tower (350m) and the Altair (240m) which are scheduled for completion in 2018. On top of this there are many other skyscrapers, entertainment complexes and an entirely new port city under construction!

I’ve never been anywhere with so much work underway at the same time and can only imagine how bewildering it must be for the local population to see their city changing beyond recognition in such a short space of time. I hope the character of the city doesn’t get lost in the process.

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Lighting up London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on January 18, 2018

The winter gloom has been banished for four nights by the bright illuminations of Lumiere London, a festival of over 50 artworks clustered in six locations across London. I took the opportunity of a pre-theatre wander around Westminster and the West End to check out some of the delightful sights.

Westminster Abbey illuminated for Lumiere London 2018

The highlight for me had to be Patrice Warrener’s The Light of the Spirit (Chapter 2) at Westminster Abbey which has brought two gates of the abbey to life with a colourful overlay of light. The effect is quite astonishing. Other favourites include the glowing stairway to heaven atop St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Flamingo Flyway in Chinatown and the nightlife of Leicester Square Gardens.

The second edition of Lumiere London runs from 18th to 21st January 2018 with the illuminations available to view from 5.30pm to 10.30pm each night. Maps and guides are available to download from the Visit London website to help plan your visit. If you are looking for a good night at the theatre to accompany your wanders why not check out the superbly improvised and addictive shows at Mischief Movie Night. I can’t stop going back for more!

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Stars in London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on January 13, 2018

A little weekend outing to the Tate Modern provided one of the odder sights of the year to date – Tom Cruise running over the roof of Blackfriars Station!

Tom Cruise sprints across the roof of Blackfriars Station

It was a little puzzling at first – a glance from the rooftop viewpoint revealed dozens of orange clad crew on top of Blackfriars station and the buildings that surround the northern end of the railway bridge. The appearance of a low-flying helicopter with a giant camera, following a running man across the rooftop, helped put us in the picture and twitter confirmed the rest.

Our visit to Tate Modern gave us an opportunity to see Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905–55 on a grey winter’s day. It’s a fascinating exhibition that covers the remarkable wave of art and graphic design that accompanied the new regime, from highly decorated agitprop train wagons to colourful posters bringing the revolutionary message to the farthest reaches of the state.

The exhibits ranged from Aleksandr Deineka’s optimistic studies (which formed the basis for the giant mural at USSR pavilion at the 1937 ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques’ in Paris) to the chilling evidence of the doctoring of photographs and paintings to airbrush discredited individuals from history. I found it all fascinating. I haven’t seen Soviet revolutionary posters in arabic script before and found the explanation of how posters were altered for the eastern republics especially interesting.

It’s well worth catching the exhibition whilst it’s at the Tate Modern (8th November 2017-18th February 2018) and the connected exhibition of works by Ilya and Emilia Kakakov (18th October 2017-28th January 2018) which offers some interesting perspectives on the Soviet past, beginning with Ilya’s clandestine artworks from the 1960s.

Farewell to 2017

Posted in England, South Norwood by folkestonejack on December 31, 2017

Over the past few decades I have watched as the relatively well served high street in my local area, South Norwood, has gradually been losing the shops that once made it a great independent shopping centre – a story that I’m sure has been echoed across the country. It feels like 2017 was a turning point, seeing the arrival of some exciting new businesses as well as the departure of another long-standing store.

Emertons closed after 115 years

There are few historic survivors left in South Norwood so the closure of Emertons, The Ironmonger after 115 years was sad to hear. It was a brilliant store in its time which would always have just what you needed for home repairs, backed up by a really knowledgeable team. It’s going to be strange seeing Station Road without the familiar green storefront (although it has to be said that this was a latter day creation, the signage was bright orange when I was growing up and only met its end with the storm of 1987!).

It follows the closures of other long-standing high street businesses in the past decade, including Kennedy’s (1877-2007) which made the best sausage rolls anywhere in London and terrific Christmas puddings to a long-standing recipe with ale and suet. Other businesses that have disappeared from South Norwood High Street have included Boots, Co-op, Dewhursts (Butchers), Woolworths, Lawrences (Bakers) and Lorimers (Stationers and toy shop). When my parents arrived in the area there was also a branch of Mac Fisheries on the High Street.

The Clocktower (1907)

In many ways the trigger for the steady decline of the high street was the arrival of the first large supermarket in the form of Safeways many years ago (subsequently replaced in sequence by Morrisons, Somerfield, Co-op and now Aldi!). Up to the arrival of Safeways there were at least three butchers, three greengrocers and a couple of bakeries in the high street. In some ways it is surprising how long it took for shopping habits to change and the true impact to be felt on the high street.

It’s not just shops that have been disappearing. Not so long ago there were three banks in South Norwood High Street and at least two Building Societies. The last remaining of these will leave the high street when NatWest closes its doors on 22nd May 2018. I’m sure the nuisance value of this for me must be outweighed by the inconvenience of trekking further afield for local business owners.

Aside from this, I miss the re-assuring sight of Norwood Junction Models (1963-2013), just off the high street at the top of Portland Road, even though I had long since stopped spending my pocket money there by the time it closed.

The artwork ‘The Long Way Home’ in Norwood Junction subway (1912) shows Emertons in happier times.

More change is on the way with a proposal to re-locate South Norwood Library to a spot on Station Road next to Aldi in 2019. Much as I love the old library building, a place I spent many happy hours as I was growing up, the idea of creating a library within sight of Norwood Junction Station, next door to Aldi, seems a great way of binding the library even closer to the community. It’s certainly better than the talk of closing the library altogether a few years back with nothing in its place.

There has been some talk about the unwanted gentrification of South Norwood which rather overlooks the ups and downs of the past 100 years. I prefer to think that the arrival of some of the new businesses to the area as a much needed and welcome revival. Long may it continue!

Reflections from Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 12, 2017

After our relatively short stay in Myanmar it was time to head home on a routing via Bangkok and Abu Dhabi that involved three changes of plane – starting with a short flight on Bangkok Airways into Bangkok. The contrast between the relatively deserted Mandalay International Airport and the perpetually busy Suvarnabhumi Airport was quite something! A couple of hours in the lounge gave me plenty of time to relax and reflect on our trip.

Our Bangkok Airways Airbus A320 arrives at Mandalay International Airport

I was pleased to have been able to get to see Bagan and Mingun on this visit, the places I most wanted to check out after getting my first taste of Myanmar in January. I haven’t exhausted the long list of places that look interesting (including big sights such as Inle Lake, Mrauk U and Pindaya Caves) but I’m more than satisfied with what I’ve seen on my two trips to the country.

On this trip I saw a different side to life in Myanmar than on my first trip, which was mostly off the tourist trail. Visiting the most touristy places in the country, such as Bagan and Mingun, I saw just how much the local economy has become heavily dependent on this trade. That applies to everyone from the ox cart drivers on the shore to the small stallholders selling cold drinks on the street.

Once again I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome wherever we went and the many kind folk that we met along the way, including helpful taxi drivers, generous monks and cheeky street sellers. I hope that charm is not lost as the tourist industry develops here as it makes a refreshing change from other places that I have been.

Arriving at Bangkok

For us the adventure was almost over. Thankfully, our trip home was pretty uneventful and we reached London a little earlier than expected. The only minor blip came when we discovered that we should have visited a transfer counter at Bangkok so that the ground staff could confirm the transfer of our baggage to the second of the three flights (even though our baggage had been checked all the way through to London at Mandalay). In the end they held us at the gate whilst they checked this.

Although we live in London it still took us a good three hours to make the trek from the door of the plane to our front door, but not long afterwards we were back out and heading round to join the family for a traditional Sunday roast!

Sagaing, Amarapura and the U Bein Bridge

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

The afternoon took us to Sagaing Hill, a spiritual site that is home to thousands of pagodas and monasteries. It was also the royal capital for all of three years in the mid-eighteenth century!

The ridge is a spectacular sight from the moment that you cross the Irrawaddy River and first catch sight of the gilded domes and Buddhas among the greenery. It’s no less spectacular once you reach the top of the hill and look down. In addition to the major monasteries here there are lots of smaller shrines that our guide told us were constructed in thanks for the shelter provided by the hill during the war.

The view from the terraces of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya

On our tour we took in the sights of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya (including the terrific view from the terraces over the Irrawaddy); the U Min Thonze temple, a curved cave temple built into the rockface housing 45 Buddhas; the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy; and the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda. All are splendid in different ways.

I thought the recent history of the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was fascinating. The startlingly white pagoda is quite striking for its relatively unusual styling, which is mire common in Sri Lanka. However, it used to look rather different.

The original Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was constructed in 1444 by King Narapati but what we see today is a recent creation – the 15th century pagoda was encased in a steel frame and the new pagoda was built over the top. This is not uncommon in Myanmar – indeed, one of the effects of the 2016 earthquake in Bagan was to reveal a beautiful 11th century stupa hidden within a much later brick structure.

After leaving Sagaing behind we headed on to the Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura, which is remarkable in a different way. Upon entering the monastery your eyes are immediately drawn to a gigantic seated Buddha paired with an equally large reclining Buddha, but step inside the main pagoda and you find yourself in an amazing space decorated with over 2000 Buddhas. Quite astonishing!

Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura

We ended the day at Amarapura’s most famous sight and one of the most heavily photographed sights in the entire country – the U Bein Bridge. At just over 1km in length this teak bridge is the longest of its type in the world, sitting a good few metres proud of the Irrawaddy when I visited but often right up to the level of the walkway during the wet season.

The U Bein bridge was built using the teak columns left behind when the royal palace was shifted from Amarapura to Mandalay in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a pretty impressive sight but recent studies have shown significant levels of decay among the pillars and a three year long restoration programme is set to begin in 2018. It looked as though some surveying of the bridge was taking place during our visit, though it was hard to tell if this was for ad-hoc repairs or preparations for the major renovations.

One of the pleasures of a visit to the U Bein Bridge was a sunset viewing by boat which turned out to be too tempting a photographic prospect to resist. The boats makes a simple loop from the landing point on the western shore, sailing under the bridge twice and then back to their starting point. The spectacle was gorgeous and helped distract us from the mid-journey repairs performed by our boatman and the layer of water that had formed inside our boat!

Sunset at Amarapura

The other more modest delight was a wonderfully improvised bicycle enhancements that I came across on the bridge. I suspect it is not the most comfortable of rides!

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