FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The Carshalton Water Tower

Posted in Carshalton, England by folkestonejack on May 21, 2017

In all my wanderings around the British Isles and beyond in search of incredible sights it is easy to overlook the delights that stand on your own doorstep. With this in mind, we made a beeline for the Carshalton Water Tower, a local-ish historical curiosity that I have long intended to visit but somehow have never quite gotten around to. A poor effort on my part, given that only needed me to hop aboard a number 157 bus on a Sunday afternoon!

Carshalton Water Tower

I’m glad we finally made the effort. The Carshalton Water Tower and the historic gardens that surround it have a fascinating story to tell. It says alot that this kept us hooked for almost two hours, much to our surprise. I think that is a bargain for just £3 per person.

Our visit began with a tour of what would once have been the grounds of Carshalton House, a grand house built for tobacco merchant Edward Carlton but with a tortuous history of ownership that led to its purchase by a religious order from Liege, the Daughters of the Cross, in 1893. The daughters established a roman catholic school on the site that still operates to this day.

The water tower and the house were separated by a lake, created in the late 18th century when the fashion for more formal arrangements was being swept away in favour of landscape gardens. It’s a dry-ish affair today, though we didn’t want to test whether any of the recent rainfall remained and crossed by a causeway (a twentieth century addition). Partway across we paused to admire the Sham Bridge, another folly, which is a dam in reality (no water can flow underneath, though painting its underside black with pitch must have helped maintain the illusion in its heyday).

Once we had made our way across to the other side we navigated our way round to the hermitage. Today’s pathway, trampled through the long grass, is probably quite far removed from the circuit that the gentry might once have taken on their perambulations!

Carshalton House still stands at the heart of today’s school complex, albeit somewhat altered from its original appearance

The hermitage is a splendid stone-built folly built into the hillside that dates back to the early eighteenth century and must have been a gorgeous spot to stop and admire the views of the pleasure gardens, lake and the nearby springhead. It has suffered a little over the years from the weathering of the soft reigate stone but recent repairs are already starting to blend in nicely. There’s some pretty neat historic graffiti too.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story was the way that the nuns re-interpreted the landscape. They created an outdoor trail of the stations of the cross and converted the hermitage into a grotto for their pieta – until the weight of the thing threatened to destabilise the structure!

After threading our way back through the long grass we had a chance to see an ancient yew tree that is as good an example as you can see of the way this species self propogates when left to its own devices, by driving its branches down into the ground.

The hermitage

Saving the best to the end, we returned to the water tower to see what makes it unique. The tower was constructed in the early 18th century for Sir John Fellowes and housed a reservoir that was used to supply water to the house. However, it was a pleasure house in its own right with a saloon, orangery and a beautiful bagnio lined with blue and white delft tiles. It’s both a wonderful piece of social history and a fascinating piece of engineering. Indeed, you can still see the water wheel which powered the pumps that lifted the water up to the cistern.

We have to thank the nuns for adding a staircase that provides access to the roof, affording a much better view of the upper structure and a better appreciation of how the alignment of West Street was altered to create the grounds we had just walked.

If you want to visit, the Water Tower is usually open on Sunday Afternoons from 2.30pm to 5pm from the first Sunday after Easter to the end of September. However, if you want to go on a tour of the hermitage as well you need to time your visit for the first and third Sunday of each month. For further information about visiting and any changes to the schedule you should check out the website of the Carshalton Water Tower and Historic Garden Trust.

The view from the rooftop

Our visit to the Carshalton Water Tower was a superb way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Thank you to the wonderful guides who brought the story to life for us.

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Treasure in the library at Hatfield House

Posted in England, Hatfield by folkestonejack on May 13, 2017

One of the great treasure houses of England sits just 21 miles north of London in leafy Hatfield, an easy 23 minute train journey from King’s Cross. The 42 acre site is home to two palatial residences – the Old Palace, the childhood home of Elizabeth I, and Hatfield House, a Jacobean prodigy house built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to James I.

Hatfield House

Hatfield House delivers wonderment from the moment that you enter the ornately decorated marble hall until you step back outside. The walls hold so many familiar royal portraits, none more so than the famous Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (even if it looks more like she is holding a garden hose rather than a rainbow these days!). The extravagance doesn’t let up as you explore the rest of the state rooms, though the gold ceiling of the long gallery has perhaps the largest wow factor. It’s not a statement that you can easily ignore…

However, for me the real treasure lay in the library. I’ve visited a fair number of stately homes in my time and you often see glass cabinets full of moderately interesting letters and other exhibits. Not here. The cabinets at Hatfield House hold astonishing historical artifacts such as Lord Burghley’s rough draft of the warrant ordering the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Another fascinating letter on display in the library warns the Earl of Murray not to support rebels fleeing over the border into Scotland in 1569. It is all the more striking because it is written almost entirely in cipher, barring for the signature of Elizabeth I at the end!

The fountain in the West Garden

We are lucky that Hatfield House survives to be visited as it suffered from a terrible fire in 1835 that destroyed the West Wing of the house and might have threatened more had a fortuitous spell of torrential rain not intervened. The chapel had a particularly lucky escape after the heat of the fire melted the lead water tanks in the attic, dousing the flames. I certainly appreciated the opulent interiors and wonderful artworks throughout the building – it would have been a terrible loss had this not endured.

Hatfield House is understandably popular as a wedding venue so we didn’t get the opportunity to take a look inside the surviving parts of the Old Palace but our tickets are valid for the rest of the season so maybe we’ll get the chance to pop back on and remedy that later this year.

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The last inhabitants of the Bourbon Tower

Posted in Buckingham, England by folkestonejack on May 10, 2017

Our visit to Stowe gave me the opportunity to seek out a rather unusual building in the parkland that surrounds the landscape gardens – the Bourbon Tower. This unusual building was once home to my great-great-great grandfather, George Griffin, at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Bourbon Tower

The tower was built in 1741 as a house for the gamekeeper, with sweeping views over a deer park that was all too susceptible to poaching. Originally known as the gothic tower, it was given the name of the Bourbon Tower in 1808 to honour the exiled King of France, Louis XVIII, who spent many days at Stowe when he first arrived in England. Louis and other members of the French royal family planted the oaks that still surround it.

In its original form the tower was 65 foot in height, 110 foot in circumference, with a narrow winding stone staircase to the summit. Later re-modelling saw the conical roof replaced with a flat roof topped by a 24 foot tall octagonal turret. The interior holds more rooms than you might think, with five rooms at the time of the 1911 census – a kitchen on the ground floor, bedrooms on the first/second floor and a large room on the third floor. Looking at the solid walls I can’t imagine that much in the way of natural light penetrated inside, but the top floor apparently had skylights to let some sunlight in.

In the nineteenth century the Bourbon Tower was perhaps more strongly associated with the yeomanry and became home to many a sergeant major. Typical of these residents was Crimean veteran Edward Collier who lived in the tower with his family for thirteen years (1872-1885). It was not such a complete break with tradition as it might seem – in addition to his responsibilities to the yeomanry Edward acted as park ranger for the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

The length of each occupancy of the Bourbon Tower varied but was typically just above or below a decade. Samuel Poole, a drill instructor in the Yeomanry, lived in the tower with his family around 1885-1893 (press reports refer to their presence from 1887 to 1891). The next occupant, Sergeant Major Rogers, moved into the tower in March 1893 and press reports show that he was still there in early 1895.

Family connections

My family connection with the Bourbon Tower begins somewhere between 1895 and 1901, when George Griffin moved in with two of his grown up children (Clement and Eleanor Alice). By this time George was a retired gamekeeper, whilst his son was a woodsman on the estate.

George Griffin had been a gamekeeper all his life, as had his father before him. An account from the Bucks Herald of a poaching incident in August 1884, when the family were living at Squirrel Copse, Lillingstone Dayrell, shows his sons now joining the profession and just how physical it could be:

From the evidence of the keepers, George Griffin, sen., Clement Griffin, and Geo. Griffin, jun., P.C. Warman, of Silverstone, and P.S. Lait, it appeared that shortly after midnight on the 22nd August last the keepers were in a field called Squirrel Copse, near Tile House Wood. They came upon two nets, one of which was pegged out, and immediately after they saw three men near at hand who dared them to “come on.” Griffin, the elder, went at one man, who struck him on the head with a long heavy stick which broke his hat. The keeper returned the blow and felled his opponent, who tried to get up again, but the keeper gave him another blow on the head and then stood over him. Clement Griffin, in the meantime, had received a blow with a stick from a man whom he recognised as James Chapman; but Clement eventually overcame him, and went to his father’s assistance. The father called for a light, whereupon Whitlock and Chapman made off. A match was lighted and put to the face of Wilcox, and they could plainly see it was him. Then they let him get up and go home. When it became light the keepers found two caps (produced), sticks, two nets and a rabbit.

The Bourbon Tower must have been an incredible place to live if the newspaper accounts are anything to go by. The Buckinghamshire Yeomanry regularly used the parkland at Stowe for their field days and their are some wonderful accounts of the entire regiment charging towards their target, the Bourbon Tower. In the years before the Griffins moved in the tower provided much needed shelter for the soldiers when the heavens opened.

On 22nd February 1902 George Griffin (75) died from chronic bronchitis and exhaustion at the Bourbon Tower (he was probably a few years older as he was baptised at Ludgershall, Bucks, in 1825). George’s son Clement and daughter Eleanor Alice continued to live in the tower after his death and they were the sole occupants at the time of the 1911 census.

Unhappy endings

It’s not a tale with the happiest of endings. The first inkling of trouble can be seen in a snippet of news from The Bucks Herald of 30th November 1912 which states that the Buckinghamshire Rural District Council had been alerted to the presence of eleven cats and a number of hens and chickens inside the tower, which was said to be in a filthy condition.

A horrific report of an RSPCA visit in 1913 paints a far grimmer picture and gives an account of a conversation with Eleanor that suggests the occupants were not mentally well (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 7th June 1913). Following on from this, the local sanitary authority got involved.

Finally, an application to eject Clement Griffin from the Bourbon Tower was submitted to the Buckingham Divisional Petty Sessions on 29th May 1915 on behalf of the Rev. the Hon. Chandos Morgan-Grenville (Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 5th June 1915). The application for eviction was approved with an order for possession in 21 days.

Clement and Eleanor Alice left Stowe Park behind and headed south to join their relations in Folkestone for a short spell, before ending their days in Kent County Lunatic Asylum in Chartham. Eleanor died on 12th July 1917 and Clement died on 15th December 1917.

Stowe House was put up for sale in 1921 and various smaller lots of land surrounding the gardens came onto the market. Deerbarn Farm, of 244 acres, with its residence, and the Bourbon Tower were sold for £4000 (Bucks Herald, 9th July 1921).

The local newspapers make no further references to anyone moving into the Bourbon Tower after the departure of the Griffins but it was apparently later used as the home of the Stowe School clay pigeon club. It was derelict by the time that the National Trust took on Stowe and plans to restore it have not yet reached fruition. Hopefully someday it will reverberate to happier sounds than in its last period of occupancy.

Thank you to the National Trust team at Stowe for the map of the parkland at Stowe and the helpful directions to the tower.

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Stowe in the sun

Posted in Buckingham, England by folkestonejack on May 10, 2017

The corporate away day can be a thing of nightmares, but this year’s departmental sustainability away day turned out to be the complete reverse, taking us to the stunning landscape gardens at Stowe near Buckingham. Not only did we get the chance to work on a satisfying project as a team in incredible surroundings, we were were also blessed with a miraculous burst of blue skies and sun out of nowhere.

The Temple of Ancient Virtue

The gardens at Stowe have attracted visitors for centuries but it was really surprising to discover that it has only been in the hands of the National Trust since 1989, whilst the house is looked after separately by the Stowe House Preservation Trust. The story of how the site reached that point is a fascinating lesson in the horrific cost of keeping our great houses in good shape.

The whole site had been in steady decline since the nineteenth century and the previous owners, Stowe School, had lacked the resources to maintain either the grounds or house adequately, despite their best efforts and the financial assistance provided through various grants. The scale of the problem becomes clear when you hear that a survey in 2002 estimated the cost of restoration for the house alone as £40 million! Today, the grounds and the many remarkable garden buildings look so well maintained that it is really hard to appreciate just how poor a state everything was in when they took over. The house too has received substantial restoration.

A quick scan of the before and after photographs on the National Trust website show how much progress has been made following the £10 million restoration masterplan – the shots of the beautifully restored Temple of Concord and Victory today and the same building bricked up in the early 1990s are quite astonishing (a transformation that cost £1.3 million alone). A shot of tennis courts next to the Palladian bridge shows how the views that this landscape garden excels at were quite obscured during this era, but visiting today you would have no idea that anything had changed over the centuries.

Our base for the day, the New Inn, was another example. It was originally constructed in 1717 to provide accommodation for early visitors to the garden but had been in a derelict state for many years before the National Trust bought the property in 2003. The National Trust re-opened it in 2012, thereby restoring the traditional entrance and approach to the property (up to this point National Trust visitors entered via a point at the north of the gardens and house) and what an approach it is…

As our coach turned onto Stowe Avenue we got our first glimpse of the Corinthian Arch, beautifully illuminated at the end of an impressively straight long drive, and began to appreciate the grand scale of the gardens we were heading towards. Once we had made our way into the gardens themselves, passing through the Bell Gate, we were treated to the most gorgeous view of Stowe House across the Octagon Lake.

A very relaxed and enjoyable half-day followed, with three teams tackling different projects. The team I joined re-painted a bridge that needed freshening up some 5-6 years since its last coat. It was a fairly straightforward task to paint the inside, but the sides facing the river had to be painted from a boat. The end result was more impressive than I could have imagined – we had struggled to pick out the bridge when we first entered the gardens but now the gleaming white bridge stood out a mile. My home gardening is never quite this rewarding!

A freshly re-painted White Bridge in the grounds at Stowe

Later in the day we had an opportunity to take a wander around the grounds and appreciate the full splendour of the landscaping and just why this was considered to be the most magnificent in the British Isles. Every penny of restoration was thoroughly deserved to recreate these incredible vistas for the nation.

Time ran out all too quickly, so I’ll have to make an effort to return and make a fuller exploration of the gardens and take a look inside the house. I quite fancy the idea of renting the Gothic Temple which has been wonderfully restored by the Landmark Trust as a holiday cottage. How amazing must it be to wake up and look out on a landscape like this?

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Exploring Knole

Posted in England, Sevenoaks by folkestonejack on May 2, 2017

The attractions of the showrooms at Knole House have been drawing visitors for hundreds of years, long before the National Trust took over ownership. Stepping inside its not hard to see why. However, time your visit for a Tuesday in April-September and you get the added bonus of a chance to look inside the 26 acre walled private gardens of Lord Sackville.

The west front of Knole House

The house began its life as an archbishop’s palace in 1456, but was ‘voluntarily’ passed to Henry VIII by Thomas Cranmer in 1538. It was already grand but the money lavished on it at this time substantially enlarged its footprint with the addition of a new gatehouse and the buildings of the Green Court. After a bit of swapping back and forth the house eventually ended up in the ownership of Thomas Sackville, Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I.

Under Thomas Sackville the house underwent the most significent transformation, turning it into a show house that would hold up well in comparison with the great houses established by the other Lord Treasurers of the age (such as Burghley House, Audley End and Hatfield House). The stamp of his ownership is proclaimed everywhere you look, from the stone leopards that stand atop the roof to the ornamentation on the lead drain pipes in the courtyard.

An early National trust notice for Knole House

Impressive as it is, you can imagine what a burden it must be to inherit such a sprawling house and to feel the need to maintain it to a level to satisfy your illustrious ancestors. Faced with these challenges Charlie Sackville-West agreed to transfer Knole House to the National Trust in 1946, after a decade or so of discussion. The decision safeguarded the future of the house and also the gardens, which had seemed impossible to keep up.

The massive building, conservation and restoration project Knole is currently undergoing is testament to the wisdom of that decision. The £19.8 million project, the largest in the history of the National Trust, has seen the stabilisation of the property and the re-opening of the most astonishing showrooms, though others will remain closed until Spring 2019 as the restoration work continues. It has to be said that thet refurbished Ballroom and King’s Room are absolutely stunning.

Some of the colourful sights in the 26 acre gardens

The National Trust have done such a good job here. Not just with the telling of the big story, but also picking up on the story of the estate (with a lovely recreation of the estate office) and the life of a somewhat reluctant later inheritor, Edward Sackville-West, who lived an unconvential life in a private residence in the Gatehouse Tower. There are so many interesting tales to absorb on a visit.

Knole House is quite some country house, even if the story about it having a room for each day of the year is not exactly accurate (and let’s not get started on the question of 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards!). The gardens are pretty delightful too, with wonderful fields of bluebells in the ‘wilderness’ and the longest wisteria outside China. Well worth a look around – on a Tuesday!

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Stepping between heaven and hell

Posted in England, Peterborough by folkestonejack on May 1, 2017

Our visit to Hardwick Hall last year has set us on a mission to visit the surviving prodigy or wonder houses in England, eager to see just how daring the courtiers of the Tudor and Jacobean age could be in building their showstopping palatial residences. The next on our list, Burghley House, proved to the perfect choice for a Bank Holiday weekend and amply demonstrated why it deserves its label as one of the treasure houses of England.

Burghley House

Burghley House was the creation of William Cecil, principal Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I. The construction took place in stages between 1555 and 1587, though the palace has been re-shaped by many significant alterations since then. It certainly cuts a striking shape as you approach it from across the park but this is nothing compared to the astonishing decoration inside.

A walk through the state rooms leaves you in no doubt of the intention to impress, but it is the rooms commissioned by the fifth Earl of Exeter in the 17th century that deliver the knockout punch. The Earl’s choice of artist, Antonio Verrio, spent a decade at Burghley House decorating six rooms (and quarrelling with just about everyone in that time). Each has its own wow factor but the most extravagant of these, the heaven room, goes much further.

On stepping into the heaven room you are immediately transported inside a temple open to the skies, filled with figures from mythology in a re-telling of the story of Mars and Venus. Such is the power of the illusion that it feels as though you are in a busy room even when you are standing alone admiring the detail, whether your focus be Vulcan’s forge or the self-portrait that Verrio cleverly included. Once you have absorbed this, the next doorway takes you into the darkness and despair of the hell staircase. Quite extraordinary.

The walls include a fair number visual representations of the household. You clearly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Verrio or risk being immortalised unfavourably! The cook found this out to her cost, ending up as a six-breasted woman in one room, whilst the priest is shown as a drunkard in two rooms. You can get a better impression of these astonishing sights through the superb set of 360 degree views of the staterooms which are available on the Burghley House website.

After leaving the house we enjoyed a pleasant wander through the gardens, admiring a selection of modern sculptures, before heading home in late afternoon. As you might have guessed, we thorough enjoyed our visit and would highly recommend a trip to Burghley House.

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Deltic delight at Stamford

Posted in England, Peterborough by folkestonejack on May 1, 2017

On my travels there have been a few occasions where I have timed our journeys to co-incide perfectly with a passing steam special or the like, with a degree of eye-rolling when I protest that it was pure chance to my by now very clued up better half. However, there are occasions when I am completely surprised and it takes some convincing that I genuinely didn’t know about whatever has appeared.

Just such a situation occurred on our Bank Holiday outing to Burghley House. It was pretty clear that something was expected by the number of photographers standing ready in the fields and in country lanes as we made our way by train to Stamford. On arriving I joined a small gathering of photographers and waited. I probably should have asked what it was we were waiting for, but thought I would enjoy the surprise…

55018 ‘Ballymoss’ passes through Stamford

After a twenty minute wait we were treated to the superb sight of class 55 Deltic locomotive 55022 ‘Royal Scots Grey’ (in the temporary guise of 55018 ‘Ballymoss’) storming through the station at the head of a three locomotive convoy. I like surprises like this, even if it does take me a devilishly long time to convince anyone that I hadn’t planned our chance encounter!

I later discovered that this was the movement (running as 0Z55) of the deltic from the Nene Valley Railway at Wansford to the Severn Valley Railway at Kidderminster, with 31271 and 45041 ‘Royal Tank Regiment’ in tow. All three locomotives will be appearing at the Spring Diesel Festival at the Severn Valley Railway on May 18th, 19th & 20th.

Tilbury B and the changing Thames riverside

Posted in England, Gravesend, London, Tilbury by folkestonejack on April 26, 2017

On a stroll along the shoreline at Gravesend you can’t fail to miss the twin chimneys of Tilbury B Power Station, a structure that has dominated this stretch of the Thames since its construction started in 1961. Like so many other industrial landmarks of the twentieth century it is a sight that won’t be with us for much longer – it is set to share the fate of its sister power station, Tilbury A, and will be completely demolished by the end of 2018.

SB Hydrogen sails past Tilbury B Power Station

Work on the destruction of the site began in January 2016, three years after its closure, but the majority of the explosive demolition jobs are scheduled for this year. The first of these will see half of the Turbine Hall demolished at 10am tomorrow, followed by the chimneys, boiler house and bunker house later in the year.

So many colossal industrial structures have disappeared from London and kent, such as the gasholders at Battersea and Kings Cross and the 244m chimney of Grain Power Station, but I had not entirely appreciated just how much change was taking place on the Thames.

The Royal Wharf development at Silvertown

The Greenwich Peninsula development

The degree of change is particularly striking on the stretch of the river at West Silvertown (between The Thames Barrier and Trinity Buoy Wharf) and around the Greenwich Peninsula where a low height industrial landscape is being replaced by high-rise residential developments. In the not too distant future it will be as hard to imagine the industry that the Thames supported here as it is to imagine that a forest of cranes and warehouses once surrounded Tower Bridge!

My trip up the Thames between Gravesend and Greenwich over the Easter weekend gave me plenty of opportunities to see the vanishing industrial landscape, as well as the occasional survivor such as the Victorian marvel of Crossness Pumping Station (somewhere I must get around to visiting). It was a fascinating trip – I wonder how different it will all look in a decade or two and how much further the de-instrustrialisation of the Thames will have extended.

Thames Gallery

Sailing beyond the storm

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on April 16, 2017

The splendid sight of the parade of sail for the Tall Ships Festivals 2017 certainly drew the crowds to Greenwich and Woolwich. It looked as though the initial forecasts of around 600,000 visitors could easily have been met over the course of the four days that the event spanned. Indeed, some 11,000 visitors were reported to have got on board one of the tall ships moored at the two sites over the first three days of the festival alone.

Once the tall ships began their procession it was striking to see that just about every spot lining the Thames to Woolwich has been filled, despite the miserable weather. In some places, such as around the Trafalgar Tavern, the crowds looked to be six-deep, though one chap on the water had the best view of all!

Artemis heads towards the towers of New Providence Wharf

As a spectacle, I think the Parade of Sail in 2014 has the edge, if only because there were a few more sails on display and the significantly better weather, but it was still a treat to be able to admire such a great line up of beautiful ships on our doorstep. I hope it is not so long before we see such a gathering again.

It has taken a while to go through the thousand or so pictures that I took during the parade, but I think the selection below gives a reasonable flavour of the event. I was a little lucky to be on a sightseeing boat for the event as it gave us a chance to outrun the gathering storm and try and catch the ships in the better conditions to the east. Nevertheless, I can’t help but like the drama that the dark skies add to some of the pictures.

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Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2017

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on April 16, 2017

Over the course of the Easter weekend around 30 ships have been moored at Woolwich Arsenal and Greenwich for the Royal Greenwich Tall ships Festival, an event marking the start of the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta.

Amongst the ships on display there were nine that would be participating in the first leg of the regatta from Torbay to Sines, Portugal, with the remainder visiting for the weekend from ports across Europe. The visitors span an impressive 122 year stretch of shipbuilding history, from the gaff cutter Leila (1892) to the brig TS Royalist (2014).

The Santa Maria Manuela (1937) is turned by a tug, ready to lead the parade of sail away from Greenwich

The largest ships in the festival were the four masted schooner Santa Maria Manuela (1937) and the fully-rigged ship Christian Radich (1937), both of which are participating in the first leg of the regatta (the other participants being the Etoile, Jolie Brise, Rona II, Peter Von Danzig, Vera Cruz, Wylde Swan and Hosanna).

The handful of ships participating in all the legs will visit Sines, Bermuda, Boston and the eastern US seaboard before reaching Quebec on July 18th for the celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation. Afterwards, the return voyage will see the ships cross the Atlantic to Le Havre via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Artemis (1926) returns to a mooring at Woolwich Arsenal at the end of the parade

For the last day of the festival I joined a group of photographers on board the sightseeing ship Jacob Marley for a cruise upstream from Gravesend to follow the parade of sail, setting off at 1.30pm and returning to our starting point at 8pm. Along the way we got to see the ships mustering in Greenwich for the grand departure, the parade of sail and the onward travels of a handful of vessels making their way to a mooring at Gravesend.

The forecast was not exactly promising when we set out but there were a few wonderful moments of light amidst the gloom and that’s all you need to get a few good shots. I returned with over a thousand photographs, so I could hardly claim to have been deterred by the lack of sunlight!

Thank you to the team from Timeline events and the Jetstream Tours crew for a marvellous afternoon on the water.

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Bulleid bonanza at Corfe Castle

Posted in Corfe Castle, England by folkestonejack on April 1, 2017

It has been a while since I last visited Corfe Castle but the Swanage Railway’s ‘Strictly Bulleid’ gala managed to lure me back with the largest gathering of Bulleid light pacifics in the preservation era. It was clear from the outset that the event had proven irresistible to a good many more as the hourly bus service from morebus really struggled with the numbers (indeed, a few poor souls queued for two and a half hours just to get on a bus with space). However, it was well worth the hassle…

West country class 34052 Lord Dowding passes Corfe Castle en route to Swanage in mid-afternoon

The event, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of steam in the Southern Region, saw five locos in action 34046 Braunton (as 34052 Lord Dowding), 34070 Manston, 34092 City of Wells, 34081 92 Squadron and 34053 Sir Keith Park. As if that wasn’t enough of a temptation it was possible to see 34072 257 Squadron undergoing restoration at Herston Works and the frames of 34010 Sidmouth is on a wagon at Corfe Castle station. Quite a gathering!

I usually stay quite close to the railway on my visits but on this occasion opted for some more distant viewpoints, including a spot in the medieval skyscraper that is Corfe Castle and going higher still, atop West Hill looking down on the castle.

Up to this point I had assumed that the view of the railway with Corfe Castle in the foreground involved quite a bit of walking, so was rather surprised to discover that it was just a short, if rather steep, walk up the hillside. The steps that start the climb are easily accessed by following the footpath from the visitor centre on the A351 or by taking Ollie Vyes Lane from the Square and the footpath that continues on the other side of Tyneham Road.

My pictures certainly can’t compare to the wonderful shots I have seen from here but I was still thrilled to have taken in the breathtaking view from the top – with or without a camera it is quite a sight.

Battle of Britain class light pacific 34081 92 Squadron passes Corfe Castle in mid afternoon en route to Norden

The gala weekend also saw the operation of trains over the four miles of newly restored line from Norden to the River Frome – a stretch of line only opened to passengers in 2016. In the trade off between travelling and photography I didn’t get a chance to ride this bit of the line today so that’s a good excuse to make a return in the near future, perhaps even this summer when diesel hauled services into Wareham begin.

Overall, I had a great day and want to thank everyone involved in making it such a special event. I never fail to be struck with awe at the sight of a Southern light pacific on top form so was never going to be disappointed with an event featuring so many, but it really was something to see so many gathered in one place at the same time and with such great scenery all around. If it’s a feat that is never repeated then I’m glad to have seen this for at least one day!

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Art and architecture beyond the revolution

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on March 19, 2017

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen the opening of a couple of new exhibitions in London – Imagine Moscow at the Design Museum (15th March – 4th June 2017) and Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at the Royal Academy (11th February — 17th April 2017) which both explore the seemingly limitless boundaries in both art and architecture during the early years of the new state. Over the past two weekends I enjoyed visits to both and came away with some surprising highlights.

The Design Museum in Kensington, London

I have long been astounded by some of the imaginative buildings proposed for Moscow so the new exhibition “Imagine moscow: architecture, propaganda, revolution” at the Design Museum was always going to fascinate me.

A full size 4 metre long reconstruction of Lenin’s index finger, which was intended to point from the top of the Palace of the Soviets towards his mausoleum, makes you appreciate the vast scale of the unrealised plans of Boris Iofan and his contemporaries. It’s hard to appreciate just how much Moscow would have been altered by all of these vast schemes, but the footage on a loop from Aleksandr Medvedkin’s 1938 film “New Moscow” gives you a good idea. No room for cathedral spires or ancient towers in this vision!

As astonishing as these designs were, it was a couple of the smaller exhibits that intrigued me the most. The first was a copy of “About Two Squares” (1922), a suprematist childrens book authored by El Lissitzky telling the story of a black and red square that come to earth from space. It’s a strikingly bold approach to teaching children about the new Soviet order, but it’s hard to imagine this being a tale that would have won many hearts and minds.

The second exhibit that caught my eye was a Ne Boltai poster from the new state’s drive to improve the literacy of the population. The poster by M. M. Litzvak (1925) is a call to all citizens to take note that a library was being installed in the restaurant wagon of every train – with an image of a trio of ordinary workers engrossed in books to re-inforce the point.

On top of all this, it’s terrific to explore the interior of the relatively recently re-opened design museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building) now that the crowds have eased a little and neighbouring Holland Park is a delight at this time of year with its vast swathes of daffodils.

The astonishing roof of the Design Museum (formerly the Commonwealth Institute building)

There are some pleasing overlaps between the two exhibitions. Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 includes a rather marvellous urn “Commemoration of the Flight of a Russian Dirigible from Moscow to New York Piloted by Three Soviet Airmen” (c. 1932) shows the Palace of the Soviets on one side and the Empire State Building on the other (if the Palace had been completed these would have been the two tallest buildings in the world).

The two exhibitions complement each other quite nicely in other ways too – for example, you get a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living at the Royal Academy and then at the Design Museum see some of the imaginative buildings devised to create communal spaces that would break the mould of family life.

The highlights of the exhibition at the Royal Academy for me were some of the hidden treasures of the twentieth century – such as Kliment Redko’s painting “Insurrection” (1925) and Georgy Rublev’s “Portrait of Joseph Stalin” (. 1930) which are both on loan from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. These two paintings were hidden from view for entirely different reasons.

As his view of the revolution soured Kliment Redko drew upon his early years as an icon painter and in “Insurrection” created a striking image of Lenin at the heart of a city ablaze – it’s a quite extrordinary painting with incredible detail, from the workers on the march to the disciples surrounding him. It’s hard to imagine that Lenin’s displacement of Christ was meant to be viewed as a positive development.

In contrast, Georgy Rublev gives us an informal painting of Stalin quite unlike anything that I have seen before. Stalin looks decidely relaxed as he sits cross-legged, reading Pravda, in a rattan chair with a dog curled at his feet. It clearly sprang from a far less critical place than Redko’s work but was no less unshowable, only emerging after his death.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the Royal Academy exhibition makes it a pleasure to wander. I can’t say that all of the artworks appealed to me but they certainly captured my interest for an hour or so.

If this wasn’t enough, there is another exhibition of Soviet art coming along later this year. Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern (8th November 2017 – 18th February 2018) looks set to show us the development of Russian and Soviet art from the 1905 revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953. I’m certainly happy to see some more!

All hail the robot revolution – or maybe not!

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 25, 2017

The latest exhibition from the Science Museum In London, Robots, looks at our long quest to build thinking machines in our own image. It’s an exhibition that takes us through the centuries from the clockwork automatons of the pre-industrial age to the developments in robotics of the early 21st century.

Along the way we get to see some of the marvellous robots of the 1950s-60s. Standing proudly at the cntre of this display is Cygan, a remote-controlled robot from Italy powered by thirteen electric motors. Cygan was often to be spotted in the magazines with a glamourous model on his arm, which only goes to show the unlikely appeal of a bit of can-crushing.

Visionary robots of the 20th century

Cygan stands proud amongst other visionary robots of the 20th century

The last gallery of the exhibition is given over to the social robots that are beginning to move among us in all sorts of environments, ranging from the shopping mall to the nursing home. If you had any notion that robots are a threat to your job you might be vaguely comforted by this section as many of the robots seemed to be out of action when we visited.

The highlight of the exhibition for me was an 18th century automaton of a silver swan which ‘picks up’ fish from a stream. You can see this in action once a day (weekdays only) but it still looked incredibly impressive as a static exhibit. Although the exhibition runs until 3rd September 2017 the swan is only included in the display from 8th February to 23rd March 2017.

It’s definetly worth a look, but overall I don’t think it reached the same heights as last year’s epic exhibition on the Soviet space program. Nor was it perfect – after all, it somehow managed to overlook the finest and most talented robot of our age – Metal Mickey. Boogie boogie!

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Bago to London

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 18, 2017

The journey home from Bago began with a car to the airport – a smooth ride that took just one hour and forty minutes, with no sight of the traffic that slowed our outward journey a week or so back.

Stepping inside terminal 2 at Yangon we found the place almost completely deserted, so it was easy enough to get checked in quite quickly (it turned out my attempts to check in last night using the mobile app had been successful, though it failed for others in the group). A glance at the departures board suggests most international flights now depart from the year-old Terminal 1.

Farewell to Yangon...

Farewell to Yangon…

My flight (Thai Airways TG302) boarded on time and was waiting at the end of the runway a good 5-10 minutes before the scheduled departure time. The clear skies afforded some great views of Yangon, Myanmar and Bangkok along the way with our plane (once again a relatively lightly loaded A330) landing early and ready to disembark ten minutes ahead of our timetabled arrival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bangkok airport was much cooler than the last time I was here.

I’m fairly easily pleased when it comes to airplane food but if it helps anyone, the food served up on the flight was quite simple fare – a hot ‘chicken rico rico’ roll, a small cake, water and coffee. All quite edible.

Flying over Myanmar

Flying over Myanmar

As I had seven and a half hours to kill before my next flight I took the opportunity to book a few hours in the quiet haven of a Louis Tavern CIP Lounge which was worth every penny. I really appreciated a bit of space to unwind and chill before beginning the next leg. The light snacks on offer in the lounge looked fairly uninviting, but the drinks were quite decent.

...and hello Bangkok

…and hello Bangkok

The second flight of the day (Thai Airways TG910) had a scheduled departure time of 0.15am but this was delayed until around 1am to comply with the curfew at Heathrow Airport. As it was explained to us, if we departed on time we would have arrived at Heathrow too early due to the good flying conditions. In the end we still had to circle London twice before landing and reached the ground twelve minutes early at 6.08am.

Although the flight out had been packed the A380 for the return trip was more lightly loaded, offering a little more space to stretch out. Unusually, I even managed to sleep for six hours which is a vast improvement on the hour I usually manage on long haul flights! Food was quite decent too – a beef stew and banoffee pie on departure and a traditional cooked breakfast before arrival (no rival to the french toast with apples and sultanas served for breakfast on the outbound flight).

The temperature change on arrival was a bit of a shocker – downgrading from 35 degrees in Yangon to -3 degrees in London with just a light jumper to keep me warm on the slightly awkward journey home by tube and train during the rush hour. Still, it’s good to be home again.

Back in Bago

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 17, 2017

Although our steam photo charter finished last night there was still time this morning to make a quick visit to Bago depot to see our trio of steam locomotives in the shed. The line-up included our loco from yesterday, YD964, which presumably made it back in the early hours of morning. Who could resist a few last photographs before we had to get back to the hotel, finish packing and head to the airport?

Tour completed - YC629 and YD964 in front of Bago shed

Tour completed – YC629 and YD964 in front of Bago shed

Overall, this has been by far the smoothest and most successful organised tour that I have been on using chartered steam. This is testament to the meticulous planning and preparation of our tour organiser, Bernd Seiler of FarRail tours, who has been pursuing the dream of reviving steam in Burma at great effort for a decade. On top of that, I have to applaud our wonderful tour guide and a legion of railway workers for making the dream possible every day.

The tour has been a delight and offered up so many astonishing photographic opportunities, but more than that it has opened my eyes to an incredible country and the friendliest folk. I’m sure I will be back before too long to get better acquainted with the parts of the country that I haven’t seen yet.

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Chasing water buffalo

Posted in Kyaikhto, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 16, 2017

The leisurely lunch stop at Hnin Pale was timed perfectly for the crossing of regular passenger trains in both directions – one an express towards Mawlamyine and the other a mixed passenger towards Bago (comprised of a diesel locomotive, three passenger coaches, one tank wagon, two open wagons, one box car and one combined brake van/passenger coach).

Mixed passenger train no. 86  arrives at Hnin Pale

Mixed passenger train no. 86 arrives at Hnin Pale

Our stationary train complicated the normal arrangements and necessitated a little train shuffle – the mixed passenger had to line up behind our train whilst the southbound express took the platform and only once that had passed through could the mixed passenger reverse and take the platform itself.

The mixed passenger really is a lovely train, with some rather remarkable coaches that have been converted from freight cars. However, it was so lightly loaded that I thought it was a train of empties at first. A handful of passengers does not make a successful railway.

A passenger coach fashioned from a freight car

A passenger coach fashioned from a freight car

As terrific as our steam tour has been I have to keep reminding myself to appreciate the railway system as it stands today and the mixed passenger is a good example of that. It is probably something that will disappear within the next decade – someone joked that we will be back in a decade to try and re-create such trains!

Our afternoon’s work began with our departure from Hnin Pale at 2.27pm. We made our first stop at a level crossing only a short distance from our starting point to try and make a shot with some water buffalo being herded through a water channel running parallel with the railway. It was a moment that captured the utter madness and enjoyability of these trips with the kind assistance of a herdsman who was most willing to get his charges into the right spot for the runpast (around 3pm).

We had taken up a vantage point on a ridge overlooking the water channel and from here Bernd shouted directions which our guides translated into Burmese for the herdsman to follow. The shot looked pretty amazing as it was but better was to follow after the runpast with the water buffalo stood in the foreground of our static train (better not to ask about the wisdom of lying down in front of water buffalo…). Simply amazing – probably the standout moment of the trip for me.

Water buffalo at Hnin Pale

Water buffalo at Hnin Pale

A little farther on, near Taungzun, we stopped for a shot of a river bridge that we reached by working our way carefully around the perimeter of a field of sweetcorn. We arrived at Taungzun itself shortly after this (4pm) and then stopped briefly at Mayangon (4.30-4.35pm) to allow a train bound for Mawlamyine to cross. Finally, we picked a spot at a bridge a short way out from Kyaikhto for our sunset stand – enjoying about five or six runpasts until the light was well and truly gone.

Our train reached Kyaikhto station at 6pm and before we boarded the buses there was time for some speeches to thank the railway crew for their superb efforts throughout the tour. I can honestly say that I have never seen a steam photo charter that has run quite as smoothly as this so they really deserved all the praise and applause. Of course it wasn’t the end of the day for the crew – they still had to get the train back to Bago whilst we had the luxury of sitting back in our buses for the two hour drive to our hotel in Bago.

The last light of the day

The last light of the day

It has been a superb day with terrific weather and superb photographic opportunities. It felt hotter than any of the days so far but running around trying to position ourselves in front of the moving bovine target probably didn’t help! Still, I wouldn’t change a thing. If we wore ourselves out a little bit more then that was fine with a quieter day ahead of us.

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Extreme gardening and floristry

Posted in Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 16, 2017

The last day of our photo charter began with an earlyish start by bus. leaving our hotel in Thaton under cover of darkness in the hope of catching the morning glint a little further down the line. Our train is heading back to the shed at Bago but we will only stay with the train whilst we have light. It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll make it as far as Mokpalin, let alone Bago.

Catching the glint at Theinzeik

Catching the glint at Theinzeik

As the sun rose we found ourselves at Theinzeik, roughly 17km from Thaton. The scene was a familiar one to veterans of Burmese steam, but the beautiful pool of water they remembered was much depleted and a line of previously submerged junk had now become visible on the side nearest to the village. Although this reduced the possibilities for a reflection shot, we still had enough water to play with and beautiful conditions to match.

Once our reflection had been captured we walked a little way down the line to capture a bit more of the rural scene and the semaphore signals here before finishing up at 8.45am in good time for a passenger express to overtake us (at 9.07am). All pretty straightforward stuff, despite the efforts of a mean looking beast to intimidate us. Breakfast arrived as we waited to set off again – bananas delivered by motorbike!

Heading north from Theinzeik

Heading north from Theinzeik

Our train departed at 9.29am. Once again I joined the box car at the rear of the train, which is not unusual for a FarRail tour and yet this is still the most remarkable that I’ve travelled in.

The box car doubles up as the kitchen for the crew – a chef and his mate have a drum stove at one end of the box car and boxes of kitchen equipment with which to rustle up a fitting meal. Today, this means that the smell of fish curry is wafting through the air over the photographers filling every available space in the middle of the car. At the other end, hanging out of the door, we have our smartly turned out and ever-smiling singing guard, who is never to be seen without his smart white railway uniform and cap. Freight class really is the way to travel!

One of the small shops at Hnin Pale station

One of the small shops at Hnin Pale station

The journey north took us to Donwun where we stopped briefly (10-10.14am) so that the diesel could be attached to the front of the train to try and help us make some distance. The next stop came at Hnin Pale (10.45am) where we took on water with the assistance of the local fire brigade and waited for a passenger service to pass (11.35am). With the passenger service out of the way we pushed back in the direction of Theinzeik for a shot of the box-girder bridge we had just passed over.

Major gardening was required to make this possibility. Thankfully, some locals came to our assistance with machetes – helping to return the scene to how it had appeared a decade earlier before the line had become overcrowded by bushes. For a finishing touch one of the lads arranged some purple flowers as additional foreground! Three runpasts here (12.00-12.30) made good use of that work and ensured that everyone got the shot.

The view after some extreme gardening

The view after some extreme gardening

We returned to Hnin Pale station at 12.50pm and enjoyed lunch from the station cafe – chicken curry with rice. The most remarkable thing about this was how they served it up on giant leaves sat on top of newspaper. It feels like the Burmese equivalent to fish and chips – very tasty too!

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The Zingyaik duck shoot

Posted in Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 15, 2017

On our re-union with the other half of the tour group we began an afternoon of photography between Zingyaik and Yinnyein, but not before a snack lunch in the shelter of Zingyaik station on what must be the hottest day so far. It sounded as though the other group got some good shots at Mottama shed (including a rather surprising wartime armoured vehicle with a rotating turret that is still in use as a permanent way vehicle) and found plenty of interest in Mawlamyine.

Station sign at Zingyaik

Station sign at Zingyaik

The modest station at Zingyaik, located by a stone yard, was rather older than it seemed at first – the steel beams holding up the roof were stamped with Barrow Steel 1/1892. As with most stations the copious signage included a directive to ‘Warmly welcome and take care of tourists’ as well as a reminder that the public chewing and spitting out of betel nut chew was forbidden (probably to avoid the unsightly red blotches that you see everywhere here, rather than to break the national addiction to this carcinogenic narcotic).

After a leisurely start, we began our photography with a demonstration of how stone was traditionally loaded onto these trains, given that in the last days of real steam this was the most likely cargo to be transported. It was a slightly odd moment of hard labour for tourists! As the railways would not allow us to run with loaded trains the stone had to be removed before our departure at 1.33pm.

The stationary duck shot

The stationary duck shot

Only a short way up the line we stopped at a spot where a water channel with a duck farm runs parallel to the line and proceeded to have great fun trying to get our moving targets in the same shot as the approaching loco on a runpast. Ironically, some of the best shots came from the stationary loco after our tour leader, Bernd, called for some smoke. It looks good if you ignore the tell tale signs that the train isn’t actually moving!

The next stop up the line delivered perhaps the most haphazard bridge we have seen on this trip, featuring logs rather loosely tied together. After about two-thirds of the group had crossed it started to fall apart and the locals had to repair it before everyone could return!

A bridge beyond Zingyaik

A bridge beyond Zingyaik

At this point our train returned to Zingyaik (arriving at 2.45pm) where we waited 35 minutes for train 89 to Mawlamyine to cross before we could resume our journey up the line towards Yinnyein (setting off for the second time at 3.40pm). Once again we found ourselves crossing a bridge over the water channel into the fields – this time a bridge made of pipes – before a half hour session with four runpasts (4-4.35pm).

Finally, we made it to Yinnyein. As the pagoda by the river shot here is quite tight we split the group into two and each had the opportunity to try the shot from the optimum position. I joined the second attempt around 5.20pm. Unfortunately, the loco produced too much smoke and completely obscured the pagoda. Too much smoke is rarely a problem, but here it most definetly was!

Sunset at Yinnyein

Sunset at Yinnyein

After finishing the day with some sunset shots in the fields we boarded our buses at Yinnyein around 6.30pm and drove on to Thaton for the night. I welcomed the return to the local restaurant we had tried a few nights back and enjoyed the re-acquaintance with one of the most flavoursome dishes we have tried here (a dish of spiced pork, egg and onion was quite incredible). A good end to an enjoyable afternoon in the sun.

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The golden rock

Posted in Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 14, 2017

Amongst Myanmar’s many remarkable pagodas, the pagoda at Mount Kyaiktiyo stands out as one of the most unusual. This 24 foot pagoda sits atop a golden rock which in turn is perched on a bolder at the peak of the mountain. The rock is said to be balanced on a single strand of the Buddha’s hair, though it can’t be that precarious to withstand the many pilgrims crossing the bridge to plaster on yet more gold leaf!

The golden rock

The golden rock

A visit to the golden rock is as much about the experience of the journey as the destination. Our tour bus had delivered us to the basecamp at Kinpun where we transferred to an open truck (un-reassuringly a sign hanging from the roof of the truck station revealed that the 2,000 kyat fare included life insurance!). For most locals this means being crammed into trucks that hold about 60 passengers (roughly 6-8 passengers per row, tightly packed on narrow benches). However, our group were lucky enough to get a truck to ourselves with the luxury of space.

I was surprised to find that the crazy, rough and fast ride up the mountain road didn’t induce my fear of heights in the way that the drive to the Eagle’s Nest had last year. I was certainly aware of the nasty hairpin turns and steep inclines, but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough for the sheer drops along the way! Having said that, I was worried that the downward leg would be rather more exciting than the outward journey.

Fares include life insurance

Truck fares include life insurance

On reaching the truck stop at the top of the mountain we clambered out, paid our foreigner entrance fees and walked the short distance to our hotel for the night – Kyaik Hto Hotel. Aptly described as a so-so hotel by our tour leader the Kyaik Hto offered basic rooms in chalet style terracing on the mountainside. Comfortable enough for a night’s stay, though the thin walls and late night karaoke would later contribute to a challenging night of sleep.

The hotel is located directly off the main route up to the holy site, with a constant stream of pilgrims, monks and basket carriers passing at all hours of the day. The route here is also lined with tourist shops offering a variety of souvenirs, including mini golden rocks by the hundred.

At the entrance a small set of battered metal lockers offered space for western tourists to store their footwear, though I’d taken note of the suggestion to carry a shopping bag ready for this purpose. Indeed, I had half expected to see the incongruous sight of bags advertising other UK supermarkets on my wanders inside but no-one else seemed to have done this.

The Kyaik Hto Hotel

The Kyaik Hto Hotel

As our stay coincided with the weekend, holiday and full moon many more pilgrims than usual were making their way past the chinthe guardians and into holy grounds. Everywhere you looked, be it on the terraces, on the main square or in the unlikeliest corners families were settling down with makeshift beds for their night on the mountain top (something foreigners are forbidden from doing). Basically, any space that could be used for sleeping was filled – sometimes just leaving a narrow pathway to thread your way through.

There must have been a few thousand pilgrims and only a relatively small number of western tourists amongst them (I counted no more than 20 besides ourselves over the course of the evening). In our obsession with the impact of the tourist invasion of Myanmar it is easy to forget that the changes here have also opened up the country to its own people. More Burmese nationals are travelling around their own country than ever before, especially to holy sites like this.

Improvised tents on the mountain top

Improvised tents on the mountain top

Nevertheless, the number of foreign visitors is steadily increasing. In 2012 there were just 60,000 foreign visitors to the golden rock, but by 2014 that had doubled to 120,000. Although the final total for 2016 is not yet in it seems likely that it will have increased by a significant margin again (the total for the first half of the year is 70,459). To put this into context, the pagoda sees around 2 million visitors every year, whether local or international.

Our walk up the mountain pathway led us to the crowded upper terrace around the golden rock. There were other smaller temples, columns and shrines around the complex but the golden rock is the main focus. It was fascinating to watch pilgrims passing through an airport-style security gate and then cross the small bridge to paste on their patches of gold leaf to the rock. The sight only became more beautiful as the sun set with the added dimension of the hundreds of candles that had been lit on the lower terrace below.

After a short night of sleep I rose early and headed back to the rock at 5am. I was really surprised to see that most folk were already on the move and were not waiting for the sunrise. I’d really expected to still see everyone wrapped up the mountain top, fast asleep, but instead I found myself in the middle of the rush hour! The sunrise gave the rock a lovely glow but overall I think the spectacle was much better at sunset.

Time for a hair-raising truck ride down the mountain

Time for a hair-raising truck ride down the mountain

We set out from the hotel for our journey down the mountain at 8am. The tourist police helped us get an empty truck for our group which seemed to be given priority at the various checks along the route. It was quite apparent that there was a substantial queue of trucks waiting their turn to run in convoy down the mountain. Only a few of the trucks coming up were filled.

The extreme steepness at the top of the mountain was more apparent on the way down by truck and I was very thankful for their good brakes. Soon the excitement was at an end and we returned to the relative calm of our tour bus for the drive south to re-join the rest of our group.

Although it was not immediately apparent to us, changes have been slowly altering the golden rock experience for many years. Our tour guide said that when he first visited in his youth the mountain top had been sandy, making it a necessity to hire mats, but now the mountain top is entirely paved. However, much more substantial change is coming – a cable car system is being built here at a cost of $20 million US dollars and a number of large resort complexes are under construction around the mountain.

Work on the cable-car system is underway at Mount Kyaiktiyo

Work on the cable-car system is underway at Mount Kyaiktiyo

At the moment the most obvious signs of the contruction were the extensive base for the main station, the substantial supports for the columns up the mountain and the concrete columns for the mountain top station. Once complete, Sky Asia will operate 43 cable cars on the route carrying 8 passengers apiece for the expected 10 minute journey. Early reports suggested a March 2017 opening date but that didn’t seem very likely from what we could see.

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A morning in Thaton

Posted in Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 14, 2017

A beautiful sunrise over Thaton seemed like a promising start to our expedition to the golden rock, but first there was time to enjoy a walk to Shwe Saw Yan Pagoda. The cluttered and dusty streets surrounding the pagoda make quite a contrast with the gleaming golden stupa and many beautiful temple buildings that surround it.

Sunrise over Thaton

Sunrise over Thaton

There are signs that the tourist dollar has now reached Thaton, with the opening of the first four star hotel a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t really made much difference at street level yet. Mind you, the modest town of today is probably equally far removed from the fast developing modern cities of South East Asia as it is from the thriving ocean port and city-state that Thaton was one thousand years ago!

In common with many other places that I have seen here the pavements outside the pagoda present an assortment of obstacles, crumbling concrete and the occasional hole. Inevitably, a pack of malnourished dogs was never very far away. Somehow, in spite of all this, the Burma that I love shines through and everyone I encountered along the way was incredibly friendly.

The street scene around the pagoda

The street scene around the pagoda

The first Shwe Saw Yan Pagoda is supposed to have been built around 5BC but all trace of that has long since disappeared and the only indication of its long hitory has come from the discovery of seven historic tablets on the site.

A wander around the complex showed that it has plenty to fascinate beyond the golden stupa at its centre. Amongst the side attractions are the inevitable chinthe gate guardians, an ornate temple at the centre of a colourful display of floor tiles, a white tiled dome stupa (and pigeon magnet) and a rather splendid diorama which I assume shows the many pagodas on the hills around Thaton (perhaps historically, rather than in the present?). A good view across the complex is also available from the upper terrace of the temple at the very back of the site.

One of the temples around the central stupa

One of the temples around the central stupa

Smaller pagodas are scattered throughout the town and I stopped off at one of these on my way back. The keyholder was pleased to have a visitor to show around and eagerly unlocked a room on the site filled with small statues of Buddha that he was keen to show me.

If I had a little more time it would have been interesting to climb the hillside to reach the pagoda of Mya Thapaint that was so marvelously depicted in the diorama. However, it was time for us to continue on our drive to the golden rock.

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Lineside temple-spotting in Thaton and Yinnyein

Posted in Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 13, 2017

A beautiful morning tempted us out of our hotel for an early morning trip to capture sunrise at Thaton, starting with a runpast in the mist at 6.45am. After the sunrise we had to return our train to the station by 8am to avoid disrupting the regular services, heading back to the hotel for breakfast. A short lived but spectacular session, delivering more good pictures in an hour or so than on many a day.

A storming start at Thaton

A storming start at Thaton

Our drive back through Thaton highlighted the many beautiful sights in the city, including many delightful smaller stupas. I was tempted to walk back along the road to photograph one of the more unusual of these until it was pointed out that there was a prison on the other side of the road. Waving a camera around there might attract the wrong attention! As it was, our tour guides had been up all night answering questions from the police and explaining to the authorities what we were doing in the area.

With a few hours to kill I returned to my massive room, said hello to the geckos I was sharing with (I’m not sure which of us was more startled when I pulled back the curtains) and once again marvelled at the strange interior design (odd wooden furniture, garden trellis, ultra-fake wood vinyl, towels shaped like swans and a rusting external door into the bathroom!). Later, a few of us gathered in the hallway to watch an exciting drama about a man stealing rice from a monk and his pathway to redemption.

YD964 passes a lineside temple at Thaton

YD964 passes a lineside temple at Thaton

Our afternoon began with the departure of our train at 2.31pm, backing out towards Bago. The first runpasts (3 to 3.15pm) gave us a wonderful combination of a temple by the lineside, semaphore signals and a stupa on the hills beyond. The spectacle caught the attention of the locals and one couple sat down in the fields in front of me, sheltering under an umbrella to watch the second runpast.

After getting the shots we set off back towards Thaton, grabbing another shot with kids looking on in amazement at our train (it’s quite unlikely they would ever have seen a steam locomotive before, as even the short-lived attempt to run tourist trains a few years back ran only five times and in a completely different part of the country).

A local couple watch the steam spectacle

A local couple watch the steam spectacle

We reached Yinnyein just in time to get a shot of the train passing the stupa before the light came off the line (indeed, it was already a little in shadow) and then dashed back over the bridge for a shot with the river. I had been so tentative crossing the bridge in the first place but knowing that time was short didn’t want to be responsible for delaying the second run (as it was the train was still pushing back as I reached the other side).

I had no idea where I was going as I ran down the street but a local kindly pointed the way down an alley and into a riverside back garden with a tight view of the bridge (where the rest had gathered in two clusters). Two local children swung their feet off a small pier as they watched the unusual entertainment. At 5.29pm we re-boarded our train, headed a little farther down the line to try some silhouette shots and then returned to our buses at a nearby level crossing.

Catching the glint at Yinnyein

Catching the glint at Yinnyein

The group is splitting into two here – with one group heading back to Thaton ahead of a trip to the golden rock tomorrow whilst the other will be going to Mawlamyine to take a look around the depot at Mottama and see our loco turned ready for the return to Bago. I thought it was an almost impossible choice but opted for the golden rock to see a little more culture before it gets too much altered by the oncoming tourist onslaught! For the crew it will be a well earned rest day.

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The hay harvest and other rural scenes

Posted in Kyaikhto, Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 12, 2017

The afternoon saw us take our time on the line beyond Kyaikhto, heading towards Thaton. After our departure at 1.42pm we headed through Mayangon (with a brief stop from 3.25 to 3.35pm to allow the diesel to be re-attached to the front of the train to speed our progress) and Taungzun (with a brief stop at 4.10pm to detach the diesel) before reaching Hnin Pale (5.20pm).

Gathering hay near Mayangon

Gathering hay near Mayangon

This stretch of countryside gave us some stunning views and equally marvellous runpasts. The most memorable would have to be the opportunity to capture an authentic rural scene with workers gathering hay near to Mayangon. However, once we clambered out of our boxcars we couldn’t help but notice two empty ox carts approaching and a plan soon came together for an enhanced version of this slice of real rural life! One of the approaching cart drivers was only too happy to complete our scene and soon began to receive bundles of hay scooped up by pitchfork…

Two runpasts with our carefully arranged cart and workers was followed by another timeless shot of YD964 approaching the cart crossing where our adventures began. The fact that we had to cross a bamboo bridge to reach the spot just added to the magic.

A little further on, at Taungzun, we headed for a lovely shot of YD964 crossing the river but then marvelled at the sight of a herd of water buffalo heading for the same spot. Unfortunately, the herd were only just slipping into the water by the time of the first runpast and were heading back for dry land before the loco could make a second run (the loco had some problems with the oil burner). Arghhh!

The scene before our runpast

The scene before our runpast

Thankfully, the herdsman was very amenable to persuading his charge to return to the water for a bonus swim. Sadly, the shot didn’t really come off as we might have hoped. The water buffalo seemed to be disturbed by the sound of the approaching loco and swam back towards the shore as it crossed the bridge. I guess the days of animals being used to the sound of steam have long gone here! It will have to join the album of shots that got away…

Anyway, it was great fun – if a little tense – trying to get the shot. We had to keep one eye on the herd and the other on the train, then move around to try and keep both in shot. whilst not getting in each others way. There was no chance for a third attempt as we were already delaying a train following us.

The herd of water buffalo head for the exit as our train crosses the river at Taungzun

The herd of water buffalo head for the exit as our train crosses the river at Taungzun

On our arrival at Hnin Pale we transferred to our buses for the 45 minute drive to Thaton, enjoying a tasty meal at a restaurant in the city centre before heading to our rather eclectic, colonial-ish styled hotel. It woulb be a struggle to say it was a welcoming place but apparently it was a vast improvement on the options that had been available the last time tours were run here!

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Winter fog in Mokpalin

Posted in Kyaikhto, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 12, 2017

The guide books might have promised wall to wall sunshine for this time of year but after two days of mixed weather we already had reason to doubt this. Now, waking up to thick fog, we started to wonder whether there was any hope of conditions returning to their seasonal norm. However, the ‘atmospheric’ conditions did offer an interesting variation for the start of our day’s photographic endeavours.

Two monks look on as YD964 hauls our train out of Mokpalin

Two monks look on as YD964 hauls our train out of Mokpalin

Three false departures got us underway with a little assistance from some passers by who were only to happy to provide a little local colour. It was rather lovely to see how much the locals got into the spirit of our little adjustments to the scene, with one chap transformed from bemused bystander into director of photography! Fortunately we were able to correct the instructions he gave his models on how to stand and where to look before our train passed through…

We boarded a box-car on our train and headed away from Mokpalin at 8.10am. The morning continued to offer some splendid vignettes of rural life, including a marvellous scene with an ox and cart, as well as the daily sight of monks lining up to receive their donations of rice. As ever, what you see in the picture is not always an absolutely accurate reflection of life – for example, you won’t see shots that show the many kids or farm workers wearing premier league football shirts.

An ox and cart driver looks on as our train heads towards Kyaikkathr

An ox and cart driver looks on as our train heads towards Kyaikkathr

Our train took us on to Kyaikkathr, where we tried a few runpasts around the station and the town sign a little farther on (9.45-10.05am) before continuing on to Boyagyi (10.40am) where we stopped for half an hour to allow an express to pass through. The express turned up on schedule (10.55am) hauled by DF2023 (a CKD7 diesel electric locomotive built by CNR Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co., China) and we continued on our way fifteen minutes later.

The stop at Boyagyi gave us a chance to buy refreshments from the small stalls surrounding the station but it also
offered up one of the unexpected highlights of the day when our casual wander brought us to the local pagoda. It was a magnificent construction for what appeared to be just a small village. Although I had long since stopped photographing every stupa that we passed (having realised that there are far too many of them and that this was as absurd as photographing every parish church on a drive in England!) I couldn’t resist taking a few snaps of this place.

The splendid pagoda in Boyagyi

The splendid pagoda in Boyagyi

One of the oddities of our itinerary saw us stay overnight in Kyaikhto (Thuwunna Bumi Mountain View Resort), take an early bus to Mokpalin and then complete the circle by returning to Kyaikhto by train at midday. A longish lunch stop was a necessity here as express trains were due in both directions, allowing us time enough to soak up the atmosphere and take a few extra shots.

The station was a bit smarter than most we have seen in these parts, probably reflecting its importance as a jumping off point for trips to the golden rock. Having said that, just a handful of tourists got off the train here and I only saw a handful of westerners on the train heading south. I suspect the full force of the tourist invasion has yet to hit Mon State, which is not so surprising as it is some way off the main tourist circuit of Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay.

A rather splendid health and safety poster at the station reminds ox and cart drivers to look out for trains

A rather splendid health and safety poster at the station reminds ox and cart drivers to look out for trains

It was fascinating to watch the scene at the station, from the locals sitting on the rails waiting for the arrival of the express to the hawkers on the platforms readying their wares for the arrival of the expresses. The first to arrive was the late running train 89 from Yangon to Mawlamyine, hauled by DF1332, whilst the second was train 90 running from Mawlamyine to Yangon.

Incredibly, the next scheduled express passenger train after these had passed would be the 11.17pm service to Dawei Port. Thankfully, our charter train would be on its way long before then!

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Across the Sittaung

Posted in Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 11, 2017

Our three stage journey on the line from Bago to Mottama began today, starting with the stretch to Mokpalin in neighbouring Mon State. It is highly appropriate that this line should see our steam photo-charter with YD964 as this is where the last real steam freights met their end in 2008.

Unfortunately, my notes and photographs can only offer a poor account of this leg as I was feeling quite sick by this point and my focus had switched to surviving the day!

YD964 emerges from the Sittaung bridge

YD964 emerges from the Sittaung bridge

The day started with a bus transfer from Bago to Waw, arriving a little after 8am. Our train continued from here to Abya and crossed the Sittaung river in early afternoon (1-1.15pm).

Today, there are two bridges crossing the river but the remains of a far older railway bridge are still visible further downstream. The original railway bridge, constructed in 1908, connected with the line from Bago at Abya. However, this bridge was blown up by allied forces in February 1942 in a failed attempt to hold back the Japanese advance to Rangoon. The episode is widely considered to be a disaster as it left more than half the forces stranded on the wrong side of the river. From a rail perspective, the result was to cut the line short, leaving passengers to cross the river by ferry until a new bridge was opened (at this point the stations on either side of the river were closed and the line cut shorter still, terminating at Nyaung Khashe).

The bridge our train crossed was a later replacement – a 716m steel truss bridge at Theinzayat constructed between 1957 and 1961. It carries a single railway track with lanes on either side for road traffic, but cannot support the weight of heavy trucks. Most road traffic now takes a new bridge (opened in 2008) located 4 miles down stream.

Our train continued on to a run through the market at Theinzayat (2.50pm) but the first attempt was not a glorious success, with locals running to the trackside as they heard the loco approach. I’m all for local colour, but when you can’t see the locomotive in the shot…

After a much welcomed repeat of the run through the market (3.30pm) and a few shots on the line beyond we continued on to Mokpalin, arriving just after 5pm.

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Stupa-fied at Payagyi

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 10, 2017

The one spot not to be missed on the line between Bago and Pyuntaza, where a huge stupa provides a stunning backdrop to the railway, eluded us yesterday. Our second train of the day, hauled by YC629, was a late addition to the itinerary that would give us a chance to rectify this.

Hometime distractions at Payagyi

Hometime distractions at Payagyi

After arriving at Payagyi at 3.25pm we enjoyed arrival and departure shots at the station before heading down the line for the classic shot. We seemed to have timed our visit for hometime at the local school so the track was lined by awe-struck school children who looked on in amazement as this steam giant headed towards them. As steam ended here in the spring of 2008 it is quite unlikely that any of them will ever have seen a steam locomotive in real life.

The classic shot had become a little obscured in the decade since the last railway tour here so a little bit of gardening was required to clear the view of the bridge. It was well worth the effort as it really captures the wonderful combination of the beautiful Burmese scenery with the railway legacy of the colonial era. Two runpasts gave us ample opportunity to give the shot our best efforts.

YC629 passes the stupa at Payagyi

YC629 passes the stupa at Payagyi

We re-boarded our train at 4.25pm for the ride to Bago, passing through Shwehle (4.50pm) en route to a box-girder bridge over the Bago river where we spent about half an hour (5-5.30pm) trying to make the most of the last light of the day. Our train reached Bago at 6.15pm.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable day, despite the absence of blue skies, with everything running incredibly smoothly. Once again it was rounded off with a superb array of food at Royal Taste (Bago). Tommorrow we head away from Bago, beginning the three-leg journey towards Mottama.

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All the way to Waw

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 10, 2017

A forecast of light cloud prompted a slightly slower start today, with the group leaving the hotel at 7.30am for the short drive to Bago station.

Today’s plan would see us use two locomotives – the first, YD967, would be used on a re-creation of the old mixed passenger trains to Nyaungkhashe, but only as far as Waw (the line beyond Abya can no longer take a train). The second locomotive, YC629, would be used for a short run in the afternoon to help us get a shot that we missed yesterday, but more of that later!

YD967 approaches a quintessentially British bracket signal at Bago

YD967 approaches a quintessentially British bracket signal at Bago

Our photographic endeavours began with efforts to capture the movement of our two locos in the yard at Bago, including both false and real departures. As there is a 5mph speed limit out of the station these were relatively slow affairs, but still looked splendid against the marvellous colonial signalling infrastructure here.

In addition to our steam hauled trains we had the opportunity to watch some of the regular traffic, including a two carriage railcar RBE 2590 ‘College Town’ which is another import from Japan. A batch of these Kiha 48 class DMUs arrived from Hokkaido around 2012, having been made redundant by line electrification, and were re-modelled for use in Myanmar in 2013. Although there is plenty unchanged about the railways here, for now, you can certainly see the direction things are moving.

Around 9am we moved on to the next position – the bridge over the Bago river. Our comfortable tourist buses could only take us so far, necessitating a switch to a local truck-bus. I took the ladder to get a spot on the roof and was rewarded with a hairy and bumpy ride. Along the way we had to lift up low hanging telegraph wires so that we could pass underneath and got the occasional thrashing from branches overhanging the road. Once we got our feet back on the ground we only had a mildly terrifying bridge to cross standing between us and a superb viewpoint with local fishermen and bamboo floating in the water. I was glad it was worth the effort!

YD967 crosses a bridge over the Bago river

YD967 crosses a bridge over the Bago river

Our tourists buses took us on to Ka Li station where we had some fun with arrival, boarding and departure shots. No stone had been left unturned in the preparations for this trip, including the local passengers on our train who were being paid for their presence. So, the resulting shot of passengers waiting for their train to arrive is not quite what it seems but a good deal more fun. One of the ladies even insisted on a quick make-up session before we called the train for the shot!

We joined our local passengers for the onward journey, with a shot at another bridge before our arrival at Naung Pattaya at 12.30pm. An extended wait here, for a diesel hauled freight train to cross, gave an opportunity to take some shots of the local scenery and admire the neatly maintained equipment (such as the hand-operated lever at the points which was stamped McKenzie & Holland, BR Worcester, England 1909).

After the diesel freight (a stone train) passed through we turned our hand to a few more shots on the run to Waw. Our train arrived at the station at 2.40pm and we departed by bus soon after, with our local passengers, ready to transfer to our second train of the day.

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The Pyuntaza triangle

Posted in Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

The triangle at Pyuntaza had been re-instated prior to our visit, allowing us to turn the loco for a chimney first run back to Bago. After taking on water from a local pond, using a water pump, the loco ran light engine around the triangle and was backed onto the stock.

We joined the train for the return leg, departing from Pyuntaza at 3.15pm. Our steady progress back down the line towards Bago took us through Daik-u (3.55pm) and Shenlayse (4.20pm) before stopping around 5pm for a couple of runpasts in open countryside just before Paungdawthi. The second shot required us to cross a railway bridge that required a little concentration – the long planks laid over the sleepers were loose, worn away or missing altogether. For added excitement some of the gaps between sleepers were quite large. As you might have guessed this is never my favourite part, but the possibility of a good photograph usually triumphs over my irrational fears!

YC629 approaches a bridge between Daik-u and Paungdawthi

YC629 approaches a bridge between Daik-u and Paungdawthi

After re-boarding our train we made it into Paungdawthi itself (5pm), then on to Kadok (5.26pm) where we crossed with an express, before finally clambering out at the level crossing at Maing Ton (5.50pm) to return to our buses. In the process we got to try out the concrete lane we saw being laid earlier in the day!

On our arrival in Bago we headed to the upmarket Royal Taste restaurant for a tasty spread that included some impressive looking crayfish, though we didn’t quite know what to make of the proud claim that they only use London sunflower oil! The highlight turned out to be a dessert of coconut milk with green rice (perhaps bamboo rice) that didn’t look much at all but won the doubters round and gained a seal of almost universal approval. A good way to end a successful first day of our metre gauge steam adventure.

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A look inside Pyuntaza depot

Posted in Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

On our arrival at Pyuntaza we took the opportunity to explore the shed, grab some lunch and enjoy a refreshing beer.

YD962 stored in Pyuntaza shed

YD962 stored in Pyuntaza shed

The depot is currently home to nine stored locomotives and an assortment of extra tenders (including a rather forlorn tender for YD967, one of our three locomotives, which is clearly using a different tender for the charter trip). Besides the steam collection there was an eclectic mix of railcars, tank wagons and a lone carriage.

The most interesting sight in the shed was the rather battered D class 2-8-2 “MacArthur” loco 1032. It was one of 57 locos of this type sent from India to Burma in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, all is not as it seems and the stamps/plates suggest this survivor is probably a hybrid of D1032 and D1043.

ex-Japanese diesel railcar RBE2504 at Pyuntaza

ex-Japanese diesel railcar RBE2504 at Pyuntaza

Amongst the collections of red and cream railcars was RBE2504, a rather lovely Japanese railcar that was transferred to Myanmar Railways following the closure of the de-electrified stretches of the Mikawa Line (Aichi Prefecture) in 2004. Having originally seen use on the Moulmein-Ye Railway, the railcar now works the line between Pyuntaza and Madauk.

Steam locomotives stored in the shed: D1032, YC630, YD962, YD969, YD972 and YD973.
Steam locomotives stored outside: YB508, YD446 and YD974.
Railcars outside: LBRE7, LBRE50, LBRE60 and RBE2504.

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Steam to Pyuntaza

Posted in Bago, Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

The tour started in earnest today with a re-creation of a steam hauled passenger train over the main line from Bago to Pyuntaza. Our loco for this journey was YC629, one of ten 4-6-2 heavy passenger locos of this class built by the Vulcan Foundry in 1947 for the metre gauge railways of Burma. As a loco regularly assigned to trains on this stretch in the era of real steam it looked wonderfully authentic.

Our loco for the day - YC629

Our loco for the day – YC629

The appeal of running charters on the network here was easy to see when we took a little wander down the tracks at Bago. The signal boxes and semaphore signals all hark back to the colonial era and give the railway incredible character. Everything surrounding this infrastructure was also remarkably photogenic, even down to the pig that had been tethered to the buffer stops!

Nevertheless, the window for photographing the system as it stands today is narrowing – a contract to upgrade the signalling across the country has been signed and work is already underway.

Our steam passenger, hauled by YC629, at Kadok

Our steam passenger, hauled by YC629, at Kadok

Everywhere we stopped today we were met by friendly, though sometimes bemused, faces as the normality of life was disrupted by our steam charter. More often than not we were the subject of curiosity rather than our splendid loco, which may help to explain why the locals are sometimes looking in the ‘wrong’ direction in the photos we took!

To begin with we were following the tour in our buses, stopping either at photospots identified in advance of the trip or on the fly when a bit of local colour presented itself. Just such an opportunity arose early on when we spotted a 12 man road gang armed with spades smoothing freshly laid concrete on the Yangon-Mandalay Highway. Sadly, by the time our train appeared the work was finished and the road gang had already moved on to their next job…

The Yangon-Mandalay Highway undergoing road-widening works at Maing Ton as YC629 passes through

The Yangon-Mandalay Highway undergoing road-widening works at Maing Ton as YC629 passes through

The day was saved by a group of local women who kindly volunteered to step into the foreground for us and by one of our number who took on the role of traffic policeman – stopping lorries and motorbikes well short of the level crossing to keep the scene clear. The hidden effort that goes into some shots!

Around 10am our train reached Kadok and was pushed back into a siding to allow the express to overtake. In the meantime we had plenty of time to kill, but also plenty of local colour to photograph. Most memorably this included ox and cart trains that looked as though they belonged a century or two back.

The first part of the ox and cart train at Kadok

The first part of the ox and cart train at Kadok

Once the express to Mandalay had passed (at 10.48am) we had the opportunity to stage a false departure for our train and try some shots around the level crossing before continuing on to Pyuntaza by bus (arriving at 12 o’clock).

Although we have only a morning of photography in the bag I can already say that it really is rather magical to see steam restored to the metre gauge railways of Burma.

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Blessing in Bago

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 8, 2017

A relatively relaxed transfer by bus took us to Bago in around two hours, having found ourselves ensnared by a little of the notorious Yangon traffic along the way. The ride provided a good opportunity to catch up with some familiar faces and to appreciate the shift from urban to rural Myanmar.

The route gave us a brief sight of Taukkyan Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery with its familiar cross of sacrifice and stone of remembrance. The cemetery contains 6,374 burials from the Second World War and the names of some 27,000 soldiers who have no known grave are inscribed on the Rangoon memorial.

The temple at the back of our hotel in Bago

The temple at the back of our hotel in Bago

Our destination, Bago, turned out to be a bustling but somewhat scruffy provincial town but in its time this was the capital of the Mon kingdom. We got a few glimpses of the golden legacy as we drove in to town. The sights of the Bago Archaeological Zone are the lure for many visitors but for others it is simply a convenient stopping point on the 8 hour plus drive to Mandalay.

Bago may not remain a sleepy backwater for long as plans for the construction of a major international airport are close to approval, taking advantage of an unconstrained site (Yangon airport has no more room to grow). Hanthawaddy International Airport has a projected opening date of 2022 and will eventually be able to cope with 30 million passengers a year.

However, our reason for being here was rather different. Until steam came to an end in 2008 the principal steam shed was at Bago (and will be again for our steam revival). After settling in to our accommodation we made our way to the station to see monks bless the three locomotives for our tour and accept our offerings. Quite apart from this, the station at Bago was a spectacle in itself with some marvellous platform stalls and a real sense of being at the centre of local life.

Standing in the shadow of giants

Standing in the shadow of giants

In no time at all the light faded and we made our way to a local restaurant for a taste of Burmese cuisine (including a surprisingly tasty dish of dried eel). It has been a good day, but I reminded myself that we have yet to see any of our three locos turn a wheel under their own steam!