Monday, 11 July 2016

The Harringworth Viaduct

There's a TV programme called Trainspotting Live just starting on BBC 4, and I've given it two minutes, but it really is about spotting locomotives - steam, diesel or electric - and therefore of limited appeal so far as I am concerned. So the telly's off while I put this post together.

I would nevertheless claim to love the railways of Britain. But from a social history point of view. So I like to know about their building; the railway company rivalries; the ways the various lines joined up and what journeys were then made possible; the stimulus they gave to towns and cities and seaside resorts; the part they played in wartime and peacetime; their heyday, decline, and modern resurgence. It's difficult to see how we could now do without a railway system, and the long-term trend away from the oil-consuming internal-combustion engine will - at least in the British situation - mean increasing reliance on fast, efficient rail travel. I like to follow all of this. Nostalgia is perfectly all right in its proper place, and I enjoy the noise and smell of steam trains. But I also enjoy the air-conditioned comfort of modern trains, and their smoothness, and their nice facilities. I want to be able to travel like this (Torquay, 2013):

Or this (Charlbury, 2016):

I'm not nearly so keen on this (Sheffield Park on the Bluebell Railway, 2015):

It looks spruce enough, but when old-fashioned train carriages of this sort were a real everyday experience, they were badly cleaned, smelled of very stale cigarette-smoke, and the upright horsehair seats were slow torture on a long journey.

I can't deny, however, the enduring appeal of steam trains. Not least because they are so photogenic! And here I confess that the overriding reason why I like railways is that they offer so much in the way of photo opportunities.

Never mind the engineering. There is atmosphere to be captured. And from that point of view, the locomotives are merely incidental. They add to the scene, if they pass by. But most of my railway pictures do not contain metal monsters. I want to record the soul of a station. It can be busy with people, or utterly quiet; it might even be only the overgrown remains of what was once a station but is no longer, and hasn't been since Dr Beeching wielded his axe. I want to catch these places when busy, or when slumbering; in brilliant sunshine, at sunset, or lost in the sombre shadows of a rainy day.

It's worth remembering that in any town you care to think of in this country, the oldest buildings, the ones most intimately connected with the social history of the place, are normally the parish church and the railway station. I try to inspect both.

Not just stations, however. Certain feats of engineering, in particular railway bridges and viaducts, are worth seeking out and photographing. An obvious example is the Forth Rail Bridge (as in these pictures from 2015 - I was standing at the North Queensferry end):

It's stupendously huge. And it has tremendous visual impact. It must be one of the most recognisable bridges in the world. The red paint is a new long-lasting formulation, making the regular task of repainting a thing of the past. It looks amazing in the sunset light, against that deep blue Scottish sky.

There are long, high brick or stone railway viaducts that are also compelling photographic subjects. I can't possibly omit my own interpretation of the famous Ribblehead Viaduct in the high Pennines, taken here on a very cold afternoon in 2010. I'd been looking at lonely Ribblehead station, when a northbound goods train thundered through, and then with speed unchecked shot out onto the viaduct. I then drove Fiona down to a vantage point near the base of the Viaduct, where some train enthusiasts were standing around, video camera on tripod, waiting for a southbound passenger train to cross the Viaduct. It was freezing. They endured sleet while I watched. I stayed long enough to take the Viaduct in sunshine, but they had a long (and fruitless) wait.

While on the holiday I've just got back from, I made good use of my Senior Railcard and visited Leicester by train from Stamford. On the way back to the Caravan Club site, I detoured to see the Harringworth Viaduct. This straddles the Rutland-Northamptonshire border, links Oakham with Corby, and provides a diversionary route for freight and the odd passenger Special. It was 25th June, and the famous Flying Scotsman was due to steam northward along the Viaduct that day. Unfortunately. I didn't know this until hours after the event, so I missed the Flying Scotsman and saw only a notice about it, and a nearby marquee being taken down (erected for occasion by some railway club or society). But I was still able to shoot the Viaduct to my heart's content. It was muy imponente:

You can just picture the mighty Flying Scotsman travelling at full speed along the top!

I'm not sure whether the last two shots are in the best of taste, but they were fun to create back at the caravan that evening!

This was by no means my only chance of railway photography when on holiday. The full list of railway locations visited and shot is as follows:

Harringworth Viaduct
King's Lynn
Kings Sutton

That's more than usual! But each location means a pleasant drive to get there and back, an opportunity to take interesting photographs with historical content, and the exciting prospect of a train arriving or passing through. In gorgeous sunset light, if I time it right. Does that make me a nerd? Zounds, I protest.


  1. I took a look at Trainspotting Live on iPlayer but soon turned it off - far too nurdish for me, though it's good to see the Beeb making programmes like this for rail enthusiasts.

    Like you, I'm far more interested in the history - social and industrial - of the railway network. I'm also fascinated by stories that are hidden behind many of the leftover bits of railwayana from a bygone age - such as old Great Western broad gauge rail uses as fence posts.

    Ribblehead Viaduct justifiably has a place in many people's affections. To my mind, the Leaderfoot Viaduct in Scottish Border country is even more spectacular, though it's a long time since trains went over it. Maybe I'll see it one day.

  2. In a life long long ago I used those compartment carriages a lot on overnight services. I took advantage of looking like a long haired hippy to make myself look like a bad choice of travelling companion and hey presto, a comfy sleeping compartment to myself... Oh happy days...


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