Posted in Railways on Saturday 26th June 2010 at 11:55pm


I've always enjoyed wandering around Gloucester, and it was one of the first places I decided to visit when I started using trains to explore my independence many years ago. However, I was amazed to find how early everything seemed to shut up shop last night, leaving the city centre deserted and very quiet aside from the odd pub or club where people spilled out onto the pavement to smoke or enjoy the warm evening. I was in Gloucester because the last trip of my now near-infamous 'UK tour' started, rather unusually, here - perhaps because it was originally designed to be hauled by slower locomotives which prevented a start further north? In any case this meant a night in the rather tiny and very warm Station Hotel before creaking and hobbling the few feet to the station this morning. As I arrived, 37259 and 37218 were running around the stock in already very hot sunshine. Met some friends and found our seats before settling in for the leisurely trip down to Bristol, enjoying breakfast and coffee on route. I was determined that this fairly local trip by recent standards, was going to be a relaxed and enjoyable affair.

37259 and 37218 at Gloucester, ready to head for Cornwall
37259 and 37218 at Gloucester, ready to head for Cornwall

As we headed south, noted a number of local folks boarding, and was soon presented with a glass of bucks fizz by one of the patrons of my former local pub! This set the ball rolling on the real ale consumption, and I confess a fair few different brews were sampled on the journey down through Devon and Cornwall. The seawall at Dawlish was teeming with people out in the sun, and we sped past making a fair racket and causing quite a spectacle. As we crossed the Royal Albert Bridge I realised that this was probably the first time I'd crossed both the Forth and the Tamar in less than a week for many years! The party atmosphere on board continued as Mr Spinks changed into a lurid Hawaiian shirt for the festivities in Penzance! It seemed very soon that we were passing Long Rock Depot where a bunch of orange jackets were scratching their heads in genuine bewilderment at the sight of a derailed HST power car. Managed a snap at the depot shunter, rarely seen out and about, but patiently sitting at the end of a rake of stock today, likely trapped by the stricken power car.

A rare sighting of 08410 out and about at Long Rock Depot
A rare sighting of 08410 out and about at Long Rock Depot

Once into Penzance a few moments after time, we followed a plan devised by our resident Head Brewer, and visited a number of pubs. This took us right through the heart of the apparently good natured but clearly totally unhinged Mazey Day festivities. The highlight has to be when a large group of men crashed noisily into Wetherspoons wearing the uniform of the Life Guards and singing songs about Cornish independence. A surreal moment, topped only by standing in Chapel Street listening to a very loud Methodist Band whilst enjoying a pint of Sharps Own. Wandered back to the station much later than planned, with the first of the three railtours which had made the journey down to Cornwall today having already left. However, it hadn't managed to get far as a lineside fire near Camborne was holding up all services. Our own train had yet to make it back into the station from Long Rock. A long, but good natured wait followed from the mostly merry and tired crowd. Eventually our stock reversed in, squeezed between a string of late arrivals, and we boarded for home. Despite some fine effort by the driver, who was suffering with some power issues from 37259 too, we were very late and onward connections were in disarray. Made some calls to sort a fast car from Taunton and tried to help out where I could by offering the single spare seat. Everyone seemed eventually to find a way of getting home, so settled in and relaxed for the last bit of the journey to Taunton.

So my seven-week railtour odyssey is over, having run almost faultlessly despite the new computer system at Network Rail, some incredibly complex trips and the rule that railtours never really run to plan. I've travelled the length, and a fair bit of the breadth of the UK in the past few weeks, and not encountered too much delay - despite today's unavoidable snarl-up. Next week it's back to pottering around the network under my own steam for a while, and with the work and financial situation brewing into a storm, this might in itself end up curtailed. This last few weeks will be remembered for a long while though. Even the weather worked pretty well!

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Posted in Railways on Friday 25th June 2010 at 9:50pm


I posted recently about the ability of the GBRf-operated diagram to produce unexpected treats, with the frustrating turn of events that saw 66721 out on a day I just didn't have the flexibility to get to the train. However, this morning, rather unexpectedly the other locomotive which had been lurking in the area turned up on my morning commute.

66402 with DRS branding removed, working 2D04 at Weston-super-Mare
66402 with DRS branding removed, working 2D04 at Weston-super-Mare

Rumour has it that the tendency to frequent failure has this contract hanging in the balance. With the short time left, it's doubtful that another locomotive supplier would be sorted. Until then however, there is time to enjoy both travel in style and comfort, along with the occasional surprise visitor!

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Posted in Railways on Monday 21st June 2010 at 10:32pm


Woke later than I'd planned to, after a fine night of sleep. Yesterday was strangely tiring, and today promised a long hot run south. However, I was looking forward to the journey which took a different route to our outward path. Having checked out of the hotel and done a little shopping, I lugged my bags over to my now familiar coffee shop for one last quick visit. The ill-tempered barista was still struggling to get staff in to work, but remained, as ever, faultlessly polite to the customers. I realised that in the few days I've spent here over the past few years, I've grown to like Inverness very much - there is something of the outpost about it sure enough, the last bit of civilisation before the barren north - but there is also a buzz which isn't always found in comparably sized cities. Wandered thoughtfully down to the station to find our train back in platform 1 and people milling around for photographs. Managed a quick shot of my own, and also snapped the depot shunter at work.

Our route home was, like the outward journey, timed in anticipation of a slower locomotive being in the consist. This meant we were fairly early all the way, and had several welcome leg-stretch breaks. The first of these came at Aviemore, where we let a unit pass in each direction. The waiting locals and tourists seemed faintly amused to see us scattering all over the station photographing the locomotives against a Cairngorm backdrop which still had snow, which news reports had assured us could still be used for skiing, despite it being Midsummers Day! Back onto the train for a run through gloomy Druimuichdar, even this remote and unforgiving spot rendered benign by wonderful sunshine. Another break followed at Dunkeld and Birnam, before we continued via Perth and Ladybank - with an unscheduled traversal of Thornton Loop thrown in while we waited time.

Heading home...37610 and 37608 wait time at Aviemore
Heading home...37610 and 37608 wait time at Aviemore

Another highlight followed, as we passed over the Forth Bridge. Still very much under repair, the mighty structure still managed to impress as we sped across to reach Ediburgh for a very brief set-down before leaving eastwards and taking the Suburban Lines to double back through the southern reaches of the city to reach our route south at Craiglockhart Junction. While briefly delayed here, a few spots of rain fell - but not nearly enough to signal a change in the weather, and once we gathered speed once again into the Clyde Valley at Carstairs, we were again travelling in stunning conditions. An early arrival at Carlisle followed, with a chance to chat to the trip organisers on the platform and to offer congratulations on a weekend which had lived up to every expectation and exceeded a good few of them too! There was lots of talk of next time, and where the trip might end up - and I very much hope that circumstances allow me to be there. It was a sobering reminder that I was returning to a very uncertain world, quite removed from the idyllic West Highlands or stony and empty Far North.

The last dash south behind the stalwart locomotives which had seen well over 1000 miles of use this weekend was just as impressive as their efforts over the gradients of the north, and as I made my way to my hotel room in Wolverhampton, I watched the locomotives thunder over the viaduct back towards Birmingham. This long weekend, the centrepiece of my 'UK tour' which has seen me on railtours for the past five weeks, has been fantastic. My first proper break for a very long time, and a chance to escape to my beloved Scotland. Spitfire deserve much credit for sticking with the complicated planning process and delivering this trip. It's been an incredible few days in the Highlands.

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Posted in Railways on Sunday 20th June 2010 at 11:51pm


Another very civilised start meant time for a leisurely stroll down to the station, enjoying a decent coffee and watching Inverness slowly waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning. The day was already warm, but with overcast skies - particularly to the north where we were headed. Arrived at the station to find the stock already in the platform, and took the opportunity for another snap of these workhorse locomotives as they waited to head up into the far north. Today's trip was, on paper, fairly simple - a run up to Wick, a reverse to Thurso and back to Inverness. A long haul, curving back and forth through the Highlands, with a late return to civilisation.

We set off by retracing yesterday's steps over Clacknaharry Swing Bridge and through Muir of Ord to Dingwall, before taking the far north line and turning east to follow the shore of the Cromary Firth. Swinging north again, we hugged the coast once more following the narrow band of settlements which crowd along the coastline here, through Tain and around the end of the Dornoch Firth, before taking a great loop inland and back out towards the coast. Almost doubling back on ourselves, we again found the east coast at Golspie and stayed alongside the North Sea as far as Helmsdale. Here, at the foot of the Highland Mountains, we paused. Took the opportunity to cross to the other side of the track and take some shots from the lane alongside the Network Rail yard. The wind was whipping in from the sea, and a few spots of rain had begun to fall. Great black and grey crowds rolled overhead and the sense of being somewhere very remote and far from home came over me suddenly. The village of Helmsdale is a little way from the station, so I didn't get to see the monument to those who emigrated during the Highland Clearances. Once back on board after some fine, atmospheric photographs had been taken, I accidentally initiated a bit of a discussion on the clearances too. Interestingly, as we headed inland into increasingly bleak terrain, a hush descended on the train which had been a very sociable affair until then - hopefully not as an effect of my historical ramblings.

37608 and 37610 under brooding skies at Helmsdale
37608 and 37610 under brooding skies at Helmsdale

With the barren Highland countryside slipping by, I thoughtfully sipped hot coffee and wondered where the strong June sunshine had gone. People seemed to be staring out, almost transfixed by the emptiness, broken only by the battered snow fences. The small settlement of Halkirk, devoid of a service since the 1960 cull of stations on the Far North Line, slipped by and we were soon arriving at Georgemas Junction. Nominally serving Halkirk, and for many years the point where trains split to form separate Wick and Thurso portions, the station is in a grim, empty situation with a small building maintained for the use of rail workers. Here our locomotives were separated and ran around to top and tail the train on the next sections of route, and this allowed some time for the passengers to scatter down into the expanse of waste ground to get some fine pictures - my own less skilled efforts will no doubt appear below too. Noted the felled container gantry, a vestige of a short-lived project to bring supermarket produce north from Inverness. By now a steady drizzle was falling and black clouds were tumbling over the hills will alarming speed. In just a shirt, having recklessly left my coat back in Inverness I could feel a keen wind whipping by. Despite the chance to stretch my legs and exercise my camera, I wasn't sorry to get back onto the train and press on with the short journey towards Wick.

Having visited Wick before, I made a familiar wander into town, via the local supermarket and newsagent. As a wet Sunday afternoon headed towards evening, the town was quiet and empty. Straggling groups of passengers from our train could be seen wandering around this slate grey outpost, grateful to be on terra firma after the long trek north, but just slightly bewildered by how quiet the town was. After making a 'phone call home I headed back to the station where the leading loco was noisily filling the small wooden trainshed with diesel fumes. Time for some pictures before getting back on board to await the returning passengers and head off once again. Passing through Georgemas Junction once more, we headed along the line to Thurso - the most northerly station in the British Isles, and somewhere which I'd not really explored on my last trip here. The line swung into town beside the river, and the town looked sizeable - perhaps a little bigger than Wick. Once out of the station after a few symbolic shots of our loco on the buffer stops at what is truly the end of the line, I walked into the town. With no real plan, I found myself heading down the main street and onto the short stretch of sea front. There on the shore I could see the North Sea crashing on the nearby rocks, and despite the gloom and threatening clouds there were good views of the ferry port at Scrabster and the distant shadow of Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland. A father and son who'd travelled up sat nearby on a bench, silently contemplating the end of the line with me, and I couldn't help but call to mind the Frightened Rabbit song Swim Until You Can't See Land and wonder if it was written nearby? Turning back towards Britain I noticed that the sea front here was different to the usual resorts which proudly face out towards the ocean. The view here was of back gardens, washing lines and quiet, closed windows. Thurso faces inwards, huddled against the cold and the dark seas. A walk through the town confirmed how quiet and empty the place was - though it's probably unfair to judge anywhere on a Sunday. There was, for example a little buzz of life around the Cooperative Food store, where I had a pleasant talk with the cashier about the longest day of the year. She parted with a pleasant "see you again" but I supposed there is no likelihood or reason I would? I realised the strange atmosphere of these northern climes and the symbolism of the journey all the way to the end of the line was getting to me. I bought local beer and headed back to the station through the deserted town, just as a fancy dress party spilled noisily and colourfully out of a bar and onto the street.

37608 and 37610 await a change of ends at remote Georgemas Junction
37608 and 37610 await a change of ends at remote Georgemas Junction

After another journey back to Georgemas Junction and a further run around and complicated shunting manoeuvre we were soon underway again with the locos double-heading southwards. It was interesting to note people gradually regaining their exuberance as we returned slowly to civilisation once again. Despite being a fairly rational creature, I strongly believe that place and space has a surprisingly marked effect on us, and there is something crushing and quietening about the journey to the Far North. Perhaps I think too much about such things, but today was as much of an experiment as I'm ever likely to be able to perform to prove my theories. As we repeated the traversal of the Rose Street Curve and propelled into the platform at Inveness on time and at a little before 23:00 still in a fair amount of daylight, I recalled that I last made it to the network's most northerly extremities back in 2006. On that occasion not everthying went to plan but I note I recorded a day of 'mixed fortunes and lasting impressions'. Today's excursion amplified those impressions - a fine day of interesting travels and complicated thoughts, and a fitting end to the time in the Highlands.

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Lost::MikeGTN

I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

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