Should aesthetics trump functionality?

I’m assuming it’s still okay to use the word ‘trump’ in the title of a post without attracting some incoherent response from the man on Capitol Hill.

On a short outing in the Severn Valley a few days ago, I was struck by the contrast between some of the structures and apparatus – old and quite new – which we encountered along the way. At the foot crossing in Eymore Wood we paused briefly as former Southern Region pacific 34027 Taw Valley passed through with a longish and busy train. This is the locomotive which has, on occasions, appeared around the country in maroon livery carrying the Hogwarts Express nameplate. Built immediately post WW2 (1946) it still looks the part, although – had it not been rescued from a south Wales scrapyard – it would have had a very short working life, having been withdrawn from service by 1964.

There is a slight uphill incline at this point and it was the kind of cold, crisp day when a bit of exertion generally produces good, photogenic steam.

Between the railway and the nearby river, a couple of Severn Trent reservoirs double up as boating lakes and wildlife retreats – wildfowl mostly but with a growing cormorant population. In combination with the preserved railway, the river itself and the northern edge of the extensive Wyre Forest, which reaches all the way to the opposite bank, it’s an attractive and not over-used area. Unfortunately, it seems to have been considered an appropriate site for a solar farm (Cenin Renewables in conjunction with Severn Trent apparently) – a development which started small and seems to be proliferating over a wide area. This is part of a cluster sited a few metres from the bank of the river…

One of the local councils – Kidderminster Parish – said at the time of the initial development they only found out about Severn Trent’s plans after they were approved because of (quote) “a loophole in planning regulations”. I could go on about the effectiveness and appropriate siting of these panels – that and the still ongoing debate around their dubious longevity and payback – but that would make for a much longer post. For now I’ll leave it that they’re unsightly and in a place where they should never have been considered; a place, incidentally, where if you pitched a tent for a night’s wild camp you’d quite likely be moved on.

About a couple of hundred metres upstream (no more) John Fowler’s elegant and timeless cast-iron arch bridge carries the railway across the Severn. Probably an unfair comparison, but even in the fading light of our return journey it struck us as more enhancement than intrusion…

Earlier in the day I’d taken this shot from the road bridge adjacent to Arley Station. It’s a jumble and just about everything is wrong with it, but I quite like the overall chaotic effect of steam, people, trains and infrastructure…

There are still a few examples of lower quadrant semaphore signalling to be found out on the main lines, including around the Worcester/Droitwich/Malvern area. Upper quadrants (raised signals) are a bit more numerous, particularly around the stations on the Highland Main Line; the GWR always liked to be different.

With the light almost gone, there was just about enough time to capture the bulrushes below. This group are at the edge of one of the two small reservoirs and are often frequented by coots, and occasionally reed warblers. Nature’s designs are often studies in understated elegance; something we could learn from…

Going over old ground…

That’s as good a way as any of summarising our outings of late: old haunts revisited; familiar routes reprised; two or three hours of borrowed time; longer days whenever opportunity presents. Brief escapes snatched from the seemingly remorseless clutches of life as it is now mostly lived. Not that we have much cause for complaint, but we’d probably all prefer to be doing a bit more of what we’d choose, a bit less of what’s required.

Habitually, we don’t take an awful lot of photographs; my tendency is to give priority to binoculars over a camera, but there is the occasional shot, usually intended as nothing more than a record of the day. These are just a few from recent weeks, accompanied by a bit of brief notation.

A grainy shot of a high-flying goshawk, taken in the Forest of Dean on a day when the weather was indeed glorious, although I don’t remember the sky being quite as blue and cloudless as the picture suggests…

The area has a reputation as a relative ‘hot spot’ for what is still a quite rare, although thankfully recovering, raptor (UK breeding population around 400 pairs). Usually I wouldn’t post a location for a sighting of a threatened bird of prey, but this particular site is already widely publicised online.

Wild ponies, Long Mynd: these animals are an ever-present feature of the Long Mynd, roaming across almost the entire expanse of the hills; sometimes in larger gatherings (I think the correct collective is ‘string’), at other times dispersed into smaller groups. Andy Howell – a Shropshire Hills regular – has written many blog entries about the area and regularly encounters the ponies… [Link]


Also taken on Long Mynd – one of a pair of falcons seen flying high above Light Spout Hollow and photographed at maximum zoom on a Sony HX300 Bridge Camera. With no detail visible on the camera’s LCD screen, we later cropped the image in Photoshop Elements (hence the grain) and then lightened it just enough for colours and markings to show. It looks like a hobby, which we’ve seen there before but usually skimming low over the ground chasing dragonflies…

Higher still, but much easier to identify – a pair of red kite…

Taken on 19th April, this was a day when we saw more kite than on any previous visit. We’d sometimes wondered whether the ones and twos spotted on previous occasions were the early settlers in a burgeoning population, or itinerants from Radnorshire on a day trip. We’re now hopeful of an eastward shift, as has previously happened with first buzzards then raven, and another step in the revival of an iconic species; they are still something of a rarity east of the Severn.

For anyone prepared to seek out the less populous parts of the hills, this whole area offers some of the best opportunities for spotting a variety of birds of prey; in fact, it’s one of the few places we know of where you could conceivably, in a single day, sight all three of our native falcons, plus a visiting hobby. It would need to be a lucky day, and at the right time of year, but it’s by no means inconceivable.

Wheatear is a variety we often see on the quieter parts of the Shropshire hills. This one was sufficiently obliging to sit still for a couple of shots…

This next one is an odd picture: for some reason – and my guess is user incompetence – the camera has focussed more precisely on the dried reeds than on the intended object, the meadow pipit. This gives the bird a slightly ghostly appearance, almost as if it had been struck down and become more powerful than could possibly have been imagined. I quite like the unintended strangeness of it…

Just taking off from Carding Mill Valley, a rescue helicopter presumably called out to assist with the search for a teenage girl who had been reported missing on the day in the vicinity of the hills. Thankfully, she turned up later in the day – safe and unharmed.



Wild garlic, trackside, Severn Valley Railway: a nice smell, or a revolting one? It seems to divide opinion…

Also on the Severn Valley Railway: shunting operations at Highley Station. It was taken during the Easter holiday period and good to see that the trains on the day were consistently busy.

Recently I’ve started to take notice of the small oval ‘Shed’ plates attached to the front of steam locos; that’s probably the kind of thing I should be telling to a therapist. The one on the front of the engine nearest to the camera (85D) refers to the old steam shed at Kidderminster, so 1450 hasn’t strayed too far from home. Locomotive 1501 is displaying a former Old Oak Common plate (81A); this was the principal shed serving the Paddington end of the old GWR main line, and 1501 would have kept company with some very illustrious stablemates.

A stroll and a spring steam gala (19/03/17)

I can remember the dying days of steam on our railway network, and I’m glad that preservation has safeguarded some remnants of those times for the benefit and enjoyment of generations present and future. That said, I don’t quite share the almost evangelical zeal exhibited by some; and here’s the real heresy – I actually prefer the old diesels!

But sometimes, we just happen to be in the vicinity of the Severn Valley when there’s a gala day and there’s no denying the old steamers can be very photogenic. Here’s former BR Standard Class 92214 working its way through The Wyre Forest near to the old mining villages of Highley and Alveley.  Built at Swindon works during 1959, it had a short operational life – being withdrawn from service in 1965. At various times it has carried the names: Oliver Cromwell; Leicester City; Central Star; Cock o’ The North, and possibly some others besides…

Here it is again, later in the day, waiting and then just departing the station at Bewdley; by this time the header code and other adornments had been removed…

A member of the station staff is about to hand the single line running token to the driver…

Also pictured at Bewdley, an old Great Western saddle tank – a shunting engine built primarily for dockside workings and use in colliery sidings. Here it’s just running around a short train at the northern end of the station…

  The same engine photographed side-on at Highley station yard…

A couple of shots taken at Hampton Loade station: the top one is of a GWR 1400 class tank engine, just about to depart on a shuttle service to Bridgnorth. These engines, including this particular one, have a certain celebrity status: Oliver the Western Engine appears in the children’s books written by the Rev W Awdry, and also in the Thomas the Tank Engine television series. As if that wasn’t fame enough, this very engine (1450) appeared in the film The Titfield Thunderbolt, albeit carrying a different number, and also in an episode of The Goodies

The locomotive pictured below – with another just visible through the gap – is currently resident on the SVR and was at one time certified for main line running. 34027 Taw Valley is a former Southern Region, West Country class express locomotive, which at one time worked some of the named expresses around the south and south-west of England – trains such as The Atlantic Coast Express which ran all the way to the Southern Region’s most westerly terminus (Bude).

By the time this picture was taken, I’d begun to fixate on the small ‘shed plates’ on the front of the locos, which identify their former home depots. Taw Valley carries shed plate 73B (Bricklayer’s arms): the depot, long gone, was formerly situated near to the intersection of a number of main roads, including – among others – Tower Bridge Road and Old Kent Road. It is now the site of residential and light industrial development.

Another shot taken in the Wyre Forest section of the line: Battle of Britain class 34081 – sometimes named 92 Squadron, but not on the day. This locomotive now spends its days touring the various heritage railways as a guest locomotive; in its heyday it would, like Taw Valley above, have operated across the old BR Southern region – anywhere between Kent and North Devon…

But there are drawbacks where steamers are concerned; one of them being the need for backwards running after visiting a terminus with no turntable. This is 34081 again, bum-end first this time and producing some very environmentally dubious emissions…

And that’s where diesels have a big advantage for the lineside snappers – they’re the same at both ends. Well, apart from the shunters…

Oh, and the Class 20s, obviously…

And, stretching a point, the Class 14s, where the cab isn’t quite symmetrically positioned, like this one waiting at Kidderminster on a previous visit…

The nuthatch below was a picture of studied indifference as the trains passed a few feet from where he was sat chatting to his mate…

And that was pretty much the day; we moved between the stations on foot, covered a few miles in the process (probably about 7 or 8 in total) and took advantage of the benches and shelter for food stops and to avoid the occasional outbreaks of drizzly rain.

A weekend wander

dscn1141It was almost windless today; the column of smoke rising from the farmer’s rubbish fire was proof of that. But it was also, even without windchill, bitingly cold – that seeping, bone cold which seems able to penetrate any number of layers without the temperature ever needing to go below freezing. We kept moving and were glad of any uphill stretches to generate a bit more heat. As is often the case, my thumbs were the last of the extremities to warm through; although even then the cold was replaced by an ache for a while. Perhaps I am becoming soft as the years tick by; if so, I am not alone, judging by the number of insulated jackets, zipped to the very top, the wearer’s nose tucked away inside, like a quilted balaclava.

dscn1132On the far side of a field – maybe a hundred metres or so away – a decent-sized buzzard was resting on a fence-post, feathers fluffed out against the cold. It was just about at the extreme of the zoom range on my camera and even leaning on a gate the shot wasn’t completely steady. The zooms on some of these modern cameras are remarkable in technological terms but there are limitations when it comes to using them towards the limits of their range. Mine is a Nikon bridge camera (a P510) with a supposed 42x maximum zoom: at anything beyond about 30x the light gathering starts to fall away appreciably; add in the effects of camera shake and quick, precise focussing becomes a problem. Wildlife subjects can be gone in the time it takes to frame and focus, but attempting to hurry the process can give mixed outcomes. No doubt things have moved on in the few years since I last bought a camera, but I can understand why those whose primary hobby is photography choose to carry SLR cameras, multiple lenses and tripods. I’d be unable to walk very far carrying that much gear, so there has to be a trade-off.

dscn1143Walking along a stretch of canal towpath in rapidly fading late afternoon light, we came across some cattle drinking from the side of the canal; something I’d never seen before. Although, as canals go, this stretch is relatively ‘pastoral’, I still couldn’t imagine January canal water being the most appealing of refreshments. It must be the case that animals in the wild have to take hydration wherever they can find it, and my judgement is probably still distorted by the altogether different canals remembered from my distant youth (see here).

dsc01140Spotting the Brush Class 60, returning steel coil empties along the Worcester-Stourbridge line and headed for the Round Oak terminal (and there’s a whole other story for a different day) was a bonus. At one time threatened with total withdrawal from operations this charismatic locomotive was one of the last made in numbers (100 were built) by Brush Traction’s Peterborough works, and has thankfully returned from the brink.



Low and slow (17/02/2015)

Low and slow

The Severn, in its middle reaches, can be a turbulent river; rising and falling many times over the course of a year and, although the origins may vary, the underlying cause is always the same – rapid, uncontainable accumulation of water. The river rises in an area of high rainfall and, along its route, collects the input from many other watercourses: some of them substantial rivers in their own right; others relatively minor; some probably unknown to most of us.

Over the years I’ve probably seen the river – particularly the stretch between Bridgnorth and its confluence with the Teme – in all of its moods: from meandering and benign all the way to torrent and flash flood. In spate it can be irresistible and horribly destructive: given the choice, my preference is for low and slow.

Swollen and fast, the river runs a cloudy and unattractive brown – the colour of tea with not enough milk – and carries all manner of debris, plenty of which is deposited in waterside meadows as the volume abates.

Worcester (left) is always susceptible to flooding. To the immediate left of the road bridge in the picture is New Road county cricket ground; arguably one of the most visually attractive of all the county grounds, it is frequently under water and inaccessible in the weeks leading up to the start of a new season.

By contrast, when levels are at their lowest, the Severn can run clear and shallow, sparkling over gravel beds with the bottom clearly visible. Not quite comparable with the Tay at its finest, but a far cry from the deluge which regularly threatens towns and villages along the flood plain.
This was how we found it on today’s walk and – with the increased activity from an assortment of birds – there was generally a feeling of ‘the coming of spring’, albeit slightly tempered by the clinging, muddy clay underfoot, which made the going harder than expected.

A few weeks back, the roar from the rushing water had been loud enough to drown out the noise of the trains passing by on the Severn Valley Railway, which runs alongside the river for most of its 16 miles. Today the long-tailed tits could be heard clicking away in the undergrowth. There are times when it’s scarcely possible to believe it’s the same stretch of water.

Talking of the railway: from Bewdley – where it swings alongside the river and shadows its route north all the way to Bridgnorth – it is rarely out of sight, other than a few sections when the trees are in summer foliage. The line crosses from the east bank to the west by means of an engineering masterwork – the Victoria Bridge, near to the village of Arley.

Today, one of the old diesel multiple units was in service and I was reminded of the old, and long gone, Dudley to Snow Hill route. Snow Hill station, as it was in those days, was another engineering masterwork; if only we’d had digital cameras back then.

By high summer, trackside vegetation will look a little different. This is the SVR’s resident Class 20 making careful progress

The forecast is saying rain for the midlands and west; for elsewhere as well. Tributaries of the Severn will be gathering water: hopefully not too much – some of them are susceptible to flooding issues of their own, before they add to the volume of the Severn. The Teme, the Vyrnwy – both with their sources in the Welsh hills – even our own smaller local river, the Stour, are all prone to gathering water and rising quickly, before they join the Severn on its meandering journey – east, south, then finally back towards the west, and with many other deviations along the route.

That’s not forgetting the Avon – the one we call the ‘Warwickshire’ Avon (presumably because of Stratford), even though it rises near to Naseby in Northamptonshire and has a pretty meandering journey of its own – Northants, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, finally Gloucestershire where it joins the Severn at Tewkesbury.

If the predictions turn out to be correct, and the next band of rain proves to be persistent and widespread, the goosanders won’t be drifting downstream on gentle currents as they were today. If the pattern of recent years is any guide, there will probably be, before spring is over, at least one major ‘event’ affecting any number of vulnerable areas from Shrewsbury all the way to the final outflow into the Severn estuary. If that should happen, I won’t be the only one looking forward to an extended dry spell and the return of low and slow.


Low and slow: the Severn at its most agreeable

Birmingham Snow Hill Station as it once was (1957) (Source: Wikipedia)

Fields of gold (01/08/14)

Our local farmer is a good sort: maintains some hedgerows, which the birds love; keeps the public footpaths clear and unobstructed. A few years back he told me one way to judge a grain harvest was to look at the way the drill tracks fill over as the summer progresses. In a good year they will all but disappear. There are no doubt other, more technical ways of evaluating grain yields, but it’s something I’ve looked for ever since.


This year has the look of a good one, assuming there are no catastrophes between now and harvesting. The characteristic lines across fields of wheat, oats and barley have become all but absorbed as the crops thicken out; and there are very few weeds – apparently another good sign. 2014 might well turn out to be a vintage year for breakfast cereals, beer and whisk(e)y.


It’s not just the cultivated crops that seem to be enjoying a bumper summer either. I can’t remember another year, certainly not a recent one, where footpaths have become so overgrown, almost disappearing in places and becoming impassable to all but the most determined. Nettles, brambles, and a good few non-natives like balsam and knotweed, have combined with a sustained spell of hot weather to create some unusual conditions in familiar places. It will be interesting to see how quickly the established paths reappear when time comes for the temporary jungle to recede.

Wildflower meadows have a long way to go to recover from the years of decimation since the middle of the last century (95% lost according to some estimates), but this year’s combination of heavy spring rainfall and sustained summer sunshine has allowed a few undisturbed places to be recolonized…



The benefits of the local farmer’s enlightened approach to land management has been evidenced by the increased number of whitethroats taking advantage of the hedgerow habitat…


And by the ever-growing numbers of the resident yellowhammer population, with their admirable approach to personal hygiene…


Rob’s fascination with his new camera (it’s a Sony HSC 300 and the pictures are all his!) has yielded some interesting results. Thankfully digital allows for unlimited shooting, at least within the constraints of SD card capacity and battery life. In the days of film he would have been penniless by now.

On one recent evening walk, he managed to capture:

On full (50x) zoom, a distant, silhouetted, buzzard, carrying what looked like a bedraggled grey squirrel…


And an indication that somewhere, not too far away, it was probably raining…


Despite what appearances might suggest, the walkers below were sticking strictly to a designated path…


It’s one of life’s inevitabilities that when we reach a railway line we have to wait a while. The distant glow of a green signal just acted as further confirmation…


At least, when it arrived, it did have a locomotive on the front…


The trainspotting interlude meant that we walked quite a bit of the return route in gathering gloom and with the temperature beginning to fall quite appreciably. The sun also dropped quickly and within a very short space of time we saw a flaming sunset replaced by a full, silver moon.





From the vaults: A short walk on (and alongside) established tracks (25/03/2012)

When time is limited, one of my favourite shorter walks is alongside the Severn between Arley and Hampton Loade; in particular the stretch between the Severn Valley Country Park and the railway station at Hampton Loade; there is a path which closely shadows the line of the preserved railway without ever straying far from the river itself. This being the weekend of the spring steam gala, combined with some unseasonably warm sunshine, both the path and the line were a little busier than is usually the case.


There was a time when the Gresley A4 Pacific Bittern would have spent its days hauling express services the length of the East Coast Main Line. It is pictured with a rake of authentic and restored coaching stock, moving at a more leisurely pace through the south Shropshire countryside.

I’m more likely to come here midweek, when the place is invariably quiet and often deserted. The strip of woodland which runs between the riverbank and the railway is a prime nesting area for a variety of birds and is particularly busy right at the moment. It is home to what must be some of the most aggressively vocal blue tits to be found anywhere; they seem to be quicker off the mark than other varieties when it comes to establishing territory – colonising the nest-boxes with all the efficiency of middle-class parents annexing school places.

Along the river itself there are a number of regular kingfisher beats; nothing being guaranteed obviously, but with a better than average chance of spotting one. Even more pleasing for me is that the locality seems now to have become another stronghold for raven – one of a number around the edge of the west midlands. Raven sightings were rare until very recently and there are encouraging signs that they are following the buzzard in becoming no longer just ‘a bird of the west’. It will be even better if they can be joined in the area by red kite, which are now being seen in parts of north Worcestershire.


In what might be a scene from Oh, Doctor Beeching! a member of the Severn Valley Railway staff carries out final checks before a Bridgnorth-bound service departs Hampton Loade.

The fact that woodland extends on both sides of the line contributes to a feeling of walking through, rather than around, the woods. Many of our local woodland trails tend to follow the periphery of the tree line and my own preference is for walking among the trees rather than skirting their edge.


Canoeists making the most of an unseasonably tranquil river, and [Below] A fly fisherman enjoying its equally unseasonably low level.


From the vaults: Into The City (08/08/2010)

There have been those I’ve enjoyed and would return to again and again; others I would happily live out my days and never once set foot in the place. It’s cities, I’m talking about.

Birmingham is a 30-minute train ride away; as journeys go it’s as good an example as you’ll find of public transport being the best option. Brum is a frequently and unfairly maligned place: the concrete jungle days are thankfully a thing of the past; only the long overdue remodelling of the hideous New Street Station is needed for the city centre transformation to be largely completed. Where Birmingham suffers, and will inevitably continue to suffer, is in the absence of any natural landscape: there is no river, no estuary or view of nearby hills to offer drama or enhancement in the way that the Clyde complements Glasgow, the Avon gorge dramatises Bristol, or any number of natural elements contribute towards making Edinburgh what Edinburgh, uniquely, is.

But if I’m forced to confront the daunting concept of entering shops then I’ll take a bustling city over a desensitised, hermetically sealed, out-of-town mall – even in the most inclement of weather; and the journey, by train, helps to make the whole experience a little more interesting.

Despite following a line which could scarcely be more urban, the trackside fringes are surprisingly wild. Not wild in the way that the Monadhliath is wild, or the Migneint; but wild in the sense of unkempt, neglected, left to the devices of those species adept at swift and burgeoning colonisation. Fox families move confidently in full view of station platforms; badger setts undercut the embankments; sparrowhawk and kestrel hunt a varied and plentiful diet among the buddleia and ground elder. Consume it too; undisturbed by anything other than the passing trains, to which they have become well accustomed. There’s more moving than just passengers and freight along these half secret conduits; buried in cuttings, hidden beyond garden fences.

Inevitably the wildlife shares its living space with the discarded evidence of human proximity – mattresses, plastic drums, bin-liners containing things we can only imagine. Detritus accumulating in a way which would have been impossible in the days of steam, when impromptu cinder fires regularly purged the embankments; admittedly to a somewhat random schedule and with indiscriminate consequences.

Although I suspect that back then less was jettisoned and more was mended.

From the vaults: Railways (26/12/2009)


(Some things never leave you…)

Walkers seem to have a natural affinity for railways; one which goes beyond the obvious connection of the environmental benefits of public transport. There’s something which makes the intrusion of a railway line into the landscape somehow less disagreeable than a comparable stretch of road. Maybe it has something to do with railway architecture having contributed some of the finer man-made additions to our list of landmarks: Ribblehead Viaduct, The West Highland Line, The Forth Railway Bridge …

 Driving that stretch of the ‘Great North Road’ (The A9), north of Dunkeld, can feel like traveling through a publicity newsreel for Highland tourism: the Tay valley, the pass of Killiekrankie, Drumochter, Loch Ericht, the southern Cairngorms …
But the road, for all the possibilities it opens up, can never match the romance of the Highland main line which shadows it for much of its route. Something feels ‘right’ about watching a passenger service tracking north, calling at Dalwhinnie, Kingussie, and beyond; a sense of amenity somehow surviving the onslaught of ‘deliverable outcomes’ and ‘targeted solutions’ in the post-privatisation era. Sadly the days of a locomotive dragging coaching stock are all but gone, so we make do with ‘Sprinters’ and ‘Turbostars’; better those though than line closures in the name of shareholder value.

I grew up around railways, and all too many years have slipped by since the days when I would lie awake, windows open, listening to the night mail paused at our local station. Invariably, in steam days, there would be wheel-slip and clatter from the departing locomotive – usually a Stanier Black ‘5’, occasionally something a bit more exotic. Later came the familiar ‘whistle’ of the old english Electric Class 40s at idle, the growl as they eased away from rest; railway sounds are one of life’s indelible imprints. We need to preserve our railway network, extend it and reclaim some of what’s been lost. And there needs to be a change in the impenetrable complexity of ticket pricing to ensure that walk-up fares are pitched at more realistic levels.

Pictures: (Top) Back in the days of GNER livery the northbound ‘Highland Chieftain’ passes the station at Dunkeld & Birnam. (Above) A Class 153 unit, having finished its stint on Europe’s shortest branch-line, waits by the signal box at Stourbridge Junction.

Chris Townsend’s blog (October 2009) includes an excellent piece on trains: