Bill and I have recently returned home from our adventure in the United Kingdom. It was an absolute delight to meet so many British modellers during our week travelling up and down the country, and our experience reenforced the idea that model railroaders are all cut from the same cloth no matter where we live.
The trip started with our Cornish Recovery Tour. During the massive storms of February this year, the sea wall was breached at Dawlish on the Great Western mainline. It took a team of workers – known as the Orange Army for their orange high-vis gear – six weeks to repair the breach and get trains running again.
Because the only rail line into Cornwall was closed for so long, it is estimated that this cost the Cornish economy as much as £1 billion in lost revenue. So we figured that two guys going to Cornwall for two days should just about make up for that!
Bill tries to get some work done in steerage on an Air Canada 767.
Needless to say, he wasn’t too successful.
Our First Great Western HST arrives in Reading to take us to Plymouth.
To travel around the UK, the first choice is always to take the train. The whole island is so small there is no reason to fly. Take the train where you want to go and hire a car at your destination so you can visit all the neat places off of the mainline.
If you have a non-UK passport, you can get a BritRail pass. We get these every time we go to the UK as it’s phenomenally affordable. An off-season, eight-day, first class pass valid for all of the UK is under $500. First class is recommended as the trains are so busy that standard class tends to be quite overcrowded.
That being said, First Great Western’s first class service is nothing to write home about. They have hot meals on only about four trains a day so on all other trains you get chips (crisps) and cookies (biscuits) and not much else. If I was paying full fare I’d be mighty peeved off at that. And the Naugahyde seats are so slippery that you fly off them on curves and turnouts.
Maybe next time they should leave the poor Naugas alone (do you know how many Naugas are killed for a single seat? It’s shameful!) and invest in real leather or just use normal fabric like everyone else.
The shipping containers used as a breakwater at Dawlish
The storm hit on 5 February, leaving the rails literally suspended in mid-air. Repair crews used shipping containers filled with rubble to stop the waves while they worked, but on 14 February they were washed away as well! The shipping containers can still be seen today.
You can read all about the storm damage at the official Network Rail site here.
Our train enters Kennaway Tunnel at Dawlish.
One of the wonderful things about HSTs and their Mark 3 coaches is the ability to stick your head out the window and take a great photo, like the one above!
Bill and I rented (hired) a car in Plymouth and headed straight to Bodmin to ride the Bodmin and Wenford Railway. This is a lovely little run through the Cornish countryside in vintage Mark 1 coaches. Don’t tell Bill but the highlight for me was the HST we saw at Bodmin Parkway.
Bill used to model Bodmin station in N scale, but at the time the slowest speed achievable by an N scale locomotive was 473 MPH so he switched to OO and HO.
Bodmin Station. What a typical railfan – two cameras and a man purse!
I’m just missing my anorak.
“Yeah – the air conditioning is that lever over there. No, there. That’s right.”
Me photographing Bill photographing me. You can’t do that on Canadian trains…
The lady in the seat behind us is not impressed by our helicopter shot. That helicopter costs us a mint to hire. See the lengths we go to for one photo?
Bill prefers one of these. I prefer the other. Can you guess who prefers what?
We continued on from Bodmin to Tintagel, where we stayed at Michael House, a vegan bed and breakfast. Check out the view from my window:
View from Michael House, Tintagel, Cornwall
I’ve been driving for almost 25 years and always in cars with automatic transmissions… except for the three years I lived in the UK when I had to learn how to drive a manual on the OTHER side of the road. I learned how to do this in 2001… while stalled in a roundabout… on the phone to my father in Canada, who was giving step-by-step instructions on how to drive a manual transmission. In 14 years of marriage the only time Sidura has ever screamed at me was when we were stuck in a manual car halfway up a mountain in Fort William, Scotland, and I did not know how to drive it.
Needless to say, I did get better during the three years we lived in Birmingham. But the Cornish roads are a bit crazy and I haven’t driven many manual cars since 2004…
Here’s me driving on the narrow Cornish B roads.
Here’s me driving on the narrow Cornish B roads… from Bill’s perspective.
Bill used his arm as a weed whacker, though he was mostly protected by the wing mirror. Boy those streets are narrow!
Tintagel at Sunset
Photo by Bill Schneider.
When I see photos like the sunset shot above I am reminded of how talented my Rapido team is. Wow – what a photo! Thanks, Bill!
From Tintagel we considered taking an HST right up to Darlington but Bill had never ridden a Voyager before so we took an earlier train to Birmingham.
Getting a tour of a Voyager cab from a CrossCountry engineer.
FPA-4 cab this ain’t.
Whenever I travel throughout the UK the majority of my travel tends to be on CrossCountry because I like to stop in Birmingham or use it as a home base. And the majority of CrossCountry trains are Bombardier Voyagers. And I love them! Now granted I am usually in first class and I am told that they are a bit squishy in steerage. But they are great little trains that accelerate faster than my old Ford Escort. I seem to be in the minority in my love for Voyagers. Here’s my Bachmann CrossCountry Voyager on Colin Deschamps’s layout.
My Bachmann CrossCountry Voyager
One of my top pet peeves is when people slag off Birmingham. I was sitting at a table once with a woman from London. She learned I was living in Birmingham and she tutted about how awful it was. I asked her when she was last there: “1969, dear. But I’m English and you’re not and I know that Birmingham is an awful hole.” She was of the belief that because she talked posh she was better able to judge a city than a Canuck who lived there at the time. I threw her into a swimming pool.
The lady at an ice cream shop in Tintagel made similarly derogatory remarks and when I pushed her on it she admitted she had never actually been there. I stepped on her toe really hard.
Birmingham is a great city, and its reputation for being a dirty place is several decades out of date. Check out the Old Joint Stock, one of the nicest pubs in the country and an art gallery and theatre to boot:
Hanging out with friend Paul Levy at The Old Joint Stock
I wouldn’t be surprised if most of those Brum-bashers still think the Bull Ring is a dingy market from the 1970s. This is a part of the Bull Ring:
Selfridges and St. Martin in the Bullring, Birmingham
You can see how Bill’s tastes and my tastes tend to differ…
The Bull Ring is now a fabulous shopping centre and pedestrian area, and the Selfridges is quite the architectural marvel. I highly recommend Birmingham as a home base if you want to travel around the UK on a BritRail pass. There are too many great tourist sites to list that can be done within a day trip from Brum.
Finally arrived at Locomotion
After riding an HST up to Darlington (CrossCountry, so our bums didn’t slide off the seats) we finally arrived at Locomotion the National Railway Museum at Shildon the next morning with plenty to do to prepare for our big event. There are numerous places to take a break and relax while visiting Locomotion. I don’t recommend you sit underneath the locomotives.
After our first day Bill and I took some time by our hotel to show some proper railfan nerdiness and do some trainspotting. The hotel was right on the East Coast Main Line. The hotel was OK but not amazing, so I’ll just refer to it as the hotel.
Trespassing? Only the last three inches of my tush are trespassing.
(In case you are wondering, the answer is five: I brought five “I’d rather be on British Rail” T-shirts to the UK. You can order them here. New ones – not the ones I wore!)
East Coast HST north of Darlington
The purpose of the trip was of course our launch of the OO gauge APT-E model that Rapido is producing in partnership with locomotionmodels.com. We hadn’t announced what we were producing, but we did announce that we were doing a 3D scan of the real train at Locomotion.
The turnout was excellent – close to 100 people came to join us for the day, which featured tours of equipment normally closed to the public, interviews with Kit Spackman (Mr. Tilt) and the rest of the APT-E Conservation & Support Group, lunch, goody bags, and the chance to meet Bill, me and a whole whack of British model railway media people.
At precisely 10 a.m. we launched the model. In the photo below, Andy York (left) is activating our official APT-E thread on RMWeb (click here to go there), I am sending out the Rapido newsletter (click here to subscribe) and Bill is updating the web site. It really was almost simultaneous. Thank you to Locomotion for a reliable wi-fi connection!
Launching the APT-E
Photo by Thomas Blampied
Tim Rothwell from Scantech International Ltd. did the scan of the APT-E. This is a far more advanced process than the one used to scan the FPA-4 back in 2011. We could see point cloud files on Tim’s laptop before the event was over!
Tim’s scans will ensure that we get all of the complex curves of the APT-E correct on the model. It’s always nice to turn on “smug mode” and inform a critic that, actually, the model is 100% correct because we scanned it!
Here I’m interviewing Tim Rothwell for an APT-E movie.
Photo by Thomas Blampied.
Tim sets up one of the many separate scans needed to accurately create a 3D model of the train. Photo by Thomas Blampied.
Visitors were fortunate to receive tours of the APT-E power car.
Photo by Thomas Blampied.
One of the stars of the event was Kit Spackman. Kit is known as Mr. Tilt, and he was instrumental in the development and implementation of the APT-E tilting system. If you look at the famous photo of the train coming at you at full tilt, the dude in the cab with the huge afro is Kit. OK – here it is again.
The famous APT-E photo. The dude with the afro is Kit!
Visitors to the party enjoyed the rare treat of being taken through the APT-E by the man who was there when it all happened. And Kit has a near photographic memory so we really felt like we were back on board for the test runs!
Kit Spackman gives an informative presentation in Trailer Car 1 of the APT-E.
Photo by Thomas Blampied.
Once people started to make their way home, we began filming our silly APT-E movie. This will be on YouTube in the coming weeks and we’ll add a link to it (right here!) when it is up. If you really did not like our Introducing Rapido video, you probably won’t like this one either.
Bill and I rehearse a scene for our next silly movie.
Photo by Thomas Blampied.
George Muirhead and Stuart Brown showcase their acting talents for the new movie.
Photo by Thomas Blampied.
We spent our final day at Shildon going over some details needed while in person at the APT-E, including the all-important colour match. Remember – British Rail blue engines are hard to come by here in Canada!
As we found that the blue used on the real thing didn’t exactly match a Pantone colour chip, Melissa Jardine of the APT-E group was kind enough to paint us a sample, which promptly covered everything in Bill’s briefcase in blue paint.
Trying to colour match BR Blue. Didn’t work.
Posing with key members of the APT-E team. From left:
Paul Leadley, Melissa Jardine, Simon Huntington, Kit Spackman, David Leadley
and two weirdos.
Before heading even further north, Bill and I headed to York to spend some time with our good friend, Thomas Blampied. Thomas is from the Toronto area but he is currently living in York while completing his studies. Depending on when you read this, he may be back in the Great White North as he’s due to come home soon.
Bill hadn’t been to the NRM since he lived in the UK over 30 years ago, so he enjoyed touring around and inside all the big steamy things. However, I had just been to York a few months ago and I had a lot of work to catch up on, so I headed to the preserved Mk 2 Coach, threw my bag up on the luggage rack, and got to work.
Working in comfort and style at the NRM. Where can I plug in my laptop?
Let me tell you – being a fly on the wall in this coach was fascinating. As you can see in the photo, I had my headphones on. They weren’t playing anything, but people assumed I couldn’t hear them.
I heard several loudmouths acting like they knew what they were talking about. They didn’t. Most people seemed to think that this was an example of a contemporary coach that they have on the rails today, not realizing it was almost 50 years old and a heritage piece. It was clear that few people who visit the museum take the train to get there. By what I saw, few people who visit the museum have taken a train in 20 years!
The highlight was the white-haired couple – maybe in their late 60s or early 70s – who walked in, muttered “Oh, it’s a modern one!” and turned around and walked out in disgust. They couldn’t have been many years out of school when that coach hit the rails but in their minds it was modern rubbish. Why do some people only attribute value to things that look old?
Crap. I don’t fit.
On our last full day in the UK we headed further north, this time on East Coast. This was my second longish journey on East Coast and I must say the service in first class is SUPERB. Hot meals were provided as well as copious amounts of toast and hot and cold drinks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: East Coast is a top-notch franchise. And of course, in its infinite wisdom, the British government has decided that it should go back to the private sector… which means foreign governments will profit from the franchise rather than the British government. Yes, there is something wrong with this picture.
On the train my laptop finally gave up the ghost, as it usually does when I am thousands of miles from home. Last time it was in Regina on my western Canadian tour. This time it was somewhere around Durham. There’s nothing like forced relaxation when you have 4 million things to do on your laptop. I’m now recovering from the stress-related head implosion.
We trained up to Perth, where we met up with Arran and Charlie from Realtrack Models. Arran and Charlie are great guys and fellow train nuts and we always enjoy hanging out with them. We hope to work together with Realtrack in the future to bring out some more exclusive Rapido UK prototypes.
We headed north to Pitlochry, where Bill and the guys went railfanning while I went off in search of protein.
The Royal Scotsman in Pitlochry
Photo by Arran Aird.
Travelling further north we ended up at the lovely village of Dalwhinnie, and the real reason for this northern excursion becomes clear. Dalwhinnie is of course the home of the Dalwhinnie whisky distillery.
Not a bad place for a distillery…
Our tour guide was a pretty young Scottish lass who, at 19, was quite idealistic about her country. The tour was punctuated by various pro-Scottish and anti-English factoids, each of which was loudly disputed by Charlie. Seriously – I thought they were going to come to blows!
I’m not going to comment on whether or not Scotland should separate from the UK, but I am willing to bet that the issues surrounding independence are far more complex than they were in the mind and heart of this patriotic young woman. If you are voting in the referendum in September, please make sure you do as much research as possible before placing your vote. So either way, it is an educated vote.
I am personally a huge fan of Scotland and Wales, and I actually prefer travelling in Scotland and Wales to travelling in England. I think Scotland and Wales should form a new country called Scales. I’ll be on the first plane to visit.
Arran Aird, Bill, me and Charlie Petty at Dalwhinnie. Two companies united by a common love for good whisky!
Next stop was Aviemore where Arran used his powers of persuasion to get us a shed visit at the Strathspey Railway. Shed visits are always fun and it’s amazing what dedicated railfans can accomplish. Most of the work in restoring the Strathspey’s locomotives is performed by just a few guys and a two-ton crane. I was very, very impressed.
Another classic Bill Schneider photograph: the shed at Aviemore.
At one point I commented on the beautiful blue thing they had there and the fellow giving us the tour thought I was talking about Caledonian 828, the blue steam engine in the shed. We chose not to correct his assumption as we thought he would kick us out.
Bill photographs the less-interesting black thing at Aviemore shed.
Charlie Petty wonders what we’re doing stuck up a hill in Aviemore
while Bill goes all tourist-like.
We spent a few hours in the lovely tourist trap that is Aviemore. I spent considerable time disassembling and reassembling my computer on the table in a restaurant, and then decided to drown my sorrows in a double of Old Pulteney. Now that was time well spent. I had never tried Old Pulteney before and I am now a big fan. If there was ever a whisky that tasted like the sea, it’s Old Pulteney. I picked up a litre of Duncansby Head Single Malt at the airport and I have been slowly enjoying it since I came home. Highly recommended.
Bill and I made our goodbyes and headed to the station to catch the Caledonian Sleeper back to London.
The southbound Caledonian Sleeper enters Aviemore station.
Riding the Caledonian Sleeper is a great way to get from top to bottom of the UK without missing a day due to travel. The service is excellent and the lounge car is great fun. Bill and I chatted with a fascinating sculptor from the Isle of Skye who rides the sleeper and the Eurostar to her other house in Paris every couple of weeks. What a wonderful way to live! She’s probably among the sleeper’s most regular travellers.
The breakfast is probably worth missing – bring your own or get something in the station when you arrive. The best thing about the sleeper is that it is so well patronized! Our section was eight cars long and we gained several more cars along the way.
Bill gets settled in his bedroom.
Unfortunately once I unpacked the six teddy bears that travel with me everywhere I go there was no room for me on the bed so I was forced to sleep on the floor…
Checking out our rooms from the outside!
Bill and I have just arrived at Euston.
We were in London for even less time than my last trip. In November, Dan and I spent two hours in London waiting for our HST to the north. This time Bill and I were in London for less than an hour – just the time to taxi to Paddington and get on the Heathrow Express.
I have nothing against London – except for posh Londoners who insult Birmingham – but there really is so much to see in the UK outside of London. Regularly when I come back from the UK people ask, “How was London?” It doesn’t occur to them that there could be anywhere else in the UK worth visiting. Each BritRail pass comes with a London guidebook. No Edinburgh, Cardiff or Manchester guidebook – just London.
If you are heading to the UK for the first time, I recommend that you divide your time in half between London and Everywhere Else. You may find that you really enjoy Everywhere Else and next time you go to the UK you can spend even more time there.
Thanks to George Muirhead and everyone at Locomotion, Kit Spackman and the APT-E Conservation & Support Group, Arran and Charlie, and Thomas Blampied for making this trip so absolutely amazing.
Until next time,