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Through the Years – John Birkinshaw

Through the Years – John Birkinshaw
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About the Author
Born 1947, Derby.
Educated in Derby and Bradford.

Through the school years, like most boys in school, I was a keen trainspotter. For some the hobby only lasted a few weeks, for others like me, it has lasted for a lifetime.

Collecting the numbers, and it was all about collecting the numbers, usually comprised either sitting at the trackside at Tamworth for the West Coast main line or Grantham for the East Coast main line. The bigger the locomotive, the more important the number or name, or so we thought.

On selected Sundays, bus trips were arranged to visit locomotive depots in specific areas like Leeds or Manchester. The more depots you could visit in a day, the better the trip. Ten depots in a day would be considered ‘a good Sunday out’.

For the photography it was the Kodak Brownie 127 camera. In my particular case, the camera let more light through the body onto the film strip than through the open lens. Those were ‘the good old days’.

Sadly, work commenced in 1962 and I became a trainee in the mechanical engineering discipline at the British Railways Locomotive Works in Derby. In those days, the big three employers were the Locomotive Works, the Carriage and Wagon Works and Rolls Royce. In 1968 I moved to the recently opened Railway Technical Centre in Derby as a trainee designer. This all enabled my hobby to continue. From there I moved to the Research & Development Area of the British Railway business.

The real change came in 1977, when I was asked to become the general manager of a Henry Boot acquisition, manufacturing track components in Darlington. This lead to global travel and strange places became familiar such as Sri Lanka, Singapore and Tanzania, where Henry Boot was involved in supplying track components. By 1987 I had the grand title of Export Development Manager for the Railway Division of Balfour Beatty. With the result that my hobby had now gone global.

In 1994 with the imminent privatisation of British Railways, I considered it was time to try to introduce the European track components and possible concepts to a privatised railway industry through my own company.

This work has carried me through until today.

Through all these years I maintained the photographic interest in steam locomotives and the systems they worked in, however today it is more about recording the atmosphere than just the locomotive in a hobby that, through the demise of steam is all but over.

As the 20th Century drew to a close, so too, did the need for one of the final remnants of the Industrial Revolution; the steam locomotive, which transitioned from workhorse to museum piece. The lure of a steam locomotive is universally irresistible. To some however, this interest went much deeper, to find and photograph at almost any cost the last of this dying breed. There was always an elusive dream to follow, capturing truly great photographs, those ‘master shots’.

As one of those die-hards, the hobby consumed a dozen cameras, some good, some not so good. For people of our generation in those early days, colour film, if you could afford it, featured ASA speed ratings which, even on a sunny day, could not keep pace with a fast-moving train. Colour renditions of the finished images left you wondering if your eyes were playing tricks on your memory – or – your eyes and your memory were not quite in sync.

Fast forward to today, where visits to preserved railway lines usually feature highly-polished locomotives and rolling stock. GPS can aid in navigation and exceptional images can be recorded using the tiny cameras built into mobile phones.

Can you imagine? During the period 1975 – 2000, a massive effort was required to achieve our photographic goals. Steam locomotives were disappearing at an alarming rate. Remember for most of us,a year’s ‘chasing’ comprised a 2 week holiday together with 4 or 5 long weekends. With up to 20 countries globally from which to choose, the choice of destination for our annual pilgrimages was often questioned not only by our wives, but by our bank balances. In the end, many trips were made no matter what the cost.

In those pre-internet, pre-email days, the news arrived in the form of a typewritten newsletter from Reading, England, delivered usually about once a month via second-class post. The newsletter contained no photos however, with luck, together with a timetable its pages might contain a hand-drawn map; the first step.

Transportation challenges included, in addition to the normal baggage, the obligatory Billingham bag for the cameras, lenses and film, for which the first obstacle was the airport X-ray machine.  The bureaucracy of travel included: frustrating interfaces with travel agents, visa requirements, complicated and unreliable transportation systems, indifferent hotels, unrecognisable food and toilets with strange appliances. Weather conditions ranged from mind-numbing cold to sweltering heat and humidity. Trivial stumbling-blocks included: language barriers, multiple currencies, numerous borders, for some destinations: no maps, no guides, no rental cars, no nothing! Believe it or not, some country’s railways even required the photographer to obtain a special photo permit, and these were only the travel-related impediments! Once in a particular area, we still had to find our way to ‘the spot’ then contend with the site’s photographic handicaps (steam leaks, wind, clouds, sun angles and more) notwithstanding the whims of the railway systems, late running!

Still, we got the shots . . . or at least, for two weeks, we thought we had them in the bag, only to receive our slides (images) back from the Kodak processing laboratory. Tearing-open the boxes, searching for that master shot but upon finding it, you discovered a telegraph pole appears to have magically repositioned itself, an intruder into what we remembered as a truly pristine scene. It gets worse! Someone says, ‘Have you seen . . . (that new book)?’ Then you realise what few master shots you thought you had, well maybe, but not quite. Such experiences usually prompted the chase to begin anew.

As for those wonderful locomotives, an undignified end came quickly and not through the lens of a camera, but the cutting torch of some scrap steel merchant, whose enthusiastic young men had no mercy.

Was it worth it? In the opinion of most, the answer must be a resounding, “Yes!” Although the catalogue of photographic errors committed was in my case endless, we nevertheless enjoyed every trip. Had it not been for the elusive master shot that ‘if only’ we had managed to record, what other interest would have drawn us to all those amazing countries?

Well, 40 years on across the globe, the number of steam locomotives employed as George Stephenson, André Chapelon and builders like Baldwin, Henschel and Beyer Peacock intended has dwindled to a point of virtual extinction.  Most would agree, the hobby, the obsession, the adventure, is all but over. I am certain that all who chased those locomotives would have their own different Achilles’ heels; perhaps a country, a favourite line, a climb or a class of locomotive.

What does the future hold? Many who were involved in this chase now dine out on their memories, while others continue to re-live classic steam scenes at the better tourist railways.

This book contains a selection of images and captions from previously published calendars spanning a period of a little less than 35 years.

The final images in this book have never featured in a calendar. There is an image from the ‘Jingpeng Straight’ which is possibly my personal Achilles’ heel and a pair of images one of which is to be used in the forthcoming calendar completing 35 years.

Ideal Gift

To receive a copy of the book and the 2015 calendar (which will be boxed and packaged together) please send payment together with your current postal address to:

Images Publishing Ltd Unit 5, Office Village,  Alfreton, Derbyshire,  DE55 7FQ

Or to pay by credit card please contact Images Publishing on 01773 830344.

The total delivered price within mainland UK will be £24.00

This is a very limited one off print run, and delivery will be made to you by the 1st week of November. All orders have to be made by 16th October 2014.

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