Friday, 2 February 2018

The Biggest Little Railway - Simon's view behind the camera! Part 1

It started with a tweet. "Simon, have you seen this? It was on an advert at Model Rail Scotland".

I was in an industry I didn't believe in (financial services), every day was the same, and there was something missing in my life. I was, for the most part unhappy.

It was with almost some relief that unemployment loomed, as my then boss and I agreed a mutual parting of ways.

It gave me the free time to do "The Biggest Little Railway in the World", potentially. So I emailed in, had a phone call with Charlotte at Love Productions, and a few weeks later heard that I'd been picked and that I needed to be in Scotland on a very specific day in late June.

The only trouble was that I would be in Iceland at that time, hiking. Flights were hurriedly changed, buses checked (because I would be at the far side of the island in Hofn the day before my flight to Scotland) and plans remade.

To give you a brief idea of the hellish journey I had I spent trying to get to Scotland from Iceland, it started with a car journey on which less than ten minutes in we got a puncture. I then hitched a ride into Hofn to get a bus from Hofn back along the coast.

This bus promptly broke down two miles before the next stop and my next bus, for which I then hiked along the main road in miserable weather before getting on my next bus...which broke down eleven miles outside of Reykjavik.

I then hitched a ride with a lovely Canadian couple who were returning their hire car to the same airport. Which was lovely. I now know a lot about Canadian currency, Jim Hortons (or was it Tim?) and that my late uncle (who lived in Toronto) was right about one thing and one thing only: you can only have maple syrup with pancakes and bacon. Nevertheless a lovely couple to whom I am very grateful they stopped to pick me up!

This journey by car, bus, bus and hitch hiking took 18 and a half hours. I then spent the next 6 hours in the airport waiting for my gate to be announced.

My flight was then announced as delayed. This was a problem as I had two flights: one to Bristol then a connecting flight up to Scotland. Luckily after a panicked call back home, with my mother on the case, I was called forward on the plane on arrival at Bristol and hurried through security by Bristol airport security staff to meet my second flight...with five minutes to spare.

On this I have to give my thanks to Bristol Airport - they were amazing and very understanding - and happily I made my connecting flight on which I met a number of the other volunteers! So I managed to arrive in good time after all. Total journey time was 36 hours. Over a day and a half.

Now that's dedication, I hope!

On arrival in Scotland I was greeted with a similar climate to that I'd experienced in Iceland.

It was wet, and it was cold.

After a brief meet and greet, we had some time to go explore around Fort William, which involved a number of boats, including the one above that some of you may recognise.

When we told them why we were in Fort William, I am not entirely sure they were happy about the lengths of plastic track nor the idea of a railway line...!

Scotland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, in my opinion, and Fort William and the surrounding area made for some brilliantly bleak and epic landscapes (we could of course see Ben Nevis quite close by!)

Our first day's training involved learning how to put the plastic track together. As you'll have seen on the program, it involves three types of pieces. The main straights, coupled together by fishplates (as Will Jarman is usefully demonstrating above) and the flexitrack pieces for curves.

We all promptly left the first day's training and went to the beach. In this picture are yours truly, the excellent and admirable Aimi Elias and the equally excellent and admirable Andrew Christie (star of Episode 4).

Two Andrews in one picture plus myself! Andy Peck is on the right, and he is a great lad. We shared a tent with a couple of other chaps and it was never boring. I swapped pods so that Andy could get some sleep at some point.

Lets just say that snoring was a problem in the camp, generally...!

We witnessed some incredible sunsets during our time in Scotland, but this first one I saw across the lake from our camp site will stay with me for a very long time.

It was the first proper sunset I had seen in about two weeks (having been in Iceland, where the sun doesn't set throughout June, it was like welcoming an old friend home!)

The next day saw us getting the majority of our equipment together and being put into our teams. I believe this photograph shows us before being "sorted!" Adair is standing behind me, and you can see a number of our volunteers, runners and support staff behind.

On hearing my name called out I joined a man I would get to know in 2017 very well. Lawrence Robbins, of the Model Railway Club of London, was to be my team leader. The team that presented itself to him consisted of network rail engineers, construction engineers, project planners...and one children's author! Between us we had so much knowledge, common sense, and a shared love of biscuits. There was instant chemistry and our first day was an excellent one. 

Our first few miles over the first few days went by in a blur. The A Team, as we become known, would help out all the other teams at various points. In fairness, that was the point. It wasn't a competition. Sometimes we were all a bit too competitive. I think that added a bit of spice to the whole event and it meant every team was trying their hardest.

We spent a lot of time on the canal path in the first couple of days. This was good practice for our fellow contributor and quad bike driver, Gill. 

Gill settling in with our quad bike. You can tell from the sodden cardboard boxes of snacks and track that it has been raining heavily!

Gill, Molly and myself trying to put a brave face on the wet weather. I enjoyed spending time with these two immensely. Molly is a railway engineer, now professor, and Gill works for Network Rail. Both are excellent sources of information - and Gill is an amazing singer!

This is my favourite photograph on the shoot. This shows the whole of the A Team. The A Team was NOT just the contributors. It was our runners, our camera crew and our security staff. Without the excellence of these people, we wouldn't have kept going.

Phil, the cameraman, understandably had a job to do and there some times where the camera would appear from seemingly nowhere...! But I never felt that Phil went beyond his remit as a cameraman.

His job was to make a record of what was happening. It wasn't personal and it's wasn't intended to hurt anyone. It was his job. We should remember that. Nothing that happened was manufactured to make good television: good television generally happens from real events.

Cameron, who you'll have seen throughout the series, is one of those people who makes you think. 

He has accomplished more, knows more, and does more than the vast majority of people in this country and he has had a tough life on top of that. He is truly remarkable and I sincerely hope that his star continues to rise, because he deserves it. No one has impressed me so much for a very long time, and it was his influence mainly that convinced me I needed to change my career. 

On one of our days laying track (I forget which day it was!) we had an incredible afternoon.

For a start, we spotted a number of the Royal Air Force's aircraft. This one blasted over and was seen in the show. As we approached the canal once again, to lay track up past the canal boats and into a forest, we were approached by a gentleman who was interested by what we were doing. He promptly disappeared, and...

Came out with full bagpipes and regalia! He was great fun and played many tunes for us. Cameron requested a specific one, which I didn't realise the significance of until I watched the show in the last few weeks.

In a weird parallel, I had asked for Amazing Grace to be played; played at my late grandfather's funeral. I should have realised that the expression on Cameron's face matched my own closely that day.

Aimi rocking the bagpipes look!

It is, in a very specific way, rather beautiful how so many of us have been influenced by the older generations. Katie and her late grandfather, the commando, Cameron and his late mother, myself and my late grandfather, and many more. All of these people had embraced us and and our interests and made us determined to become better people.

This is one of the things that people watching have perhaps missed from "Biggest Little Railway". We are real people, with real back stories and real emotions. None of what we did was playing up to the camera, it was all very real stuff. I know there's been some criticism of some colleagues from the show: what needs to be said is that things are never as simple as they appear on television.

One person I must speak up for is Paul. Paul's had a bit of a rough ride on the show. On occasion, maybe miscommunication was the issue between all parties. Lord knows, when you are juggling team members with genuine illnesses (such as diabetes) you see things like lunch in a different light. 

For someone my own age, I admired the way Paul looked after his team and worked hard to meet the objectives set. I do not believe there are many people among those criticising who would be able to do what he did on the shoot. His team members do not believe the criticisms are fair and that, at the end of the day, should be an end of it.

This chap walking along the road is named Aaron. He was one of our runners.

Here he is again with myself, Gill and Bob. Aaron was a constant source of encouragement and he very much got involved in the track laying. Terrific chap and very good fun!

Eventually all the teams had made it to the camp site: at the bottom of the locks near Loch Ness.

And who could resist a proper Scottish sausage and chips?

Andy Peck enjoying his dinner! The boys from the tent had a good night out that night. In short we had good food, company and copious amounts of rum...

So many legends in one shot. Where to being? You'll recognise them all I hope! From left to right: Matt, me, Colin, Maggie, Will, Cameron, Florence, Ross, Olly, Aimi, Andy and Martin.

The next day would be one of my favourite couple of days on the build. The day we built the "Biggest little Railway" on the old trackbed of the Invergarry Railway.

It truly was magical. The old trackbed clearly visible from over the gate, curving into the distance.

Much of the line is now a cycle path. With respect to cyclists (of which I am one)...but what a waste.

We all gathered on mornings for a quick brief from Lawrence before starting our day's track laying.

This first bridge is an iconic part of the line, and to lay track over it took about...five minutes! Who knew, flat surfaces are perfect for track laying!

Bob and Gill inspecting a small dip at the end of the bridge. A lot of engineering solutions we all worked out were later abandoned because the track was simply kicked into the middle of paths and tracks for the engine to run over. That was a good thing, assuredly!

The whole section along Loch Oich had remnants of its railway past present. Along with some of the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen.

We even had a proper railway tunnel as well! Which, when driving Silver Lady later on the same week, would present the train team with a joke against me...!

I love railway tunnels. There's so much planning, effort and different construction techniques that go into them. This one was beautiful up close. 

Once the track had been laid, I assumed I'd never see the tunnel again. I was, happily, wrong...!

This is part of what made "Biggest Little Railway" so extraordinary. We were running a genuine steam locomotive on the trackbed of an actual railway. 

It was an amazing thought, that we were somehow bringing back to life the souls of all those trains that used to run on the route. That for the first time since 1946, the trackbed would hear the chuffs of a steam locomotive, working hard, and the tunnel would reverberate to the sound of its steady beat.

Railways are not about the trains, invariably, though they are the things which get the most publicity. It's actually about the people.

People build railways. People run railways. People travel on railways. People make railways a more interesting place. They make decisions which affect its running every single day. People's lives are changed by railways, be it whether they run on time or run late. 

*A quick side note. By a quirk of fate, we were using a Doncaster built Silver Lady steam locomotive. The London & North Eastern Railway, which owned and ran the Invergarry line, was famous for its Doncaster built steam locomotives. So not only were we putting track down on an old railway line, we were putting a Doncaster built steam locomotive back on it too!

There was even a sign giving us all the information we needed on the route! Though I am reliably told the locomotive depicted would have been unlikely to run on the route. The following would have done though...

Incredibly, the Gresley V4 is shown on "Biggest Little Railway" in one of the archive pieces of the line. And a new one of these beautiful steam locomotives is being built by the A1 and P2 locomotive Trusts, today.

At the other end of this section of old railway line, was a work in progress new railway line, being built on the formation of the original. The Invergarry Railway, together with its lovely preserved wagons and diesel shunter, is inching its way along the loch and when finished will prove, no doubt, to be a beautiful preserved steam railway. They're always looking for volunteers and support. Now is the time to help!

Honestly, heaven on earth is Scotland. Beautiful scenery, old railway lines, rainbows...


Never have I been so bitten by insects. I hate insects. I have always hated insects. I spent the vast majority of my life on this shoot with this net on my head. By the end of each day it needed to be cleaned, because it had become black with dead midges. It was awful. Every one of the volunteers suffered from the midges. Some worse than others. 

I admit it, where there are insects, I am a total wimp. I would rather be in a room full of snakes than be in a room with one insect in it.

You may notice that this midge net has only appeared once so far on screen. I got quite adept - as we all did - in taking it off for filming during the day and putting it back on for the bulk of the actual track laying.

Can we please do "Biggest Little Railway 2" somewhere hot where insects are not roaming round your head every millisecond? Please?

And hills. There were so many hills. Here is Invermoriston Hill. Molly - one of our epic volunteers - came up with a genius way of laying track, both up and downhill. The Molly Shuffle!

Molly's a terrific person and, like Cameron, inspirational. We really had the best of luck on A Team, with the people around us.

Speaking of which, here are the people you don't get to see very often. Mia, Phil and Ben, the film team. They're awesome. Mia has some amazing acrobatic skills. Ben has a brilliant sense of humour and Phil's knowledge of films is, in my view, unsurpassed. Though I disagree with him vehemently that films before the 80s are dreadful (Casablanca? Gone with the Wind? North by North West? Flame over India?)

One of the things which emerged at one of our base camps was a test track for running the locomotive, thus giving our volunteers an opportunity to learn how to drive Silver Lady best.

In fact I think this is where the spare Silver Lady and Little John were best utilised, because it meant that eventually a few select drivers came to the fore and the train team became a more regular selection of drivers.

Here's myself and Paul and the just super Pip Jefferis in the pub on one evening. Pip is a STEM ambassador and engineer and a lovely individual. Another one of those inspirational women in our extended family of volunteers. 

So I confess, I don't have many photographs from the night of the party. This is in fact the only one I took. I may have been too busy drinking and chatting up a French-Canadian nurse hiker...

So we ploughed onwards. Every day a new beautiful vista. Except when we had to go back to Invermoriston Hill.

This piece of track was the longest stretch of flexitrack laid on the railway. Around 40m of track. Staggering! We named it after its main builder. "Crawford Curve"

Colin and I came up with a way of carrying the track panels through the forest when we weren't able to use the quad bikes. It was briefly seen in use in Episode 3.

Cameron had had a very long few days on both the track and train teams! He eventually was permanently assigned to the train team. Top lad.

And so, the day came when I joined the train team for the first time. 

She's diminutive, but perfectly formed! We were thrilled by the section we'd get to drive on - the Invergarry Railway route!

And here we are - the team that you see running the Silver Lady at the end of Episode 3 and ending our stint at the start of Episode 4 in complete darkness! That was all still to come as we posed for these photographs at exactly midday!

Martin - enthusiastic, determined, hard working. Has two lovely boys who did very well in their TV appearance - a credit to him. Martin has had a lot of criticism too for his appearance. 

My take on it is, is that I'd love to have an army of Martins, because his passion and drive, when properly and carefully aimed, can achieve anything.

We have to remember that we were all very much individuals. Very different personalities. There would be times when we would clash with one another. Of course we would. That's life! But it is testament to our combined excellence as people that these clashes were few and far between.

And besides, life would be boring if we all agreed all of the time!

Martin and I had to take some tools to straighten the track at various times for the little engine. We tried not to get too far ahead at times.

This was a sad sight. An abandoned house on the route. Whose was it? Why had it been left? Who knows. Either way, it marked the moment we got to halfway, around 6pm. And then...

We were plunged into darkness.

Photographs got more and more difficult to take of Silver Lady as the day wore and the darkness descended further. Scotland truly is dark at night. No light pollution at all.

We had by then had an uninterrupted nine miles of running with Silver Lady not coming off the rails between three drivers, a phenomenal achievement only made possible by the excellent track laying of A, B, C and D teams along the route.

In order to see the road ahead more fully, a lamp was attached to Silver Lady. This helped us no end. 

We had a few moments to pause to take on water. She was tired, we were tired, it seemed to get harder and harder. I found it difficult to see around 11pm - wearing contact lens for over 20 hours causes my eyes to lose focus. We all plunged on, into the darkness.

It was nearly midnight when we crossed the bridge that my team, A Team, had laid track across. We had been going for exactly twelve hours. It had been magical from the start, and as we headed towards the end of Loch Oich and our finishing point for the evening, it had been tough too.

This photograph marks the end of our stint, that which was seen at the start of Episode 4. Bleary eyed, exhausted, we got back to camp around 1.30pm and went straight to bed. 

It was back to track laying in the morning! A very different proposition. I rejoined my team about halfway through the day - train teams generally got the morning off to get some sleep and food.

This was the third day in a row that I'd describe as "legendary" - because we got to stop off at the amazing car collection.

I am a self confessed petrolhead, and I was very much in "car heaven".

I will never forget that ride on the Oldsmobile. The gent who let us have a look around was very kind. 

The thing is that many have missed about the show, is that things tended to happen if we took a positive attitude to things. Lawrence always had a positive attitude, and he really gave us a good outlook.

Over the last few days of the shoot, however, a few things happened that made things all a bit more difficult for us...

The final episode of "The Biggest Little Railway in the World" airs this Sunday at 8pm. It promises to be amazing.

Don't miss it!