Saturday, 30 April 2011

A few days on the sunny Isle of Man

Very early last Tuesday Chris and I set off for Manchester Airport to board a Flybe Dash 8 for four days relaxation in the lovely Isle of Man. I think we missed the rain that was due by over-flying it, as soon after take off we entered cloud, a weak front that we popped out of just before landing.

By 9:00am we were at Ronaldsway airport and a fifteen minute bus journey took us from there to Douglas Promenade, dropping us off about half way along that fine sweep of Douglas Bay.

As usual, please click on an image twice to bring it up full-size.

Our Flybe Dash 8 at Ronaldsway, 9:00am Tuesday 26th April 2011

Douglas bay, looking towards the sea terminal

We left our bags at the hotel (too early to check in) and headed up to the north end of the Bay, Derby Castle, where the Manx Electric Railway has its southern terminus. A tram was waiting there, and it had in tow an open-sided trailer car with slatted wooden seats. It was a pleasant morning, so we decided to sit in this rather than the enclosed tramcar itself.

A 'Manx Electric Railway' tramcar and open trailer at Laxey

The seventeen and a half mile ride on the Electric Railway is one of life's 'musts'. It follows the east coast of the island to Ramsey, sometimes weaving deep into the valleys or 'glens' before heading back out to the coast, and sometimes giving majestic cliff-top views of the wild coastline. About half way is Laxey, where the Mountain Railway up to the summit of the islands highest mountain, Snaefell, begins. At the Laxey stop we decided to move from the open trailer into the enclosed tram as the sea breeze was a bit 'fresh' despite the lovely weather.

Ramsey was a bit of a disappointment; the harbour was characterful, with its working fishing boats, but the town itself felt a little 'tired' and it took us some time to find a suitable place for lunch. Having rejected several plain looking cafes we came across the 'Swan', which offered reasonable pub food and a nice pint of Okells (the local ale).

Fishing boats in Ramsey harbour

The Electric Railway rattled and clanked its way back down the coast to Douglas, where we checked into our hotel. For a small charge, we were upgraded to a 'suite' at the front of the hotel, with a sea view!

Wednesday dawned even brighter than Tuesday had been. A speciality of the hotel's breakfast menu was Manx kippers and poached egg cooked to order, which were absolutely superb. After breakfast we decided to go 'up the mountain' on the Snaefell Railway. We purchased 3-day passes which give unlimited travel on the buses, the Electric Railway, the Steam Railway, the Snaefell Railway, and the horse trams which from May onwards clip-clop along the promenade at Douglas. These would take care of our transport needs for the rest of the holiday.

We caught a bus to Derby Castle, then the Electric Railway to Laxey where the Snaefell Railway commences.

Interior of a Manx Electric Railway car on the way to Laxey

Two Snaefell Mountain Railway cars at Laxey, awaiting the climb to the summit

The 3' 6" gauge Mountain Railway climbs up the Laxey Glen, past the famous Laxey Wheel, and on up into wild mountain country. It clings precariously to the sides of the valley, with a continuous steep gradient and many sharp turns. It is entirely 'adhesion driven', which means it relies on the grip between steel wheel and rail for traction though there is an emergency brake working on a separate centre rail which can be applied should the car begin to skid downhill on the rails in slippery conditions.

The Laxey Wheel (Lady Isobella) as seen from the Mountain Railway

The Mountain Railway climbs up the Laxey Valley towards the 2,036 foot summit of Snaefell. In this view from within the car, the aerials on the summit can be seen on the horizon (you may need to enlarge the image by clicking on it (twice) to see the aerials clearly).

Below the summit, the railway crosses the road at 'Bungalow', on the TT motorcycle race Mountain Course, and there is a memorial to TT rider Joey Dunlop here. The track then crosses to the west side of Snaefell, before curving around the summit in a continuous climb to the top, where the hotel is undergoing some renovation. It was still open, however, and after admiring the fabulous views in a stiff wind, we retired inside for a cup of tea.

Evidence of building work at the summit hotel, but it was still open for refreshments

Looking down to 'Bungalow' from the summit, to the point where the TT mountain course is crossed by the Mountain Railway

The Laxey Glen from the summit, looking east. The line of the mountain railway can be seen about 2/3 of the way up southern side of the Glen. 'Bungalow' is to the right, just off the picture.

Chris at the summit, braving the cool breeze at this height!

The view to the west, across Sulby Reservoir

On the way down, we cross with car no.2 coming up from Laxey

It was much warmer 2,000 feet lower down, back at Laxey, so an al fresco lunch at the Mines Tavern fitted the bill. Superb rare beef sandwiches and Okells IPA, next to the Electric Railway; can life get better? (OK, a steam railway would have been the icing on the cake!). You could tell the landlord of 'The Mines' takes his ale seriously; next to each beer pump was a small tasting glass of that beer, so you could 'try before you buy'. Why can't all pubs do that?

Chris at our lunch table outside the Mines Tavern, Laxey

During lunch, some interesting cars arrived for a rally on the island. Two of them initially parked next to the pub, but were told to move on to the car park around the corner. Pity; I rather thought they added to the vintage atmosphere at Laxey.

Interesting cars at Laxey, just about to be moved to the car park

After lunch, we set off to have a close look at the Laxey Wheel. The fifteen minute walk took us past the vintage cars, and here are some pictures of them:

We continued past the row of ex-miners' cottages where the cars were parked and followed a track up the valley to the Laxey Wheel. On the way we passed some 4 and 3 horned sheep, a breed unique to the island.

A rare breed of sheep, unique to the island

The Laxey Wheel, or 'Lady Isobella' as she is named, produces 200hp and was built to drain the extensive mine system in the Laxey area. The water to drive the wheel is collected from streams on the hillside and fed to a cistern, from where an underground pipe leads it to the wheel, then up the tower (with the spiral staircase around it) to emerge at the top where it drives the overshot wheel. A crank on the wheel's axle moves the pump rod backwards and forwards, and the viaduct adjacent to the wheel supports the pump rod and carries it to the point on the hillside where a 'T-rocker' converted the 'backwards and forwards' movement to 'up and down' movement, to drive the pumps at various levels in the mine.

Water is fed underground and then up the white tower, to drive the wheel from the top (it's an overshot wheel, much more efficient than earlier undershot wheels). A crank on the wheel's axle moves the pump drive rod backwards and forwards.

The pump drive rod is supported on the viaduct in the foreground, and on reaching the hillside drives drainage pumps in the mine.

We climbed the spiral staircase around the tower to emerge onto the narrow platform above the wheel, from were this picture of the rod viaduct was taken.

The rod viaduct carries the pump drive rod from the wheel to the pumps in the mine

Chris feigns a fear of heights on the high and exposed platform above the wheel

Click on the 'play' arrow of the video below for a short film with sound of the wheel working, taken from the platform above it:

We returned to Laxey in time to take another trip to Ramsey on the Electric Railway, this time all the way in the open trailer as the weather was warmer than it had been yesterday.

High above the Irish Sea, between Laxey and Ramsey, we look back from the open trailer of our tram at the southbound service to Laxey and Douglas. The views down to the coast from this section are just superb, as the picture below conveys.

On Thursday, the super weather continued so we decided to go south from Douglas; to Port Erin. The Isle of Man Steam Railway links Douglas to Port Erin, and years ago covered a lot of the island. Today just this one route remains. Like the Electric Railway and the Horse Tramway in Douglas, it is narrow gauge (3 foot gauge).

The coast south of Douglas, seen from the Steam Railway

We caught the 09:50 train from Douglas Railway Station (our travel passes getting us there by bus from our promenade hotel, and of course allowing access to the Railway itself). This was the first train of the day so was quite full, and we travelled the length of the line to Port Erin.

The station at Santon, typical of the smaller stations and halts on the line

At one intermediate station we came across a crowd of men in orange hi-viz jackets and some on small portable step ladders, busy photographing a locomotive. Our train came to stand not far from the cab of the much-photographed other locomotive, so I shouted across to its driver asking what was going on. "It's a photographic charter", he replied. "Oh, and this engine's been turned around to have its boiler pointing towards Douglas. All the others face Port Erin".

Members of a Photographers' charter gather to to photograph 'C. H. Wood', which has been turned the other way around to the rest of the IOMSR loco fleet!

A closer look indicates that the 'spit& polish' evident on the loco has been applied inside her cab as well

The end of the line. Port Erin terminus, and our loco (No.12, Hutchinson) runs round her train for a short spell 'on shed' before working the train back to Douglas, bunker-first

Port Erin bay

After a walk around the town and along the front, we settled on this delightful beach-side cafe for lunch. My crab bagette was lovely!

After lunch we enjoyed the sea views. I think this remarkably tame Jackdaw was hoping for a bit of lunch himself!

No.13 'Kissack' powered our train back to Douglas

The bus took us from Douglas railway station to Derby Castle, where we enjoyed a drink or two in the sunshine at the 'Terminus' pub

I love this sign. Beats 'Hollywood' any time!

For our last day (Friday 29th) we watched a bit of the Royal Wedding on the hotel room TV, which reminded us that today was a Bank Holiday and there would only be a 'Sunday service' on the buses. We had originally thought of getting a bus across to Peel on the west coast, but such buses would be few and far between, and anyway it was far too nice a day to spend much time on a bus! So we decided to head south so we were going the right way to get to the airport for our evening flight home. The Steam Railway took us to Ballasala, where we found an excellent pub for lunch.

After lunch, we relaxed in the sun in the pub garden, and I nipped down the road to see the two mid-afternoon trains pass each other at Ballasala station.

First to arrive was C. H. Wood from Port Erin, where it crosses with the Douglas to Port Erin train.

After a few minutes, No12 (Hutchinson) arrived from Douglas

Hutchinson's driver blows the whistle prior to moving off for Port Erin

The relaxing afternoon in Ballasala passed quickly until it was time to catch the bus to the airport in plenty of time for our flight home.

Our Flybe Dash 8 at Ronaldsway ready to provide the 18:40 flight to Manchester

The flight home. Not very busy, and the passengers are spread evenly along the length of the cabin of this long, thin aeroplane, to ensure the pitch trim remains comfortably within limits

The flight home was smooth; these modern turboprops (the Dash 8 originally a de Havilland design - not that I'm biased!) climb fast and quietly. One minute we were earthbound at Ronaldsway, there was a push of hard accelleration, we pitched up into the air, clunk-clunk the gear came up, and the island receded behind us faster than I could make out the landmarks. Twenty minutes or so later the beaten silver sea became dotted with wind turbines and the yellow of the Lancashire coast hove into view. We were over Wirral, looking across to Seaforth and then Liverpool itself, the Liver Building and the cathederals clearly visible. Liverpool John Lennon Airport slid under the wing (I couldn't see our aeroplane out on the apron, but we were at about 8,000 feet). Runcorn Bridge, ICI Weston Point, Budworth mere and Pickmere, Knutsford services on the M6, and the colourful May Fair on Knutsford heath passed below.

The Railway Inn at Mobberley was off to the left so we were landing on 05 Right, the newer runway at Manchester. A slight bump announced our touchdown, and 30 minutes after leaving the Island we were de-planing at Manchester.

What a great break!

And finally, as so much of this holiday used the Electric Railway and the Steam Railway to get around, click on the 'play arrow' of the video below for a short film taken on the trailer car of the Electric Railway while travelling to Ramsey on Thursday.


Saturday, 23 April 2011

A hot day on the footplate!

Good Friday saw me on the early train from Wilmslow into Manchester for a day on the footplate of the replica 'Planet' at the Museum of Science & Industry. As I walked onto the site at about 09:00, this sight greeted me....

Agecroft No.1 in the bay spur at MoSI

0-4-0 saddle tank 'Agecroft No.1' having been fully restored at MoSI is almost ready to enter service. This powerful little locomotive once moved 1,000 ton coal trains between Agecroft colliery, north of Manchester, and the nearby power station. Once in service at MoSI it will relieve pressure on 'Planet' in running passenger trains, and allows MoSI more flexibility in hiring out one of the two locos to other heritage railways.

But this Friday, I'm firing this locomotive.....

Replica Stephenson's 1830 'Planet' in the station at MoSI, Good Friday 2011

On a hot day like Friday was, it was good to work on Planet's open footplate. In the picture above she is waiting in the platform while passengers de-train and the next ones board. The 'new' coal we are using (it comes from near Coventry) produces a lot of smoke even (as here) with the firehole door open and the blower on to give some 'top air' to ignite more of the gasses given off by the burning coal instead of letting them escape up the chimney as thick clag. Just like a car engine, black smoke indicates a 'rich mixture' with unburnt fuel coming out of the exhaust.

The change of coal was mostly for Agecroft's benefit, as the much smaller lumps of the Polish coal we used before on 'Planet' would be sucked straight out of Agecroft's chimney by its fiercer exhaust! Trouble is, the big lumps of new coal have to be broken up with the coal hammer to fit Planet's smaller firebox - hot and dusty work on the loco footplate on a day like today!

'Planet' in the hazy Manchester sunshine, the Beetham Tower in the background

FOOTNOTE: For a really hot day on the footplate, wind forward to 3rd June 2011. This was my second duty firing 'Agecroft No.1', and it was a 28 degree C day! In Agecroft's small and enclosed cab the temperature was almost unbearable, especially when the firedoors were opened for fireing. My water bottle was drained almost every trip, and I had to nip off the footplate at the station to replenish it.


Thursday, 21 April 2011

Lovely sunny day, but no good for flying.

Our dH Chipmunk has been out of action since late January initially because it had its scheduled 'Annual' major service at Barton (see earlier post in the Blog), then a further delay when the elevator trim tab cable failed on a post-maintenance test flight and we had to source another, and finally a delay as the Civil Aviation Authority were tardy in completing our paperwork. But last week it became available again and I had it booked for today as the weather looked to be set fine.

Well, it turned out to be a completely unflyable day weatherwise. It was sunny, hot, and to anyone who is not looking at the weather from the point of view of going flying, it looked an ideal day. But we have enjoyed many days of fine weather recently, caused by a high pressure system centred over the UK. High pressure brings low winds and stable descending air. Stable descending air mitigates against cloud formation, hence the lovely weather. But in preventing vertical air movement, or thermic activity, it causes all the crud and smoke and dust in the atmosphere to build up from the surface upwards, rather than being carried away vertically by thermic activity as normally happens. The result is a steady deterioration of visibility (and incidentally, the poor air conditions are problematic for those with respiratory problems, such as asthmatics). I was expecting this of course, but the Liverpool TAF (Terminal Area Forecast) on the internet stated visibility of 2,000 metres at 9:00 this morning, improving to CAVOK (10Km or more) by mid morning. So I drove to Liverpool Airport fully expecting a hazy but enjoyable flight.

I arrived at the aeroplane's new handling company of Ravenair (previously we were based with Liverpool Flying School - more about the reasons for this change will be aired in a future post on this Blog) at about 10:30 and immediately realised the visibility was not improving as per the forecast. The control tower on the south side of the airfield was easily visible, but a bit hazy. There was absolutely nothing to see beyond it. The far side of the Mersey estuary was invisible and I knew visual flight (which is what we do in the Chipmunk - as opposed to instrument flight that airliners can do) would be impossible. Once airborne the ground would vanish and there'd be no horizon, a recipe for disorientation and disaster. And anyway, it wasn't even legal to attempt visual flight in that visibility.

So I went home. And Chris and I had a very nice pub lunch in the garden of the Railway Inn at Mobberley... in delightful sunshine. The hazy shapes of jets passing low overhead having just taken off from Manchester Airport reminded me I wasn't missing much flying-wise. Indeed, as I drove within a mile of Frodsham hill on the journey home, its misty outline was barely visible in the haze.

By the way, these high pressure weather conditions that bring us hot rain-free (if hazy) days at this time of the year, bring deep freeze conditions in winter. The absence of cloud cover allows the earth's heat to radiate away into space, the weak sun in winter can't compensate, and the earth gets deeply frozen. It happened in the 'big freeze' of 1947, again in my memory in the winter of 1962/63, and it happened in December of last year. So really cold weather is due to winter high pressure. And what's the other characteristic of high pressure weather? NO WIND!

So if any politician tries to tell you that we can rely on wind power to generate our electricity, just remember that at the times we most need power, wind will be absent.

I do wish these decisions on future power could be made by engineers rather than politicians, but hey, windmills are very visual - voters can see them and the less knowledgeable might think they are a symbol that the politicians are 'doing something' about clean power.

Oh dear!

Anyway, I have re-booked the Chippy for a few weeks hence (hey, I'm busy!). Bet it will rain!


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Two old gits, two old Trumpets, sunshine, steam trains.... and Copper Dragon

Just turned on the laptop to receive this e-mail from my mate Tony:

Meriden Triumphs, Steam engines, Sunshine and copper dragon. Does life get better ?
Thanks for a cracking day out.

My vintage Triumph Bonneville has had a few short runs this year, and Tony (who I bought it from 2 years ago), having taxed his even older Triumph Trident, was keen for us to go for a ride out. These old Trumpets are well matched on the road, being happy at medium speeds up to about 70mph, though they can go much faster, with moderate acceleration (by motorcycle standards) but good handling for fast cornering. Modern bikes are much more powerful and have fierce acceleration, but they don't make good riding companions with the old bikes (though it must be said that by car standards, even the oldies don't hang about!). These bikes are from another era; well matched to blatter along together, but not a particularly good mix with today's fast and silent machines.

The two Trumpets last year (I forgot my camera today!). My T140D 'UK Special Edition' Bonneville nearer the camera, Tony's T150 Trident behind.

Today was one of the few free days in my diary and I'd originally planned to go flying, but the Chipmunk is still awaiting paperwork completion by the tardy Civil Aviation Authority. So it seemed an ideal opportunity to go biking with Tony. But where to? Somewhere far enough away to make it 'a day out', but not so far that it's chore riding there and back. And somewhere interesting, and preferably somewhere we could have lunch. The Churnet Valley Railway's southern terminus at Froghall in Staffordshire is an interesting not-too-far bike ride away from home, offers the chance to watch steam trains, and has a lovely tea room ( ).

The two Trumpets left Wilmslow at 11:00 am in warm sunshine under clear blue skies and enjoyed the winding Cheshire lanes and a couple of 'A' roads through Marton, North Rode, Bosley, Leek, and Ipstones before arriving at Froghall about an hour and quarter later. Almost as soon as we arrived a steam train ran into the station headed by Great Western 'Prairie' tank locomotive 5199.

CVR's GWR 'large Prairie' tank locomotive 5199

I watched as the loco (blower on, a haze of coal smoke at her chimney top) was uncoupled to run around the train, pausing for a top-up of water from the column on the far platform, ready for the return to Leekbrook Junction, before I joined Tony for a spot of lunch and a mug of tea at an outside table in the sunshine. Amazingly, another T150 Trident had arrived, and Tony was chatting to the owner. He told us he had come from Llangollan and was heading home to Sheffield, and had arranged to meet his mates from the Sheffield Triumph Owners Club here. Soon, they arrived; mostly Bonnevilles (vintage Meriden ones like mine and modern Hinckley models) and Speed Triples with even a Trident 'trike' conversion.

To the steady background roar of the river Churnet falling gthrough this steep-sided valley, we chatted with fellow Trumpet enthusiasts, with locals, and with the folk on the railway. One chap told us of his time working at Bolton's Copper Works, mostly gone now except for some remnants still making specialist products; "at one time there were so many Poles working at Bolton's you could 'ave your 'air cut, get your watch fixed, or 'ave yer shoes mended all of a lunchtime such were their skills". The first trans-Atlantic telephone cable had been made at Boltons, but that part of the site was now long abandoned. The valley brought back memories, for me, of navigating the Caldon Canal about 20 years ago in a narrow boat; the canal joins the river Churnet for a couple miles further up the valley, and steering 70 feet of narrow boat downstream at a water-speed of 4 knots but a speed relative to the bank of at least twice that took some getting used to.

5199 having departed for Cheddleton and Leekbrook, eventually arrived back at Froghall. The afternoon was getting on, so we decided to do the same.

The Bonnie started first kick in this exalted company which was a relief, as I'm sure it was to Tony when his Trident did the same. We headed back north though Ipstones, me leading as before, but instead of turning for Leek we headed up into the Peak District, climbing through Onecote on the sweeping road to Warslow as the magnificent Peakland views opened up around us. At Warslow I turned right off the 'B' road to Hulme End, then took the minor road through Sheen which climbs up onto and then follows the ridge-top between the upper Dove and Manifold valleys. Here, the views (right) down into the Dove valley, and (left) down into the Manifold valley, were simply stunning. And these minor Peakland roads are almost free of other traffic. The Bonnie was her usual characterful self; purring along on a closed throttle, or woofing loudly from her exhausts and pushing me back on the seat if I wound on the power a tad. She pulls lustily with lots of torque and no flat spots all the way from sub-1,000 rpm through a viby 3 to 4,000 rpm (but with a bit of primary transmission 'play' at low RPM) to a smooth 70mph cruise; what a great bike for this sort of ride! All the while, Tony's headlight was intermittently visible in the distance behind me.

At Longnor we headed across to Hollinsclough, with with full-on views of the 'Dragons back hills' looking just like a dragon's back in their long and narrow spiked humpiness (Chrome Hill and Parkhouse Hill) off to our right, to briefly join the Leek - Buxton road before doubling back onto a single track road across Axe Edge Moor to emerge onto the Buxton - Macclesfield road a couple of miles east of the Cat & Fiddle pub. On this road, we had to be wary of the recently - installed 'average speed cameras' that enforce the blanket 50mph speed limit.

I turned into the 'Cat' car park and we shut down the bikes. Tony rolled a ciggy while we enjoyed the views from this high point. The car park was full of every type of modern bike, but it appeared that ours were the only vintage ones.

As we were now in familiar country, I offered Tony the lead for the last lap to home. "I fancy a pint to finish off the day" I suggested. Tony readily agreed, and said "why not the Horse & Jockey (our local)? It's got Copper Dragon (my and probably Tony's favorite pint) on draught, we can park the bikes on the front, and sit out in the garden".

We took it easy on the descent of the 'Cat' into Macclesfield, me riding echelon port or starboard to Tony (the Bonnie corners better than the Trident, so I dropped back a bit on the bends so I could take them a tad faster!). Shuttlingsloe's angular peak, the 'Matterhorn of Cheshire' was on our left, Cat's Tor's steep southern slope soaring above us to our right, and away to the west the long ridge of Alderley Edge stretched away from us into the haze, its far-away tip, dark with woodland, diving steeply to disappear into the Cheshire Plain at a point that marked our destination.

Snaking around the final tight curves of the 'Cat' we were soon through Macclesfield and onto the Silk Road for a quick 70mph blast down to Prestbury, then through Mottram St Andrew to the Jockey.

Several regulars greeted us as we shut down the bikes. Once our first pint of the superb straw-coloured hoppy Copper Dragon was poured (we just had the two!), we joined them in the garden for a bit of relaxed banter.

What a super day! Two old gits on two old Trumpets, the lovely Cheshire lanes, steam trains, more Triumphs at Froghall, the magnificent Peak District on a glorious day, the 'Cat', and finally a pint or two of Copper Dragon to help us digest it all.