The First …

I can be fairly certain this was the first photograph I ever took.  It is in the back garden at Alstead Avenue and I would be using the only camera the family owned for years – the Kodak Brownie 127” Be careful, don’t drop it, press the shutter once, don’t forget to wind it on” would have been just a selection of the instructions received from my ever-vigilant mother.  In perfect nosey-neighbour fashion, Mrs Hillier is watching proceedings from an upper window.  She would have felt very much at home in the Stasi.

The trellis fence in the background divided east from west and would take my weight for all the years it was necessary.  Retrieval of footballs, tennis balls, paper aeroplanes and cricket stumps/harpoons was a constant necessity and inevitably resulted in shouted orders from either side of the divide.  Children in the 1950s were at best tolerated, always mistrusted, invariably harshly punished.  We knew our place.

Mr Hillier was ex-RAF and ‘affectionately’ known as “Hillybum” – I have no idea why. He drove a cream Mk VIII Hillman Minx at a time when all cars were black.  The connection between Hillman, Hillier and Hillybum was reassuringly alliterative, entirely logical.  He would pass away not long after this was taken but not before we all ended up on the same beach in Wales one bright summer.  This was entirely by coincidence, happy or otherwise.  The gathering from left to right comprises Mrs Hillier (taking notes), their daughter Joy (eternally single), me (performing cat impressions), sister Pat (eating as always), mother (presiding over the sandwich tin), ‘Hillybum’, cousin Brian, uncle Ed and aunt Bet:

I learned to keep a distance from mother – an arm’s length being the absolute minimum.  I seem to have been caught off-guard in this frozen moment.  I am dangerously within striking distance.  My behaviour was a constant cause for concern and always threatened the involvement of a third party if my dad was not immediately available.

In my teenage years, the dynamics had not changed. I can’t remember which particular boundary I had crossed or to which mortal sin I had succumbed but, mother was determined to fetch an outsider ‘to sort me out’.  I was used to these threats and was fairly sure this one was empty but I made my escape regardless.  A few minutes later, Kent cigarette in hand, from the darkness of the alleyway across the road I saw my mother return, alone and without a house key.  Hysterical shouts echoed across the street – “What are you doing in there, don’t play with matches, you will set the house on fire – ROBIN, LET, ME, IN!”  Her leaps of the imagination finally overwhelmed any sense of reason as the night air filled with the sound of breaking glass.  If I wasn’t before, I was certainly in trouble now.

Tanfield Railway

I have driven by this single track line on many occasions but until last weekend I had never stopped.  This has now been rectified; the plan had been to walk from Causey Arch to East Tanfield and back but then I was distracted by Twizell.  In steam, sounding and smelling glorious, I was a schoolboy again – all I lacked, apart from age reversal, was a dark blue gabardine mac (with belt), grey shorts, school cap, hand knitted jumper, Clarks sandals, long grey socks (with red striped tops) pen, paper, Ian Allan Combine and a Kodak Brownie.  Sadly, I left that all behind a ‘few’ years back but, you get the impression that some of those responsible for running this railway did not – good for them!

Twizell ... Twizell ... Twizell ... The Thin Controller... Twizell ... Twizell ... Twizell ...

As a one time railway enthusiast I left this first visit disgracefully long, for this is no ordinary line – this is the oldest railway in the world.  This extract is from their website:

From the mid 1600 onwards waggonways and the Tyneside coal industry became linked so closely that they were known throughout the rest of Britain as ‘Tyneside Roads’. A network of lines linked collieries on both sides of the Tyne to the river.

It is no coincidence that the North East was the area where waggonways took greatest hold, because canal building was impossible due to deep valleys and steep hills. What set the rail systems of Tyneside apart from all others was its use of the flanged wheel – a key element of the modern railway as we know it.

When the Tanfield Railway – or waggonway as it was known at the time – was built in 1725, it was a revelation. Its massive engineering was unlike anything else in its era, or even since the Roman Empire. It was a triumph of engineering over nature, a clear signal that a new industrial age was upon the world, and that railways would play a massive part.

First laid down more than a quarter of a century before the first railway officially sanctioned by government, over 75 years before the first steam locomotive and a whole 100 years earlier than the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the Tanfield Railway is the world’s oldest railway. We will be the first railway to celebrate our tri-centenary in 2025.

Patrick Lichfield

It feels like he has just popped out, more than likely to take the dogs for a walk through the estate or along the Trent & Mersey, a few yards over the Essex packhorse bridge.  Patrick Lichfield died suddenly in 2005 at the age of 66.  Besides a small permanent exhibition of his works and studio equipment, visitors to the elegant mansion house at Shugborough can enter his private apartments which are much as he left them.  The drinks cabinet appears well stocked beneath a photo cartoon with Bailey, the dogs’ toys are strewn on the floor in front of the fire and his motorcycle gloves and helmet sit waiting to be gathered up beneath the window.

In the late seventies my father gave me his Mamiya C330F camera and I became much more serious about photography, constructing a darkroom in a shed at the bottom of the garden, I disappeared for hours into the womb of the red safety light.  The C330F is a twin lens reflex with interchangeable lenses, an over-sized piece of kit which would not look out of place on a modern film set.  I was very fond of the high contrast achieved with Kodak’s Tri-X 120 roll film but with just twelve exposures, you had to think long and hard before pressing the shutter.   There was a 24 exposure version but this was such a devil to wind onto a developing tank spool that I usually opted for the more reliable shorter roll. Whilst it produced wonderful technical results from its two and a quarter square inch negatives and even the odd published picture, it was just too cumbersome to capture the decisive moment.  Needless to say I coveted the more agile 35mm cameras from Nikon and Pentax but it was the really nimble Olympus OM range that I desired most.  The advertising campaigns featuring Lichfield and Bailey eventually worked their magic and I acquired a black OM1 and an OM10.  The photography didn’t improve much but getting around did and they were such joyous pieces of technical jewellery, the OM just nestled in the hands and you felt the part.

I was reminded of these much desired cameras at Shugborough.  In Patrick Lichfield’s lounge there is a small bronze of two hands cupped around an Olympus as though holding a precious ornament.

I still have the Mamiya for sentimental reasons but with the advent of digital my OMs were sold or passed on; a beautiful object of desire, I wish I had at least kept an OM1.

As an example of how we have ‘progressed’, this fuzzy image was taken on a smart phone, the latest objects of desire  (this was as close as I could get and even then set off the motion detector – the lady from the National Trust was very understanding).