Roger Malone talks to Adrian Harris about his book driven by a passion for steam trains.
When meeting author and railway enthusiast Adrian Harris, the temptation to find a mutually enjoyable spot to chat – and watch steam trains at the same time, is irresistible.
Cue, then, Buckfastleigh station. Easily accessible from the A38, the South Devon Railway not only presents a pleasant location but also, it transpires, has played a key part in launching Adrian towards authorship.
So here we are: 10.30am sharp. Just in time to watch the 10.45am depart for Totnes. A plume of billowing white steam marks the sedate progress as a former GWR pannier tank hauls its train around the curve and out of sight.
Such timeless scenes can now be enjoyed in Adrian’s colour album South West Heritage Steam Railways (Halsgrove, £14.99) – featuring the atmospheric delights of five Westcountry lines.
Now 63, Adrian was a youthful enthusiast in the 1960s who then lost interest only to have it rekindled, via photography, later in life.
Created from his numerous pictorial sorties, the South Devon Railway is one of the lines featured in the book. But, perhaps more importantly, it was instrumental in providing Adrian with a photographic purpose in the first place.
“I got a digital camera in 2003 and had been looking for a subject. One day I was driving near the railway when I heard a whistle and saw a steam engine,” he says.
At that time Adrian had little interest in the railway scene, and no knowledge of the preserved Heritage Railway movement. So the South Devon Railway came as a surprise – and an inspiration.
“I didn’t know anyone who did railway photography so I had to discover the locations myself,” says Adrian.
Fired with fresh enthusiasm, he obtained lineside passes to the preserved railways and walked all the routes, noting the best locations.
“I decided I wanted to capture what the railways meant to me as part of a journey,” he says.
“Each railway had a different story because they all had totally different challenges. I was overawed by the effort and dedication of these preservationists.”
Adrian has been seriously photographing them since 2004. Initially the pictures were for personal pleasure, but then he began to realise there was sufficient material for a book.
“I got so much pleasure out of people’s books that I wanted to write one to give pleasure to others – and to celebrate the people who ran these railways.”
Our morning’s conversation is pleasantly punctuated with occasional whistles, hissing steam and exhaust beats as locomotives engage in various shunting movements around the station.
Adrian’s preferred happy hunting ground is away from the platform where the train can be set within the landscape.
“It is a question of finding a location and then waiting for the train to enter the picture. There is the stress and the excitement – they go hand in hand. It is always a challenge aiming for that perfect shot because you have one moment to get it right.”
His train photography was very much inspired by renowned wildlife and locomotive artist David Shepherd who so evocatively captured the last days of steam on British Rail. More recently he has been influenced by Philip D Hawkins who masterfully paints scenes of railways at night – a challenging subject Adrian enjoys tackling through the lens.
His first railway pictures were snapped as a child. Brought up in Exeter, his mother regularly took him to Rougemont Gardens – which afforded a good view of Exeter Central station with its bustle of arriving and departing steam-hauled trains.
“I remember watching the Bulleid Pacifics coming in on passenger trains, and the Meldon Quarry stone trains...” he says.
When he was about 12, a boy in his street of the same age invited him to go train spotting at Exeter St David’s.
“I asked what ‘train spotting’ was and he said: ‘you get this book with numbers and if you see something you tick it off!” And so, for a while, Adrian joined the ranks of youngsters who, in the 50s and 60s, gravitated to platform ends with their spotter’s notebooks. He visited locomotive sheds such as Exmouth Junction, taking pictures with a Box Brownie.
Several years later Adrian went on a trip to Barry scrapyard in South Wales where he saw of hundreds of condemned steam engines slowly decaying in the salt air.
Barry was a depressing dumping ground for these giants of steam. Then enthusiast groups began buying and restoring them. Some scrapyard escapees have found their way onto all the five Westcountry railways covered in Adrian’s book.
More than 100 evocative images of steam are accompanied by a brief history of the lines, description of stations, a map and lists of locomotives associated with each railway.
And so we can enjoy a first class journey from the Swanage Railway to the Bodmin and Wenford Railway – embracing the delights of the West Somerset Railway, Dartmouth Steam Railway and South Devon Railway en route.
There is also a chapter about Barry. Some of those forlorn locomotives Adrian saw in 1965 now provide glinting subjects for his camera almost half a century on. A fitting tribute indeed to the preservation movement the book celebrates.