Back from Berlin! Here’s what I got up to before going.

The main station at Mangapps Railway Museum.

Such is the buggered state of the ticketing of our railway network, that I discovered an interesting fact:  It often costs the same – sometimes cheaper – to get a ticket to visit a town just outside London with a one-month return period as it does to just get a ticket into London with the same conditions.  Before heading into Berlin I had this brainwave when I failed to obtain cheap flights at a sensible time that wouldn’t entail a night in a London Airport, due to the fact that the trains go to bed as well as we do; faced with the prospect of a night on the Red Bull, I opted to take the Eurostar instead (with onward ICE connections to Berlin), but once again I had been thwarted in my attempts to go at a sensible time in the morning that left me enough leeway to take the train into London.

This led me to book a single-night stay beforehand at a Hostel known as Clink 261, virtually right outside London St. Pancras International.  At a cost of £14 booked a little over two months in advance, this wasn’t too bitter a pill to swallow when my train travel to Europe had cost just under £180.  With this in mind, it occurred to me that seeing as I had a full day before I had to head into London anyway, why not make a day out of it?

Let’s conduct an experiment for a moment; as of the 8th of July (the time of writing), a one-month ticket to London Zones 1-6 costs £42.80 should you stick to off-peak times, so both the London Ticket and Town Tickets will be from Monday 9th at around 9am to Friday 13th(!) at around 8pm for the sake of comparison.  With this in mind, let’s examine a few destinations under the same conditions:

  • Burnham-on-Crouch:  £39.50 – This is where I elected to go in order to visit Mangapps Railway Museum, which isn’t the easiest to get to on foot, but still a highly interesting collection of Locomotives, Rolling Stock and Railwayana.
  • Tunbridge Wells:  £33.10 – This Kentish town is home to Tunbridge Wells West, one end of the Spa Valley Railway.
  • East Grinstead:  £30.20 – The highest risk option, given that the only way in-or-out from London is via perpetually strike-stricken Southern trains, but the carrot on this particular stick is the Bluebell Railway, that beautiful pioneer of Railway Preservation.

So we pick three destinations close to London, and we save £3.30£9.70, and £12.60 respectively.  Sure, if you opt to only use Zone 1 of the Underground, you’ll get a price of £38.60, which is cheaper than Burnham-on-Crouch, but it is still above the prices of Tunbridge Wells and East Grinstead by a considerable margin.The only issue you are likely to encounter is some of the gates into the London Underground throwing a wobbly, which isn’t exactly helpful in the late evening, but there’s usually at least one worker near the gates who’ll let you through.  Oddly enough, when I got to London Waterloo for the final leg of the journey, the ticket barriers worked without issue!

Come to think of it, many Hostels offer a lift to London Airports, so this is something worth investigating the next time I have to fly to GodKnowsWhere at Silly ‘o’ Clock in the night.

In any case, here is my photo album of the quirky and interesting Mangapps Railway Museum.


My thoughts on Paranormal Phenomena

When it comes to the subject of ghosts, two groups seem to be grabbing all the headlines:  The first group is the believers, a group that contains those who claim to be able to communicate with the dead, the latter often ending up on cheesy reality-style programs where they’re occasionally trolled by their own crew members; the second group mostly consists of sceptical people telling the first group to grow up.

The current state of Paranormal Research

Given that the state of Paranormal Research is at the same stage now as the state of Medicine was in the 1600s, this isn’t exactly a surprise.  All those theories that currently seem quaint and amusing to our modern ears – bad smells, too much sea air, too little work, too much work – that were once used to explain Scurvy were taken with grave seriousness by the believers of the day, often in spite of a lack of concrete results.  There is also the truism that holds to this day that people in positions of prestige like to believe things which serve their interests, or at least make their trials and/or moral quandaries seem a little easier to live with.

Stir in a few attention-starved scammers manipulating photos causing runaway press sensationalism, and ending in a bathetic “it was fake” revelation, and you have a recipe for contempt of the subject.

Thankfully, there are some of those in the sceptic camp who are willing to investigate.  These people seem to date back to the mid 1740s when a theologian by the name of Emanuel Swedenborg began to have visions that shook his blind faith in Christianity.  These included visions of his home in Stockholm being threatened by fire whilst he was at a dinner party 250 miles away.  Needless to say, he had burned his bridges with the church by the time he died in 1772, but he had laid the foundation for others to advance the field, such as those who founded the Society for Psychical Research in 1881.  Today, the same principles of exhausting all possible explanations befitting current theories before announcing a discovery are upheld, albeit with modern tools such as EMF Meters, Motion Detectors and EVP Recorders.  One of the main theories for feelings of unease is Infrasound, low-frequency sounds just below our range of hearing that match the resonant frequency of our internal organs.

Have I encountered any evidence?

I’ve heard it said that before the advent of the internet, people didn’t even talk about their paranormal experiences for fear of being earmarked for Broadmoor.  There have been times which I might term “near-misses”, where I thought I saw something but they have either dissipated before I could observe them or my mind was playing tricks.  So, nothing I can say that has reached “I know what I saw that night” levels.  This in no way prevents me from being deeply fascinated with the concept of life after death, and the implications it has for our understanding of good and evil.

Undeniably, the rise of sites like Reddit, Youtube and other places where people can upload their experiences has done a great deal to shatter the stigma of occupying a haunted property, and numerous Youtube channels read these stories out to great effect:  Lazy Masquerade, Unit #522, Be. Busta and Lets Read! are just a few that I regularly listen to.  With any luck, over time the paranormal will be further ingrained into the mainstream conciousness and paranormal investigators will therefore find it easier to obtain funding.

So, long story short, I keep an open mind

So in summary, my opinions on the paranormal can be summed up in the opening of Extreme Ghost Stories, a tragically-short ITV series from 2006 that is well worth a watch.

Throughout history, ever culture and age has told stories of hauntings, visitations from beyond the grave. Whatever your beliefs, what cannot be denied is that the living are outnumbered by the dead.

The tales you are about to witness are created from first-hand accounts; they portray the experiences of people who had no more reason to believe in ghosts than you. Is it possible that beyond our understanding there exists a darker world?

Therefore mark me down as an open-minded Sceptic:  Given the frequency, accuracy and diversity of accounts, I’m inclined to think that a darker world could indeed exist…

Youtube Channel Recommendation: Strathpeffer Junction

A very recent addition to the ranks of model railway channels to which I am subscribed, this layout is based upon the railways northwest of Inverness in the 1980s and 90s, when BR had been branded Scotrail in the region, and Class 37s (“Tractors” 😉 ) ruled the roost; it is in the very early stages of construction inside the gable roof attic of a house, which for obvious reasons of space is a favourite of modellers.  Pity that there’s less reason than ever that one might have access to an attic in this day and age.

At the time of writing, progress has been limited to the conversion of the loft and the construction of the frame members of the baseboard.  The layout has an interesting concept for it’s fiddle yard, whereby a lower baseboard contains the trains that will climb up inclines to reach the upper scenic baseboard where all the action is, and eventually disappearing down another incline to return to the fiddle yard.  Almost certainly easier to accommodate in a limited space than a helix at either end, whilst still allowing for gentle gradients.

Being a fan of highland based layouts ever since visiting the Strathspey Railway back in 2016, I look forward to seeing what this guy makes of the imposing scenery and the often-beautiful Scottish railway stations.  There will also be an element of physical triumph when the layout is complete, but more on this later.

The real Strathpeffer Station

Interestingly, as the Disused Stations page reveals, Strathpeffer was a terminus in reality, owing to a failure to obtain permission to build a line through the town and having instead to run the line through Achterneed to the north.  The line was refused permission to run through the land of William MacKenzie of Coul House, forcing construction of the line to the Kyle of Lochalsh to run through the nearby Raven Rock, resulting in gradients of 1 in 70.  The landowner’s son later retracted the objection to the line, but by that point the Dingwall and Skye Railway Company had expended huge amounts of capital on it’s diversion, eventually running out of money at Stromeferry.  The Highland Railway had to step in, buying the DSR and completing the line to Kyle of Lochalsh twelve miles onwards.

Its a fascinating story in it’s own right, one that creates an interesting “what might have been” scenario.

An inspirational layout

This is where the story takes a somewhat tragic, yet hopeful turn.  The builder of the layout suffered a spinal injury sustained while white water kayaking, which amongst other outdoor pursuits had supplanted his childhood love of model railways as he grew older.  Given the majestic nature of his surroundings, I can’t say I blame him.

We can expect to see the effects of this dictating many of the features of the layout, which has already been designed to be used while sitting on a chair as standing for any extended period of time is sure to become painful.  As a disabled person myself (Autistic Spectrum Disorder), I know first hand about having to work around your limitations, except in my case it involves utilising my concious mind in order to compensate for what I cannot do unconsciously; socialising therefore means running a gauntlet of examining a group’s reactions in order to know when to join a conversation, when to elaborate and when to stop talking.  If you’ve ever wanted to know why we elect to spend so much time alone, there’s your answer.

It is early days for this layout, and there’s no telling what the river of inspiration will deliver to a man over time – my own layout has proven this surely enough! – but I definitely look forward to seeing how it develops in order to give him the most comfortable and satisfying experience.

Berlin – Just passing through? Not this time…

S-Bahn Train at Berlin Hbf.

If it seems to those who view my Flickr page think I have an affinity for Germany, they’re right.  As a kid in Secondary School I was a little bitter that I had to learn Spanish as opposed to German; after all, what the hell did Spain do during the war, right?

Of course, this was before I learned about Latin America and the many exciting phenomena there; A desert drier than Weetabix, spiders that cure ED, and steam trains left in salt flats to crumble into dust.  If I’m going to go there in the next year, I’ve got anywhere from seven to nineteen months to make up for all the nights spent with Babel Fish instead of doing my god-damn homework.

Anyway, that’s then, and this is now:  In a month’s time I shall turn a stopping point in my Germany trips so far into a destination.

My dalliances with the city so far

Both times I have been through Berlin, I came in via Tegel Airport to the north-west.  A fairly unremarkable place, probably not such a good starting point if you’re allergic to taxis like I am; the buses are only for those who want to know what it feels like to be at crush-depth underwater whilst breathing bottled air from the rainforest.

From there it was straight to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, for onwards passage to Leipzig on the first trip, Züssow on the second.  And that’s really all there is to report, me and my father never really travelled far beyond the station, the Tiergarten being the furthest extent of our wandering.

Sniping deals on accommodation and travel for numpties

This is how much difference two weeks makes.

In the middle of April, around the 14th, I snagged three nights at a hotel literally minutes away from Berlin Hbf, giving me a lot of scope for onward travel throughout the city and possibly beyond.  Three nights for ~£110, or ~£37 a night.  Breakfast is a bit expensive but I’m sure I’ll work around that.

Fast forward to the 25th, 11 days on, and the time has come for me to book my flights.  I plan to come into Schönefeld as it has an S-Bahn right next to it, which immediately sticks two fingers up at that god-awful bus.  Guess what kind of conundrum I had to wrestle with?  The age-old dilemma of getting cheap flights at ridiculous times, or selling your house to obtain reasonable flight times.

As we all know, the railway networks virtually shut down at around 1am – Something I first discovered when planning my route back to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam at the end of a 3-day stint there – and don’t resume service until 6am.  This is a necessary evil, as this allows ballast to be relaid, worn rails replaced, and for the railway network to be healthier and happier as a result.  But that is of scant comfort when you find yourself stuck in an airport terminal at 9pm trying to sleep like an exhausted marching soldier in wait for an ambush  a flight at 6am.

Given the content of this blog, you can probably guess how I responded to this dilemma.  I called upon the gods of the iron horse, of course!  Okay, I was still paying ridiculous money for such a simple trip to a European capital, and the time of the incoming journey still requires me to stay at a hostel the night before, but keep in mind, both endpoints of a rail journey are almost always next to or in the centre of the cities and towns they serve, there’s no need to site the station miles out of town to comply with noise regulations, or even just to find a plot of land big enough for the runways.

Now, I can appreciate that in one instance I am referring to a Hotel, and in another the inbound journey, but the point remains.  I’ve heard that in order to get the best deals on hotels, you should wait until a few weeks before you go to snag the best deals; I’ve never tested this successfully, but I expect that during peak tourist season it’s best to just snap up them tickets early before they evaporate.  Maybe I should’ve booked the travel tickets first…

In short, I wasn’t prepared to board the plane in a semi-lucid state to save a few tenners, and frankly I hate airports, so if I’m gonna pay close to £200 to travel to Berlin, I might as well do it the only way I truly love – scything through the land at ground level.

Targets of Opportunity

Calm down, I haven’t hired Lancaster Bombers to level the city, although I could probably enjoy a Lancaster Bomber Beer to steel my nerves before the epic train trip over (London St. Pancras – Brussels Zuid – Cologne – Berlin).  These are simply sites in the city I have in my sights:

Tempelhofer Feld

Do I really need to explain this?  It’s a massive airport, preserved since it’s closure in 2008 as a public park.  Pity I can’t pretend to be a DC-4 without attracting concerned looks…

Deutsches Technikmuseum

This one kills two birds with one stone, as it features both aviation and railway exhibits.  I never realized how hard it was to find aviation and railway museums abroad until I tried it, and only knowing basic German phrases does not help matters.

Another highlight is that the site resides next to a disused 19th Century Berlin train station known as Dresdener Bahnhof.

Computerspiele Museum

This is a museum about gaming, presumably on both console and PC.  Gaming made up such a big part of my childhood, it is impossible to give this one a miss.

All set?

I am, pretty much:  Travel and Hotel are done, all I really need is insurance.  Nothing to really do now except await the fun.

Until then, there’s always Boris:

Youtube Video Recommendation: 8 Old-School Tips for better Hand Filing

Clickspring is a Youtube Channel dedicated to the intricacies of making clocks, which I can only assume is why they feature this excellent video on hand filing technique.

I hate filing.  Alongside coughing up dust it’s my least favourite workshop activity, so anything which makes the job more painless is akin to an instant cure for a Norovirus infection.

Unearthing my childhood: Layout in the shed

A Garden Shed that once contained a Model Railway.

As is the custom in the United Kingdom, the slightest appearance of sunshine brings on a plethora of attempts to make the most of the good weather before it buggers off behind the clouds once more.  As such, my dad has taken to repairing and renovating the garden shed that once contained my childhood OO Gauge Model Railway, which he built.

I will admit that I probably didn’t appreciate this layout as much as I should’ve, being around 12 and all, as the track was eventually lifted and the shed spent the longest time under two jurisdictions; On the left there was the side for my brother, James, which was usually covered in car parts, and on the right was my side, where a lot of effort was expended wrecking the once-pristine surface with careless DIY.  Now that all of that is gone, imagine my elation when I came to discover that thanks to my dad’s decision to use double-sided tape to secure the track, the outline where trains once ran is still very-much traceable.  It’s not often that I get to play archaeologist.

So, without further ado, join me this week as I explore the relics of my forgotten start in railway modelling.

The ghosts of Hornby’s past

Coming into the shed, and observing the former trackbed for the first time in years, it is clear that the ravages of time, nature and UV light have not been kind to the shed.

The left side of the old OO Gauge layout.
The baseboards are of Medium-Density Fibreboard, which isn’t a great material as far as pinning the track down is concerned, so it’s no wonder my dad chose double-sided tape instead. Sagging and what I assume to be mould are in abundance.
The middle of the old OO Gauge layout.
Not much going on in the middle, apart from the spur to the turntable.
The right side of the old OO Gauge layout.
Probably the main action area of the layout. Once the home of a turntable and locomotive shed, this turned into my main area for DIY once the track was lifted, hence the spray paint and holes.  To be honest I don’t know what I was thinking putting that sticker of a city on the hillside of the faded Peco backscene; this would be like improving a Picasso artwork by sticking an airfix model of a tank to it.

So maybe time for a refurb…

A BRM-style review of the trackplan

For anyone making a start in model railways, I would seriously recommend getting the three volumes of the BRM Guide to Trackplans & Layout Design.  These are superbly laid-out guides on how to design and build an effective model railway layout, and they contain colour plans and descriptions of many successful layouts of all sizes, as well as beginner-friendly bullet point lists of the good and bad points.

Another reason to get them is that they also contain articles clearing up some of the lingo in the hobby, such as what code 100 and code 75 mean with regards to OO Gauge track.  The three volumes contain content which is progressively more advanced, with Volume One containing articles geared towards the basics like layout location and baseboard construction; Volume Two goes more in-depth with modelling locations, track design and maximising the space you have available; Volume Three has articles almost entirely focused on modelling real-world locations, so you can see how your skills are expected to develop over time.  If you are just starting out, and you have to pick one, get Volume One.

So, for the sake of brevity, and because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (wink, wink!), let’s break out Anyrail 6, retrace the trackplan as best we can, and assess these remains in closer detail.

Plan of Old Train Shed OO Gauge Layout in Anyrail 6.
An approximate reconstruction of the original layout, done in Anyrail 6. This layout was constructed in a space of approx. 2894mm x 1689mm, or 9ft 6in x 5ft 6.5in. 57XX Pannier Tank and two BR Mk1 Carriages for scale.  N.B:  The light-grey rectangle beside the right flank of the layout is a proposed extension to the baseboard, it is not currently fitted.

Starting from where the Pannier Tank and Mk1 Carriages are located, we move off into what can be considered the main run of the layout, negotiating the outer loop, we cross the diamond crossing and turn right on the points (the left heads into a rudimentary two siding goods yard) to enter the inner loop.  After crossing the diamond crossing again, we cross the middle section into the right flank, rounding the curve passing the engine shed with it’s turntable, and we cross the spur leading to it to come back where we started.

As we can gather from that description, it was clear that dad intended to buy mostly tank engines as the motive power for the railway, and as it happened, these made up the majority of the fleet.  That said, I did treasure a couple of tender locomotives in my fleet; a Midland 2P and the A4 Pacific Mallard as I recall.  Many of my operating days on this layout were pockmarked by derailments of the tender engines as they tried to negotiate curves they were never suited for.  The light-grey extension to the baseboard, which brings it up to the door frame just like on the other side, would’ve permitted 2nd radius curves to be used, saving a lot of frustration.  Of course, this would also mean some kind of bypass on the left flank, before the diamond crossing.

While I can appreciate what dad did for me nowadays, given that he likely knew less about model railways then compared to what I know now (which, as I’m discovering with every problem I run into with my layout, is not a lot), back then, I clearly didn’t give this layout the love it deserved either.  Granted, I was twelve, but I still think that if I had made a bit of effort to make the layout my own, i.e:  added scenery and detail, it may never have been mothballed, but become a treasured surviving part of my childhood.

  • Use of the diamond crossing allows for two loops where only one might exist otherwise, extending the run.
  • Turntable and engine shed provide a perfect place for showcasing the fleet.
  • First Radius curves used too often on the main run, causing tender engines to derail.
  • Not much room for a substantial station.
  • Goods yard could easily be turned into something more substantial, such as a shunting puzzle.
  • Rudimentary scenic detail with no landscape leaves viewers in the dark as to the theme.

What the future holds…

This area is indeed ripe for development, and the timing is great, too.  Product-wise, these are exciting times for the Railway Modelling hobby, and not just in terms of locomotives and rolling stock – even if those are a little expensive – but the scratch/kit building end of the hobby is being revolutionized by the emergence of 3D printing; from obscure classes of stock, scenic objects and people, to spares for out-of-production locomotives.  Even if you are on a strict budget, companies like 3dk are allowing people to take advantage of the widespread abundance of decent photo printers to provide designs that can be printed in perpetuity, saving a lot of money especially when recycling waste card.

Needless to say, the N Gauge layout is giving me enough trouble, so maybe a project for next year.  In the meantime, there’s always Anyrail 😉

Finally, some closure on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2

Courtesy of Al’s Gaming, I’ve recently gained enlightenment as to what I had missed when S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was cancelled back in 2012.  The channel has made some excellent videos on the lore of the games that were released, such as the Factions, C-Conciousness and Strelok’s Group.  The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games really are of the sort that no matter how many times you play them, you always discover another layer to them you haven’t noticed before.  As such, these videos are well worth a watch, as they really help you to appreciate the dedication and effort that went into them, even if the overall level of polish suggests otherwise:

Planned Side-Quests

There apparently was supposed to be 157 side-quests in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, and this reddit thread has links to descriptions of sixty of them.  I’m going to open myself up to being psychoanalysed by the internet and give you my top three.  To get an idea of how these quests would’ve played out, cast your mind back to Call of Pripyat and note how each quest appeared to be a mini-story within the main story, as opposed to the now infamous “Go here and shoot a thing until it falls over” side-quest that was common to the previous games:

  1. Voices of the Deceased – Essentially, you come across a village which a group of Stalkers wishes to turn into a base, a scenario common to the Zone.  Your job is to persuade a rabble of zombies to find somewhere else to roam via one of three methods
    1. Tell the Stalkers about their positions, and wipe the floor with them (okay, let’s stretch it and say their souls found somewhere else to roam).
    2. Take them down yourself (the “I’ve just bought a Dragunov” approach).
    3. Talk to the zombies; apparently the way you get their attention is to slowly bump into them, although I thought the lore was that these brain-dead creatures had no cognizance whatsoever, so how the hell any “persuasion” was meant to happen is anyone’s guess.
  2. An Underground Laboratory – This one seems to be your standard romp into an underground lab in the Zone, apart from some juicy information on the origins to two of the game’s most feared mutants; the Controller and the Bloodsucker.  Controllers were an attempt to create a universal soldier, while Bloodsuckers were an attempt to give humans active camouflage.
  3. The King needs his followers – A logical progression from the team-building found in Call of Pripyat, whereby the player has the option to begin and run their own faction.  Interestingly, it seems there is a reputation system at play, with Stalkers under your command operating more efficiently for a faction leader they approve of.  Setting up involves rounding up the usual suspects:
    1. Technician – Upgrades your shooters and suits, possibly faction-wide.
    2. Barman – Frontman for recruiting Stalkers, also provides you a cut from his business.
    3. Trader – Supplies your faction with gear, giving the boss a nice discount.
    4. Medic – Heals, and provides discounted medical gear.
    5. Manager – Executes the player’s orders when he’s not around, kind of like the ‘CEO’ to the Owner.

The Zone, Iteration Four

As anyone who is a veteran to the series should know, the Zone is the true main character, the axis of the story, not whoever the protagonist happens to be.  The Zone is constantly being referred to as a living being, one that uses blowouts and anomalies as it’s immune system against human intrusion.

With this in mind, it should be noted that this idea of the zone being alive was greatly enhanced when Call of Pripyat based it’s maps around three massive areas instead of a Smörgåsbord of smaller territories; each area could function as a self-contained play area much of the time, cutting down on immersion-breaking loading screens and allowing the player to really ‘live’ a long journey.  S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 was set to take this one step further by making the whole Zone a persistent map, with areas procedurally loaded as the player travelled.  With a map like the one below, you can just imagine a single epic, seamless trip from the Cordon to the CNPP.

On a final note…

We will never know for sure of the extent of GSC Game World’s true vision for this game even if it had been released, given the alleged internal strife and looming bankruptcy issues plaguing the company prior to it’s dissolution.  There is one thing I do know, however, and that is that the internet loves a mystery, and these recent results of Western Spies dedicated fans sifting through the developer’s leaked materials written in Russian and translating it into English come as solid proof of this.  And, I’ve got to admit, they’re not alone.

On a related note, for those who wonder what the original vision was for Shadow of Chernobyl, or as close as we’ll ever get, check out Lost Alpha mod, which had a development cycle almost as long as the original game!

Youtube Channel Recommendation: Extra Credits

Extra Credits is a Youtube Channel worth subscribing to.  Originally a channel concerning Video Game design, they have branched out into historical content, such as the above, Sci-Fi and literature and more recently, Mythology.  Indeed, it was the above video on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that got me thinking about Societal Momentum, and how it usually takes a truly savage amount of destruction to change things.  It is no accident that wars are often considered to be great social levellers.