The Severn Beach Line
 
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I must say first that I’m not really a hugely committed train enthusiast, train spotter or even have much of a history in the world of the railways. I’ve happily used British Rail for 40 odd years, taking trains journeys only when and where needed, mildly enjoying the journey ( the break from the motorway ) the buffet car and the sense of anticipation as the train rolled into Paddington Station, but this has always been a passing feeling. Now though, increasingly, I seem being drawn into this world. I’ve mainly put down to middle age, which I think has brought on a strong and ever increasing sense of nostalgia. I like to look back, collect memories and things, my old diaries and ticket collections have suddenly become more interesting and much to my horror I’ve found myself taking second glances at old Land Rovers, Tractors and Diesel trains (I’m currently trying to resist a 1980s Badgerline Bus craving). Like a lot of 10 year olds in the 1970s I dabbled in train spotting, on windswept platforms at Temple Meads with a numbers book, a pencil and a packet of Smiths crisps . With my dad and brother, I watched the last of the steam trains pass by, getting our old pennies flattened on the rails at Lawrence Hill Station, then stood in wonder, mouths gaping, as the first HST wizzed through. Of course this all past as I discovered more interesting teenage pursuits and lay dormant until around 2 years ago when during a photo shoot at The Steam Museum in Swindon. I’d wondered into the Hornby Model Railway shop and that was it, , some king of ‘nerd’ lightbulb went off in my head and I suddenly felt the need to buy a train set ( Grandchildren not far on the horizon was my excuse) and it’s been downhill even since .

So, why am I now photographing slightly uninteresting train stations ?

Well firstly, i’ve long had an association and a love of the Severn Beach Line, growing up not far from Lawrence Hill Train Station and as I said earlier, joyfully playing there before health and safety was invented. It’s a line that ends at Severn Beach and for any Bristolian of a certain age, it holds a special place our hearts. Fifty years ago Severn Beach was a thriving day trip holiday destination, served so well from Central and North East Bristol. It boasted The Lagoon swimming pool, a fairground, with it’s very own wooden roller coaster, tearooms and a lively Dance Hall that attracted nightlife, partly due to it’s relaxed licensing rules at the time. But during the late 70s Bristolians decided to travel to more glamorous locations (such as WSM and Weymouth) and the beach, that never really was a beach, along with it’s creaking attractions, faded and fell into disrepair. But it’s still an interesting end of the line, with fantastic views of the 2 Severn Crossings and a popular shoreline walkway.

Here is a link to Severn Beach in it’s heyday https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/features/22-archive-photos-of-severn-beach

The line from Temple Meads station takes you east, through inner city Bristol with stops at Montpelier, Clifton, Redland then down the Portbury through Sea Mills to Industrial Avonmouth and St Andrews Road. For me, this is where the line is at it’s most interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by the industrial working environment, it was my first project while studying Photojounalism at College and to this day I shoot a fair amount of Industrial Photography, I’m never happier than when I’m wearing a hi vis jacket or harnessed to a Cherry Picker. This interest stems from the gritty landscapes which make interesting photographic subjects, especially when you mix in the workers. But (getting back to Trains ) there are few workers at St Andrews Road Station in Avonmouth. Hidden between the busy St Andrews road and the grey stoneworks within the Docks, the station has an air melancholy. On my visits around 5.30/6pm the station appears empty, forgotten, almost as if the footbridge that takes you to the station, was only put there for people like me to enjoy the sunset, which if you are lucky is setting behind industrial cranes, the merchant ships and wind turbines. On most of my twilight visits, the station has revealed little in the way of activity, but during one chilly evening February, from the bridge, I noticed in the distance lights from an oncoming Freight Train, lights that hardly seemed to move. It’s the Coal train, moving very very slowly. I’m not sure why, maybe it doesn’t want to disturb the peace ? The bridge then, surprisingly, begins a low rumble, a couple of commuters scuttle across. So suddenly the station feels alive, albeit by only half a dozen commuters who to be fair, look surprised to have stumbled upon this station. As the coal train continues it’s slow approach the GWR DMU from Avonmouth rolls in. The doors open but nobody gets out (why would they ) the guard steps out and looks on slightly disappointingly as he watches the travellers board, a few carrying their bikes, before he blows his whistle steps back onto the train and it departs towards Severn Beach. I’m left to watch the Frieght train pass by, though it doesn’t really pass by. It barely craws, and must be around a mile long, emitting a low hum and a slightly painful creaking sound. It has a ghostly quality and is mesmerising .

 
Lawrence Hill Station, last stop before Temple Meads, as it is today

Lawrence Hill Station, last stop before Temple Meads, as it is today

 

The line, believe or not has strong musical connections, with the Indie Sarah Records label featuring each of it’s train stations on 10 consecutive singles. These iconic records were released back in the late 80s early 90s on Vinyl, and are now exchanged for fairly large amounts of money. They are beautifully produced and musically timid, each one capturing a leftfield slice of indie jangleness (I know that’s not a word ). It’s not glamorous or popular and none of the releases dented the mainstream charts. This certainly was not intentional, I think the label wanted success, but the label and artists were almost impenetrable , releasing gentle low fi records that swam against the musical grain of the time, an era of Madchester and American Grunge. I was an Indie fan at the time and owned every release of the Smiths, who if you like where on top on the Indie tree, To find Sarah releases you had to go at least 3 steps back through to The Primitives, then 5 steps back to The Wedding Present, Take a right turn with the Blue Aeroplanes, dig little deeper past The Woodentops and Shop Assistants, and there if you’re lucky, hidden beneath a Pastels 7 inch, you might stumble of The Sea Urchins (check out Pristine Christine ) or if you fancy a slice of West Country melancholy listen to When Morning comes to town by The Field Mice. A Perfect soundtrack to watch a Ghost Train Pass by… Or if you want to read up about the Sarah Records story, check out the book Popkiss , Link here https Popkiss Book

 
Sarah 30, featuring a photo of Lawrence Hill Station

Sarah 30, featuring a photo of Lawrence Hill Station

 

Anyway, the main purpose is to capture the route and surrounding landscape at the optimal moments, when the light, mood and composition are in line. At heart, I am a Documentary photographer, in my dreams a Photojournalist, and in my youthful thoughts (I still have them) a trainspotter, and one with a good taste in music :-) . I hope you enjoy the images, I’ll keep updating them…

A small selection of images from saturdays Track record event, more info to c

A small selection of images from saturdays Track record event, more info to c

TrainsNeil Phillips