Happy Bastille Day 2018

Chemins de fer du Midi, Bordeaux

Chemins de fer du Midi, Bordeaux

Happy Bastille Day! This year, trying to avoid predictable views of Paris, I decided to post the photo above, which shows a fascinating map that still exists in the Great Hall of the main railway station in Bordeaux (Saint Jean). This huge wall plan was created by the Compagnie des Chemins de fer du Midi, presumably at the time of the station’s construction.

I took the photograph when Mary and I were passing through Bordeaux station in 2014, on our way from Paris to Saint Cyprien. We had just arrived from Paris via TGV, and we were changing trains for the TER service to our final destination.

The photo above doesn’t reveal that that afternoon was extremely hot, and only small parts of Bordeaux Station are air-conditioned (ironically, the area near the McDonalds restaurant)! Mary and I thus spent most of our time there trying to find places to keep cool, but even in those circumstances we didn’t consider the idea of eating at McDonalds.

Back to Paris

The photo below shows me in Paris Montparnasse Station, in front of the TGV that had just brought us back from Bordeaux on the return leg of our journey.

TGV and Me, Paris Montparnasse, 2014

TGV and Me, Paris Montparnasse, 2014

In fact, the train route between Paris and Bordeaux has changed since we made our journey, because the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line has been opened all the way through (as shown here). When we made our trip in 2014, we could only use the high-speed line from Paris to Tours, and then the train used the existing route to Bordeaux.

Historic Rail Maps Survive

The rail map in Bordeaux station immediately reminded me of the tile maps that England’s North Eastern Railway placed at most major stations on its network, the surviving examples of which were a regular sight when I was traveling in Yorkshire as a child.

The photo below shows the map at York Station, and was taken while I was changing trains there a few years ago.

North Eastern Railway tile map, York

North Eastern Railway tile map, York

There’s an additional modern notice at the right-hand side of the map, warning potential passengers that they can’t necessarily take a train to all the locations shown on the map!

In fact, there are a few locations on the NER map that you could never get to by rail, because the lines shown were never built. On the whole, though, the maps provide an impressive record of just how extensive the European rail network was at the end of the nineteenth century.

Fireworks from the Wine Train

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

For the Fourth of July this year, Mary and I decided to have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train once again. The photo above shows Mary in one of the train’s dining cars, just as it was getting dark and we were preparing to watch the firework display from the train.

The “Wine Train” is a tourist meal excursion that, since 1989, has operated from Napa to St. Helena and back on the tracks of the old Napa Valley Railroad. The line originally ran from Napa Junction to Calistoga, but had been cut back to St. Helena in 1960. In 1987, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to abandon the remaining tracks, a local business group stepped up to buy the line and operate it as a tourist railroad.

The Yountville Stop

Generally, the dinner trains run nightly up and down the line, but it’s simply a round trip with dinner, because you usually can’t disembark in St. Helena. Once a year, however, on the Fourth of July, the train makes an extra stop outside the Yountville Veterans’ Home, which provides a public firework show. Passengers can watch the fireworks from the comfort of the train, and it is perhaps a unique way to enjoy the display without the inconveniencies of sitting outdoors at night.

The photo below shows the Yountville Veterans’ Home before dark, taken from the northbound train.

Yountville Veterans' Home from the Wine Train

Yountville Veterans’ Home from the Wine Train

The photo below shows a typical vineyard view from the train. This is the V Sattui Winery. The roses at the end of each row of vines are intended to keep aphids off the grapes.

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

Turnaround in St. Helena

When the train reaches St. Helena, the locomotive must run around for the return journey. This year, for the first time since we’ve been taking trips on the Wine Train, our motive power was not a pair of Alco FPA-4s, but instead GP20 #48, on lease from the Sierra Railroad. Currently, the owners of the Wine Train are refurbishing much of the rolling stock, which has necessitated leasing stock from elsewhere.

Locomotive #48 is shown below as it ran past our carriage.

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

The photo below, taken at St. Helena during our 2016 visit, shows one of the FPA-4s more traditionally associated with the Wine Train.

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Eventually we arrived back at Yountville after dark, the train halted, and we settled in to enjoy the fireworks. The photo below shows a typical scene, shot from inside the train.

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

I’d just bought a new Nikon camera, which features a “fireworks mode”, so this was an excellent opportunity to try that out. I was very pleased with the results.

An Excellent Dinner

I should add that our dinners on the train were excellent. In “special dining” situations such as this, the quality of food and service sometimes leaves something to be desired. In the early days of the Wine Train (during the 1990s), the food was not always outstanding, but our recent dinners on the trains have been perfect.

Independence Day for Kites

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

I took the photo above, showing a juvenile White-Tailed Kite, yesterday evening. I’d gone out for a short walk to take some test shots with a new Nikon superzoom camera. The results were better than I’d anticipated! Unfortunately, the only angle from which I could take the photos was against the sun, but nonetheless the results show good detail.

The White-Tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus, aka Black-Shouldered Kite) has apparently come back from the verge of extinction in California. It certainly seems to be an increasingly common bird here. When I first saw one, hovering over the old Naval airfield near our house a few years ago, I thought that it must be some kind of albino Kestrel, because that hovering behavior is very similar to that of the Eurasian and American Kestrels.

Until now, I’d only ever seen one kite at a time, but, yesterday evening, I eventually spotted no less than four kites flying around and screeching. They seemed to be fighting with each other, and sometimes with other birds of prey.

Eventually, and thanks to the detail revealed in the zoomed photographs, I realized that this must be a family of young kites, who were in the process of establishing their own territories. In the photo above, you can see brown plumage on the bird’s breast, which marks it as a juvenile.

The second photo below shows the plumage on the young kite’s back to better effect.

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The birds were apparently disputing the prime rodent-hunting territory of the old airfield.

While all this was happening, nearby, perched on a power wire, was the Mourning Dove shown below. I’ve mentioned these birds, and their similarities to some species of Old World doves, in a previous article.

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Normally I would expect such timid birds to go under cover when there are hawks around, but it seems that the dove had concluded that the kites were so preoccupied with each other that everyone else was safe!

I was considering what to write about for this year’s Fourth of July holiday, and it struck me that the independence battles of these young hawks made for an appropriate theme, despite being quite different from the Moggies cartoon that I posted for this holiday last year.

If you’ll be celebrating the Fourth of July, enjoy your holiday! Otherwise, have a good week anyway!

Learning the Virtue of Patience

1:72 Model of Hawker Harrier T.2 Demonstrator G-VTOL

1:72 Model of Hawker Harrier T.2 Demonstrator G-VTOL

The photo above is all that survives of a 1:72 scale model of the Hawker Siddeley Harrier T.2 demonstrator aircraft, which I made in 1976, while still a teenager. In those days, making model kits (usually of aircraft) was regarded as something of a “rite of passage” for young boys. My initial efforts were extremely clumsy, but, by the time I made the model above, I had become quite comfortable with the techniques required. I was able to adapt off-the-shelf kits to my own requirements (as here where I’d converted a single-seat Matchbox Harrier kit to the two-seat version), and even make my own decals.

When I first bought those plastic kits, however, I was too young and unskilled to construct them myself, so my parents helped out by making them for me. In retrospect, their responses to those tasks seem quite odd. I mentioned in a previous post that, like so many other children, I inadvertently learned dysfunctional attitudes from my parents, and this seems to have been another of those cases.

A Fiendish Plot to Infuriate Parents?

In Britain at that time, the two major manufacturers of plastic kits were Airfix and FROG. The strange name of the latter company, which had been the first in the world to make such kits, was actually an acronym, as I’ll explain below.

The first plastic model kit that I remember buying, when I was about 7 years old, was of a Supermarine S6B floatplane, made by FROG. Rather naively, I was planning to build it myself, but it quickly became apparent that I did not have the dexterity

Strangely, my mother agreed that she would build it for me, although she certainly had no interest in aircraft, and I assume that she had never attempted anything like that before.

Things started out quite well, but the struts holding the floats to the plane’s fuselage really were quite tricky to position and fix correctly. Attempts to complete the task threw my mother into a rage, and apparently it was my fault. She shouted at me: “You said this was easy!” I don’t think that I had actually said that, but how would a seven-year-old know anyway?

Thankfully for everyone, that was the last time that my mother ever attempted to construct one of those kits! Thereafter, my father took on the task, until I was old enough to do it myself. Nonetheless, I discovered that he also suffered from a less acute form of the same paranoid attitude towards kit manufacturers, in that he would become annoyed when some aspect of the construction was difficult, and even accuse the manufacturers of having deliberately made it so.

For example, on one occasion he was assembling the Airfix model of the AEC Matador truck (which interested him because he had learned to drive on real RAF Matador trucks during the Second World War). The Airfix kit had the rear body divided into pieces so that it could be built open or closed, but my father was sure this was a deliberate plot to frustrate him! “There’s no need to have so many pieces,” he said in disgust.

Unfortunately, I think that the lesson I learned from my parents’ responses was that the appropriate response to a lack of skill in intricate tasks was frustration and rage! It has taken me a long time to “unlearn” that unhelpful response, and even now I sometimes find myself slipping back into it.

Learning Patience

I did eventually improve my model-making skills, bought better tools, and learned the patience to persevere when tasks were intricate or unclear. As a result, I actually spent a lot of time not only building the kits, but improving them, as with the Matchbox Harrier model shown above. Most of the models are now long lost, but I did happen to take a couple of photos that have survived.

The first kit sold by Matchbox, when that company expanded away from its famous line of metal model cars in 1972, was of the RAF Hawker Fury biplane. That was another kit that I built and improved, as shown in the surviving photo below. I made my own decals for Number 1 Squadron, replaced some of the kit’s more overscale parts, and added rigging.

hawkerFury_Model1Cright

1:72 Model of Hawker Fury, based on Matchbox Kit

Unfortunately, when taking those photos, I didn’t give much thought to the selection of a suitable background, and simply posed the models on our dining room table!

FROG Models

As I mentioned above, the first manufacturer in the world to create plastic model aircraft kits, during the 1930s, had been FROG. The name was an acronym for “Flies Right Off the Ground”, and actually referred to the company’s flying model aircraft. The non-flying plastic models were originally known as “FROG Penguins” because of their flightless state! (The original plastic used was cellulose acetate, rather than polystyrene.)

The image below shows an advertisement for FROG’s models, from the January 1939 issue of Meccano Magazine. It’s interesting to realize that those “non-flying scale models” shown on the right below were not museum pieces, but were all contemporary aircraft, which were in military or civil service at that time.

FROGAdMeccanoMagJan39Small

1939 Advertisement for FROG Models

A Dying Art?

In these days of innumerable TV channels, on-demand internet entertainment, and interactive games, it seems that ever fewer young people have the patience to bother building those model kits. The manufacturers and sellers of the kits have certainly noticed the change, and have tried various ways to win back their traditional buyers.

Another factor contributing to the demise of the plastic kit industry must be the advances that have been made in the detailing of ready-made models. Manufacturers such as Oxford Diecast have come onto the scene, offering fully assembled and painted models of the same subjects. Why take all that time and trouble to create your own model, when you can probably buy something similar (or even better) ready-made?

I suspect that, just as with so many other cultural developments, the days when boys spent hours making plastic models are never likely to return. I wonder whether that will have a negative effect on personal levels of patience and skill, or whether instead those virtues will be redirected to other purposes.

My Father and his Garden

My Father with his Roses, c.1960

My Father with his Roses, c.1960

For Father’s Day, I decided to post a photo of my own father alongside his “pride and joy”, which was the large garden that he cultivated at the house in Scarborough where we grew up. He lavished many of his leisure hours on that garden, growing all kinds of plants, including the rose bushes shown. The photo was taken c.1960, before he suffered his first stroke. After that, he was no longer able to do the physical work required to maintain the garden, which then gradually deteriorated (although my mother did pitch in to maintain it until we moved away in 1970).

There’s no doubt that the results he achieved while still healthy were spectacular, as shown in the photo below of the two of us sitting by the frog pond in the back garden.

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

Naturally, having nothing else against which to compare it, I took it for granted that everyone had a huge garden like ours, with a pond and a stream running through it, and that working on the garden was a necessary part of every adult’s life.

It was only as I grew up that I came to realize that, not only did some people not have large gardens, but that some city-dwelling types actually didn’t have their own gardens at all!

Decades later, when I moved to California, I made the further discovery that all that gardening effort is something of a British peculiarity. Some Americans do take pride in maintaining beautiful gardens, and some take an interest in cultivating roses or other specific types of plant. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone here say that their hobby is “gardening”, which would be quite common in Britain.

Large Garden: Small House

It was also common for British suburban houses to be built with large surrounding gardens, even when the homes themselves were quite small.

Now, both the homes and the gardens are becoming small; the smallest in Europe, according to this article. Nonetheless, there are still many older houses that still have the large gardens with which they were built.

According to current aerial views, the garden of our Scarborough house has now been largely built over, so there’s nothing left to see of all my father’s hard work.

On Second Thoughts

Having grown up enjoying that immense garden, I was convinced that I, too, wanted to create and maintain something similar. It was only when we moved into a house with a garden that I realized just how much time and expense was involved! It seemed even less appealing because we were renting that house, so all that effort was going into someone else’s garden.

As a result, I dialed back my gardening ambitions very substantially! Now, I’m quite happy to have a small, well-designed, garden, and pay someone else to maintain it, even though I own the property. The photo below, showing our home’s front garden a few months ago, shows the modest level of my requirements!

The Front Garden of our Home in Santa Rosa

The Front Garden of our Home in Santa Rosa

Recapturing his Childhood

In my father’s case, I believe that he had some specific, tragic reasons for wanting to create a large and luxuriant garden. He had been born into a relatively wealthy (upper middle class) family. His father owned a textile mill in Leeds, and they lived in a large house in the suburb of Roundhay, with a complement of servants.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the mill went bankrupt, probably in the late 1920s, and because the business was unincorporated, they lost everything. My father’s garden was probably thus a way of recapturing a lost aspect of his happy younger days.

A Liberator visits Santa Rosa

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

My photo above shows the last flying Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber, which I’d hoped to be flying in earlier this week. Unfortunately, the flight had to be canceled, due to an engine problem, but nonetheless I had a rare opportunity to examine the aircraft in detail. Alongside several other vintage aircraft, the B-24 was visiting Sonoma County Airport, as part of the annual Wings of Freedom Tour, organized by the Collings Foundation.

My interest in this particular type of aircraft stems from the fact that my father flew in them, as a Wireless Operator (W/O) for the RAF, during World War II. I mentioned in a previous article that he volunteered for the RAF on the outbreak of the war, because somebody had given him a “hot tip” that, by not waiting to be conscripted, he’d be able to choose which service he joined, and where he would serve. Unfortunately, that advice turned out to be only half-right, because he definitely did not want to serve in Aden, which was where he actually spent most of the war.

The Worst Place in the World

As reported in the book Wings of Empire, RAF personnel who served in Aden during the 1920s and 1930s described it as the “most repulsive place in the world”. It was from RAF Khormaksar air base that my father flew offensive missions against Italian forces, and also operated many ferry flights of aircraft being transferred from Britain to the Far East. Most of the ferry missions involved his flying between Aden and Malta.

As the war progressed, Britain took delivery of increasing numbers of American aircraft, under the Lend-Lease program. Thus, having started out flying British types such as the Blenheim and Vincent, he later found himself operating such American types as the Liberator and Hudson. (Incidentally, all the type names of the American aircraft were conferred by the RAF; in the US all the types were officially known only by numbers.)

Inside the B-24

My photo below shows the W/O’s position, behind the flight deck, as seen from the front of the bomb bay. This is where my father would have been sitting on those long flights.

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

The photo below, from a slightly different angle, shows the view through to the flight deck from the W/O station.

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Warbirds Together

The B-24 wasn’t the only vintage aircraft visiting Santa Rosa. As shown below, a North American TF-51 trainer (2-seat version of the P-51 Mustang fighter) was just taxying in while I was inside the B-24.

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

Lined up alongside the B-24 was a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, shown below in front of Sonoma Jet Center, who were hosting the visit.

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

Perhaps the most well-known of the visiting types was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, shown below.

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

Gun Crazy

The US has become notorious for having too many guns, too freely available, but fortunately the realistic-looking machine gun shown below is just a dummy! It’s the waist gunner’s position inside the B-24.

Guns at the Airport!

Guns at the Airport!

As I was leaving, work continued to repair the B-24’s engine, as shown below. The aircraft were scheduled to leave the following day, so they had to get the airplane flying again.

Working on the B-24's Engine

Working on the B-24’s Engine

He Never Went Back

As a postscript to the description of my father’s wartime experience, I should mention that he never went back to Aden again (nor anywhere near it) after his military service, and I don’t think he was sorry about that!

I’ve described in earlier posts how the lives of both my parents were blighted by war, and how fortunate I feel that mine has not (so far). I think it’s important to remind ourselves every so often of the ordeals that our ancestors endured in order to maintain our freedoms.

The Egrets of Ninth Street

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

I just completed the drawing above, as an impressionistic depiction of Egrets in flight.

In the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing brilliant white egrets flying gracefully overhead, or else wading in pools and on moist ground. Before emigrating from England, I’d never seen any species of egret in the wild. Now, egrets are increasingly common in Britain, but when I was young, they were such rare visitors as to be included only in the “Rarest on Record” appendix of the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds (which was our family’s major reference on the topic).

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Santa Rosa in 2005, we discovered a remarkable natural event that occurs annually in a built-up part of the city. Every year at around this time, significant numbers of wading birds start building nests in a few pine and eucalyptus trees in the center median of West Ninth Street, Santa Rosa. There are several species nesting in close proximity in this heronry: Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, plus Black-crowned Night Herons. Although they don’t nest there, Green Herons and Great Blue Herons can also be seen in the vicinity. None of these species are rare in California, but it’s their proximity to human habitation in such large numbers that is unusual in this case.

My short video below shows both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets in the treetops at West Ninth Street, then gives a brief general impression of the scene. The trees are surrounded by houses and apartments, and cars cruise by on either side of the street.

 

Volunteers from the Madrone Audubon Society have assumed responsibility for looking after the heronry. Every year they fence off a portion of the road and put down straw beneath the trees, to protect any baby birds that may fall from the nests.

As you can hear in the video, the birds are quite noisy, and can also create quite a smell on hot days, so I imagine that the local residents are less than enthusiastic about their presence!

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and fascinating sight for visitors. The photo below is a closeup of a nesting Great Egret, which I took during our visit in 2007.

Great Egret in the Treetops

Great Egret in the Treetops

Egrets in the Park

As I mentioned above, I often see flocks of egrets flying in formation over our house, but they usually don’t land anywhere that’s visible to us. Occasionally, however, a flock decides to feed in the park in front of our house, as shown below in a through-the-window photo, taken one foggy morning in 2016.

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Herons At Large

In a previous blog post, I featured a photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron that appeared unexpectedly by the swimming pool of the Z Hotel in Oakland while we were staying there.

My photo below shows a Great Blue Heron wading in the Napa River a few years ago, alongside a gull.

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Technical Note

Incidentally, I’m already aware that the egrets in my drawing display features from several different species. I chose features for their artistic impact, rather than for technical accuracy.