Darjeeling 2011 blog

Been there, done that, worn the Hawaiian shirt

21st March 2011

Well, we're back, after a thoroughly excellent trip, including add-ons to Ooty, Agra and the like, which were the icing on a very large cake. The general view was that it exceeded expectations by some margin, with talk already of a return when another birthday or similar event needs an appropriate celebration. Too many highlights to mention, just let the photos do the talking.

The end of the beginning

10th February 2011

The very last preparatory event, and everyone is in peak condition, with bright eyes and glossy coats, ready for all that India can offer us. The Kasturi was the venue again, and afterwards we repaired to Tony's for coffee, liqueurs and a fashion shoot of our new T-shirts and fleeces.

Last-minute financial deals were done for train tickets and travellers' cheques, watches were synchronised and the expedition advance base was agreed as the First-Class Virgin (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) Lounge on Lime St station.

Little and often - just what the doctors ordered

12th January 2011

It is common knowledge amongst masters of extreme sports that the process of acclimatisation should not be rushed. Limited exposure over a period is preferred, allowing the body to slowly get used to the new conditions. Hence our return trip to the Kasturi tonight, to take in a little more of the local Indian atmosphere and culture, not to mention the food.

Unfortunately the Chairman was not able to attend, due to symptoms that bore a passing resemblance to altitude sickness. To compensate, the six of us ate for seven, and also polished off the business agenda with speed and efficiency.

And talking of atmosphere, two of our party graced the occasion by appearing in national costume. And no sweatshop products either - only the finest Accrington handiwork passed their stringent quality control standards.

Strictly speaking it was Pakistani in design rather than Indian, but the proprietor of the establishment gave it his approval non the less. Regrettably none of the rest of the party expressed interest in following suit at the third, and probably final, cultural adaptation event in early February.

Cuisine acclimatisation

8th December 2010

As part of total body fitness, it is necessary to ensure the digestive system is fully aware of, and signed up to, the culinary delights in store.

Hence the visit tonight by all candidates to the Kasturi Indian restaurant, where appropriate food and drink was ingested with no regard to the hardship involved.

Initially it was feared that the Chairman might be unable to escape from the clutches of climate change, as experienced from Zurich airport departure lounge. Fortunately the restraining order was lifted and he made it home in time. The fall-back procedure, involving texting his credit card details to the empty seat at the dining table, was not required, so we all had to pay our own shares. There's no justice.

Training goes extreme

27th November 2010

With time fast running out before our fitness is put to the ultimate test, it was necessary to up the training regime a gear and go for extreme winter conditions in the Lake District, courtesy of Ravenglass and Eskdale's annual maintenance fortnight.

For two whole days we braved low temperatures, bright sunshine, open-air hot lunches and tea breaks in heated carriages. We also shovelled vast quantities of ballast, shovel-packed large numbers of new sleepers, and stacked numerous old ones.

Accommodation was provided in the chairman's winter quarters, where the diversions included home cooking, a bonfire and fireworks. Not to mention Darjeeling DVDs.

Another step forward

6th November 2010

Another major milestone was achieved today, as six of the selected seven attended a briefing meeting by Darjeeling Tours. It was probably not accidental that it was held at a railway location, to be precise in the Severn Valley Railway museum at Kidderminster.

After a general session common to all tours, we were split up into our respective tour groups and given a personal briefing by our tour leader. The subjects discussed included such vital topics as visas, passports, money, visas, food, drink, clothes, and of course visas.

The meeting also gave us the opportunity to discuss an extension to the trip, to experience the delights of the Nilgiri rack railway to Ooty. Five of the seven have since signed up, with the other two going off on their own to gild the equilateral lily around the Golden Triangle.

Afterwards we refreshed ourselves with a trip on the adjacent railway, after fighting our way past what appeared to be a slightly excessive number of staff on the platforms of both departure point and destination. Perhaps they were trainees, learning amongst other things the vital skill of watching other staff members putting up the Christmas decorations. Meanwhile the station cat, who no doubt had seen it all before, curled up on top of a barrow and nodded off.

Maintaining peak fitness

11th July 2010

Having passed all physical and mental tests, it is essential to avoid complacency and the inevitable slide backwards in conditioning. So the Chairman organised top-up training in the Lake District for five of the candidates, and one substitute. This took the form of synchronised train-riding on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, complete with cab rides, followed by a strenuous stroll up Muncaster Fell, using said train as transport to and from said hill. Interspersed with the hard labour was rest and recreation, in particular a barbecue at the Chairman's country residence at Foxfield. The Ratty Arms also provided some comfort away from the hardships, including the vital role of stopping-off point for the grown-up railway line between Foxfield and Ravenglass.

Now we are seven

7th June 2010

Just when it seemed everything was signed, sealed and nearly delivered, fortune rolled a dice and threw a seven. Five plus two to be precise, the latter pair making a late pitch for inclusion on the basis that voluntary redundancy was a small price to pay for the chance to tour India, and who needed a salary when a pension could pay the deposit? A well-deserved performance bonus indeed, and not too late for the latecomers to demonstrate their fitness by tilting at the Three Tasks. At the very least, we expect Task Three (purchase of Beer Rounds) to be achieved in full measure.

Assessment at last

26th April 2010

The final crucial exercise in North Wales, with the five candidates who have lasted the pace so far, the survivors of more than two years of strenuous training in a variety of remote locations.

After a gruelling Saturday trip on the Ffestiniog, suffering the full rigours of the first class accommodation in the observation car, it was clear that two of the party were not meeting the stringent standards set down for Project 2010. So they were despatched on the Sunday to do more railway-building on the Welsh Highland, whilst the others remained behind to supervise the Ffestiniog on a further visit to Blaenau.

Such drastic action had the desired effect, and all five were declared passed fit for tourist travel to India by way of the 'Darjeeling at Leisure' itinerary. Booking details were circulated, videos and photo galleries of the line viewed, an Indian cricket flag displayed at a strategic location, and Cobra and Tiger beer consumed at the 'Passage to India' restaurant, along with a variety of appropriate ethnic food.

Job done, as they say, although there remains the likelihood of requiring top-up training in the Foxfield area in the summer, to maintain peak condition. And, as magnanimous as ever (even if he can't spell it), the Chairman has indicated other candidates may still submit themselves for examination of their suitability to participate in sub-continental railway adventures.

Convergent views for a change

12th March 2010

As it happens (and much to the relief of the author) there is general agreement that the Darjeeling at Leisure tour planned for February 2011 has all the elements required for a successful trip. As well as the two-day charter to Darjeeling and the evening dinner charter, there are opportunities for additional rides on the service trains and general pootling about in the town and its environs, something missing from the more expansive, and expensive, tours. The Delhil railway museum and the Kolkata tram charter and river excursion give the tour additional variety. However, what secures the Chairman's vote is the opportunity to ride on an elephant and look down on the membership from some considerable height. Why this is an attraction has not yet been explained to our satisfaction.

All that remains is to work out why the dates of the trip don't line up with the stated days of the week. Perhaps some sort of initiation test?

Decisions, decisions

6th March 2010

Darjeeling Tours have now published their plans for tours next year, and very enticing they look too. Simply put, it's a choice between two tours that cover fairly large distances to include some of India's tourist highlights as well as the DHR, and two which stay closer to the railway, spending more time in and around Darjeeling. I suspect the latter may provide the type of itinerary craved by our particular group of train enthusiasts, but I make no predictions. It is perhaps just as well there is plenty of time to decide.

Having lit the blue touchpaper, your webmaster is now retiring to Zimbabwe to study somewhat larger locomotives.

In the year of the big four-zero

3rd February 2010

Time marches on, and we are now in the year of our chairman's coming of middle-age. A note from Darjeeling Tours has arrived in response to a polite query on progress with devising their tour programme for the coming twelve months. Apparently there is to be a Raj History tour in the autumn of this year, which may appeal to our more patriotic members. However it has a fairly brief time at Darjeeling itself, with no two-day steam charter. Soundings are being made with the electorate, and without wishing to prejudge the outcome it may well be that this tour is sub-optimal for our purposes. In which case Q1 2011 seems the more likely window of opportunity.

Then we were four

21st December 2009

This was to be titled Now We Are Six, but severe flakiness on the part of two candidates for another Welsh Highland weekend reduced the numbers by a third. Their personal files will be suitably annotated. The remainder experienced one of their more enjoyable weekends, despite the weather (cold and snowy) and the potentially arduous nature of the work (strategic rail stacking). The saving graces were the attention paid to adequate hot refreshment breaks and the relaxed nature of the workforce, in the guise of the Black Hand Gang. Another positive feature was the close proximity of the Santa Specials, complete with a Father Christmas, sorry the Father Christmas, clearly paid by the ho-ho-ho, and some elves with an extensive and surprisingly robust vocabulary.

In the course of the two days we traversed the full length of the line open to passenger traffic, through scenery that was very frozen and very scenic, further enhanced by views of a pair of black locomotives creating their own micro-climate of white steam clouds. The evening in-between was spent in convivial company at the Hen Fecws restaurant, which also provided the overnight accommodation for two of the party, in anticipation of Jim's flat being fully subscribed.

Yet another Second Front

28th November 2009

Not so much a second front, more a second Flood. Shortly after a foot of water had fallen on north Cumbria in 24 hours, we set off for our third episode of track maintenance on the Ratty. Fortunately the rain had been less severe where we were due to work, but there was still evidence of significant precipitation, with the promise of more to come. We spent most of the time shovelling ballast and clearing ditches, in-between the statutory tea breaks in the statutory heated carriages, not to mention the statutory hot lunches. The weather was actually better than forecast, with only the occasional brief shower during work periods, and some welcome sunny intervals on the second day. And the runaway heated carriage only added to the entertainment.

A second Second Front

19th January 2009

The success of the first advance on the second front led inevitably to a return to the Ravenglass stronghold, this time with a team hand-picked using only two fingers. As well as Derek the well-named Dog we had Thomas the Deaf Dog and two fine Rhodesian Ridgebacks for company. For a while on the Saturday we began to wonder if they were the more intelligent ones, as they trotted around having a good time while we pointlessly moved a point from point A to point B, and a little while later moved it laboriously back again.

However good breeding won out in the end and the realignment was successfully completed. An innovative labour-saving technique was used to bodily propel a complete track panel from point C to point D (adjacent to point A). To protect the patent no more can be said at this time, apart from a hint that a spare wagon might have been involved. Another innovation, for SMRS at least, was a hot lunch served al fresco on the platform at Dalegarth. Next day the weather forced us inside the new and well-appointed cafe/gift shop for Sunday lunch at a communal table. As someone said, just like school dinners.

Not the Christmas meal

18th December 2008

We thought we would repeat last year’s successful combination of training on the WHR and taking advantage of Spooner’s christmas meal offer. Only someone forgot to book the latter event in time....

Still we persevered with a day adjusting the line and length of various curves through Beddgelert forest, refilling via a special-offer menu at Spooner’s and for some, a trip on the Ffestiniog Santa Special. Father Christmas duly made an appearance, with a distinctly Welsh accent and a taste for the older variety of pun, and insisted on being photographed next to the Chairman. And just who got whose autograph is still not clear.

Others, perhaps wisely, chose to make an early departure to visit the Wigan model railway exhibition, one of the few in the north-west which we will compare against our own.

A step closer

27th November 2008

More contact with Darjeeling Tours, this time on the publication of their 2009/10 programme. Some tantalising possibilities emerge, despite discounting the Sewing Magazine tour (on the grounds of street cred) and the unaccompanied tours. A straw poll around several candidates revealed a preference for late 2010, for which no tours have yet been scheduled. Who said this was going to be easy?

A Second Front is opened

27th November 2008

As the year draws to a close, it again falls to Our Chairman to lead from the front, opening a new salient in the battle for 2010 fitness, this time on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Surprisingly, they have not only granted him membership, but also permit him occasional use of a guard's whistle, when all seems quiet. The result was unforseeable by even the most long-serving committee member, namely a deputation from SMRS to assist in their annual maintenance fortnight. Subtle differences from our previous experiences on the Welsh Highland included heated coaches on the permanent way train, tea breaks of sufficient length to make good use of them, and Derek the Dog as the on-board service manager. A hot meal at lunch time was also gladly received.

Struggling leaderless in the woods

25th October 2008

As a reward for the excesses of August, a special mid-week excursion was organised for mid-October 2008, to experience a slightly different form of training. Again trackwork, but this time improving on our previous efforts. As one participant put it: ‘It’s really quite simple, we clean the ballast off the rails, unclip the panel, unbolt the fishplates, jack up one rail, Jim Crow the ends until the curve looks right, regap the gap, jack the rail down, bolt up the new, improved fishplates, clip the rail down, check the alignment and repeat for the other rail. Then we move to the next joint and do it all again’.

Unfortunately he omitted to mention the weather forecast, which was not good for our second day, the Thursday. Warm, quite blustery rain in the morning and cold, very blustery rain in the afternoon. In the absence of Our Leader, who had read the forecast, it was never going to go the full distance, and we retired early for the night. The return journey to Rhyd Ddu was notable for the demonstration of the efficiency of the new track drains, and for the slipperiness of the up-gradient through Beddgelert forest. Fortunately Spooner’s provided the necessary means of revival, and the weather improved significantly for the following day’s R&R on the Ffestiniog Railway.

High summer in the Highlands

25th August 2008

August 2008 was notable for at least two things, the amount of summer rain that fell on England, Wales and at least parts of Scotland, and another training expedition to Snowdonia. The same team was fielded, with no tactical or injury substitutions. The whisper was that if we worked all week we might complete, at least nominally, the main section of track between Caenarvon and Porthmadoc. Regrettably some were taken in by this subterfuge, and put in more hours than was good for them, becoming slightly overtrained as a result.

Predictably, the formal joining of the track never took place, with various excuses floated about the need to perform various complex alignments, re-curvatures and ballasting manoeuvres before the final cut could be made. Nonetheless a golden spike was produced, and duly spiked ‘twixt rail and sleeper. Probably only gold-painted steel, but the thought was there.

Advance warning

14th May 2008

Meanwhile, the year of destiny creeps ever closer. Time to go to next base, and advise the service provider that SMRS is coming. Surprisingly, they take it well, and even give the impression they would welcome our business. Clearly the firewall erected around our more nefarious activities is still doing its job, and is letting only good news filter through.

They asked a few pointed questions, though. Like when, where and how many? As if I knew. Were the SMRS a meritocracy, or better still a dictatorship, I could give the answers in a trice. But the potential trippers must be consulted, and given at least a nominal say in where they go and when. An AOB item for the AGM looms.

All Sorts of Success

6th March 2008

After detailed statistical analysis of the results of Phase 1, Phase 2 of the Tasks was authorised. This time the safety of Our Leader was ensured in a different manner. An additional candidate would attend Phase 2, programmed to act as a human sacrifice to attract, deflect and/or absorb any potential harm or misadventure, thus shielding Our Leader from any possible ill-effects. Again a clamour of applicants resulted, including two with medical conditions which might otherwise exclude them from the necessarily physical nature of the Tasks.

However the chosen one was a well-decorated and more-or-less able-bodied volunteer, whose Frank bravery was rewarded by surviving the ordeal apparently unscathed. Whether any long-term effects will emerge only time and careful, thorough, fee-earning surveillance by our medical officer, will tell.

The record of achievement is here. Not surprisingly, Our Leader’s attendance for the full duration of the examination ensured its complete success. In recognition of His presence the Welsh Highland Railway laid on a special attraction, in the form of a bridge on which to lay the track, with real wooden sleepers to fix it to. This taxed the team’s computational ability to the limit, and just a tad beyond. The Chairman’s contribution was such that parts of the track were laid not once, not twice, but three times. Indeed it was not until the following Tuesday that the rest of the track over the bridge was considered to have been laid to the same standard.

The other Tasks were completed with effortless ease, and throughout the entire period of the trial the sun shone on all around. It was awesome just to have been there, let alone participate. Such leadership!

A Result of Sorts

5th March 2008

Neither candidate succeeded in Task Two, although naturally no blame can be adduced to Our Leader. Pressing matters of State compelled him to return to his Office of Revenue in downtown Bootle, to take personal charge of a situation threatening to damage the nation’s financial well-being. Heroically, he insisted on completing Task Three before we departed.

As for the legal advisor, he was all but disqualified at the start for inappropriate use of alternative-gender clothing, namely a pair of nylon insulating undergarments. He was dismissed from the Presence after the first day, when an on-site risk assessment revealed his many and varied customer service skills would go untapped. He returned home early in disgrace, under sentence of riding a motorcycle for almost the whole of the next day, the better to learn the error of his ways. A brown envelope is awaited.

Protection Racket

1st March 2008

On careful reflection it became clear that only statutory protection would provide the necessary guarantees of safety. After lengthy discussion a solution was devised - the Society’s legal advisor and small-claims supervisor would be awarded a personal care contract. Close supervision would be provided by Ex-Chairman One and Ex-Chairman Two, both of whom also had considerable experience in the application of the Laws of the Realm.

Departure was preceded by a ceremonial meal at the Kasturi Restaurant, where Indian cuisine was consumed as a symbolic reminder of the True Purpose of our mission. Two supporters and a non-travelling reserve also attended, and bid us a tearful farewell as we departed with full ceremony for the Welsh frontier lands.


28th February 2008

Much to the committee’s humble pleasure the conditions were found acceptable, after settling a minor point of clarification. This was to the effect that supplying a packet of crisps (in lieu of a packet of crisp notes) was not a satisfactory alternative to completion of the Three Tasks. And so authorisation was given for the first candidates to offer themselves for examination.

At this juncture Our Chairman revealed once more the strength and character of His Leadership. Ever willing to experience the privations of his fortunate subjects, He insisted on submitting Himself to the Tasks in person. Naturally this caused some alarm amongst said loyal subjects, as the risks to His Personage becoming damaged in some way were judged small but nonetheless unthinkable. If anything happened He would be almost irreplaceable – we would just have to get someone else to be chairman.

The Tasks

20th February 2008

Item 2 on the agenda was the choosing of suitable gentlemen-in-waiting to accompany Himself. Clamour for places began as soon as the epic scale of the adventure was proclaimed to the membership. It was clear that a rigorous and dispassionate selection procedure would be required, in which the ability to supply financial sweeteners would be a (relatively) small factor. After a freewheeling brainstorming session a set of Proving Tasks were devised and deferentially submitted for approval:

Task One: Lay at least four track panels on the Welsh Highland Railway,

Task Two: Traverse the full length of the Festiniog Railway (in both directions) without the use of supplementary oxygen, and

Task Three: Buy a round (Full Beer, no halves, spirits or shandy permitted) for Team members at Spooner's Bar, Porthmadog Station.

As an alternative, and for favoured candidates only, membership can be sought by submission of a packet of at least five (5) crisp, new £20 notes in a brown envelope, for inspection by Our Chairman and Team Leader. He regrets applications cannot be returned.

Darjeeling Tours

12th February 2008

The first item on the agenda of the India (Touring Purposes) (2010) sub-committee was selection of a sufficiently prestigious tour operator to shepherd Our Chairman and his Entourage across the sub-continent.

There was only one serious contender, even before the brown envelopes were opened. Darjeeling Tours had delivered exemplary performance on two previous occasions for junior SMRS members (both ex-chairmen but now reduced to the ranks) and could be relied on to deliver the standard of service demanded. And so it was decided.

A Big Idea

3rd January 2008

Once upon a time, or quite soon after, a certain chief modeller of railways had a Big Idea. As befits a senior government employee, he spelled out the concept in simple words, for the benefit of his grateful public:

'2010 AD, am 40, go India with friends, play trains, have big party'.

And so Project 2010 was founded, by edict of the current (for the foreseeable future at least) chairman of the Southport Model Railway Society. The CM of R, showing the leadership skills that had slow-tracked him to the pinnacle of Southport's governing elite, sketched out the details in a few more diamonds of sparkling prose:

'If two of my underlings can go to Darjeeling, one of them twice, I can too. So see to it.'

We had our direction and our inspiration.

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