When I was a child I remember seeing Peter Hanford’s LP’s of steam railway sounds in record shops. Peter was a location sound recordist who worked on a number of very famous films including ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ and latterly ‘Out of Africa’ for which he received and Academy Award for Sound.
As a youngster I didn’t have sufficient earning power to buy these records. Over the years, although I was aware of them, I didn’t get around to making a purchase. Then quite by chance I noticed a number of Argo Transacord records on eBay.
What caught my eye particularly was a copy of The Railway to Riccarton up for auction. Here was a chance to discover the actual sounds of steam locomotives working on the long closed Waverley Route. At the time the Scottish Parliament was debating reinstating the Borders Railway between Edinburgh and Tweedbank. I still have a LP turntable so I decided to bid and was successful. I can’t remember what I paid exactly but it was less than £10.
Many people might think that listening to steam railway sound recordings is a strange thing to do! However, many of those same people deride railway enthusiasts calling them ‘anoraks’. When I’ve challenged this attitude, asking about their interests, it stops them commenting further. Often this is because it transpires they don’t really have any interests or hobbies themselves – so who’s the bore now!
To be enthusiastic about something has to be good. Knowing how much of this enthusiasm to impart on others requires caution. Many non-railway enthusiasts like the sound of steam locomotives but clearly would not be rushing to buy a LP!
Setting the scene
For me, just to sit down and listen to a recording of a steam locomotive not knowing the background details wouldn’t be so attractive either. I like to know the context so that I can bring in some imagery to my mind’s eye. Children have great imaginations being actively encouraged during school learning. When we get to adulthood, many people seem to underutilise that side of their brain.
Before listening to a track from The Railway to Riccarton LP, I read the sleeve notes. Peter Hanford certainly knew how to enhance the imagery. For example, in one case he describes his position as being at the edge of the woods high above Stobs station, rooks flapping raucously overhead shortly after dawn. Signal’s clear and a freight train with banking assistance starts the heavy haul toward Stobs station.
As I’ve never been to the location I tried to imagine the view down onto the Waverley route. On this particular recording I envisage the engines at either end of the train working up the 1 in 80 to Stobs station. Then back on the gradient in the cutting South of the station and onward to Shankend and the summit at Whitrope.
To further enhance imagination, I refer to old Ordinance Survey maps of the Waverley Route. This gives me a better indication of the layout of the area. I can see where the line curves and the position of the cutting just to the south of the station. Given that Peter’s recording equipment was relatively heavy and cumbersome, his recording position must have been close to where he parked his car. Looking at the map, I can see the road position in proximity to the woods bordering the line and make a rough guess as to where Peter may have been.
This recording prouduces the distinctive sound of a Gresley V2 with its three cylinder beat followed by the two cylinder sound of the BR Standard Class 2 banking the freight train. This atmospheric sound is further enhanced by the dawn chorus of birdsong on that May morning back in 1961. In other recordings, Peter captures sheep bleating on the hillsides, owls hooting, whilst the rhythmic sound of the locomotive fades in and out of the background.
This first purchase of a Peter Hanford LP was followed by others. Initially I was looking for other recordings on the Waverley route and that of another lost line the Somerset & Dorset.
Rather than continually play the actual LPs each time, I decided to digitise the recordings using a turntable with USB and import them into iTunes . From this I created a playlist so that the Waverley Route tracks from the different LPs could be played consecutively. Indeed, I grouped the tracks according to time of day so that I could listen to a whole day of recordings from morning till night. Another advantage of digitising meant that the tracks could be listened to anywhere I was using my iPod.
Listening to history
I have now amassed a number of Peter Hanford records along with others from Andrew Mellor who refers to his recordings exploits in his book Cheese Butties and the 12:39 to Wigan.
A great source of Steam recordings on CD’s are available from ‘Soundtracks’. For many years Peter Gibbs, who runs Soundtracks, has the rights to Audicord recordings and made these available on CD. Such recordings are representative of a bygone age and well worth a listen for their imagery and escapism.
Thanks to the reinstatement of part of the Waverley Route, it is possible to hear the sound of an A3 or an A4 storming up the bank to Fallahill in the present day. Sadly, the only remaining V2 has been withdrawn from service by the National Railway Museum due to a defective cylinder casting. It is unlikely to be heard again. We owe a debt to Peter Hanford and others for their recordings of steam locomotives on the National network over half a century ago. Consequently, those with a mind to can close their eyes and imagine the scene as it was in those glorious railway days of steam.