BOOK REVIEW: ‘Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921-2014’

72. DSCF2120 (2)

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921-2014

Author: Peter Johnson

Total Number of Printed Pages: 352

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


In his Introduction, the author notes that ‘The Ffestiniog Railway [sic]… set the scene for the use of narrow gauge railways around the world’. However, competition (primarily in the form of the internal combustion engine and the motor vehicle), resulted in a decline and ‘…The effects of the First World War seriously weakened the company’. He also states that  ‘The events of the 1920s and 1930s started the railway on the road that led to the position in which it finds itself today, making the transition from being a common carrier [railway], to become a leading Welsh tourist attraction of international renown’. This is the story of that ‘Transition’. It complements the author’s previous volume (Festiniog Railway The Spooner Era and After 1830 – 1920), which narrates the railway’s creation and early years

An Acknowledgements ad Sources section is placed immediately behind the Contents page. In it the author details the individuals and publications which contributed to the creation of the volume. An Introduction follows. This summarises the information contained within the 14 Chapters which form the main part of this work. Although ostensibly the volume covers the period 1921-2014, a Postscript placed after Chapter 14 brings the reader up to date with events that occurred in the 2015-2016 period. Eight Appendices follow the Postscript. Of these Appendices 1-7 are in Table format and cover the commercial activities of the Festiniog Railway Company for the period 1921-2014. Appendix 8 consists of Deposited plans for 1923, 1968 and 1975 Light Railway Orders. A single-page Bibliography follows, with a 10–page Index completing the volume. In format the Index is confusing, and ‘muddled; in its arrangement. Within it, this reviewer looked in vain for references to South Africa and Beyer-Garratt’s, finding only an entry for Garratt K1, and that under the entry Locomotives, Steam. That he found even that was surprising as those subheadings themselves appear under the even broader heading Festiniog Railway. Regrettably, there is no similar entry for the Welsh Festiniog’s associated Highland Railway, despite the fact that the Garratt type of locomotive is mentioned several times in connection with that railway and is also the subject of several photographs within the volume. The volume contains numerous monochrome and colour images.  Although with one exception (that of the locomotive on page 290), these are well and informatively captioned, with the majority being from the author’s own collection, a fact noted within the Acknowledgements ad Sources section. Where they are from other sources, these are acknowledged. Where relevant, a Table format is used throughout the volume to present details relating to ticket sales etc. Although numerous local maps and plans appear within this volume, no general reference maps of either Great Britain or Wales are provided. While not problematic for those who are ’Festiniog familiar’, for ‘non-railway enthusiast’ readers living either ‘off shore’ (or even within the British Isles), this lack is regrettable, since if one does not know where the Festiniog  is located within Great Britain, how can one visit it?  For international visitors unfamiliar with even the country itself, this could be especially difficult.  The reasons for the omissions are not known.   There is no reference to images, plans or maps on either the Contents page or within the Index. No reference notes or citations are provided for the quotes appearing within the volume. There are no diagrams of Company locomotives, rolling stock or infrastructure.

In precis this volume is of the ‘Company history’ genre. This reviewer found it to be well-researched, well-written, eminently readable and interesting. While not ‘perfect’ it is an excellent introduction to the Festiniog.  When combined with its previously-mentioned sister volume, it forms a valuable resource on its subject.

Unsurprisingly, this volume will inevitably appeal to the ‘Festiniog enthusiast’ members of the railway fraternity. However, it is also likely to have a wider appeal, especially amongst holiday-makers seeking a souvenir of their visit to the railway. Railway historians and railway enthusiasts of a more ‘generalist’ nature may find it of interest. The volume’s photographs could also be useful to railway modellers interested in the Festiniog specifically, and Welsh narrow gauge railways in general.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921-2014’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ocean Liners: An Illustrated History’

66. DSCF2819 (2)

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Ocean Liners: An Illustrated History

Author: Peter Newall

Total Number of Printed Pages: 192

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7


In his Foreword to this volume, Dr Stephen M. Payne describes this book in the following manner: ‘Ocean Liners provides a very informative voyage through the history of many of the ships, the advancing technologies that drove innovation and the companies that operated them’. It is a reasonable summation.

The volume opens with the previously-mentioned Foreword. Placed after the Contents page, this is in turn followed by the author’s Introduction in which he precis’ what is to follow and explains that what he has ‘…Tried to achieve with this book is a balanced coverage of the 100-year history of ocean liners…’ An Acknowledgements section on the same page thanks those who assisted with the book’s creation. The nine Chapters which form the bulk of the volume then follow. These cover the development of the ocean liner from its Nineteenth Century origins to its final demise in the 1970’s. Within each Chapter, subsections provide information about a specific technological or historical development, each subsection being accompanied by one (sometimes two), monochrome photographs of vessels which are relevant to the specific narrative. An Index completes the work.

The volume is of the ‘Enthusiasts Picture Book’ genre and it consequently contains numerous photographs. These are of high quality and have reproduced well. They are however, unsourced. Numerous shipping companies are mentioned within the text, many being abbreviated; P&O (the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company) being one such example. There is however, no central list for either the Companies or the abbreviations. There are no maps.  The volume’s Index contains the names of those vessels which appear as illustrations within it. Where a named / illustrated vessel’s sisters are mentioned in the context of the narrative, these are frequently (but not always) omitted from the Index; Lhasa, Lama and Lunka (page 47) being a case in point. The inclusion or omission of such names appears to be random. Curiously, where a vessel has been renamed (and the new name is  specifically mentioned within the narrative), no Index entry for the new name appears. For readers who might know only the ‘rename’, this lack could prove problematic when undertaking a search. The owning Companies, the builders who constructed them and their countries of origin are also not mentioned. While it is probable that such information will be found within the volume, the absence of relevant Index entries renders this invisible to the reader.  With no certainty that what is being searched for actually exists, for this reviewer this lack is a major failing. It will  inevitably impact on the volume’s usefulness as a reference source. In addition, and although various ‘nautical’ terms are used throughout the volume, no interpretative Glossary is provided. What (for example) does the abbreviation ‘gt’ mean, and what is a ‘knot’? In the absence of an explanation, the layman-reader cannot know.

This is a ‘Beautiful’ book; the images being a pleasure to look at.  As a result it may well appeal to readers (even those with little nautical interest) who seek beautiful black and white images of beautiful ships. Serious researchers may however be disappointed, the previously-mentioned ‘difficulties’ with the Index et al making searching for specific information more of a chore than should be necessary. Ship Modellers with an interest in specific passenger vessels are likely to find this volume a useful resource.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7.





BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ocean Liners: An Illustrated History’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Severn Valley Railway’

50. DSCF0678 (2)

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Severn Valley Railway

Author:  Michael A. Vanns

Total Number of Pages: 104

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent) 8 ½


According to its author ‘This book provides a brief history of the Severn Valley Railway, from its earliest days through to the twenty-first [sic] century, providing a guide for all those who love the sight and sound of steam engines making their way through a particularly beautiful part of the midland landscape’. It is a fair summation.

The volume is prefaced by an Introduction which summarises what is to follow. Although not specifically defined as such, four Chapters follow the Introduction and form the main (and central) part of the volume. They cover specific periods of the railway’s history from its Eighteenth Century origins to its state in 2017. They also introduce the reader to the various industries which sparked the Severn Valley Railway’s (SVR) creation and the economic and social factors which contributed to both its existence and its demise. The events which resulted in its passing into preservation are also covered as are events and experiences on the ‘Preservation’ journey. The narrative is well written, the facts both well-researched and presented, and the over-all story an engaging one. A Bibliography follows the final Chapter (Preservation) and is, according to the author, ‘…A list of those [books] used as references in the compilation of this book’. An Index completes the volume. The book is copiously illustrated with well-captioned photographs, the colour images in particular being a delight to view. While the majority of those taken in the railway’s industrial heyday are monochrome, a small number of colour images are also present within those sections (Chapters 1-3) In contrast (and with only two exceptions) all the ‘Preserved’ images  (Chapter 4) are in full colour. The volume contains but one map. This dates from before World War I. As it shows all the railways in the vicinity of the SVR rather than just that line itself, its usefulness is questionable. There is neither a large-scale ‘General’ Ordinance-Survey Map of Great Britain nor maps relating specifically to the SVR. As a result, unless they are personally acquainted with the SVR, the reader can have no idea of its location. While for some, this will not be a problem, this reviewer believes otherwise, since if one does not know where the SVR is located, how can one visit and support it by doing-so? International readers in particular are also likely to find the absence of maps frustrating and may question why it is necessary to consult an atlas when the information should be readily available within the volume.

The matter of maps notwithstanding, the combination of information and photographs is such that this book could well become an authoritative volume on its subject. While definitely a ‘souvenir’ volume; suitable for taking home after a visit to the SVR, it also has value as a provider of historical and social information for those interested in such matters. Railway modellers and members of the railway enthusiast community may also find it worthy of their attention.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume 8 ½.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Severn Valley Railway’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’

37. DSCF9572 (2)

Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War

Author: Christopher Knowles

Total Number of Printed Pages: 220

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6


In the introductory voice-over text of the television series Star Trek, viewers were told that the spacecraft’s mission was ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’. This is a reasonable summation of this volume, with the only real difference being that the author had a party of paying tourists with him when he ‘boldly went’ into what was at that time, a completely foreign world; one that lurked all-unknown, behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains.

This book is part autobiography and part travelogue, and, while narrating events that occurred enroute, inevitably contains the author’s personal views concerning those he was travelling with, the countries being travelled through and the people and systems he encountered while doing so. Ostensibly it narrates the author’s experiences while taking a party of tourists from London to Hong Kong during 1981; a time when the Cold War was at its height and Westerners were a novelty east of the Berlin Wall, In fact, however, it is not. Despite being  presented as a single event, this volume is in reality a compendium of several journeys made over an indeterminate period. It is a narrative that is held together with what is ultimately a fictional thread. Although not evident from the title, the author makes this clear in the Preface. Within that section (and when referring to the narrative that is being presented), he states that ‘What follows, combined into a single imaginary journey, is a selection of events that occurred over the years’. He also notes that ‘All the events are true and with the exception of the incarceration in Ulan Bator, which was the unfortunate fate of another, most happened to me’. The author concludes ‘…I have taken the liberty of occasionally taking them [the events] out of their original content in order to preserve the narrative flow’. The end result is what can best be described as a work of ‘faction’; a narrative that is part fact and part fiction. There is no way of knowing which is which. That this should be the case in a volume promoting itself as a ‘truthful’ narration of a single event, raises questions concerning the veracity of the information it contains.

The bulk of the book consists of 12 Chapters, which take the reader on a train journey from London to Hong Kong. Each Chapter covers a specific section of the over-all journey and relates events that occurred while travelling over it. The section is preceded by a Preface which provides a synopsis of what the book contains. An Acknowledgements section follows; within it the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s creation. Unsourced colour photographs appear randomly throughout the work, and are possibly from the author’s own collection. Their captions are informative, but there is no reference to their existence on the Contents Page. A single Map traces the journey that the narrative describes. There is no Index.

Because of its subject, this volume is likely to appeal to both those who made similar journeys and to ‘armchair travellers’ in search of a good story. Those who are interested in life in Eastern Europe and Communist China during the ‘Cold War’ may also find it informative. Sociologists seeking information about life in micro-communities (train passengers on long journeys) or of everyday life under Communist rule might also find it of interest. Although it is more concerned with the journey rather than the ‘technical details’, railway enthusiasts might also find the descriptions of trains interesting.

This book is well-written and engages the reader with its narrative. However, the fact that (in this reviewer’s opinion) it is a volume of ‘faction’ reduces its usefulness considerably. This is reflected in its Rating. It was potentially worthy of a much higher rating than it received.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given it a 6.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Red Line: A Railway Journey Through the Cold War’