Leica Monochrom and Sony A7II on eccentric test track
The English, by common assent, are mad. Or, perhaps, we should say eccentric. Noël Coward was in no doubt and nor should be any right-minded individual exposed to the English at play. Especially when the mid-day sun shines.
My friend Ralf Meier, from Washington DC, has long held this view because of all the strange activities the English get up to in their spare time. England, he says, is like Disney World—only for real.
Seemingly around every corner in this country, at the end of every lane, is some preserved railway, tank or aircraft museum or living historic village, all tended by volunteers whose whole life, seemingly, revolves around entertaining the public (or, perhaps, mainly themselves). There are even several vacuum cleaner museums staffed by weekend hooverthusiasts.
Ralf, as regular readers will know, is a messianic railway fan—or “foamer” as they are known in the States. If there’s a track, a pair of points and a yard of overhead catenary, Ralf is in his element. He is currently over on this side of the Atlantic for our forthcoming train excursion to the Swiss Alps. In the meantime, we were faced with a free Sunday and a couple of new cameras to try out. Ralf was clutching the Sony A7II he has just purchased to replace the RX10 which he dropped disastrously. I had just unpacked Leica’s latest demonstrator, the Monochrom M246 festooned with its ideal fellow traveller, the 50mm Apo-Summicron-M.
So where to go? I got out the map and and drew a 40-mile circle around London (this is as far as I can venture in the electric Nissan Leaf withougt recharging) and hit upon a fine example of English eccentricity.
The Great Cockcrow Railway lies at Chertsey, some 15 miles south-west of London. It is an extensive 7¼-in fully working miniature railway, probably the largest of its type in Europe, running tiny steam engines and diesel locomotives which haul “coaches” on top of which enthusiastic visitors perch precariously. It has all the hallmarks of the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party on rails. But Ralf loves it.
The GCR started in 1946 and has been hauling generations of children and their parents through the Surrey woods.
Perhaps the GCR wasn’t the best place for the Monochrom’s first outing, especially in the rather trying circumstances as bright sunshine penetrated the foliage, leading to lots of difficult back-lit subjects and the danger of blown highlights. Blown highlights were a danger with the original M9-based Monochrom and the new model carries on the tradition. The trick I learned with the first Monochrom was to underexpose by 1/3 to 1 EV because the camera hides tremendous recoverable detail in the dark patches. Sadly, nothing is hidden in the overexposed bits.
Sunday’s outing was the first time Ralf had pressed the shutter on the A7II (with the standard 28-70 kit lens) and was just learning. But he was impressed by the full-frame detail and the image quality in comparison with his old RX10.
As we sat on the Cockcrow Express (on, rather than “in”) Ralf and I were singled out by the GCR historian Jeremy Clarke as a couple unusual enough to be taken under his wing and be shown around the signal box and other behind-the-scenes wonders. Somehow we always get recognised as eccentrics.
The Great Cockcrow Railway is actually a very serious and highly technical venture, with its complex layout and up-to-the-minute electronic signalling equipment. In fact, it has been used as a test bed for full-scale railway signalling systems. It is run as a public railway, to professional safety standards, and it attracts a never-ending succession of young and old volunteers to help run things. As Jeremy pointed out, we are now into the third generation of youth which has never been exposed to steam railways and all that they stood for.
In its small way, Great Cockcrow is maintaining the standards and traditions and giving today’s children (and some of us older children) the chance to experience life behind the Puffing Billy.