The Welsh Gull

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Review: Video 125

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As I’ve said before, this isn’t on football or anything at all interesting to most my regular audience. It’s on railways – DVDs about railways. I’m an unashamed train nut. Eventually I will have a train-based blog if I can be bothered. Just an advanced warning on what is to come…

As an unashamed train nut with a taste for the visual, I’ve always loved collecting videos and DVDs on trains. Among the most treasured of my collection were the three Classic Train Journeys (CTJs) videos my grandparents bought (or maybe even had via some voucher system in a catalogue – I can’t remember exactly) in what must have been the late 1990s – that’s certainly when they were made, anyway. They are basically a compilation of snippets of driver’s eye views on various scenic railways in Britain, with music and narration.

The first focused on Scotland, covering the West Highland line from Glasgow to Mallaig via Fort William, the line from Edinburgh to Aberdeen via the bridges over the Forth and Tay, and other scenic highland lines. The second focused on South West England, most of which covered the Great Western Main Line from Paddington to Penzance, as well as the run from Weymouth to Waterloo. The third focused on Wales, covering the Heart of Wales, Cambrian, Ffestiniog and Conwy Valley lines.

To me this was a trilogy as perfect as Star Wars Episodes 4-6. The scenery on most lines is stunning. The narration from Chris Denning was full of lots of historical details. Even the music felt right. OK, so in more recent years as I’ve grown up, my perspectives have changed somewhat as I’ve grown up – I’ve realised the music would probably seem a bit cheap if I was listening for the first time now, the segments on each line are quite brief, the recordings of the lines cover about 10 years, and Chris Denning is a convicted paedophile (no, really, he is). But they’re still great.

I discovered a fourth CTJs video a few years later, focusing on Northern England – including the Cumbrian Coast line, Manchester to York, York to Berwick on the East Coast Main Line, and the Settle and Carlisle line. But like all sequels made years later, it was a tad underwhelming – the music wasn’t the same, the narrator wasn’t the same, and it didn’t have the warmth of familiarity that the other three brought. It was no Star Wars Episode 1, but I decided not to buy the fifth, focusing on Ireland. A few years ago I discovered a company selling driver’s eye views, thinking they were the full versions of the lines sampled in CTJs. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same, nor were they as interesting – there was no narration (apart from the odd conversation in the cab) and the lack of music meant it sounded quiet and dull.

However, all was not lost – last year I discovered Video 125 on YouTube. I recognised the name – though a different company name was on the first three CTJs videos, the fourth was by Video 125. And soon I recognised the videos – the stack of promos on the channel matched up with the snippets on the old videos. It turned out that they were selling DVDs of (pretty much) the full routes after all, and loads more on top. Video 125 has released 65 driver’s eye views (or DEVs, as they are referred to) in total.

Today, I’m sat here with 13 of them. I’ve taken advantage of their offer of 15% off if you buy five or more DVDs – I’ve got two more coming on Christmas Day. Here’s a review of each one – if it appears that I’m being critical, don’t take this as moaning, as they are all very very good; it’s just that some don’t quite live up to the high standard the best set:

The Down Fishguard – Swindon to Fishguard

This was the first full DEV I watched, after getting a sneak peak when it was posted on YouTube. Though illegal downloads and suchlike are said to be unfair on those who produce them, in this case it was what led to me buying more, including a copy of this one, so Video 125 did rather well out of that one.

The reason it inspired me to buy more was because it was so good compared to anything I’d seen before. It’s a particularly long DEV, coming in at just under 2 hours in length, but it’s not a minute too long. Although you would think that it wouldn’t be that interesting a route, you’d perhaps be overlooking some pretty key features – as well as capturing a HST service to Fishguard (now consigned to history), you also get the Severn Tunnel, the whole of the South Wales Main Line to Swansea and the coastal route from Llanelli to Carmarthen. The route gradually gets increasingly interesting the further it gets from the border; what starts out as a classic main line becomes a long branch line through wonderful rural scenery, especially with the Fishguard section being single track and having restrictive speed limits around increasingly tight curves. By the time the train reaches Fishguard, it does feel like you’ve been on a genuine journey.

Rating: 9/10

HST Great West – London Paddington to Exeter St David’s

This includes the original Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads in full, and a large part of the Bristol & Exeter Railway. This was the final part of the HST West trilogy (the other two parts will be reviewed next) and was filmed and released in 1993, completing the full route from London to Penzance. It isn’t the most scenic of lines, but then that’s not the point – it’s the perfect summary of the classic Brunel route, with features such as the “billiard table” route through the West London suburbs, Box Tunnel, the classic station at Temple Meads and a brief look at the broad gauge recreation at Didcot Railway Centre. The Bristol-Exeter section doesn’t quite live up to that as it’s an inherently less interesting section of lining, largely running over the flat Sedgemoor plains. It may now be nearly 20 years old, filmed just before the electrification of Paddington to the then-absent Heathrow Junction, but as with the other DEVs, that adds to its charm and value.

Rating: 8/10

HST West/Far West – Exeter St David’s to Saltash/Saltash to Penzance

Both of these features are now included on one DVD but I’ll review them individually.

First, HST West, the beginning of the trilogy and only the third Video 125 DEV to be made. This covers Exeter St David’s to the Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar in Plymouth, at the time clad in scaffolding. The first thing that strikes me is how dated it looks – it was made in 1986, 26 years ago, and it hasn’t aged brilliantly, which may explain why only a brief sample was included in CTJs South West England: it doesn’t really fit the continuity, as the HSTs weren’t painted in the famous Intercity Swallow livery, while Class 50s occasionally appear which dates it. The picture quality also looks very “80s” in comparison to later DEVs, and like other early releases it is punctuated by cutaways (in this case a look at the now-gone Atmospheric Railway Museum at Starcross, an interview with David St John Thomas at Newton Abbot, a rare glimpse at the South Devon Railway’s operations into Totnes station, and a look at the town of Ivybridge) which are of considerable value today but break up the flow. Despite all this, the journey is a very good one, along the spectacular coastal route via Starcross and Dawlish and then over the South Devon Banks via Totnes. I have travelled over both parts several times so it’s nice and familiar, but at the same time it’s also a little underwhelming. However, you couldn’t really remake it now: Anton Rodgers, who narrated all three parts, has now sadly passed away, so you’d need to redo all three parts to maintain continuity, and it’s not worth it.

HST Far West, though, was much better. Filmed in 1990, it follows on from the scaffolding-free Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall. Like The Down Fishguard, as the train goes deeper and deeper into Cornwall, it feels like those bends through the hilly terrain are getting tighter and the speed is dropping, while the number of large viaducts bridging one valley after another is very surprising. If you watch this trilogy as a single entity from London to Penzance, as I did the first time I watched them, this feeling is particularly exacerbated – you start out on long straight flat 125 mph runs through the suburbs of the capital and end up winding through the countryside on a hilly peninsular, before ending up at a small fishing town on the coast. Inspired by this, I caught a HST from Newton Abbot to Penzance this summer – the DEV was a great advertisement for the route and it lived up to the billing. It was every bit as good as HST West was underwhelming.

HST West Rating: 6/10
HST Far West Rating: 10/10
Overall Rating: 8/10

Cornish Branches – the branches to Looe, Fowey, Newquay, Falmouth and St Ives

Also narrated by the actor Anton Rodgers (which really helps with the continuity with the HST West trilogy), this DEV from 1991 covers all the Cornish branch lines. Therein lies the major issue – because it’s so fragmented, it doesn’t really flow well and it’s hard to get into. Added to that, not all the lines are equally fascinating. On CTJs South West England, only the Looe and St Ives branches were included (featuring to break up the main run through Cornwall), and I can see why – the lines to Newquay and Falmouth aren’t quite as interesting, while the Fowey branch is lovely but the Class 37-hauled china clay train it is filmed from is painfully slow. That being said, there are some great features: the passenger branch trains are all operated by ageing first generation DMUs as opposed to Sprinters, and the lines are all in pre-privatisation rustic state. The Looe and St Ives branches are magnificent relics of a bygone age, running through unspoilt countryside that only a train could run through. It’s worth getting this just for those two lines. This probably works best as a DEV to dip into and out of just for the individual lines.

Rating: 7/10

The West Highland – Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William

The magnificent West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William was the first route covered in CTJs Scotland, meaning it was the first DEV I saw. I am still in awe of this line – constructed ostensibly as a main line into the Highlands (how they ever thought this would work I don’t know), it remains arguably the most spectacular branch line in the country, as well as one of the longest. The full DEV, which includes a few interesting scenic sections missed out by the original sample in CTJs Scotland such as the spectacular Horseshoe Curve, is another fantastic advertisement for the line: initially running through suburban Glasgow (perhaps a little bit too much of which is shown, though I think that would be being overly critic), it gradually transforms into the classic route we all know and love, with curves, inclines, viaducts and lochs galore, but not many people.

Rating: 9/10

Steam to Mallaig – Fort William to Mallaig

The West Highland Extension from Fort William to Mallaig is probably best known for the steam specials that run during the summer (as well as for being the route used for filming some of the Hogwarts Express scenes for the Harry Potter films), and this DEV, filmed in 1985, coincides with the second year of what became known as The Jacobite, but was then still known as The West Highlander. As such, it is filmed from (in front of – but don’t tell anyone that) the unique LMS Black 5 44767 George Stephenson. The route, often ranked as one of the most beautiful in the world, is captured in its splendour, and before both the abolition of semaphore signals in favour of radio signalling and the encroachment of the widened Road to the Isles. But despite this, and having travelled the route behind a steam engine, it was a little bit underwhelming – I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it might be because of its particularly short length (at less than an hour in length, compared to the usual 80-100 minutes), the almost constant cutaways to lineside views (pared down in later DEVs) or because it’s now so old, which you don’t necessarily realise when watching on CTJs Scotland thanks to clever editing (as well as missing out the incredibly dated cheesy intro). It also lacks continuity with The West Highland – for some reason, I get the feeling that if it was done from a Sprinter and narrated by Paul Coia like TWH, perhaps even as an addition to that DEV, it would be better, but you would lose the gimmick of steam traction. But it is the biggest-selling Video 125 DEV so I may be an exception.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Cambrian Coast – Machynlleth to Barmouth

Though I said at the beginning not to take my niggles as criticism, I was particularly underwhelmed by The Cambrian Coast. But this might again be due to age rather than anything – at that point, Video 125 were still developing their DEV style. This was perhaps one of the victims. The footage is great, with an excellent recording of Wales’ most scenic railway in glorious weather – it worked well on CTJs Wales. However, it’s what it didn’t include that perhaps frustrates a little – it’s only 80 minutes long and covers only a short part of the Cambrian Coast route. Yes, it covers the most scenic part, but the remainder of the line to Pwllheli via Porthmadog isn’t without its merits, and that it is missing is a disappointment. Added to this, as with HST West, it’s broken up by significant interludes focusing on the Talyllyn and Fairbourne Railways, as well as filler for each station stop, and the narration by the Welsh character actor Dafydd Hywel is a bit over-the-top – Video 125 later went with HTV’s Arfon Haines Davies to record their other Welsh DEVs, and it’s disappointing in hindsight that he wasn’t used for this one, particularly as he narrated a documentary series on the Cambrian Railway around the same time as this DEV.

I hate to go on about it because I don’t want to be critical, especially of something that was filmed nearly 25 years ago, but this feels like a missed opportunity, and is perhaps the only one that I’ve seen that I think would benefit from being redone – longer, without filler, and with a better narrator. Video 125’s DEVs have improved enormously since then – I believe the feedback from customers said similar things about the filler content, as there’s little of this in more recent DEVs. One is planned for the line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, including part of the route covered by The Cambrian Coast. Perhaps that would be the ideal time to redo it, this time all the way to Pwllheli.

Rating: 6/10

Heart of Wales – Swansea to Shrewsbury

This is not advertised as a full DEV of the route, so I can’t really complain that it does skip chunks of the route. Taking that into consideration, it’s another great advertisement of the route, which, as it’s name suggests, runs right through the centre of Wales. It is another distinctly rural route, mostly running through villages and small towns. One of the high points (quite literally) is the climb through Sugar Loaf Pass between Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, where the single track winds its way halfway up a mountain. It’s one of those routes that’s almost continuously pleasant throughout, even though it lacks “big name status” and the jaw-dropping sights of some of the Scottish routes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Ffestiniog and Conwy – Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog; Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno

This is a DEV of two distinct halves, and both halves leave you wanting more, even though there’s little else they could offer. The first part is the full length of the Ffestiniog Railway, one of the most remarkable narrow gauge railways in the world, which twists and climbs its way through Snowdonia from the port of Porthmadog to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. While we see the spectacular cliff faces and dense forests from in front of a double-Fairlie steam engine, we are told about the construction and reconstruction of the line, itself a fascinating story.

The second half is the Conwy Valley Line from the joint station at Blaenau to Llandudno, which is another great snapshot of the recent past. It has a very 1980s BR feel: the train is a first generation DMU, and the line has that rustic, slightly worse-for-wear feel that you don’t get so much in the post-privatisation era. The line is a hidden gem, particularly the section after the long tunnel in Blaenau which takes you from under a slag-covered mountain into an unspoilt jungle. Like the River Conwy, it winds itself down the valley to Llandudno Junction on the North Wales Coast line, before taking the short double-track branch to Llandudno’s once-grand but now largely derelict station, again adding to that pre-privatisation faded feel. Added to the Ffestiniog, it’s a great double-DEV, the best of those covering Welsh branches.

Rating: 9/10

SkyeTrain – Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh

I don’t think the promo on the Video 125 YouTube account sells this one particularly well – it is a very good DEV. The promo focuses on the run from Inverness to Dingwall, which doesn’t give a full impression of the balance of the route – the vast majority is fascinating, and the latter stages as it skirts along the edge of Loch Carron looking out onto the Applecross Peninsular are among the most scenic in Britain, if not the world. Granted not all the route can live up to that, but most of it runs through beautiful scenery – the climb to Raven Rock Summit is another stand-out section. The DEV is also notable for being filmed from a Class 37, as it was filmed in 1987 shortly before the end of locomotive-hauled trains, and there are useful insights into the radio signalling system (RETB) which 25 years on is destined to be replaced in the near future.

Rating: 9/10

The Royal Scot – London Euston to Glasgow Central

There seems to be a real contrast between the music, which seems to try and portray the West Coast Main Line in the mid-1990s as a fast-paced ultra-modern railway, and the West Coast Main Line in the mid-1990s itself, which feels rustic and dated – this is a WCML prior to modernisation and the arrival of the Pendolinos, Voyagers and Desiros which are ever-present today (or at least they are beyond my back garden in Coventry anyway). But that is part of the fun – yes, like many another Video 125 DEVs, it’s dated, but in this case, that’s the point. A DEV of the WCML at the moment wouldn’t be as interesting.

There are two parts to The Royal Scot, originally sold separately but now combined on one DVD. In the first part, the Class 87-hauled train heads from Euston non-stop at up to 110 mph as far as Preston, including the Trent Valley Line via Lichfield. It’s not particularly scenic but it is very interesting, as one of the most historic routes in the country. The second part, from Preston to Glasgow, is more scenic as the line climbs over the summits at Shap and Beattock. But the charm is the rustic nature – the distinctly 80s rolling stock and slightly shabby infrastructure. Though I don’t have it I’m guessing that gives it an advantage over the East Coast Main Line DEV, The Flying Scotsman, which was filmed at the turn of the century on board a more modern 225.

Rating: 8/10

Lickey Voyager – Bristol Temple Meads to Derby

For some reason, I had an urge to buy this one in my most recent batch of five. It’s an odd choice of route, seemingly running through large parts of mostly bland countryside with one feature of note, the Lickey Incline, the steepest incline on Britain’s railways. But it’s also a modern DEV, filmed in 2005 on-board a Virgin Voyager on a cross-country route, and I wanted to try it out to see if it was as bland as I originally thought it was. It was actually very good – the route from Bristol to Lickey runs through pleasant countryside, with narrator Alan Hardwick listing numerous closed stations as we travel through South Gloucestershire. The section of line into Birmingham New Street ran into the centre of the city alongside a canal, making for a pleasant run. And the line from Birmingham to Derby ran through more pleasant countryside. It was pleasant – that was what stood out. Other than a couple of minor niggles, such as getting the date of closure wrong for Filton Junction station (mixing up 1969 and 1996 could have been a typing error, mind), it was very good, a useful addition to the Video 125 portfolio without being too flash. Not all of them can run along ridges or plunge through long tunnels.

Rating: 7.5/10

Metropolitan and District – Hammersmith to Whitechapel; Whitechapel to Ealing Broadway

The first Video 125 Underground DEV is also my first Underground DEV. I bought it primarily because it is soon to be superseded by a new production concentrating only on the Circle Line from Edgware Road to Hammersmith. Aside from for the point of obtaining as complete collection as possible, the older DEV has unique features that won’t be replicated, such as the direction of travel (opposite to the upcoming DEV), use of two sides of the Aldgate triangle and the branch to Ealing Broadway. Having just watched it, my overriding feeling from this one is very positive – yes, the picture quality is a bit dated compared to recent DEVs, especially noticeable through the tunnels, but it has still blown away my expectations. Though I have done a few different Underground lines, I wouldn’t class myself as being particularly interested in it, but after this, I definitely want more Underground DEVs, especially the more recent ones. If you are in any way interested in the history of the Underground, these would be well worth getting.

Rating: 9/10

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Written by James Bennett

December 21, 2012 at 01:14

Posted in Other, Rail, Reviews

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