The Dartmoor railway question revisited

Just over a year ago, on 5 February 2014, the railway line from London Paddington to Plymouth and Cornwall was washed away at Dawlish as a series of severe winter storms took their toll on the sea wall built in the Nineteenth Century. In response, I called for the reopening of the Plymouth to Okehampton railway line, arguing that the very picturesque Great Western line along the coast was a highly vulnerable single point of failure in the region’s transport network and that it would also bring economic benefits to communities to the west and north of Dartmoor.

Branch line today, main line once more tomorrow?
Branch line today, main line once more in future?

So what has happened since then? Network Rail threw formidable resources into repairing the line  and reopened it on 4 April, just two months later. It was a remarkable achievement.

On 15 July, Network Rail published a West of Exeter route resilience study (PDF) that priced a range of options, ranging from £400 million plus to strengthen the existing coastal route to some £3 billion to build a completely new line from Alphington to Bishopsteignton that would involve significant tunnelling beneath Haldon Hill.

The Okehampton line estimate came in at £875 million, a figure that includes a 66% contingency. In 2011, it was calculated that a mile of motorway cost on average £30 million, meaning that a 29-mile road could be built for this figure.

The report concluded that ‘even if certain revenue and unpriced benefits were doubled and the capital outlays halved in combination, the financial business case and transport economic case for all of the additional route options appear to remain significantly negative, with each one still offering poor value for money.’ Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin still has yet to respond formally.

In August, the Plymouth Herald reported opposition from some local politicians to the idea of rebuilding the line across Dartmoor because it would actually be slightly slower than the existing Dawlish line. A further report on the Dartmoor line is due to be published this Spring.

All in all, the prospects for the project do not look promising at present.The weather this winter has been relatively benign, with no repeat of last year’s extreme weather. HS2 continues to rack up millions in costs – on course to be up to £1bn later this year, according to the FT – and soak up money in the transport budget that could be spent elsewhere. Smaller-scale rail projects would offer better value for money, I argued a year ago. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming General Election will result in a change in political priorities.

Real landscape photography? It’s in the eye of the beholder

A blog by photographer Ugo Cei, Will the Real Landscape Photography Please Stand Up, reposted on, has generated quite a heated debate about the current state of landscape photography.  Here’s my response.

At the outset, I plead guilty to trying to get as high a Pulse score for my photos as I can. Last summer, I even published my tips for ranking Popular on

It’s the gamification of photography, if you like. Evgeny and his team have tapped brilliantly into the validation for which we aspiring photographers all yearn, secretly or otherwise: ‘my photos are good – aren’t they?’

Subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud and numerous YouTube channels, lusting after the latest gear and going to workshops run by our idols, we’re seeking to take our art (or obsession, as our better halves would have it) ‘to the next level’, as the modern cliché has it.

Our sub-conscious goal is to differentiate ourselves from the casual iPhone user who snaps merrily away and applies a one-touch filter or two before posting them on Instagram (another photo-sharing with a competitive element, should you choose to play its popularity game). That’s why we follow the Rule of Thirds, shoot landscape photos at either end of the day and invest in 10-stop ND filters (read more in my 9 steps towards better landscape photography).

Lisa Bettany observes in her reply to Ugo’s post:

Everyone starts their journey into Lightroom and Photoshop by over-saturating their sunsets and cranking the clarity. But, sharing your work in it’s development stages is how we get better. These “popular” photos may not all be “art”, but every single one of those photographers is creating something. And to me, that deserves respect.

Perhaps we see creating dramatic landscapes as a shortcut to photographic greatness? Like grungy HDR, it could well be a fad that will pass. Yet elements of the genre are firmly rooted in art history; the works of Turner or Caspar David Friedrich spring readily to my mind. Rocky Ravine, for example, isn’t exactly an exercise in muted colours, not least as it will probably have faded in the two centuries since it was painted.

As Ugo observes, we must each find our own style but, to succeed, you need to start by following and understanding the rules in order later to break them for effect. You also tend to emulate the style you admire and hear other people praising. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

It’s almost like a reincarnation of the ‘school of’ the great artist, such as Rembrandt or Michaelangelo, of the past. For mono shooters the hero could well be be Ansel Adams. For today’s colour shooters, it’s perhaps Elia Locardi, Serge Ramelli or Matt Kloskowski. They’ve made it to the top of the mountain and, whether it’s by following in their footsteps or beating a different artistic path, many of us would like to get there, too. Ambition is, after all, the driving force of progress.

Westcountry sunset
Westcountry sunset

Day trip to Pisa

If you’re staying in or near Pisa, it goes without saying that you should visit the city itself. The Leaning Tower – the cathedral’s campanile, or bell-tower, to be exact – is of course the stand-out attraction.

If you’re looking to get good photos, visit first thing in the morning both to benefit from the soft light of sunrise and to avoid the crowds, which are huge in the summer. Most visitors seem to be overtaken by the urge to pose for a photo, pretending to hold the tower up, which makes for amusing people-watching. Sunset doesn’t work quite so well for the tower because the adjacent cathedral casts a large shadow shadow in the evening; conversely, it is very good for shots of the west front of the cathedral and nearby baptistry.

Getting into the town from our hotel, the San Ranieri, was easy: the no. 13 departs from a stop nearby every 20 minutes, took about 20 minutes and cost just a couple of Euros each way. We alighted at the railway station and then walked north through the city centre; the streets you take, Corso Italia and then the Via Goisuè Carducci, have been pedestrianised nearly all of the way to the Leaning Tower.

Climbing the Leaning Tower costs €18/person; perhaps the strange sensation of climbing a building that is listing heavily is worth it but, arguably, the view of it is far better than the view from it. The real secret is the cathedral which, thanks presumably to the revenues raised from tourists who queue to climb the tower, is free to enter. Entry is timed but, since there were only two of us, we were allowed in immediately when I explaind that we were flying home later in the day and couldn’t visit later.

Unlike in Siena Cathedral, with its ornate mosaic tiled floor, ugly and very utilitarian blue plastic seats filled the central aisle of the nave. Look up and around, though, and there is an ornate gilded ceiling, a higly ornate octagonal pulpit by Nicolà Pisano and his son Giovanni, huge paintings and a flamboyant mosaic of Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist in the apse behind the high altar.

The views along the river are very picturesque and would would make a great dusk cityscape but it’s probably no coincidence that the main pedestrian street from the station leads directly to the tower: my impression is that there’s not so much else in the city to inspire the culture-seeking visitor.

Florence is of course the mecca for Tuscan tourism; my wife and I are saving it for a future trip.

Day trip to the heart of Tuscany

No less beautiful than all the architecture in cities like Siena and Lucca is the countryside of rural Tuscany, as we found on our ramble through it from Pisa. In fact, we liked it so much that we went out on two trips.

Assuming that you have only one day spare, though, I’d suggest an itinerary like this.

From Pisa, take the FiPiLi and turn off at the first junction after your spur from Pisa has merged with that from Livorno: follow signs for Ponsacco. Strike south-east towards Volterra through Capannoli and La Sterza.

Beyond there, follow signs to Saline di Volterra rather than those for Volterra itself. We took the direct road and, with little warning, it became very steep, winding and difficult to drive. It’s from the road to Saline that you’ll enjoy views of the rolling fields that epitomise the classic Tuscan landscape.

From Saline, turn left and climb towards Volterra; there are some steep hairpin bends on the final approach from the west, too. Volterra dates from Etruscan times and has been continuously occupied for nearly three millenia, so there’s lot to see, especially if you’re interested in archæology.

From Volterra, continue east along the main road towards Poggibonsi; it’s not as steep or winding as the one you’ve just followed. There are some gorgeous views to be enjoyed along this road, not least a mile or so down the hill from Volterra, just before a hairpin bend.

The road between Volterra and Poggibonsi
The road between Volterra and Poggibonsi

After 15 km, turn left off the main road at Castel San Gimignano and head north towards San Gimignano. Pause and enjoy some of the lovely rural views along this route, if you can.

Another of the highlights of Tuscany and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is dominated by a dozen mediæval tower houses. Its historic centre is pedestrianised and thronged with tourists, probably for much of the year. We were fortunate to get to its main square when a historical re-enactment – watched by a newly-married bride and groom – was in progress.

There are various car parks dotted around the outside of the city walls but finding a space must be quite a challenge during the summer months. It’s only a fairly short, albeit steep, walk into the town centre from most of them. We parked in the one off Via Ghiacciaia on the north side of town; the charge was €2/hour.

I particularly wanted to get some good sunset photos of the city from the west and found a good vantage point a kilometre or so along the SP69. I found that the sun sets more quickly than in England.

From here, follow the road north-westward  towards Forcoli, Pontedera and eventually back to Pisa. It runs through woodland for much of the time, with very few villages along the way, so it’s not a great place either to break down or run out of fuel.

Day trip to Vernazza

Vernazza al crepusculo
Vernazza at dusk

One of the villages of the Cinque Terre, a rugged stretch of Ligurian coastline to the west of La Spezia, Vernazza is among the most photographed locations on It was therefore on my bucket list for this holiday and part of the reason why we chose to stay in Pisa.

My major concern with this trip was the last leg of the journey. The road to Vernazza from the autostrada looked to be narrow, steep and winding – unforgiving to somebody unfamiliar with it like me – so I found a very good alternative.

My top tip for you is Continue reading →

San Ranieri, Pisa, hotel review – a good base for exploring Tuscany

In early September, my wife and I spent a week exploring Tuscany and used the Hotel San Ranieri on the outskirts of Pisa, as our base. We chose Pisa because it is served by a weekly direct Ryanair flight from our local airport, Bournemouth (at the time of publishing, this route doesn’t appear on its Summer 2015 schedule). It is, moreover, an interesting city in its own right and offers good road connections, both to the heart of Tuscany and northwards to the Cinque Terre in Liguria.

The San Ranieri was our chosen hotel because Continue reading →