News Blog

Keeping you up to date with what I am doing or have been doing, this page will be updated regularly. The snippets may direct you to other pages for more info, or may be self-contained. 

May 2 2022

We spent a really enjoyable couple of hours at Crofton Pumping Station on the Kennet and Avon Canal, seeing both the 1812 Boulton & Watt and 1846 Harvey beam engines in steam. Also managed to have a chat with Phil Harding, now one of Crofton's Patrons, whom I hadn't seen since he gave me a guided tour of some of the archaeology of Salisbury Plain while I was writing a series of articles for Wiltshire Magazine articles back in 2008 – although we had been in contact more recently when he helped me by sourcing some Wessex Archaeology images for my paddle steamers' book.

March 26 2022

At last, we have a publication date for my eighth book for PiXZ/Halsgrove – the much-delayed final volume of my Britain's Industrial Heritage series – Among These Dark Satanic Mills will be published in hardback in July this year, a couple of years later than planned as a result of the pandemic and the associated shutdowns of the heritage attractions which are featured in it. In that time, the production costs faced by publishers have gone through the roof, so while the other three volumes in the series have been priced at an amazingly low £9.99 – as were all seven of my books published by PiXZ since 2013 – Volume 4 will cost £12.99.

March 16 2022

In the midst of having contracted the dreaded Covid, and thus house-bound at the moment, I have just completed the pleasant task of working with my excellent editor, Graham Smith, on tidying up the text for The Gas Tramcar. The 208-page hardcover book is scheduled for publication in November this year, my third book for Pen & Sword. A short illustrated introduction to the story of the gas-engined tramcar – and a taster for the book itself – forms the final part of my three-part series of articles on the history of tramways and tramcars, Running on Rails, which is published over five pages in the April issue of Vintage Spirit magazine.

February 2 2022

2022 is going to be a busy and challenging year with an increasingly long list of places to visit and photographs to take for my next project The Men Who Invented Britain which will explore the links between the great engineers of the 18th  and 19th centuries. Some of the pictures are already 'in the can' including this view of the cast-iron beams on the water-powered pumping engine at Claverton on the Kennet and Avon Canal. The pumping station was designed and built by the great John Rennie, the beams themselves sourced from Boulton and Watt – just one of the many links between pioneering engineers which the book will be exploring.

November 26 2021

Yours truly posing with a copy of the new book. The backdrop is the governor on the giant steam engine by James Watt & Company (successor to Boulton & Watt) which drove the pumps at the Eastney Pumping Station in Portsmouth. Eastney was just the third of the many locations which I visited during the research for the book. The first two had been the engines at Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire, and the giant four cylinder engine by J. &. E. Woods of Bolton which powered Trencherfield Mill in Wigan, the James Lumb governor on which features on the dust jacket.

November 16 2021

August 19 2021

I have been gathering material for a new project on Thomas Telford since long before the pandemic, and today we finally made it to Trevor in North Wales to experience the slightly unnerving effect of walking across his amazing one hundred and twenty six feet high Pontcysyllte Aqueduct which carries the Llangollen Canal over the deep valley of the River Dee. The aqueduct was completed by Telford and William Jessop in 1805, and is still in use more than two centuries later. We had lunch at the pub a few yards from one end of the aqueduct which is fittingly named The Thomas Telford. On the same trip we also made a long-delayed visit to the Lion Salt Works near Northwich in Cheshire which had been on the 'must visit' list for a number of years. 

June 25 2021

Thanks to Neath Port Talbot Council who organised special access for me, I have just returned from a day spent at the currently closed Cefn Coed Colliery Museum near Neath, photograping and measuring the world's last surviving gas tramcar. The tram was rescued from a garden in the 1980s where it had been used as a garage and workshop for decades, and was restored as part of a youth training scheme. The ornate bent wood ceiling in the lower saloon is original and a testament to the skill and craftsmanshipof the carpenters at the Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Company in Manchester in the 1890s. The pictures will feature in my forthcoming book The Gas Tramcar – an idea ahead of its time, and the measurements helped determine the size of cars which could be fitted inside it.

March 31 2021

Getting out with my camera yesterday on a beautiful warm spring morning not only gave me a first chance to get images for editorial projects which have been on hold for more than a year, but also brought home to me in no uncertain terms how unfit I have become since the first lockdown. The subject is John Rennie the Elder's Dundas Aqueduct on the Kennet and Avon Canal a couple of miles from Bath, and at the point from where I took the picture of the narrowboat traversing the aqueduct, the towpath is quite narrow. I felt sorry for the poor woman who almost fell in trying to keep at least 2 metres between us as she passed – she made it... just!

March 12 2021

Well, I have just received the proofs of The Governor – controlling the power of steam machines from Pen & Sword. It is scheduled for publication in November this year. It has been a long wait, but at last it is going to see the light of day, a year later than originally intended as a result of the pandemic. The 160+ page book will be in the same large format as Transporter Bridges. The cover shows the James Lumb governor and Wilby Regulator on the massive 2,500hp Trencherfield Mill engine in Wigan, itself now silent as a result of the pandemic and a lack of funds. Hopefully by the time the hardback book hits the bookshops, the great engine might be running again.

February 9 2021

I have just signed a contract for The Gas Tramcar – an idea ahead of its time with Pen & Sword Transport Books, and if everything goes to plan, I will be delivering the completed manuscript and pictures in the autumn. There is still a huge amount of work to do on it – requiring the world to come out of lockdown so I can get out with the camera once again. Pen & Sword published my Transporter Bridges book and are also publishing The Governor – controlling the power of steam machines, so I am delighted by the prospect of having a third book on their lists. Their production standards are awesome, so I have great hopes for the finished product.

November 12 2020

For the December 2020 issue of Vintage Spirit, I dug out pictures of a day I spent in the cockpit of a Hercules C130-J while its crew practised air-to-air refuelling over the North Sea with a VC-10 tanker ZA-149 in 2010. ZA-149 first flew in April 1969. During its 19-year life as a passenger plane with East African Airways, call sign 5X-UVJ and based at Kampala, its passengers included Pope Paul VI on his way from Rome to Uganda. The plane was sold to the RAF in 1978 for conversion into a tanker, but it was seven years before it first flew as ZA-149. A quarter of a century later, I would have my close encounter with the 40-year-old plane and get the chance to take some striking pictures.


September 14 2020

When I posted this in June I thought there was a chance for me to find out if anyone actually reads this stuff. The picture, right, shows the only surviving gas tramcar in Britain, operated by Neath Corporation into the 1920s and restored in the 1980s after spending many years being used as a garden shed. The gas tram was fuelled by 'town gas' supplied by the local Neath Gasworks. Sadly, the tram's engine – which would have been built by Nicolaus Otto in Deutz in Germany – is long gone. The invention of the gas tram was claimed and patented by several engineers in the 1880s and 90s. One of them was Carl Lührig whose first British patent in 1891 suggested a compact German 'Blessing' gas engine could be used. My question was – has anyone come across a reference, or better still an illustration, of such an engine? The question was eventually resolved. 

April 17 2020

Today sees the publication of the May-July issue of Scottish Islands Explorer, with my article on the island of Mousa featured on the cover. What a change two years can make – it is almost that length of time since we explored the island, and this year all we can do is sit at home and remember that experience. This is the second issue of the magazine to which I have contributed an article and the cover picture – the March/April issue included my article on The Tomb of the Eagles on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay. For August/September I have been exploring the geology of the island volcanoes which, millennia ago, created the Scotland we know today.

April 10 2020

One of three articles of mine which appear in the May issue of Vintage Spirit, out today, is built around a combination of two VE Day stories to mark the 75th anniversary of that event. One is the scuttling of the German submarine U-534, complete with its Enigma machine, the other the story of my late aunt's work as a cryptographer in 'Hut 6' at Bletchley Park, decoding messages intercepted from Enigma machines. One of the other two articles tells the story of a terrible mill accident in Trowbridge in 1815; the other explores the story of light railways and the Colonel Stephens Museum at Tenterden Town Station on the Kent & East Sussex Railway.

March 20 2020

Just when I thought my health was returning to a level where I could get out with the camera, along comes coronavirus to put the mockers on such plans. Understandably, my publishers' plans are on hold as well, so Among These Dark Satanic Mills and The Governor are unlikely to appear in print any time soon. At least I had already planned for 2020 to be a quieter year than usual – I ended my 18-year association with Scotland Magazine at the start of the year, transferring my Scottish focus to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine – my first piece for them was published this month – while maintaining my writing for Vintage Spirit. Luckily I got a lot of the photography for 'future projects' done last autumn – including this view of Abraham Darby III's restored Iron Bridge at Ironbridge – the world's first all metal bridge. That will someday feature in a project when life gets back to normal.

December 20 2019

Sometimes the most unexpected good news follows on from unexpected bad news. Just got out of hospital last night after another heart scare, and today Pen & Sword Books have confirmed that The Governor – controlling the power of steam machines will become the second book of mine to be published under their imprint. Working on the book started in mid 2018 and has taken up most of this year. Preparing it for publication will keep me busy well into 2020, with publication probably in early 2021. The research for this book has rewritten much of the story of the development and manufacture of engine governors – devices which were amongst the world's first control systems.

November 24 2019

What will probably be the last photographic outing of the year as places shut down for the winter, was a trip up to the Didcot Railway Centre to see the GWR's 4-6-0 King Edward II, built at Swindon in 1930, and compare it with a photograph taken around 40 years ago (inset) of the same locomotive when it was still an abandoned wreck in the Woodham Brothers' scrapyard in Barry. Few people thought that wreck could ever be brought back to life, but it was, steaming for the first time in 2010 and now regularly seen doing what it was built to do. Indeed, when this picture was taken it had only recently returned from an extended visit to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

September 9 2019

Just back from a couple of days in the Midlands, visiting Forge Mill Needle Museum in Redditch and re-visiting both the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley and Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge. These are the limekilns on a spur of the Dudley Canal round which the Black Country Museum has evolved. Also had a chance to photograph the recently refurbished Iron Bridge itself. Lovely weather for photography across a couple of really hectic days. But the 'main event' was being given access to all the steam engines at Blists Hill for a future Vintage Spirit article – some covered in years of dust – and adding a huge amount of information to my ever-growing database of British engine and governor makers.

September 1 2019

At last we have a publication date for the Transporter Bridges book – It will be published in hardback on 28 February 2020 by Pen & Sword Transport Books at £30 per copy and is already available for pre-order on Amazon. By the time it comes out, the project will have occupied nearly six years of my life and engaged me in some really fascinating research, some wonderful trips, and the chance to meet and talk to the engineers who keep the last of these amazing bridges operational. I have found myself taking pictures from some pretty hairy viewpoints, and doing stuff someone my age should have had more sense than even contemplate. Happy days!

June 29 2019

With the best will in the world, every so often, something goes wrong, and the fact that it was not my fault may be a blessing, but doesn't make it any less infuriating. This month it has happened with my article on the incised Neolithic 'cup and ring' markings on a  hillside above Cairnbaan at the top of Kintyre which is published in the July issue of Scotland Magazine, just out this weekend. The magazine has recently changed ownership, and someone – nobody has owned up yet – decided to retitle my article as 'Iron Age Discoveries'. That is not an auspicious start! The Neolithic period spanned a range from around 7000BC to about 2000BC, whereas the Iron Age didn't start in Europe until around 1200BC. The cup and ring markings date from around 5000 years ago – so about 2000 years before the Iron Age was even thought of! Not even close!

May 27 2019

You don't often see me with such a determined look on my face but, with lots of people watching, I didn't want to get it wrong. This is me, under instruction from the Bolton Steam Museum's Chief Engineer, Alan Ratcliffe, starting the 1915-built inverted vertical compound engine, built by Scott & Hodgson of Guide Bridge Ironworks, Manchester. The engine spent its working life at the Diamond Rope Works in Royton and is now beautifully restored back to working order in the museum. The late May Bank Holiday was one of the museum's steaming weekends, and I made a couple of trips photographing their collection of thirty-two working engines and their rich assortment of governors. Well worth a visit!  photograph: Duncan Hannavy

The Governor – controlling the power of steam machines is published in hardback by Pen and Sword, price £30

The last few copies of The Victorian Photographs of Dr Thomas Keith and John Forbes White are available in hardback direct from the author at half price – £10 plus P&P. Use Contacts Page to order.

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All images and text © John Hannavy