An appreciation by Ian Krause
The three-day-old Ford Escort's speedo had just notched the 'ton' when it hit the
first of the three humps on the road from Ingleton to Ribblehead. A few seconds, a
hundred yards of dry stone wall and four wheels hurtling in different directions later,
the once-new car was on its back, its engine on fire. Two of the occupants were lying,
semi-conscious, in a ditch filled with stinging nettles at the side of the road. The
driver, Paul Riley, a little dazed and confused, staggered the half mile to the Hill Inn
- not for help, but to join in the Ribblehead Reunion celebrations. It was, after all,
August the Eleventh, 1975.
Three weeks in the Airedale General Hospital, a John Poulson building that hasn't yet fallen down, gave me plenty of scope to reflect on the man who had just attempted to kill myself and his girlfriend. The doctor had professed his wonderment that anyone could have survived a crash that, quite literally, left an unrecognisable lump of metal in place of the pride of the Coventry hire-car fleet. A year later, almost to the day, Paul Riley was dead.
As a wide-eyed, but not yet legless photographer in the 1960s, I had my heroes. W. J. V. Anderson was the first - head and shoulders above Maurice Earley, Eric Treacy and the like. Then there was Colin Gifford, the first, and probably only, railway photographer who could relate steam to its social environment. And then there was Paul Riley.
The Waverley Route was the most under-photographed of lines; Bill Anderson barely touched it, Eric Treacy stuck to the accessible bits. But, around 1964, pictures started appearing in Trains Illustrated that opened up the wonders of that most remote region of Britain. Steele Road and Riccarton Junction began to replace the Beattocks and Shaps in my imagination. Almost exclusively, the captions were credited to one 'P. Riley'.
I had a vision of 'P. Riley'. I'd met R. C. Riley, a charming man who wore a suit and worked in the City. P. Riley's pictures, on the whole, were not very different from those of his namesake. So, should I ever chance to meet him, I expected an urbane, middle-aged man of impeccable style and manners.
Leeds City Station, August 1967.1 was on my way to Holbeck with a friend when we
happened to wander into a seedy little cafe in Jack Lane. And there, huddled under a
dingy 40-watt light, mouth full of over-cooked baked beans and bacon with the rind still
on, sat the object of my adulation. I suddenly realised that I knew him. We'd met and
exchanged pleasantries the year before. Blue Peter had been heading for Aberdeen from
Edinburgh the last time it would work a real train between those cities. It was a
Saturday in late August. My car load had positioned themselves on Dalgety bank, just
east of Inverkeithing. The train was due in three minutes. Suddenly, a car screeched to
a halt, four bodies hurtled down the embankment and up trees and telegraph poles. It was
only then that they realised we were blocking their shots. Amidst the torrent of abuse
that rang round the cutting, I gathered they'd cleaned the engine. It arrived in
mid-torrent; the driver's response to their efforts was to open the cylinder cocks and
render the shot almost useless. The Midland Neverers Association had unwittingly arrived
in my life.
Nine months later, the self-same picture landed on my doorstep. Mike Higson, then owner of the late-lamented Roundhouse bookshop in Harrow, had asked me to help him try and compile a definitive Steam in Scotland photographic album. W. J. V Anderson had finally been persuaded, Derek Cross was no problem. But there was no decent coverage of the Waverley Route. So I wrote to P. Riley. Back came a courteous letter and some 15 in x 12 in prints of such dire quality that we couldn't use them, including No. 60532 at Dalgety. Fast forward to Jack Lane, Leeds.
Six in the morning had rendered Paul fairly harmless, so we got chatting. He didn't do his own printing. As far as he was concerned, the taking of the picture was almost more important than the end result. It was an attitude that was to change quite rapidly, as did his approach to photography. The entourage sitting around him in the cafe's squalor were all names that I recognised from the railway press - C. E. Weston, D. Gouldthorp, M. York, P. Claxton. They were fairly uncommunicative; some still are. But they obviously looked up to Paul as the unspoken leader of their ad hoc group. By the end of breakfast, he and I had agreed to disagree on our views of photography, but became friends until his death.
The official line on Paul Riley is that he pioneered the use of the telephoto lens in railway photography, but, let's try a different tack. His photography can be split into three separate periods-1961-5 and 1966-8 as far as his black and white work is concerned, and, as a separate study, the pictures he produced in colour. Let's begin at the beginning.
The 'photographic' elite of the post-war years were, by and large, fairly well- off
users of large format or 6x6 cameras. There were exceptions R. E Vincent and C. C. B.
Herbert were both avid enthusiasts for 35mm. But we're talking Leicas here, not Halina
35xs or the like. Paul Riley was young, fairly impoverished, and wanted to emulate
W. J. V Anderson. So, instead of a Zeiss Ikonta or the vastly more expensive Linhof
Technica that both Anderson and Cross were using, he settled for a humble Pentax 35mm.
His early work around the Midlands and places like Stoke Bank on the East Coast main
line is still interesting rather than exceptional - good quality,
straight-down-the-middle, front three-quarter views of main line steam. His published
work in 1963-4 was very much in the mould of Bill Anderson - dramatic, low-angle,
slightly condensed in perspective. Anderson always used a slightly longer than normal
focal-length lens on his plate cameras, and, in about 1965, Paul Riley discovered the
telephoto lens. It was a discovery that was to change the face of conventional railway
Whether Paul Riley 'invented' the use of the telephoto lens or not is debatable; what is certain is that he produced some of the greatest and most powerful images ever to leave the back of a camera. Perhaps it was something to do with his character, but the images he produced were about the masculinity of the steam engine - forget any thoughts about calling a 'Duchess' a 'she'; Riley's pictures, like his lifestyle, left little to the imagination. That is not a criticism. The vast majority of well-published railway photographers have seen their work in print thanks to the quality of their camera lenses rather than the quality of their perception. Paul Riley was different.
In the days before motor-drives, he would happily run off three rolls of Agfa CT18 before breakfast. Invariably, this scatter-gun approach paid off: he had a love of the landscape that could make virtually every frame a 'master shot' - witness his coverage of No. 70013 working the last passenger train up Shap on Boxing Day, 1967, the superb sequence of No. 48448 battling up to Copy Pit early in 1968, or his footage on Shap in December 1967 of backlit freights taken on a 400 mm lens which cost a fraction of a filter for a Linhof They are the work of a master. Sadly, though, a vast quantity of Paul Riley's work has bypassed an entire generation.
Black and white was the real name of the game as far as Paul was concerned. His Waverley Route shots, as already mentioned, have not been surpassed. In 1967, he took what is arguably the greatest image of a train in action in this country that has ever graced the pages of a magazine. 'Jubilee' class 4-6-0 No. 45562 Alberta was working a rail tour north from the West Riding to Carlisle on an autumn (actually 25/2/1967 - Ed.) Saturday. The weather was just right, good three-quarter back lighting on Dillicar Troughs, half a mile out of Tebay. Paul and some friends jammed the troughs open. A 135 mm lens and full sun conjured up an image that has graced countless book covers and periodicals. There was even a 60in x 40 in framed print in the Junction Hotel in Tebay throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. But the hotel changed name and hands, and the print went missing. The hotel is now retirement flats, and the print is still missing. But more worryingly, so is the original negative.
What is arguably one of the most exciting photographic collections in the British Isles
remains shrouded in secrecy. The MNA, an acronym for the Midland Neverers Association,
was an organisation founded on a common desire to travel by train while avoiding paying
for the privilege. Its members also cleaned engines in their spare time. Paul Riley was
the unspoken and unopposed leader. There was a feeling of almost Masonic brotherhood
about the organisation when it flourished in the mid-1960s. Sadly, not a lot has changed
and Paul Riley's contribution to the development of black and white photography remains
locked up in somebody's misguided vision of keeping the old memories pure. Riley's
remarkable vision deserves a better epitaph.
So enjoy what you see here, and search back into the 1960s world of Trains Illustrated and Modern Railways. If you want to read about Paul in his own words, hunt for back copies of Steam Railway for June and July 1992. His eloquent descriptions of travels by bike, RDU 290, and 'Britannias' is as good a way as any into the mind of somebody who could climb up the outside of the Castle Keep in Newcastle in order to get the master shot without paying, could climb an electricity pylon to see off a 'Q6', or dive off Cleethorpes Pier while the tide was out, thereby breaking both wrists and rendering himself unemployable as a roadie for a folk band.
People have called Paul Riley an enigma. He wasn't. His mission was to enjoy life to the full. The sports jacket and suit brigade of the railway fraternity could never quite cope with him. My last memory of him, other than the near- miss in 1975, was the arrival of H. M. Constabulary at a respectable house in Sandbanks, Dorset, in 1974. Who, they enquired, was the owner of the potato lorry from Coventry which was parked outside? ' Well, officer, I only borrowed it for the weekend'. One afternoon in August 1976, whilst in search of yet another 'master shot', Paul had fallen asleep on the parapet of Victoria Bridge, Severn Valley Railway. In his slumber he rolled off the bridge, falling sixty feet to his death. You can run as many special freight trains for photographers as you like, but you'll never re-create Paul Riley.