Harking back to the age of steam

Fred Cooper watches one of his many films on the age of steam whiche he filmed himself in the 50s and 60s.
Fred Cooper watches one of his many films on the age of steam whiche he filmed himself in the 50s and 60s.

Spend an hour with Seagoe Park brothers Fred and Leslie Cooper, and it’s like spending decades chuffing back to the era of railway steam, before the noisy, giant locomotives were replaced by diesel and then electricity.

It was before the ruthless (and ill-considered) axe fell on countless miles of railway lines that stretched to so many corners of Northern Ireland and beyond.

Fred is the ‘movie’ man, shooting the mighty steam-driven classics as they made their noisy majestic way to Warrenpoint, to Enniskillen and to Derry. Ah yes, the Derry Road that radiated out of Portadown up to the Maiden City, via Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane, dipped into Donegal and hissed into Derry itself.

The Derry Road held special memories for them. So much so that they climbed on board the train that left Portadown station (then at Watson, or Railway, Street) in Edenderry the day before the axe fell on February 14, 1965, and headed off.

Fred recalled, “I worked for the UTA – the railway company – in those days at Portadown’s goods yards (now the site of the town’s main station). I finished at midday and Leslie and I (he was 14 at the time) raced along the lines to catch the 12.10pm to Derry.”

Leslie had his trusty Kodak folding lens camera with him which he brought at Trouton’s of Market Street for about £8, while Fred carried his Sekonic movie camera (£65 from Jim Boreland) which captured colour pictures of trains, passengers and drivers as the train made its way west and then north.

Fred said, “I saw an advert for the camera which started you should ‘shoot’ your family as they grow up. I did (he is the father of four) and I also got the railway bug.” The young Leslie snapped a plethora of pictures along the way.The date was Saturday February 13, the day before ‘The Road’ finally closed – along with all its stations and halts. And a great legacy of rail history was lost to Northern Ireland.

Next month, on February 14, 2015, will be the 50th anniversary of the closure, and the Coopers have been invited to a special day of nostalgia in Omagh (one of the main towns which lost its rail link) and fittingly it will be St Valentine’s Day, for theirs was a love affair with a wonderful mode of transport.

Over the years, Fred has amassed “about 24 hours non-stop” movies of the trains of Ulster, his favourites being that Derry Road, plus the line to Warrenpoint via Goraghwood and Newry. His masterpieces are regularly shown on BBC Northern Ireland.

Fred has priceless ‘stills’ of long-since closed stations along the various lines, and that day in 1965 is still engraved in the memories of the Coopers, who encountered many local people making the nostalgic trip on the penultimate train to Derry.

Fred shot two reels of films and Leslie snapped from the old ‘120’ film (10 shots per roll) and proud among his pictures are frames of Annaghmore Station and Corcullentragh Bridge near Portadown.

They didn’t go all the way to Derry, but terminated their journey at Strabane – passing stations along the way that have evaporated from the memory like steam. They included Annaghmore, Verner’s Bridge, True and Moy, Dungannon, Donaghmore, Pomeroy, Sixmilecross, Beragh, Omagh, Mountjoy, Newtownstewart, Victoria Bridge, Sion Mills and into Strabane.

The train rolled onwards into Donegal, calling at the likes of Porthall, St Johnston and Carrigans and into the Maiden City. But having captured all they needed on film – and having a library that included the Donegal sections - they hopped on board a goods train headed back to Portadown, driven by their friend Jim Barr.

“It was quite an adventure and the 50 years between have flown,” said Leslie. “It stays fresh in the memory and yet it was half a century ago. The Derry Road was a real loss to Northern Ireland, but so many railway lines have gone that way.”

They include the Warrenpoint line, closed in January 1965, and the Armagh stretch, via Richhill, closed in 1957 and for which there is now a clamour for restoration. Stations like Enniskillen and Coalisland also disappeared, as did the miles of lines.

In the annals of rail travel, nothing beats the glamour of the great steam giants, and the Copper Brothers have among their memories (in moving film and in photo) a richness that they captured along legendary lines like The Derry Road.

“There’ll never be anything like the steam trains,” said Fred.