22 August 2022

Photos recall an obsession with trains and devoted grandfather

| John Thistleton
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old-fashioned train

One of the last (if not the last) trains on the Crookwell branch line in 1985, which closed later that year. Photo: Greg Wilson.

Greg Wilson’s ultimate photo would be capturing a rainbow and the arrival of a train. A self-confessed ”train nut” since his boyhood, his rainbow adornment remains an elusive dream.

“You would have to be lined up in just the right place at the right time,” he said. “The chance of getting that would be one in a million, probably.”

In his view, luck has already smiled on him in unlikely circumstances. After his mother and father separated when he was aged 10, he spent more time with his grandfather and grandmother, Laurie and Margaret Grocott. The sound of trains and a visit to his school by acclaimed train photographer and author Leon Oberg sparked his rail interest. That interest continued to grow when he moved in with his grandparents approaching his high school years.

Laurie had already driven him to the railway station, and out along the railway line, indulging him in the sight and sound of trains, even though they held little interest for himself.

They went on seven to 10-day trips throughout NSW and Victoria, which they had planned together, covering 600 kilometres a day, following main and branch lines all over the place.

When Greg moved in with Laurie and Margaret, they bought him his first 35 mm camera, a Pentax. Not knowing what trains were running, he would sit with Laurie and wait at the station or another strategic spot along the main southern line. They walked along the line, photographing whatever showed up at the time, mostly freight trains. More trains were captured in the Goulburn shunting yards and Roundhouse.

The new camera replaced older box Brownies and through trial and error, and reading railway magazines, Greg became proficient with the Pentax. All the while Laurie, by now retired, ferried him down to the local railway station and further afield.

“He was a great man and did so much for me in my younger life,” Greg said. “He was like a father to me. He spent more time with me than any other father would or could spend with their sons. The other kids would have seen their fathers once when they came home from work, watch TV and go to bed sort of thing. I was very lucky.”

Greg Wilson

Since primary school Greg Wilson has been enthralled by trains and thanks his grandfather, Laurie Grocott, for nurturing his hobby. Photo: Supplied by Greg Wilson.

For Greg, hearing a full-throttle diesel roaring up an incline was the sound of real power. So he and Laurie attended uphill sections of the main southern line to hear the locos slogging it out.

Steam engines including The Flying Scotsman came through Goulburn from Britain; the legendary 3801 and hulking Garratts came too. Laurie parked the car and they walked along the tracks, and drove to Forest siding on the old Crookwell line to capture one of the last freight trains carrying superphosphate for district farmers, aware the branch line would shut permanently in 1985.

When Greg finished high school in 1985, Laurie urged him to become more independent.

“He lived until 1991,” Greg said. “I got a job, saved up and got a motorbike, then a car and so on. I did a bit of travel myself up and down the main southern line and down around Wollongong and Nowra.”

Loud engines captivated him.

“There used to be a train that ran to Queanbeyan to pick up logs,” Greg said. “They had to reverse up a hill to get out of a siding (on the Cooma branch line) where they were in. It was a hell of a grade to push the train back up against, and drivers had to open the throttle up to full power. There was dust and sand flying, you could hear this roar of the locomotive, it was real action.”

group of photographers waiting for a train

Train photographers often find themselves with like-minded people at strategic locations. This group of photographers was captured by one of the most dedicated among them, Leon Oberg. Leon also fired Greg Wilson’s early interest in locomotives. Greg still remembers the author’s visit to Bourke Street public school in the 1970s. Photo: Leon Oberg.

Forty-four of Greg’s early photographs taken in and around Goulburn will soon go on public exhibition at the Goulburn Mulwaree Library. This follows a chance meeting recently with local studies librarian Peta Luck, who attended Goulburn High School at the time of Greg’s early foray into train photography. She remembered his interest, inquired about the photos and asked for some to display.

Unlike the earlier models, today’s locomotives are muffled for environmental reasons. But when Greg sees those early photographs, he will hear the diesel motors giving their all, and think of Laurie Grocott, who gave Greg his all, too.

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