Barry Brickell had had a gutful of the city. He resigned from teaching and went bush, meaning to live a solitary life, quietly working as a potter. It didn’t quite go to plan, because these days visitors flock from around the world to his “Driving Creek Railway and Potteries” on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, to play with the ride-on train set that Barry built himself.
When I say he built it himself, I mean, he really did build a railway with his own hands. In 1973 he bought 60 acres of scrubby hillside and constructed a pottery kiln at the bottom. The pinewood he needed to bake his pots was higher up the mountain and getting it down was a chore. No problem; Barry liked engineering and trains in particular, so he started laying 100metres of track with a 15inch gauge.
Next he built a train to run on it, and now the Driving Creek Railway is 3km long, with spirals, switchbacks and zigzags, points, tunnels and bridges. Its construction has taken Barry thirty-three years, so far. It’s open to the public, and they love it.
We join about fifty others to ride the 10.15 to Eyefull Tower. ‘Mind your heads and arms, folks,’ says our driver Peter, ‘some of our tunnels are pretty narrow and we don’t want anyone losing limbs.’ The guard blows his whistle, Peter blows the train’s horn and clatter, clatter, clank, clank, off we go!
The little red trains that shuttle around Barry’s tracks are the smallest we’ve seen this side of Disneyland. They’re open at the sides so passengers can get a close up view of the workshops and kilns where potters potter around. Then as we climb the hill we watch the bushland pass at close quarters.
It’s exceptionally lovely bushland. That’s another of Barry’s little obsessions, bush regeneration. He’s planted 20,000 native trees on the property, including 9000 kauri trees, the slow-growing, long-lived forest giants that used to crowd the Coromandel until people discovered how useful their wood was. Few are left now, but there are plenty on Barry’s hillside.
Specimens of flora beside the track are labelled to help us identify them and driver Peter gives us a running commentary. His enthusiasm for the project is as infectious as Barry’s must have been.
Every feature of the railway is a minor work of art, both practically and aesthetically. Retaining walls are made from thousands of recycled bottles stuck together with clay. ‘We’re always looking for empty bottles if you want to donate them,’ says Peter, ‘and we’ll even help you drink the contents first.’ Terracotta sculptures made by Barry and his friends decorate the entrances to tunnels or are dotted along vantage points on the track.
What a mad, charming, ridiculous, enormous DIY project this is! From time to time Peter stops the train to jump down and do a points change, or even to walk to the other end of the train to drive it off in the reverse direction up the zigzag. ‘The only one in New Zealand’ he tells us proudly. Nobody minds the delays; we’re not in a rush, and there’s always more art or a spectacular view to admire as we wait.
We reach ‘Hoki Mai Station’, the point where Barry, after sixteen years of work, finally said enough was enough. But it wasn’t. Building continued for many more years and the railway doubled in length, leading us up to the Eyefull Tower, a viewing platform 173metres above sea level, finished in 2003, from which we get brilliant views out over the Hauraki Gulf. We can see as far as Auckland on a clear day.
Driving Creek Railway receives no public funding – the operation is all self-supporting – but there’s plenty of government control now. Barry was meticulous about his building, but with going public came lots of red tape and safety inspections. ‘Fair enough too,’ says our guide, ‘but he’d never have taken it on if he’d really known what he was in for.’
Barry’s 73 now, so he’s decided to let the National Trust take over the care of the place, with an agreement that it can never be sold off.
Back we ride to the bottom of the hill, to admire the quirky rough sculpture garden and go on a short bushwalk down to the creek. Much of the pottery on display in the shop, Barry Bickell’s included, is genuinely good and there’s no shortage of customers. There’s a video running showing how and why Barry built the railway, and about his hopes for his latest grand project, a nature reserve.
A dam on the creek has created a wetland habitat for frogs and waders, and an elaborate vermin fence erected around the perimeter last year protects native birds from stoats, cats and possums. Over forty bird species have now been spotted on the property and plans are in train to introduce the threatened kiwis.
At the end of the video, Barry appears. ‘I’m glad I built all this when I was in my forties, fifties and sixties. I’m getting too old to do it now. I’m retiring from it all and just going back to just being a potter.’
But as the crowds clear away I notice a lean figure using a pruning saw to hack away a tangled bush overhanging one of the pottery studios. It’s the man himself, wiry arms sticking out from a grimy green singlet. ‘I just watched your video, Mr Brickell,’ I tell him, ‘You said from now on you were just going to be a potter. You shouldn’t still be doing heavy jobs like this.’
‘Yeah, I can’t stop myself working hard.’ He grins and holds out his right hand, which I see is wrapped in a dirty bandage. ‘Can’t wait to get this thing off. Curling finger syndrome – had to have an operation. Oh no, look what I just cut down – this is native fuchsia. I’ll be in trouble with DOC (the Department of Conservation).’
A passing worker comments, ‘No worries there, Barry, they know you’ve done your bit for the environment.’
We agree wholeheartedly, and we get the feeling that he’s not finished yet.
Getting there: Coromandel Town can be reached by a 360 Discovery ferry from Auckland. It’s a two-hour trip, operates five times weekly, and returns cost NZ$89. Day tour packages including Driving Creek Railway can be arranged. http://www.360discovery.co.nz
By road, Coromandel Town is a three-four hour drive from Auckland, and Driving Creek Railway is 3km north of the village.
One hour round trips on the Driving Creek Railway cost NZ$20 . Trains run at 10.15 and 2.00 daily, and by arrangement (depending on numbers) at other times.
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney