It’s been a little more than two years since Barry Brickell passed away. A legend in his own time, Barry was a pioneer potter and railway enthusiast; a generous, hardworking, passionate, eccentric man whose strong environmental ethos and love for his Driving Creek property included his wish to be buried partway up the mountain with a kowhai tree planted on his grave. “I’ll make good fertiliser.” he reckoned.

Barry was interviewed for NZTODAY by Steve Hale in 2013 (issue 52), and later, in typical kindly fashion, Barry’s letter to the editor in issue 57 asked if he could “gently correct” a couple of things in Steve’s “nicely flowing article”, going on to point out that in terms of an eco-dream “it’s damn hard work being a kindly friend to mother nature”, and explaining that the railway was not “quirky” but “a very serious example of civil engineering which received a certificate of recognition by the Institute of Professional Engineering NZ.” Following Barry’s death in January 2016 Steve’s article was reprinted as a tribute to him in NZTODAY issue 66.

Friendly guide and train driver, Dawn

In January this year, our family took the one-hour train ride for the second time, and saw, through our young grandsons’ excited eyes, the wonder of the train, the track, the bush, the expansive views, and finally our destination, the EyeFull Tower. At about 165 metres above sea level, the EyeFull Tower is approximately halfway up the 23.14ha property, and the views over the steep, bush-clad hills and the Hauraki Gulf are phenomenal. Dawn, our friendly guide and train driver, told us a little of

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the history of the property and allowed time for photos before we were off back down the hill, through the tunnels, over viaducts, past pottery creations, and bottles, tyres and hand-made bricks that act as retaining walls, and pausing briefly to acknowledge Barry’s last resting place.

Down at the station early in the morning

John Gurney is the General Manager of the Driving Creek Railway Ltd, the operational arm of the Driving Creek Arts and Conservation Trust, established before Barry’s death to maintain and develop the property in accordance with Barry’s vision for art, engineering and conservation. John arrived about six months before Barry died, and says the first year (2016) involved a review of the whole enterprise and sorting out the governance. “The railway company runs as a normal business with a board of directors and employees,” he explains, adding that maintenance, and ‘Health and Safety at Work Act 2015’ compliance issues, needed to be brought up to scratch. “We had to decide on our policies, processes and direction,” John says, “then put them in place and get them operating during last year. This (the third) year is about making sure the business is sustainable for the next 40-plus years and getting some capital projects under way. The Trust employs a staff of 22, some of whom are seasonal, and includes drivers, customer service and maintenance staff, a conservationist, an archivist, and possible future internships.

Barry’s grave site – photo credit Driving Creek Railway

“We intend to enhance the property to attract more tourists,” John reveals. “We’re looking at five more tours to add to the existing train ride. We’ve already begun by taking evening BBQ tours to the EyeFull Tower during the summer (for two months), with special tours on request, subject to numbers. We’re planning high-end behind-the-scenes tours – there are artworks in the bush that are not seen from the train ride – but there’s quite a bit of work to do before everything’s up and running. The tours will all be rail based and will all go somewhere to do something.”

Bricks and bottles are used for retaining walls

One project currently under way is the installation of a ZipLine, with eight zips travelling from Crown Flat down to the railway station. “It will be a low-speed eco-zip, not an adrenalin rush,” explains John. “Two guides will take tourists zipping above and through both pine forests and native bush, to appreciate the impact of conservation from inside the canopy.” The ZipLine’s expected to be operational by Labour Weekend this year. Future tours include a goldmine tour; the first gold in Coromandel was found in 1852 by Charles Ring in a stream on the property, and once the nearby gold stamper battery is brought up to a standard that will comply with Health and Safety engineering standards, it will be re-opened, but John thinks that will be at least a year away. John tells me that changes will come in slowly, and all the while there’s a need to be thinking not just of building, but of a 30 per cent artistic value, following past organic growth and today’s conservation values. Plans for another section of land above the EyeFull Tower haven’t yet been finalised, but there’s a lot of regenerating native bush, and whatever happens is likely to be very eco-friendly.

The EyeFull Tower – 165m above sea level

Before his death Barry was insistent that the pottery was to be kept up and running, and right now it’s partway through a rebuild. The company is restoring accommodation for up to five resident potters who will dig, process and work the clay, creating coiled, thrown and slip-work studio pottery. It’s intended to have high-end tours of Barry’s life and art – his accommodation and work space are just how he left them – and further restoration of the wood-fired, gas-fired and electric kilns is needed.

Many of the 50–60,000 people who visit the property from all over the world each year are interested in pottery, and the art gallery is currently being converted into a NZ Studio Potters Museum display area. Adding to the collection already owned by the trust, the NZ Ceramic Heritage Trust has donated a large collection of pottery from 1935 to date, and the Peter Yates ‘Stash’ collection of more than 4200 pieces, gifted to the Auckland Society of Potters by potter and collector Peter Lange, is now stored on site and being archived. But John advises that this is a massive project that will take some years to complete, and there’s more to come.

Views from the EyeFull Tower

“Barry was a prolific writer,” says John. “He wrote to newspapers, magazines and to all sorts of people on all sorts of subjects.” There’s a huge collection of written material to archive. When Barry was relatively unknown, he and his contemporaries, including Tony Fomison and Ralph Hotere, were all just artists who kept in touch by writing to each other. Now they’re nationally known and their correspondence has historical relevance, as they were essentially leaders in the field of two- and three-dimensional art. Barry also left a huge photographic collection that needs to be archived and stored properly.

All in all, there will be plenty to keep the company and trust occupied, and tourists enthralled for many years to come. Driving Creek Railway’s a fantastic unique experience right now, and will become absolutely world-class as other projects reach completion. It’s encouraging to see that there’s a dedicated crew making sure that this great man’s vision will continue.

Tunnel entry