Yorkshire’s ‘singing train conductor’ Paul Mirfin turns his hand to painting region’s railway landscapes

Yorkshire’s ‘Singing Train Conductor’ Paul Mirfin has picked up a paintbrush for his latest creative endeavour. He tells Chris Burn how art is helping him deal with anxiety issues.

Paul Mirfin photographed in Knaresborough. Picture: Ernesto Rogata.

Paul Mirfin is already a familiar face to rail commuters in North Yorkshire and folk music fans around the world. Now the train conductor and singer-songwriter is adding to another creative string to his bow after taking up painting.

Mirfin, who featured on Songs of Praise in 2016 as the ‘Singing Train Conductor’ as the long-running BBC show profiled his double life as a Northern Rail conductor between York, Harrogate and Leeds and the lead singer and songwriter of The Paul Mirfin Band, a Christian folk band who went on to release their first album Ancient Roads two years later.

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But in addition to his day job and working on his band’s second album, in recent months Mirfin has discovered a new passion for painting after coming through some difficult personal times last year.

“This is really new for me,” he explains over Zoom. “I got diagnosed with anxiety. My mum passed away last year and I got married and moved house all in the same year. I had a lot going on. I had a bit of time off from the railway.

“I had never painted in my life and just under three months ago I picked a brush up and brought a load of oils and just started painting.

“Even more than music, I found it just focused me and nothing else would be on my mind for five or six hours. I would start painting and my wife would bring me cups of coffee which would just go cold because I was so absorbed. That was definitely a first! It just takes everything away.”

Mirfin, who is originally from Deepcar on the outskirts of Sheffield but now lives in Knaresborough, says that in addition to its therapeutic effect he has also been shocked and delighted by the reaction of people who have said he has a natural talent for art.

“It was a big surprise. I have always done little sketches but nothing major. It has always been music for me. I was just painting for myself but I posted a picture on Facebook and said, ‘This is a bit of a lockdown project’. It was of the signal box at Knaresborough. Within 20 minutes people had started a bidding war to buy it.”

Since then, he has been selling his paintings for around £200 per time.

“I just like sharing happiness. That is why I have lots of colour in my paintings as a bit of a counterpoint to the times we are in.”

So far, his work has generally been of Yorkshire railway-related art such as Knaresborough viaduct. Mirfin says he is particularly delighted that one of his paintings of the gantry outside Leeds railway station where trains head off in different directions across the country will soon be placed into the staff room there.

“It is going to be blown up to wall size. It is of the gantry outside Leeds station and it is like a driver’s view.”

His artistic process is proving to be a winning formula but Mirfin says it is relatively simple.

“At the moment it is just going to the location and taking lots of different pictures from different angles at different times of the day. I take them back and get the canvas out and go from there really.”

Meanwhile, his band have been hard at work on their second album, meeting the challenges caused by Covid by filming a socially-distanced music video and changing their usual recording arrangements.

“It has been interesting going into the studio because we have had to go in separately instead of together.”

Music has taken him across the world, performing in places as far afield as California and South Africa down the years.

He says of his favourite concert: “We did a small gig in Slovenia where all the locals came and that was a fantastic thing. We go there songwriting because we have got a friend with a house there.”

If he wasn’t busy enough, since 2017 Mirfin has arranged the annual True North festival at the Royal Hall in Harrogate, which celebrates local music, dance and visual arts and raises money for charity in the process.

Last year’s event was cancelled due to Covid and Mirfin says there is a major question mark over whether it will return this year or have to wait until 2022.

“We are thinking we probably won’t do it this year and come back the year after. It is a lot of planning for it not to happen. The Royal Hall has been absolutely fantastic with us – the festival was the first time they have done a free event and they were really supportive with it.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Mirfin, who is also a guitar teacher, has recently applied to go part-time in his day job on the railways, but for now he is working full-time on top of everything else.

He says that the pandemic has had a major impact on his day job and regular passengers are only now just beginning to return to their once-daily commutes.

“When it first happened, we were just slowly realising our job meant we were meeting people from all over the country and the trains were that busy you are literally breathing on each other.

“After that moment of lockdown it was quite scary and people were very studious about getting on and off the train and if somebody sat too close there would be arguments. But generally everyone was quite respectful.

“It was strange seeing the rush hour trains with about three people on. It is just starting to build up again now.”

On Songs of Praise back in 2016, he spoke of the community feel of seeing the same passengers each day and admits it has been something he has missed in the past year or so.

“I see them walking through Knaresborough but you were part of their journey. It is really nice that some of them have started coming back on the train but most are saying they won’t be back at work five days a week anymore, it will be more like two or three days a week and the rest at home.

“It has been really nice to see the regulars again.

“I love the job because you get to meet people and you also have the camaraderie with the staff. The Harrogate railway depot is like a small family.”

He says he ended up working on the railways more by accident than design.

“I used to work in the funeral business but was getting bored of it. I had a friend who was a train driver in Sheffield and he asked if I had ever thought about the railways so I applied for it. That was when I was 24 and I am 45 now.

“I was initially based in Doncaster and then Leeds and then I have spent 15 years in Harrogate.”

So how does the father-of-two find time for everything he does? Mirfin admits even taking into account his shift patterns on the railways, he is not entirely certain.

“Sometimes I feel like you are given time from somewhere else, I can’t explain it.”

Winning over unlikely fans

Paul Mirfin’s upbeat music has won his religiously-focused band some unlikely fans over the years.

He told Songs of Praise: “We played in a working men’s club and it was full of big guys with skinheads. They were all singing ‘Praise the Lord, I saw the light’ by the end of it.”

He says he hopes that band’s new album will be released later this year and that gigs will be able to take place to accompany the new music.

Mirfin says he views people’s opinions on the art he creates in a similar way to music.

“You find when you are a songwriter that you take a basic song to a band and you have to hand over your baby to let other people create from it and take their own things from it. It is like that with the art.”

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