Topic: I think I can, I know I can by Jocelyn Davey

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Barry Brickell is the subject of Jocelyn Davey's entry in the 2011 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

On a bush clad hill just north of Coromandel Town, you can see the Eyefull Tower that is the pinnacle of Driving Creek Railway, built during the last thirty years by Barry Brickell and his team and now a leading tourist attraction for our town. A ride on the Driving Creek Railway is indeed a joyful experience.

Driving Creek describes the creeks, which were dammed to hold back kauri logs, then tripped to allow a rush of water to drive them towards the sea.  Such dams were common in this area.

After finishing a science degree in Auckland, Barry moved to Coromandel to teach.  This was not for long, as he decided to indulge in his beloved hobby, pottery, which he had begun with as a teenager.  The first kilns were built, one of them the first wood-fired kiln. .Barry never liked the many exotic trees on his property, so he was pleased to drop and lop them to be used in the kilns. His first railway was built to bring wood for the kilns and clay for the pots.

Barry dismantled the original line when in 1973 he   acquired an additional 60 acres (24 hectares) nearby. He decided he would build something more substantial up the steep hills and over the rough terrain that he now owned.  So the present railway started and slowly climbed higher. 

Barry did the surveying, and devised an original surveying instrument for the job and next the rails were put down, sourced from all over the country. As Barry often worked in wet muddy conditions he sometimes stripped off to make the hard slog easier.  Some of the locals developed an ‘anti -hippy attitude.’  Barry had a vision, as many of us have, and he was prepared to do much of the hard work to realise it.  He had a three-pronged   plan:  pottery, railway and tree planting.

He began by establishing his pottery. Such was Barry’s stature as a potter that many young folk came to him for advice and to live at Driving Creek.  They helped to plant the young rimu, kauri, totara and kahikatea beside the track. Nearly thirty years on these early plantings are a splendid sight.

Barry is an unassuming bloke, certainly not trendy, but with a happy knack of enthusing his friends and staff with his ideas. He  draws many skilled people to put some input to his dream. Many folk pooh-poohed the railway project as that of a romantic dreamer. It should be said that while Barry dreamed, he got on with the job. Over half of the physical work was done by him and with some relish. 

Most days from daylight he would work on the railway and loved to end his day with more work on the line, thinking of the views he would enjoy when he neared   the top. The engines were built in the workshop. The first in 1969 was used to haul clay from a neighbour’s land.

When the first new stretch of line was completed, there was a celebration.

Barry favours good red wine and many empty bottles were used for retaining walls.

The complex down below was growing, too, with kilns, accommodation,  small shop and a native plant nursery. Many Coromandel folk will remember taking rides on the early clay train. No permit or ticket required. As the line progressed, however, first a donation and then a set fee was charged. His train was becoming a tourist attraction and now Barry had to do his share of the ‘paper trail’.

Engines made it all possible and at regular intervals they were built: Dieselmouse, 1976; Elephant, 1978; Snake, 1992; Possum, 1995, and more recently the sleek Lynx. All were built in workshops on the property. None were driven by steam, which Barry had reluctantly decided against; most real train enthusiasts love a steam train. However, Barry’s little red engines do make the clickety-clack noise and blow a good whistle that at one time he had to tone down to placate the neighbours.

I used to enjoy the sound of the train whistles from Driving Creek as the old year slunk away and the New Year emerged.

The rails went onward and upward and though it was hard slog Barry worked with vision and joy. Surveying continued to Hoki Mai, seen as the end of the line. There was a Grand Opening when the Mayor cut the ribbon.  Dinner at the Top Pub was enjoyed by everyone.

Late in October 1990 Barry got permission to carry passengers. He had worked so hard to take the line to Hoki Mai, I think he was a little daunted by what further progress would mean.  In fact I wondered if he still had the strength and stubbornness to continue. But where Eyefull Tower now stands was a logical conclusion.

Right  from the beginning of the project, money had been tight and Barry worked hard in his pottery to raise funds. He had help from young trainee potters and assistance from people interested in what he was doing. He knew the bank manager and how to lean gently on him. By the time the rails reached to Hoki Mai the banker must have realised that the railway had potential as a tourist attraction.

Only when the excitement of the Mayor opening the line died down did Barry contemplate laying rails towards the sky. He wanted to share the view from higher up. Barry has a flair for nosing out materials for building a railway: old rails, cables. He also has a remarkable ability to sketch the amazing bridges, viaducts and embankments to be constructed. He dreamt up ingenious ways of disposing of surplus dirt.

Those of us who live in Coromandel and have ridden the train at various times watched it climbing the hill.  About this time, Barry put in a manager so he could spend more time on the railway and in his pottery.

Do not believe there was never a hitch. Barry started a fire by mistake, but put it out before it spread. Accidents were rare but Barry had a collision, probably because he trained all his drivers but rarely drove himself. There was a derailment in 1994, but no one was hurt. There was another when Possum came on line. Then there were storms that caused slips and strange complaints about encroaching on a neighbour’s land and train whistles so Barry shortened his toots. All problems were settled amicably.

From 1991 to 1993 the line moved easily towards the next station, Horopito - the pepper tree so common in the area - which was reached in 1994. Now Barry and his team were ready to proceed to the high plateau. He approached this challenge keenly. Like a boy racer he enjoyed taking a load of ballast to the railhead then taking a high speed ride on an empty wagon back down the line. (He did not crash.)

As the rails neared the Eyefull Tower site Barry again meant business as he stripped to his Roman sandals for ease of action. Pure clean water flowing through native bush provided water for refreshments and a clean-up. Then came the good news from LTSA that when completed, the train had permission to carry passengers to the top.

Building a railway is more than laying tracks. The complex has five engines; two are workhorses. All have to be maintained to a high standard.  Tracks have to be checked and shops and toilets kept clean.

The final project was to build the Eyefull Tower. As it took shape so did an earlier dream of Barry’s. He remembered trips on our national rail and the scramble at refreshment stops to get tea or coffee, ham sandwiches and fruit cake. He mulled over the idea of making similar thick cups and serving drinks, but after considerable thought and soul searching he decided to relinquish that idea. 

The last building completed at plateau level was the toilet block, very artistic and with a hint of Hunderwasser.

After thirty years working with his helpers to realise his dream Barry has never lost sight of his purpose, driven by his enthusiasm and his technical acumen. I am impressed with his ability to work, but I know that if you are passionate about what you are doing nothing is too hard.

There are more strings to Barry’s bow. The planting of native trees along the line will create a new native forest.  The wildlife sanctuary is a lovely place to wander in and listen to our native birds and see various sculptures including the giant kauri constructed by Barry.  Indeed, pottery, sculptures, mosaics and bottle walls make the train track interesting. 

There is also work by two well known women potters, Helen Mason and Yvonne Rust who were his friends and lived on his property for a while. His latest achievement is a handsome Art Gallery that opened in 2011 to display his collection of   fine pictures.

You can ride the train, wander in the sanctuary and take time in the new gallery to see what one man’s vision can achieve. However, the management of Driving Creek Railway is a big job and recently Barry invited Tom and Wailin Elliott to make up his management team of three. They had been with him since early days and live in the old kauri villa he helped to restore in 1972.

Since then, the pressure is less for Barry. He has now set up trusts, one for the vegetation on his  land, one for land and buildings and the railway and one smaller , charitable trust; The Wildlife Sanctuary Trust. When Barry is no longer with us this remarkable railway will keep him in our hearts and the trustees will carry on as usual.

Many people in Coromandel have benefited from Barry’s generosity.  Senior citizens have enjoyed rides on the train.  The school has had help with art work and brightening the toilets with their tiles.  A new mural near the swimming pool will soon be seen.  He also makes flavoured milk available to the school.

Once I heard that Barry wanted to organise a ferry to Auckland.too.  . What he did was to take his pots in his boat to the Auckland markets, but he did arrange with the Auckland ferries to run to Coromandel bringing passengers for his train.

When he built a small train to take wood to his kilns and clay for his pottery, he really started something. In 1988 he was awarded an OBE for services to ceramics.  His pottery train was the inspiration for the Driving Creek Railway.


About the writer: From a young age Jocelyn Davey has enjoyed writing. She got 3rd prize for a Victory Poem in the Herald. Because she was a teacher words were her tools of trade.  Jocelyn was a farmer's wife for twenty years and wrote for the Exporter and other farming magazines. When they moved to Tauranga she joined Tauranga Writers and, she says “I really hit my straps with getting poems and articles published.” Jocelyn’s husband suffered a stroke in 1981 and writing seemed selfish, but “Now,”she adds, “I am indulging my passion again.”

‘I think I can, I know I can’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty Region with support from Tauranga Writers.

You can read more about the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries at Or order a copy of Barry Brickell’s book, Rails Towards the Sky: the Story of Driving Creek Railway - go to


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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