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Rail worker's rock-solid paintings raising money for charity

30 July 2021

The small pieces of art feature structures such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge in Cornwall.

Rail worker's rock-solid paintings raising money for charity

A rail worker has been selling tiny paintings of well-known train scenes to raise money for the Samaritans charity.

Bessie Matthews, 28, has painted 31 images on pieces of rail track ballast, including Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge in Saltash, Cornwall, [pictured above] and the Selby Swing Bridge in Yorkshire.

Image credit: @bessbbe/Twitter

She collected all her ballast (stones that serve as a bed for rail tracks) from loose pieces at her local station’s car park “so not to cause random holes around the network”, she told ICE.

Matthews was recently a depot driver for a train operating company in Hampshire and is about to start training with Freightliner as a heavy haul shunt driver.

Selby Swing Bridge. Image credit: @bessbbe/Twitter


The Samaritans charity runs a fundraiser called Samarathon every July. The aim is to walk, jog, or run a marathon’s distance throughout the month.

Matthews said she took part last year for the first time, walking 322.42 miles in total, and wanted to up the ante this year.

“This year, I decided to take a rest and aim to take on the 26.2 miles, but I needed something to make it as unique as last year, if not more so,” she said.

“I came up with the idea of writing the name of anyone who donated on a small pebble, and I would carry them with me every day in July. This is to signify being there for others, carrying them through good and bad times, exactly as the Samaritans does for so many.

“I spoke out loud about my idea to a colleague, who later brought me a sandwich bag of tiny pieces of ballast. The idea of painting train scenes on ballast popped into my head, and I ran with it.”

Image credit: @bessbbe/Twitter

‘I’m completely self-taught'

Matthews admits to being an amateur artist, picking up skills from her father: “I’m completely self-taught! My dad and I would draw all the time when I was a little girl, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. He’s a very talented artist.

She added: “I’ve never sold any art before, so it’s all been a bit of trial and error in real time.”

By auctioning off her artistic pieces of ballast on her Twitter page, Matthews has so far raised £4,600, and is down to the last few pieces of her limited collection.

“That’s more than I’ve ever imagined. I have a big plan for the very last one, so I’m hoping we can hit £5,000,” she said.

“My Twitter is the best place to see what's happening. I've had the best fun. I've been blown away by the generosity of others.”

Personal connection

Many buyers have been bidding for the ballasts because the scenes depicted have a special meaning for them.

The winner of the Royal Albert Bridge ballast was ICE’s regional director, Jonathan Baggs, for example.

“I bought it because it has a strong personal connection for me,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post.

“Growing up I could see Brunel’s bridge from my house, and my grandfather drove HSTs (High Speed Trains) across it.

“While I figure out a permanent spot it is resting on the History of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), of which I.K. Brunel was vice president.”

Image credit: Jonathan Baggs/LinkedIn

Matthews’ fundraiser ends this weekend. Her JustGiving fundraising page can be found here.

Follow her campaign on Twitter at #BessiesBallast.

  • Anh Nguyen, digital content lead at ICE